On Driving Dicey Mountain Roads, Learning to Write, and Making New Friends

IMG_5716Long an admirer of The Sun magazine, which I think publishes the best writing around, I was delighted when the opportunity came up for me to attend the magazine’s writing retreat at Wildacres Retreat Center in western North Carolina. (Meaning I hadn’t signed up in time but was notified when someone cancelled and I was first up on the waiting list.) Wildacres hosts some fabulous sounding workshops for all sorts of creative types, and I plan to return. It’s lovely, Wildacres, set apart–far, far, apart–from all things distracting, among verdant greenery and rustling wildlife. Peaceful, natural, and away from cell towers. And the food is good…

Getting there was tricky, what with downed road signs, dense fog, and my innate ability to “get turned around,” but every tricky curve up the mountain was worth it. After the last turn off anything resembling a well-traveled road, and fearing I was hopelessly lost and possibly in some trouble–the fog was really that hard to see through and I didn’t have cell reception–I stopped at the only commercial entity I’d seen for miles.

“I think I’m lost,” I said as I opened the door to the charming Books and Beans, which is just like the bookstore I dream of opening one day: cozy, full of books of all varieties, comfy chairs by the fireplace, strong coffee, set in the mountains. There may have even been a dog by the hearth, it was that perfect.

“We’re all lost up here,” said the woman behind the counter, smiling. Thankfully I was just two miles from my destination. A vanilla latte and two books later I was on my way.

As usual at these kinds of gatherings—I go to a lot of writing workshops; they’re like vacation for me—I’m nervous at the beginning, wondering if I “fit,” and then, within a couple of hours, I am settled and confident and in my element, surrounded by kindred spirits who care about words with the same intensity that I do. Which means they’re sort of obsessed.

I was familiar with only one writer scheduled to present, Leslie Pietrzyk, as I had read, and enjoyed, her Pears on a Willow Tree (Harper Perennial). Two writers new to me–though perhaps I have read their work in The Sun and simply misplaced their names, something I do more and more these days, misplace things of import–are already favorites.

When Joe Wilkins read from his The Mountain and The Fathers (Counterpoint) I looked around the room to see if everyone else was hearing what I was hearing: well-crafted sentences of such feeling and awareness that I moved to the edge of my seat just to draw a little closer. I subsequently bought every book he had for sale that weekend.

Another writer I’m glad to know about is Chris Bursk, a poet who was funny and heartfelt and one of the best workshop leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. He was generous, engaging, and knowledgeable, willing to share whatever he knew that might help the rest of us write better poems. And he handed out kazoos, so bonus points for that.

IMG_5850Upon returning to Nashville my husband and I went to hear Richard Russo at our fabulous library. He was in town promoting his new book, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf), which I look forward to reading. Russo was just as I had imagined he would be in real life: engaging, approachable, considerate, and smart. When asked what informed his writing, he responded, “I write about the things I notice twice.”

I love that so much. We all notice things once, but what draws us back for another look? Maybe even a third or a fourth circling round. That’s where the gold is, right?

Not only did I learn something about writing at both these events, but I also met interesting people, like the man who told me to check out St. Paul and the Broken Bones after I told him I had enjoyed hearing the Alabama Shakes in Asheville recently. (Seriously, people, run to listen to them if you haven’t already. Brittany Howard belted it out like I’ve never witnessed before. Stunning.) My new friend was spot on with his suggestion, for St. Paul now sits at the top of my current playlist.

And the woman who lives in New York, whose writing is searing and moving and tender, which I learned only after returning home and going online as she was too humble to tell me she’d been in literary journals many of us dream about publishing our work.

IMG_5736I applied for a job at The Sun a while back and although I made the first cut, being invited to critique issues of the magazine, I was not called for an interview. I’m glad I didn’t let any disappointment keep me from attending this retreat. For there is always something to learn about the practice of writing, a bit of inspiration to glean, a recommendation to take to heart, a fellow pilgrim to meet.

What informs your writing? What do you look at twice and want to know more about? In other words, what haunts you so much that you’re driven to write it out?

Amy Lyles Wilson

A Eulogy for My Mother

ALW-Mother-Eulogy-BlogInstead of regaling people with charming anecdotes about my childhood (dancing to “I’m a Little Teapot” in the living room) or relaying repetitive accolades (“Your mother was one of the most influential people in my life.”) about how precious my mother was—and she was dear—when giving her eulogy on February 23, I instead read three passages I dug out of one of my “memory boxes” while crying and packing my suitcase for Mississippi after my sister Ann phoned to say, “This is the call you never want to get.” Bits and pieces from a long life well lived that illustrate, better than a hundred family snapshots, what made Martha Lee Lyles Wilson (1922-2016) such a remarkable woman.

