In mountain tradition, my Southern grandmother created free-flowing art that warmed her family on winter nights. She pieced scraps of twill, denim, corduroy, children’s outgrown clothes, men’s shirttails, worn-out dresses, and cotton sacking into the “memory gems” of life.
Like her, I toss aside perfection for small, unpredictably shaped patterns. This blog is my verbal crazy quilt.The color and richness, my garden of perfect moments.
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In the words of Elly Mae Clampett (“The Beverly Hillbillies”), come back soon!
The Daily Post prompt: “Advantage of Foresight”—you’ve been granted the power to predict the future. The catch—each time you use your power, it costs you one day (that is, you’ll live one day less). How would you use this power, if at all?
“I am a part of all that I have met”—Tennyson. The past and present are enough. The future will take care of itself.
It’s a moment when you reach back. Far back. You can’t reason why you do it. You’re jolted though, in the same way that you jump when thunder cuts the quiet of a mountain lake, until then almost still, except for fish running slight currents and heat lightning flirting with low clouds.
“Whale.” Soft as that word is, it firecrackered in my brain this morning. Random.
Mama Hattie sternly warned us never to touch the graying, splintered “whale-house” just steps outside her kitchen. Not even 6 years old, my sister Mary and I stood many hours before its boarded-up door. We speculated on how often Pawie changed the whale’s water and marveled that its tail did not lash the walls of rotting wood. It never slapped water through the cracks.
Sometime that mysterious creature sank below memory glimmer. Maybe in the summer I noticed that Mama Hattie’s voice crawled through words—”hit’s” for “it’s” and “yeller” for “yellow” and “aigs” for “eggs.” And “whale” for “well.”
That summer I wrapped an egg, fresh from the chicken house, in a red bandana. I crouched near the whale-house and clasped the egg in warming desperation. Then I knew. My chick was gone. It had never been. It had never slept, tucked inside the shell, waiting to pick that brittle wall and pop out wet.
The whale had never been.
Nothing else changed. Pawie rocked on the gray-painted porch of the white gabled, green shuttered house, never talking but always watching for trucks headed to Atlanta. They rumbled on Highway 53, honking until he shot up his long right arm—in salute to a world bypassing his. A small braided rug hung on a side balcony, waiting for a beating.
The day dimmed. We chased fireflies on the front lawn, more like a strip of pasture, and trapped them in Coca-Cola bottles. They glowed until smothered under greenish glass. Our faint torches of summer.
In response to The Daily Post prompt: “The Kindness of Strangers”―When was the last time a stranger did something particularly kind, generous, or selfless?
Blogging has changed my life―a new career direction as I negotiate the social media landscape after a career in print. Moreover, it has enriched my life with friends worldwide. The shares, comments, and likes on the Random Storyteller Facebook Fan Page + Tweets and Retweets of blog posts are a blessing.
We all get by with help from our friends. Artist/author/ filmmaker Brenda Keesal, known to you through her blog Burns the Fire, wrote a piece in The Huffington Post recognizing eight sister-writers: “8 of My Fave Sister Blogs.” It took my breath away to be in such gifted company.
Brenda is a storyteller par excellence. Even in the shortest vignette, she captures all that it is to be human with exquisite simplicity. You feel the story in every sensorial detail.
Amalia Pedemonte, the marvelous blogger of mythology and art at La Audacia de Aquiles, has a tremendous following. She is a busy professional. Nonetheless, I have seen her positive comments on many sites, even those of beginning bloggers. She is genuine and thoughtful.
Like Brenda, Amalia is quite the storyteller. If you found classics dull in college, her blog will change your mind. Ancient characters, with their foibles and power, spring to life. What’s more, she delivers art and literature with ease. I again fell in love with Aristotle―because Amalia summarized his brilliance, well, brilliantly.
Both bloggers exemplify best practices in quality posts and online etiquette. Their generosity is authentic. They don’t bounce from site to site handing out “likes” just to collect followers. They care about the blogging community and set standards. I could add a long list of bloggers who fit this description.
