There is ‘FOOD FOR THOUGHT’ but what about ‘FOOD FOR MEMORIES’?

This morning, I dropped my granddaughter, Bug, off in Gadsden.  She was with me for two evenings and a day. I am specific about the time, because the time is so precious –Every Minute Counts.

 

Our first evening, as we sat on the front porch together, I asked: “What do you want to talk about?”

 

“Well, let’s listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and talk about what we are gonna cook tomorrow!”

 

I listened.  And realized that when Bug said she wanted to cook dinner, and wanted to bake a pumpkin pie that that was exactly what she meant.  It was really how she wanted to spend our time together.

 

Though we have often baked together, we have never prepared and cooked an entire meal. So, I explained it would take up a great deal of our day.  Bug said she didn’t care and got busy creating the menu: BBQ chicken, (No surprise there. I remember when she was four and decided it was to be breakfast; and it was.), mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, and garlic/cheese biscuits.  And, let’s not forget the pumpkin pie.

 

And you see, it was with the pumpkin pie that I almost messed up.  I almost acted like an adult and suggest a more seasonally appropriate dessert. You know –lemon icebox, key lime or a cobbler.  Thank goodness I paused and realized this was not about food, this was all about her –and she had suggested pumpkin because it was what she had set her heart on!

 

The kid knocked dinner out of the park! It was amazing. But, it was the time we spent together snapping the beans, peeling the potatoes, and baking the pie that I will never forget.  I hope she doesn’t either.  It was simple, and it was sweet -a summer memory wrapped up in preparing and enjoying a meal together.

 

***

 

The second part of the Romania lecture on WE SHARE THE SAME SKY was to expound how WE tie our memories to emotions; emotions that are most often linked to people, places and food.  Because I’ve opened by sharing the recent cooking experience with Bug, I will skip the introduction and jump to the excerpt.

 

 

From WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, a memoir NYC 2007

 

Last year, when I began planning this trip, I purchased three guide books of the city. While mapping out Chinatown, I was surprised to find that there are almost 300 restaurants within the neighborhood’s boundaries. Some sounded better than others, and although I had my list of wants written out well before I left home, I have found that once I get into an area several things tend to dictate choice. The first two are my mood, and the prolific bragging of locals. Often as not, however, I choose a place to dine based on nothing more than the way a place feels.

 

 

Today, I am looking for an eatery called Sweet-n-Tart Cafe. My new friend Karen suggested I try the congee, a type of rice porridge. In the South, there is a particular fondness for a dessert that is also considered a staple. In our home that staple was rice pudding. It ranked right up there with the various biscuit topped cobblers: blackberry, peach or sweet potato. Rice pudding even held its own at the table when presented along with butter pound cake. All these family recipes were handed down over the years. Along the way, others crept in. Some were come across accidently and yet others long searched for -like the recipe for Lillian Carter’s Peanut Butter Pound Cake.

 

 

Rice pudding back home is a buttery, dense pudding loaded with vanilla, sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. The overall consistency can be described as velvety. Usually it arrives at the table crusted with a browned sugar and butter topping. It is wonderful hot from the oven, at room temperature and even straight from the fridge, ice cold. Like banana nut bread, rice pudding is a staple breakfast food as often as it is dessert.

 

 

During my childhood, rice pudding appeared most often when times were lean. Those were the days when a summer evening meal consisted of fresh scrubbed vegetables from the garden and fish from the trotline. Lean dinners in the winter were often bowls of pintos and cornbread or skillet fried potatoes with onions. As the seasons changed, fish gave way to game: fried dove or quail with gravy, braised rabbit, smoked turkey or venison. All of these could be taken within a five-mile radius of our home. The variety may not have been great, but there was usually plenty. Biscuits with butter, cornbread with sorghum, molasses or honey -these were present at almost every meal. Other times, they were the meal. More staples. How often I sat at the kitchen table during the late evening with Grandpa, feasting on only this and black coffee. I wish I could remember the things we talked about and the stories he told as clearly as I remember the food. Just as there was always Grace before dinner in one grandparent’s house, there were always stories in the other. Rice pudding, however, was common at both dinner tables.

