Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Lately I've been wondering about what makes a life. In considering my own, and this very complicated and wonderful new place to which I've come--read: mother of a four month-old--I've been caught in a sort of eddy. Held still with questions, some doubt, anchored by business and life-speed, I look forward to the future with fragile hope. I do feel that that future is the river before me, whitewater churning, hidden with hydraulics--with rapids easy and stern. Can I (will I, and when?) dip paddle to the cold rush, slide forward into the wild?

If there's one thing I know at what some would call the tender age of almost-thirty-two, it's that life is unbearingly and heartbreakingly short. How can it be stretched in order to contemplate and live in and around each moment? Is it even possible? Or does a human being become a selfish thing when she attempts living fully--are there people and places left behind?

The novelist Eugenia Price famously said that "The great doing of little things makes the great life." The little things, I believe, can be the more profound. But if a soul yearns for the "big things," how to make it all come to pass in a way that not only avoids hurting loved ones, but elevates them?

This post is filled with question marks, and for that I half-heartedly apologize. The season now is one filled with an unflinching bareness and an awesome light, and I am left ever humbled.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The swift passage of time has always been tough for me to take. Suddenly, with the birth of my first child, I am even more cognizant of its mercurial nature, and I feel a twinning fear and joy because of it: fear that my life will pass by without my having truly lived it the way I wish, and joy that I have a precious daughter and family, a child to watch grow and change.

Suddenly, it is November. In Brevard, the peak of Fall has come and is almost gone: yellow and orange and red are leaving us with browns, bare branches, and frosted windshields in the mornings. The heat has officially been turned on in our house, our fleece clothes pulled from attic bins, my black labrador's coat growing thicker--making her look a bit like an adolescent bear.

We spent the weekend at my family's lakehouse in the South Carolina Blue Ridge. My sister, her husband, and most of his family flew in from Memphis, Tennessee for a Halloween respite, and it was good. We watched football at the Tiki Bar, ate candy and homecooked meals, took boat rides, drank wine, laughed a lot, and were thoroughly entertained by my three month-old daughter. I never knew how thrilling, how special it would be to watch my beloved "little" sister holding and playing with my child. Several times I found myself just watching them, smiling.

The holidays are only weeks away, and another year will soon pass in a bittersweet flash of familiar faces and voices, car rides, Christmas carols, decadent treats, wrapping paper, wood fires, rush and hustle, and exhaustion. I wonder if I'll ever understand the mysterious necesity of this--that relentless pace of time--but watching my daughter with my family under a Halloween sky and in a place we all love, it stood still if only for a moment.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Apple Pickin', Autumn in the Air, the Muse Emerging

Autumn, or "Fall" as we like to say in the South, has come in wet to Western North Carolina. After a series of rainy weeks the colors have begun to change seemingly overnight, and up in Pisgah National Forest and out on the Blue Ridge Parkway the reds are brightening, and soon it will be peak season. When it is clear, the atmosphere changes, and the sky crystallizes with an October blue unlike any other. I am so ready for fires in the fireplace, hot cider, and hiking that I can barely stand it. Now, if it will only stop raining....

Lately I've been feeling as if I woke up and suddenly it was October. Indeed, I've lived in a sort of postpartum cave the past couple of months, and it's been warm and cozy and inhabited by the cutest creature on the planet, and I haven't been too proactive about crawling out of it. But my Wylie is only days away from turning 11 weeks old, my favorite of all the seasons has appeared in golds and oranges and reds, and I'm ansty with wanting to be outside and soaking up all of it. My greatest fear is that time is passing too quickly--that I'll miss it. And I don't want to miss anything.

If I can conquer this new-baby thing, I can rule the world... of that I am convinced. Anyone who can take care of an infant, get everything done in their day needed, and continue to produce interesting and entertaining art deserves to lauded as a superhero--or at least be given a big, fat ice cream cone. I am in awe of those writers, like Nora Roberts (yes, I am a Nora Roberts fan, and I don't care if she's the queen of romance: she writes like a dream) who pen bestselling novels at the breakfast table while their kids scarf down cereal or nap in the playpen. Mayhap I will get to that point. I sure as hell hope so. I want so.

Currently, it has been over a year since my novel has been "out" with editors at the major publishing houses, and so far nothing. I do not have my hopes up at this point, but I am ready to be writing again, and perhaps my current project can one day find a home... once it gets written, of course.

I dream about writing at night; about my novels and their plotlines and protagonists and crux moments. I woke up at 3 a.m. a couple of weeks ago yearning to write, with ideas twinkling across my brain like faulty Christmas lights, only to have them fizzle and disappear as soon as I lay my head. And I would've gotten up and padded to my desk and my laptop--I would've!--if it weren't for the fact that a crying, hungry infant would be waking me up only an hour or so later. And yes, that is a darn good excuse for avoiding inspiration... at least for now.

