Mattie and Ethan

Since our screened-in back porch has been changed into a sunroom, I can’t stay out of it. Before dawn, on and off throughout the day, and even at dusk (like now), I find myself coming out here to read, write, do schoolwork, watch the neighbor’s cat, look at the trees (pine, cedar, magnolia, river oak, and so forth). I can hear the cicadas and birds. One day three deer dashed between our property line and the neighbor’s. 

It’s a perfect setting. It lets me enjoy nature’s beauty without her fluctuating temperatures or windblown allergens.

That said, yesterday, I spent most of the day out here reading (rereading) Ethan Frome. “Why?” you may wonder. That’s the question my friend asked me with a quizzical look this afternoon. It’s hard to articulate why except to say that sometimes a book can affect a person so much that she can recollect not just the plot but also the emotions, environment, and hopelessness of the characters even after fifty years. Bear in mind that this is not a book I often think of unless someone mentions it specifically. And yet, Sunday an event took place that immediately brought Mattie Silver to mind. 

It happened at church—or rather on the way in to church. Head down and eyes glued to the iPhone screen, I didn’t see the high curb and ran right into it, tripping and beginning to fall on the concrete sidewalk. This can’t be happening, I thought, and tried to stop the process. It semi-worked, meaning that I didn’t end up immobile on the sidewalk. I was able to get in a crouching position that lessened the impact when I eventually “went down,” scraping palms, knees, and chin. My chin got the worst of the fall and began to bleed profusely. Fortunately, I was wearing a multicolored duster that camouflaged the blood. Embarrassed, weak, and a little dizzy, I walked into the building, down the hall, and into the restroom to do a little doctoring up. After a few dabs with a wet paper towel, I walked into the chapel where my daughter-in-law applied a Band-Aid.

All was well for a few minutes. Then my jaw began to ache. Next my neck felt stiff. That’s when the panic set in. A vision of Mattie Silver (Matt to Ethan) appeared in my mind’s eye. One moment in her life changed her into an invalid forever. Forever. What if I could no longer move my neck? What if my jawbone was not only bruised but broken? And what if my teeth fell out? Would Urgent Care be open when church was over?

I’m not an alarmist. I am, however, becoming increasingly aware of how one quick moment in a person’s life can change him or her evermore. I’m also increasingly aware of how literature, especially by the pen of someone like Edith Wharton, can affect someone’s thinking and feeling for years. As I told my friend today, I can’t imagine being able to write like Mrs. Wharton. Not to worry, she said. Only one in a million can do that. We were just chatting; there was nothing scientific about our numbers. 

What I’m trying to say is that literature counts. Words are powerful. Stories affect us and come unbidden into our minds even after decades. I’ll never be able to write like Edith Wharton, but does that matter? We all have stories to share that can help others to gain insight, feel inspiration, or get up and moving again.

Posted in books, fiction, inspiration, novels, readng, story telling, Uncategorized, words, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Faulkner’s Nancy

I joined a writing group several years ago and quickly saw that I was outnumbered. Everyone except me wrote poetry or fiction; some people wrote both. I read, enjoyed, and critiqued their submissions, and they read and critiqued mine. Hard to say whether they enjoyed them or not. I occasionally said things like, “I wish I could write fiction, but I just can’t.” Sometimes I’d switch it up a little and say, “If I had imaginations like you guys, I could write fiction, but I’m just not creative enough.” 

Their unanimous reply: yes, you can. With their encouragement and tutelage, I’m experimenting a little and have been fortunate enough to get some stories published. Buoyed by publication and hope, I want to walk down the fiction path a little further. I’m working on some ideas the group gave me to improve a story a couple of weeks ago: (1) embed the facts into the narrative instead of having them stuck there in textbook form. (2) give the protagonist a voice—or better yet, a backbone. She’s too subservient. 

Remembering the adage about good readers being good writers, I read (in some cases, reread) several short stories to see how the authors introduced the story, developed the plot, and described the characters (their appearance and personalities). Every story I read dealt with social injustice or some other universal theme without spelling it out. Everything was embedded. I can do this, I thought.

But then I read Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” and wondered Who do you think you’re kidding? You can’t do this. The man was a master. He wrote novels, screenplays, short stories, essays, and poetry. He also said, “Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t try to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” So I’m not comparing myself to someone like him or any other famous writer. I’m just trying to do better than myself.