One was a quote she included in a birthday card she sent me; another was a passage she wrote on a sheet of yellow legal-pad paper; and the third was a quote she cut out from a magazine. In short, these snippets reveal how my mother made her way in the world, and how she inspired those around her to follow her lead as best we are able:

“Those people who influence us most are not those who buttonhole us and talk to us, but those who lived their lives like the stars of heaven and the lilies in the field, perfect, simply, and unaffectedly. Those are the lives that mold us.”—Oswald Chambers

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”—John Wesley

“But where do I start? The world is so vast; I shall start with the country I know best, my own. But my country is very large; I better start with my town—but my town, too, is large. I had better start with my street. No, my family. Oh well, never mind. I shall start with myself.”—Elie Wiesel

I don’t know if the quotes she clung to are punctuated or even worded exactly as they appeared in print, and to me it doesn’t matter. The philosophies are clear, and they now have a permanent place in my heart, right alongside my mother.

Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.

Obituary for Martha Lee Lyles Wilson

 

Call Me When You Get There

Before I married, at age forty-one (yes for the first time), I had just about had it up to here with friends patting me on the shoulder and saying, “You’ll just know.” They were trying to make me feel better by telling me I would know when the right person came along. They were assuming that the right person would show up, even though my father taught me early on that there are no guarantees in life. I never dreamed of a knight on a horse, or even a banker in a Buick. So my friends thought they were making me feel better when I didn’t even feel bad to start with. I did, however, often feel worse after they fussed over my singlehood all the while regaling me with stories of their idyllic couplings and pictures of their perfect children.

It didn’t seem like the end of the world to me that I might live my whole life without marriage. I suspected it would be more fun with a partner, and there were Friday nights when I felt desperately sorry for myself, but I did not consider pairing up a prerequisite for a fulfilling and happy life.

“Why haven’t you married?” people would ask me. This seemed to me a preposterous question, one that answered itself. I hadn’t married because the right opportunity had not presented itself. The crush from high school didn’t ask, and I didn’t trust—or love—the one who proposed in my twenties. Plus, I think he was drunk at the time.

“Maybe you’re expecting too much,” friends would say, when all I really expected of myself was not to marry for the wrong reasons.

“What are you looking for?” they would surely inquire, and this one I had an answer for: Someone who cares whether I get home safe and sound. Someone besides my parents. I had often joked that the man who said these words to me, preferably while holding me close or leaning in to kiss me, would be the one: “Call me when you get home so I know you’re okay.”

So when, a few days after our first date, as I was preparing to leave my hometown where I was visiting and return to Nashville, where I live, Precious tapped on the driver’s side window as he stood in the parking lot of the coffee shop where he’d bought me a “sweet roll” for breakfast and said, “Please call me the minute you get to Nashville so I won’t worry about you,” I just knew.

 

 

Mother Knows Best

MarthaAndMe

A favorite photo from several years ago, before Mother’s dementia diagnosis.

Back in January 1922 my parents were born four days apart. My father in Bell, California, and my mother in Tula, Mississippi. They would meet several years later at elementary school when my father’s family returned to its southern roots, and they married in 1948.

Although there were balloons and decorations and cake for my mother on her birthday earlier this month, she would not have known it was her day unless someone had made a fuss. Her dementia robs her of a lot, such as keeping up with dates and important life events. She sometimes thinks her parents have just died and that she wasn’t able to get to their funerals. I hate this for her, that her mind is not only failing her but is also tricking her, goading her into thinking she failed her parents. When, in reality, she was a devoted and faithful daughter until the very end, when she saw her mother and father across the bar and into the ground at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi.

So she loses memories and facts, but she retains her grace, and her humor, and her kindness.

At Christmas I held her hand while we watched part of “Miracle on 34th Street,” which I had never seen and for some reason insist on referring to as “Miracle on 51st Street.” I left after Santa was put in the hoosegow, so it is my fervent hope that the poor man got sprung before the movie was over.

When I arrived that day at the residential facility where she lives, she was resting in her chair with her eyes closed. I sat on the edge of her bed and waited for her to wake up. When she did, she took a few seconds to stare at me with love.

“I recognize you,” she said, smiling.

Her eyes were clear and lively, not dulled as they can sometimes seem when she is having a harder time focusing and engaging. It was the same smile I have seen on her precious face countless times before, an upturn of her lips that let me know she is still my mother.

Show Me Your Scars and I’ll Show You Mine

IMG_3730.jpgI didn’t realize I was sick back then—just miserable. I knew I didn’t belong in law school, though everyone around me said I did. Problem is, you don’t drop out in my family. Wilsons persevere.

