The Fine Art of Catching a Firefly

I learned the Fine Art of Catching a Firefly when I was a child. I think it was the best way because I was at my most intuitive about magic. I would see their luminous nearly green yellow liquid light and shriek with delight, sometimes on the outside, but just as often on the inside. I knew it was kind of Philistine to just grab them, even though it was hard to resist. The best, most effective way, I learned over time, was an open hand and a willingness to merge.

bug,hand,light,firefly,cool-f046206fe921306a6db60e4264733497_hIt always started with a summer evening. Assessing the transitional time between afternoon and evening, as well as the time between evening and too-late night, was as much as part of it as how to hold your hand. Some people may tell you now that nets are permissible for capture, but that is not the art. You may hear that a Mason jar is allowed as well, for the midway release from first capture.

But these elements are not the art I know.

It would start with a spark in my heart. I’d feel a burst of light and heat inside. Around me I could perceive the summer air was buoyant enough to float the magic of tiny flying flames, glimmering under a dark heaven. There was a soundless hum that supported my procession toward mingling with these charming little mysteries.

I would walk among them then. Sitting still feels dishonest, and these creatures are all about having nothing to hide. On instinct you know not to try to trick them. Your walk must be slow and full of the pauses that allow the fireflies to orbit your damp skin and your natural breathing. Every now and then you reach out one arm, your palm open, fingers relaxed, falling in gentle curves. It’s the bend of your fingers that calls them to you. One will hover over that hand as if to say, “I am the one.”

Raising your hand slowly you make soft contact and the wings that have spun into blur stop and fold. Antennae you didn’t notice before now bend alternately to touch your skin and little feet, delicate and fast dance along your skin as the light quiets under two aligned and slender shields.

You learn what the mistakes are with time. Don’t hold them inside a closed hand. Don’t put them in a jar. Let them light and land and rise and fall as they choose. If you are practicing the fine art, they will choose you.

I found this out a long time ago. I would bet you did, too. But if you haven’t learned it yet, it is not too late to learn the Fine Art of Catching a Firefly. Come with me because, look! It’s that time. Leave the jar and net and bring your quiet calm and open hand. Bring yourself.

Imbrogno, McClain, Barnhill – oh, and last call!

This week I am sharing some of my favorite excerpts from contributing writers’ work for the Essays on Childhood project. Contributors range from experienced professional writers to first-time essayists.

TODAY is the LAST DAY to jump on board in 2013!

Click here to find out how to join us this year: http://essaysonchildhood.com/contact-the-project/

*

Something has broken in me. I quiver head to toe, shaking uncontrollably for minutes. I do not to this day have the words to describe what broke, unless it was something like the compact between parent and child. It had something to do with the fact that never again could I look at my parents without complicity, a knowing and direct participation — both embarrassing and far too personal – in the magnitude of their estrangement.

via In a Man’s Voice: Happy Again by Douglas Imbrogno | Esse Diem.

Because we have all been children, we all have a physical place that is a part of our being, because it was the place of our becoming.  As children we are physical beings locked in the moment.   The sight, sound and scent of living, the tactile presence of it, embeds itself within us.  It is unnoticed but as constant and critical to our growing as oxygen that flows through our blood from breathing.  As adults, we live in layers of past, present and future.  When my adult present was rocked and cracked by death, sickness and separation until it split into a gaping rift, I found that childhood place.  It bubbled up, unbidden, and flowed liquid into the gap.  Some embedded tactile presence of living rushed into the emptiness that threatened to take my life and filled it.

This is a story about that place.

via The Simons House by Margaret Ward McClain

Photo courtesy of essayist Margaret Ward McClain

That love of being alone found its best expression in midnight walks during winter, the moon casting an eerie glow to the entire world, the snow reflecting the light in loving response, Endymion to Diana in every pale snow pile.  I would head out at what my mother called “the witching hour” and walk down the road until my nose got so cold it began to drip.  The silence was palpable and soothing, the world muffled with a snowy blanket, soft as a baby’s comforter.  I couldn’t have said it at the time, but what I experienced in those long winter walks belonged to the infinite–God, the imagination, time’s longing for itself–and those interludes gave me a hunger for the spiritual, an appetite that is only satisfied when I return to the mountains, those winding roads that lead to moments of mystery, found in the West Virginia hills.