 

 

Cash Only is posted on the door to the tiny restaurant. As of yet, this has been the hardest adjustment I’ve had to make in the city. Thank goodness the guidebooks warn tourist up-front. If not, it would probably be as close as you could get to having a Southern woman in true distress. At the counter, I order the Congee with Hong Dou. “Good for you,” says the man nodding his approval and making a circular motion with his hand around the stomach.

 

 

“Thank you,” I tell him. It is all I know to say.

 

 

Congee is made by cooking rice with water until it breaks down into a porridge- like consistency. It is usually flavored one of two ways: salty and robust with flavorful meat, or glutinous and sweet with red beans, dates and palm sugar. I am in want of the latter.

 

 

The congee arrives and the serving is more than I anticipated. It is a meal and has the wet consistency of porridge rather than the thickness I associate with rice or bread pudding which, when scooped, holds together. I have to admit to being somewhat put-off by the addition of beans. Trying it though, I am pleased and notice a chewiness that regular rice pudding does not have. It is warm, sweet and heavy, very much a comfort food. Admittedly, it is probably healthier than the rice pudding I grew up on because it is cooked without butter and cream.

 

 

 

Mule Skinner Blues

 

I knew when I wrote the scene in CENTIPEDE where Willie runs through the tall grass along the waters of Muscle Shoals that this would be the song the air carried!

 

 

Excerpt from CENTIPEDE:

In the following weeks, Willie found there was something mystical about Florence and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Here, further north, she found the mountains more craggy, the Tennessee River powerful and strong, streams teamed with wildlife. Green grasses grew in clumps along the river banks; in the surrounding fields the grass blades were so fat they had to be double the size of any she had ever seen. And, the breeze that lifted, drifted out across the river brought back strange exotic smells that played rich upon the nose, an odd scent that smelled both dirty and clean at the same time.

Willie paused in her walk, noticing that she felt something similar to how she had felt before losing her family. At first she couldn’t put her finger on it. But, as she moved through the tall grasses and raised her face to the gentle breeze, she understood it was the feeling of being part of nature. For this, she was thankful. She knew she would never be the same again but at least she didn’t feel as broken. Just lonesome and sorry that she no longer had Cotton and her mother. Missing them was the hardest part. But the deep, restless worry that had plagued her was losing its hold on her mind and she was learning to once again see the things around her, appreciate nature and the comfort it contained.

Slowing, she tilted her head, listening intently. The low melodic winds blowing across the river blended with the sound of its gurgling urgency; together they seemed to sing. Willie took flight, running through the woods before her, beneath the tall pines and evergreens, over the mounds of deep, tall grass, trailing her fingers against the blades. The faster she ran, the louder the music and enchanted singing hummed against her ears.

There is magic here, she realized.

At the middle of the field almost hidden from the tall razor edged grass, Willie came to a sudden halt and squatted down on her haunches. She gazed steadily toward the wood line and listened intently to the katydids clattering in the distance. They seemed to rise and draw closer as if they were moving toward her. She closed her eyes and heard them draw nearer. Opening her eyes she noticed the dense growth of trees around her. They too had come closer! A sly smile spread across her face. Indians are here, shiftin’ on quiet feet behind the trees as they watch me, the blonde girl, interloper in their woods!

A gathering of crows, their dark bodies frenetically moving, flying among the uppermost branches suddenly lit and began their raucous squawking. She stood very still and sniffed the air, sucking in the clean freshness of it. Like fuel, it lit her from within and she set off running again, her movement liquid like a too-full creek, like water forced between smooth stones, movement tunneled too long and then freed to rush up and outward, directionless.

Run! Run! Run!  The shoals called across the fields. So Willie did, and the shoals rewarded her with a song…

“Well, good moooornin’, Captain. Good moornin’ to you, Sir –Hey heeey yeaah. Oh, do you need another mule skinner, Down on your new mud run? Hey heeey yeah. Yodel –a-eeeee-he-he, He-he-he-he-he-he…”

Willie reached out and grabbed the song as she ran, made it her own. She might not know about mule skinning but she knew all about running free.

