Take You a Swig

Several streams run through Cades Cove of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the one we stopped at to let Levi dip in his feet was shallow and clear and textured with brown rocks and moss-covered roots. The old trees nearby stood bent over and had flaky bark and were still bald. The stream smelled like the air before a spring rain and sounded lively and light like the folk band at our campsite: the retired old men who perform at the concession stand where you can buy bundled firewood, bug spray, and marshmallows. For pure enjoyment and nothing more, these men who wear “Proud Veteran” hats and pins play the banjo, mandolin, and string bass made out of a five-gallon bucket and broomstick. They do this at dusk, when the air is cool and the moon that looks like a fingernail is just starting to cut through the sky. The youngest of the old men works the cash register but is more attentive to his music than his customers, which is fine because while he may not love his job, you can see in his saggy face that holds the green glowing eyes and hear in the delicate way he strums his banjo that he loves his music deeply, and that love spreads to his watching and listening customers who soon forget they came to the stand for anything but to hear.

The stream bordered a big, pale, hard-grass field, and across this field, up the brown-green mountainside, a black bear and her cubs were pawing through the earth for berries, roots, and bugs. A line of cars with heads and cameras sticking out the windows was stopped on Cades Cove Loop because of the bears. I was glad to be out of the traffic for a little while, even if the bears looked like ants through the binoculars. You don’t come to the woods to get stuck in traffic. And bears should be given their space.

A pileated woodpecker went to work on the overhead sycamore, the red flag of feathers on his head waving wildly as his jackhammer beak, fast and rhythmic and loud, beat into the bark. Sunlight draped over the mountains, field, and stream. Earlier at camp, while Levi was still asleep in the tent and Caleb and I sat sipping coffee by the fire in the fresh morning cold, yellow threads of sun were weaving through the branches and leaves, embroidering the ground with bright dashes and dots.

“Camping is magical,” I said, my hands wrapped around my warm titanium mug, “because it slows down time.”

Caleb stirred the fire with a long stick. “It makes you feel you’re where you belong.”

In the stream two minnows rushed by chasing each other, having what looked like fun. I pulled off Levi’s sandals and double cuffed his jeans. Caleb took Levi’s hand and led him into the stream. I crouched to touch the water. Bubbly and cold, kissed by sun. Levi shrieked and splashed and tried to squirm free from Caleb’s hold to sit down in the water. The two geese that had been sunning on the smooth-stone bank honked furiously at us then waddled away. A man and woman came down the overgrown path from the road and stopped near us. The woman had a big smile and bigger hair. The man wore a white t-shirt tucked into crisp jean shorts.

“What a cutie. Wouldya look at him, Jim,” said the woman, pointing to Levi as he kicked and yelled. She stomped into the water with her boots on. “Think it’s safe to drink, Jim?”

“It’s running, and I don’t see no houses around,” the man called from the bank. “Go ‘head, hun. Take you a swig.”

The woman dipped her hands in the water then brought them to her lips.

“I wouldn’t tell you to drink it if it was stagnant,” said the man. “But this here water’s running good.”

“Tastes good too,” said the woman. “Better than Aquafina. You try it, Jim.”

And he did. In this light and lively place, the man took him a swig.

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The Two Currents

4.20.18

Levi has four molars coming in and as a result has had a stormy disposition that has harshly disturbed our days’ flow. I think he’s cried more this week than during all of his newborn days combined. I don’t blame him. When he wails in pain I catch glimpses of his gums, bloody and bruised, slashed open by sharp protruding tips stronger than bone. The teeth look like white volcanoes in the sloshing sea of saliva Levi’s body keeps producing as his mouth brutally erupts. His incessant drool has soaked his every shirt; for days he’s looked as if he’s just run a marathon. But his crying, his guttural grating crying (like a sander on rough rock) from the bright bursts of pain sporadically shooting off inside him grates my insides even now as he naps.

