A November Bear Story

Pilot Mtn

View from Pilot Mountain 11/6/15

Back on February 9th I made a note in my journal:

I am working on my bear story, which grows more complex and then slims down again. I think that the gain/loss cycle is healthy for a story, though, even if it’s bad news for people.

Today my bear story (which in fact did end up quite slim) has been posted in Deep South Magazine, an online publication.  It has actually been finished since August, but they have held onto it because it is set in November. If you have time, head over there and read “The Last Bear,” then let me know what you think.

Here’s an excerpt, a small taste of what can happen when a beloved member of a Southern community passes away:  

Granddaddy Sloane’s refrigerator was full to bursting. The table and counters held all that they could. Extra tea, lemonade, orange juice, soft drinks, a carton of eggs, and a gallon of milk were stashed in two large coolers outside the back door. Apple, sweet potato, and pecan pies were stacked on top of the refrigerator. A pound cake, a chocolate pound cake, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, yeast rolls, cornbread, and a dozen doughnuts were in the living room.

Anything that could be frozen for later consumption went straight to the chest freezer in the laundry room, and we piled more food on top of the washer and dryer. Finally, Graham and Scott emptied four bags of ice into the bathtub, and now a flotilla of cream- and meringue-topped pies sailed on the surface. It made a pretty sight.

That’s just straight-up bragging. I am excessively proud of having written those cream pies into the bathtub.

(The photograph has nothing to do with the story, of course. But it is a nice memento of my early-November visit to Pilot Mountain.)


A review of Beauty as a State of Being: Mastering Mind and the Spiritual Path
Dr. Solomon Katz
Deeper Currents Press (2013)

Who doesn’t need a treasure map to inner peace? Beauty as a State of Being, which won a Silver Medal from the 2014 Nautilus Book Awards, is a 21st-century treasure map for pilgrims, showing us a way out of our mental Slough of Despond and onto a more serene path to the Heavenly City.

The author, Dr. Solomon Katz—the child of Holocaust survivors and a former Buddhist monk—called upon his study of meditation, world religions, and clinical psychology to create this guidebook to a richer spiritual life. It mixes prose, delivered in carefully presented, concise packages, with poetry. The prose itself is remarkably poetic, written with a direct simplicity and a light, sometimes whimsical, touch.

(At one point I found myself so captivated by the writing that it reminded me of an image from some other book. The writer of that book had described small packets of grape leaves that, when unwrapped, revealed delicious, fragrant raisins in the center. When I couldn’t shake that image, I tried to track down the book. A full-house search followed. I looked in the office bookshelves, and then I looked in the guest room because that’s where I thought it should be, but it wasn’t. I looked in the bedroom and living room, and never did find it and felt rather forlorn. Then, as if by magic, last night I remembered that it wasn’t in that book, it was in a completely different book! Which I found! But it turned out that it wasn’t grape leaves, it was lemon leaves.)

And that, my friends, is not only a serious detour from the book I was enjoying, but is also a pretty good analogy for what Katz’s book is about: Our minds are remarkable and dangerous. Our minds follow noisy, crowded paths that were learned over the years and are too comfortable to desert. Our thoughts get stuck in relentless traffic circles. They are easily hijacked. We try to concentrate on one thing, but before long we are off on a twisting side road, or following multiple lines of thought at once (doing none of them justice), or are fixated on thoughts of the many, many ways that we are deficient. Oh, aren’t we good at dwelling on the ways that we are imperfect!

Or am I the only one who feels this way?

Katz describes the mind as a chainsaw—capable of great power when used for its proper purpose, and capable of absolute havoc when it is not. We must find the proper balance in how we use our buzzing, energetic minds to avoid mental disarray and anxiety. 

I will sometimes tell patients to listen not to the voice of doom and catastrophe but to the inner voice of compassion. Find a kinder voice within to counter the clamoring of fear. (p. 69)

You are like a painter facing a blank canvas. Your life is the canvas. You can paint any picture or series of pictures. How do you want to picture your life? What would you want your life to look like? The canvas is blank, awaiting your creativity. Try to paint heaven on earth. (p. 75)

Katz weaves together simple exercises for finding the mental balance we all need with examples of patients whose lives were improved as they used meditation, prayer, and repetitive affirmations to change self-defeating thought patterns. These are some of the passages that I would like tattooed on my forearms for easy reference:

If you can work yourself up, you can work yourself down. If you can generate panic by imagining catastrophe, you can generate bliss by imagining heaven. (p. 98)

The secret of peace of mind is:
Don’t talk, Listen. (p. 148)

If you are not peaceful and wish to be peaceful, abandon whatever story you are embedded in and return to listening, to stillness. Be still. (p. 149)

After reading Beauty as a State of Being, I came across a snippet from the poem “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” by W. B. Yeats. It reminded me of what I had learned:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything.
Everything we look upon is blest.