As October, that most glorious of months in the Southern Appalachians, slips towards bare, chilly November with a relentless swiftness, I'm trying to live in the moment. I'm walking my daughter and my dog down leaf-lined streets, admiring harvest decorations in Brevard's downtown, apple picking at the gorgeous Stepp Family Orchard in Edneyville, N.C. with great friends, wishing for cooler weather--and the ability to fit back into my pre-pregnancy sweaters--and being thankful, or at least trying to, every day, for this life. It is unbearingly sweet and terrifyingly short, and there is so much to be done.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Welcome to the World, Baby Girl

She arrived: Wylie Skye Crawford Dodson, weighing in at 7 lbs, 12 oz, and at a length of 20 3/4 inches at 3:53 p.m. on July 29, 2009. We are ecstatic, exhausted, and forever changed.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Missing Lawdy Mercy

In thirty-one years, I have missed our annual beach week at the Lawdy Mercy beachhouse only twice. This summer, I’ll add another miss to that count, and it’s making me feel like the one girl who didn’t get asked to prom—or, the first-semester college freshman far from home and as yet friendless, stuck inside a claustrophobic dorm room on a Friday night. Closer to the truth: I feel like a young woman heartsick, remembering with great pain every action, every moment spent with a lost love… replaying every second just to torture myself.

If this sounds like a close-to-petulant, “poor me” routine, that’s because it is. This summer, I’m forced to miss my family’s annual beach week—a vacation week at Garden City Beach, South Carolina, to which I look forward all year—because I happen to be 37 weeks pregnant. Three weeks: that’s all that’s left between me and D-Day, and the doctors have advised I stay as close to home as possible. The logical part of my brain knows this is a reasonable request meant to cater to my well-being, but the illogical part (the part that is right now imagining the feel of sand beneath my bare feet, watching myself toss a dummy into cool green waves and my black lab bounding after it, remembering the smell of the salt marsh and the eye-sting of a burning Lowcountry sunset—a sting because it’s just so damn beautiful) is just plain sad.

And torturing myself doesn’t make much sense, because as any woman—or partner of said woman—who has been this pregnant can tell you: nothing is much fun at 37 weeks. Certainly the car ride from our home in the mountains of Western North Carolina to the South Carolina coast, a good five and a half-hour drive even without rest stops, would be an exercise in torture for me. Add that to the fact that it’s bound to be a sweltering week outside, and inside the beachhouse the air conditioning is usually kept close to 80 degrees (my parents and my “second-parents,” owners of the Lawdy Mercy, all grew up without air conditioning and don’t see too much use in blasting it), and it would most likely be an uncomfortable week for me. Especially seeing as how, at this point, I’m annoyingly uncomfortable even in my own home and in my own bed. Argh. Scratch that: double ARGH.

But my heart just won’t give in to my head when it comes to being at the Lawdy Mercy. I can see them now, my family and friends, heading up from the beach at the end of a decadent day to drink cocktails on the back porch, the rhythmic creak of rocking chairs and the ceiling fans competing with the background beach music (who will they be listening to? Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs? Otis Redding? The Four Tops?). If it’s low tide, they’ll watch the sun descend into the trees across the marsh over Murrell’s Inlet, steeping the land and water and sky in a blaze of color that begins in fire and ends in a more sensual version of Easter pastel. If it’s high tide, they’ll quickly pack a cooler and take to the boat for a sunset cruise down the creek and out into the inlet. They’ll turn up the radio to one of the local stations, drink wine and watch egrets loop their graceful necks from the sanctuary of summer green marsh grass. As a kid, I used to sit on the front of the boat, let my toes drag the water and suck in the view and the smell of salt and pluff mud and boat exhaust as if it were the aroma of heaven.

I’ve always been like this about the beach. My parents have an old photograph of me as a toddler that never fails to crack them up: it was taken on the last day of one of our Lawdy Mercy weeks, when they’d just finished packing up the car to go home. In it, I’m standing in the driveway in a blue bathing suit—feet spread, hair white-blonde, my little hand pushed against the car door as if I can make it go away—and my sweet face is scrunched in misery, my little mouth open on a full-on wail, tears streaming down my face. Apparently, this wasn’t an unusual occurrence on packing-up day.

“You never did like leaving the beach,” my Mom says.

I still get this way, minus the crying, even though I am now officially an adult. Whenever we leave the Lawdy Mercy in July, my melancholy follows me up the state like Pig Pen’s dark cloud, somewhat dissipating around Columbia. My husband pretends not to notice, but usually buys me a chocolate milkshake.

I wonder if the little girl to-be who is currently shoving her miniature tootsies up into my rib cage and hiccupping disconcertingly down in my lower belly will feel the same way about her time at the beach?

It’s funny, but the further along I got into this pregnancy—when it started to truly feel real and lasting to both me and my husband—the more I began to think about just how much fun I’d have with my little girl, at the beach. I began to picture it in my mind, all of us—me, my husband, my family and friends, our dog—playing with an ephemeral, blonde-haired tyke in the shallows, in the sand, on the back dock. The day I truly let myself dream of this it was as if someone had jolted me with a live wire: the sheer thrill of imagining having a child and the stunning knowledge of how much I wanted it, wanted the pregnancy to go well and for everything to be “okay,” was more terrifying than anything I’d faced yet in my life.

So, what am I doing this week while my family is down at the beach, soaking up paradise, Southern-style, and I’m in my non air-conditioned house, grading papers and teaching composition to a group of ambivalent adult students, suffering through heartburn so nasty that it makes me want to funnel an entire bottle of mouthwash? I’m handling it like the mature adult that I am: I’m pretending like it’s not really the third week of July—that none of it is really real. Heck, it could still be June! And I’m the grand mistress of avoidance, the empress of ignorance.