“At least they’re all coming in at once,” said my cousin Sara, a young mother of two and veteran of the War of Cutting Teeth. This was last night at Hummingbird Pastaria, a quaint Italian restaurant on Signal Mountain where Sara and I and the four other women having dinner with us worked years ago as servers and cooks. That was when the Hummingbird was called Nino’s and was owned by an old Sicilian man with a thin gray mustache and twinkle in his deep brown eyes. He’d come to America as a young man because times on his island had been hard. Every night the servers would have to dodge Nino who until closing time sauntered from table to table, always dressed in gray sweatpants and white sneakers, to talk to his patrons and ask in his heavy Italian accent how they liked tonight’s special and if they’d tried the Chianti with it.

“No Chianti? Then we must open a bottle! Eggplant parmigiano without the red wine! Can you imagine?”

Then he’d grab the wine and wine glasses from the kitchen, as well as an extra glass for himself, and sit with his customers and drink and tell stories of life long ago in Sicily under the crisp Mediterranean sky. The bits of conversation I’d catch while refilling drinks or clearing the table were of Nino speaking of his native country he’d left to pursue a better life with only love and admiration and longing.

“Before you know it,” Sara said as we sipped red wine and ate pasta out on the patio, the evening pink and calm and cool, “Levi will start losing his teeth, and it will make you think of the days when he was very small that you’re living now. And it will make you miss them.”

I knew she was right. I knew she was right because, sitting now with my former colleagues, I missed my days as a server. I missed the rigors of a full day of university classes followed by five p.m. work shifts, missed swopping stories with the servers about how silly and snobby some people could be about the preparation and delivery of their food, missed sneaking the half-drunk bottles of wine left behind by some customers to the servers’ station where we’d secretly pour the wine into styrofoam cups we’d then hide behind the gallons of olive oil to later sip from as we performed our nightly closing duties of putting chairs on the rickety tables and mopping the red tile floor. Those days as a server were tedious and tough. But they were also happy and purposeful and good. Did I know this about them then as I was knowing it now?

Before meeting my Nino’s friends for our yearly reunion at the restaurant that is no longer Nino’s, I drove down Suck Creek Road and pulled off at the gravel parking lot next to the river. A boat ramp slopes from the lot down into the water, and even though it was a perfect spring day, there was no one backing in sun-faded Jon boats to go fishing. A great blue heron stood beside the concrete ramp on the yellow bank. He slightly turned his head to get a look at me, the noisy intruder, before spreading his great blue wings and flying squawkily over the river and away. I rolled down my window and turned off my car. The sweet April breeze scampered in. I watched the river, how the sun made it flash like tinfoil. The river moved smoothly and confidently and atop its current a million tiny waves bobbed roughly with the flow.

The current has a current, I thought, breathing deeply and slowly, attempting to savor every moment of this short but needed break from the teething storm inside my home. Mature trees, so green they glowed, swished beside the river beneath the great blue sky. The air smelled like wet earth, which is a very cool and soothing smell. I stuck my hand out the window and tapped my car door to the rhythm of the moving river. And the river moved on and on and on with both a smooth and jagged flow. And it was glorious, although I knew it’d be hard to swim across if I tried. But still, even now, all I see is how glorious it was.

You are our Sunshine

4.10.18

Dear Levi,

Today you turned one, and it was a beautiful celebration with family. It was Tuesday, sunny and warm. Your Aunt Locksley came over after your afternoon nap to help set up for your party. We hung a Happy Birthday banner in the dining room and made homemade cornbread and chili—your favorite meal other than bananas.

We played in the front yard while waiting for your Daddy and grandparents to arrive. I watched you fondly, reflecting on how much you’ve grown and developed and learned over the course of a year. You can walk and run and climb up and down stairs now and make all sorts of sounds and gestures. Your interests include digging through the trash, dipping your hands in the toilet bowl, holding the cord while I vacuum, flipping the light switches on and off, shoe strings, any type of ball you can kick or throw, screwing the cap on my water bottle, and hitting the cat, which, sadly for her, is your way of petting.

