Archive for June, 2012

Never too lateBook Spine Poetry:  Stack up some books so that the titles form a sort of casual poem. In my case, this obviously means finding sing-songy book titles (of which I have a plethora) and forcing them to rhyme. I’m a Dr. Seuss fan, after all.

It also means incorporating North Carolina writers into the mix, which is hard not to do considering how many books I have by NC writers. Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, and Reynolds Price are all represented in my two pieces.  I tried really hard to make Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant work, with Carolina Cooking as a possible companion. But I just can’t make it sing.


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Page 2 of Daddy’s 1st-grade report card. At this stage, he was not yet being asked to exhibit self-control, so there are no marks for that category.

My father’s old report cards from Perquimans County schools fell into our hands recently. My sister has some of the high school cards, when the young R. M. W. drove a school bus, operated the film projector, and won a tool identification contest.

But the three cards that I have are from the early years: 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades, between fall 1940 and spring 1945. Apparently the same report card forms were used statewide as they are imprinted with the Great Seal of NC between the words “North Carolina Public Schools” and “Elementary School Report Card.” The back of each card shows the handwritten letter grades recorded for each report period, and the signature area for parents.

But the inside!  That’s where the real meat is. Headed “Some Desirable Outcomes,” the two pages inside the report card assess areas of behavior that are still very much worthy of review today. Here are some of my favorites:

Assists in Preventing Communicable Diseases. What? I gather this meant that as a youth he knew to cover his pie hole when he coughed or sneezed in class. (This was just an excuse to use the term “pie hole,” because I know that Daddy enjoys it as much as I do. It makes us laugh.)

Is Considerate of Others. There are too many instances of Daddy’s consideration to others to even count, but one sticks out in my memory. During a 2-hour commute from Charlotte to our home in Liberty, NC, Daddy saw a hitchhiker on interstate 85. It was snowing, and the guy held a sign that read “Winston-Salem.” My dad had a feeling that nobody was going to pick this guy up to get him there—he was essentially on the wrong path to get to Winston-Salem at all. So Daddy picked him up and took him.

Is Resourceful in Finding Things to Do. We had a tire swing for awhile, until it broke. Of course we clamored for a new one, but Daddy decided that he could do better. So he built us a swing of wood and rope that utilized physics in ways that I still do not understand but which was wonderful. It didn’t require him to be there to push it, because we could operate foot- and handlebars that propelled the swing forward. Years later, I wished for a ping-pong table. Daddy bought one, didn’t like the quality, and built one for us that has lasted 35 years and is still in use—as is Swing 2.0.

Submits Gracefully to Unavoidable Misfortune. The strongest words Daddy uses under duress are, “Dang. That’s crazy. I don’t understand that.” Once when he got caught in the auger attached to the back of the tractor—and by “caught” I mean that it pretty much shredded his overalls during what must have been a brief but intense whirl—we all laughed about it afterwards, picturing him on the first circuit saying, “Dang!” and on the next pass, “I don’t understand that!”  He’s always been the serene type. Once when I was complaining about what I felt at the time to be an intolerable situation, Daddy told me that the best way to forget about your troubles is to sing. There is a lot of truth to that, and on days when I feel the need to strike out in anger over something, I try to remind myself to sing. The first verse is generally rendered in a bitter tone, but since my song of choice is always “You Are My Sunshine” it’s impossible to stay mad for long. Just try singing “You Are My Sunshine” in a snit—it’ll probably make you laugh, too. (For times when you feel more like howling, “Rain and Snow” is the right choice.)

Which leads naturally to:  Sings with the Group/Enjoys Good Music. Daddy has sung with a church group for years. They practice on Monday nights in my parents’ basement; sometimes when I call on a Monday evening my mom will open the door to the basement and extend the phone through the opening so I can catch a bit of it. It is always spirited, with Daddy on the guitar. To be fair, he doesn’t just enjoy good music, he also enjoys the less good. I have seen every episode of “Hee Haw” ever produced. And he once downloaded the guitar score to “Man of Constant Sorrow” so Ernesto could sing it. I am trying to get him to learn to play “Rain and Snow.”

Participates Joyously in Mass Activities. He surely does. Back when we were all a lot younger, in the late 1960s, we had one particularly memorable cookout with our friends, the Boyles family. All involved were Baptists, so there was no alcohol served. But as dusk settled over our back yard something inspired Daddy to start an impromptu game of drop-the-handkerchief, and soon we were all playing—four adults, and seven kids. That night made a strong impression on me. Daddy has always loved organizing cookouts by the pond, with homemade ice cream, fishing, or croquet. When we are all together at Thanksgiving, with the desserts on a card table and two tables placed end to end to stretch between the dining room and living room, he always appears to be deeply pleased.