I think I’ll get my husband to pick me up a chocolate milkshake on his way home.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Vive La Liberte!

How I love the Fourth of July! I just can't help it--I'm an unabashed patriot, lover of history, appreciator of those who came and saw and founded, who had dreams much bigger than mine. And in honor of this Independence Day, I offer the following thoughts (these folks say it much better than I, anyhow):

"You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism."
~ Erma Bombeck

"Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better."
~ Albert Camus

"Where liberty dwells, there is my country."
~ Benjamin Franklin

"We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it."
~ William Faulkner

"There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."
~ William J. Clinton

"My God! How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy!"
~ Thomas Jefferson

"Freedom is the oxygen of the soul."
~ Moshe Dayan

"The real democratic idea is, not that every man shall be on a level with every other, but that every one shall have liberty, without hindrance, to be what God made him."
~ Henry Ward Beecher

"A patriot is he whose public conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest."
~ Samuel Johnson

"This, then, is the state of the union: free and restless, growing and full of hope. So it was in the beginning. So it shall always be, while God is willing, and we are strong enough to keep the faith."
~ Lyndon B. Johnson

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
~ John Adams

"I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death."
~ Patrick Henry

"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally stacked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
~ George Washington

"Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it."
~ George Bernard Shaw

"Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels."
~ Mark Twain

"There, I guess King George will be able to read that."
~ John Hancock, after signing the Declaration of Independence

"Abandon your animosities and make your sons Americans!"
~ Robert E. Lee

"America is another name for opportunity. Our whole history appears like a last effort of divine providence on behalf of the human race."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."
~ Abraham Lincoln

"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope."
~ Robert Kennedy

"May I never wake up from the American dream."
~ Carrie Latet

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Change is Gonna Come

There is a nursery in our house.

Each time I walk past the doorway and peer in--which I've been doing quite a lot these days--I have to blink: where once was my husband's office, filled with computers, file cabinets, papers scattered, MBA and other business books, and a couple of Johnny Cash and Alfred Hitchcock prints is now a clean, crisp room painted a sweet blue. There's a mission-style crib (donated to us by fabulous friends), an 1830s Federal style dresser we bought from an antique store downtown, a corner cabinet filled with stuffed animals, baby books, toys--and a lovely rocking chair, courtesy of my parents. I still can't get over the crib. I can't get over that most likely in the next 5 weeks there will be a tiny being habitating there.

My mother and my aunt camped out at our house for several days earlier this month, and took to the room with can-do gusto. They cleaned, primed and prepped, and painted the entire thing: walls, ceiling, trim. They helped me sort through the piles of baby clothes, blankets of different sizes, hats, shoes--all shower gifts--in an attempt to figure out what needed to be washed and ready before the baby gets here. Without them, I would be still staring at those piles, wondering what in the world to do with all those tiny little blankets. Heck, I still don't know what to do with the big ones.

Being eight months pregnant is a constant exercise in humility. I've certainly left the "honeymoon" stage of the second trimester and am now well into the intensely fatigued, awkward, hormonal, I-am-as-big-as-a-whale-no-lie throes of the third. Strangers everywhere--at the community college where I teach, on the street, in Subway--have abandoned the shy glimpses and sweet, knowing smiles and are now full-on staring at my tremendous stomach. Lately I've had to squelch the urge to smack them across the face for it; all that holds me back is the South Carolina in me, urging me to act the lady and stay calm. I don't know how long I'll be able to heed that magnolia-laced voice. It sounds remarkably like my grandmother.

My experience has been utterly Janus-faced, which I suppose is not unlike the rest of my existence before pregnancy. On one hand, I am struck dumb by a mix of fear and doubt and anxiety that my life is changing in ways I'll never be able to gain control over again: that I'll miss out somehow on the traveling and the writing and experiencing I treasured so as an unencumbered woman. That I'll never really be "me" again. This is an unnerving prospect, one that keeps me awake at night, unable to write about it in my journal or even in an essay for fear that putting it there makes it all real, happening. On the other hand, I am terrifically excited at the promise of this alien being turning somersaults in my belly, at the tiny clothes, the prospect of a new adventure, at watching my husband become Daddy, at the challenge of being me as a mother. The only hope for this two-sided sort of internal battle, I suppose, is that I've been this schizophrenic for 31 years--surely my brain is used to it by now.

Every semester I ask my college students to write under the header: "What do I want to do with my time on the planet?" Now, I find myself composing my own internal essay. Only I know, unlike many of my students, exactly what I want to do; my answers are more selfish than I'd like. And I wonder that I'll ever be able to fit everything in, the traveling and writing and exploring and making a difference and leading a noble life. I live in the constant knowledge that there's a chance I'll wake up one day having discovered I've walked the same path as everyone else, that I've "given in" to the conventional. And regret is a pisser.