You’ve also taken an interest in being outside, where you could collect sticks and open and close the mailbox for hours. Watching you now, you picked a puffy dandelion and licked it like ice cream. The seeds stuck to your tongue and you instantly spat them out.

“You have to blow on it like birthday candles,” I said, stooping next to you in the grass and picking a dandelion to show you. You tried to catch the little soft white seeds floating in the air. When the seeds had all flown away, you leaned your head against my stomach and wrapped your little soft white arms around me.

Levi, you’re beautiful in many ways, and this year I’ve learned that a beautiful baby attracts a lot of strangers in public. This is because, I believe, babies remind people of life’s goodness, and they just have to have a look. I remember one old man in particular from a few months back. He was tall and thin, and as I was trying on hiking boots at an outfitters store while holding you in one arm as you were trying to squirm free, he bent down to my eyelevel (mostly to see you better) and told me I’d look back one day and see these as the best days of my life. “Long nights,” he said. “But the best days.”

And, Levi, this is true. Looking back on this past year, it’s easy to see it’s been the best one of my life so far. Granted, at times it’s been very hard—raising an infant is no joke. It takes all of your energy and then some. And then some more after that. But, Levi, all in all raising you has been a beautiful gift from God. You’ve brought so much light and happiness into this world. You’ve brought your Daddy and me closer, and you’ve brought me profound joy in laying down my life for someone else. In the end, sweet boy, the hard things in life are the most worthy of all when carried out with love.

After chili and cornbread, you opened presents—stackable cups, books, and fake car keys (since you love your Daddy’s and mine so much). Then we stripped you into your original birthday suit so you could eat cake as messily and freely as you desired. You clapped as we sang “Happy Birthday” and didn’t seem to mind that I blew out your candle. Sitting in your highchair, you took one bite of the vanilla cake with buttercream frosting then shoved the whole slice in your mouth. I worried you might choke. But you swallowed like a cake-eating champ then yelled for more. I offered you water, but you batted it away. “More cake!” you demanded with your flailing arms.

Everybody cheered.

 

Pot House Trail

A catfish jumped out of the river near where I was crouched on the bank, combing my fingers through clam shells and mud. I jumped too. All had been quiet and still, and my focus had been on the ground. It was as if the fish had snuck up on me and yelled, “Boo!”

I looked up. The river rippled where the fish had been. I’m glad the creature got my attention. The long brown line of water flowed like a road cut between the trees. The yellow bank bordered the river like a welcoming sidewalk. Dogwoods showed off their spring attire; their white blossoms bounced in the breeze. After a very long winter, the forest was again becoming green.

It was cool out and the sky was open and blue. The trail was muddy from yesterday’s rain. The grassy parts of the trail felt like stepping on a wet sponge.

“Should’ve worn my muck boots,” said Caleb, toting Levi in a child carrier on his back.

“Ba ba ya ya na na,” replied Levi, as if to say what for? He had on socks, but no shoes. Even when we put shoes on him, he pulls them right off. Toddlers, like the rest of us it seems, just want to be free.

Caleb, who’s always noticing things I don’t, stopped to show me an old cobblestone wall that had a wide opening where the trail went through it, and that nature had reclaimed with moss and bramble and vines.

“They cut through it I bet when they made this trail.”

“What was it for?” I asked.

“Probably a property boundary between farm plots. When farmers clear their fields every spring in preparation for planting, they pull all the rocks out and stack them to make walls like this.”

The wall reminded me of the old broken-down home my mom and I used to canoe to at her family’s lake property on the back of Lookout Mountain. I was a girl, and my mom and I would find rusty kitchen tools (and sometimes water moccasins) under the busted bricks–the decayed bones–of the 19th century dwelling. We called our finds treasure and stored them in a brown paper bag. One time I found a tiny porcelain doll with a missing head that I still have, closed up in a matchbox.

“A little girl must’ve lived here,” my mom said the day I found the doll. “The world we live in is like a wedding cake,” she said. “It has many layers. But you have to cut into it to know.”

A walk in nature always makes for a good slice.

Winter Hats in Spring

The hike to Benton Falls was windy and cold. It was Saturday, late March, overcast, bleak. It had rained on the drive up to Chilhowee, and still the clouds looked full like wet diapers on the verge of leaking through.

Caleb carried Levi on his back in the forest green child carrier. Levi is almost one, so, since all he wants to do is roam and play, these days it’s hit or miss on whether he’ll ride peaceably in the pack or not. I gave him a stick to hold onto and wonder at, said a quick prayer that he wouldn’t poke out his eye.

The three of us wore jackets and winter hats. The sandy trail was wet and empty. The tops of pine trees swayed and creaked. Robbins bathed in the puddles.

A mile and a half down the trail, we stopped on the pine-needle platform overlooking the waterfall. The water sounded like a heavy rain…smelled like it too. “This would be a good place to camp,” said Caleb, scanning the grounds. “If not for all the trash.”

Plastic bottles, used toilet paper, and dirty diapers littered the site like a junkyard. “Why do people do this?” I asked. Why do we sabotage what’s natural and good?

At the bottom of the falls, Levi, who’d been uncommonly content throughout the entire hike–thanks to the wind and water and trees (God’s beauty) that filled his eager senses–stuck his small hand out to touch the water. He laughed as it slipped through his fingers, then glanced my way for reassurance.

“Yeah, buddy! A waterfall!” I called over the rushing sounds. Levi sucked on his wet hand, sang, “Na na na na na na.”

Back at the trailhead, about an hour later, we had a picnic of roast beef sandwiches and honey roasted peanuts beside McKamy Lake. The lake lay flat and brown, reflecting Cherokee National Forest. Levi tried to eat the gravel on which our picnic table stood, protested with a shout and jerky motions when I swatted the rocks out of his hands.

“Here, have this banana,” I said, holding the fruit out to him. Bananas are his favorite; he popped up like a pogo stick and waddled as fast as he could over to me.

“So easy to please,” said Caleb.

“Isn’t it great?” I said.

Icy winds still blew and there was no sun, but, somehow or another, we were all very pleased.

The Writing Journey

You’d think writing a book would be the hard part. The months of waking up while it is still dark out and then for hours straining your fingers and eyes, stretching your mind like saran wrap in an effort that your ideas may cling smoothly to the page. You’d think it would all be downhill–or at the very least flat–once you wrote your book’s final word. But this is when the real work begins.

Now that I’ve completed my most recent project, I’m toiling to query agents. It’s a lot like submitting college or job applications. Every agency requires something slightly different, and your writing is only one piece of the large and intricate puzzle that will land you a literary agent. For example, in today’s world agents are looking for authors who have a platform on social media, that is, a following. They are looking for authors who attend writers’ conferences and book signings and who aren’t afraid to speak in public. They are looking for authors who are writing what the general public wants to read.

I’ve already received two rejection letters. I told myself to expect this and to not get discouraged, but the truth is, it’s hurtful to read that the work you’ve poured your all into over the last year, knowing and believing as you poured it all out that this was what you were meant to do, is not the right fit for someone who specializes in finding the right fit for the world you’re trying to fit into. It’s a bee sting to the heart.

But, in the words of my beautifully wise husband, this is the time that defines those who realize their dreams vs. those who don’t. This is the time, he said, when people either throw in the towel or clench their fists, resolving fiercely, “Nothing will stop me!” He told me to persevere, which of course I intend to do, one query letter, one book proposal, one prayer at a time.

And the prayer is this: that God pairs me with the right agent who will help bring my work to readers at the right time.

And hopefully sooner than later. 🙂

Journey on!

-Claire

The Straw that Renewed the Camel’s Back

10.30.17

Dear Levi,

It had been a day. We were late meeting Betsy and her baby John at the Riverwalk because you napped longer than usual. Don’t get me wrong. I love it when you nap. You need the sleep; I need the break. But we had some place to be. But you never wake a sleeping baby. Never. Unless you get a thrill out of all hell breaking loose. I for one do not.

When I parked, you pooped. Quickly, I changed your diaper in the cramped trunk of my car, getting poop on my hand as I wiped your bum while the chic, sophisticated class sipping coffee and nibbling coconut macaroons on Rembrandt’s European patio in the heart of the clean and upscale Bluff View Art District watched me, I know, in horror. It was a lovely fall day. I broke a sweat, wiped my brow with my soiled hand.

Betsy was waiting for us in the Sculpture Garden, nursing her five-month-old next to the statue of Icarus taking off from the ridge over the Tennessee River. This marked my first rendezvous with Betsy, a television reporter turned real estate agent who works in the same office as my mom. Like me, Betsy is a novelist and new mom; it only made sense that we should meet.

“John started to get fussy,” she said as I parked the stroller next to hers. “So I had to go ahead and feed him.” She was crouched over her babe in the classic nursing-in-public position I too am familiar with.

“So sorry I was late.”

It was sunny and cold. You were still wearing your fleece penguin pajamas because I hadn’t had time to change you into “real” clothes. John had on blue pants and a matching hooded jacket with bear ears that made him look like a Baby Gap model. You had oatmeal all over your face from where I sped fed you minutes before in the parking lot.

The river glided and gleamed as we strolled next to it down the paved path. Betsy, bright and upbeat, asked me many questions about my memoir Mile 445, which tells the story of how I married your Daddy on the Pacific Crest Trail after knowing him for less than thirty days. I tried to answer Betsy, have a grown-up conversation. But you started crying, and you kept on crying, even when I gave you your beloved donkey Clip Clop; and even when I pulled you out of the stroller, held all twenty pounds of you in my left arm while pushing your mammoth stroller with my right; and even when I stopped at a grassy bank, sat on the wet ground and unclipped my bra to nurse you—well, you did stop crying then, but only because you saw the wild onion grass, grabbed some, and ate it. I swiped my finger down your throat. You wailed. “Way to make a first impression, Buddy,” I said. Betsy’s baby John fell sound asleep.

We cut our walk short because you just weren’t having it. “I know it can be hard, but isn’t being a mom great?” said Betsy, trying for my sake to stay positive.

“Some days are better than others,” I said. Levi, thank God you’re cute.

By the time I regained my car I was sweating like a cross-country runner from having carried you the whole way. Your crying turned to screaming as I buckled you in your car seat, which is your least favorite place on earth. I was adjusting the straps (loosening them so you’d feel less confined) when a pudgy, gray-haired man came up to me holding a knit baby hat. “This yours?” he asked. Shoving your pacifier in your mouth, I looked up. “It is,” I said. “Must’ve fallen out just now.” “I’ll just put it in your beer holder,” said the man, referring to the stroller’s cup holder. “Thank you,” I said. “I could go for a beer right now.” The man looked at you flailing and laughed. “I bet.”

He left. I heaved your heavy stroller into my tiny car, which now smelled like your dirty diaper since I forgot to crack the windows. I took a deep breath, said a prayer that there wouldn’t be traffic and that you wouldn’t cry the whole way home, and I was about to get in the car when the man returned, a lit cigarette between his lips. “Want some flowers?” he said, this time holding up a cup of hedgerow roses. “I snipped them this morning.” “Really?” I said. “Yeah. Really. Just took the garden shears and—” “No, I’m sorry. I mean are you really offering them to me?” The man grinned with pursed lips so his cigarette wouldn’t drop. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I really am.”

He gave me the cup, tipped his head, and left. Now, Levi, I don’t know who this man was or why he had fresh pink roses with him that he readily doled out to me, a complete stranger. But I do know this. His unexpected act of kindness renewed my weary spirit. The whole way home I smelled the roses, and not your dirty diaper.

img_3960-1Thank God he’s cute 🙃