R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Writing (page 1 of 4)

More Things I Have Overheard at Funerals

A:  Look!
B:  At what?
A:  Over by the casket.
B:  Oh, for the love of God. Who wears hot pants to their grandmother’s funeral?

*****

B:  Well. That was interesting.
C:  You got that right. I mean, karaoke? At a funeral?
B:  [sings] Byyyyye-byyyyyye, Miss American Pie!
C:  I’ve never been to a funeral where the preacher sings along with a boom box. Well, not until today.

*****

A:  I know why Mrs. H______ finally died.
B:  Why?
A:  She ran out of people to stay with.

*****

D:  That sure was a nice eulogy M_______’s daughter gave.
E:  Mmm-hmm. So nice that it took every bit of strength I had not to stand up and say, “Who are you even talking about?!? It sure as hell ain’t your mama!”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A New Holiday Essay, in Columbus & the Valley Magazine!

Many thanks to Jill Tignor and Mike Venable of Columbus & the Valley Magazine for publishing my new essay, “A Perfumed Christmas.” As someone who doesn’t have many happy holiday memories from childhood, I find it impossible to write about this time of the year. My creative powers mostly shut down between early November and early February.

Jill knows this about me. Yet it still didn’t keep her from asking me to send her and Mike an essay for their November/December 2018 issue. Just when I was thinking my writing ideas had dried up for the winter, the idea for this piece came to me while I waited in the Kroger checkout line. Glory!

“A Perfumed Christmas” appears on page 14, and is available both online and in print around the Columbus, Georgia, area.  To order a print copy, send an email to contactus@columbusandthevalley.com. And, while you’re at it, join me and subscribe! One year of beautiful, glossy photos and news from Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley area costs just $18. It’s money very, very well spent.

Thank you again, Jill and Mike, for believing in me and my work. Y’all are the best.

Post text © R.S. Williams
Cover image: Courtesy of Columbus & the Valley Magazine

 

This Holiday Season, Be Kind to Yourself

Here’s a revised version of a piece I wrote last year on surviving the holiday season.

It’s two days before Thanksgiving, and my social media news feeds are full of holiday stories. Scores of people tell of the frantic cooking, cleaning, packing, traveling, and visiting they’ll be doing. Most seem to enjoy the beginning of the winter holiday marathon.

I admire these people. They’re better at entertaining and conversation than I’ll ever be. But I also know far more people who secretly dread those crushing five or six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. People dealing with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other chronic conditions often struggle to make it through the winter holiday season without falling apart.

Yep, I see y’all out there. I’m one of you. And I write to you today to say: It’s okay. You’re not alone.

Twenty-plus years ago, long before any of my diagnoses, I forced myself to attend every family holiday party. I thought I had no choice. I knew my relatives would say bad things about me if I weren’t there. Even though my mental health suffered from the lack of quiet and processing time between events, I still went. And, long after the holidays were over, I hated myself for being this way.

It took me many years to understand what was really going on. Decades later, I came to see that those relatives would talk about me—and anybody else who was different from them—no matter what. I could go to the party, or stay home, but they’d still somehow find fault with me. Hell, I could’ve walked in with my very own Nobel Prize for literature, and they still would’ve found something to frown and sneer and whisper about.

Today, well into middle age, I understand now what I didn’t back then. I feel empathy for that lost, confused, sad person who loathed herself for not being like everyone else. I try to make it up to “younger me” by treating myself with kindness during the holiday season.

What helps me most? Quiet time by myself and as much sleep as I can manage. If I do any shopping, I do it during the least-crowded times of day. If I’m feeling particularly frazzled, I ask loved ones if I can drop by and see them when they don’t have a house full of people.

Spending time outdoors helps, too, even if it’s cold and I’m all bundled up. So does marking off the days on a calendar: “Ah, just two more weeks until the holidays are over. I think I can make it.” When the forced jolliness and extroversion feel as if they’re about to flatten me, I try to think about just today. Or just this hour. Or even just the next ten minutes.

Most importantly: if someone’s being particularly awful, I give myself permission to leave. In the moment, I may or may not tell them to go to hell—but I will remove myself from the scene of their bullshittery. The holidays are tough enough without a PTSD relapse. Those are particularly unpleasant, and if I can avoid one, I will.

Yes, I’m a Southerner, but I draw a big, thick “hospitality line” around my sanity with an extra-large permanent marker. Jerks do not deserve my company. My mental health is one thing I will not sacrifice for someone else’s comfort. Besides, as the saying goes: Life is short, and I am not the Asshole Whisperer.

Now and then, in the thick of the holidays, I forget to follow my own advice. That’s when I stumble. It takes me a while to get back to my version of normal. I try not to beat myself up about this. (The key word here is “try.”)

Wherever Thanksgiving and the weeks to come may find you, I wish you peace and calm. I hope you can be gentle with yourself as you navigate this difficult time of the year. You’re in good company.

If and when you feel horrible this season, know that I’m right there with you. We’re all in this together, surviving the holidays a little at a time.

Photo: Self-Portrait in Black, Rabun Gap (2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

A Story for All Hallows’ Eve

Most Halloweens I spend at my mother’s house. It’s the same house where her father was born in 1922. Like many old houses, it has plenty of stories to tell. And it won’t tell them to just anyone. Oh, no. The house plays favorites when it has something to say.

In non-drought years, Halloween means we build a bonfire in Mom’s yard, then make s’mores and tell family ghost stories. We listen to the deep, hollow hoo-hoo-hoooooot of the great horned owls in the pasture next door. Sometimes, well after dark, the local coyotes begin choir practice. Their not-quite-dog-like barking, their yip-yip-yip-yip-ooooooOOOOOO! far off in the woods, stirs up in the human heart something ancient and primal. That’s when Mom and I feel the hair stand up on the backs of our necks. It’s our All Hallows’ signal to grab the dogs and scurry back indoors.

Since 1834, there has been a house on this spot in Heard County, Georgia. The original cabin burned in the 1880s; people built another using the foundation and field-stone pillars from the first house. When that one burned 30 years later, they built yet another house. That’s the one my mother and stepfather live in today.

Mom and Steve have spent the last couple decades renovating the house, taking what was essentially a falling-down sharecropper’s shack and turning it into a cozy home in the woods. It now has insulation, gas heaters, a full kitchen, and two bathrooms with hot running water. They even refinished the 14-inch-wide heart pine floors, original to the early 1900s version of the house and likely similar to the floors in the first two houses on this site.

The ghost story about the house that I always heard goes something like this:

Late July 1864 saw one of west central Georgia’s few Civil War battles: McCook’s Raid, in what is now Coweta County (about 45 miles east of Mom’s house). In the days after the battle, one Union soldier appeared, on horseback, on the dirt road that once passed in front of the house. The soldier, who didn’t look much older than a teenager, was all by himself.

He wasn’t in good shape, either. He was slumped over onto the horse’s neck, over the horn of his saddle, unconscious. The skin-and-bones horse seemed to follow the road of its own accord, carrying its rider per its beastly duty. The people inside the house no doubt heard the hooves clop-clop-clop on packed dirt, and walked onto the porch to stare.

Just then, the Union soldier fell off his horse into the middle of the road, a dead-weight heap in blue homespun. His eyelids did not even flutter as the people ran out into the road, hoisted him by his armpits and ankles, and brought him inside.

They lay the soldier on a straw mattress, and fetched fresh water from the well out back for some cold compresses. The Union soldier was still knocked out, and now sweating profusely.  He was very badly cut and bruised. Other than his ragged dark blue uniform, the young man offered no other clues as to his identity. The people wondered if he had been wounded in a nearby battle. Or perhaps he had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants, many miles from where he was now.

There were no letters from home stashed inside the young man’s coat—no mementos, no lock of hair, no faded daguerreotypes of loved ones waiting for his return. He simply lay there in the bed, barely breathing, just a kid sent far from home by a country who probably didn’t even know where he was.

He never woke up, and died the next morning.

They buried him in the cemetery 300 feet down the road. His coffin was made from weathered old boards pried off of the barn. They marked his grave with a large rock. It was all they had.

In the spring of 1928, C.B. Adamson decided it was time that the unknown Union soldier had a fitting tribute. C.B. was a child when the solider died at the house on the ridge. So he composed a long poem for the soldier, and went down to the graveyard, where he mixed up some homemade concrete, poured the fellow a gravestone, and stamped the poem in the wet concrete. Community historians sent a request to Washington, DC for an official Union Army headstone. When it arrived, they placed it next to the concrete slabs. Despite nearly 100 years of harsh weather and occasional neglect, the unknown soldier’s grave is still intact. Caretakers patched the slabs back together a few years ago after an ice storm sent a four-foot-thick white oak crashing into their center.

When Mom moved down here from Michigan in 1969, her grandparents were still living in the old house where she lives today. She moved in with them until she could find a job and apartment. In 1989, she returned to Heard County, and has lived in the family home ever since. Of course, Mom grew up hearing stories of the Union soldier’s ghost. While she’s never seen him, she’s heard him walking around and felt his presence in the house.

“When I hear him,” she says, “it’s usually the sound of heavy boots along the floor—like the boots don’t fit very well, or maybe the person’s feet really hurt. It happens when I’m the only one at home. Other times, it’s just a funny feeling I get, like someone’s in the room with me or is watching me. But when I look up, nobody’s there.”

On Halloween 2006, Mom and I made our usual bonfire a good, safe 50 feet from the house. About 9:30 that night, I turned my back to the fire and was finishing the last of the s’mores as I watched how the blaze illuminated much of the yard. For safety’s sake, we’d left the lights on in the kitchen, dining room, and living room—the rooms on the west side of the house, and the ones I into which I could see from where I stood in the yard.

That’s when I saw him in the house.
A man.
Dressed in dark blue.

He walked from left to right: starting in the kitchen, he made his way slowly through the dining room, and into the living room. I watched the man, of average height and build, walk along and reach with his right hand as if to open a door. His dark blue sleeve reached to his knuckles, as if his shirt or coat were several sizes too large. He walked steadily through the house, opening one door and the next, passing by all the windows. When he reached the living room’s old chimney. . .he vanished.

“Mom, is someone in the house?”

“Nobody but the cats. Why?”

I blinked hard, and began shaking. “I just saw someone walk through the house. From the kitchen, to the dining room, on through to the living room.”

Mom sat straight up in her lawn chair by the fire. “What?”

“I swear to God, Mom. I just saw somebody walk through the house. A man, wearing a long-sleeved blue coat or shirt.”

Mom was quiet for a long moment, then turned to me. “You know what this means, right?”

“No. . .”

“It means you’re the first person I know who’s actually seen the unknown Union soldier.”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Late Grocery List

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

Candy corn:
It is the worst of the worst Halloween candy, plentiful as fleas and twice as hard to get rid of. In all its corn syrupy FD&C No. 6 glory, it refuses to masquerade as blood sugar-friendly. He never craved sweets like we did, but it was his favorite—in small quantities. At Halloween, when we brought home sack after sack of the stuff, he never complained. Had we asked him to, he would have eaten it until Kingdom Come.
Overall: Cloying, slightly giddy, with a letdown at the end.
Base: Unabashed enthusiasm.
Top Note: A bad case of the Sunday evening can’t-help-its.

