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 Writer’s Hands IV, hands of Bel Canto author, Ann Patchett, signing a copy of her latest book, Run, Fitzgerald Theater, downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Writer’s Hands IV, hands of Bel Canto author, Ann Patchett, signing a copy of her latest book, Run, Fitzgerald Theater, downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



Part I.

Fitzgerald Theater (Inside), night of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty; A Friendship, on MPR's Talking Volumes, St. Paul. Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

On a rainy October night, inside the haunted Fitzgerald Theater, Ann Patchett held the audience rapt. She has created a huge life for herself. A writer’s life. Awed by her confidence and poise, I was surprised to find she is also funny, and witty. Bel Canto was the novel that put her over the top. And earned her the alias, “Opera Girl.” But it was the memoir, Truth & Beauty, that drew me in.

The Write Kind Of Jazz, live jazz quartet, night of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty; A Friendship, on MPR's Talking Volumes, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved My friend, Teri, read the book for one of Natalie Goldberg’s workshops. Then attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop last summer (where much of the book takes place). She suggested I read it. Along with Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face.

Suddenly, it was October, and Teri, Liz, and I grabbed dinner at Mickey’s Diner before walking across Exchange Street into the bustling, sold-out crowd at the Fitzgerald.

We found split seats tucked way in the left corner, right under the balcony. Opening with an airline joke about her lost luggage, Ann Patchett sat across from Kerri Miller wearing black Jazzin' With Ann Patchett & Kerri Miller, Ann Patchett & Kerri Miller enjoying the live jazz quartet at the Fitzerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. jeans, black boots, and a burnt orange scarf. Casual. It didn’t matter. Her comments on grief and loss stilled the room. It was her grieving process for Lucy that became Truth & Beauty. There was no tour when the book came out. She seemed happy to talk about the healing.



Part II.

At times, Ann had the audience in stitches. Other moments, there were tears. Later she would joke with us, pose for a few photos, and sign our books. She seemed glad to be there.

I listened with hungry ears. Teri and I nudged each other anytime we heard some snippet of wisdom, another link in the chain of making our way as writers. Liz took notes in the seat behind us (thanks, Liz!). And every once in a while we would explode into laughter at one of Ann’s jokes.

I soaked it all up. What did I learn?


  • She doesn’t have to write every day. She has no rituals or rules.
  • She doesn’t write between books. She rests.
  • After writing her books, she lets them go. She doesn’t read them again. She doesn’t even remember Bel Canto. She’s moved on.
  • The idea that’s cookin’ may not be the book at all.
  • Writing a novel is about faking it with authority.
  • Two words: pen pal. She has close pen pals.
  • A new definition of pornography was forged when Clemson University (in South Carolina) strenuously objected to Truth & Beauty being on the freshman class syllabus, claiming it was filled with “pornography.” There was a protest; Ann needed a bodyguard to make her speech.
  • Profound, close relationships between two women scare a lot of people.
  • Run, Bambi, Run!
  • The center cannot hold; the falcon cannot hear the falconer.
  • When you write a new book and go on tour, people really want you to talk about the last book because that’s the one they last read. (In this case, the last two books.)
  • She met her best friend and writer, Elizabeth McCracken, during the living of Truth & Beauty. She trusts her with her life.
  • She writes 98 percent for herself, 2 percent for Elizabeth, and no one else.
  • You can’t put love on the scales.
  • In her mid 30′s, she had no knowledge of opera, had never been to an opera, had never listened to an opera. But after Bel Canto, when something goes on in the world of opera, The New York Times calls “Opera Girl.”
  • Research brings her a lot of joy. She hates magic. Why? Magic is the most misogynist art form in the world
  • No experience matches the moment she finished her first published novel, The Patron Saint Of Liars.
  • She was two blocks away from the World Trade Center when it went down. She was holding someone’s hand. 


Part III.

               The Fitzgerald Theater (Outside), night of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.

The Fitzgerald Theater (Outside), night of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, on MPR’s Talking Volumes, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


What I want to say is that Ann was inspiring. She didn’t pull any punches. She was at the same time vulnerable and strong. Very strong. She knows how to take the criticism of her readers, and the country. She mentors others, gives back. But also seems like she guards her time with her life.

The day after we saw her at the Fitz, she flew to Dallas. Or somewhere in the heart of Texas. The tour went on. I smiled when I thought about her missing luggage. I wondered if Run would do well. But I could tell it wouldn’t matter all that much. She’s already moved on. She’s looking in the eyes of a stranger, waiting for the next book. She’s doing what she’s wanted to do since she was 5 years old. She never wavered for a moment. She’s a writer.