Some say all human emotions can be narrowed down to varieties of sad, glad, mad, and scared. Naturally, this concept is more complex than it sounds on the surface. Ever thought of the degrees of sadness? Some people are sad because they that they don’t get to eat pizza, while others are so depressed that they feel it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Here’s a quote from a clinically depressed woman: “I felt like I was walking waist deep in mud every day.” It’s not my intention to go down that road. I just want to mention that Faulkner’s words evoked each of those emotions and their nuances except for glad in “That Evening Sun.” There’s nothing to be glad, happy, joyful, or even positive about in that story.

We feel the terror (scared) Nancy feels as she knows Jesus (her husband) is lying in wait to kill her; annoyance at Caddy’s mother who’s perturbed (anger) that her husband is actually going to leave her all alone to walk Nancy home; angry with Mr. Stovall who kicked Nancy in the mouth with his heel just because she asked him when he was going to pay her; and heavy sadness when she spat out blood and teeth. As mentioned above, there was nothing to be glad about. The poor soul tried to hang herself, and after the jailer revives her, he beats her. As a friend of mine would say, “Dayum.”

I’m not giving up or saying, “I can’t.” Although I won’t be able to rise to Faulkner’s level in embedding social injustice in this harsh, sad story, I can take his advice and try to be better than myself…better than yesterday. I don’t have to rise to Faulkner’s level…or to that of my contemporaries.

P. S. I’m sad and mad and scared as I think of the social injustice that exists today. Faulkner’s story deals with racial inequality; mine deals with gender differences. My protagonist has choices; Nancy doesn’t. Read the story; you won’t be sorry.

Posted in critique groups, editing, fiction, nonfiction, readng, short stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Studebaker or Chevrolet?

Is there a friend of mine, Facebook or otherwise, who doesn’t know I’ve been working on a family history for nearly two years? Each time I’m “done,” someone finds an error, has a different memory of events, or wants to add a story.

Errors:

A true-blue friend and former English teacher volunteered (really) to give it a read-through and found a few dozen pesky things. Why did you write 1960’s with an apostrophe? There’s no possession going on. She was right, of course, but the only respond I could offer at the time was, “I’ve seen it that way.” She agreed that was a common error and could understand my reasoning, but….I corrected the years. I also took her advice and changed meagre to meager, especially since after reading Benjamin Dreyer’s An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. If you live in America, he says, use the American spelling, not the British one.

After correcting the errors and adding a few photographs, I discovered some grievous errors on my part: incorrect birthdates for three of my grandchildren. What kind of history book uses incorrect dates for something so important? And what kind of history is all fact and no story?

Additions:

Since I was working to make the history as accurate and interesting as possible, I decided to add a story about my paternal grandfather and Aunt Polly, his only daughter. Apparently, Polly was learning to skate, and fearful that she might hurt herself, Granddaddy went to the skating rink with her, following behind her with a pillow to cushion any falls. Yesterday, one of my daughters told me she loved that story because it revealed something about their relationship and about Granddaddy’s concern for his little girl.

A brother asked about genealogy. Hmmm. I went two generations before my parents and two afterwards. Maybe the second edition will add some more begats IF someone else is willing to add them.

Memory Differences: At last, I uploaded the absolute final manuscript, confident that all was well. Or at least it was as good as it was going to be until someone else stepped up and volunteered to help with a second edition. I distributed the updated version, and although everything seemed fine, my sister said, “You know, it wasn’t a black and aqua Studebaker we traveled in to Oklahoma. It was a beige Chevrolet Biscayne.”

I could hardly swallow  “Are you sure?” I asked her.

“Yes, we had a Studebaker at some point, but that’s not the one we went to Fort Sill in.”

I asked one of my brothers. He agreed with her. Grrr.

Oh, and an aunt insists that her aunt, one of my great-aunts, lived in town, not in a small house down the road from my great-grandparents.

“But I wrote down what you told me,” I said, more than a little miffed.

“Why would I have told you something that wasn’t true? she asked.

“How would I have thought of something like that on my own?” I whined.

So here we are, months after the most recent version, and I’m trying to decide whether to get the car and the location of Aunt Marge’s house right or leave them alone, leaning on the truth that memory is part reconstruction. We did have a Chevy Biscayne, but what year was that?