And so it is.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received my copy of Beauty as a State of Being free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Peace No Parts (2)

Proof that I did not make this place up.

Some time back we went to lunch in Edenton, NC with my Uncle Jimmy. He suggested that we eat at a place called the Nothing Fancy Café. It was an excellent choice, because not only was the food good, but it was also right next door to the Shalom International Church. The awning of its storefront location read: “The Place of Peace, Contentment, Fulfillment, and No Parts Missing.” So much peace, contentment, and fulfillment are available there that it has run over into the Nothing Fancy Café. We had a wonderful time there, and left both content and fulfilled—in fact, stuffed. Uncle Jimmy entertained us with stories about being stationed in Japan during the Korean War. He was 24 years old and on the strength of his college education received a top-secret clearance. He then spent most of his time in Japan locked in a cage with a revolver, acting as a librarian in charge of receiving and giving out classified documents.

But I am here to talk not about war, but peace—and the inspiring nature of stillness.

There was once a book about artist Joan Miró called Miró: I Work Like a Gardener, which is no longer in print but may be available in your local library (it’s not in mine). I only know about this book through the amazing website Brainpickings. Blogger Maria Popova chose some passages from the book to highlight. This is one quote from Miró:

[Stillness] strikes me. This bottle, this glass, a big stone on a deserted beach — these are motionless things, but they set loose great movements in my mind… People who go bathing on a beach and who move about, touch me much less than the [stillness] of a pebble.

I know what he means. Last spring we arrived in Pine Knoll Shores, NC in late afternoon, happy to have a long weekend ahead of us. We went straight out to the beach for a walk, and right away I found some pretty, smooth beach pebbles. At first I picked up a few, thrilled to find them glistening in the sun on the wet sand. Pretty soon I realized that pebbles were scattered along the high-tide mark for nearly the entire length of the beach, though some areas were more fruitful than others. Finding them less rare made them no less valuable to me, and Ernesto helped me collect them for three days. It was pure joy. Most were white or a sort of milky translucent material, probably quartz. Others were shades of tranquil gray. They made me intensely happy.

At one point, as I walked along with my head down, I nearly collided with a woman coming from the opposite direction, with her head down, too.

“I’m collecting pebbles,” I said, showing her a few in my palm. I was anxious that we might be in competition, fearful she would think I was taking more than my share.

She opened her hand and showed me a scattering of tiny angel-wing shells. “I collected pebbles yesterday,” she said, “so now I’m collecting angel-wings.” What a relief.

I now have two full jars of pebbles in the house. They are as peaceful to contemplate as a still pool of water, but they are also, curiously, alive. They still make me happy. Miró considered objects to be alive, in the way that they “set loose great movements” in his mind. All that liveliness, translated into his art, required careful husbandry:

I consider my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so that the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.

I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind.

Yes. When I’m trying to write, a great deal of ripening is necessary in my mind, too. In fact, sometimes I require entire seasons of ripening and pruning and grafting and watering and mulching and uprooting before anything at all happens—punctuated by long spells of stillness (okay, staring into space). This process does not usually fill me with peace, but with an anxious casting about—where are the pebbles on the beach? Why are my plants not growing? When will the right word, a better simile, a more interesting plot come to fruition? Is that alarming woman snatching up my pebbles and putting them into her pocket? Are all the most wonderful ideas locked inside a cage and guarded by a young soldier with a revolver?

On the other hand, if I could walk into a storefront and purchase a measure of peace, contentment, and fulfillment to replace the angst, it probably wouldn’t be very helpful. Maybe there have to be a few parts missing, a little bit of something lacking, to force myself to think differently, weave a connection, bridge the divide, and write something fresh.


peach ice cream.43.45

So much depends upon the peach ice cream, tucked with a spoon in a blue willow bowl

I have been too busy making frozen summer treats to write. Some weeks ago we bought a peck of peaches from Roland’s farm up the way. There were 22 peaches in our peck, and I made a peach cobbler and two batches of peach ice cream.