In the moment of our death, we are closest to our life. And the person who is with us at that moment is the person that we desperately need. Because they’re the only person who really understands what we’ve been through.

  - Ann Patchett, Fitzgerald Theater, October 16th, 2007


Part IV.

Post Script:  Don’t take my word for any of this. To hear Ann speak about ichthyology, magic, Bel Canto, bodyguards, Opera Girl (and to find out whose hand she was holding), listen to her talk in its entirety at the link below (you might even recognize a familiar voice during the audience Q&A):

Live appearance: Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Patchett discussed “Run” with Kerri Miller and the Talking Volumes audience at the Fitzgerald Theater.


Related links you might enjoy:

Seattle Arts and Lectures: Elizabeth McCracken & Ann Patchett
Novelists, 5th Avenue Theatre, January 10, 2000

StarTribune Article on Ann Patchett
Setting Her Own Pace, October 2007
(you may have to register and log in to read)


-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

-related to posts: WRITING TOPIC: WHAT HAVE YOU LOST & F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Birthday Celebration

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Mickey's Diner In The Rain, Rainpainting Series, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Mickey’s Diner In The Rain, Rainpainting Series, outside Mickey’s Diner near the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


It’s been a long couple of weeks. Mr. Stripeypants has started to eat hard food again and seems to be on the mend. (Thanks for all the good energy any of you might have sent his way.) I’m up writing and preparing a post for tomorrow. But for tonight, easy does it.

Mickey’s Diner In The Rain was shot outside Mickey’s Diner late last Tuesday night after Ann Patchett’s talk at the Fitzgerald Theater a few blocks away. If you’re around these parts, you might want to catch a bite to eat.

Otherwise, it was quite a lively day at the bottom of red Ravine. Stop by any time. The parking is free.



I wanted to keep her as much for myself as for her. We had a wonderful time that visit. Even when Lucy was devastated or difficult, she was the person I knew best in the world, the person I was the most comfortable with. Whenever I saw her, I felt like I had been living in another country, doing moderately well in another language, and then she showed up speaking English and suddenly I could speak with all the complexity and nuance that I hadn’t even realized was gone. With Lucy I was a native speaker.

But Lucy was never going to live in Nashville. Even if it might have saved her life, it wasn’t the life she wanted.

Dearest Anngora, my cynical pirate of the elusive heart, my self-winding watch, my showpiece, my shoelace, how are you?


-from Ann Patchett’s memoir, Truth & Beauty, A Friendship, Harper-Collins Publishers, 2004

-posted on red Ravine, Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

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You Can't Go Back, Augusta, Georgia, June 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

You Can’t Go Back, one of the homes I lived in as a child, now abandoned, June 2007, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



I spent two weeks on the road in June, researching my book. The second week was a road trip with my mother to Georgia, where I spent much of my childhood. Mom has been working on the family tree for at least five years. We printed out the whole tree (which ended up being about 4 feet wide and 5 feet long), taped it together, rolled it up, and carried it with us to the South.

To spur memories and aid my research, I asked her and my step-dad to drive me around to all the places we lived when I was growing up. I asked questions, took photographs, and taped their memories of love, land, and place. Not only was it a rich time with them, it was healing.

The demographics of the places we lived back then have changed. Many homes where I lived as a newborn, infant, or young girl, now reside in less desirable parts of town. The photograph is one of the homes where I lived with my mother. She said she used to rock me on the little side porch that is now overgrown with weeds.

I knew when I saw the Abandoned topic, I wanted to write about what it was like driving around, experiencing the past (some of which I was too young to consciously remember) through present eyes. I drummed up the memory of seeing this abandoned place, which was once our home, and wrote these haiku like a writing practice. They haven’t been edited.

I learned a lot on that trip. You can go back – but it’s not the same. And the death of one thing is the glorious birth of something else.