Of this I am certain. Family history is important, and stories go a long way in making ancestors come alive. Advice anyone?

Posted in ancestry, Benjamin Dreyer, books, editing, families, family history, nonficion, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing projects | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Some Stories Need to be Told

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Some stories need to be told. That’s what I learned in the writing group last week. No, that’s not quite true. I already knew the importance of telling stories, particularly those that might shed light on a subject, situation, behavior, decision, person—no reason to list all the possibilities because you already know them.

The group had critiqued a short story that I’ve been playing with for a couple of years. No exaggeration. I couldn’t finish it, but I couldn’t let it go either. When a member of the group asked if and what I planned to submit, I told her yes, maybe, we’ll see, I don’t know, no, we’ll see, and if I have time.Both of us have been busy with other endeavors lately and haven’t been writing as much as we were at one time, so we were encouraging each other to write something, even if it was a revision of something we’d submitted before.

I told my friend, “I was thinking of sharing the events of the moment when ___________.”

  1. I knew the abuse had to stop.
  2. I decided to join a gang.
  3. I knew I’d never do drugs.
  4. I learned the true meaning of feminism.

It’s (4) above. She knew immediately what I was referring to. “The night the lightbulb came on while you folded laundry and stacked it neatly into a blue basket?”

“Yeah, that one. Can’t believe you remember it.”

Without hesitation, she said, “How could I forget? Yes, yes, write it. It’s a defining moment in your life.”

“But,” I said, “there are always other people to consider.”

“Good Lord, it’s your life, your story, and you own everything that’s happened to you. And if you don’t’ write it, I’m stealing it. With a few changes, it could be mine.”

So I revised the story, embellishing it with a few extra details and taking out some of the uncomfortable parts. You can’t fool the writers in my group. Too sharp not to recognize a candy-coated fictional account, they said the writing was good…but not honest. “Go deeper,” someone said, and everyone else nodded in agreement.

I turned to a member who had submitted a heart-wrenching piece of nonfiction and asked about the people in her account. How would they react to her manuscript if they read it? “I’ve thought about it long and hard. Some stories need to be told.”

I’m remembering the discussion tonight and thinking of the many stories that have helped me stay on course, perceive a situation more clearly, or take a chance. Here’s one from a young student who told a class in a casual, flat tone that she’d often come home from school to find her mother’s friends sprawled out on the couch or floor in a drug-induced state.

We had been having a discussion on categories of drugs and their effects, all textbookish and sterile. But then that…that comment hushed everyone as all considered the scene she described. After a few seconds that seemed like several minutes, she said, “Oh, they never bothered me or nothing. I just knew not to ask friends over.”

That was twenty years ago. I don’t know where that young woman is today. She could be a politician, missionary, mother of ten, social worker, dermatologist, or dancer. But I’m pretty sure that everyone present in that classroom thought twice or three times before trying drugs. I’m personally haunted by her story.

Later today, I hope to tweak (4) above. I know there are people who need to read it.

 

Posted in personal choices, short stories, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing groups, writing tips | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

An Hour in Azio’s

In the mood for a little adventure, one of my daughters and I cruised up to Shallotte, NC for a few hours Monday. As usual, I came away remembering how much we all need a little variety, especially when there’s a pot of gold at the end. We visited a great bookstore with lots of ambience and hundreds of used books. CDs, and records. We browsed for an hour or so before deciding on our selections (3 for $6), and we both came away with some wonderful books, fiction and nonfiction.

Having never read anything by Primo Levi, I picked up Survival in Auschwitz (originally published as If This Is a Man in Italian) and have been reading it ever since. It’s powerful. Heartbreaking and disturbing, Levi’s remembrances and reflections have made me angry and sorrowful, angry at man’s inhumanity to man and sorrowful that cruelty is so widespread.