Michelob:
Maybe he switched from PBR and Bud tallboys to feel more sophisticated after the divorce. Maybe it was too many late nights spent thumbing through Cosmopolitan, trying to figure out “the modern woman” and what she wanted. She wanted back then the same thing she does now: To be treated like a human being, with respect, dignity, and compassion. Besides, would a modern man in a modern relationship with a modern woman drink a redneck beer? Of course not.
Overall: Hoppy, skunky, with a bitter finish.
Base: Rancid barley.
Top Note: Mule piss.

Sardines:
In oil, in mustard, in cream, but never in hot sauce. His ulcer couldn’t handle it. How he could work fourteen hours in 110-degree heat on just a tin of these and a box of saltine crackers is still beyond me. Meanwhile, the rest of us on the crew tried not to honk up our turkey-Swiss-teriyaki-meatball-chitlins-on-wheat lunchtime transgressions. He tossed the empty cans behind the stock pile, where they proceeded to attract every stray cat within a half-mile radius.
Overall: Stridently fishy, yet earnest, with a hint of struggle.
Base: Sweat-soaked long-sleeved Dickies.
Top Note: Waccamaw River silt.

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

In memory of Newt Williams
5 October 1946 ‒ 16 January 1997

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Three years ago today…

Grayson Hugh‘s newly-released album Back to the Soul arrived in my mailbox.

It’s still surreal to see my words on the inside of a CD booklet. Writing those liner notes remains my proudest achievement to date. I am also proud to call Grayson and his wife/co-producer/art director Polly Messer my dear friends.

Indictment

He was an itinerant millwright, the story goes, a handsome fellow who never stayed long in one place. Women loved him. He loved them back. His mistake was in messing with one whose husband hid in a roadside thicket and shot him off his horse on a fine summer evening.

The doctor tried to save him—removed all the lead he could find, tied and pressed and tourniqueted against further bleeding. Too late. They buried the good-looking millwright at the back edge of the cemetery, sheltered by oak, hickory, poplar, scuppernong.

The chest wound told what the dead man could not. A muzzle-loader, yes. Homemade shot. Wadded tight with paper. The doctor unfurled the biggest blood-soaked piece: a long front page strip from the Franklin newspaper, dated a few days before.

Only one local man still used a muzzle-loader. Years later, the sheriff shook his head when he recalled how the fellow still had that newspaper with the piece torn out. It lay right there on the table when he and the doctor arrived.

They hanged the murderer at the jail in Franklin. Where they buried him—or what became of his wife—nobody knows. But Charles M. Bailey remains here, a mile and a half from where he fell.

Gravestone of Charles M. Bailey
Glenn, Georgia (Heard County) – 3 June 2014

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Notes from the Past

Twenty-three years ago today, I sat in a University of Georgia classroom taking brief end-of-term notes on final portfolio requirements. The seminar instructor, Dr. Christy Desmet, remains one of my all-time favorite professors.

No, I don’t know how I managed to save this notebook for over two decades.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Caturday: 6/2/18

“My Writing Companion”
LaGrange, Georgia – 2016
Model: Clark

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Last Day of School, 1981

On this day in 1981, I finished 1st grade.

Last summer, my mother found in her attic this worn, yellowed sheet of Blue Horse tablet paper. I’m not sure how it survived 37 years of moves, heat, and humidity. Check out the black Sharpie smiley-face at upper right. Somehow, Mrs. Reba Taylor even managed to check everyone’s work before first-grade cookout pandemonium descended upon her classroom.

Friday, May 29, 1981
Today is the very last day of this school year. We are going to have a cookout to celebrate. I hope all of you have a nice summer!

At first, I thought the oversized-pencil handwriting was my sister’s. It looks like the pre-3rd-grade-cursive, little-kid version of her grown-up print penmanship. But Val reminded me that in 1981 she hadn’t yet learned to write, and wouldn’t until the fall of that year.

This is unexpected. It’s also the cutest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Menthol Prayer

I asked the lady at the tobacco counter for Virginia Slims, like my grandmother used to smoke—”the ones with green on the box.” Turns out Maw-Maw’s favorite cigs were also menthol. Not sure how I missed that and thought my grandfather was the only menthol fan in the family.

I don’t smoke. My grandparents made me promise that I’d never start. But the smell of cigarette smoke comforts me. I can’t help it. It’s a major note in the perfume of my first 23 years on this planet.

Whenever I find myself unable to write my way out of a sticky place, I light a Virginia Slims. I wave the lit end around the room a bit, then set it in the thrift-store ashtray on my desk to invoke my grandmother. I watch the strange secondhand smoke incense curl around my chair, then up, up, up and around the room along with my prayer.

And somehow, before long, I’m writing again. Palms together, I bow in gratitude: “Thank you, Maw-Maw.”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

‘Til His Wheels Fall Off

Let me tell you something: I like a man with a hundred thousand miles on him. I like a man who’s been cross-country again and again on the long haul, on the short haul, down interstates and dirt roads. I like a man with a few scrapes along his fenders. I like a man whose windows have deflected a quarry’s worth of rocks, whose slightly busted windshield bears a long, wandering, starry thread running east to west.

I like a man with some wear and tear on him. I like a man who’s been in an accident or three, who doesn’t mind trading a little paint—a man who sees no reason to fear a bucket of Bondo. I like a man who isn’t so concerned for his delicate paint job and fancy chrome details that he’s too scared to roll down the driveway. I like a man who, when he really is too scared to roll down the driveway, puts on a new air filter, intakes a deep breath, and rumbles out anyway. I like a man who knows how to fix himself, who values what he’s learned by hammering out his own dents.

I like a man who’s run hot, spewed smoke, blown a gasket. I like a man who knows the metallic growl of his own stripped gears. I like a man who’s found himself coming down a 6% incline outside Monteagle with his clutch completely gone and his trailer brakes on fire and no emergency pull-off in sight. I like a man who’s been stuck in the mud up to his wheel wells, who’s had to sit there with the shame of knowing that he did it to himself. I like a man who recognizes, sitting there in the mud, that there is no shame in letting someone with a little more horsepower—and a 12,000-pound bumper winch—drag him back to solid road.

I like a man whose axle bearings sometimes sing high and ghostly of too-heavy loads, of too-light grease. I like a man who’s somehow wound up at the edge of the yard, as far from the house as possible, with FOR SALE, OR TRADE FOR TRACTOR scrawled across him in white shoe polish. I like a man whose odometer tells me that he has been driven, that he has been broken, that he has been repaired—that he has been loved.

He’d rather be scrap than admit it, but he wishes he were shiny and new. I don’t. Give me crumpled rusty panels, a short in the eight-track player, a hiccup under the distributor cap. Let me tell you something: I’ll drive him ’til his wheels fall off.

Photo: “Yes, It Still Runs” (Heard County, Georgia – 15 May 2014)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first posted this piece on 16 May 2014.

A Tale for Mother’s Day

Note: This Mother’s Day piece, a reader favorite, first appeared here in May 2014. I’ve edited it since then. Names and identifying details have been altered.

*******

Look at this photo. Study it closely, so you can truly see it.

Staring back at you through sunglasses and sweat and thirty-plus years is my mother—a woman who has long followed her calling, long refused to heed society’s dictates. Here, working as a highway bridge form carpenter in the mid-1980s, she was the only woman on a crew of fifty.

Mom fought the often casual, always hateful sexism that permeates places where people fear difference of any kind, especially when that difference exposes the comfortable ignorance and shoddy workmanship that they have long swallowed as The Way Things Are Supposed to Be.

The old schoolyard insult of “Your mother wears combat boots” might have devastated many children. Not us. It made my sister and me proud. Our mother did wear combat boots: at first, military surplus, men’s size 5. Later, they came from Red Wing: steel toe, steel shank, anti-shock sole, men’s size 5. Yes, our mama wore combat boots every day. And, when the occasion arose, she kicked ass with them, too.

Sorry. This is going to be a long story.
It has to be.

My sister and I were always outsiders. Although our father had been born and raised in our tiny corner of Heard County, Georgia, and although three of our four grandparents had been born and raised there, we had not. We arrived from Randolph County, Alabama, when I was in first grade and Val in kindergarten.

By age seven, country kids know who “belongs” from birth and who does not. There is no hope for assimilation, no hope for blending in. Evil in the way that only children can be, our school mates reminded us all the time that we did not belong.

I still don’t know why those kids didn’t like us. Perhaps it was because we were bright for our age, placed in accelerated classes at the start of first grade. Perhaps it was because, thanks to family crises of many kinds, we were shy, sensitive, and didn’t make friends easily. Perhaps it was because we were each other’s best friend: we sat together on the bus, played together, stayed together at every family and social event, no matter the fun around us. We had learned early on that we had to stick together at all times. Others could not be trusted. Perhaps—well, perhaps there’s no reason at all. But the entire thing is sad, especially in light of children’s vast capacity for empathy and kindness.

The rumors and taunts did nothing to make us less different. The worst and longest enduring of them: “Rachael and Val are devil-worshipers. Rachael and Val are Satanists.”

I have to admit that this was awfully sharp for a bunch of country-bumpkin third graders. This was the kind of gossip grown-ups like to hear and love to tell, but will never admit to having created. Could it have come from adults? It’s impossible to know.

But remember: This was the early 1980s. With millions of parents terrified that random heavy metal lyrics and a few rounds of Dungeons & Dragons would hypnotize their teens into shooting themselves, and with traveling evangelical preachers making loads of money from west central Georgia record-and-tape bonfires, these rumors made perfect pop cultural sense.

The prescient little ringleaders were Morgan and Laura: two sisters, very close in age, whose parents had been high school friends with our father. Haughty, hypocritical, self-important, and entitled, they recycled the rumors every year or so. Heard County schools welcomed just enough new kids each fall to give the gossip fresh legs. There would always be another sucker to believe it. Although we were not in the same classes with Morgan and Laura, and although our grandmother had long removed us from the Girl Scout troop where the trouble began, the gossip still shadowed us no matter how many spelling bees we won, how often we made the Honor Roll, or how well we did at All-State Band auditions.

Once I reached eighth grade, though, the rumors went away. Maybe Laura and Morgan were too focused on trying to be popular to keep them up. Rehabbing their abysmal personalities must have been a full-time job. Had they been better than average looking, they might have sustained the Lucifer talk. The beautiful, of course, get away with so much more.

From our seats in the bleachers with the marching band, Val and I chuckled to see the two of them trying to jump their sorry posteriors into the air. Back then, the cheerleading squad was desperate—so much so that girls with nearly no physical coordination could give a half-assed tryout, fail miserably, and still make the varsity team. Suddenly, with the addition of a maroon-and-gray uniform, anyone could become Popular. Morgan and Laura did. For several years, they were content with their place in the sad, pointless high school social order.

And then, in the fall of my senior year, the rumors returned.

During the bus trip to an away game, third-chair tuba player Harvey Tidewater turned around in his seat to face our mom. By that time, Mom had retired from heavy construction and spent every weekend from August until mid-November as a band chaperone. Bless his heart, Harvey never was one for tact. That was his greatest flaw. In this case, it was also his saving grace. He opened his mouth, and a proverbial can of worms.

“Miss Gina, I have a question: Are Val and Rachael devil-worshipers?”

Mom stared down at him. “Excuse me?”

“Rachael and Val—are they Satanists? Do they worship the devil? I just wanted to know. That’s what I heard.”