You Can’t Go Back – 15 haiku


rocking on the porch
imagining your soft lap
cradling my head


you can’t go back home
but you can peek through the past
as if it was yours


I raised the glass lens
sweat trickled down my armpit
let sleeping dogs lie


home was forsaken
covered with vines and green leaves
I opened the door


earth reclaims the past
memory doesn’t hold me
I am holding it


neighborhoods crumble
our memories are alive
long after we die


unraveling the past
identity cracks open
desolate and white


confederate flag
in the yard across the way
stops, pauses mid-air


the past is the past
never to be abandoned
as long as we live


grandmothers recite,
“go tell your stories, honey”
a dog barks nearby


running through puddles
along the wide Savannah
I dive but no splash


sultry and humid
I remember my last name
forgetting the first


time is elusive
batting flies against the rain
through leaky floor boards


pounding the pavement
emaciated memories
sparkling in the sun


the jewels of the past
backseat drivers one and all
remember, you are


-from Topic post, WRITING TOPIC - “ABANDONED”

-posted on red Ravine Friday, August 17th, 2007

-related to posts:  Excavating Memories,  Cassie’s Porch – Then & Now, (Geo) Labyrinth Finder, Duck & Cover

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Savannah River Near Augusta, June 8th, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. 

-Savannah River from the Bridge, Augusta, Georgia, June 8th, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


“It seems I have always lived near rivers and trains.”


The day we went to Eve Street, I remembered I hadn’t taken any photographs of the Savannah. I had zipped off a couple of shots of the 5th Street Bridge, a landmark in disrepair. My grandfather helped build that bridge. It was strange to go back to a place where my family had so much history. I’m used to living in towns and cities where I have no immediate blood kin.

It stands to follow that in those places, I have to forge my own bits of history. But spending time in a city where family members are woven through architecture, church, field, and stream, made me feel connected. Close. The water there plays a big part in my childhood.

The Savannah River is about 350 miles long and its source is in eastern Georgia at a confluence of the Seneca and Tugaloo Rivers. The headwaters originate in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia near Ellicott Rock, the point where the borders of those three states meet. The river flows from a cool, clear stream in the Blue Ridge Mountains and empties through tidal plains into the Atlantic.

Savannah and Augusta are the largest cities on the Savannah River and most of their history evolved from commerce and trade on her waters. Savannah is on the Atlantic, Augusta on the fall line.

Lake Hartwell is a 56,000 acre manmade lake built in 1963 by the Army Corp of Engineers on the headwaters of the Savannah. The 71,535 acre Clarks Hill Reservoir was built by the Corp in 1954 and is 22 miles north of Augusta. Clarks Hill is where my mother wants her ashes to be scattered. She says she spent some of the happiest times of her life waterskiing and swimming in Clarks Hill.

The Savannah River’s history goes back some 12,000 years to the Ice Age. That makes my 400-year-old family history look paltry. Human history along her banks includes Hernando de Soto, James Edward Oglethorpe, the Westo Indians, and a wandering tribe called the Savannah Indians, armed by a group of Carolinians, who drove out the Westos in the Westo War of 1680 and gave their name to the river.

Part of my ancestry can be traced back to Oglethorpe. But the memories I have are of Grandmama Elise picking me up from Belvedere Circle in her black, 40′s Pontiac and singing The Good Ship Lollipop to me as we crossed the 5th Street Bridge. (My great grandfather told them they would run into quicksand when they built it, but they didn’t listen.) When we drove across the river border between South Carolina and Georgia, the wind from the rolled down passenger window roared through my hair; the smell of the paper mill on the river is something a child never forgets.

The memories I have are of rolling over the river to Reynolds Street and my Granddaddy’s shop where my step-dad worked part-time as a mechanic (in addition to his full-time job). I remember the girly calendar on the wall, the smell of grease and Gojo, and pulling an ice cold Coke out of a shiny, red vending machine that gripped the blue-glass bottles like a vice. Then we’d drop salted peanuts from a bag of Planter’s into the lip and alternate swigs of Coke with the soggy crunch of peanuts between our teeth.

My memories are from four years ago, scooting along the Riverwalk in Augusta with my sister and her family when we drove down to visit relatives. We were fresh and tan after body surfing in the Atlantic at Ocean City, Maryland, and spent the day ambling around the Riverwalk museum where we stuffed ourselves into a photo booth for a couple of crazy, animated snapshots. 

My memories are from a week ago, driving back and forth across the Savannah River, photographing landmarks, recording conversations, creating new memories with my step-dad and mother, laughing and conjuring up times long past. My memories are of breaking and mending, of leaving and of coming home.

Here they are, details on the page, the beginning of something much bigger, a creative force spawned from the bowels of rivers and oceans and mountains and trees. Bones. Here are the memories of last week’s water wings, and the flowing, dry humidity of the Savannah.

