I feel a shapeshifting coming on…like a slow trickle at the beginning of a landslide after which everything changes…shifts slightly to the left. To the right. The push of a breeze on the small of my back. A hint that, soon, all will be propelling down the mountain to warmer places. Scattered about and rearranged. Exposing roots. Turning over rocks. Pushing air deep into the soil. The slide creates space for a thing once buried, dormant, which slides atop another something that had been so urgent for so long that it became normal, everyday. But, it wasn’t what wanted. This new thing pokes its nose back into my line of vision, gulps, and then, reclines to loll in the sunlight, breathing deeply and smiling at its great fortune to be uncovered. ~2014 & 2020
Spalding MFA Alumni Blog, 2017—On this episode of A Day in the Life we meet Summer 2014 graduate Karen (Chronister) Leslie, a fiction and travel writer based in Franklin, Tennessee. When Karen isn’t working on her own writing she’s helping other creatives to market their writing. Karen has a wholistic approach to life and writing and I know I could definitely take a page out of her book to put into my daily routing.
Now, let’s hear from Karen:
When did you graduate?
July 2014 (Berlin/Prague Residency)
What are your favorite books?
Oh, wow. Charlotte’s Web, The Essays of E. B. White, Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, The Forgotten Garden, Olive Kitteridge. It’s more about authors and stories…Elizabeth Strout, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, Kate Morton, Jane Austen, Frank O’Connor, my Spalding professors…I read a lot of print travel magazines, too.
Do you hold a full-time job other than writing?
I have a freelance marketing business, The WordShop, with several long-time clients and a few new, revolving ones.
What do you do?
I’m a Marketing Specialist: content creation, branding, WordPress website customization, strategy, editing. Last year I tutored this fabulous young writer, and this fall I’ll teach two sections of English at Western Kentucky University.
What part of writing do you like the most?
Thinking about it and revising, really. I love sliding all the possibilities around in my head. Then, I shake it out in the light. The characters have become so real, and I’m so compelled by their stories. Sometimes they come to my mind and I wonder about them like I do real friends in my life…then, I remind myself they aren’t real…But, they are, right? However, having written—having finished a story or a new scene might thumb wrestle for the win. Notice how I didn’t mention actual writing?
Do you work with an outline or just wing it?
I write the scenes I see in my mind—what I hear—as close to the time as they appear, so they are fresh. With my novel I have an idea where I’m going and generally how I might get there, but I like surprises. My best work and biggest thrills have come from flinging myself at the page and winging it until it feels safe to stop or pause. Something magical happens then.
Do you ever experience writer’s block?
No…I have plenty of long periods when I don’t write on paper. I’m always “writing” in my mind, so it feels like an endless ticker tape. That can be tricky. At times, I am immobilized by the noisiness of life. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t believe in writer’s block, at least, as far as I’m concerned. If I’m not writing, it’s usually a sign of having too much stimulus in my life, or too little life is being lived.
Do you listen to music while writing- if so, what kind?
Not usually. My helpers are candles, different sizes of hour glasses, and my writing chair.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Read. Work. Watch films at The Belcourt, a cool Art House theater in Nashville. Cook. Exercise. Travel, when I have a chance. Hang out with my guy or visit my kids. I love having memorable, compelling conversations over a glass of wine with friends, but they are so scattered around the country now, it’s not as often as I like. I miss my children—as in, an activity. All of these feel like luxuries for some reason. Perhaps, because as much as I enjoy them, I always feel like I should be writing. Always. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
Can you tell us about an upcoming project?
Hmm…I thought I’d come out of my MFA, immediately polish off my collection of linked stories, and then, methodically move through the first draft of my novel River Town. Such a good, solid Type A plan, don’t you think? In reality, I’m not a Type A. The first year, I sorted through and packed my house after 20 years and moved to Nashville. Last year, I focused on submitting and got one of my short stories published (and stacked up a healthy pile of rejections). Somewhere in that time frame, the middle of River Town became clear to me. It was a true epiphany and exciting. This year, I’ve focused my time at writing retreats on fleshing out that epiphany by researching, scribbling character and plot notes, writing new scenes, and rewriting the first 70 pages of River Town. I anticipate another few hundred pages until I reach the end of the first draft. It’s a mystery set in modern day and the 1930s. A story-within-a-story with town life and characters living around the river’s rhythm. I’ve got a fascination with older women…because I imagine becoming one at some point, and I don’t expect to feel life any less than I do now. So, the developing friendship between the younger and older woman as they solve the mystery is prominent.
What does your daily schedule look like?
I wake up around 6:30 in the morning and make a pot of Italian espresso. I read the headlines, check my calendar for work promises, and then, make a healthy breakfast. When I can, I love to eat outside and read something about writing, or the latest “research” novel that might somehow inform my story. This is when I write for an hour or two, or sort out my newest thoughts in the River Town journal, usually in my “writing chair,” which is, indeed, special. I’m not always writing my novel—though, I think I should be. Sometimes it’s an epiphany I want to sort through, sometimes a travel piece, or some nostalgic memory I want to capture in words. When I write, I cast Nostalgia as a big character. I use as many of these snippets as possible in the novel.
Writing River Town is still a scattered process for me at this stage, as if it’s so early I have to keep refocusing the kaleidoscope. And when I do, the pieces fall together in a different pattern. I long to be through this stage and have the first draft finished. Then, I read a little of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard and relax. It’s like I’m raising a child—that’s a long process with short bursts of joyful progress. I try to practice grace on myself.
If I had the luxury to follow this muse all day, I would. However, I must work. I usually put on some workout clothes, if I don’t have a meeting, and start around 9AM. Three days a week, I work until my TRX/bootcamp class around 4PM. I’m toast after that. This fall, I’m teaching two sections of English, so I anticipate Tuesday and Thursday will be filled with lots of nerdy talk about writing…and, time spent responding to students’ writing. I’m looking forward to it…with a little fear and trepidation, though. I enjoy cooking, so half the week, I might try a new recipe. If not, we go to dinner at one of our usual places. Nashville is full of culinary opportunity.
I believe everything I allow into my schedule and mind should positively inform my writing life. I’ve adopted a wholistic approach about my writing life since I’ve moved. Everything—and almost everyone—feeds my writing now. It’s a carefully crafted, unplotted life. Even my love life supports my writing. He’s a professional songwriter. We speak the same language, understand the creative rhythms that ebb and flow, and yet, practice writing whether we “feel” like it or not. That’s my definition of a working creative. As an extra treat, I’ve surrounded myself with people who don’t need an explanation for the whys and hows in my life. That started at Spalding where I found my “Core” people.
What advice would you give someone looking for a more productive routine?
My advice for a productive routine? I’d follow my original plan: block off two hours in the morning, turn off the world, set a timer or turn over your hour glass, and focus on filling up blank pages until your life demands you make an official appearance. I set out with this goal every day. I fall short, but maybe, staying motivated, putting pen to paper, and protecting your writing life is part of the journey? The good news is, no matter how much time you can carve out to dedicate to a project, the words have a lovely way of adding up.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to be featured for A Day in the Life.
Mackenzie Jervis is a Summer 2016 Graduate. She lives in Texas with her husband, two cats, puppy, and son. She’s traveled to 65 countries solo, now taking the baby along. She blogs about family travel at A Wandering Scribbler while writing novels and binge-watching British TV.
PUT ON YOUR OXYGEN MASK FIRST: IT’S NOT SELFISH TO EMBRACE WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY AND WHOLE-ER, IT’S “SELF-CARE”
I know what makes me happy and whole. I also know the list of things I need to thrive is not simply filled with selfish wants—and, those things aren’t solely self-focused. Often, even if an act of self-care starts with a form of isolation, it will press outward in some way in want of connecting with another human being or a higher being. I believe we need downtime alone, with our loved ones, and with the world at large—all of these to thrive. To move out of survival mode. Writing a “Love List” is a good start.
So, put on your oxygen mask first, friend.
This has become one of my life mantras. Let me tell you that it’s not selfish to embrace what makes you happy, what makes you whole-er. It’s called “self-care,” according to Annemarie, my psychologist friend. It’s funny that I’ve had to learn this.
You fellow givers, empaths, children, and parents might identify (as I do) with willingly—happily—putting yourself last out of love for another. This isn’t a “wrong” message whispered from the deep; however, we might’ve misinterpreted it at first. Or, at the very least, we might’ve formed the short-sighted understanding that taking care of our loved ones means not taking care of ourselves.
We are human beings, as in be-ing. I’m not referring to Hamlet when he waxes existential in his soliloquy whether “to be or not to be,” I’m talking about how to be. Just…be, so you can find—yes, I said it!—or get back to yourself. Becoming your best self requires self-care.
Hang on. Just when you think I might be getting a little woo-woo or trying to loosely tap into a trending keyword, let me explain. I’m saying that writing is one way to practice be-ing, and thus, self-care. And, for now, I’ve winnowed it down to a simple writing exercise: the Love List.
Self-care requires stillness, silence, and a little navel-picking. And, getting away for an hour, a day, or a week, having meaningful conversation with a friend, laughing with and listening to my kids, breathing in nature, exercising, and detoxing in an infrared sauna. It always requires reading, writing, and cuddle time with my loves. That’s what I’ve figured out in my exploration of self-care over the past few years.
What you don’t see on my self-care list is work. That’s because, while it fulfills me, and because I’ve chosen work I love, there’s always plenty of it spilling over into my first life. As in, pressing the last bits of oxygen out of my waking hours. Work might be on your list, just take care to measure it by whether it’s an act of self-care or not.
This blog on self-care, in fact, is a result of self-care for me. I recognized a few years ago that I was constantly deferring my be-ing, and thus, my growing, to “okay, tomorrow morning” or “starting next month” or “in the new year.” I was chasing survival, rather than chasing a life in which I could and would thrive. What that led to, eventually, was apathy. I woke up one day and recognized that I had checked out so that I wouldn’t feel too much. I had given myself no time to process what emotions and epiphanies my life was producing. And, I wore myself out checking off my list of “to-do’s.”
That led to my “soul surfacing” season. I felt limp personally, then. And so, by what was a God-breath for me, I rose to the surface and found myself gasping for air. I wanted to thrive. I wanted to stop drifting through my loved one’s lives and live in them. I had to put on my oxygen mask first, take care of myself—and figure out exactly what that looked like. I had to trust the process long before I heard the term “self-care.” I had to rise above the noise in my life, be still enough to hear what my soul was saying, and then, make healthy shifts.
MY STREET-SMART SCIENCE
It didn’t take long to see results from putting on my oxygen mask. I was calmer, happier, more patient. I started sleeping better, so I lost weight (no lie). My focus wasn’t as scattered. I finished writing projects. Most importantly, I began listening deeply to others. For me, listening deeply when someone is trying to communicate is the single most life-changing, outwardly pressing action that arose from my self-care. Newton’s third law is: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Out of every good act of my self-care came a good reaction. A good measure. That’s the street-smart, scientific logic I’ve applied to this practice. That’s why it’s now one of my life mantras.
As another outward pressing, I’m compelled to share this self-care message with others. I encourage my grown Mama-daughter to practice self-care. She gives and gives as a young wife, mother, friend, daughter, and business owner, but she’s learning much earlier than I did that it’s okay to give yourself gifts…because they keep on giving. I hear her sharing the message, the “permission,” if you will, in her sphere of influence.
Self-care is akin to hitting a reset and recharge button. What I can’t and won’t do is tell you what kind of self-care you must practice to be whole-er. Though, I will offer some writerly advice on how to figure out what makes you thrum.
THE LOVE LIST
So, to the writing bit. As a writing instructor, I believe everyone can write—and, should! It’s good exercise for your brain and good therapy for your soul. Certainly, writing can be a conduit to the condition of your heart. One way to put on your oxygen mask is to get still and quiet enough to listen. There’s a running stream of thought—even conversation—we’re having with ourselves. Most of time, we only air out the safest or loudest thoughts, and then, they define us, whether we like it or not. When we write a “Love List,” we’re tapping into that stream while using a sieve.
With a “Love List,” we capture the beauty in our life, and usually, discover what’s beyond the obvious. I’ve found it to be one of the most accurate records of my life experience. Writing our “Love Lists” has the power to recalibrate us on overcast days. Focusing on beauty and how it speaks to us—how it moves us—is an act of self-care.
So, every February in “love month,” I write a new “Love List.” Then, I add it to my last one, so now I have an unending “Love List” as a partial record of how I view beauty in my life.
WRITING EXERCISE: WRITING A LOVE LIST
Setting: find a quiet spot with a journal or a blank document. I encourage you to hand write it, though, because the act of scratching pencil to paper exercises our minds in a different, deeper way.
Instruction: set a 10 minute timer. Start writing and keep writing the entire time. Don’t erase. Don’t correct. Don’t re-read. Don’t stare into space (too long). Don’t worry if it’s “okay” to write something. Don’t put your pencil down until the 10 minutes has passed. Just write without stopping for 10 minutes. If you find you want more time, repeat your timer—or, ignore it and stay in the flow!
Time: 10 plus minutes
That’s a lot of “do not’s”
What these rules allow is for you to just write. You’ll learn to silence your inner editor (she’s the one who tells you not to write things, not to write at all because you’re not a real writer, blah blah blah). You are NOT writing to your inner editor with this exercise; you’re listening to your heart and writing down what it tells you.
Okay, so I get a little woo-woo with my writing exercises, but I’ve never run into a student or friend who hasn’t been satisfied with this process. It’s so freeing—and often, revealing! What it is, technically speaking, is a practice in stream of consciousness. Check out James Joyce if you want a heavy dose of it. You are following your inner voice. You might be surprised where it leads you and what you write down. Can you edit later? Sure. You’re in charge when your inner editor is allowed out of her cage. I would also encourage you to share it somewhere. “Showing” is a huge part of writing, and a list like this increases the world. You can also tuck it away like a private diary entry. This is a no-judgement zone.
A DEEPER DIVE: PRACTICING MY “READ, THEN WRITE” METHOD
This idea about writing is so simple that it took a beloved professor in the first semester of my MFA to sum up what is now my best writing advice: “Read, then write. Read, then write. Read, then write.” That epiphany changed my writing practice and skyrocketed the potential of it.
I believe our writing is the sum total of what we read plus what we live plus what we practice.
Whatever it is you set out to write, read a version of it. For example, want to write more stream of consciousness passages about other things in your life? Read James Joyce or Virginia Wolf. Want to write a narrative song? Listen to the best narrative songs. Want to write a news article? Read a respected newspaper or newsfeed. Want to write a Love List? Well, here’s one of mine. I don’t claim that it’s the greatest or most earth shattering, but it IS a record of what I love:
Being in nature makes me happy. Hearing the sound of water lapping the shore. Having an old conversation with someone new. Staring at pictures of my family. Laughing with girlfriends. Reading. Giving myself the necessary gifts of fitness and writing time. Making my mom laugh. Getting Italian cooking lessons from my dear friend. Watching my children discover themselves and the world and Truth. Being still. Teaching. Stepping foot in a new country and trying out a new language. Hugging. Nesting. Buying a new book. Eating outside. Getting a pedicure and haircut. Serving the homeless. Having conversations with children. Watching an old movie. Watching a new movie. Snugglng. Deep, nerdy literary gymnastics with my Spalding peeps. Attending a book tour talk. Listening to live music. Voxxing with a faraway friend. Having a girlfriend sleepover and staying up late talking about LIFE. Finding a new coffee shop. Laughing. Did I mention that one? The list goes on and on. I don’t have to explain me to me. What a relief.Karen Leslie ©2015
Share yours with me here.
Some places dig deep into our souls. We find “thin places” where the veil between heaven and earth slips aside. It’s no wonder we return.
Last fall, I traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, after a fifteen year absence. As I deplaned, within sight of Grand Teton National Park, I was delighted again to descend the rolling steps onto the tarmac. Fighting an icy wind, I forgot to look up. When I rounded the nose of the plane, I stopped still in my tracks. They greeted me in panorama: those Grand Tetons. I stepped aside to allow the other travelers by, hesitant to hurry the moment. I’d come here to be outside, to write, to take photographs, to be still, so I stood and honored the mountains with silence. They returned the gesture by removing the air from my lungs, as if remembering my youthful, wide-eyed self. It was a fair trade.
Grand Teton National Park: Grandeur That Is Almost Impossible to Capture
Away from city noise and grit, the air in Jackson sparkles. Laced with snow and slices of blue-black rock, the jagged peaks push through the clouds. I had not forgotten them, but grandeur like that is almost impossible to capture in a photograph or postcard. The moment — the experience of standing in the midst of such natural perfection — that part is elusive, and perhaps, why we return again and again to places that move us. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, nestled in rounded, buckskin-colored foothills dotted with sage brush, is one of those places for me.
Every time I return to the American West, I’m caught staring wide-eyed at our majestic mountain chains. The first time I saw them was the summer I was ten when my family rambled across the US in a rented RV. My father, a mathematician, had mapped out our daily, two-week itinerary on index cards (front and back). At the time, I had no idea what went into planning a cost-conscious, all-encompassing vacation, but I thanked my parents with what must have been a look of wonder with each new — and ancient — site we visited. I estimate we put about 3,000 miles on that RV, rolling out of rural Pennsylvania and across the plains where Dad reminded us to “get your heads out of those books and look around, kids!” My brother and I took turns (mostly) reading aloud the Wall Drug signs, gaping at Mount Rushmore from every angle, pointing out the emerging Crazy Horse Indian chief, and asking endless questions.