A little fun! “You like me! Right now! You really, really like me!” Now, go find a new blogger to like―soon to be a new friend to love.
daylily hot spot
butterfly of speckled flares
I but an atom
In response to The Daily Post photo challenge: “Muse”–What subject keeps you coming back? Coker Arboretum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
My parents moved with their litter to Rockhill Road in 1961. The neighborhood was so new that red dirt covered the road and most of the lots remained wooded. An unintentional colony of doctors sprang up: six surgeons, a pathologist, an eye doctor, and a dentist—all within shouting distance. Pill Hill Road quickly became the street moniker.
Many of the families had a passel of offspring. For periodic escape, the neighborhood ladies decided to create a monthly entertainment under the guise of busywork: the sewing club, which included a luncheon followed by an afternoon of earnest gab, with a smidge of knitting, crocheting, hemming, embroidery, or crewelwork. The group included twelve women–one to host the meeting each month. There were no rules except the admonition to serve a decent spread ornamented by fresh flower arrangements, china, crystal, silver, a hefty dessert, and gallons of coffee. This gathering was not an occasion for finger sandwiches. These ladies loved substantive refreshments at their private parties. The group did not kick out anybody. The only exit was death. Only then did the sewing club usher in a new member from a pool of eager candidates (jolly come lately to the neighborhood).
Each sewing club member had a distinct personality. Mrs. L, our next-door neighbor, was a woman of cool sophistication. While my mother was in thrall to the early American look, Dr. and Mrs. L lived in a contemporary house that Frank Lloyd Wright would have happily plagiarized. One end was long and low, with a series of bedrooms brightened by large glass windows. How did that family sleep in the morning? It was a delightful mystery. The living room-dining room-kitchen end bore all the magnificence of a secular cathedral. A puzzle of dark gray flagstones—exactly like the ones in our church sanctuary—graced the sidewalk and continued into the front hall, or foyer (“foy-yea”). The ceilings soared in a wealth of spare diagonals.
The pièce de résistance was the doorbell—a rich departure from our pedestrian front-entrance “ding-DONG.” Comparatively, it was a symphony—actually, the first 16 ringtones of the Westminster chimes. Navigating Mrs. L’s sidewalk was great fun; it put a new spin on the game of “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” That required walking like an Egyptian in a zig-zag pattern. I could have stood at Mrs. L’s front door all afternoon and punched her doorbell until it clanged in her head.
Impressionist-like paintings of brilliant florals were all the decorating rage in most homes except Mrs. L’s Grande Maison. The first image that greeted you was the framed brass rubbing of a fourteenth-century knight at the far end of the foyer. Dr. and Mrs. L wandered Great Britain creating art from engraved sepulchral memorials. The most my parents could manage was our yearly trip to North Georgia for Decoration Day at the Hinton United Methodist Church, though the holiday was quite touching in its homespun glory.
Any millennial would rejoice at the sight of Mrs. L’s clean mid-century panache. It sported the look of the Jetsons’ sky-high abode sans Rosie, the rolling automaton maid. I wanted to nap on the sleek, austere couch, sink into the Eames chair, and pop open the Atomic Age hi-fi. Best of all, Mrs. L’s living room could accommodate running room for an Arabian walkout whereas Mom’s offered space only for two steps plus a cartwheel. The paintings were yawning geometric wonders. An expansive wall of windows opened one side. It seemed Mrs. L read several books at one time—voluminous histories and cutting-edge novels that lay partway open on the furniture or carelessly stacked on side tables.
A second-story screened-in porch overlooked our backyard. Years later, Mrs. L said, “Charlie and I used to sit here for hours and watch your father bounce from plant to plant. Who needs TV?” Dr. L’s notion of gardening was to step outside with a pair of clippers and snip a few twigs while the official gardener buzzed behind him as he gestured at this or that shrub. A button-down cotton shirt, tie, cardigan, khakis, and loafers comprised Dr. L’s gardening attire. His primary labor entailed carefully ferrying a small bucket of table scraps to a tiny compost. He resembled a Kappa Alpha brother freshly starched for Rush Week.