There are other wonderful behaviors listed on the report card, such as Observes Courtesies Practiced by a Lady or Gentleman and Exhibits Unassuming Manner. Daddy has always been one who Refrains from Meddling in the Affairs of Others, Refains from Cheating and Misrepresentations, and Refrains from Sulking and Quarrelling. 

Oh, dang, let’s go ahead and add a new line for him, perhaps under the Physical Education category:  Walks Nimbly on Bodies of Water.

Daddy and me. Obviously a man who knows how to raise children.


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Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper. – Ray Bradbury

How is it that, as much as I love crisp white sheets when they’re made of cotton and on my bed, I have the opposite reaction to fresh white sheets of paper?

Ernesto put up a clothesline in our back yard a few weeks ago. The delight of sheets and pillowcases washed in Full Circle Chamomile & Ylang Laundry Detergent™ then hung on the line to billow in a light breeze until they have gently and naturally dried—well, it lulls me into believing that I love to do laundry.

And all week I look forward to the pure treat of sliding into a fresh-made bed.

But facing a fresh white sheet of paper is something else entirely.

It hasn’t always been this way. I remember the excitement of having a blank sheet of paper and a full box of crayons as a child. It was impossible not to feel that, with the first mark I made, a magic key would turn and unlock the glittering world of Art, which would spill like treasure onto the page.  

I suspect that attitude began to wane in third grade when Miss Cann told me that it was inappropriate to put a strip of blue across the top of a page and call it sky. Miss Cann, I believe, had an insufficiently developed imagination.

For awhile, even after the rigors of third grade, I still felt a tingle of anticipation when given a blank white sheet of paper. What stories, poems, and rich games of Hangman the page inspired!

Somewhere along the way, though, that excitement ebbed to the point that a blank sheet of paper—whether real or virtual, with a blinking cursor at the top—inspired more fear than anticipation. Miss Cann had burrowed into my head.

It didn’t help when my French instructor in college, the entertaining P. J. Lapaire, handed out worksheets with a flourish and his stock, sing-song announcement, “Pass along a piece of sheeeeet.”  That about sums up my post-secondary reaction to the blank page: A piece of sheet.

(Note about P. J.:  I have never forgotten his entire name, which he shared with my class and taught us to chant in unison:  “Pierre-Jean Georges Jacques Yves Marie Lapaire.” Today that is, sadly, pretty much the extent of my spoken French. His sister had an equally impressive name; hers I have forgotten.)

The point is, being faced with a blank page is daunting. I don’t even think it’s writer’s block, precisely. Mostly it’s the certain knowledge that the minute I try to write something, it will come out wrong and I’ll hate it and then I’ll get frustrated and even if I get a complete piece down on paper the tiny (yet stout, and indomitable) Miss Cann who lives inside my head will mark it, “Needs improvement!”

Well, of course it needs improvement! It only just came out of my head and its little heart is scarcely beating. Let’s give it room to breathe for a little while before we jump on it, shall we?

One of my favorite ways of getting over blank-page fear is to re-read parts of Ray Bradbury’s book, Zen in the Art of Writing. He prescribes a headlong dive onto the blank piece of sheet of paper: Approach it, he advises, with all the zest and gusto, fire and passion that you’ve got. Ignore Miss Cann, who may be a perfectly lovely person in some (unknown) way, but who is completely ignorant about Art.

Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today—explode—fly apart—disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and will find others in the world who, reading your story, will catch fire, too?

What do you think of the world? You, the prism, measure the light of the world; it burns through your mind to throw a different spectroscopic reading onto white paper than anyone else anywhere can throw.

Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.

Rest in peace, Ray Bradbury. Peace and light.

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Illustration from Tacuina Sanitatis, “a medieval handbook on health and well-being.” Credit: http://beekeepinghowtosecrets.com


by R. T. Smith

When the keeper has died,
whose hands have touched
so much honey,

the village will convene
to elect a successor
and to remember

the sweetness of his voice,
his dependable hymns,
the spell of smoke

and the hush just after.
While the elders
resist the old rhythms

of grief, one will speak
of the ancient belief —
that the bee-father’s demise,

kept secret, could cause
the death of the hives
in the coming winter.

Then the question will rise
in a nervous murmur:
Who will tell the bees?

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