Somehow, Mom contained her rage. “Harvey, that’s stupid. The answer is NO, of course not. Where’d you hear this crap, anyway?”

“In homeroom. Last week.”

“From?”

He cleared his throat. “Morgan. And then Laura said it Wednesday in world history. They both said it’s always been true.”

“Thanks for being honest, Harvey. I’ll take care of this.”

At 8:30 Saturday morning, Mom walked down the road to the patched-up sharecropper’s shack-and-a-half that Laura and Morgan’s parents tried desperately to pass off as a custom-built log cabin. She knocked loudly, and waited, and waited. Gladys, the girls’ mother, finally padded to the door. “Why, hello! Sorry it took me so long. We weren’t expecting company.”

“I know.” Mom paused, and locked eyes with Gladys. “I need to talk to you about something very, very important.”

“Uh—certainly. Please come in.” Mom stepped into the living room. On the sofa, Laura and Morgan sat lumpy and forlorn, cereal bowls in hand, eyes glazing over to a movie on the VHS player. She hadn’t expected the sisters to be at home. This would be interesting.

“Gladys, on the band bus last night to Crawford County, I heard something very ugly. Harvey Tidewater, the tuba player, asked me flat-out if Valerie and Rachael are Satanists.”

“You’re kidding.”

Mom shook her head. “I wish I were. Of course, my girls are not Satanists. They never, ever have been. I don’t even know how such a low-down rumor like that gets started. Do you?”

“No, I don’t. That’s terrible, Gina. Just terrible!”

“It is. But what’s worse is, when I asked Harvey who’d told him, he said he heard it from Laura and Morgan.”

The color drained out of Gladys’s face and rose into the pair of broad, cantaloupe-blank faces in front of the TV. “Girls, is this true?” They reddened more, then looked away and down at the now-soggy puffs in their bowls. Just as quickly, the blood returned to Gladys’s face. She frowned. “Gina, I am so sorry. Trust me, you won’t have any more trouble from my daughters. I am just so, so sorry.”

“Thanks, Gladys. I’m glad we straightened this out.”

Indeed, that was the last we heard of the devil-worshipper rumor. Now and then, Mom sees Gladys around town. They wave hello, ask how the family’s doing, and move along. More often, though, Mom catches a glimpse of Laura or Morgan in the grocery store, the tag office, the BBQ joint. Neither will meet her gaze. Each of them—now a woman rapidly approaching middle age—looks away, then down, and sidles out the nearest door.

Perhaps, over a quarter-century later, they can still feel that combat boot on their behinds.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

New piece in Columbus and the Valley Magazine

A huge THANK YOU! to publishers Jill Tigner and Mike Venable for running my nonfiction essay “Red Clay Ghosts” in the June 2018 issue of Columbus and the Valley Magazine. Back in June 2016, they published my first nonfiction piece, “The Lipstick Queen.” This marks the fourth time they’ve printed my words.

“Red Clay Ghosts” is an excerpt from my forthcoming creative nonfiction novel, Songs My Father Barely Knewand the first excerpt to appear in print. Part of Columbus and the Valley‘s Father’s Day issue, it’s in memory of my dad, Newt Williams. And check out the photo they chose to go with this piece. It is absolutely perfect.

The electronic magazine is now live: click here and look for “Red Clay Ghosts” starting on page 24. The print issue should arrive in mailboxes in the next few days. Oh, and subscribe to CATV, while you’re at it. For a year of gorgeous, glossy photos and quality articles, $20 is a steal.

Thanks again, Mike and Jill. Y’all are the best.

Text in this post © R.S. Williams
Magazine page image + photograph courtesy of Columbus and the Valley Magazine

Dr. Parker’s Gardenias

When I was a baby, my parents rented a tiny house trailer in Randolph County, Alabama. Their elderly landlord was a retired country doctor. Dr. James Parker* and his wife, Opal*, passed their days tending to their legendary vegetable and flower gardens. Born in the late 1890s, they told my mother many stories from their childhoods.

One thick summer evening, sitting on the Parkers’ front porch, Mom complimented Miss Opal on the waxy, heaven-scented white flowers blooming at the very edge of her yard. “Your gardenias are amazing. Would it be all right if I cut a few to put in a vase?”

“Help yourself,” Miss Opal said. “I can’t stand gardenias. James loves them. I told him if he just had to have them, he needed to plant them as far away from the house as he could.”

This was a new one for Mom. “How come you don’t like gardenias?”

“They remind me of my Uncle Bert*.” Miss Opal looked across the lawn at the hundred-foot row of waist-high, glossy-green-leaved shrubs that separated her yard from the overgrown pasture next door. She sighed, and turned back to Mom.

“Uncle Bert was Mama’s youngest brother. He left for Oklahoma when I was a child—thought he’d try farming out there, where it’s flat and you can see for miles and miles. One day, he was fixing a barbwire fence when a bad storm came up. He didn’t worry, though. The storm was still a good way off. He’d figured he’d patch that fence, get on his mule, and beat the rain back to the house.” She paused. “He didn’t count on the lightning.”

“The lightning?”

Miss Opal nodded sadly. “Lightning struck about a mile away. The charge traveled all the way up the fence to where Uncle Bert had his hands on it. Killed both him and the mule.”

“My God!”

“Even worse,” Miss Opal continued, “was that he had told his wife he wanted to be buried back home, in Alabama. And he died in late June.”

She closed her eyes. “The funeral was open-casket, even though we could barely recognize him. There was this big old burned streak down his face, down into his shirt collar and, I reckon, the whole length of his body.” Miss Opal shuddered. “Took the train eight days to get here from Oklahoma City. His wife didn’t have the money to have him embalmed.  With all that time passing and the summer heat, by the day of the funeral—Lord, have mercy. They had that church full of gardenias to cover up the smell. It didn’t work.”

“To this day, every time I catch even a little whiff of the blasted things, all I can smell is sickly sweetness—just overpowering summer and perfume and death. I see Uncle Bert again, all burned and purplish-black there in the casket. And I just about faint.” Miss Opal pointed toward the edge of the yard. “And that’s why I made James plant his gardenias way out there.”

*Note: All names have been changed. 

Photo: “Gardenia Ghost No. 2” (LaGrange, Georgia – 6 June 2016)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wherever Someone’s in Need

Three years ago today, I submitted final grades for the last time—and, to celebrate, posted on Facebook this photo of my 1960s neon Pabst Blue Ribbon bar sign. While I miss my former students, my friends, and the steady (if small) paychecks, I don’t miss teaching. At all. Ever.

In some ways, though, I’m still teaching. For example: Most of this week has seen me helping people figure out how to do the things that confuse or frighten them—and figure it out through writing. I’ve helped people’s ideas take shape on the printed page, whether in plain text or as part of a graphic layout. I’ve talked people through the stories they’re afraid to write, when their dreams literally point them toward taking greater creative risks. In a sea of disinformation, I’ve helped people find the knowledge they need to make hard decisions.

In 2015, I walked out of the classroom, and I haven’t looked back. But when I think about my own writing, and how I’ve used what I know to help others, I know that the classroom isn’t always in a school building. The classroom is wherever someone’s in need.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Metro Living

Fifteen years passed before I saw him again. This time, it was by accident: at the edge of a photo in the Atlanta paper.

At first, I thought he was dancing with the curvy redhead, her sparkly sequined back to the camera. His leg and foot stepped toward her at a jaunty angle. The band blazed away behind them—good. He’d finally found someone.

But her feet were flat on the ground, and her weight shoved firmly into one hip. She’d turned her head to better see the guitarist giving it hell onstage.

He wasn’t dancing.
He was dodging bodies, escaping glances, leaving the festival while it was still daylight.

Years before, he maneuvered a hot iron with incredible grace and skill. He liked sharp creases in practical fabrics: twill, denim, broadcloth. Whatever he had on was fresh, clean, neatly pressed. But now, that rumpled shirt, those wrinkled pants—how many days in a row had he worn them?

Inside the yoke of the forlorn plaid he still buttoned too high, his proud shoulders sagged. His belly clambered over his belt. Strong and sure when I knew him, his hands now simply dangled from his arms. Gaze locked on the ground, he seemed to study where he would next place his right foot. His face had fallen the way faces do when their owners sleep flat on them. He hadn’t aged so much as retreated into “Don’t look at me.”

At the edge of the photo, I saw a man trying to disappear. I saw a man telling the universe “NO” before it had a chance to say the same to him.

I folded the Metro Living section, and wished I didn’t still love him.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Reunion in Brass and Mother-of-Pearl

Twenty-five years have passed since we last met. Strange, because it seems like just yesterday when we waved goodbye. She looked a little sad, but assured me that she’d be around whenever I needed her. No worries. She’d be right where I left her. And she meant it.

Even as she approaches her 74th birthday, she’s still radiant. Her voice remains strong and smoky. She hasn’t grown gaunt with age, as some of us do, but still weighs in at a hefty, healthy 20 pounds. She’s never been ashamed of her worn lacquer, her scratches,  her oft-repaired and dangerously thin brass. Don’t make the mistake of suggesting to her that those are flaws to be camouflaged and hidden away. Oh, no. She won’t hear of it. Those “wrinkles” mean she’s been places. She’s seen things. She has loved and been loved—and she will continue to love. She has lived fully and deeply, as most of us never will.

Does she ever think of France? Does she long for that little factory south of Paris where she came into the world, where one of Monsieur Noblet’s craftsmen  stamped “9346” in the small of her bell seam? Whenever I ask, she changes the subject.

She’d rather talk about the Rubank exercises that we both hated at first but quickly grew to love, or that grueling Dvoràk piece we aced in the winter of 1993. She gets excited when I suggest we try “Night Train” again, and pushes for a dirty, raunchy, uptempo “gut-bucket” version. She wonders why I still haven’t bought the Dukoff 10* metal mouthpiece that I wouldn’t shut up about all those years ago.

Is she protecting me? Or herself?

It doesn’t matter. She kept her decades-old promise: I needed her, and there she was. Or, rather, here she is, as patient and solid and accepting as ever. As I slowly rebuild my wind and dexterity,  she stays with me. She picks up where we left off, telling her story and mine in that steady, husky tenor—singing every note with longing, and with love.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first posted this piece on 16 March 2015. It appears here today with revisions.

 

Driving Home from Jonesboro, Arkansas

There are few experiences more peaceful, or more satisfying, than driving 500 miles home past rail yards and ports and farmland.

Northeastern Arkansas feels a lot like southern Georgia. It’s flat and swampy, yet fertile. In the fields on both sides of most every highway, massive sprinkler systems on wheels sleep, biding their time before the summer drought. Unlike southern Georgia, though, I saw no Arkansas cattle egrets carpeting either moos or soybean fields. Nor did I swat at gnats every other breath, like I never got used to doing when I was a kid visiting my aunt in Sylvester or Ashburn or Tifton.

There’s a spare, half-wild, desperate natural beauty there. It’s same kind of beauty that an artist friend once said makes southern Georgia “the most beautiful, desolate, forsaken place on earth—praise God.”

Watching the storm as I drove was frightening and sublime. The sky turned an unnerving shade of pinkish-green. Outside Memphis, I saw five bolts of lightning hit the ground at once. A little further up the road, I drove across both Hell Creek and the Tallahatchie Bridge. No Billy Joe McAllister, though.

Between Tyronza (pop. 762) and Jonesboro, the shoulder of the access road along Interstate 555 was on fire: three triangular-shaped patches of grass ablaze at dusk. Maybe it was the lightning from the storm. Maybe it was an alien spacecraft landing mishap. In this wide, semi-sandy, rural dream world, anything seems possible.

West of Marked Tree, Arkansas, railroad tracks parallel US Highway 63. I raced a long, long BNSF, the kind that requires four big orange locomotive engines, into town. Outrunning a train in a Honda Civic feels wrong.

The soil in Arkansas is unlike any I’ve seen. Sandy tan on top, with newly plowed furrows of deep coffee brown. Near Lepanto, a huge John Deere cut S-shaped disc rows into a fallow field every 100 feet. In other fields, brilliant yellow-flowering cover crops stretched for hundreds of acres on either side of the highway.

Outside Maumelle, a large squirrel darted across a rain-beaten furrowed sandy field. “What are you doing? Trying to get picked up by a hawk?” I said to the silence in the car. Three hundred feet across the same field, a Rottweiler mix trotted along with a limp brown broken creature in its mouth. The little brown tail flopped to the beat of the dog’s proud steps.

From Jonesboro to the Mississippi River, red-winged blackbirds swooped from fence post to fence post. Little red-and-yellow epaulets on little daredevil black birds—flash-flash-flash, swoop-swoop-swoop, waving me home-home-home.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

 

Ardea

At water’s edge, my Fisher King, you stand
flightless, crippled. Slender faithful guard
of fen, of heart, of glorious
sooty blushing riotous raiment—
crumpled, bruised, proud.

Your birthright: motionless swift grace.
Your feathers: hopeless sacred spikes.
Your offering: flawless imperfect blessing.

Demolished and whole,
fractured and healed,
shattered and safe—O great God,
that every hurt could mend,
that you could fly.

Fly from me, beautiful broken one.
Take my breath with you.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Advice from Raptors

As I washed this evening’s dishes, I heard them call from the water oaks behind the house: Who-who? Who-who? Who-cooks-for-YOU? Barred owls—the first time I’ve heard them this season.

Some folklore traditions regard owls as harbingers of doom. Others maintain that they signal change of many kinds, not necessarily bad news. Still others hold that owls mean your house and property will soon become rodent-free. For a long time, I discounted the first two. But that was before the hard-partying bunch of barred owls moved into the trees around my house several years ago.

Since then, every new phase of my life—whether painful or pleasant—has arrived in the company of owls. They go quiet for days or weeks, then return, and HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT?!? something new and previously unimaginable shows up along with them. Tonight, when the first hoots reached my ears, I almost dropped a soapy dinner plate into the floor: “Please, universe. I can’t handle any more. Please, please—have mercy on me.”

Fortunately, neither the owls nor the universe heard my plea.

When I stop and listen to the stillness of my soul, I’m sure of several changes heading my way. While I don’t yet know what they’ll look like, what form they’ll take, I know to expect them, to get ready and do what they need for me to do when they finally get here. Others, though, I cannot and will not know until they are upon me. The owls are just the early warning system.

Good or bad, sweetness or sorrow, I’m grateful and humbled to hear those feathered harbingers call once again from the walnut tree. Whatever they bring, I brace myself and welcome it with open arms. Which, honestly, is about all any of us can do.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sit in the cool of the back yard for a while. I’m gonna soak up the dark and the quiet and the peace. I’m gonna listen for advice from raptors, whatever they may decide to pass along.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Mozelle

After Mozelle died, I never went back to Corinth. The tire plant closed in ’78, took the town with it—but she wouldn’t budge. Wouldn’t hear of it, even with the old place falling in and no money to fix it. Besides, she said, I was the only one left to guard her secrets. Only one left to lay them to rest, along with her bones, when the time came. I kept my promise.

Maybe I should have stayed gone. It don’t matter now. But I watched, and served, and waited thirty years for the end. Soon as it come, soon as she was in the ground good, I done like she asked and lit the house afire. Told me she could see better with the bright light. It’d keep her warm, too. Hell was gonna be dark and cold, she always said, not fiery-hot like them foot-washing fools down the road believe.

When I heard the hollow roar, when I seen Poppa’s bedroom bathed in liquid flame and the roof drop through the rafters in melted pieces like flesh off a ribcage, I turned and walked in the ditch all the way to Mobile. And like she asked, I didn’t look back. Not once.

February’s thirteen years. She’s at Mount Olive Church, where I can visit if I want but never do. I kept my promise.

Well, mostly. Sometimes a man’s got to go back on his word. Lord knows I don’t want to. But I got to tell what she couldn’t—how they robbed her of everything she ever coulda been proud of, how they took the life from her eyes one good deed at a time. I got to tell. Else I might bust wide open.

Mozelle is my mama.
My daddy was her daddy.

That’s the happy part. You might ought to sit down for the rest.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

The Daffodils That Always Mean “Home”

Living in a small town often means commuting a long distance to work somewhere else. Before I began working from home, I drove about 90 miles round-trip to my university teaching job. While the commute itself sometimes bored me, the scenery on U.S. Highway 27 between LaGrange and Carrollton never, ever did.

So it’s Spring now—the season that, in the Deep South, gives us an ice storm one day and tornadoes the next. This year has brought out the daffodils a little early. I delight in watching them pop up along U.S. 27’s shoulders.

When you see daffodils, you can safely assume that someone put them there. Unlike seed plants, daffodils and other bulbs have to be dug up and replanted. In order to get them from where they are to where they’re going to be, someone has to move them at the right time of year (late spring, after blooms and foliage have died back), transport them to a suitable location, and plant them.

Most of the daffodils we see along the roadside make their homes in someone’s yard. Sometimes they’re in neat flower beds. Sometimes, as is the case with my own yard, they’re randomly planted in a sunny patch of lawn to surprise everyone, year after year, with unexpected yellows and creams in a sea of brittle brown grass.

But what about those planted in or near a roadside ditch—without a house nearby?

Just because you don’t see a house doesn’t mean one hasn’t ever been there. Daffodils stay underground most of the year. Once they’ve finished blooming, their leaves die back and don’t reappear for another year. So old houses get demolished, their sites fading into and gradually out of memory—yet the bulbs embedded around them come back. They come back every spring thereafter, house or no house.

Plant ghosts, I call them. They don’t know the house and the people are gone. They come back because this is their home. In every sense of the word, they are rooted here.

The daffodils pictured above are very simple, single-cup daffodils, an old variety we often see around old houses. They’re about 12” tall at most, and amazingly hardy. Judging from what’s left of the house, and from the size of the flower clumps, these daffs have been here for about 50 years.

Behind the thick, overgrown privet hedge, nearly 20 feet down the bank from the southbound lanes of U.S. 27 in Carroll County, appears the faint outline of a house—or what used to be a house, anyway. Out in front: these happy yellow bells.

I wonder why the last residents left. I wonder if they left in a hurry. I wonder who decided to let a once-sturdy farmhouse simply fold itself back into the earth.

I wonder if, on leaving, they took one long, last look toward the flower bed. I wonder if they wept for the flowers waiting beneath its surface, for the daffodils that always mean “home.”

Photo: “Daff Nipped by Frost” (Carroll County, Georgia – February 2012)

NOTE: Earlier versions of this post appeared here on 2 March 2015, and at Forgotten Plants & Places on 25 February 2012.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

No Questions

When she heard the familiar squeaky fan belt out in the yard, Eula had already peeled off girdle and slip and was walking about in her gown-tails. Eight-thirty was no time for visitors, least of all those who didn’t even have the decency to call ahead. She stepped to the door, gathering her summer housecoat around her waist. Damned if she’d put on a clean dress this late in the evening.

As he swung his legs out of the car, Corvus saw her shadow behind the weathered screen, and grinned. Eula did not. She grasped the solid comfort of the steel pipe that she always kept behind the wide front door, and spoke without a greeting.

“Your letter said you didn’t want folks to know. Said you didn’t want to have to answer any questions about who you been courtin’.” The cool, smooth pine beneath her feet reminded her just how awake she was. “So, no, I didn’t stop or speak yesterday when you saw me on the square. I thought I’d wait. Maybe see what you’re made of.”

He warmed all over. She would be his again in a matter of minutes. “What am I made of?”

“Oh, the usual. Snakes, snails. A few puppy-dog tails. But mostly chicken shit.”

His broad, tan face turned coleslaw-pale.

She smiled. Her words had hit their mark—bull’s-eye. “No questions: that’s what you wanted. Now you got it.”

Eula stared into his icy blue right eye, the good one. Too bad she couldn’t gouge it out, grip the living jelly with her fingers, leave him screaming as she snatched the bloody orb from its socket. Maybe she’d keep it in her purse for her very own good luck charm. Maybe she’d tote it to work, send the Davis brats shrieking with the dried grayish-blue lump, and for once hang their mama’s drawers on the line in peace. Knowing that his eyeball dangled from her key chain would hurt him far worse than blindness.

“Get out of my yard.”

He took a shaky step and set his mind to the screen door handle. Pulling it open would take strength he wasn’t sure he had. “Eula, I didn’t—people were just—”

“I said: Get out of my yard.”

In the wide front seat of the Pontiac lay an armful of tiger lilies and Queen Anne’s lace, her favorite flowers. He’d picked them in a ditch outside Eckersley. Next to them sat a deluxe box of the cordial cherries she loved, the ones that made her kisses even sweeter. His voice wavered in a way neither of them had ever heard. “Please, Eula. I—I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I—well. All that’s in the past. Let’s make up.”

“Let’s make up. Just like that?” She snapped thumb and forefinger to emphasize this last.

“I know. It’s been a while. But I had to let it all die down. Had to lay low.”

“Lay low for what? Two years ago, you were ready to tell everyone.” Eula wiped the sweat that beaded her brow. “The world’s changed, you said. Didn’t matter that I’m colored, you said. But then you ran for office.”

“You’re not colored, baby—not enough for it to matter. C’mon.”

“Not enough for it to matter?” Fury rose from her soles clear to the top of her head, clean and cold and pure. “Show your face around here again, and I will lay you bare.”

He stood as if his hip might be welded to the car. His eyes widened. For a split second, he resembled a forlorn hood ornament.

Eula straightened herself against the edge of the door. “Surrounded yourself with yes-men and crooks. They’ve got you believing your own piddling little press releases. But step out past that courthouse a ways. Ask around. Nobody in this county is a big enough fool to believe you anymore.” She wiped her brow again with one cherry-print housecoat sleeve. “God knows I used to be.”

He buckled slightly at the knees. At least he could lean against the fender, play it off a little, while he squinted at her through the house plants lined up against the screen. “Aww, you know me. I just like to stay off the gossip circuit.”

For a moment, she thought she would never stop laughing. “‘Stay off the gossip circuit!’ Oh, now that is precious. I’m gonna use that one.” She shook her head. “Corvus Eugene Watson, you are County Commissioner. You’re on the gossip circuit whether you want to be or not.”

“And what your yes-men have failed to tell you,” she continued, “is that it’s the way you treat the people at the edge of your world that’s so important. It’s how you treat people like me—people you use and throw away once you get what you want from them—that keeps the gossip circuit running. How you conduct yourself with those who can do the least for you—that, Mister Commissioner, is what they will always, always talk about.”