For the record, I started the novel Tuesday and am still not finished. The reason is simple. The horror is too much to understand, much less to process and absorb except in pieces. I took it to be beach to read yesterday, hoping that the sun, seagulls, and squealing, happy children would take away some of the darkness. My plan failed. I’ve been a sheltered WASP my entire life, fortunate enough to grow up safe from bullying, persecution, and hatred. While there were a few Jews in my sleepy little Southern town, I didn’t personally know them. They seemed shrouded in mystery and came to mind mainly when I passed the small synagogue

It’s not my purpose to describe genocide, Jewish or Rwandan or any other group, and outline its varied history. I just want to encourage you to read Levi’s remarkable account of suffering, endurance, and hope. He relates the facts of day-to-day living and his impressions and reflections about his surroundings, including people, weather, and the Lager. Instead of finding a passage about cold, sickness, hunger, beatings, or sleeping conditions, I’m sharing one in which Levi descries an image that encapsulates evil: “If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would chose the image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man with head dropped and shoulders curved on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.”

There’s no self-pity in Levi’s account, just the facts told from such a “real” place that all but the most cold-hearted among us could go away unmoved.

On a brighter note (I think Levi would approve of that), I also purchased a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet for my daughter. I already have a copy or two and wanted her to experience the beauty and truth of the poetry.  I read part of the passage “On Children” aloud. It was that kind of store.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s
longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they
belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not
your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.

With a sly smile, she said, “You got that right.” I stopped reading and added The Prophet to my growing stack of books. It’s a wonderful book. Both of the above are. Visit a bookstore or your local library to check them out for yourself.

 

 

 

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A Refusal to Praise?

Like Solomon said, there’s a season for everything, and the last couple of months have been a season of reading—but not much writing. Seems like my muse mojo is MIA. That’s okay, though, because I’m learning and thinking and reflecting on so many things. On the Fourth, I began thumbing through Dr. Scott Peck’s Further Along The Road Less Traveled and was reminded of many truths. They resounded with me twenty-five years ago, and now Peck’s words are even more powerful.

Somewhere along the line, I took some counseling courses and remember the advice of several professors. When listening to a patient, client, friend, child, or anyone else, keep in mind that not everyone is articulate enough to tell you how he or she really feels. Or maybe the person feels shame or fear (of ridicule or rejection). That makes perfect sense. I mean, it was so obvious that I wondered why the professors kept telling us that. Common sense, right? But then you know what “they” say about common sense: it’s not so common. 

Here’s what I was advised/instructed to do. When a person is struggling to share feelings or memories or thoughts, look at him or her and imagine the individual saying, “Please hear what I’m not saying.” To me, that was profound, and I’ve tried to practice it in my family, in the classroom, with my friends…with everyone who wanted to “just talk.” 

Last night, I stumbled across something Dr. Peck wrote that was an eye opener. Following is a paraphrase from page 184:  What the patient says is not as important as what he doesn’t say. If he talks freely about the present and the future but never about the past, you can bet your bottom dollar that he has some problem, something that’s unintegrated from his past. If he talks freely about the past and the future but not the present, the problem is most likely to be the present—often a problem with vulnerability and the “here and now.” Or if he talks about the past and the present but doesn’t talk about the future, you can deduce that there’s a problem with the future—a problem with hope or faith. 

Bingo! Those few sentences clarified some things I’ve felt to be true, and they did so with more punch than, “Please hear what I’m not saying.” Peck’s insight put a lot of conversations into perspective for me as I try to figure out the why, how, when, and what of troubled people’s words and actions. Some of these folks seem depressed, and it’s not enough to peppily say, “Look at the fluffy clouds and blue, blue sky. Listen to the noisy (in a good way) cicadas and the songbirds. Smell the roses, for heaven’s sake.” You’re wasting your breath with such a person who wants the cicadas to go back to where they came from.

Dr. Peck shares a quote from Rumi, a twelfth century Muslim mystic, who, in his opinion, was “the smartest person who ever lived, never to Jesus.” I love the quote. “Your depression is connected to your insolence and refusal to praise.” Don’t you love it, too? Peck believes Rumi is referring to insolence as narcissism “or that kind of perverted pride which underlies depression.” Whoa. I think these men are onto something—truth. 

There’s more, so much more, to this fabulous book, but it’s time for a little fun, a day trip with one of my daughters. We’ll be noticing clouds and birds and trees, and talking about the past, present and future. 

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A Workshop with Clarity and Style

Last Saturday, June 22, I had the good fortune of attending a three-hour craft workshop hosted by the South Carolina Writers’ Association and am still pondering all the information I learned. Davis Enloe, SCWA board member, shared material on the importance of openings, and I left Greenville vowing to write a short story when I got home.