But even in the ridiculously banal land of "preparing for baby"--and it is banal, with its pink and blue-ness, its bevy of unneeded things, its websites with asinine titles like "The Bump" (really--the bump? Come ON.)--I've found myself feeling new things and thinking in new ways I'd not expected. Despite my reticence and the stress circus going on my head, I feel a layer of confidence and surety that all will work itself out in the end. I don't know if this is my innate optimism or simply sheer insanity, but it's there, and it's welcome. It keeps me from crossing the line. Makes me smile in the oddest of moments. Relieves me that at least one thing about myself hasn't changed.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Summertime's Calling Me

In less than a week, it'll be June. As my split personality would say (who is younger, less literate and much more immature than I am), "holy freakin' moly!" The days and weeks are beginning their long, weighted slide into heady and humid summer, and everything in our house is turning towards preparing for a baby. "To Do" lists are mounted on my desk, the fridge, our bathroom mirror, my husband's desk, and there has been a sad lack of crossing things off... which should, hopefully, change soon as we slow our travel schedule and settle back into life in the mountains.

May has been a whirlwind of work, parties--for friends and for us, with baby showers--doctors' appointments, and travel. We just returned from a Memorial Day Weekend at Litchfield Beach and Debordieu Colony on the South Carolina coast. Our time was fabulously lazy and decadent, filled with yummy, fattening food, fannies planted in beach chairs, friend visiting, ocean and people-watching, and beach walks with our black lab, who takes to the sea and sand with infectuous joy. She literally does back-flips and doggie cartwheels (no lie) down the beach every time we're there.

I've started teaching an expository writing course at our local community college, and after a semester away from higher education am finding that I'm enjoying doffing my professor cap once again. The work is good and hard, but it's nice having something to occupy my mind in these final 10 weeks of pregnancy. Now, if I can only spur the creative process, set a schedule that includes teaching, writing, cleaning and preparing the house and yard, and still managing to soak in the magic that is summer, I will consider myself successful.

I hope that wherever you are, summer brings time outside with the ones you dig, sweet tea and grilled food, fireworks, and possibilities.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


The azaleas in our front yard are blooming fuschia and white, despite the fact that I hacked them back last year in an attempt at "trimming." Just goes to show me that despite my mistakes, there is a resilience in my life that is continual, has held firm. Thank goodness!

I haven't posted here in a while, partly out of forgetfulness, laziness, and a dire, long-term case of unoriginality. My creative pulse is still very hard to hear. I don't want to blame it entirely on the little girl growing in my belly--causing me to resemble a blonde Oompa Loompa, or the Michelin Man--but I do think my brain cells are operating elsewhere, and in a completely different way. Artist and writer friends of mine, who are also mothers, have revealed to me (in differences of opinion) that my brain will never be the same again; or, on the other hand, that when this is all said and done I'll be more creative than ever. We shall see.

Lately it seems that life has been about the extreme, and specifically when I crave simplicity. The news is focused on pirates, ravaged economies, political parties are bashing their opposites over the head with pompousness, anti-abortionists are accusing pro-lifers of murder (as usual), hunters are gassing wolf dens, anyone on television under the age of 40 is dressing like an idiot, etc, etc, etc. Personally, I'm convinced that all this would resolve itself if folks would just be nice to one another. That and stop stop STOP drinking the ignorance Kool-Ade. But what do I know?My only inclination at this point is to hope and pray that my eventual little girl can grow up in a world where ignorance, extremism and arrogance are the exception, not the rule. Where people actually listen to each other.

Enough of my ranting. Too many of these blogs are people spewing opinions and everyday minutia no one really wants to hear, and so I'll relent at least for now, and apologize.

My little town, like so many others, is literally in bloom. The buds of trees are red, orange, pink--and that incredible, life-affirming new green that's almost impossible to capture in a photograph. It's a new kind of leaf-changing that has taken over the mountainsides, and the light hits the ridgelines in a new, hopeful way. Gorgeous. On my way to work two mornings a week, I get to witness deer grazing in fog-filled meadows, wild turkeys crossing from forest to field to creek. I'm thankful.

In this quiet, sometimes lovely, and often boring time of gestation I find my brain whirring from issue to issue--so quickly and confoundingly that all I can think to do is to shut down before I implode. I consider our house, which I love, but which must be cleaned, thinned-out, and organized before we bring a new life into it; our yard, which needs also to be picked up, managed, planted, tended; my career, floundering for a while now, which must be shored, strengthened, revitalized; my friendships, which I've let slide during this time of forgetfulness and question; my relationship with my husband, which I want to enjoy and celebrate before everything changes in both little and big ways; my faith, always moving and shifting like a mountain river; my family, these mountains where we live, hopes for the future, life. Now the fact that a huge change is coming--in August, no less--has me wondering whether I'm ready. I want to change and I don't all at the same time.

For now, here's to a happy Spring for all--to the hope that our country can heal, that the pompous blowhards will humble, that we can all get out and celebrate Earth Day, that life will renew and continue again better than ever. I know it will!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gov. Sarah Palin's Assault on Unprotected Wolves Has Escalated

Now, if you can actually believe it, they are tossing poisioned gas into wolf dens containing pregnant mothers and pups. They are still chasing down, exhausting, and shooting wolves from the air and ground. Again, you could spend an entire lifetime in Alaska and never even lay eyes on a gray wolf. Never. How is this considered to be hunting, a normally traditional and honorable practice? I am utterly appalled by this, and by Gov. Palin. I just can't wrap my mind around the reasoning behind this, and I've certainly done my research. I honestly didn't think it could get any worse, but I was wrong.