I wanted to file adoption papers—a transfer to Dr. and Mrs. L’s spacious, gracious living.
Mrs. L spoke in the soft tones of a refined family from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I suspected she was an heiress of sorts who once had a big-city career, perhaps in New York. I fancied her a closet novelist. Several inches shorter than Mom, she maintained a trim figure, zipping out of the house in her spotless tennis dress and into her pristine gray Mercedes. I fantasized about stowing away in the leather backseat and riding far, far away. Mrs. L was all subtlety in her quiet designer clothes. Nobody in her household wore homemade dresses. Mrs. L’s only pretense to needle-and-thread activity was stitching a stray button on a shirt while she absorbed the sewing club’s gossip.
Unbeknownst to my mother, my brother Bud created a special trophy: The Pill Hill Road Sewing Club Flying Tongue Award. Once a year, he would eavesdrop long enough to select a winner. Mom always placed in the top three. Mrs. L? Dead last.
The sewing club’s finest fête involved the kitchen shower—from beaten biscuits and delicate ham slices to lemon squares. Brides celebrated the frivolity, friendship, and greatest gift haul of their lives. Would a sewing club member bestow one lonesome Revere Ware pot? Never. Many a bride walked away with several complete settings in her “everyday” or “medium” china.
Kitchen showers were serious business. Lingerie showers did not exist. In fact, I never heard of a lingerie shower until I attended such a party—and it was outside the state long after college graduation. I found it hilarious; I pictured Nannie indignantly raising an eyebrow at thong underwear and intoning, “Now why would a young lady wear a questionable piece of nylon that cuts her down there when it’s all a body can do to tolerate a girdle?”
The ladies of the sewing club were quite clever. They engineered the ultimate collective gift: “the kitchen bride.” She consisted of a mop (stringy hair), a stick torso, rolling-pin shoulders, an apron draped to fill out her figure, oven-mitt arms and hands, and a bouquet of measuring spoons and tea towels. Footless and fancy-free, she propped up in a scrub bucket. Her merry visage was a paper plate with sparkly eyes fringed with thick lashes, the slight suggestion of a turned-up nose, rosy cheeks, slightly pursed lips with upturned corners, and dimples. If the artist felt daring, she added a beauty mark.
The kitchen shower confused one of my friends, a post-doc scholar from India. On receiving her invitation, she called me, worried about breaching etiquette. She dreaded phoning the hostess to RSVP.
“I fear I must regret.”
“No worries,” I said, thinking she was self-conscious about being a vegetarian in the pork-worshiping South. “The ladies include fruits and light salads in the refreshments.”
“No, that’s not it,” she said slowly. I sensed her embarrassment. “I don’t own a blue-and-white sari, and I’m not sure I can find one in time.”
Perplexed, I urged, “You have a rainbow of lovely saris. Wear the one you like.”
“But I do not want to offend your mother’s friends,” she protested. “The invitation stipulated ‘colors: blue and white.’ I like to follow the local customs.”
Lost in translation: Catherine’s kitchen theme is blue and white.
* * * * *
Excerpt: Hillbilly Belle in Alabama (2016). All rights reserved.
Another snow fell on top of another snow. They piled up in Iowa, late November until April. The first blanket was light, soft, and clean until muddied and grayed by the roadside, where snowplows threw grit, sand, and ice in the raw morning. By mid-February, the dirty drifts packed down in rough-hewn walls no shovel could breach.
Nobody planted a seed until after Mother’s Day. In Alabama, my dad planted beans on Good Friday, following the lore of the South’s highlanders. Now I walked in the level lands.
Bleak midwinter. “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” It was a foreign carol, even romantic, until I took a turn in a neighbor’s winter garden but found no solace. The moon gate of graying cypress shone silver. Snow and verdigris cooled the bronze firedogs guarding each side. I unlatched the gate, a tiny click in the silence. The arbor and trellis showed their perpendicular bones. A ghostly white-barked birch stood nearby, apart. Large flakes muffled needle-thin bird tracks. Bits of deep green foliage pricked through a smothered hedge. The wind lifted and stormed the copper chimes.