But I sit on a gray deck near the banks of the wide and rambling Mississippi whose mouth bubbles out not far from the Canadian border in a lake called Itasca.


Sunday, June 17th, 2007

-from Topic post, Water Wings

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Time at St James, June 6th, 2007, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 -Time at St. James, by the Madison Clock Company, 1847, on the wall at St. James United Methodist Church, Augusta, Georgia, June 6th, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Home Haiku

the thing about home
home hangs its weathered straw hat
on what used to be you


After we circled twice, the landing gear whirred and dropped with a thunk. I saw the top of Minneapolis clearly from the air. Hot, humid haze. I could not feel it. Liz said it rained and rained while I was gone. And then summer came.

I slept most of the flight, Northwest 150 from Baltimore. There was an empty seat between me and the 82-year-old man from a place 47 miles west of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

He asked me where I was going. I pointed down and said, “Here.” He asked what I did. I said, “I’m a writer.”

“What?” he said, cupping his right ear. “I’m a writer,” I repeated, a little more loudly.

He said, “I’ve written two books. I started a boarding school in South Dakota many years ago. The first book’s about that. The second is about, uhh, my family and my kids. My wife and I have held each other together for 56 years.”

“That’s a long time,” I said.

The man had cauliflower ears, a wide-brimmed straw hat, round Buddha belly that rolled over his belt, faded jeans with one of those western buckles, big-framed glasses, navy T-shirt, and a large, beige hearing aid. I smiled at him when I could muster it. But mostly I stared at the diminishing feet between me and the ground.

My mind rambled over the last few weeks. Then we landed.

Liz threw me the biggest kiss when she scooped me up at baggage. She’s glad I’m home. I’m glad to be home. And there is a sadness about it, too. All the connections I made, the bridges I walked.

Doors have opened to me, people from the past who remember who I was. Now I find myself missing them.

Twenty, thirty, forty years. There are not many people left who knew the girl I used to be.

Which home is home?

The answer to the riddle: every home is home.

For the time that it is home.


Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

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Sweet William, June 10th, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

-Sweet William, Sunday, June 10, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


We completed the 11 hour drive from Georgia to Pennsylvania at midnight last night. We took our time driving, soaking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, whizzing under the green sign for Virginia Tech, stopping at the Waffle House and Cracker Barrel for slow, relaxing meals.

My mother and I were both exhausted this morning. We slept late and I woke up to a pot of French Roast. “Let’s sit on the breezeway and drink our coffee,” Mom said. “I’m exhausted.” I knew exactly how she felt. It was something I had not bargained for.

I wonder what color exhaustion is?

It is something to consider when planning to research a memoir. Note to self – next time plan in down days, days of silence, writing, and processing. If you go, go, go you are bound to hit a wall. I’ve been away from the routines of home for 15 days. I’m longing for time to myself. To process. Write. To sit with everything.

For now, I’m heading over the river to see my brother’s new place. This time the Susquehanna. The color of exhaustion is not the Sweet William from my mother’s backyard. But their vibrancy gives me hope that I will feel electric and rested again.

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

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Cassi’e’s Porch 1876, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

-Great, Great Grandfather & Grandmother on Cassie’s Porch 1876, copy shot June 5th, 2007, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Cassie's House 1876, Augusta, Georgia, June 5, 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

-Cassie’s House 1876, copy shot June 5, 2007, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


We spent the day driving around Augusta, looking for landmarks, visiting cemeteries and churches. The synchronicities continue to happen, right down to the prime parking spaces on Broad Street. When we arrived at the 150-year-old St. James church where my mother had gone as a child, there just happened to be a woman there who had attended Sunday School with my Aunt Evelyn. She knew the whole history of St. James church and gave us a long tour.

Then we travelled out to a cemetery where my great grandmother Elizabeth is buried. Three of us scoured nearly every row on foot in the heat and humidity and could not find the gravestone. We were sweaty and tired and about to give up. But not until after one more pass. The last time was the winner. My step-dad stopped the truck on a hunch, stepped out and walked over to the exact spot where my great grandmother is buried, then pointed down, and smiled. It was one of those Kodak moments.

I wonder if it was the blue moon last week or the stars aligning in Taurus? Wait, are we still in Taurus? Maybe the tide has turned.

But what I want to say is that in the photos above my great, great grandfather Moses is in the foreground and my great, great grandmother Martha stands behind him on the porch of their 1876 home. My great Aunt Cassie was probably one of the children in the photograph. We used to visit her when I was a child. I have memories of her there, greeting us at the door.

The photos below were taken of the house yesterday. I stepped along the same brick sidewalk my ancestors walked a century ago on hot and dusty summer days. Details like this urge me on down into the deeper family history.

I scoured the photos to see what had changed, what had stayed the same. I remember the gray picket fence was there when I was a child in the 60′s. It’s not there now. I imagine the post in front of the tree might have been for hitching a horse. It was gone but we did see quite few cement hitching posts as we drove around downtown Augusta. That’s got to be a different tree growing in front of the house. But I find the overall structure to be generally unchanged.

How all this will play out in the memoir, I don’t yet know. I’m in the thick of it now. Full scale gathering. I need time to sit with all the pieces. What about place makes it home? The history here in the South is rich and controversial. But it’s simplistic and naive to think history is anything but gray.  You can’t lump everyone into broad, polarized categories. History is about individual people’s lives.

There was cactus growing on some of the cemetery plots, rooted deep in the sandy, dry soil. The thunderstorms of the last few days were greatly needed. Later, all of this will flow through me like rain and sink down on to the page. Living twice. Through writing I can experience everything twice. Each time I come here, I leave with more details. And a few more pieces of how place becomes home.
Cassie’s House 2007, June 6, 2007, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

-Cassie’s House 2007, June 6, 2007, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Cassie’s Porch, 2007, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.     

-Cassie’s Porch 2007, June 6, 2007, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Thursday, June 7th, 2007

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A train whistle howls in the distance. I hear it every night at the same time. A night owl growl out the window. It comforts me. A ritual I’ve come to expect. Hearing. Ears. Sights. Smells. The smell of the sweatshirt I’m wearing, a combination of both me and Liz.

The taste of the sweet tea on the nightstand by the bed. Brushing my teeth with the pocket-size Crest, flossing in the morning on the way down the stairs, rubbing my hand across the cool oak banister. Coffee. French roast in the morning. While I am travelling it’s been International coffees with vanilla cream. Stirring, There is the ritual of stirring.

Travel rituals – checking emails, grounding on red Ravine, text messages from Liz, voicemails from home. Mostly I write late at night. And still try to get some sleep. The work here is exhausting. The rewards are many. When I am on a road trip, the rituals are different. I sometimes drive in silence, no radio. Mom fell asleep on the passenger side while I was driving through North Carolina on the way down, much needed sleep. I simply drove in the peacefulness.

Sometimes we talked, too, and caught up, and listened to old country like Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard. And Mom said she knew Brenda Lee when she was a kid. Lee’s family lived close by and she walked into the Winn-Dixie one night where Mom worked as a teenager.

I haven’t been home in a few years. I took advantage of the travel time to fill in the gaps. Other times, I slept and she drove. Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania. We landed here, near the Savannah. Rivers are grounding for me. The Savannah is the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina. It seems I have always lived near trains and rivers.

Something I’ve noticed when writing memoir, digging for gold, is to be around places, landmarks, music, and food that you want to write about. When you interview people, take them to these places, play the music, go out and eat the food. It excavates the memories even more when the senses are stimulated. Memory is connected to ALL the senses.

Daily travel rituals, the things I do every single day: shower, wash my hair, shave my legs, brush my teeth, put on clean cargo shorts and a T-shirt, walk down the stairs, drink two cups of coffee, eat a light breakfast, check email, check the blog, call Liz, usually morning and evening, write, take notes in my Supergirl notebook, check my horoscope, comment on the blog, make the bed, make sure I’ve got a pen and tablet in my pocket when I go out of the house, carry my camera and voice recorder.

I sit in silence first thing in the morning, and last thing before bed.

Everything in its place on my piles on the bed. I restore order before bed. Where Liz would normally be resting are notebooks and cords and camera bags and photographs I’ve collected from long lost relatives. Articles my mother has set aside for me to read, history travel books, information on the family tree. Maps and the TV remote. My bifocals fall from my wrist when I hit the tired wall and land right where they fall until morning.

I check the odometer when I drive. I try not to let the gas tank get too far below a quarter left in the tank. When we drove out to Clarks Hill and stopped for gas, a local rolled down his window and commented on Mom’s license place. It has GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) in part of it. He was a gruff looking guy with a scraggly beard and green baseball cap and scared me at first when he started yelling out of his beat up Ford pickup.

He wanted to make a point to ask me as I went to pump the gas, “Hey, does that mean the same thing up there that it does down here?” I laughed and said, “Yep, we were both raised down here. You can’t take the South out of the girl.”

At the moment, I’m finding it hard to concentrate while I write. So I want to gravitate toward making lists. It’s 1am and I have to get up fairly early. Time to myself is precious. So is time with my mother and my step-dad and uncle.

Time is a strange thing. You never know when you might not have it again. I keep digging. And the well is deep. It’s the daily rituals that keep me sane.

Wednesday Morning, 1am, June 6th, 2007

-from Topic post, Rich in Ritual

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It’s the day before I leave on a two week trip to Georgia and Pennsylvania to do some research for my book. A memoir. I talked to my mother this morning, a short check in before I fly out tomorrow. I told her I am keeping my heart and mind open and looking forward to the time I will get to spend with her. Since we live in different towns, different states, the visits become important. Every minute counts.

I’ll be excavating information, excavating lives and people and roots and history. Untangling loose ends. I don’t remember so many things that my mother remembers about the South. And I have my own memories that I now get to ask her questions about. I just thought of that Baldwin quote from that 1973 interview with Nikki Giovanni:

“Because the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him. The act of writing is the intention of it; the root of its liberation.”

Liz is down in the garden, pulling a few last minute weeds. I’m having French Roast on the deck. The clouds have lifted and the sun is peering through the oaks and ash that surround the house. It’s quiet. All the garden and yard work we did yesterday made my back sore. I’m no spring chicken anymore. In fact, wasn’t it just this morning I was noticing the spaciness of hormonal shifts and laughing about them with my mother? She confirms the craziness of aging because she walked it before me. More history. More bones.

I’m thinking of ybonesy near Taos with her father on their annual pilgrimage. Soon my mother and I will visit the graves of close loved ones and distant relatives in Georgia and South Carolina. We always go to my Aunt Cassie’s and my Grandmother Elise’s gravesites. I visit with them quietly there, spread out on the grass, and ask Mom the questions I might not have asked before. For me, this is memoir – excavating memories. Questing for truth. I want to hear her stories. And skirt the edges of the places I’ve come from.

There may be Myrtle Beach and Savannah. I’ve never been to Savannah. What writers are from Savannah? Flannery O’Connor for one. Maybe we’ll walk past the Cathedral of St. John, the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Georgia, and then one block south is where Flannery grew up. Maybe some of my relatives know of her. Maybe not.

I’m sad to be leaving Liz for so long. And our gardens and home. And Mr. Stripeypants, Kiev, and Chaco. I am fortunate to have a partner that understands. She is loving and supportive of me and my writing. She gets what it takes. I’m lucky that way.

I am lucky for a lot of reasons. I feel a great abundance in my life this morning that is hard to describe. This practice doesn’t do it justice. And there are next to no details. It’s mostly about feelings. And anticipation. And gratitude. For everything that has led me here.

Mom said my step-dad had read a piece on the blog and said, “I didn’t know she felt that way. I didn’t know she had positive memories of that time.” It’s true. Some of my memories used to make me sad. But I’ve done tons of work. It’s in the past. The river keeps flowing. And on the first day of summer, it feels like these steely memories make me who I am. Some writer from the Northwest and Southeast and Northeast who now lives in the Midwest. And once in a while, travels back for a visit.

Monday, May 28th, 2007

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memoir

1567, from Anglo-Fr. memorie “note, memorandum, something written to be kept in mind” (1427), from L. memoria (see memory). Meaning “person’s written account of his life” is from 1673. The pl. form memoirs “personal record of events,” first recorded 1659. 
                                             – from the Online Etymology Dictionary

 ______________________


I’ve been thinking about memoir, the word, the difficulty people have pronouncing it. If you write creative nonfiction, chances are you read memoir. I am reading Bone Black, the bell hooks memoir about growing up in the South. Reading other writers jogs the memory.

My thoughts are pulled to the South because my step-mother in South Carolina passed away a few days ago. I wasn’t close to her, and had not seen her in a few years. Yet when I heard the news, I was flooded with memories of the time I spent with her.

That is the power of memoir.

I have a great sadness at her passing, though our relationship wasn’t as much about the present, as it was the past. Memoir is about the past. It revives and documents the history of living. History is full of contradiction.

Some of the sadness I feel is for my step-dad, who I was very close to as a child. In honoring his loss, I am sad, too. But the grief for me is deeper.