Please, take the time to view the video below. If you can, donate. I have given, at different times, even as little as $5 to $10. I hope it helps. This is an issue close to my heart, but I truly believe it goes to the heart of morality, to what we teach our children, and to how we treat other living things. I can't imagine the hunters I grew up with--men who were taught by their fathers and grandfathers--ever participating in such a dishonorable and despicable aspect of their sport.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fortune Cookie Wisdom and Late Winter Snow

Just this past weekend, I finally succumbed to my husband: I agreed to eat at Twin Dragons, a Chinese restaurant in Brevard--an insane, bevy of buffets from different countries and enormous seating area sort of place with bright lighting and big bellies... if you catch my drift. These places have always made me nervous, even though I've only been to a couple of Ryan's Steakhouses in my life. You see, growing up in my fitness-crazed family, we were forbidden from eating in buffet restaurants (I swear I heard my Dad compare them once to a cattle call). We never went out, like our friends did after church, for Sunday dinner. Oh, heck no. We went running.

So, with my husband I went, and I faithfully even tried several different types of food. But, I'm pregnant and hungry, and so it all worked out in the end... though this will probably be my one and only voluntary adventure into the world of buffet dining, for the remainder of my life.

The point--if there really is one--is the message I found in my token fortune cookie, the one I waited to read (and didn't eat... is that unlucky?) until I was at home, later at my desk. It read: "You are the master of every situation." This struck me, as any good fortune cookie should, because lately I've felt completely lacking of any sort of mastery over my life. I am 18 weeks pregnant, and my body has been taken over by odd exhaustion and forgetfulness and extra weight. I'm 60 pages into a new novel which I started out loving, but now I'm feeling the plot slip away from me like the morning memory of last night's dream... if it was even really there in the first place.

So, of what am I the master? My father, the same buffet-table-protester, would say I am the master (or mistress) of my attitude. And, darn it all, he'd be right. So, today I vow to write--anything--to go to the library to check out books on plotting (because maybe, miraculously, they'll help), to breathe in the chilly air of the this Western North Carolina morning, to be happy. We shall see!

We recently got what most folks in town, I think, are hoping is our last blast of winter--a measely inch of snow earlier this week. But despite the cold, my crocuses are beginning to emerge and bloom buttercup yellow, the forsythia in my backyard is budding, and I've heard more birds chirping in the past few days than in the past few months. These are the things of which to take stock, for which to be thankful. And while I may daydream of spiriting Stuart and Scout (and nameless fetus baby) away to a tropical paradise while I hole up in a Swiss Family Robinson-type treehouse to write, write, write my little heart out, I have decided that it is the little, everyday things that make a true life: the recognition of nature, the thankfulness of warmth on a cold day, the emergence of Spring in a tiny backyard. Sounds idealistic, I know, but backing out of my driveway yesterday it came to me: Paradise is where you make it.

All hail Spring, all hail rebirth! And Happy Thursday. Enjoy the photos taken from our home and from a walk along the Coon Tree Loop Trail, in Pisgah National Forest.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Work-in-Progress

Things are looking up: my husband has a new job, I'm working several part-time ones, Spring may not be far, heck--even my scale is moving up (I've made it through 16 weeks of pregnancy). I've put a personal moratorium on reading about the pregnancy process, which I think has helped my addled brain to calm, even if just a bit. Here, in Western North Carolina, the skies are crystalline blue, the air bracingly cold. I think we are all hopeful for Spring, and new life.

I've worked up the gumption to post a taste of my new novel, here. Background: it's a mix of a modern and historical novel with a dash of the supernatural and sci-fi. Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I thought I'd put it out there anyway. The protagonist: Kate Pendragon Hunt, a Southern ex-pat and PhD candidate in British and Italian Renaissance Literature, working on her dissertation in Florence, Italy. She's a modern, practical sort of woman who will soon be caught up in a centuries-old secret, faced with a bevy of past lives and the man she loved throughout them all, and charged with an ancient purpose. I still haven't worked out all the details, and only have 60-ish pages, but here's a go:

Florence, Italy ~ May 2009

When the Olivetan cleared his throat from behind me, I thought immediately: I’ve done it again—I’ve sinned against the church. I stepped back from the ancient stone wall where I’d been bracing one sneaker-clad foot as I stretched my hamstring, dropped my hands from the hem of my tank top and prepared to launch into a litany of Italian phrases, all hopefully signifying abject apology. But the monk only raised one wild, graying eyebrow, threading his fingers together near the knot of his black leather cincture. He leaned back, the heels of his sandals crunching in the gravel courtyard marking the entrance to the church of San Miniato al Monte.

“You are Kate?” He asked in English, his accent heavy with the curling tones of the Florentine.

Startled, I swiped a hand over my sweat-slicked blonde hair and took hold of my long ponytail as if it were an anchor, my elbow crooked out in the air. “Yes,” I said slowly. “Have we met?”

“If you will follow me?” The monk’s eyes—an odd, primordial shade of green, like pollen dregs in the stagnant cove of a mountain lake—widened, and he bowed quite gallantly, holding one arm outstretched. I stepped backwards, the tight ligaments at the insides of my knees bumping the wall.

“But sir,” I babbled, anxious that baring my belly on the grounds of a holy site (I’d lifted my shirt earlier to wipe the sweat from my eyes) would get me thrown into a Florentine prison. “I do apologize. Mi dispiace, Signor. Mi scusi. I didn’t know. I’m so sorry—it won’t happen again.”

The monk smiled, shaking his head. “No, signorina. There is naught to fear. Per favore, to come with me.”

I bit my bottom lip, expelling a short burst of air from my nose. “Okay. Sure, I’ll come. I am sorry.”

He seemed strangely foreboding, even with the sapient green eyes. Maybe it was the black tunic, such a contrast to the fawn colors of the sunrise engulfing the medieval city below us, an incoming tide of buttery gold, rich umber and bronze, warming the terracotta-plated rooftops of the buildings on the far side of the River Arno. But the Olivetan seemed out of place, even with his shorn white hair and coiffed gray beard, and such things ought to be routine: I’d lived in Florence for three months already—I should be used to these guys by now.

He straightened, noticing my hesitance, and the sun flashed on an oddly shaped pendant hanging from a long leather strap at his neck. My eyes went to it immediately, and I stopped fidgeting in the gravel. “What is that?” I asked, my scholar’s brain twitching. “I’ve seen that pattern before.”

I stepped forward almost unconsciously, bending to get a better look. The pendant was of a primitive bronze wolf encircled by a braided silver chain; its eyes were push pin-sized sapphires, and in its mouth, clutched between sharply curved teeth, was a delicate sgian. Embedded in the hilt sat another multi-faceted sapphire, this one much larger, and a paler blue than the others.

“That’s a lady’s dagger,” I said aloud, reaching up a thumb and biting at the pad, a horrible habit of mine. My mind whirred, and I looked up at the monk. “It’s Celtic. Exceptionally early Celtic, possibly even Druidic. But how—?”

He covered the pendant with one dry-knuckled hand, patting it against the loose fabric at his chest. He cleared his throat. “Please, to come with me.”

“But, sir—”

“Come, signorina. Andiamo!” He reached out and took my elbow, tugging me forcefully toward the entrance of the church.

I looked around the courtyard a bit wildly: it was much too early for tourists, still not yet eight o’clock, with a distinct chill in the spring air. Why in the world had I thought today would be the day to see whether I could make the run up to the Piazzale Michelangelo? And why had I pushed myself to jog further, up the winding path to San Miniato?

I licked chapped lips, letting the Olivetan hustle me up a short set of marble steps. He rapped three times in quick succession on the huge wooden doors, and when they were opened by two other nondescript monks he led me into the cool church and down the nave. I pulled back on my own arm to slow him, my sneakers squeaking on the patterned pavement. “Signore, please—you’re scaring me.”

He halted immediately, the crown of his head catching a thick beam of sunlight pouring in through a small, arched window to our right. It lit him and the wooden pews nearby in the palest of gold, and he dropped his chin slightly, his surprising eyes apologetic. “I am sorry, contessa,” he said.

“Bernardo, madainn mhath. You have the American: gle mhath!”

A large, muscular man in a linen shirt and a dully-colored, traditional tartan—good God, could it really be a kilt? I wondered—galloped down the stone steps to the right of the apse. The light hit his long, copper-colored hair, his sideburns and cropped beard threaded with the slightest of silver, and he shaded his eyes with a corded forearm as he neared us. He took the monk’s hand in a beefy grip, then offered me an uncannily old fashioned leg. “I am Conrad Magoon. And you’d be our Kate.”

I snatched my elbow from the Olivetan, rubbing it as I narrowed my eyes. “You’re Scottish,” I said accusingly, recognizing the Gaelic from my studies.

“Aye,” the man replied, with an energetic dip of his square jaw. “I see the plaid gave me away.”

“Is this a joke?” I took a step back from them both, clenching my fists down by my thighs; I was completely out of my element, and it rocked me. “I know I did something stupid, but I certainly didn’t mean to show any disrespect to the Order, or the Church. It was an honest mistake—there’s no need to get the police involved.”

I blinked, nervously licking my dry lips again. “Good Lord,” I started, then blanched. “Sorry. I meant to say, if I had any Euros I’d make a donation. Will you take a donation?”

The Olivetan chuckled, said something in rapid-fire Italian I couldn’t understand, except for “carabinieri,” and the Scot grinned. “We’re not about to have ye tossed in a gaol, lass—is that what you think?”

I looked back and forth between them, and it was then I noticed a petite nun in an indigo habit—a habit color I’d never seen before—standing near the top of the stairs the man Magoon had descended. She looked young, my age or younger, and she walked to the stone balustrade, folding unadorned hands over the squared cement edge. Above her head, the intricately decorated wooden ceiling seemed a playful background with its primary colors of red, green and blue carving out patterns of interlinked diamonds along the beams, and it took me aback. What the hell is going on? I asked myself.

“Bernardo, Conrad,” she called, in a reedy, child-like voice. “Ferma! She is confused.”

“Two Italians and a Scot, what’s next?” I murmured, my eyes flitting from character to character, wondering if I should make a run for it.

Magoon narrowed his eyes at me, and it was then I noticed they, too, were green. He looked to be in his late thirties—about a decade older than I, then—and from his great, muscular neck swung a replica of the wolf pendant the monk wore. Again, my brain whirled, and my gaze shot back to the balustrade and to the nun. At her tiny neck hung what looked to be a leather strap, but from this angle it seemed if she too wore a pendant, it was hidden.

“You’re a cult,” I decided sharply, focusing on the one stranger who apparently spoke native English, “aren’t you?”

Suddenly, a wave of unease hit me and I bent over my bare legs, bracing my hands against my thighs, my fingers slick on the Lycra of my running shorts. I shouldn’t be baring my knees in a cathedral, I thought absently, before the nausea came. “I’m a doctoral candidate in British and Italian Renaissance literature,” I muttered inanely. “I’ll be a really poor bargaining chip. I mean it—no one will want me back enough to pay.”

A large hand curled around my waist, so proprietary and calming I didn’t move a muscle, and didn’t feel the need to.

“We’re not a cult,” Magoon said quietly, somehow steadying me. He moved his other big hand to my nape, cupping it gently. When I raised my head to look at him, he dipped his chin toward the monk. “This is Bernardo Alfonso di Medici, the holy lass is Vedette di Buonarroti di Simoni, and I—again, of course—am formally known as Conrad Cuthbert ban Boswell Magoon. We’re compatriots, of a sort. There are more of us. And we’ve been waiting for you.”

I closed my eyes, felt myself sway. When I opened them again I focused on my hands, my fingers slim and ink-stained where they rested on my thighs, the nails clipped short and neatly square. The silver, Celtic knot band my father had bequeathed me sat solidly on the middle finger of my right hand; my left was bare since I’d returned the diamond solitaire to Luke only a few months ago. Down from my hands my knees and calves were tanned from the sun, and I studied the slight bit of grime caught at the edge of my low-cut cotton socks. I flexed my feet within my running shoes, watched the reflective Nike swooshes move imperceptivity at the heels.

Beneath my shoes was the patterned stone floor of the nave of San Miniato al Monte, an eleventh-century church in which I’d spent hours, a place I’d used as literal sanctuary from my studies and from the entire demanding academic world for the past three months I’d lived in Florence. Could I truly be sequestered here, at this very moment, by a monk, a Scot, and a diminutive nun? It was the opening line of a bad joke: A monk, a nun, and a Scotsman walk into a bar….

“Contessa—Kate—are you unwell? Do you need a drink?” The voice was the Olivetan’s, and it was kind.

“She needs a dram,” Magoon said from above me.

I spoke before I could stop myself: “Desidererei un bicchiere d’acqua.” I shot upright, and Magoon released me immediately. “Oh, God,” I breathed. The air in the nave took on a different texture as dust motes in the sunbeams slanting in from the windows seemed to swirl and unite.

“Cosa?” Bernardo asked.

“I don’t speak Italian,” I said. “I mean, I don’t speak it well, not fluently. Not enough to ask for a glass of water without my dictionary. I repeat: What the hell is going on, and who are you people?”

I felt a bead of sweat, left over from my morning run, roll down between my breasts, pooling in the fabric of my sports bra. I had breakfast with Eduardo—my undergraduate assistant from the Universita degli Studi di Firenze—in only an hour, my apartment in the Palazzo della Signorina filled with research papers and books, my laptop on “sleep” mode, my desk an unholy mess.

This really could not be happening to me.

Magoon touched me again, rubbing his palm along my spine. It felt good, and right, and comforting, and when the words flashed through my mind I stiffened, the thought as clear as white letters on a black chalkboard: This man has been my lover.

“I’m serious,” I said loudly, hearing my Southern accent kick out on a twang. “Y’all better tell me what’s going on before I start screaming. I’m talking screaming to bring the house down. Diva, soprano-type screaming.” I looked up at the warrior-like Magoon, whose green eyes twinkled at me as if he knew me, as if he’d seen me naked. I knew when a man watched me like he’d seen me naked.

“Quit leering,” I ordered through gritted teeth.

The nun, Vedette, called out something high and sweet, but I didn’t catch it in my fury. Bernardo nodded and walked towards me, and Magoon studied me warily, as if waiting for me to make a move. Somehow, I sensed they wanted me up in the area near the crypt of St. Minias.

I held up my hands, palms out, and took a step backwards. “I’m not moving until you explain yourselves.”

Magoon sighed, then reached out and took my right hand in his, engulfing it. I tried to tug away but he held it surely, patting the back of it gently with his left. “It’s a wee bit difficult to explain, see? The truth of it is, we’re travelers: founders of a secret order of warrior-artists, bound by blood and history.”

I choked on a laugh, but I quit pulling back on my hand. These people were nuts, and I was going to turn around and walk out of San Miniato in no more than moments, and get on with my new Italian life. But, good Lord—I was also a scholar, and curiosity always got the better of me. I tugged impatiently on my ponytail with my free hand.

“An order? Like the Freemasons or the Templars, something out of the Middle Ages? Like something out of a freaking Dan Brown novel?”

Bernardo nodded, his hands folded again at his waist. “Si, contessa, but older. We are—how do you say?—a fraternity.”

I laughed, a little wildly. “Oh, just great. So where are your togas? And the keg? Frat parties are never complete without a poorly tapped keg.”

Bernardo glanced at Magoon, and the larger man shrugged and rolled his eyes. The nun clapped her hands, the sound echoing in the almost empty cathedral. The men looked up at her, and when they did she leaned over the edge and her pendant swung down, clinking against the balustrade. It was a wolf, just like the others.

“Tell her!” She called, in light, easy English.