No story—not yet. I’ve been considering various possibilities though, and it’s going to happen. Soon. I keep thinking of the opening to one of my latest favorite books, In the Beginning by Chaim Potok: “Beginnings are always hard.” They are, but after attending the SCWA workshop last week, I have a better idea of how to make them work.

In the meantime, I’ve been going over my copious notes and the several handouts Davis gave the attendees. I’ve also been doing a little independent research for famous opening lines. Good openings draw the reader in and arouse his interest, yes. But they often do more than that. As Davis said, they can set up tension; impart vital information to the reader, create curiosity in the reader’s mind; establish tone, sense of place, and setting; introduce the main character; and point toward a germ of conflict and dramatic tensions. 

Here are two of Davis’s examples—and a couple of my favorites.

  • Most readers will recognize “Call me Ishmael” from Melville’s Moby Dick
  • Listening to Davis read the above brought the beginning of My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok to mind: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.” That sentence reeled me in and kept held me captive. 
  • Davis read, “You better not tell nobody but God” from Alice Walker’s The Color PurpleUh-oh,I thought, something bad is going on. 
  • During the workshop, I recalled reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a novel that begins, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” Right away the reader knows these two people are important characters.

To illustrate his instruction on writing openers, Davis provided dozens of examples from literature, including “Mr. Voice” by Jess Walter. “Mother was a stunner,” the first four words from “Mr. Voice,” generated a lot of discussion. After dissecting every sentence of the 136-word paragraph, Davis invited the dozens of attendees to write and share openings to potential stories. I wrote a little something, but it was frail (pathetic really), and I didn’t share. Others did, and all were encouraged by workshop participants and Davis. 

In addition to imparting an astounding amount (truly) of information and facilitating several lively discussions, Davis shared some of Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing” and added the eleventh: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite.” He provided “The Rules” by Lee K. Abbott, went over “Freytag’s Pyramid” about story structure, discussed ten questions related to story shape (Whose story is it? What’s at stake? Why should we care?), distributed copies of “Writing in the Cold,” and gave everyone a copy of Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. 

And that’s not all. As we began thumbing through our books, Davis handed out a four-page quiz based on Dreyer’s book, further proof of his solid preparation for the workshop. I’ve completed the quiz, and all I can say is that I earned a satisfactory score–proof that I need a refresher course in a few areas.

It was a long drive from Camden to Greenville, but the excellent workshop made every mile to and from worthwhile. Kudos to Davis Enloe and the South Carolina Writers’ Association for providing the experience. 

Posted in books, reading, short stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing life, Writing Workshop | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

From Newberry’s to the Dollar Tree

Has anyone read Rick Bragg’s book on cooking? I learned about The Best Cook in the World in my critique group last week and have added it to my queue of must-reads. From the discussion I heard last Thursday, Bragg doesn’t just list ingredients, he writes of finding them, making sure of their ripeness or readiness for cooking, and of preparing and sharing the mouthwatering results. “It’s the story, y’all,” my writer friend explained. “It’s all about the story, and he’s a master story teller. Who’d have thought cooking a mess of greens could be so captivating?”  

I love my writing group. Love is a strong verb with lots of different meanings and shades. In this case, I mean definition #17 in dictionary.com: to have a strong liking for; take great pleasure in: to love music. After listening to the above book recommendation, I knew we were in for a lively meeting, one in which the submissions would be discussed and critiqued in a serious, yet animated, fashion.

When I first joined this group, my critique contributions consisted largely of spotting misplaced commas and misspelled words. I soon learned to look for holes in the story, overuse of passive voice, and misplaced modifiers. Oh, and I learned that I had a tendency (still do) to use “it” too often. I’m not alone in this. Someone has his or her its circled at every meeting. 

Here are a few things I’m still thinking about from last week.

In one story, an elderly painter with a lot of personality (you’ll have to wait for the book to come out to read the writer’s description of this crusty and endearing character) is in danger of getting written out of the novel.  Everyone in the group likes him and was disappointed to learn that the author is considering taking him out of the story. I don’t know whether he’ll get the axe or not. I do know we unanimously agreed with the member who said, “Leave Mr. L. in. I like him.”  