Ernesto admired Roland’s tomatoes, which were large and picture-perfect. The day after we bought the peaches I was talking peaches at church with Margie. Margie had purchased some of Roland’s peaches, too. “Did you get any tomatoes?” I asked her. “We didn’t buy any, but Ernesto said his tomatoes were beautiful.”

Margie sniffed. “Roland didn’t grow those tomatoes,” she said. I went straight home and told Ernesto this news, and he nodded as if he were not surprised. “He probably doesn’t grow the peaches, either,” he said, which seemed unfair because Roland has about five acres of peach trees.

And in fact, later that afternoon we witnessed Roland crossing the road in his four-wheeler, hauling several half-bushels of peaches from the orchard to his house. So unless Roland is so devious that he places California peaches from Food Lion in his orchard then carts them around to make it appear as if he has picked them from his own trees, we can be sure that we had been eating fresh local peaches. I have to say, Roland doesn’t look one bit devious.

There’s nothing devious about this ice cream recipe, either: It’s simple and delicious. I had forgotten how much I loved peach ice cream.

Peach Ice Cream

Peel, pit, and slice 2 pounds of very ripe peaches (6-8 medium peaches).
Puree the peaches in a blender, then pour into a large bowl. Stir in:

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt

Stir thoroughly until the sugar has dissolved. In a separate bowl or large measuring cup, stir 1/3 cup of sugar into 3 cups of light cream. When the peach mixture and the cream mixture are both free of sugary grit, pour the cream into the peaches and mix thoroughly. Some people who are more patient than I am suggest that you must chill the mixture in the refrigerator until ready to proceed. I am always ready to proceed right away, and if you follow my instructions and stir thoroughly, you’ll be ready, too. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker. Once the ice cream is ready, spoon into a freezer-proof container (or two) and place in the freezer.

Once the peaches were gone, we moved on to cantaloupes. Our garden produced about seven excellent cantaloupes this year, and I found a nice recipe for a sorbet which I am tampering with, adding various herbs from our patch.

Herbed Cantaloupe Sorbet

First, make a sugar syrup by mixing one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a small pot over medium high heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then bring the mixture to a boil. Throw in a handful of mint or basil and allow the syrup to boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat, pour into a jar or bowl. Cover and chill. Yes, you heard me: This time you really do have to wait for the stuff to chill.

When the syrup is chilled, strain out the herbs and pour the syrup over 4 cups of cubed cantaloupe. Add the juice of one small lemon. Place the cantaloupe mixture in a blender and purée until smooth. Freeze in an ice cream maker, then spoon into a freezer-proof container (or two) and place in the freezer. This is smooth and silky on the first day; later it will become icier and won’t scoop quite so prettily, but it will still be good. You don’t have to include any herbs if you prefer not to.

Even though I haven’t been writing much while in the middle of turning fruit into frozen desserts, I have been reading quite a bit on the side. First, I read Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. It’s hard to explain why I loved it so much, except that I’ve always been a bit obsessed with houses, playing house, nests, shells,  and daydreaming–all of which Bachelard discusses at length. Then he wins my heart by saying:

Words–I often imagine this–are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common-sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in “foreign commerce,” on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down in the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words. To mount and descend in the words themselves–this is a poet’s life.

Enchanted, I immediately tried to find every other book G. B. had ever written. I came across a different title in the Kindle Store, and glanced at the reviews before buying it. One reviewer gave the book four stars, but wrote: “I’ve been reading all of Bachelard. No reason to. Read Poetics of Space. Then he repeats a lot.”

While the Kindle Store sent me a list of Bachelard books, it also spat out a book by e.e. cummings: The Enormous Room, a memoir about his time as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France during World War I. I don’t know why in the world it came up—it was a miracle, plus it was free or maybe only 99 cents on Kindle, so I got it. I’ve always liked cummings’ strange modern poetry, but I really love his prose. For example, one of his fellow inmates (cummings is in a French prison, more or less by mistake) is a man he calls the Schoolmaster, a thin man in too-large clothes, who is “quietly writing at a three-legged table, a very big pen walking away with his weak bony hand.” 