I shook my head to clear it, just to be sure, once again, I wasn’t dreaming. I’d left my apartment at six o’ clock, crossed the Ponte Alle Grazie and made my way through the twisting medieval streets up to the Piazzale, then on to my favorite of churches. I’d passed only a few gypsies setting up shop early on, but no other runners—the Italians did not run—nor tourists attempting a head start on the day. I’d left no note, knowing I’d make it back in plenty of time to shower and meet Eduardo for our usual morning cappuccino.

My eyes blurred, then came into focus on the carved, curling wooden armrest of a pew nearby. The nave was quiet, and above the altar the mosaic of Christ between the Virgin and St. Minias glittered oddly in the light now emanating a rich, full yellow from the windows on the eastern wall. The nun watched me in silence. Bernardo and Magoon studied me with their solemn green eyes, and I felt something inside me click, an internal shifting that made me feel as though I’d suddenly lost all understanding of gravity.

Magoon seemed to sense it, and he moved in front of me, kneeling like a man calmly accepting knighthood. Bernardo followed suit, dropping on one knee and bowing his head. Magoon took the wolf pendant in his right hand, holding it out from his chest.

“We are the Order of the Cwmry-Roman Wolf,” he said, the burr of his accent somehow softer. “It is an order older than the Caesars, older than the church. We serve you, Katharos. Catriona. Katherine of the many names, the many lives. We welcome your return.”

“Bull,” I said clearly. “This is a bunch of bull.”

Magoon shook his head, and Bernardo kept his eyes to the floor. “It’s not,” the big Scot insisted gently. “You’ve just to remember.”

“This is insane,” I repeated, enunciating each syllable as if doing so would make the world clear and right itself, would make this sci-fi movie of a morning go away. “I went for a run, that’s all I did. I’m in Florence to finish my dissertation, then it’s back to the States where I belong. I’ve only got the apartment for a year.”

Magoon lifted the pendant higher, and it caught the light in a quick flash. Take it, he said, though I was sure he couldn’t have spoken aloud. Take hold of the wolf.

Without thought I stepped forward, the toe of my right Nike touching the hem of his tartan where it brushed the stone floor. I blinked, slowly, and watched my own hand as if I were watching the slow-motion replay of a sports film, saw my slender fingers wrap around the wolf pendant, felt the sapphire eyes burn into the tender skin of my palm.

The room sank away, the present tense vanished instantly, there was a blinding light in my eyes and the cool rush of familiar death, and time began to tug at my bones: pictures coming at me as if in a rapid film reel—scenes of people and places I knew as I’d once known the child I’d never had, the mother I’d never known, the lovers I’d not remembered. My lives went by, one by the thousand, and I saw myself naked and enrobed, draped in pelts and clad in sumptuous gowns, a bejeweled crown upon my head, a longbow in my arms, caught screaming at the burning stake, riding bareback on a roan horse.

Then it all went to blue: a deep, royal sea of it, and I floated amoeba-like into oblivion.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


As the days here in Western North Carolina keep steadily to the chill and gray of winter, and the bright rush of the holidays have faded and travel kept to a minimum, I'm tempted to do a bit of changing. My inclination now is to hibernate like a black bear, sated on early Autumn blueberries, but some things have occurred in my life that have overwhelmed my brain. I'm 13 weeks pregnant, and my muse is not my own anymore. Or, at least, it feels that way.

So, I'm thinking--God help us all--that I may change this blog to mainly a venue for my thoughts on creativity and writing, and on being pregnant. When I originally started "publishing" here, it was a way for me to keep in contact with family and friends while I was traveling for artist's residencies. Since then, it's evolved into more of a random forum on my life, and whatever I felt like posting at the time. That may still happen, as I am still the high priestess of random.

For the past two months, as I've contemplated actually being pregnant, and my body has been taken over by what my husband and I affectionately call "The Little Demon," I've been STUCK when it comes to my writing. I'd hate to call it writer's block, because that term has always seemed to me to be a bit self-prophetic, but that may be exactly what it is. For the first time in my life, I don't feel as connected to what I've always considered my artistic (and otherwise) purpose: telling as true, entertaining and lovely a story as I possibly can. My mind wheels from one stressful subject to another--from money (my husband just lost his job, I only have a part-time one, and things are downright scary), to holy motherf@#$%&, I'm going to be a mother?!, to why my novel hasn't been picked up by anyone for the the past year (and my agent, who is out of town, hasn't been in contact since I wrote him three weeks ago)--and all I seem to do is get caught up, ripped and bloody, in the damn spokes.

I will never be one of those women whose entire personal universe becomes colored by motherhood. I admire those women, especially now. But as I oscillate between a bit of awe and happiness at the prospect of having a baby, I'm also desperate to get back to the woman I was before... to that writer self who was never particularly focused, but who at least always had a plan.

I hate to say it, because I do feel that letting words out into the ephemera gives them power, but I am stuck. I'd been feverishly working on a new novel, very much in love with what I thought of as its premise, before that little pee stick read "pregnant." Now I'm doubting myself, uncertain of the path of its many-layered plot, and quite literally not sure whether I want to add supernatural elements or simplify the story in an attempt to reach more readers.

Some day, when I feel more confident and purposeful, I may post some chapters here, to see what folks think. Today, I'm going to attempt to concentrate on my craft, fight the pregnancy fatigue and hold the fears at bay.