Another member’s novel is about spousal abuse, and we’re all feeling angst as the protagonist attempts to get away. Will she make it? 

“Please tell me that her husband isn’t going to find her,” I begged the writer. 

After a moment or two, she said she didn’t know yet. Some writers plot their entire books ahead of time, but many of the ones I know don’t know all the twists and turns until they progress in the work. 

As the brave woman flees her abuser, she has to stop for gas and provisions along the way, and she pulls in to a “gas station.” I’m getting better about recognizing things that might date stories and mentioned that I hadn’t heard that term in years. Today people might say truck stop or convenience store; they might even mention the specific name of such an establishment.

The writer seemed interested,, so I continued by telling her of one of my favorite stops between Camden and Myrtle Beach, the Markette outside of Florence. There’s food there…and a Dunkin’ Donuts, too. Often, a man wearing a straw hat stands near his truck filled with watermelons or sweet potatoes toward the front of the parking lot. From my observations while pumping gas at one of self-serves, he seems to do a brisk business. I wondered if the protagonist might also notice his presence on her flight to safety. 

The writer wondered aloud if it would be okay to mention the specific name of the establishment, and a discussion about libel ensued. The upshot was that it’s fine to mention it, especially since listing names of streets, businesses, and cars helps give a time and place to the story. Markettes weren’t around until a few decades ago, but gas stations were. 

As a follow-up to the above, I attended a craft workshop in Greenville Saturday in which the presenter read the opening lines of a story that mentioned three thriving businesses in Seattle at that time (1974): Bon Marche, Newberry’s, and the Crescent. That little factoid was quite telling. There used to be a Newberry’s, a five and dime store with a lunch counter, in my home town of Camden, but like so many businesses of that era, it no longer exists. Kmart came along, and now that’s becoming history, too. Now we have dollar stores and fast food restaurants. 

There were other submissions that morning, but I’m over my self-imposed word count. I’ll get to the story based on dialogue with Siri, the flash piece about appropriate restaurant attire, and a poem tomorrow. For now, I’m thinking of how to incorporate time and place into a little something I’m writing. What about you?

Posted in Camden Writers, critique groups, editing, fiction, flash fiction, novels, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing groups | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Lost Bird’s Story

Fathers’ Day conjures up memories of my father and all the fabulous others I know and have known—my children’s father, husband, son, stepson and sons-in-law. I better stop there lest I leave someone out. Fathering a child is easy, but being a dad who stays the course and provides, sacrifices, and serves as a worthy example for his children is something different. 

I was fortunate, as were most of my friends. Being a loved child is a privilege denied to many. 

Here’s a story, one that I learned about last week in South Dakota. When we walked up the hill to the cemetery at Wounded Knee, the first gravestone I saw said “Lost Bird.” Interesting name, I thought, glancing at the birth and death dates, May, 1890 and February, 1919. I walked around and saw other curious names and graves adorned with rocks, flowers, stuffed animals, feathers, American flags, and statuary. I felt something on that hillside, an overwhelming sense of senseless loss, cruelty, and sadness. 

We walked down the hill toward the car, each of us absorbed in our thoughts, affected by all we’d learned.

“Did you see a tombstone with Lost Bird on it?” my husband asked.

“Yeah, but I didn’t linger there. Didn’t seem like there was as much memorabilia on her grave.”

“Emerald told me her story. He showed me a picture in an old newspaper of a Cavalryman holding her when she was a baby. Said when the civilians came to bury the Lakota in the mass trench they’d dug, someone found her alive and covered by her mother. There’d been a blizzard, and it was four days before they could even bury the dead.” 

“Oh my gosh, was the mother alive too?”

“No, just the baby. The mother was frozen, but her body protected the baby. That’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“It is. It really is,” I said, pondering the miraculous possibility of that. Four days after a massacre and a blizzard?? 

“Emerald said the man took the baby home with him and apparently adopted her.”

“So at least she lived. I mean, that was kind of him, right?”

“Not so sure. Not according to what Emerald said.”

“I’m waiting.”

“He got someone to take care of her until he went back to California, and from what I could pick up, she had a rough life and died young, 29. The Lakota found out where she was buried and brought her body back to Wounded Knee in 1991.” 

“That’s a horrible and beautiful story, both at the same time. It’s almost unbelievable.”