 

Dolly Parton, “Mule Skinner Blues”. https://youtu.be/Fwc1FkkWulc

 

Lecture for Romania, part one

Due to unforeseeable circumstances, I will not be attending the International Book Fair this week in Bucharest, Romania.  I had so looked forward to the opportunity to talk with you about your beautiful country.  I further regret being unable to share with you some of the rich history of the Southern United States; reflections of growing up here in Alabama, coupled with excerpts from WE SHARE THE SAME SKY.

What I can do, however, is post an abbreviated version of what I’d intended to share.  I’ve not included the self-introduction.  The lecture is rather long, so there is the necessity of posting it in segments.  And, rather than moving through the text and rewriting what I’d highlighted in the chapters, I will instead post the entire chapter.

I will miss meeting you all.

Sincerely,

ELIZABETH MOZLEY

 

 

PART ONE, LECTURE FOR ROMANIA

I began writing WE SHARE THE SAME SKY following my return from a summer trip I took alone to Manhattan the summer I turned forty.  I was contemplating a major change in my life and knew that the time away would give me the space I needed to think and see things more clearly.  With children in the house, money spent toward a trip for myself –rather than a family vacation- filled me with guilt.  So, I needed a second reason, one that might alleviate what felt like self-indulgence.   I decided to write about my week in the city and include the history of the boroughs and enclaves of Manhattan, the cultural beauty of the place, the ever-changing neighborhoods that continue to foster a sense of belonging for our immigrants.

While I expected to get caught up in the magic that is New York City, I didn’t expect my mind to constantly jump back to the South.  Throughout these days of wandering, images of home and memories of my childhood kept pressing in on me, as if demanding recognition.

You see, I was missing family; I was missing place. There simply is no getting away from who you are or where you are from.  Place retains its significance to the human spirit because we tie to it the emotions of our memories.  Being Southern means having a relationship with the land, a relationship with nature.

Being away, immersed in that immense, fascinating city, I could more easily reflect on the past, the people and events that made me who I am.  The week in Manhattan actually helped me reconnect.

I’ve heard it said that as children, we are closer to our true selves, that we know our passions.   I think this is true.  It is only later when we are busy being adults that we slip up and forget.

 

(Excerpt from WE SHARE THE SAME SKY)

“There is as much dignity in plowing a field as in writing a poem.”

—Booker T. Washington

Awakening, I move about in a stupor and realize that the bed is unfamiliar. The pillow is unfamiliar. The sounds coming from outside my window –all are unfamiliar. Slowly remembrance sinks in and settles like freshly poured concrete. I am snuggled safely within the city I adore! In the subdivision in Rainbow City where I live, there is a small farm down the street that sits so charmingly out of place. Grandfathered in when our neighborhood was developed, the old farmhouse and tiny field remain. Every morning I am graced with the sounds of the family’s rooster trilling and the donkey baying for his morning meal. Here, the glare through the window forces me awake. And yet, thanks to the sound ordinance, rarely does one hear the frustrated, incessant blaring of aggressive horns. I have over-slept and awakened with the capricious nature of an unruly child. Pulling aside the curtain, I take a peek outside, mouth a quiet thank you to Him.

Late last night, I listed everything I want to cram into my day. Far and wide, my desires are spread from Upper West Side through Midtown and Upper East Side. Locating my list on the map, I realize that I will be all over the place. But really, who cares? It is not as if I am following a dreaded agenda. Flip of a coin, shake of the Magic 8 Ball; perhaps I have been going about my decision making all wrong. So, sensibility will not dictate my path, at least not today!

 

Morningside Heights

Is there anything better than sliding into a taxi when you know you are in for a long day? I don’t think so. As I get in and arrange my things, I notice the driver is talking on the phone. Hating to be rude, I jot down the address and hand it to him, trying to smile. He never makes eye contact and never hangs up the phone. Ill-mannered people get on my nerves and my pet peeve is rude cell phone use. Maintaining my silence, I sit behind him and seethe, wanting to tell him to please get off the phone and drive because frankly, he is scaring the hell out of me. I fantasize about reaching from behind and snatching the phone from his hand and flinging it hard out the window –something my father would do. And yet, I know that when he lets me out, I will tip the inconsiderate ass any-way. My mother reminded me several weeks ago that unless one speaks their mind when they are displeased, they have no right to be resentful. Regardless, I am full. And, I am irritated with myself for letting something shake the sense of inner peace I awakened with. In the South, protestant church signs post words of wisdom each week. My favorite is the adage “He who angers you, controls you.”