I might have something more to say about the cummings book when I’ve had a chance to finish it, but in the meantime here is a snippet of an e.e. cummings poem, one that fits rather well with August and summer:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

No, I have to give the last poetic word to William Carlos Williams, as we wait for our fruits and sugar syrups to chill:

This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox and which
you were probably
for breakfast Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


IMG_2392 IMG_2393 IMG_2394

When I ran into Roosevelt in the housewares aisle of Goodwill, he was grieving over a small box. “Why would someone get rid of this?” he asked, showing me the box, which held a pewter-colored cross with “On Your Graduation” engraved at the top and various other words following, which I was unable to read before he had pulled it back to gaze at it again, sadly. “It’s brand new!” he said, shaking his head. He pointed out that the cross was still fastened to the bottom of the box with its original plastic ties. “Now, you know that someone meant to give that to a graduate and for them to keep it, and here it is in the Goodwill. I imagine there’s a story behind that.”

Roosevelt introduced himself, and within seconds we were fast friends, imagining the stories behind some of the other offerings that cluttered the metal shelves of housewares. He showed me a gadget that puzzled him. It was a red and white plastic thing, with a mechanism that allowed it to be clamped to a table or countertop. While he and I were able to figure that much out, we were not able to understand what the gadget actually did. There was a crank, and when you turned it two spool-like pieces rotated and scratched each other’s backs, as it were. It was similar to an apple peeler, but with no place to put an apple and no blade.

“Could it be to make pasta?” Roosevelt wondered, and it was possible to imagine strips of dough curling gently through the spools. He urged me to buy it—at 99 cents, it was certainly affordable—but at that moment I didn’t have the good sense to snap it up, and when I returned to Goodwill the next week, after failing to get it out of my head, I couldn’t find it. I had tarried too long. Someone who knew what it was or who was quicker to grasp its possibilities had beaten me to it. Just as well—I only wanted it as a curiosity, and as a reminder of Roosevelt.

Not that I’m likely to forget him, because bumping into Roosevelt at the Goodwill was a rich experience. While he bemoaned the pitifulness of a discarded graduation gift, I picked up a set of four dessert plates, each with a different fruit in the center. He admired them, saying, “Wouldn’t those look pretty on a table? I love a nice table setting.” He told me that he does most of his family’s cooking, and that at Thanksgiving one of his sons had begged him to carve the turkey and serve the side dishes early, since he had to move on to a gathering at his in-laws’ house. This, to Roosevelt, was an outrage. “We had 12 more people coming!” he said. “I told him I wasn’t going to take spoonfuls out of the dressing, or the squash casserole, and then put the dishes on the table later with mouseholes in them!”

I interrupted him to dig a pen and pad of paper from the bottom of my purse and write “mouseholes in the dressing and squash casserole” so I wouldn’t forget it.

“Here’s something you won’t forget,” he said, and he pulled out his phone and thumbed through the photos it held. “That’s my granddaughter,” he said, pausing at a shot of a cute 16-year-old in a high school basketball jersey, “and here’s what I want you to see.” He held out the phone, and I saw a close-up of a bee stuck on a barbed-wire fence.

“Can you believe that?” Roosevelt asked. “He flew straight into that fence, head first, and impaled himself with his wings still spread!”

“He bumbled,” I said, mesmerized.

Lately I’ve been running into all sorts of interesting people and stories. I came across a post on Maria Popova’s amazing site, brainpickings.org, that mentioned Luke Howard, an amateur scientist (and Quaker!) who created the names of clouds. The true focus of the piece was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet and lover of clouds who was thrilled almost beyond all reason at the cloud classification system Howard developed. It inspired Goethe to write poems about each type of cloud. My favorite of the poems is “Nimbus.”

Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour —
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

That would make an interesting hymn.

I had never heard of Luke Howard, so I went looking for more of his story. This led me, in turn, to the Cloudman. The Cloudman is (or was) the late Dr. John A. Day, a professor of meteorology and cloud-lover whose website includes information on Howard, photographs of clouds by classification, and tips on how to photograph the Near Sky. “Look up and see!” the Cloudman urged, and still urges through the power of the Internet, several years after his death at age 95.