We camped each night, making day-long friends around the water pump until we finally arrived in Yellowstone National Park. The Fountain Paint Pots glopped a congenial welcome, Old Faithful spouted steamy water high in the air, and we learned the science behind the constant scent of rotten eggs. Buffalo herds stopped traffic, and grizzlies chased their cubs, their winter fat still rippling under thick fur. Not long after sunrise, we drove past Lake Yellowstone; I can still see the mother moose and her cub grazing along the water’s edge. Every space measured in seasons, rather than time.
After a few days in Yellowstone, we headed South to Jackson Hole. We rambled in and out of its Western storefronts, posing under the town square’s famous antler arches, before winding our way through Grand Teton National Park. I didn’t have a camera then; however, our family photo albums are filled with faded Polaroids of that trip. There’s one photograph in particular where I recognize the deep wonder and joy on my young face. We’re in front of the Chapel of the Transfiguration, my long hair whipping sideways with those Grand Teton peaks looming high above us. I know now that I knew then, I would return.
Some Places Dig Deep Into Our Souls
Some places dig deep into our souls until they are beloved. Something about the sweep of a canyon, the twist of a river far below, the rush of wind in the pines, or the effervescent blue of a geyser pool captures our heart, perplexes our mind, and whispers to our spirit. For me, the perfection of nature is undeniable in this region of the US — as if the hand of God has scooped and swirled across our canvas to awe us once and for all. The wildness and synergy between every working part and every living thing in the American West is unlike any other.
Whether you‘re returning or a first time visitor, the adventure is new. Every time. The earth changes and cycles. It recovers from fire, fights pestilence, births new generations, shifts water levels to find new edges, faces threats, and rebirths itself. Even the faithfulness of Old Faithful varies. Though, not much — and, besides, we are not the same as the last time we looked upon it.
Some photos featured in this article are available for purchase at Sheets Studios.
Original article appeared in BNT Touring Magazine, SpringUpdate©2017. Also published on www.bobnefftours.com/travel-blog on September 2, 2017.
A short story by Karen Leslie from The Thin Places collection. Published at Menda City Review, Winter 2017 edition.
“Why don’t you want me to touch you?” Sam asked his wife, Mauri, as she curved her body in a subtle concave arch, dodging his hand. He grazed her constantly over the years. A cupped hand in the space between her legs when she reached for a wine glass. Three fingertips brushing across her lower stomach as she washed dishes. An elbow bumping the rounded edge of her left breast as she changed the radio station in his car. As time passed, she began watching the speedometer when this happened. It seemed to increase in direct relation to the amount of skin he contacted. In summer when he touched her damp skin, the car would jolt forward. When she turned to look at him, he would be adjusting the rearview mirror or flipping off a random driver. If she bent over to wipe their son Henry’s hands before dinner, he’d push against her slightly from behind so she would lose her balance. A quick apology and laugh would follow. For years, she laughed too, even sometimes finding herself affected when skin touched skin.
During a serious conversation, she kept her legs crossed so that his hand wouldn’t nudge between her inner thighs, brushing away some minute particle. She tilted her head to the side when he faced her, because sometimes, if he ruffled her hair, he’d hint at a downward push before untangling his hand. If it seemed too obvious, he might laugh a little too loud and she might mention that he should get a little more sleep in the mornings since he was becoming clumsy. She no longer stopped the car in the driveway to compare schedules or exchange greetings because he never bent down to her open window. He stood and she spoke — if she spoke — to his torso. Her heart dropped degree by degree over the years as he knocked into her.
Sex mostly occurred in risky places, risky to her because Henry and his baby sister Becky might be running through their tiny house calling out, “Mama, where are you hiding?” every time she disappeared for more than five minutes. She and Sam might be in the small bathroom. Or on the garage floor after she took out the garbage or on the upstairs bathroom counter in the middle of her drying her hair before church. Or outside on the back porch under the neighbor’s glaring lamppost. Perhaps on the couch in the glow of the television screen a scant half hour after the children were tucked into bed. Henry had problems getting to sleep. Becky developed problems staying asleep. Mauri, the wife, had problems.
The mornings started the usual way, though this time the touch was not accidental. 6:25 a.m.: Henry’s little turtle alarm would be ringing in ten minutes. Sam was on track to be finished in two. By 6:30, he tripped into the bathroom, rattling through the day’s list as he sat on the toilet. He never demanded a full response from her, just a few “um hmms” and “yeahs” as he brushed his teeth, wiped the counter, and flushed the toilet.
By this time, Mauri would be wrapped in her blue terrycloth robe cinched tight around her small waist, shutting her bedroom door behind her and skifting down the wooden floors in her bare feet to knock on Henry’s door.
His room smelled like an old oiled mitt, worn out sneakers creased with dried creek mud, red licorice, and the dusty cling that accompanied stuffed animals. Henry never woke on the first rattle of his alarm, so Mauri would sit on the edge of his bed rubbing his back and feet through the washed out comforter. He’d eventually stretch and run his fingers along the headboard. “Henrykins. Time to get up for school.” Henry would flip over and squint into the light that surrounded his mother from the crack in the doorway. He’d reach out and she’d lean in to pull his thin arms up around her neck. It was a little trick to sit him upright for another minute or so before she pulled back the covers and swung his feet onto the cold pine floor.
“Hey, someone left the light on all night in the kitchen!” Sam yelled up the stairs. “And, don’t forget to call the insurance company today about that bogus claim, OK? OK? I’m not paying for it; so don’t let them push you around. I’m leaving for work. Hey, up there, OK?”
“OK,” she called back, still rubbing Henry’s back.
The sun streamed in through the kitchen windows. Mauri spread a thin layer of peanut butter over a slice of wheat bread, and then applied a thicker layer of homemade grape jam on the other. She cut the sandwich in a diagonal on the wooden board and wrapped it in a piece of wax paper, folding and creasing the edges as though wrapping a gift. She listened to Henry brush his teeth and trudge from bathroom to bedroom. He was probably standing in front of his dresser now chewing a fingernail. The getting ready and getting out was slower these days since he insisted on choosing his own clothes. “I’m practically in second grade, Mama,” he’d said a few weeks earlier as he pushed her hand out of his underwear drawer.
Mauri laid her head back to stare at the ceiling, envisioning the muscles around her ribcage loosening. She puffed in and out until she started to sway, then she dropped ten animal crackers into a plastic pouch. She set a bowl and spoon on the island with Henry’s latest favorite cereal and poured a large glass of milk. For a moment, she hung on the knob of one of the upper cabinets, the side of her face pushed deep into the robe folds of her arm, her eyes closed before opening to focus beyond the kitchen window.
Henry’s woolen feet pounded down the stairs as she pulled the chocolate powder from a high shelf and mixed a heaping tablespoon into the glass of milk. He climbed up the side of the stool, folded his knees under, and gulped twice from the glass before pouring his cereal. Mauri hugged her reheated coffee against her breast, pushing aside the collar of the robe to rest the warm mug against her skin.
“So, Mama, what are you going to do today?”
“Hmm, well, mending your Superman outfit for starters, and playing with your sister like I did when you were little. I’ll make a yummy supper — what would you like, by the way? And then, making a phone call. (Sigh. She hated making phone calls.) Living the life ’til you get home, son.”
Henry scowled and dug his spoon into the bottom of his bowl, capturing the last floating pieces. He laced his boots twice around the top like his father and tugged his collar until it stood up just right, swinging his head in a familiar way as if he wanted to say something.
“Come on, pup. Time to get to the bus stop.” Henry struggled to crawl inside his backpack straps while she waited, then he grinned and puffed out his chest.
“OK, Mama. You don’t have to come with me to the stop. I’m fine,” he said, staring up at her with wide, somber eyes. He looked like her — like she did in pictures hanging in her mother’s hallway catching tadpoles in the creek with her brother and holding Henry in her arms for the first time. When hope was her friend.
“Mind if I sit on the porch while I finish my coffee?” she asked.
“Nope. I don’t mind.”
Mauri walked out onto the porch and leaned over to brush away a few dead leaves, remnants from the Pin Oak hovering over the front yard. Henry bumped into her hip, then laughed. She tensed and moved to the side. “Excuse me.”
Henry laughed again until Mauri grabbed his arm and joggled it roughly, “What do you say when you bump into someone, Henry Forrest Grayson?”
His eyes grew round in his small white face, and he looked at his feet before he mumbled, “Excuse me. I’m sorry.”
Mauri loosened her grip, then sighed as she reached out to rub the place where her hand had been. “It’s OK, pal. You’re excused.” She bit her lower lip, holding it tight.
Henry leaned his head against her stomach for a moment, and then, ran to the bus stop at the end of their driveway. He faced the road, readjusted his pack, and looked back at the porch. Mauri reclined in a peeling, green Adirondack chair. She lifted her coffee mug to her son and smiled. He tilted his head and took a half step toward her, then pulled back and waved before he swung around again.
“Hey, I want spaghetti and meatballs tonight!” he yelled, throwing his voice over his shoulder.
Mauri waited until he found his seat on the bus, seventh row back on the right, then she stood, stretched, and waved. He blew a kiss from behind the lower sash bus window and ducked his head as it pulled away. When he disappeared around the bend, she pulled a wrinkled tissue from her robe pocket and brushed it lightly across her upper lip.
Becky, rose, ate, and played. Mauri washed, cooked, and tidied. Around noon, Becky slept after emptying a small plate of noodles and sliced apples. An hour later, clouds began gathering in a knot on the horizon behind the house, burling higher and higher like crocheted flower doilies trying to protect the Spring-tender hills. Their ashy gray became threaded with purplish, black streaks, and by mid-afternoon, turned the color of quarried shale. Mauri leaned over the sink to peer out the kitchen window. The rain came down in sheets, and the thunder clapped for more lightning strikes to unzip the sky.
She moved to the covered back porch and stood just inside the pelting water line, studying the hanging flowerpot she’d gotten from Henry and Becky — well, really from her mother through Henry and Becky. She smiled, remembering her children struggling to hang onto the awkward plastic handle as they tramped across the lawn from their grandmother’s trunk. They’d mounted the steps triumphantly and exclaimed, “Happy Mama’s Day!”
The driving rain sliced at the flower until the pink, fleshy begonia petals splayed in submission. Ordinarily, a delicate flower could survive an early June storm like this only once. Mending might come in the sunlight that followed.
Mauri could have protected the plant if she had taken it in before the storm, and she reached for it two or three times, but the storm was too unpredictable. She’d have to wait and prune away the stems too injured to survive. The plant might be saved by paring it down to the stalk.
When the bus pulled up, Henry jumped off the bottom step and ran around the house to the back porch. Tiny ice balls formed and skidded across the gray concrete, weaving into the grass until it looked like a swath of green, dotted-Swiss fabric. The sky split wider, white against black, and the hail stones grew and grew until they were the size of shimmering baseballs.
Henry’s mouth whooshed in deep breaths of surprise and pushed out sighs in E minor as he hugged her thigh. This Spring she had insisted Sam not mow the field. It was one of the rare things she’d asked for in their seven-year marriage. Her husband never solicited outside opinions. He’d tilted his head to the side and jutted out his jaw, but turned off the mower at the edge of the grass.
The field was taking as bad a beating as the begonia. This morning, it had stood a foot high, but now, the ice balls dropped like missiles, flattening large patches. Henry laughed. Mauri rubbed his back.
“Is it snow? Is it winter?” Henry asked, his teeth clattering.
“No, it’s hail,” Mauri said.
“I said hail, Henry, not h-e-l-l.”
“Oh,” Henry giggled.
Now the sun attacked the black clouds like a cat shredding a ball of yarn.
“Mama, what are we going to do? Should we rake it or something?”
Mauri stood silent beside him for a few minutes focusing on the broken begonia as the ice balls melted around it. A tender stem and half of a pink flower emerged from the ice corset.
She leaned over the porch to retrieve the largest ice ball she could find, and squinted against the light it refracted as she held it in her hands. Mauri spread her fingers wide to dissipate the heat from her body and bounded through the back door into the house. She cradled the ball of ice in a paper plate and shoved it into the freezer next to a pack of ground chuck. Henry tripped in behind her, his mouth still hanging slack. She pulled his backpack from his shoulders and swatted him on his behind, “Go grab your glove and bat, son.” He chewed on his lower lip considering her, then clamped his lips tight and took the steps by twos. When he returned with the bat and glove, the ice balls had begun to melt.
“We don’t have much time!” Mauri called, her voice high and arms waving at him to hurry beside her onto the lawn. She took the yellow bat from his hand, picked up an ice ball and tossed it in the air. Henry watched as she leaned back, left hand out for balance, right hand wrapped around the bat. She swung hard when the ball dropped to waist level. The ice soared high in the air over the lawn and out above the field of surviving wild flowers before dropping out of sight.