The driver drops me intact at The Morningside Heights Greenmarket located at 116th Street and Broadway. While planning, I discovered that the market is sponsored by Columbia University and Barnard College. Amazed by the selection of fresh produce in the city, I find myself constantly comparing it to what we have back home. Surprisingly, it seems there are many more open markets available here.

Quickly, I purchase a pint of the plumpest blueberries and wish for some fresh yogurt. The apples are gorgeous. There is one variety that looks similar to those my grandmother Libby called horse apples. Although the skin of these apples is not the prettiest, they always have a good tart taste that makes them perfect for apple pie and apple butter.

Looking over the boxes before me, I think back on my fifth grade year when before morning announcements or even the pledge was completed, I was hauled into the Principal’s office to stand before Dr. Leftwich.

“It has been rumored,” she said “that you have been stealing apples from a nearby yard and selling them on the bus. Miss Mozley, being industrious is one thing, but thievery is quite another.”

My grandmother always reminded me to pause before answering and so I did. I knew that the man who owned the place had seen me a couple of afternoons as he sat out on his back porch. The tree I had chosen the day before was close enough that I had noticed he was drinking tea and cracking pecans as he read The Gadsden Times. I also knew that he didn’t mind or he would have said something. I even hoped that he liked me, although I never saw him smile. Yes, he liked me and he appreciated the fact that I enjoyed his trees, his apples. After all, he had dropped the paper to below eye level and watched as I gathered them in my shirt and climbed back over his fence.

He was not the one who reported me. I knew this. But regard-less of who had, I was either in for a good scolding or a paddling. But, not both; Dr. Leftwich was known for giving one or the other. My only hope was that she wouldn’t call Papa. Double or nothing I thought, then replied, “Yes, ma’am. I’ve been doing just that.”

The following day –because she did not paddle me or even call my father –I left a rosy store-bought apple on her desk. I didn’t think a note was necessary.

What is it about picking your own produce that makes the taste more intense? My children swear that the apples they pick from our trees to bake each morning are better than those from the store and I believe them.

Apples purchased from the grocer sit prettily in the glass dish on our dining room table almost forgotten. It is as if they are there for the eye rather than the palate.

Each year, the children and I look forward to visiting an orchard. For years, we picked our own from an elderly gentleman’s backyard in Riverside. Posted near the bushel baskets was a sign listing the cost, and sitting below on a porch step was an old rusted coffee can where you deposited your money. Some of the trees that grew along the back row of his orchard seemed to be as old as the man himself. Laden with a full load, the sagging limbs were propped up with felled hardwood. When the old man passed away the property was sold, his bountiful trees cut, the land leveled and landscaped. The children and I mourned, then set out in search of another orchard. We headed north.

I had found a listing for a large family-owned orchard in North, Alabama. After a long morning drive, we arrived to find the place boarded up. Disappointed we turned back, but decided the return trip should be a different route, in the hope of coming across something of interest along the way. What we found was a North Alabama Indian mound. The gate, drawn shut and locked, held a sign posted no trespassing, but the children and I pretended not to see. We quickly parked the car and walked to the mound by way of a neighboring cotton field, full and white.

Catching sight of the mound, Anderson and Isaac stopped at once. I walked to where they stood, looking on with awe at the vision that lay before us.

A prehistoric Native American relic of the Mississippian culture, it was an amazing thing to see, just sitting there modestly in a field of lolling green pasture, surrounded by a pearlescent ocean of cotton and the distant emerald foliage of hardwood trees. In silence we climbed the mound, stood and gazed across the land. With unspoken reverence, we turned and descended quietly, then walked back through the high cotton to where we had parked.

Several miles down the road, we happened upon a very small family owned orchard. Although we didn’t get to pick the apples ourselves, no one seemed to care. We bought several bushels and an antique apple peeler to make our work easier. That evening, we set about slicing and filling the dehydrator racks sprinkling each layer with cinnamon; the remaining apples we baked and then topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.