On the deck at home, snow had layered inch by inch on the seats of Nannie’s ice-cream chairs that surrounded a diminutive 1940s iron table. Its fishnet-mesh tabletop had long disappeared. The wind sculpted the forms until they were fat and round—like my grandmother’s bridge partners. I fancied the ladies when rays of moonlight fell on an otherwise darkened stage.
A plump player sat to the far left—the indomitable Thelma with a proud bosom, like a ship’s prow. She dozed until Nannie deeply scolded, “Thelma, play a spade!” The woman started, harrumphed, and carelessly threw down a flimsy card. Nannie huffed. Thelma nodded off.
The rising wind carried their voices into the night. Then all fell still.
Excerpt from Hillbilly Belle in Alabama (2016). All rights reserved.
“This is God’s house,” said the Sunday-school lady. The full skirt of her bluish-green dress puddled as she scooched down. The brown-speckled flesh floor looked like Nannie’s hands. The tips of the lady’s white gloves rested on the edge of our maple table. She rocked on her heels.
Last time she tried to sit in one of our squared-off chairs and tipped over. We laughed. We were loud. The lady rose with a tight-lipped smile. Her midnight-black pouf with no part shone but didn’t move. A careful curl wisped along either cheekbone. She fluffed her bangs.
The lady’s buttons were bright blue. They punched down one side of her dress and then down the other. Sometimes the lady wore pink, other times brown. I liked best when she wore blue. Her buttons changed color, but they were always large and round and flat. I wanted to steal one to put in Mom’s button box.
God grew and shrank, depending on who talked about him. Poor God. How did he fit in his house? God was so big he had to leave when we visited his house.
I pictured him trying to sleep at night. His head stuck out of the blue-and-red-and-yellow window with pictures around the tall man whose hands and feet turned open. I especially liked the lion, the giant bird, the lamb, and the cow with the wings. God’s feet stuck out the other end of the church, where we sometimes ate supper. Afterward, all the children raced along different green, black, red, and blue lines that ran up and down the yellow floor. The lines made shapes. Mom said they were circles, half-circles, and squares. The big boys shot baskets.
The floor smelled funny. It was waxy and sweaty.
Mom said God lived in our hearts and pressed a hand to her chest.
A song said God had the whole world in his hands. That stuck with me on the way to Mama Hattie’s house. Dad drove our rattle-trap white station wagon. We always reached Spooky Hollow as night crept across gray dusk.
Dad rolled down his window and called into the rush of air. “Here it comes, Spoo-ooo-ky Holler!” A twang stole into his syllables. For the next seven days, “hollows” became “hollers” and “over there” became “over yonder.”
Crammed in the middle seat, we squished from one side to the other as the wagon lurched and pitched. When riding home from church with Dad, we called it “playing corners.” His sedan was cavernous and round. Sometimes we took turns crouching over a peephole in the worn floorboard, staring at the pavement and counting how many times Dad wandered over the yellow line.
The station wagon had wings. I wished for sharper, longer ones so we would blur past the inky trees walking in the smoky fog. Here and there crooked arms and skeleton fingers thrust up, down, and out through the leaves. My sisters and brother shrieked.
“Look, there’s an old lady in a long dress, right behind that fat tree.”
“That one doesn’t have a head.”
“Revenuer—he busted up their still.”
“Ghost deer! Do you see them?”
My eyes squeezed shut. Fly. Just fly away.
There was something holy about Appalachia, the swells of the Blue Ridge.
In kindergarten Sunday school, the teacher counted off the weekdays God took to make the world. I could spell all the days. On Wednesday, he separated land from water. The National Geographic showed pictures of the Grand Canyon. God probably spent most of the afternoon crashing his fist into the ground and splitting rock. But as shadows fell late in the day, he gave his hands a rest. God lightly printed his thumb into hollows and coves to push up the North Georgia peaks.
In summer, the mountains rolled green, purple, and blue, hazing in the distance. Old Sharp Top pointed to the sky like a pyramid. A faraway dream. The warm weather gave way to cool days but left a trail of heat—tree canopies flaming crimson, copper, gold, and yellow.
Plenty of space for God.
Buttons courtesy of Marco Bernardini
Excerpt from Hillbilly Belle in Alabama (2016). All rights reserved.
In response to The Daily Post Prompt: “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry”—the world is ending tomorrow. Tell us about your last dinner, your dining companions, the setting, the conversation.
Ah, Paris! The romance of it all. On my first cheap excursion to La Ville-Lumière with my cousin Miss J. (innocents abroad!), I donned my sneakers and jeans at 6:00 am and read the Michelin guidebook aloud.
The very sensible Miss J. “raised” up halfway and plucked at the threadbare chenille coverlet on her spring-squeaky twin bed. She squinted. “At this hour, only my pillow excites me.” Then she pulled a tired-looking, grayish pillow over of her head.
“How can you sleep?” I exhorted. “Just beyond our window is a city chock-full of ancient bricks, chocolat, paintings, chic scarves, and tombs loaded with famous dead people.”
Ah, Paris! Where Sartre wooed Simone. Where Rodin poured his passion for Camille into sculpture. Where Abelard painfully suffered for Héloïse. Where 500 yards from our hotel the Musée de Cluny housed the most orgasmic tapestries in the world.
Miss J. grunted, turned on her stomach, and pulled another pillow over her head.
No man romanced me. However, I had a love affair with the cuisine. Crusty bread, more cheeses than the population on Île Saint-Louis, fresh crudités, delicate sauces, crisp salads, delectable seafood, aromatic coffees, Berthillon glaces et sorbets. . . .
Finally, I understood why Hemingway’s characters smacked their lips a lot, analyzed every morsel on their plates, and sipped glass after glass of heady wine.
To return to the question: I would stage a private party in Le Caveau de la Huchette, every jazz lover’s paradise since 1946. Inviting a disparate gang of five requires ordering à la carte.
George Orwell. It is only polite to invite a starving artist: “It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you.”—Down and Out in Paris and London
Earnest Hemingway, well, because he is Earnest Hemingway. Moreover, oysters are my favorite. “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”—A Moveable Feast
Julia Child because one is dead meat if one lacks the good taste to invite her. Besides, she always brings a lot of food to the party: “I opened the school’s booklet, found the recipes from the examination—oeufs mollets with sauce béarnaise, côtelettes de veau en surprise, and crème renversée au caramel—and whipped them all up in a cold, clean fury. Then I ate them.”—My Life in France
R-E-S-P-E-C T. Marcel Proust because his obsession with a madeleine launched a thousand+ dissertations: “I raised to my lips . . . a spoonful of the cake . . . a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.”— À la Recherche du Temps Perdu
Owen Wilson because one must include a character in living color. Why not a hottie? “You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights. I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing.”—Midnight in Paris
“People who love to eat are always the best people.” But, of course, Mme Child, c’est moi.
Absinthe Robettec by Henri Privat Livemont
Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast by John Singer Sargent
In response to The Daily Post prompt: “Truth or Dare”—is honesty the best policy?
In open forums such as blogs, I’m not interested in knocking other writers. Their purposes vary–sharing information, expressing themselves, conducting business, digging into a niche, making friends, having fun without the pressure, etc. If I compliment, it’s honest. However, I may offer a different point of view in a polite comment. I do not shower sites with “likes” and meaningless praise to collect followers, though this era of publishing demands them.
Whether writers self-publish or submit to an agent/press, there is a market reality for most. I’ve worked on the other side; publishers need to make a buck. Most have margins that tighten yearly. Even if a writer produces solid work, the chances of turning a profit diminish if the market is slim to none.
(I will not dwell on the bloodletting of the last decade when publishers dumped competent writers/editors in favor of cheaper labor recently out of college. Note: if you’re a younger writer/editor who is great at your job, don’t take offense to that statement. You offer fresh ideas–that is good. I’ve worked for managers younger than 35. No problem. In this post, I have no interest in sparking generational “us” and “them” comments from any age group.)