“Holy cow, Mama!” Henry yelled, and scrambled down the steps. She tossed him the bat.
They took turns, no sound coming from their valley but a regular thudding whomp of ice being launched over the lawn and field. The balls were jawbreaker size by the time they’d hit about three hundred honest-to-God home runs. They laughed and pointed out where their balls landed, arguing for the furthest matted area of the field.
“You look different, Mama,” Henry said.
“Last one! Make it count!” she said, biting her lip.
Henry split the yellow plastic bat down its length, and then collapsed onto the ground making a summer ice angel out of what remained of the sky. His mother perched on the top porch step staring out across the tangled field. Henry squinted at the enlivened sky, a round lump visible behind the pink skin of his cheek. He turned his head to the side from time to time to spit. Mauri rubbed her right forearm, alternately flexing and clenching her fingers to loosen the cramped muscles, and stood to unhook the flower pot. She picked the ice pellets out of the soil and peeled away the frozen droplets fused to the remaining stem’s leaves. Then she pinched off the damaged stems at the root, tossing them into the shrubbery along the porch. When she finished pruning the plant, she carried the pot around to the driveway.
Opening the wagon hatch of her car, Mauri set the flowerpot on a discarded paper bag behind the backseat. Henry still sprawled on the grass as she climbed the stairs inside the back door, packed an old suitcase, and pulled Becky from her bed.
“Where are we going, Mama?” Henry called to his mother as she came through the back door and headed toward the driveway with Becky spilling over her arm.
“Oh, I thought maybe we’d take a long ride. What do you think of that?”
Henry scrambled up, wiped his hands on his damp shirt, and ran to stand in front of her. Mauri watched his small face search her own, trying to grasp what he sensed, but could not understand. After a few moments, he hooked his fingers through hers.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Karen Leslie. All rights reserved.
Interview by Karen (Chronister) Leslie, The Contributor
Where are you from?
I’m a Mississippian. I was raised chopping cotton and picking cotton. My dad owned his own land and I worked for him. We raised cotton and beans, rice, and wheat. I have three sisters and two brothers. I’m the last born. My dad is the baby. He’s 92.
He’s the baby?
He was my mother’s baby before I came along. I was the last born and not a boy child, so I had it rough.
Males look at females different; they can never know what they’re talking about [and can] never do anything right—that’s their opinion, I guess. Even my siblings say I can’t make salad. But, I can make homemade rolls.
Yum. Do you have children?
My children are grown. I didn’t have the opportunity to raise them. But, I raised them until they were 8 and 10: Corey and Kenon. My oldest was raised by my oldest sister and the youngest by his father. I had postpartum [depression] real bad, so I left Chicago and went home to Mississippi. I’m a country girl. “Fried, dyed and laid to the side and didn’t know where from.”
I’m a Yankee girl. Is that a Mississippi saying?
It’s for people who are going through things and don’t understand what’s happening. Before they know it, they’re in some deep crap.
What brought you to Nashville?
I went back home from Chicago. My dad and I had a little spat. So, I ended up for 10 years in Memphis. Then, I decided with the last difficulties that I’d buy a bus ticket to Nashville—to start over. I came here to find no one. No one knew I left Memphis. No one knew I was coming to Nashville.
When I got here, a gentleman walked me to the terminal and put me on the bus to the side of town where the crisis centre was. They lodged me three days. I met a lady from Operation Stand Down, and she pulled me out. Then, I went to Family Life Center for a week.
During that week, my sister was driving down the street and that’s how I found out my niece was around the corner. I got a tangible job because my record wasn’t messed up then. But, I let the wrong people into my life. I’m going to stop doing that—I need to stick with my family.
Where are you living now?
I’m looking for an apartment. I had to move out 31 July. I’m a veteran and have a Section 8. I’m in the moment living out of my car, but I take a shower and eat at my niece’s place. I keep my things in my car so not to impede on her family. She has two young children…and I try.
The younger generation doesn’t see things like we do. I just had an operation on Friday. I’m kind of slow right now, trying not to move too fast. Things in my background are holding me up from employment. My church is having a community day. My hope is to expunge my record so that won’t hinder me.
What is the career you want to pursue?
I’m a certified nursing assistant, and I completed my certificate in medical billing and coding in 2013. I’m a college grad in psychology and history. That was back in ’75. Came to find that my background wouldn’t allow me to be employed in the health field, and that hurts.
Do you want to talk about the last difficulties?