In the evening light, the mighty red oaks stretched mute and watchful over the sandy, clean-swept yard. Eula saw his proud figure turn shabby and wounded. His pant cuffs made sad blue seersucker poufs atop his dirty brogans. The ribbon bow tie hung in jaunty, defeated loops. Even the expensive Stetson on his head was soaked clean through with flop sweat and reckoning.

He was trying, and failing. “Please, Eula. Please.” His mouth bent at one corner.

In the loam-scented shadows of the porch, she closed her eyes, forced her thoughts back to the cold galvanized steel in her hand. “I haven’t hit a man in fourteen years. Don’t make this the day I break my streak.”

Corvus turned so she couldn’t watch his face crumple. He slid back into the Bonneville, fired it up, and was gone.

She let the pipe fall ringing behind the door, and steadied herself—she’d forgotten to breathe. Inhaling big, she stepped onto the porch and watched the dust cloud at the mailbox swirl, swirl, swirl, then settle. At the edge of the yard, Hyatt stood before the boxwood hedge, his redbone hound leg raised in urinary bliss. He hadn’t so much as whimpered when Corvus pulled up. Sorry-ass dog.

Once she was in her favorite chair, she realized she could not stop shaking. She fumbled in the half-empty tissue box for an emergency cigarette. No, she would never, never have struck that man. Or would she?

Her fingers answered her question and refused to work. Both lighter and pack clattered onto the porch floorboards. Across the road, the last magenta remnants of daylight flared, then dimmed, just beyond the hog pen where the sows already lay dreaming.

Until it was time to go to bed, Eula just sat there, and sobbed, and wished it wasn’t so goddamn hard to hate and love at the same time.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

New work in Eyedrum Periodically!

I’m delighted to announce that Eyedrum Periodically has published two of my photos in their latest, Issue 17: The Future.  And, holy moly, y’all: They liked one of those photos so much that they put it on the cover.  (Click the link above to see “As I Fall Where I Stand in the Street” and “Looking into a Future I Cannot Name” along with the great writing and art in Issue 17.)  Thank you again to editors Bryant O’Hara and Alice Gordon for this wonderful opportunity!

Photo: Self-Portrait by Kitchen Door (LaGrange, Georgia – 22 April 2015)
“Writing well is the best revenge” t-shirt © Eden M. Kennedy

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Biohazard

Before they were his, they were hide.

Before the goatskin was stripped of flesh, bone, sinew, it cinched fur in follicle, held together bone, gut, muscle, bile. Three square feet of full-grain hide would one day protect my father’s hands from the hot corrosive black-and-clear liquid inside electrician’s splice packets; from the powder-blue edges of just-sawn three-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe; from the slow and subtle and inevitable hardening of hands that work in dirt.

No matter how I open the drawer, I’m never fast enough. I still see them. Behind the artfully arranged failure of a dozen jumbled mementos, they wait in the bottom of the dresser, curled as always. Dusty green mildew wraps them in frosty fuzz and a sharp, tangy-bitter smell. They remain in the battered plastic biohazard bag where the homicide investigators carefully placed them.

The evidence from a death.

The detritus from a life.

My father’s final work gloves lie in the drawer corner, bent and shriveled as if immolated. Dark, stiff, foreboding, they put on an obscene mime show of his hands as they clamped the backhoe steering wheel—the backhoe steering wheel behind which he sat for hours missing the back half of his skull while the crime scene crew processed the evidence, surveyed the damage wrought far beyond the sprinkler heads and backfill going in at the 12th tee. Once light tan, the leather slowly turned dark with each successive layer of Lowcountry dirt, of peat and brackish bog, of cattail and swamp water, of sweat, of blood.

Blood.

That’s the other smell—twenty-one years on, still spattered along the cuffs.

In memory of Newt Williams
5 October 1946 – 16 January 1997

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

37205

Tonight, I dream of Nashville, where a low pressure system wraps the city in a thick wintry blanket. How beautiful it would be to see the oxbows of the Little Harpeth, the girders of the Shelby Street Bridge, and the ear-tufts of the Bat Building swept by wind—swaddled in snow, glazed in sleet and freezing rain.

Tonight, I long to wake to the great roaring silence of snow. Through the perforated Bakelite cube at my bedside, a half-human, half-computer voice consoles me with a NOAA lullaby. “Currently in Nashville: snow, 28 degrees. A Winter Weather Advisory is in effect. Elsewhere in Tennessee…”

Tonight, indeed, my mind is elsewhere—in Tennessee. I imagine the crisis-comfort of winter weather: the deafening hush of heavy, wet snowflakes, the flik-flik-flik of ice on plant and ground, the muffled grrrrddddtttt of tires against slush in the parking lot of a tiny apartment on White Bridge Road. Just beyond my window, the splash of cold black-white-clear lacquer soothes me to sleep, to work, to live.

Tonight, in west central Georgia, I stock up on bread, milk, and bottled water. I surrender my hopes. I play along at home.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Every Place Is a Sacred Place

Oak, hickory, dogwood, mountain laurel, sassafras, tulip poplar, elm, sweet gum, locust—I wished I’d brought along my tree book. Frothy green ferns carpeted the ground, but not so thickly that I couldn’t see the dark, glossy poison ivy leaning into the trail. Leaves of three, stay away from me.

Hundreds of young saplings reach skyward for light. Sheltered by the mature trees, they will stay relatively small and grow slowly until those larger trees die and fall. As the saplings become larger trees, new saplings will sprout from the nuts, seeds, and cones nestled in the leaf litter. The new trees will mature, die, and fall back. More new saplings will take their places—and on, and on.

How long has this scene existed? It was here long before the trail; it will be here long after the trail. What did this hollow look like when the only people here were Native Americans? How about before the Native Americans? What plants were here then that aren’t here now—and vice versa?

Thousands of years before we were born, this hillside was home to plants, insects, animals, and people. Hunter and hunted lived and died close to one another. Over thousands of years, something or someone has breathed a final breath and lay down forever on every patch of ground we see here. Every spot is important, hallowed, sacred.

What if we were to bring this presence of mind, to everything we do, everything we say, everywhere we travel? How different would the world be? How different would we be?

Every place is sacred—even if we choose not to think about it.

Photo: “North Georgia Woods” (Blue Ridge, Georgia –19 May 2010)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: This piece has been revised from its previous version, which I first posted here on  23 July 2012.

In the Turn Lane

For a week, the oily-matte black carcass lay undisturbed in the middle of the turn lane. On either side, three more lanes of car and critter hurried past the spiky scramble of feathers. Hard freeze, hard thaw, hard rain—nothing would touch it.

In rural west Georgia, where I grew up, dead animals in the road are a fact of life. With these dead animals comes nature’s clean-up crew. They make quick work of most everything: flattened and ruptured squirrels, opossums, armadillos. Dogs, cats, coyotes, cattle. Unfortunate copperheads, errant guinea hens, eerily headless eight-point bucks, and even the occasional feral hog.

Every creature eats. Every creature is eaten. In the circle of life, flesh never goes to waste.

But all that happens outside of town, in the country. Here, a hundred yards inside the city limits, was not where I expected to see broken, crumpled wings. Here, in the turn lane, was not where I expected to see frozen talons devastated against asphalt.

Like many of us, it sought the company of others, working best in groups. Like many of us, it flew into fate unaccompanied, at a time and in a place it neither expected nor desired.

Only death will eat a vulture.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Hazel and the Well

One warm afternoon in the spring of 1998, walking near the old hand-dug well in her back yard, my mother heard desperate, raspy meowing. A longtime cat lover, Mom pried away the well cover and pointed a flashlight 40 feet down. There, between the red clay wall and the well cistern, glowed two tiny green eyes. At the end of what must’ve been a terrifying fall, the kitten had somehow managed not to land in the murky, stagnant water. (A nearby mouse had not been so lucky.)

Mom, Steve, Val, and I were all too large to fit into the well. We also didn’t have the equipment to get us into and out of there safely, with kitten in hand. But none of us could bear to leave the poor little thing where it was.

So Mom came up with a solution. She opened a can of tuna, dumped it into a two-gallon bucket, and tied a long rope to the handle. Then, with Steve holding the flashlight, she carefully lowered the bucket into the well, as close to the kitten as she could. She tied her end of the rope to an old concrete block.

“I’ll check in the morning,” Mom said. “Maybe the kitty’ll figure it out.”

Morning came, and Mom hauled up the bucket. In it was the bony brown-tabby-and-white kitten—barely eight weeks old, and, of course, covered in tuna juice. And NOISY.

“Eeeeert. Eeeeeert. EEEEEEEERRRRT!”

The kitty had been crying for help so loudly, and for so long, that her meow was broken. Worse, blow flies had found her in the days before we did. A live “wolf” larva writhed and turned in the pencil-sized hole in her neck.

We took her to the vet, where she stayed for several days after surgery. When the little cat was feeling better, Mom took her home for foster care and general spoiling. A few months later, when Val departed for graduate school in Florida, she brought the kitten with her. Val named her Hazel, after a favorite character in the novel Watership Down. When Val moved to Colorado after graduation, Hazel and sister Madeleine (RIP) went along, too.

For most of her life, Hazel was semi-feral. She hid from almost all people, especially visitors. Only in her old age did she finally mellow and “learn how to cat.” She needed IV medication nearly every day, and toward the end of her life, she had mostly reconciled herself to accepting help from people. (There was still plenty of cranky, irritated meowing, the Cat equivalent of “Get off my lawn, you damn noisy kids.”)

After a short bout with liver cancer, Hazel died on 15 September 2017, at age 19½. We miss her so much. But we’re also grateful to have had her in our lives for so long, and that she chose Val as her forever person.

Hazel remains one of our all-time favorite cats—the best Caturday, and everyday, companion ever.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I published this piece in February 2017. It appears here today in edited form.

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Photo: “Self-Portrait in Chocolate and Red” (Nashville, Tennessee – 19 September 2015)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

New Year, Same Me

So the end of the year is almost upon us. Everyone’s out having fun tonight, spending time with friends and family. They’re most likely not sitting around reading stuff on the internet. But I’m a writer, and hahahahahahahaaaaaaaaa!!! Tonight finds me sitting in front of a screen because 1) it’s what I do, 2) I enjoy what I do, and 3) something’s been bothering me and it needs putting into words on a page.

Everywhere I go this time of year, I hear the same old saying: “New Year, new me!” It’s a popular sentiment. For the most part, people who say it really do mean it. I can’t blame them, either. The beginning of a new calendar year feels fresh, full of possibilities. It’s a good time to try something new.

But here I am—that one weirdo at the party, the one who’s not buying into all this merriment and isn’t even pretending she’s having “fun.” Yep, that’s me, sitting over here by myself in the corner, not even drunk because up yours, acid reflux, the one muttering under my breath juuuust loud enough for the host’s pets to hear:

“’New year, new me?’ Bullshit. Everybody knows that on January 1, I’m gonna be the same asshole I was on December 31. And everybody knows the only thing that will help 2018 is my trying NOT to be as much of an asshole as I was in 2017.”

Really, y’all: The best thing I can do for 2018 is not to be as much of an asshole as I was in 2017.

