Wednesday, July 29, 2009

NORTH CAROLINA NOTEBOOK

A few days ago, I spent six days in the High Country of North Carolina. This is my abbreviated journal of the trip.

I.
Everything is connected. An old Irish proverb says “mountains never meet but people can always encounter each other.” At midnight, I am praying for my daughter’s anxiety and insomnia, whose anxiety and insomnia becomes my own. At dawn, I awaken in a motel room and go to the window. The green firs shiver on the mountaintop. They have been awake all night. The room is empty and silent. At midmorning, I enter a dulcimer shop, and a woman with a fine smile and reddish blond hair, gives me a lesson on a homemade dulcimer made with a tomato can. She is from Crystal Springs, MS, burial ground of my former husband’s grandmother. I tell her about my daughter’s insomnia, and she reveals that she has suffered from it, that she takes medication for her anxiety. Her fine smile disappears. I leave the shop without a walnut dulcimer I wish to buy so I can pretend I am like Rumi and recite poems against the sound of a stringed instrument in the dark… for my daughter and for all who don’t sleep because fear travels in the darkness. After lunch, I go into St. Mary of the Hills chapel and pray, lighting a candle at a prie dieu in a corner commemorating The Holocaust, a time when there was never a night of peaceful sleep. I watch the candle flicker and feel that the problem is solved. At 4:30 p.m. the telephone rings. It is my daughter, sounding relieved and calm. “The doctor prescribed medication,” she said. “This time I won’t resist the medicine. When I told the doctor I hadn’t slept for a year, she said that the loss of sleep for such a long time would make anyone off-center.” The medication was the same as the one that the woman in the dulcimer shop had revealed she was taking. I went to the window and looked at the firs on the mountain top. They were no longer shivering, and the wind had died down. I felt calm and thought about how everything is connected by a universe of hands, connected by a universe of prayers, connected by The One who never sleeps…and is never restless.

II.

The shop sold handicrafts, among which was a frog over whose back a stick could be rubbed to make a noise like a frog singing. There were books on a small wooden stand, all by one author, a mountain woman, mother of the shopkeeper. “There are stories of abuse in this one,” she said, handing me a book with a maroon cover, bordered in yellow. “She was afraid to publish it on her basement printing press, at first. But she did it anyway. A reader wrote to my mother thanking her for the truth about abuse. People criticize you for the things you write, but she’s no longer afraid. The reader’s gratitude encouraged her.” She looked questioningly at me. “Yes, I know…cruel criticism can frighten writers. But only for a little while. Two days ago, I thought I’d never write again because an editor who wanted to entertain herself with her own sarcasm said one of my characters had a ‘cheesy’ name. She also described my ending to the book as one like the cartoon character, ‘Scooby Doo.” Her unkindness engendered some name-calling by me. I called her a ‘tickmouth.’ I’m sure mountain people know that ticks have toxic mouths which cause great inflamed places to fester on the body when a person is bitten…sometimes for weeks.” “You recovered quickly,” the shopkeeper said. “Yes, there are more killing bites,” I replied, handing her a card with my name and the titles of some of my books printed on it. “This is my printing press.” I put my hand on the arm of my friend who produces my books, standing next to me, playing with the wooden frog. “You did a good job advertising yourself,” said my friend who had seen me suffering over the toxic tickbite. “Well, yes,” I answered. But imagine how miserable the editor is all the time, carrying around all those toxins in her mouth.” The woman whose mother told mountain stories gave me a blue denim bag bordered by red kerchief material so I could carry her mother’s book in something substantial. “Tell your mother to continue printing her own books and marketing them through you,” I said. “There are those who would eat the soul, but your protection will keep her books free from infection by editors.”

III.

At Blowing Rock, I read the story about two native American lovers, a Chickasaw maiden and a Cherokee brave who wandered into the maiden’s province. When the brave decided to return to his people, he departed from a high rock and traveled through a flume powered by the northwest wind, and the wind swept him back upward into the arms of his beloved. Was it an ancient wind that no longer knew which way to blow?

IV.

We were in the Cross Tracks Import Shop, and I was tired of looking at exotic pottery and table placements. When I stepped out of the shop to wait for my friend, I noticed an obese man wearing a yellow t-shirt too tight for his stomach and a baseball cap too young for his age, sitting on a bench by the entrance. I sat down at one end of the bench with a good space between us. “I know this bench is for men waiting for their wives to quit spending their money,” I said. “You can sit a spell,” he answered, as if he really owned the bench. Silence sat in the space between us long enough for me to get up and look into the shop to see if my friend had bought anything. She was still standing, talking to the shop owner because he came from Florida and knew her family. I sat down, remarking to the large man that the town of Blowing Rock looked prosperous. “High end,” he said. “Well, they do call it the ‘High Country,’” I said. He snorted disdainfully. “And if it weren’t for Social Security, none of us would be here. Thank God for Franklin Roosevelt starting it.” The space between us filled with companionable warmth. “I agree wholly with that,” I told him. “It allows me to travel now and then, and I’d better do it while I can.” That’s what he told his wife, he said, and they only lived an hour south of Blowing Rock. I felt like a real peripatetic, compared to him. What would he have said if I had told him I once lived in Iran? I didn’t want to hear him say the word “raghead.” His father had been in the old CCC’s; my father had been in the CCC’s. Thirty dollars a month was the pay, but the money kept both of them from starving to death. We were survivors of survivors. My friend came out with a set of stone coasters to replace the John Deere ones my Sewanee friends make fun of. The man stood up. “Good talking with you,” he said. As we walked away, my friend said, “You’ll talk to anyone!” I looked at her hard. “Talking with ‘anyone’ always makes them 'someone you ought to know,'” I said.

Note: The next four reflections will be published in a successive blog.
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