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Unmarked Crossings: a poet and her journeys

Catching Up at Connemara

March 27, 2010

I’m catching up after several days of not posting here. So many things I wanted to write about have already flown from my mind. I’m sure that some random thought about my residency will pop into my head and I will wish I had included it here and now. But for today, I’m just going to try to recap the past several days.

Monday was a terrible day, weather-wise. It was gray and overcast much of the morning, here at Connemara. I had made plans to meet Glenis Redmond, the dynamic Asheville poet, at Malaprops Books around 4 p.m. She had promised a tour of the store, followed by an early dinner at one of the intriguing restaurants nearby. I was about one third of the way to Asheville when the weather took a turn for the worst. The temperature dropped from 42 degrees to about 35 in ten minutes and what had been rain turned into the worst globs of freezing gunk I believe I have ever experienced. Traffic on I-26 slowed to well under the posted minimum as most of the drivers heading north realized the real dangers of an ice-slicked roadway.

I made it to Malaprops (there was Glenis, standing by the door), but only after taking a diversionary route through West Asheville due to an accident on I-240. Malaprops was a delight for book lovers: a bookstore that seems real and right and perfect for those who wish to poke into book-laden corners, unlike the large, supermarket-like book store chains. By the time we came out, the weather had cleared some. Although several restaurants are closed on Mondays, we found the Laughing Seed to be waiting and welcome, with a bright atmosphere and great vegetarian food. I enjoyed getting to know Glenis. We promised to get together for a drink and some chatting when we see one another at the AWP conference in Denver in a few weeks. I can’t wait to introduce her to other of my writer friends there.

On the night of my first reading here, I was handed an envelope by a pretty lady with a Spanish accent. Inside were a poem and her telephone number. As she pressed the envelope into my hand, she asked me to come visit her gallery. A few days later, she had called the park office, asking again if I would come by. By the third request, I knew this was something I should do. She had sent me an email with an attached poem and photo of her daughter who had suffered some birth defect that has left her severely disabled. So, on Wednesday afternoon, I drove to Temon Street in Hendersonville to visit Cecilia.

What a wonderful surprise Cecilia’s work was! She is an accomplished sculptor and painter—her work was both ethereal and solid, if that makes sense. There was shelf after shelf of intriguing small sculptured pieces, as well as larger ones that incorporated porcelain and metal. Besides the three-dimensional pieces, there were displayed oil paintings, pastels, wood cuts, and some nearly wall-sized paintings with vibrant colors and a depth that I had to examine closely to determine how they were put together. Some of the paintings were created from drawings by Cecilia’s daughter, Abigail. Abigail has her own style and medium (markers), but with a mother’s love and an artist’s talent, Cecilia has transformed those small drawings into woodcuts and oil paintings.

One piece and its story touched me: Abby had fallen very ill and was hospitalized. As Cecilia watched the heart monitor, she could see that her daughter’s heart was racing, realizing that her own was pounding much too fast, as well. She told me that as she watched the pulse rate slow down on the monitor, she could feel her own heart beat slowing as well until both mother and daughter were back to a normal pulse rate. When she went home, Cecilia was shocked to find that her daughter’s last drawing closely resembled two hearts—one inside the other. The painting I saw, in rich, vibrant color and texture, clearly shows the two hearts. Some critics say that the art should stand alone, that it is unnecessary to know the story behind it, whether the end result be visual art or literature or any other art form. But as I looked again at that depiction of two hearts, I could clearly see that, at least for me, the story made the painting even more incredible. I felt honored to see what this amazing artist had created and to chat with her about poetry before I left. Thank you for inviting me, Cecilia.

As the weeks have gone by (can it have been two and a half?), I’ve been watching spring get a definite hold on Connemara. The lawns that were mostly browns now have expanding green expanses. There are leaves of various varieties poking up through last fall’s dead leaves. And everywhere daffodils and narcissus are about to bloom or have already started showing their colors. And then there are the birds. The crows seem to be plotting something as they congregate in the late afternoons and evenings. A few days ago, I saw some variety of small, black and white woodpecker scaling the trunk of a two-hundred foot tree outside the kitchen window. That same day, I watched as a pair of Carolina wrens began nest-building under the eaves of a small building adjacent to the Farm Manager’s Cottage. The female was diligently bringing in bits of grass and small twigs, then going off to gather more. The male, however, was enjoying the sunshine. He had perched at the peak of the roof. I could see him stretch his neck and ruffle his feathers, then (I’m sure I heard him sigh) relax in some stance of total bliss. I’m with him…

Last night, I was honored to participate in an award ceremony for the annual poetry contest sponsored by NPS and The Friends of Carl Sandburg at Connemara. Children from first grade through high school had sent in their entries, poems that were to be about where they were from, and what was coming next for them in their lives. The poems were surprising good, particularly for the younger children. I was struck by the melancholy of several of the poems. I’m sure I had those thoughts when I was a child, but my poems were never sad. I believe it’s a good thing, however, when anyone can express his or her feelings.

One little boy who had won the “People’s Choice” award was so small that, even standing on a chair, all that showed of him behind the podium were his dark, dark eyes. Carlos wrote about his home in Mexico and how hard life had been there (where he was from). His father had left there to come to America, leaving the family behind for three years. Upon arriving in the U.S. they had had to live in a trailer where, as Carlos put it, nothing worked. I don’t know the circumstances, but I can guess, because what a child understands may not be the reality. At the end of the poem, little Carlos wrote something to the effect that when he finds his father, his father can tell him who he (Carlos) is. I admit to some tears at the end. I can see how readers were moved to vote for this poem (and poet).

Children. I am reminded of how close we stay to the children we were when we were children. As a result of my residency at Connemara and the several articles that have been written, I am now back in contact with some of my family with whom I had lost touch. When the first article ran in The Galesburg Register Mail (my home town newspaper), I received emails from several nieces and a nephew, as well as a cousin and the friend of a cousin, as well as a phone call from another nephew. Through the wonders of the Internet and Facebook, I have connected electronically with several of the children of my late brother Philip.

Had Philip been born fifty years later, he might have been diagnosed with and treated for ADD or ADHD. He certainly fit the profile for an adult with either of those disorders: he was small and wiry, suffered with alcoholism, was jailed for minor crimes, and had multiple marriages. He experienced all of those, it’s true. But I also know that he was extremely intelligent and sensitive. He was charismatic and funny. When he was young, he had written a children’s book about a snail, complete with illustrations. In another time or other circumstances, he could have become a writer. He didn’t. He married at seventeen then served in the Navy in the Korean War. He and his wife had four children. They divorced, he married a woman who had a toddler; they had five children together. Another divorce, another marriage and a child who died in infancy. One more divorce, a new wife and three handsome sons. By the time he died (far too young) in April of 1999, he had married five times (twice to the same woman) and had fathered thirteen children.

You may think my brother’s story is a sad story. In some ways, yes, it is—a life that would seem to have gone astray. A life of struggling against alcoholism—sober and living well, then back into the pit of what alcohol did to him. But here is the happy ending. At Phil’s funeral, eleven of his thirteen children and three of his ex-wives were there. That must be some sort of record. But what’s better yet—as I’ve reconnected with his children from his many marriages, I’ve noticed something. The children from all those marriages are still connected. In looking through their Friends list on Facebook, I see Terri, Eric, Pam, Christa, Clarise, and Karl (whose Grandma Mealman lived across the street from Carl Sandburg’s birthplace on Third Street in Galesburg) are friends with Phil, Gail, Ronnie, and Kim, who are friends with Scott and Josh. They are scattered all over the country, from Texas to South Dakota, from Illinois to Georgia. I can't even remember which children were from which marriage (I have to go through the lists of names one by one sometimes). But they are family because, although they may have had different mothers, they had one father. And they have an Auntie Chris, as they call me, and cousins, Shannon and Brittany. I’m hoping for a big family reunion sometime very soon.
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