That night I looked up more details. Zintkala Nuni was a four-month-old Lakota Sioux infant when she was found among the victims at the Wounded Knee Massacre. The man who adopted her, General Leonard Colby of the National Guard, introduced her to the folks back home as a “most interesting Indian relic.”

By all accounts, Lost Bird was a sad and lonely child who suffered abuse and racism. Her father was a scoundrel who left his wife, a suffragette who loved and cared for Lost Bird. As she grew older, Lost Bird went to live with her father for a while, and during this time, she gave birth to a stillborn child. Some believe it was General Colby’s baby.

From what I understand, it wasn’t unusual to remove Native American children from their parents. But this story is especially sad. She was a person, a baby, a Lakota baby robbed of her family and her rich culture, and “raised” by a man who viewed her as a relic.

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Cardinals and Feathers

Stories abound. You just have to be on the lookout for them and be willing to record one or two of the most meaningful. The moments don’t have to be over the top, complete with a full orchestra or the heavens parting. They just have to be something that you experienced or observed.

Here’s a quick example. One of my daughters and I had brunch together at Chick fil-A on my mother’s birthday, and as she told me about her early morning walk with a friend, she said a red cardinal had appeared off and on throughout her walk. To my daughter, the bird’s appearance represented a visit from her grandmother who had passed away nineteen years ago. As she talked, I could see a chirping little bird flying ahead of Carrie, alighting on a wall or shrub as my daughter approached. It was a beautiful image, and to Carrie, the redbird’s presence said, “All is well.”

I can still see Carrie’s “visitor” in my mind’s eye. If she hadn’t shared her walk sightings, I never would have known about them and their association with my mother (Carrie’s grandmother). Sharing the morning’s impressions also told me that my daughter, like me, sees beyond this material world in which we move about.

Here’s my moment, my story. It happened last week in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. On the way to the Wounded Knee cemetery, I stopped to chat with a woman named Cathy who was selling dream catchers and jewelry late that afternoon. She had several bracelets for sale, all beaded and hand crafted, and I had no problem choosing the one I liked best. It was small, beautiful, and unpretentious. Beaded, there was also a tiny piece of wood with a feather painted on it.

Cathy saw me looking at the feather and explained, “My people believe feathers help carry messages to the Great Father.”

“I love that way of thinking,” I said as she fastened the bracelet around my wrist.

We walked across the road to the cemetery where nearly 200 slain Lakota Indians lay buried in a mass grave (marlajayne.com), and when we left about an hour later, Cathy and Emerald were gone. We felt fortunate to have shared a few moments talking and listening to them and were gratified that we had arrived in time to do so.

As we rode the long way out of the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the largest in the United States, our minds soon turned to dinner. Tired of paying for overpriced but mediocre food, we considered our choices and quickly realized there were few (if any) restaurants on the way to Rapid City, nearly two hours away. No Wal-Marts or Targets either.

“What do people who live here eat?” I pondered aloud.

“What do you mean?” my husband asked.

“Just that. And to be specific, what will someone like Cathy eat tonight?”

“She doesn’t eat like you do. She lives off what’s around her.”

A little annoyed, I said, “You mean, like WE do, not just me.”

I looked at the views all around me and saw lots of grasses, tall and short, and a few hills—but no trees to speak of. I saw the ubiquitous cow everywhere; some were munching grasses while others stood stock-still. There were horses, too, and on several occasions, we saw two or three standing near a fence, their heads and noses touching.

So what would Cathy eat that night? I was still wondering about that as we went through a Sonic drive-thru in Rapid City a couple of hours later. He got a burger and Coke. I waited until we got back to our room where I nibbled on a leftover baked potato, a banana, and half a bagel, saddened to realize that Cathy would probably have none of those choices at her disposal.

A few days later as we sat in the MSP airport waiting for our plane, the hubs said, “I hope Cathy had a good breakfast today.” Me too. I can’t remember what the life expectancy is on Pine Ridge Reservation, but it’s the lowest in the United States. Ninety percent of its residents live below the federal poverty line and can’t afford healthy food.

Today I’m back in my Wal-Mart, Target, Chili’s world. But I’ll never forget our hours on the reservation or my conversation with Cathy. And I’ll never whine again about leftovers.

Posted in Native Americans, stories, story telling, travel, traveling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment