The cabbie gives me the once over.
“You a doctor?” he asks.
“I’m a writer,” I say.
“I thought you were a doctor,” he insists. “You got the hair, the glasses, the dress.”
For the rest of my time in New Orleans, I wear patterned hose and flapper dresses and red pointed cowboy boots and a tight black tee-shirt with my Elvis medal pinned front and center.
Doctor, my ass
The woman wanders into the common area where we are deep in play. The man strikes up a conversation as we linger on the sidewalk. The maitre de stops us on the way out of the restaurant.
Each time, they say, “Your child.”
“Grandchild,” I correct.
“Oh. I thought he was your child.”
Which makes me wanna holler, “Are you looking at me? Are you looking at this child? He’s two years old!”
Holy cheese on a cracker, these people don’t have the observational skills God gave a duck.
On the way to a cross making workshop in Greenville, Mississippi, I insist we stop at a roadside store so I can buy a black, orange, and neon yellow jumpsuit because I spied the jumpsuit on a sidewalk mannequin and loved it, but I did not intend to be wearing it—the jumpsuit has a halter neck, it would be at home in a 1970s sitcom, it’s the type of outfit people look at in a sidewise manner, cutting their eyes to sneak a peek—when I meet my new neighbor.
Guess he’ll get used to it.
I wear a loose white tee beneath a black sweater, and the man wants to know if I’m a priest. I squat in my blue shirt in Wal-Mart, and the guy asks what aisle the spark plugs are on. I wiggle into an elongating all-black outfit, and the woman says, “Are you a model?” I jangle my funky bracelet, and the guy assumes I’m an artist.
I am not.
Not a priest or Wal-Mart employee or model (okay, I showed clothes for a while) or an artist (unless you count wordsmithing.)
And yet I continue to believe I am able to control the impression I make. In fact, I believe I can use what I wear to dictate what you think of me. I tell myself that if I put together just the right combination of clothing you will think me creative or interesting—but not too far out there—or someone who can put together clothes in just the right combination.
Delusional, at best.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an author talk to give, and I must look the part.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
She rises behind the lectern, carefully taking the steps. Each time, before she reads us our Sunday morning lesson, she flashes a smile our way. Not all lay readers approach their task with such lightness; some bring a decided solemnity to the event. Not her. We’ve walked with her through a recent journey—she’s lost an incredible amount of weight—and her joy spills over. Always a happy woman, she now almost glows.
I see him kneeling at the table during Hospitality Hour, knee to the oriental rug. He’s monitoring the little boy who sometimes reaches his hand to grab a treat from the laden table. Meanwhile, she cares for the little girl, splitting their resources like parents do. He’s a slight man, fair of complexion. The little boy has the same fair look, different from his mama’s dark hair and dark eyes. If he says anything to his son, I don’t hear it.
Her picture has appeared in the paper, one of those blown-up photos that result in a fuzzy, distorted image. Static, too: the same image, over and over again. Overcome with concern, I confess to the stranger seated beside me on the train, “A woman from my church is missing.”
“The kindergarten teacher?” she asks, and my heart sinks. Could this be real, this narrative that we all nudge along. Woman missing. Husband questioned. Tumultuous marriage of late, as though all divorces aren’t the most tumultuous times many of us ever face.
I remember her at a cross making workshop, enjoying the child-like activity as much as the daughter seated beside her. I didn’t know she was a kindergarten teacher, I didn’t know much at all. I remember each time I clicked “like” on the beautiful, smiling photos she posted, until I quit, embarrassed that I was making too big a deal out of how lovely she looked, as if she hadn’t been lovely enough before.
He appears on the evening news; his choice of their network puffs the reporters with pride. Under the “Husband Questioned” headlines his quiet demeanor has become unsettling—you know, his photos do look disturbed. Answering questions, he shifts his head from side to side, his gaze sliding away. When he says, his voice flat as a man on quaaludes, “I would never put my hands on her,” I wonder, who uses that kind of language? Then I think, is that the first time I’ve head him speak?
In my mind she rises from the behind the lectern. Like the “Have You Seen this Woman?” photo, my image of her is broken, snapped off from the stream of her life. A life I did not know, but a woman of whom I was very fond. They were a family, I thought, a part of our church family. Now with the answer to the only question that matters revealed, we know she will no longer lead us in our lessons on Sunday mornings. I dread seeing more images of her that I don’t want to be a party to. I will keep my own:
She rises from behind the lectern, happy, a little shy, and flashes us a smile.
May God rise to meet her coming.
Without a whistle
without a lurch,
the train moved out.
Stationary at the crossing
doing God knows what,
and went along its way
unaware that three heartbeats before—
one thump thump,
two thump thump
three thump thump,
a boy had been shoving his bicycle
between the cars
then clambering up and over after it,
impatient to get along his way.
The boy did not know the train was about to move.
The train did not know the impatient boy was about to act.
One heart beat sooner—
one thump thump—
the boy would’ve been crushed.
The train has a mind of its own. Be careful.
creative synthesis . . .
Riding the train from Memphis
watching the tracks go by,
I was struck by the railroad ties
strewn hither and thither
along the way.
Old ties, been there a while—
it wasn’t like the tie collector
was chugging along behind me
ready to recover the rotting ties.
I couldn’t help but think of my
and the wonderful things she could make from
The ties were in the railroad’s
right of way—
the company could toss purple ducks along the tracks
and be in the right.
But just because it was their
right of way
doesn’t mean it was
the right way.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
The little boy taps his fingers against his open palm,
making the baby sign language for “more.”
But it’s not nanners he wants or more pancakes.
Tap, tap he goes,
and says, “More choo-choo?”
We spend our days—Aubrey and his Gogi—racing to the window
when the choo-choo whistle blows.
We crane our necks to see.
The crossing arm lowers,
the red lights blink.
But the train backs up.
The choo-choo never appears.
The little boy signs.
“More choo-choo?” he asks.
As if Gogi controlled
all within the world
even the appearance of trains.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
When I was growing up, my daddy quit going to Rotary. Daddy had been a member of Rotary as a young businessman in Jackson, Mississippi, and when we moved to Charlotte, one of the first things he did was join the downtown Rotary Club. Tuesday nights at supper, Daddy would tell us all about what he’d learned that day from the speaker at Rotary. Or he’d recount conversations he’d had around the table with his fellow Rotarians (not until late in Daddy’s Rotary career did the club begin admitting women). Often he’d unfold brochures and explain the Rotary’s latest service project, pointing proudly to the good the club was doing in the world.
Another thing the Rotary did was keep attendance. You’d get recognition for attendance. Attendance was a big deal at the Rotary—people would go on vacation and find a local Rotary Club to attend so their attendance record would be intact. My dad had an admirable attendance record. In fact, he was bordering on achieving some sort of major perfect attendance milestone. Then one Tuesday, he simply didn’t show up.
Daddy’s decision to skip Rotary that day was deliberate. He said the attendance record was becoming a thing unto itself. The club’s creation of an artificial measure of what it meant to be a good Rotarian was dwarfing the reasons he had joined Rotary in the first place, which was the camaraderie, the educational speakers, the service projects, the business contacts. He did not like seeing the skewing of his priorities that was taking place. So he woke up one Tuesday, got dressed for work, and skipped Rotary. He broke the chain of perfect attendance. The next week when he returned to the club, many did not understand what he’d done or why he’d done it.
Today, I’m thinking of my daddy and wondering if our United States Senators ever pause as they are slipping on their shoes. I wonder if they ever stop in the middle of adjusting their ties. I wonder if they ever reflect on the perfect records they’re compiling with the NRA. I wonder if the extent to which they are cleaving to an artificial definition of what it means to be a good Senator ever interrupts their morning routine.