Part of me knows all I can do is keep making good work. Well, okay—so that “part of me” is more like 95%. The other 5% sidles up all innocent-looking and asks, “But can’t you do something different?  Maybe push yourself harder? Be more business-like? Be more professional? Be more goals-hardcore-grind-objective-brand-network-leverage-bullshit?” (This is when the weird-but-also-kinda-wise 95% of me gives the sad, secretly-self-hating 5% a cautious side-eye and a pat on the head.)

Some readers may be thinking that by all this, I mean to be some kind of doormat, to let others run right over me however they please. Nope, not at all. Being less assholish means that while I’m actively working to be more kind, I’ve also still got to stand up for others, and for myself. In 2017, I drew some boundaries that some people did not like at all. Protecting myself in this way made these people think I was being mean to them. Too bad, so sad. Predators are not welcome here, no matter what form they take.

What’s more: I know I’m not powerful enough to change everything. I cannot know what’s in store for me next year. All I can really do is good work on my end: my own creative work, and my work for justice and transformation in my community. And then hope for the best from that work. That’s all I can control.

However, one thing I do know is that none of my accomplishments in 2017 happened just because of me. Sure, I was the one who wrote the article or made the photo that got published—but the reason I created these things in the first place? Other people.

People who asked what I was working on. People who read my words, gazed at my pictures, asked to see more. People who urged me to keep going, even when I wanted to give up. People who asked for my help with their own projects. People who reassured me that what I’m doing is worthwhile. People who hugged me. People who prayed for me. People who cared.

Whether it was financial help, encouragement, care packages, letters/emails/texts short and long, spreading the word about my work, or [fill in the blank], whatever I accomplished this year is because other people cared. Because you cared. Yes, YOU.

I’m old enough to know that New Year’s resolutions tend not to last very long. Most often, I do better when I’ve had enough of my own bullshit and decide to do something different. So 2018 will find me the same person, in a lot of ways. But I care enough about you to spend the coming year doing two things: making the best work I can, and being less of an asshole than I was last year.

Thank you, as always, for reading. I love you all.

RSW

Photo: “Self-Portrait with Western Shirt and Dark Roots” (LaGrange, Georgia – 10 August 2015)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

New poem up at Anti-Heroin Chic

Here’s some good news to close out 2017! The online journal Anti-Heroin Chic has published my poem For Brian, Somewhere in Upstate South Carolina.

If you’re new to AHC, I think you’ll like what you find there. I sure do. From their “About” page:

Anti-Heroin Chic is a collective journal of poetry, photography, art work, stories, essays, interviews and more. We currently publish on a somewhat rolling basis, featuring anywhere between a dozen to twenty new writers, photographers & artists every month, whose work can be found on our contributor blog page.

‘Anti-Heroin Chic’ meaning that what is beautiful is what is broken, that our imperfections, our exiles, our exclusions, are what define our humanity most, not the polished surface or the Instagram culture which encourages us to dissociate from who and how we truly are. There is a seat for everyone here at this table. The idea of the commune very much animates this project. This journal strives for inclusion and a diversity of voices, not to disparage others but to lift them up.

Many thanks to AHC editor-in-chief James Diaz for publishing my poem. Thanks also to fellow writers Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jon Bennett, and Kim Bailey Spradlin, whose wonderful work I’ve gotten to know via Anti-Heroin Chic.

Photo: “Self-Portrait in Black and Blue” (LaGrange, Georgia – 4 August 2015)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Can I See a Doctor’s Note?

Here’s another story from my many years of teaching college English. I wrote it down a decade ago, and somehow forgot about it until just the other day.

*****

My morning class was finishing an in-class practice essay. One by one, the students completed their essays and walked to the front of the room to turn in their papers. After they’d handed me their practice essays, they were free to leave.

One fellow, smelling of cigarette smoke and some kind of antiseptic, made his way up to where I was sitting. He folded his paper in half lengthwise, handed it to me, and gave me a sheepish little smile. “Just wanted to warn you: that’s probably not very good,” he said, motioning toward his paper on the top of the stack.

Writing students say things like this all the time. “No worries. That’s what this class is for,” I said. “We have individual conferences next week. That way, we can sit down and talk about any essay problems you’re having.”

“Well, no, that’s not it,” he said. He reached under his FREE MARY JANE trucker hat to scratch his head. “I, uhh—well, I spent all weekend in the hospital.”

“Oh no! I’m sorry to hear that! Are you all right now?”

He paused, and grinned again. “Well enough, I guess.” A long pause. “It was, umm, ya know—” He made the motion of turning up a bottle to his mouth. “A little too much, ya know.”

I didn’t get it. “Umm—”

“Alcohol poisoning,” he said. “Went in early Saturday morning, and they just released me at 7:00 this morning to come to class.”

It was Tuesday.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

From the Back Corner Booth

“You gotta watch Wanda: she’ll slip onions in there when you ain’t looking.”
“Rats gotta have cheese. He’s a cheese rat. Bet he could tear up a bag of peanuts.”
“Drop two bacon and a hashbrown, scattered!”

An immaculate red-and-white ’69 Camaro rumbles into the parking lot. Johnny Cash walks the line from the jukebox speakers to my ears as the cooks sing along. I sip my coffee and watch the broken, beautiful world pass by.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

In the Craft Supply Store with Mom

On a shopping trip with my mother, we find ourselves browsing kitschy wall decor in a “big box” arts-and-crafts supply store. Mom spies a piece of mass-produced wall art, all text, with the words nearly 12″ high in mirror-polished steel.

MOM:  [reading] “Faith. Hope. Love.”
ME:  I think it’s from 1 Corinthians. Goes something like, “And these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
MOM:  Oh, that makes sense. It’s a Bible reference. But… [gestures down the aisle]
ME:  But what?
MOM:  The rest of this stuff. It’s just so cheesy. How come nothing else gets any airtime?
ME:  Airtime?
MOM:  Why don’t any other ideas get a mention? You know, realistic ones.
ME:  Such as?
MOM:  “Despair. Oblivion. Hatred.”
ME:  Dammit, Mom.
MOM:  I mean, it’s always the same sappy bullshit. [points to other side of aisle] See? Like this.
ME:  [reading] “Live, Love, Laugh.” Ugh, yeah. And here’s another one: “Dream.”
MOM:  “Dream?” How about, “Give Up?”
ME:  [reading] “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
MOM:  No! “Freak Out and Fuck Off!”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

One Small Voice Against the Storm

The other night, I dreamed I was at a friend’s house during a terrible thunderstorm, the kind of storm that makes people think Armageddon really has arrived. The winds shook the spring-green, baby-leafed trees like eighty-foot-tall pompoms. Parts of people’s houses flew by: downspouts, shingles, screen doors. I could see even darker, nearly-black clouds rolling in from the west.

The green of the trees lit up neon-like against the angry dark gray clouds. Those clouds billowed slow and steady across the fields opposite my friend’s house—embryonic tornadoes, rolling close to the ground. They moved so slowly that at first I thought I could outrun them on foot. But they moved in such a stop-motion, unpredictable way that I knew I’d better not even try. In the vacant lot across the road, half a dozen newborn funnel clouds stood up and lumbered toward us.

The sensible thing to do would have been to run back indoors and hide in the bathtub, or in the crawl space. But for whatever reason, we decided to drive my car into town and take shelter on the university campus. In the basement of one of the huge concrete classroom buildings, we figured, we’d be safe.

As we drove down the narrow country road, the storm grew even stronger. Entire roofs and porches now flew over the car, like dollhouse parts at the mercy of a giant commercial vacuum. We saw people cling to telephone poles and mailbox posts, then lose their grip and disappear into the dark, hungry tornado mouth. The trees whipped in every direction. In the all-powerful wind and rain, proud hickories and towering oaks became as pliable as flimsy ornamental grasses.

When an ancient tulip poplar crashed across both lanes of the road, I stopped the car. We were about to get out and head for the ditch—another last-resort place to hide from a tornado—when we felt the car’s rear end lift, fall, and lift again.

Then the tornado was upon us.

It yawned wide, and again picked up the car by the rear axle. We were now suspended in the air, far above the ground. For a moment, I thought my hands had grown into the steering wheel. I couldn’t even scream. But then the car began to shudder. Through my terror, my words returned.

“This is it?” I shouted. “This is how it’s supposed to end?” I grabbed my friend and held her against me, shielding her face from the chaos swirling just beyond the windshield.

The tornado shrieked louder, and bobbled the car a little. It was trying to scare me, trying to shut me up. I held my friend even tighter, and kept shouting.

“I can’t believe this—after everything she’s been through.” The winds rocked the car again, dipping the front end and then the back. “Her grandmother, two uncles, an aunt, and her husband have all died over the last year.” Tears rolled down my cheeks. “And now you bring her this?”

The car began spinning counter-clockwise, with an occasional, ungainly dip back toward the earth. Now the tornado was just toying with us—just a bully, picking on two much smaller kids in the far corner of the playground.

My anger rose. One way or another, life or death, that storm would know forever that I had its stupid little game all figured out.

“So this is the best you could do, huh? A tornado?” The car’s rear end dipped again. This time, the roller-coaster feeling in my solar plexus did not unnerve me. “Talk about corny! You’ll have to come up with something better.”

The tornado’s mouth opened wide. It meant to swallow us whole. Soon, we would be scattered all over the west Georgia countryside. Images came to me of search parties finding our various unidentifiable body parts flung hither and yon, mixed with bits of vegetation and scraps of Honda.

Nope. This would not do.

I poured out my rage at the gigantic gray funnel. “No! NO! You cannot have her! NO!”

The towering column lurched away from us. Its monstrous roar turned to a sputter, and then a frightened half-cough. The car leaned suddenly to one side, and then gently floated back to the ground. I peered up into the swirling vortex, only to watch it turn a lighter gray, then white, and then disappear. I turned to my friend. “Are you okay?” She nodded yes.

I awoke in awe at the power of one small voice against the storm.

Photo: “Metal Roof and Storm” (LaGrange, Georgia – 23 November 2014)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Cedars at Christmas

As I drive around the countryside in late December, I look along the winter-brown roadside for the familiar fuzzy evergreen clouds. They’re far easier to spot this time of year.

They float along old fence lines, these tubby juniper ghosts, at the very edge of the right-of-way. They bide their time where state DOT and Army Corps of Engineers property ends, where the natural world waits to wreck the built and overrun the mechanized. Often, their shredded gray trunks smirk and pucker around twisted steel—We can’t grow here, huh? HA! Stupid barbed wire. That’ll teach you. 

When I was a child in rural east Alabama and west Georgia, these dark green blobs of badass were our Christmas trees.

Eastern red cedar, or Juniperus virginiana, grows all the way from southeastern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. A pioneer invader, it prefers pitiful, ragged-out, freshly-cleared land. However, unlike other potentially invasive species, it can live for centuries if left alone. My grandfather’s farm included several cedars with trunks nearly three feet thick. For the most part, though, the ones I notice are between four and seven feet tall, just the right size for the average living room.

I remember only one tree-cutting walk, far behind our house outside Rock Mills, Alabama. We were likely on someone else’s land. My father had to have known this. But, seeing how eastern red cedars alkalize pasture soil and steal nitrogen from forage crops, maybe the landowners would not have cared. Daddy cut it down with a hatchet and a hacksaw, then dragged the tree behind him for the half-hour walk back to the house, my sister and me following as quickly as our little legs could manage.