Publishing is not for the faint-hearted. Only a handful of writers earn a living from books. Sure, it’s an emotional journey, but “ego can sometimes get in the way.”
I worked in publishing for 20+ years. Nevertheless, that does not guarantee success for my pet projects. A book published in the US is up against 300,000+ pieces of other writers’ passions. A rare exception is Amanda Hocking’s story.
When I professionally analyzed manuscripts, I didn’t sugar coat. It was important to point out what worked without heaping meaningless adjectives. My goal was to provide a thorough, constructive review in a civilized, albeit compact, manner. If anybody found honesty brutal–too bad. There is more empathy in truth than false stroking.
Anyone who is serious about writing does not depend on the kindness of strangers, friends, and family. Okay, I ask a few trusted individuals for their thoughts on my copy. In fact, my niece’s advice just prevented my going down a slippery slope. It’s fine to share on LinkedIn and listen to group members. They often offer useful ideas (e.g., style, tone, voice, structure, pacing). However, criticism that dwells on punctuation, spelling, and mechanics without addressing content falls short.
Feedback from a professional editor, however terse, is a godsend. An editor of longstanding will read my book before I submit.
If a client hires a professional for a candid opinion, he or she still owes money for the time spent, even if there is a decision to follow another path as development unfolds. It’s on him or her to immediately inform the editor of this decision. If the editor does not adjust or completely disagrees, the client can hire somebody else. (I qualify by stating that the client should expect genuine, hard work. I recently let go of a job because personal circumstances prevented my capacity to deliver. Honesty was on me.) Professionals prefer to eat; they deserve a living wage.
Self-honesty is a good policy. For example, I like to write poetry but do not kid myself. Only three journals have accepted my work. I studied with two gifted poets but learned just enough to be dangerous, not particularly talented. They maintained strict standards. Engaging in this highly disciplined genre informs me as a writer of prose (e.g., development of imagery, beats). Free verse is not a free-for-all. In fact, it’s difficult to master. I would not claim ownership.
In my mid-twenties, I worked for an exacting manager at an in-house advertising agency. He did not dish out flaky happiness. He forced me to redo my first copywriting assignment multiple times. The seventh was the charm.
A Teflon psyche? Now that’s a good thing. To flip a cliché–if I didn’t stand the heat in a professional kitchen, the flames would have burned me alive. I get up plenty of mornings, look in the mirror, and say, “Get over yourself.” Then I might produce something better than yesterday’s precious copy.
Know thyself? Here’s a writer who does and found his peace: “Competition and Writing” by Eric Sonnenschein.
Look for Eric’s thoughtful posts on LinkedIn. In addition, you’ll find his novels, collected essays (Making Up for Lost Time and All over the Place: Essays from A to Z), and other works on his website and Goodreads. Currently, Eric is finishing Mad Nomad, a novel about the Peace Corps in the Middle East. If you want to learn the art of the essay, read Eric’s collections. His work delivers; his creative nonfiction sings. No fluff. Just smart.
In response to The Daily Post Prompt: “Do Not Disturb”—how do you manage online privacy?
Why the blur? I did not have permission to take an identifiable photo of this delightful bartender. She was busy. So I decided to take her picture in fast-action form. (As a courtesy, I showed her the image after shooting it.)
If posting a story with photos, I will contact the communications director to ask permission on behalf of the business and the bartender.
I am not a professional photographer. However, as a former magazine editor who now blogs, I follow strict rules about image use. That includes asking permission when reproducing a clear likeness of a person. I keep releases on hand.
The American Society of Media Professionals breaks down industry regulations. In addition, they provide release forms and examples of lawsuits caused by inappropriate use of images. Be cautious if you intend to sell a picture:
–21st-century worries: digital editing, sensitive subject (I did not photoshop this image.)
The Office of General Counsel at Harvard University details copyright and fair use.
Snap happily. Snap carefully. Give credit where it’s due.
Note: This post does not constitute legal advice. Consult an attorney if you have professional questions.