Frankly, I do not see it, them asking themselves the question: what has happened to my priorities? Have the reasons I undertook this journey—to be a good representative of the people and care about their lives—been supplanted? Am I now more concerned with holding onto my job than with doing my job? How quickly do I translate my fear of losing my position into politically justifying doublespeak?
Do any of these men (and a few women) ever look into the mirror at their well-combed hair and sagging jowls and ask: Who am I fooling? The people? Or myself?
When they turn away, ready to go about their business for one more day, is it the truth in their eyes that makes them look away? Or is it the haunting, grief-filled eyes of the parents that they do not wish to see? Even worse, is it the ease with which they dismiss those saddened, accusing eyes?
If they can’t answer these questions squarely, maybe some of them need to take a break.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
I wake up this morning and head out to see if the CA possibly delivered the newspaper (no) when I notice the front door is ajar. Without my husband here to lock up, I slept with my front door not just unlocked but standing open. When I go out back to scrounge up some boxes for packing, I return to find my keys dangling in the lock. So I slept with my front door ajar and the keys conveniently placed in my back door lock. And I was safe.
My email keeps coming and going. I have business I need to get done, emails to reply to and new ones to compose, but I can’t send out a thing. The guy at the Mac shop doesn’t know what’s gone wrong with the BellSouth account. So I add my Gmail account to the computer and just start sending emails through Gmail. Except something twists in the universe and the BellSouth account pops back up, sending out emails again. Until it stops.
I don’t want people wearing tennis shoes in honor of the Boston dead. I don’t want people running to work to remember the dead. I feel like the little girl in one of A.A. Milne’s books who’s so frazzled she’s bent double, jerking out her hair, utterly and totally crosswise with the world. I am worn out with such lovely, thoughtful gestures that try to make us part of the tragedy: the slow-mo clap, the dawning recognition, the building music, the ostentatious, insistent desire to show how sympathetic and caring and in-tune to other people’s feelings we are when what we are doing is everything within our power to make it about US. It isn’t.
I spy the little Yorkie a block away and I halt, waiting for him to make it to my corner. His owners stop so I can say hi—how could they do otherwise? Five months old, soft as a dust bunny with the cutest face I’ve seen since my own Yorkies passed into the next life. Bright and chipper, licking hello. I touch my heart and thank the woman, who never breaks a smile. The little dog bounces off while in another part of town a woman goes missing, a car alarm blasts as windows are broken, an abandoned child cries for her missing doll, a cousin boards a plane to Boston, clutching a bereavement ticket in his fist.
Last night, I remembered the peonies in my dream. Startled, I wondered: had I missed their blooming?
Many years ago, I dug a hole to China and planted the peony bulb in my yard – 18 inches isn’t deep until you start digging. I’d fallen in love with the flower’s ostentatiousness, its irrational exuberance, its beauty.
But the peonies’ bloom time is short. Had I somehow allowed life to distract me? Had I let that which I used to value so highly enter—and leave—my life without even noticing?
This is my life. Right on the verge of bursting forth. If only I don’t get distracted and forget why I did all the hard work planting the bulb in the first place: because I just love it.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
Nine of the fourteen stories in Cain’t Do Nothing With Love have been published in literary journals. Thus, to the extent I would be paid for their publication, I’ve already been paid. So the stories will be free.
Each story will be paired with a charity inspired by the theme of the story. After you’ve read the story, if you want, you can make a donation to the charity.
You can read the list of charities and, if one appeals to you, you can choose to read that story.
And you can always enjoy the stories freely, as they are freely given.
This is an experiment. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks for coming along.
Remember: You Cain’t Do Nothing with Love
a robin chirping
the wind chimes tinkling
the pressure washing going on next door
a plane piloted by my neighbor buzzing his house, twice
a barge coming down the Wolf River Harbor
my husband coughing as he took a nap
the dog scratching at the closet door
the tree limb scratching against the side of the house
the heavy truck rumbling down the street
a ski boat, twice
workers yelling at each other
so many noises the helpful brain filters out so you don’t even hear them . . . unless you’re recording, then you do
here’s to creative synthesis . . . .