In this old photo, the short, squat little cedar looks as lush now as it did then to my three-year-old eyes. It sits atop the blanket chest—also red cedar—that my great-grandfather made around the end of the First World War. That same blanket chest now guards my guest room.

Christmas tree farms make me uneasy. Their offerings, while pretty, are not of this land. Their trees’ native soils lie hundreds of miles north and west of here. While I am glad they bring joy while exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, they are just not for me.

Those plush needles stay too neatly combed. Too-tidy firs and spruces demand unreasonable cheerfulness and forced smiles. They heap manufactured happiness on top of organic, deeply rooted sorrow. And they act surprised when the needle-fine roots of that sorrow break back up through the soil.

Thanks, but I’ll skip the farmed Dick and Jane Reader perfection. I like a little asymmetry, a little imperfection, with my major holidays. Instead, give me an eastern red cedar, thriving at pasture’s edge. Give me slowly shredding grayish-tan bark. Give me perfumed red heartwood that swallows barbed wire and NO HUNTING signs along Georgia Highway 219. Give me needles growing in all directions like an overcaffeinated moth-repellent pompom. Wherever I go, for the rest of my days, the trees I have known and loved stay with me.

Photo: “Detail, Red Cedar Christmas: Rock Mills, Alabama, 1976”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Bullet Holes, Either Way

At this shot-up sign, County Road 20 dead-ends into State Highway 22, near Rock Mills, Alabama. Years ago, just behind this sign, a rickety shack once balanced on stilt-like pillars. How no car ever missed the road’s end and crashed into that house, I will never know.

I was born in Randolph County. My childhood home is about three miles from this intersection. My paternal grandmother’s childhood home, demolished in the 1980s, was just half a mile from here. My sister and I grew up with our grandparents about seven miles away, in Glenn, Georgia.

All these places say “Home” to me.

“Bullet Holes, Either Way”
Rock Mills, Alabama – 16 June 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Snake Bones

By the front steps, I discovered the remains of a small snake, decomposed beyond the point of species identification. One of the outdoor cats probably killed and brought it to the front of the house, an offering to the human who feeds them. Or perhaps it was instruction in how to hunt: “See? This is what you do. Start small, and work up.”

Tiny ribs protrude from the delicate spine, barely larger than hairs; the jaw still opens in a last threatening hiss. An omen? Impossible to say. The surprise of horrible beauty stays with me just the same.

Photo: “Snake Skeleton, Sept. 2013”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

More Things I Have Overheard at Funerals

A:  Look!
B:  At what?
A:  Over by the casket.
B:  Oh, for the love of God. Who wears hot pants to their grandmother’s funeral?

*****

B:  Well. That was interesting.
C:  You got that right. I mean, karaoke? At a funeral?
B:  [sings] Byyyyye-byyyyyye, Miss American Pie!
C:  I’ve never been to a funeral where the preacher sings along with a boom box. Well, not until today.

*****

A:  I know why Mrs. H______ finally died.
B:  Why?
A:  She ran out of people to stay with.

*****

D:  That sure was a nice eulogy M_______’s daughter gave.
E:  Mmm-hmm. So nice that it took every bit of strength I had not to stand up and say, “Who are you even talking about?!? It sure as hell ain’t your mama!”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Caturday: 12/2/17

“Black Cat with J.P.”
LaGrange, Georgia – 3 November 2017
Model: Miller (with a copy of John Prine: In Spite of Himself by Eddie Huffman)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

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Photo: “Self-Portrait in Gray and Navy Stripes” (Rabun County, Georgia – 5 October 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Friday Photo: 12/1/17


“Sorrow in the Library Window”
LaGrange College
LaGrange, Georgia – 20 October 2017

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

My Sister Helps Me Write a Throwback Thursday Post

ME:  Look, I need help with this “Throwback Thursday” post.
VAL:  Help?
ME:  I can’t think of anything to write.
VAL:  Hmmmmm. Oh! Remember that public TV show, 3-2-1 Contact? And when we were really little, how I’d call it “Rumma-Tumma-Summa,” just to piss you off?
ME:  It still pisses me off, 40 years later.
VAL:  Or how we were our own Dukes of Hazzard sibling pair, driving around in our “car” which was just our two matching kid-sized rocking chairs side-by-side? And how we named our car “The Doobie”—like the Duke boys named theirs “The General Lee”—but nobody bothered to tell us what a doobie actually was?
ME:  What? I don’t even remember that.
VAL:  Okay, uhhh—how about that time you crawled into an old 55-gallon drum with the ends cut out so you could roll down the backyard hill? You got up some speed by the clothesline and BLAM! crashed sideways into the well-house wall.
ME:  Nobody wants to read about my first concussion.
VAL: Nah, probably not. But here’s a good one—when we were in high school, and you sat straight up in bed one night, in the middle of a dream and shouted, “Needs more sauce!”
ME: Oh, for God’s sake.
VAL: Oooh! Oooh! I’ve got it! The time when you were a baby, just learning to walk, and somehow you got behind the sofa and ate a dead spider.
ME:  No.
VAL:  Why not?
ME:  Because Mom swears it was poop, not a spider, and she’ll post something on Facebook to that effect.
VAL:  So was it?
ME:  Was it what?
VAL:  Was it poop?
ME:  Forget it. No Throwback Thursday this week.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Be Kind to Yourself This Holiday Season

It’s the night before Thanksgiving, and my social media newsfeeds are filled with holiday stories. I read along as scores of people tell of the frantic cooking, cleaning, packing, traveling, and visiting they’ve done (or are still doing). Most seem to enjoy the beginning of the winter holiday marathon.

I admire these people. They’re better at entertaining and conversation than I’ll ever be. But I also know far more people who secretly dread those crushing five or six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. People dealing with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other chronic conditions often struggle to make it through the winter holiday season without falling apart.

Yep, I see y’all out there. I’m one of you. And I write to you today to say: It’s okay. You’re not alone.

Twenty-plus years ago, long before any of my diagnoses, I forced myself to attend every family holiday party. I thought I had no choice. I knew my relatives would say bad things about me if I weren’t there. Even though my mental health suffered from the lack of quiet and processing time between events, I still went. And, long after the holidays were over, I hated myself for being this way.

It took me many years to understand what was really going on. Decades later, I came to see that those relatives would talk about me—and anybody else who was different from them—no matter what. I could go to the party, or stay home, but they’d still somehow find fault with me. Hell, I could’ve walked in with my very own Nobel Prize for literature, and they still would’ve found something to frown and sneer and whisper about.

Today, well into middle age, I understand now what I didn’t back then. I feel empathy for that lost, confused, sad person who loathed herself for not being like everyone else. I try to make it up to “younger me” by treating myself with kindness during the holiday season.

What helps me most? Quiet time by myself and as much sleep as I can manage. If I do any shopping, I do it during the least-crowded times of day. If I’m feeling particularly frazzled, I ask loved ones if I can drop by and see them when they don’t have a house full of people.

Spending time outdoors helps, too, even if it’s cold and I’m all bundled up. So does marking off the days on a calendar: “Ah, just two more weeks until the holidays are over. I think I can make it.” When the forced jolliness and extroversion feel as if they’re about to flatten me, I try to think about just today. Or just this hour. Or even just the next ten minutes.

Most importantly: if someone’s being particularly awful, I give myself permission to leave. In the moment, I may or may not tell them to go to hell—but I will remove myself from the scene of their bullshittery. The holidays are tough enough without a PTSD relapse. Those are particularly unpleasant, and if I can avoid one, I will.

Yes, I’m a Southerner, but I draw a big, thick “hospitality line” around my sanity with an extra-large permanent marker. Jerks do not deserve my company. My mental health is one thing I will not sacrifice for someone else’s comfort. Besides, as the saying goes: Life is short, and I am not the Asshole Whisperer.

Now and then, in the thick of the holidays, I forget to follow my own advice. That’s when I stumble. It takes me a while to get back to my version of “normal.” I try not to beat myself up about this. (The key word here is “try.”)

Wherever Thanksgiving and the weeks to come may find you, I wish you peace and calm. I hope you can show yourself the kindness you deserve as you navigate this potentially difficult time of the year. You’re in good company.

You are worth showing yourself a little kindness. When you catch yourself feeling horrible, know that I’m right there with you and many, many others. We’re all in this together, surviving the holidays a little at a time.

Photo: Self-Portrait in Black, Rabun Gap (Rabun County, Georgia – 3 October 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

If Blake Shelton Is the Sexiest Man Alive, Then I Am the Jolly Green Giant

So People Magazine has declared country singer [sic] Blake Shelton their 2017 Sexiest Man Alive. And this country music scholar HAS SOME STRONG OPINIONS.

Sexiest Man Alive? In what universe? Have we just stopped trying, as a society? (Wait, no, don’t answer that.) Y’all, I can go to any bar in any town on a Friday night and find half a dozen middle-aged white dudes who look just like this. Standing on any street in downtown Nashville, I can throw a rock with my eyes closed and hit 20 Shelton look-alikes. It’s a goddamn travesty.

Hell, I could browse my Facebook friends list and easily find a couple hundred men who are sexier than Blake Shelton, plus none of them have cheesy-ass redneck stereotype tattoos. Nor do any of them look like everybody’s ne’er-do-well uncle who’s 48 and still lives at home but dresses like he’s 18 and just stepped out of an Ed Hardy photo shoot. (Don’t act like you don’t know which uncle I’m talking about.) Mmmmmmmm, smell that entire can of Axe body spray he fumigated himself with put on before exiting his room.

Jesus, Mary, and Johnny Cash help us.

People Magazine really needs to rethink this whole Sexiest Man Alive deal. Or at least NOT make it so cheap that any middling country star with a regular role on a TV “talent” show can buy the title for $25,000. Means about as much as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which costs about the same—and there are upwards of 5,000 of those damn things making Tinseltown sidewalks that much uglier.

Since you asked (and I know you didn’t, but too bad, because I’m telling you anyway) here’s my definitive list of things that are sexier than Blake Shelton:

Bronchitis
A dirty litter box
2 gallons of mayonnaise
The rear view mirror on a ’92 Oldsmobile
Stewed tomatoes
The Pruitt-Igoe implosion
A colonoscopy
Merkins
Stale Coors Light
A partially demolished CMU wall
No. 10 envelopes
Dentures
An outboard motor
Partially-used roll of tracing paper
MRI room doors
Conjunctivitis
Tom Petty’s ghost
Mortgage insurance
Creepy church fans
Dental floss
Murphy’s Oil Soap
205R65 steel-belted radials
Store-brand maxi pads
Any K-Tel Kenny Rogers box set
A 22-ounce framing hammer
The Microsoft Excel formula for compound interest
Elevation drawings of any Frank Gehry building
The ladies’ restroom on Saturday night at the Flora-Bama Club

Seriously: If Blake Shelton is the Sexiest Man Alive, then my 5’2″ ass is the Jolly Green Giant. Now, if y’all will excuse me, I’m gonna sit over here in the corner and drink bourbon (neat) while I sing “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger.”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Georgia 109 Spur

Sunday, summer. Hot. Humid.
Nearly a hundred at a quarter til noon.
How the world stays plump and green in this steam, I do not know.