The most vivid memories of my step-mother are from the mid-sixties, my preteen years, a tumultuous time when my younger sister, two brothers, and I were uprooted and moved to the North. It was a difficult transition, and painful to be distanced from my family in the South – the only family I had ever known.

Looking back, it turned out for the best. I was exposed to a whole new culture in the North, different ways of thinking, talking, and living. I met my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Juarez, who made me read Dickens, believed in me, and inspired me to write. My experiences grew richer. All of them have led me here.

It has been 4 years since I’ve seen my step-mother; it was the year I quit my job and started writing. My last memories of her are leaning back in her rocker recliner, laughing and joking with us kids. We were all grown, well into middle age, attending a short reunion a few miles south of the border river that flows between Georgia and South Carolina – the Savannah.

Grandkids and great-grandkids were running, dancing, and jumping across the dark brick family room between rounds of lazy adult chatter and a noisy TV. I used to watch The Trooper Terry Show in that room, on a black and white with rabbit ears. It was the same 202 address, with the same aluminum mailbox, that received my letters to my step-dad in back slanted 6th grade handwriting.

The letters would soon drop off in 7th grade, a direct correlation to the rising teenage anger that welled up inside me. I attended New Cumberland Junior High in Pennsylvania and was teased mercilessly for my Southern accent. It wasn’t easy to change the way I talked. They might as well have asked me to cut off my right index finger. Yet, eventually, I did lose the accent. And ties to my Southern roots became confusing and disjointed.

It would take me a number of years to integrate and appreciate my past. That’s what memoir’s for. And in a few months, I’ll be travelling with my Mother to the South to begin researching my book.

Old endings. New beginnings.

I have done a lot of work since the sixties. A lot of letting go. On one of the last visits with my step-mother and step-dad, they told me how different I was from that dark, brooding teenager that sat in the corner rocker and never spoke. Those were their last memories of me.

When you don’t see distant relatives much, you tend to freeze them in place, lock them into distance and time. They are who they were the last time you visited them. But it works both ways. I am frozen, too – a still-frame snapshot in their memories.

Letting go is a great gift. It allows me to make room for all the good stuff. My memories may only be trinkets, shards of 40 year old bone, unearthed from iron-rich banks of Georgia clay that used to muddy my corduroys as a kid.

But my memories are mine. I choose to remember my step-mother for all the good things she gave the world, for what I loved about her:


  • Southern manners, the way she turned a phrase, the lawdy mercies! and come here, shugah’s, and my pet name for Liz, Shug
  • her warm smile, the way she laughed, a loud cackle that could fill a room
  • Southern cooking, buttery mashed potatoes with thick gravy, piping hot cornbread that melts in your mouth, spinach greens with just the right touch of vinegar and salt, fresh turkey and cornbread dressing, sweet iced tea, and a huge vat of homemade banana pudding. That girl could cook!
  • sipping 7up through a straw with me that time I was sick and laid up on the couch
  • she liked to go bare foot, paint her toenails bright red, and always wore flip-flops
  • she loved Granny and Pop the way I loved Granny and Pop
  • she loved the youngin’s, the babies, and hugged them every chance she got
  • she loved my step-dad, who I love, too


I live in the Midwest now. I walked the labyrinth on Monday and thought about how swiftly a little girl can shoot from 11 to 50, with barely a sneeze in between. My step-mother’s passing marks another fading link to my Southern childhood, roots whose stories die with the people who planted them.

I don’t remember the last time I openly grieved. We live in a youth-driven culture that does not emotionally or financially support taking quiet time to honor loss. But writing is a constant process of letting go.

It’s important to live well. Each time someone close to me passes on, it reminds me that this one life is precious. And the threat of death makes you want to live just a little bit harder.

In memory of my step-mother, Betty, who travelled into Spirit, Wednesday, March 28th, 2007, and is being laid to rest as I post this.

For all that has passed, and all that has been forgiven.


Friday, March 30th, 2007

-related to post, Labyrinth Walker

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On the early afternoon of November 22nd, 1963, I was sitting in 3rd grade at a wooden desk drawing hearts with a BIC pen. It was 2:13 on Friday. I couldn’t wait for the weekend. My 3rd grade teacher, Miss Wells, wore pleated skirts that flowed behind her and she was tall, with slender limbs, but she had a kind, round face.

I was 9 years old. I didn’t know what I was about to find out – at 1pm CST, 2 o’clock South Carolina time, President John F. Kennedy had been pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas. He’d been shot, half hour earlier, while I was coming in from recess.

But let’s backtrack a little.

By 1 o’clock EST, I had finished lunch served on gray plastic trays by hair-netted, uniformed women: Tater Tots, Velveeta mac and cheese, a pint of whole Borden’s milk (sporting a daisy-ringed, smiling, Elsie the Cow), and all American apple crisp with brown sugar, oats, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, water, salt, and lemon to taste.

At 1:30, the moment Kennedy was shot, I was being called in from recess. When the bell rang, I stopped romping on the wooden planked teeter-totters, playing hopscotch in the dirt, and jumping through the wiry, jute ropes and tall metal swings of the 60′s. I walked toward the brick school building and flirted with freckle-faced Billy while we were standing in wobbly 3rd grade lines waiting for Mrs. Payne.

Mrs. Payne was on playground duty, just about to pull up her lanyard to blow her trademark silver whistle so we could walk single file back to the classroom. I loved Billy because he could rabbit wiggle his nostrils like me, a recessive gene trait we shared. The very act of flaring our nose holes, simultaneously, on command, endeared him to me.

By 2:00, when Kennedy was pronounced dead, Mrs. Wells was preparing to teach the afternoon lesson, South Carolina history. South Carolina, the Palmetto State, dressed in dark blue silk, a white crescent moon and silhouetted palm, was one of the 13 Original Colonies. Can you name the others? A 5th grader probably could. And in 3rd grade, I knew the following about South Carolina:

State Capitol: ColumbiaSouth Carolina Flag
State Bird: the Carolina Wren
State Beverage: Sweet Iced Tea
State Snack: Boiled Peanuts (hmmmm)
State Fruit: the Peach
State Motto: “While I breathe, I hope”

 

Around 2:15, out of a worn brown speaker cover high on the wall, dotted with symmetrically punched holes, the principal’s voice floated, disembodied, out of the public address system (remember the tinny, boxy sound of the PA?) I can’t remember the principal’s name. Just that she was stern, with an apple shaped, peasant stock body like me, curly short hair, and hard-soled pumps that clacked along the waxed linoleum when she snapped us to attention.

But this afternoon, she wasn’t snapping. In a quiet voice, the quietest I’d ever heard, she slowly announced, “Can I have your attention. I’ve got some sad news. President John F. Kennedy was shot today at 12:30 CST. He died at 1pm from gunshot wounds. Let’s bow our heads in a moment of silence.”

We sat there in our seats, stunned, looking up at lanky Clara Wells for direction. Miss Wells stared up at the speaker, blankly, but only for a few seconds. Then she quickly recovered and led us through the moment of silence. I don’t remember what, if anything, she said. I only remember the sinking feeling and the sadness that swept over me like a shroud.

Later that night, on the black and white Zenith, my parents and I, along with 189 million other Americans, relived the day: Walter Cronkite’s low jowls, Jackie’s pink pill box hat and Chanel suit, the raised right hand of Lyndon Johnson’s “do you solemnly swear.” It played like a dream sequence. My young mind could not comprehend the full impact. But I knew something big had changed.

 

When I went back to the South in 1999, Belvedere Elementary stood in the same place, along the scrub pines and dirty salt and pepper playground, across from the Methodist church. The Baptist church that my best friend, Susan, attended every Sunday was still on the opposite corner of the street. The school wasn’t open that day. I peeked in the windows but couldn’t see much. I took some photographs.

The place seemed smaller than I remembered it. But the memories, huge. I did a lot of growing up in that place.

A few weeks ago when I was doing Internet research for a presentation, I ran across Bryan Woolley’s account, The Day Kennedy Died, from a 1983 article he wrote for the Dallas Times Herald. The story is based solely on the facts. In this case, the facts are enough. The facts are powerful.

That day in 1963, this country had the breath knocked out of it. Something died: our collective sense of well-being and hope. Back then, I was the next generation. And the seeds of fear took root in my 9 year old heart.

But while I breathe, I hope.


Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

———————–

Here’s Bryan’s story. Just the facts, M’am. Just the facts.

———————–

Volume : SIRS 1991 History, Article 02                               
Subject: Keyword(s) : KENNEDY and ASSASSINATION
Title  : The Day John Kennedy Died                                            
Author : Bryan Woolley                                                        
Source : Dallas Times Herald (Dallas, Texas)                                  
Publication Date : Nov. 20, 1983      
Page Number(s) : Sec. Sec. 2-3 

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