“I think something’s wrong with your thyroid.” This from my mother at the Thanksgiving table after my dismal semester. Turns out a goiter had sprouted in my neck and I hadn’t even noticed. That’s how out of touch I was with myself, people. (Google “goiter” at your own risk.)

“You better go see Doc Murray when you get back to Oxford.”

I did and it was. The kindly and charming old-school doctor sent me to a specialist, a not kindly and especially uncharming man, who glanced at me and said: “Most times this is cancer.”

My twenty-two-year-old self started crying and ran to call my parents.

“Come home,” they said. So I did. We got another specialist. A nicer one.

After the surgery to remove half my thyroid gland, I didn’t really mind the scar, even early on when it was angry and red. It proves I can weather the storm, if you will, that’s the way I see it. Cliché or no.

“I can fix that for you,” said a doctor acquaintance at a party not too long ago. He was tilting his head toward the base of my neck and stabbing for an olive with one of those plastic cocktail swords. Red I think it was.

“Fix what?” I asked. I wasn’t even trying to be coy, as I don’t think about the scar, which looks a little bit like a short, braided rope.

“Your thyroidectomy scar. The surgeon should have done a better job. You know, so it wouldn’t be so noticeable.”

Maybe your mother should have done a better job with you, I wanted to say. You know, so your personality wouldn’t be so bothersome.

“I don’t want it fixed,” I said instead. “But thank you for your concern.”

Besides the small rough patch on my right hand—a neighbor’s German Shepherd jumped up on me while I was riding my bike (boy was I proud of that banana seat) and I ended up in a puddle of gravel—I don’t have other visible scars. (I’ve had more surgeries, laparoscopies and such, but no additional physical reminders of trauma.)

My mother, bless her precious 93-year-old heart, is riddled with scars: colon cancer, mastectomy, gallbladder, vena cava filter, skin tears every time her body tricks her into thinking she doesn’t need to use a walker and she pitches to the floor.

I don’t know if she minds her scars or not. I could ask her, but the answer might not be based in reality, as dementia is robbing her of such. She doesn’t seem to mind them, though, or much of anything, actually. Instead she comes across as content, happy even, in the moment. She no longer seems anxious and does not spend her days borrowing trouble, a favorite pastime of hers that I’m sorry to say I have inherited.

Usually she just smiles, asks me if I’m her baby, and rolls herself into the dining room to join the other old souls who can no longer live on their own.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “I am.”

Scars and all.

Amy Lyles Wilson

Writing Prompt: Read Lucille Clifton’s “Scar” and write about what it brings up in you. Write for 20 minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!

http://www.sunsetcoastwriters.com/blog/scar

From Wallowing to Reaching Out {On Friendship}

DSC_0310A friend texts to say she appreciates me, and that I make a difference in her life. Just like that, lickety-split, my mood shifts from somber to celebratory, from grasping to gratitude. My energy morphs from wallowing in my own gunk to remembering to check on an older neighbor who is ill. On a gray-sky day in Nashville, a handful of words from a fellow pilgrim in a different time zone seek me out and everything shifts. I don’t know if it’s some sort of spiritual manifestation of the butterfly effect or not, but I’ll take it.

Now go tell someone she matters.

“Her Name Is Martha” {A Prayer for My Mother}

MarthaI type these words as I email my prayer request to some folks at church, people who might be aware my mother is still living but who don’t necessarily know her name. They might even have a vague recollection that she’s in Mississippi, but they can’t know that we used to dance together in the living room to “I’m a little teapot,” or about the memorable conversation we had while riding the ferry from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard, or how she used to sign her letters “Love, Me.”

“My mother has been hospitalized with pneumonia,” I write. “She is 93 and has dementia. I worry that she’s afraid. Her name is Martha.”

We hate this for her, my sisters and me, her body being subjected to multiple injections and further indignities. She’s had breast and colon cancer; blood clots in her lungs; gallbladder surgery; Crohn’s disease. Hasn’t she suffered enough? I pray for her not to linger, and wonder if I am trying to outmaneuver God.

“Do not be afraid.”

This is what I would whisper to my mother at her bedside, but my sisters tell me not to drive the 400 miles south toward the town of our births.

“She’s stable,” they say. “We’ll keep you posted.”

We’ve been at the brink a couple of times, so close that my sisters and I once gathered in the hospital lobby to go over our notes about what Mother said she wanted at her funeral and draft her obituary. We sometimes pretend we are prepared.

Several days after penning that prayer request, my mother was released from the hospital. She does not remember what was done to her, or why. And maybe that is for the best.

So we continue on, grateful for today, and trying not to borrow trouble for tomorrow.

“Do not be afraid.”