In the opposite lane, warming itself: a box turtle. No—a pinecone.
In my lane, warming itself: a shredded fan belt. No—a king snake.
Wheels dodge, spin past.
Neither moves.

By the old Whatley place, two does materialize. From the furry green ditch, their eyes ask permission. I slow. They traverse the double yellow line, as always graceful yet unsure, as always one at a time.

A squirrel, bushy tail an eternal question mark, never asks permission. Zig-zag-zig-zigzig-zag-ZIG! across pavement and almost-not-safely into tall grass.

In the hollow by the Primitive Baptist cemetery, a great blue heron glides across the tops of the pines. Wide blue-gray wings, yellow legs, crooked flight-neck: hello, hello, goodbye.

All an omen, all a blessing—all a signal of hope.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: This encore post first appeared on 22 June 2014.

 

In which I witness Grace and Love in action

For a while now, people have been asking me about setting up a patron campaign. You know, something with rewards for a monthly pledge, kind of like the patronage system of the Renaissance (except without all the Medici intrigue and espionage and murder). I know several other artists whose patrons–their fans, their readers–gladly support their productivity.

I thought about that for a long time, almost two years. But something in me just wouldn’t let me reconcile myself to it. “What? Let folks show me how much they enjoy my work? Give them special new pieces in return for their money?”

“It’s not the right time,” I kept telling myself. “It’s just not the right moment to think up a patron thingy. I dunno, it’s just not the right time, not yet.”

The truth was–and I couldn’t yet see it–that I didn’t fully believe my work was worthy of people’s support. I didn’t believe my work was worthy of the love people had been showing it. If I didn’t think my work was worthy of love and support, then who else would? And if that was true, then why on earth was I still writing, still taking photos?

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t think my way around this mental block. But then an answer came to me, when and where I least expected one.

A few nights ago, I dreamed that I was living in a run-down apartment building somewhere several hours from home. In this dream, I was moving out of the building–“going home” at the end of my long, unhappy time in this place. My apartment was on the fourth floor. It was accessible only by a rickety set of metal stairs on the outside of the building. And I was one of the last people to move out of the dingy building.

I was sad, but not because I was leaving this awful place. No, I was sad because I had so many things so pack, and they were so disorganized that I was overwhelmed to the point of tears. I needed to be out as soon as possible…but how, with only myself to sort and pack what looked like ten years’ worth of disorganized belongings? On top of this, I had no transportation besides my feet–no car, no moving van, not even a rickety bicycle.

All I can really do, I thought, is pack some clothes in a small suitcase, and set out on foot. It would take at least a week to walk home, if I made it at all. I sat down on the dirty sofa and began to sob.

Just then, someone knocked on the door. I opened it to find several dozen people standing there: former students, longtime friends, new friends, neighbors, and even a few total strangers. The “ringleader” of the group blushed and smiled, and gave me a sheepish wave. “Hi! We came by to help.”

Before I could stammer my customary polite “Oh, no thanks, I’ve got it,” the group pushed past me into my messy room. Then they got to work.

Three former students grabbed my baskets of dirty clothes: “We’re going to the laundromat! Back in a little while.” Several other people brought empty cardboard boxes and began filling them with my belongings. I watched in awe as they seemed to know exactly which items I wanted to leave behind and which items I wanted to take with me. They packed my dishes in layers of old newspaper, placing each inside the box so it wouldn’t jostle against the others and break.

Two more people bounded through the door: “We got the van! Y’all bring down some boxes!” I peered out the grimy bathroom window. In the parking lot by the dormitory door sat a moving van. A writer friend waved to me from the open passenger window. On the metal stairway, a long line of people stretched down four floors. Each person carried at least one large box.

I returned to the living area to see more people bearing pizza boxes and grocery bags full of drinks and snacks. “We figured you probably hadn’t eaten,” one said. “So we thought we’d go ahead and get food for everyone.” Other friends kept me focused and happy, guiding me through each area of my room: “Do you want to take these towels? How about this pan? That bowl? These socks?”

When I peered out the door, I saw my ringleader friend and some former students skipping like little kids down the hallway. Cardboard boxes in one arm, they high-fived each other as they made their way out to the staircase. Back inside the apartment, everyone’s eyes shone with joy and compassion and love.

I awoke to the sound of pouring rain outside my bedroom window. I sat up in bed–three cats lay asleep at my feet. One snored next to my knees.

I lay back down and marveled at the kindness–even in dreams–of the people around me. I marveled at how that kindness reappears to buoy me when I think I may sink for good. In the dream, I felt stuck and helpless. In the dream, the people who see me for who I really am appeared out of nowhere, and helped me make the impossible possible. 

This was the miracle of other people’s love. This was the miracle that is Grace in motion.

In the dream, I did what I had been unable to do in waking life: I listened to these friends, and to the wisdom and love in their actions, their smiles, their presence. For once, I understood: This is Grace in action. This is love and kindness and healing, a huge interconnected net of help that I didn’t even know existed. Yet it had still been wrapped around me, around ALL of us, the whole time. In the dream, after a lifetime of not trusting others, of trying (and failing) to do it all on my own–I let go, let myself fall backwards into that web of love and grace.

The dream’s message was clear: People love you. People love your work. Now let them help.

Here’s the link to the campaign.

Thank you for cheering me on, for supporting my work in whatever ways you can and do. Your encouragement means so, so much to me.

Even if you can’t pledge, keep checking in. As always, I’ll post new material at least three days a week on my website. I’ll be posting some free public content on the Patreon page, stuff you won’t see elsewhere. And I also post a lot of stuff on social media–so keep on liking, commenting, sharing, and telling your friends about my work.

Thank you again for everything. I love you all.

RSW

 

Photo: “Self-Portrait with Stripes, Rabun Gap” (Rabun County, Georgia – 5 October 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Story for All Hallows’ Eve

Most Halloweens I spend at my mother’s house. It’s the same house where her father was born in 1922. Like many old houses, it has plenty of stories to tell. And it won’t tell them to just anyone. Oh, no. The house plays favorites when it has something to say.

In non-drought years, Halloween means we build a bonfire in Mom’s yard, then make s’mores and tell family ghost stories. We listen to the deep, hollow hoo-hoo-hoooooot of the great horned owls in the pasture next door. Sometimes, well after dark, the local coyotes begin choir practice. Their not-quite-dog-like barking, their yip-yip-yip-yip-ooooooOOOOOO! far off in the woods, stirs up in the human heart something ancient and primal. That’s when Mom and I feel the hair stand up on the backs of our necks. It’s our All Hallows’ signal to grab the dogs and scurry back indoors.

Since 1834, there has been a house on this spot in Heard County, Georgia. The original cabin burned in the 1880s; people built another using the foundation and field-stone pillars from the first house. When that one burned 30 years later, they built yet another house. That’s the one my mother and stepfather live in today.

Mom and Steve have spent the last couple decades renovating the house, taking what was essentially a falling-down sharecropper’s shack and turning it into a cozy home in the woods. It now has insulation, gas heaters, a full kitchen, and two bathrooms with hot running water. They even refinished the 14-inch-wide heart pine floors, original to the early 1900s version of the house and likely similar to the floors in the first two houses on this site.

The ghost story about the house that I always heard goes something like this:

Late July 1864 saw one of west central Georgia’s few Civil War battles: McCook’s Raid, in what is now Coweta County (about 45 miles east of Mom’s house). In the days after the battle, one Union soldier appeared, on horseback, on the dirt road that once passed in front of the house. The soldier, who didn’t look much older than a teenager, was all by himself.

He wasn’t in good shape, either. He was slumped over onto the horse’s neck, over the horn of his saddle, unconscious. The skin-and-bones horse seemed to follow the road of its own accord, carrying its rider per its beastly duty. The people inside the house no doubt heard the hooves clop-clop-clop on packed dirt, and walked onto the porch to stare.

Just then, the Union soldier fell off his horse into the middle of the road, a dead-weight heap in blue homespun. His eyelids did not even flutter as the people ran out into the road, hoisted him by his armpits and ankles, and brought him inside.

They lay the soldier on a straw mattress, and fetched fresh water from the well out back for some cold compresses. The Union soldier was still knocked out, and now sweating profusely.  He was very badly cut and bruised. Other than his ragged dark blue uniform, the young man offered no other clues as to his identity. The people wondered if he had been wounded in a nearby battle. Or perhaps he had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants, many miles from where he was now.

There were no letters from home stashed inside the young man’s coat—no mementos, no lock of hair, no faded daguerreotypes of loved ones waiting for his return. He simply lay there in the bed, barely breathing, just a kid sent far from home by a country who probably didn’t even know where he was.

He never woke up, and died the next morning.

They buried him in the cemetery 300 feet down the road. His coffin was made from weathered old boards pried off of the barn. They marked his grave with a large rock. It was all they had.

In the spring of 1928, C.B. Adamson decided it was time that the unknown Union soldier had a fitting tribute. C.B. was a child when the solider died at the house on the ridge. So he composed a long poem for the soldier, and went down to the graveyard, where he mixed up some homemade concrete, poured the fellow a gravestone, and stamped the poem in the wet concrete. Community historians sent a request to Washington, DC for an official Union Army headstone. When it arrived, they placed it next to the concrete slabs. Despite nearly 100 years of harsh weather and occasional neglect, the unknown soldier’s grave is still intact. Caretakers patched the slabs back together a few years ago after an ice storm sent a four-foot-thick white oak crashing into their center.

When Mom moved down here from Michigan in 1969, her grandparents were still living in the old house where she lives today. She moved in with them until she could find a job and apartment. In 1989, she returned to Heard County, and has lived in the family home ever since. Of course, Mom grew up hearing stories of the Union soldier’s ghost. While she’s never seen him, she’s heard him walking around and felt his presence in the house.

“When I hear him,” she says, “it’s usually the sound of heavy boots along the floor—like the boots don’t fit very well, or maybe the person’s feet really hurt. It happens when I’m the only one at home. Other times, it’s just a funny feeling I get, like someone’s in the room with me or is watching me. But when I look up, nobody’s there.”

On Halloween 2006, Mom and I made our usual bonfire a good, safe 50 feet from the house. About 9:30 that night, I turned my back to the fire and was finishing the last of the s’mores as I watched how the blaze illuminated much of the yard. For safety’s sake, we’d left the lights on in the kitchen, dining room, and living room—the rooms on the west side of the house, and the ones I into which I could see from where I stood in the yard.

That’s when I saw him in the house.
A man.
Dressed in dark blue.

He walked from left to right: starting in the kitchen, he made his way slowly through the dining room, and into the living room. I watched the man, of average height and build, walk along and reach with his right hand as if to open a door. His dark blue sleeve reached to his knuckles, as if his shirt or coat were several sizes too large. He walked steadily through the house, opening one door and the next, passing by all the windows. When he reached the living room’s old chimney. . .he vanished.

“Mom, is someone in the house?”

“Nobody but the cats. Why?”

I blinked hard, and began shaking. “I just saw someone walk through the house. From the kitchen, to the dining room, on through to the living room.”

Mom sat straight up in her lawn chair by the fire. “What?”

“I swear to God, Mom. I just saw somebody walk through the house. A man, wearing a long-sleeved blue coat or shirt.”

Mom was quiet for a long moment, then turned to me. “You know what this means, right?”

“No. . .”

“It means you’re the first person I know who’s actually seen the unknown Union soldier.”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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