Memories of time spent with my children bring only happiness. I say a quiet thank you. Because of them, I have much to be grateful for. Isaac’s cotton seeds are still in the backseat compartment of my car! When this thought comes, I cannot help but laugh outright.

I continue to pick up an apple from each selection, admire its uniqueness and fresh smell. I think of a quote from Walden, of Thoreau and his reflections on the farm he almost bought but didn’t. He laments, “I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only.” Now this I under-stand. But, when he admonishes “…As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are com-mitted to a farm or the country jail.” I am want to disagree. To own and work a piece of land is to take pride in something that becomes an extension of self; a sense of accomplishment fills the soul of the weary possessor at days end.

Moving around the selections, I watch and listen to the interactions between the farmers and the locals and wish that I was staying somewhere that would allow me to purchase what I really want so that I might cook a meal early in the evening. Within arms reach are the most delectable Roma tomatoes I’ve ever seen accompanied by a beautiful purplish heirloom. I wish I could gather them up, take them back to the room, slice them, dehydrate them and pack them in oil or buy a couple of crisp ones still good and green, to fry.

There is also pineapple, freshly cut. If only I had several slices of a good homemade white bread and some mayonnaise. Is it only Southerners who eat pineapple sandwiches and hot tomato biscuits? Recognizing true hunger, my stomach rumbles at the thought.

The idea of dinner alone makes me miss being at home, cooking and dining with the children. They would be thrilled with this marketplace.

We often shop the farmer’s market in Birmingham. Not so much for the fresh produce –even though the offerings are amazing with over 200 farmers participating- but for all the other phenomenal vendors. Isaac’s favorite is a table of sliced cakes, presented by The Bakery at Cullinard. Anderson heads immediately for the croissants and chocolate sauce offered at another stand. Shelves of homemade preserves, jellies and jams call to me.

 

In our area, the weekend flee markets are where most folks shop for serious produce purchases. These are located closer to Gadsden, our hometown. We frequent Collinsville on Saturdays and Mountain Top on Sundays. Visiting a trade day in the South requires rising early. The best vendors arrive and begin setting up around 4:30 a.m. then pack up around noon. Collinsville Market is located in a small rural town of the same name. It is surrounded by beautiful green sprawling hills of farmland and the distant ridge of the lower Cumberland Plateau. Prettiest in the lambent light of the early hours, the view competes with the winsome sounds of farm animals. The smell of sausage biscuits and fresh coffee drift far and wide.

Regional pride has led to many a foolish notion. Admittedly, I always believed that Southerners held a closer relationship to the land and therefore held the prime pickings when it came to pro-duce. Looking about, I acknowledge that I’ve been proven wrong on both counts. Before walking away, I watch a small family load their purchases into four worn arm baskets; supple, they easily bend and allow the carrying of much weight. What is it they will cook for dinner tonight? What are their traditions, and is this trip to the market one of them? I think on our family’s beloved catfish Sundays. Grandpa farmed and fished all week. GrandMosie began cooking early that morning while we attended our various churches. Gathering at their house after services, we children fought over the fried fish with the longest crisp tails. We gnawed them down to the nub before beginning on the flesh, filled our plates repeatedly, then lazed away the afternoon waiting for stomach pains to pass. It was a happy gathering. What a shame that in today’s haste, many have let the tradition of Sunday supper with extended family all but slip away.

I watch the father help his wife, guide her gently through the throngs of people. He is protective of her, she of the children. The

Breathing deeply and enjoying the early morning air, I decide to move on. It occurs to me that all of this walking, where the wander-ings of body and thoughts meld, has helped clear my mind. Physical exertion, be it callisthenic or aerobic, alleviates depression and anxi-ety. Wandering is much like pacing in that it requires constant yet thoughtless movement; while the body moves about as if by its own accord, the mind is free. For me, this is proving therapeutic and provides time to reflect on the important things, to examine what exactly it is that has brought me here, not just to this city, but to this juncture in my life. Perhaps with realization, healing and creativity can begin again. It is not that I have become blind to the limit-less joy God places in the smallest of things, rather I have become distracted by circumstance. Time to wander, to think, to remember and reflect –without these we lose something fundamental and vital to self.