While considering clouds, I came across a silly play by Aristophanes called The Clouds. The entire thing is online, but I refuse to link to it because I couldn’t believe what I was reading—surely it was a joke? Socrates is a main character, and he is treated with shabby disrespect. But no, the play is real: I looked it up on Wikipedia, and was glad to learn that it was unpopular when first performed. That was satisfying. I did like Wikipedia’s description of the play’s Chorus: “…a parade of the Clouds, the patron goddesses of thinkers and other layabouts.”

It is pleasant to layabout and look up at the clouds, watching them shift and change before our eyes, whether we’re doing any actual thinking or not. It is equally pleasant to layabout and remember folks like Roosevelt, Luke Howard, and the Cloudman, who drift into view and then drift out again. Sometimes it isn’t even a whole person who floats past; sometimes it’s the merest wisp of a personality. While shopping online recently, I read a review of a cotton matelassé coverlet. The reviewer gave the coverlet four stars, adding: The delivery was on time except for the shams; they came a few days later, due to the tornado.

I imagine there’s a story behind that.

October 2012 022

A rerun, originally posted in June 2011.

We all knew Daddy wanted an ice cream freezer for Father’s Day. He’d been talking about it since Memorial Day. We heard about how nice it would be to make homemade ice cream like he had growing up. How he loved to help pack the churn with ice and salt and would personally sit on top while my granddaddy turned the hand crank. Couldn’t quite say what his favorite flavor was—peach was good if it had been a good season for peaches, and strawberry was a feast for the senses. Then again, there were times when pure vanilla was all that any man could ask for.

So I was hardly astounded when Mama says at supper on the Friday prior to Father’s Day, “Frank, I’ve got your Father’s Day ice cream freezer if you want to try it out tomorrow.”

Daddy stopped chewing ham, says, “Why are you telling me about my Father’s Day present on a Friday night? Don’t you know Father’s Day is Sunday?”

“Yes, Frank, I know that, but I thought you’d like to try the ice cream freezer before Sunday afternoon.” Mama’s voice rose in pitch until the “noon” in “afternoon” sounded like angels blowing the trumpets for Armageddon. Time for Daddy to retreat, but he couldn’t do it.

“Just one of these Father’s Days I’d like to get a damn surprise,” he grumbled low.

Mama heard him perfectly well. She said, “One of these Father’s Days you’re gonna get a damn surprise,” and they finished supper in cold politeness, with exaggerated good manners and a silent passing of the ham, potato salad, and sliced cantaloupe. They only pretend to get mad, though, and they were chatting in a friendly way as Mama cleared the table and Daddy collected ham scraps for our dog, Sarge.  

On Father’s Day I gave Daddy a card from me and baby Bethany, then Mama gave him his ice cream freezer—a slick electric model she had picked out from Consumer Reports.

You don’t have to make a mess with ice and salt,” she explained. “You freeze the tub for 24 hours, add your ingredients, and let ‘er rip.”

“Well,” Daddy said, and I noticed his upper lip curled as he said it, “then I guess in 24 hours maybe we can enjoy a bowl of ice cream.”

“Suit yourself,” Mama said. “I’m going to enjoy mine in 20 minutes. I’ve had the tub in the freezer since Thursday.”

Daddy explained that he had wanted a White Mountain hand-cranked ice cream freezer like the one from his childhood. “This requires electricity from start to finish,” he said. “And Dixie won’t get to sit on it while I crank.”

“This is the 21st century, Frank. Anyway, this marvel of efficiency was one-third the cost of the four-quart White Mountain hand-cranked freezer with the triple gear action.” She said that so Daddy would know she’d done her research. Mama is a great one for research. She added, “And who was it once said, ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has’?”

“I don’t know, but I expect whoever said it is dead,” Daddy replied.

We made a batch of strawberry ice cream and ate it on the back patio with Sarge watching every bite. Daddy says it would be folly to speculate on Sarge’s parentage, but if he had to guess he would say Sarge is either a teacup Doberman or a new strain of pocket beagle.

Mama went inside to get more napkins. “You like this, don’t you, girls?” Daddy said, savoring his ice cream. “So do I. Now, Dixie, don’t tell Mama, but I believe ice cream tastes better when you don’t have to turn a crank forever to get it.”

“You’re welcome,” Mama said through the kitchen window.

Sarge edged closer to Bethany. He knew she was the family member most likely to lose a grip on her food. Sure enough, before long Bethany sent nearly a full scoop tumbling onto the grass. Sarge lapped up that ice cream as quick as he could lick. Then he stopped, went stiff, staggered a few steps sideways, shook his head, and stretched out.

“Brain freeze!” Daddy said. “He’ll be all right, Dixie. Mama, look at your dog.”

Mama approached Sarge to rub his head, but he rolled his eyes and showed her his teeth. “Well, he’s not yet over it,” she said. “Leave him alone.” She and Daddy thought it was funny, and Daddy did an imitation of Sarge getting brain freeze until I thought they’d both pass out from laughing.

We stayed outside until the lightning bugs came out. When Sarge recovered from his brain freeze, I threw a ball for him to chase until both of us were panting. I flopped onto the grass at the far end of the yard, and Sarge climbed in my lap to chew on his ball. In the dim light I could see Mama holding Bethany; she and Daddy talked and laughed softly. They looked like people in a dream.

Daddy called out, “Dixie, what are y’all doing out there in the gloaming?”

I wasn’t sure what gloaming was, but I knew what I was doing so I called back, “I’m rejoicing for the things I have!”


Writing is not just jotting down ideas. Often we say:  “I don’t know what to write.  I have no thoughts worth writing down.”  But much good writing emerges from the process of writing itself.  As we simply sit down in front of a sheet of paper and start to express in words what is on our minds or in our hearts, new ideas emerge, ideas that can surprise us and lead us to inner places we hardly knew were there.

One of the most satisfying aspects of writing is that it can open in us deep wells of hidden treasures that are beautiful for us as well as for others to see. – Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

Henri takes a rather optimistic view of things, in my opinion. Writing often fails to open in me a deep well of hidden treasures, but instead taps into a vast, dismal swamp of stagnant water.

Ann Patchett, in an excerpt from This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, comes much closer to the truth:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head…. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

For me it’s like that, too.

Henry Williamson has not yet achieved the healthy level of self-awareness that Patchett and I have. In A Clear Water Stream, a wonderful book about his love of waterways and fishing, Henry waxes incoherent about the process of beginning a new writing project:

I sat in my writing room, pen in hand, white paper before me. A book has a beginning, a middle and an end. It must have a curve like the Sun in space, as seen from the earth. First the Sun mounts upon its orbit, brings wider illumination to all life. Then as the Sun reaches to the heights, it stays a while in glory, before descending to the west, where, among clouds hanging upon the earth it has enlivened, it reveals its colours through the vapours of the upper airs; and one more day is ended when it sets below the rim of ocean. Then darkness is to the earth; and the nightingale, which has migrated by the pattern of stars, sings to the night; while the river glows with fluorescent hues as seen by the eyes of fish, the rocks may be dark red, a white flower of crow’s-foot shines blue. Constellations underwater glitter with colours; every thing has its spirit; all things have life, even the dead. I could feel these presences, of the elements that composed me; but they would not take form.

Note to Henry: The butterfly is dead. Stand up, and walk away from the empty husk. Actually, by the end of that passage even Henry is aware that he has run out of juice–though you have to admire a man who can write a line like, “Then as the Sun reaches to the heights, it stays a while in glory.” Now that is excellent material for a hymn.

Even a fragment of a butterfly’s wing is a lovely thing, and worth preserving. Who knows what secrets may be revealed in the patterns of the wing? Last weekend we visited the North Carolina Zoological Park, where literary quotes about nature are sprinkled around on signs. One included a snippet of Pablo Neruda, who wrote in The Book of Questions:

When does the butterfly read
what flies written on its wings?

There is actually a butterfly in England called the white-letter hairstreak. The name is fantastic, and I wondered if there were secret messages written on them, only discernible to someone clever and patient enough to catch one. When I tried to find a picture of this butterfly, I saw that it is nearly always referred to as “the elusive white-letter hairstreak.” The photo featured above was taken on July 15, 2013 by a member of a party of folks on a Wildlife Field Visit with the Bradford City YMCA. A write-up of the excursion states:

[L]ate in the day a three-man search party set out to track down the elusive white letter hairstreak butterfly, which was found by Martin almost as it was time to leave the site.

Well done, Martin! Well done, indeed.

Now excuse me while I back my SUV over the elusive little creature.


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