 

Days That Ran Long

 

Standin’ here,

Hands spread

Across faded green,

I listen undeterred

To moans and groans behind me

Of ungodly ugliness.

I care not

For I’ve found a treasure

That’s less than grand sight

And slick worn feel

Bring back dusty memories

Of skinned knees, stringy hair,

Days that ran long and knew untold endin’s.

Who would’ve known

That city folk congregated in search

Of fine Wedgwood and walnut

Would find themselves subjected

To grandeur so rural,

That’s beckonin’ calls to those

Whose memories once held rough edges

Hewn by hard work and time.

It stands there inquirin’

Remember me? Remember

The gatherin’s…

I become absorbed

In its green flat formica

And long since lost its shine chrome-

Where many times did

Families coagulate

When such things were so,

To feast on meals

Pulled from the ground, wrung by the neck

Then presented to kin whose presence

Represented true survival

Of hell and brimstone storms

Characteristic of a glorious

Southern Sunday morn.

 

EM 2004

 

*Please join me on Facebook at WE SHARE THE SAME SKY and also on Twitter @ElizabethMozley and @CentipedeYAread

 

Thank you all! ELIZABETH

 

Image result for we share the same sky

Dear Romania,

It is 8:50 a.m. here in Alabama and it is a warm morning with clear blue skies.  Up early, I went for a long walk and along the way began working over in my mind exactly what I want to share about growing up here in the southern United States when I get to Romania.

     There is so much.  If I am to expound on the power of storytelling here in our region, I will have to first describe the area’s earliest settlers and how they were shaped by both their heritage and the terrain of the South as it once was.  And there is the melding that comes with the influx of even more settlers, their customs, beliefs, foods…
      …and our history.
     See?  There is so much to explain before the sharing of stories even begins!
     But isn’t it the same everywhere?!
     Of course it is!   WE are shaped by our elders and their teachings; the land and our attachment to it; our beliefs and the fundamental ideals of which we are comprised.
     Nearing the end of my walk, I acknowledged that while I can share so much, it would be helpful if I understood your interest in our South- what is it YOU want to know?
     I would greatly appreciate your response.  I so look forward to my days in Bucharest, and to meeting you all and learning something about each of you!
     Share with me something YOU love about your country, memories of the area you grew up, your stories!
See you soon!
Elizabeth Mozley
woman in field

On Writing CENTIPEDE

Several years ago, when We Share the Same Sky came out in paperback, my students asked, “Why haven’t you written anything for us?” And I realized, I needed to; after all who can resist the sweet request of so many kids? Not I!

 

So- I began working on a novel for them. I got about five chapters in and was really beginning to warm up to the book when the idea for CENTIPEDE hit me. I don’t remember now what sparked the idea, but I remember clearly how quickly it took hold and how it expanded and grew almost on its own. It was the same way with the characters; immediately they were there, and just as quickly they seemed to take control of the novel.

 

I— I had wanted to write a lovely little happy book for my kids. That is not what I ended up with. (The happy little book is the one I set aside for later.) What I ended up with was a Young Adult book that requires a note to parents that it contains adult content, i.e. the book description on the back – Willie survives a murder.

 

When my students asked me this past week if they could now purchase it on Amazon, I said “yes” and proceeded to remind them that they needed their parents to look it over first. (These kids are eleven and twelve year olds.)

 

One of my boys, T.P. spoke up and asked, “It’s got some cussin’ in it, don’t it?”

 

And I had to say, “Well, just a little but only in the beginning, T.”

 

– “So you cuss, Ms. Mozley?” 🙄

 

“No, T. but a couple of the characters do at times. It is necessary for them to speak as they really would,” I tried to explain.

 

T.P. then laughed and told me he was “just tryin’ to get me”.

 

Oh, these kids today! They do make me smile.

 

Although the story of CENTIPEDE seemed to write itself, it was difficult at times because I’d never written for kids. For example, when two of my girls first read it through, they came to me and explained they didn’t understand a few things. So, I had to go back and re-write sections, adding hints that were not necessary for a more mature reader. They just didn’t intuitively grasp what I assumed they would.

 

I tried to get the novel right for my middle school and young adult readers, and still create a story that held the ideals I wanted the piece to express: the importance of nature to the human psyche, love of family, the necessity and importance of security for a child, a child’s inherent resilience, their sense of wonder and the steadfastness to ideals they retain a firm grasp on – and I wanted to include God’s wondrous gift of imagination and the true love of life that kids remain close to.

 

Willie is my girl. And, I am very proud of her.

 

I hope the students will love her as well.

 

ELIZABETH

Peace Within, Wordsworth

 

When I hear the name William Wordsworth, I think differently than I do when I hear another poet’s name.  Wordsworth to me means imagery; superb imagery that allows the reader to visualize nature as the author saw it; imagery that reveals how the poet felt about nature and why!  Poems like Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, The Tables Turned and The World is too Much With Us, are but a few that reveal the author’s necessary relationship with God’s physical world, and the importance it played in his life –appreciated as it was first encountered in his youth, and then later, as an older gentleman in his reflections of growing up in and around the Lake District.  In his introduction to William Wordsworth Selected Poetry, Mark Van Doren claims, “…he is the first great modern poet of England and Europe, and by extension, of America…and since his world is still our world, and since his gifts as a poet were pure and great, we more than ever benefit by his achievements.”

 

Although Wordsworth enjoyed his solitude, he also spent time with a few, select friends including his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Coleridge both of whom he collaborated with.  But was he an artist who preferred kinship with nature above that of kinship with his fellow man? Wordsworth’s relationships influenced his writings.  As with most artists and authors, the things taking place in the poet’s life -personally, regionally and nationally -found their way into his works.  True love for a sister, admiration for a mentor – held sway on his ideals, his beliefs and therefore shaped the production of particular works.

 

Within Wordsworth’s poems -not hidden, but up-front and personal -are the sweet, sentimental power of nostalgic memory.  Read these lines from Tintern Abbey:  “…five summers, with the length/Of five long winters! And I hear/These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs/With a soft inland murmur. –Once again/Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs.”  Again, and again the author returns to this style of reflective thought, as it is fostered through his contact with nature.  Wordsworth’s poems have the power to sway a mature reader, who in looking back, does so with longing as well. Do we, as adults, envision a more lovely setting than that which we first looked upon in our youth?  Probably. Listen to the description Wordsworth offers: “To look on nature, not as in the hour/Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes/The still, sad music of humanity/ Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power/To chasten and subdue.”

 

  Wordsworth was the romantic poet defined, emphasizing intuition over reason.  He appreciated the lands around the Lake District and so naturally began participating in walking tours of Europe.  He toured the Alps, Italy, France and Switzerland. These travels further influenced his leanings toward nature and its importance on man’s mental health.  As Wordsworth’s poetic works gained recognition, he began to discuss freely his thoughts on writing in the “real language of men” where he avoided much of the serious structure previously expected in poetry and placed more emphasis on emotions encountered and felt fully during peaceful times.

 

There is the question in life as to which is more important:  one’s relationship with others, or one’s relationship with nature, or God.  There is a closeness with God when one sets foot outside! Wordsworth described this so knowingly when he wrote, “The world is too much with us…Little we see in nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away…”  The poet knew, nowhere is man nearer God than when he is deep within that which God has made.

 

Wordsworth saw separation of man and earth as a ghastly thing –as if in modern times man would completely lose his soul because of this break from original identity.  He felt a kinship for a place that drew on memory and played on the senses just as deeply as the memories of time with those he loved.  “That on the banks of this delightful stream/We stood together; and that I, so long/A worshiper of Nature, hither came /Unwearied in that service; rather say/With warmer love-oh! With far deeper zeal/Of holier love….these steep woods and lofty cliffs/And this green pastoral landscape, were to me/More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!”

 

  Although Wordsworth’s poetry can be studied, the literary world will never know why the author chose poetry as his medium.  Did Wordsworth use the recollection of fond memories to access peace and happiness? It seems that he did, after all, don’t most people reflect on better times, the more pleasant aspects of their life to lift them when life becomes too difficult? The poet writes, “While with an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and the deep power of joy/We see into the life of things.”  Tintern Abbey in its entirety seems to be a work of peaceful reprieve.

 

Wordsworth was equally influenced by both his friendship with Samuel Coleridge and his mixed feelings about the French Revolution.  Mark Van Doren writes that it was during this decade that Wordsworth wrote the best of his poems, and that afterward, mysteriously the inspiration was gone.  Of all the romantic poets, Wordsworth’s words and peaceful recollections still have the power to sway. Even in modern times, his poetry is read and enjoyed.

 

 And, YES, though I first discovered his poetry in our little library at SHS, he continues to be my favored poet!

My son, the wise one.

Lotus-FlowerYesterday while visiting with my son, Isaac, seemingly out of the blue he stated, “You’ve lost your center”.  It surprised me because I knew how I felt but didn’t realize it was so visible to others. He asked if I knew why.  And, in a way I do know why. But, I gave the standard answer “I’ve just got a lot going on”. Which is truthful but isn’t accurate.

Even as I responded he was smiling.  “It isn’t important what knocked you off your center; what’s important is getting back to it.”

Before going any further, let me clarify that when I write “my center” I’m referring to that happy, calm, content, amazing feeling you get when you are where you are supposed to be in your head, when your way of thinking is conducive to living a pleasing life.

Finding that calm isn’t always so easy.  Over the past handful of years I can remember only a few periods of time that I captured it and actually held onto it for a substantial period of time.  My son and I discussed this as well.  And he then asked me the guiding questions I’ve always directed at him and his sister, “What did you do to get there?”  The question was followed by a gentle nudge.  “Do those things again. You’ve stopped doing them; your head is in the wrong place,” he reminded me.

We all know this:  Unless you are a Buddhist monk living apart from the world, you’ve got to be able to accept that you’re going to lose focus in the day-to-day -especially if you are surrounded by others.  But what if it is also that you’re spending the majority of your time alone?  And I realized as we sat and talked that although I work hard at maintaining that sense of peace while I am working throughout my teaching year, I am not giving it the attention it needs when I am off.  I had mistakenly thought that it required no work, because after all, I am alone.  And shouldn’t it just come naturally then?

I’ve this thing I do called Day One. I use it any time I need to work on some personal goal. When I understand there is something within myself that I need to work on, I contemplate what changes need to be made. Then I make a list that includes what I’m doing wrong and what I can do to improve. Once I’ve identified my weaknesses and outlined my plan, I begin working toward it. That is Day One.  The first year I did this was when I learned to be kind to myself. I kept beating myself up every time I found myself sliding backward or just not making any gains at all. That’s when I created the “you can have as many Day Ones as you need without feeling guilty” rule.

So, I sit here making my list of the things I’m usually doing when I’ve captured my calm. They are so simple that one would think they are unimportant. Funny thing is that once I’ve gained that feeling of bliss, I start dropping these little things. We all do. We begin actively seeking out what we need to better our lives and then when life levels out, we feel better and jump back into the same hectic, full-speed-ahead lifestyle and Leave Those Things Behind.

Things I Will Do Today (or How I will Begin My Days)–based on the guiding question posed by my son, “What did you do to get there?”

  • Go for a long walk. And try not to daydream or make lists of what I will do when I am through walking. Being present and looking about; noticing nature.
  • Come home and be still for a little while before jumping into a home improvement project. Read a book for spiritual growth for thirty minutes and then something that is just for pleasure thirty minutes.
  • Eat a meal while doing nothing else.
  • Write something, anything. Just journal –but not notes on the phone it is cheating.
  • Give thanks for all I’ve been blessed with. You know –pray.
  • Eat a Snickers.

 

So…

Today

Is

Day

One

 

Wish me luck!

 

 

****

 

ELIZABETH MOZLEY

@ElizabethMozley  &  @CentipedeYAread

And on Facebook – We Share the Same Sky, author Elizabeth Mozley

We Share the Same Sky, a memoir

https://www.amazon.com/Elizabeth-Mozley/e/B00J7KJWIU