via Winter Solstice by Anne Clinard Barnhill

They Did It. You Can Do It. | Essays on Childhood

Photo courtesy of essayist Melanie Foster Taylor

This week I am sharing some of my favorite excerpts from contributing writers’ work for the Essays on Childhood project. Click here to find out how to join us this year!

http://essaysonchildhood.com/contact-the-project/

Middle school started to show me that football could put a boy at the top of the popularity totem pole.  The players always seemed to have the prettiest girls talking to them and they got the most attention around school.  That was especially true when game day arrived.  The team members always had a tradition of wearing their jerseys at school all throughout that day.  The school would be dotted with light blue jerseys bouncing around campus.  Everybody got excited for the games, especially if they were playing at home.  Those days we didn’t have to ride the school bus home.  We could stay after school, watch the game, and have our parents pick us up after the game was over. But when you saw those blue jerseys around campus, they were not being worn by the players.

In a lot of cases, those jerseys were being worn by girls.

via In a Man’s Voice: The Jersey by Vernon Wildy, Jr. | Esse Diem.

We would meet in the parking lot of the Tech Center, a great, sprawling piece of property where most of our parents’ offices were located.  Parents and kids who were going and kids who weren’t going and kids who had already been but wanted to say goodbye to their friends all gathered.  There was always crying.  Kids crying from fear if it was their first year and frustration if their siblings got to go and they didn’t, always last minute dashes to the bathroom, and slightly controlled chaos abounded.  Parents yelling out the ever-embarassing, “Don’t forget to change your underwear!”  “Brush your teeth!”  “Use the bug spray!”  “Don’t forget to write!”

via Carbide Camp was Magic by Jean Hanna Davis | Esse Diem.

When we would spend the night with Mamaw, Shawn and I would sit up late at night and watch “Chiller Theater” on TV.  I was always such a big chicken and didn’t want to watch, so I would hide under the covers on the couch.  Mamaw would then shoo us into bed and the three of us would giggle and tell stories by the light of an eerie green colored night light.

When I was about ten years old, Papaw renovated the apartment above the detached garage next to the old homestead.  The double car garage served as Papaw Charlie’s woodworking shop and my uncle Ted’s garage band’s practice studio.  Since Ted was just a teenager when I was young, I always liked to listen to his band rehearse.  One Halloween, when I was in the third grade, I remember dressing up in my costume, a character from The Planet of the Apes, and standing in the garage door as the band practiced their rendition of CCR’s “Rolling on the River.”  To this day, every time I hear that song I think of standing there in my ape costume, wanting to just listen to the music as long as I could.

via Growing Up (part two) by Christi Davis Somerville

Essays! You In?

Next week is the deadline for jumping aboard this years Essays on Childhood project. All we need is a short bio and a head shot; you have another month to decide what you want to write, and even longer than that to actually write it. Click the link above or just click this photo here to redirect to the full project schedule.

In honor of previous essayists and to get your writing mojo flowing, I am going to republish some of my favorite excerpts from previous years over the next several days. Enjoy, and feel free to send me any questions at edg@longridgeeditors.com or just post them here in the comments. I hope to work with you this year.

Ours was the third house to be built in the ‘new’ neighborhood. A subdivision of homes was being built in the woods. THE WOODS. We moved into the house in the fall, and I played in the woods around the house beginning then and through the winter. When I turned seven in April my mother sent me outside to play.

“No really, you have to go outside… and play… Go…”

So I went. Outside. Into THE WOODS.

via In a Man’s Voice: Outside by Brent Aikman | Esse Diem.

When I went to college in South Carolina, I sometimes babysat for a young family.  The Daddy went to Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Virginia, and coincidentally was roommates with my cousin Will Carter.  He told me about his trip to Lewisburg once, his first to West Virginia, with Will to meet his family.  He remembers driving into a beautiful piece of property, open and lovely in the spring green, and as they pulled in closer to the Prichard house, two young men, not much older than he and Will, were standing naked in the field playing their stringed instruments.

via For the Love of Music by Lisa Lewis Smith | Esse Diem.

Nobody had been up the road for many months, probably since summer time, so the ruts grooved by any bad weather were deep. As we descended into the Rain Forest, the driver had to make sharp left and right juts, avoiding the big pits in the dirt road. I remember flinging right and left off the back of the Jeep as the driver jigged and jagged along the path. Sometimes we had to actually stop and fill in the ruts with brush and stones in order to create a passable road. Sometimes we would stop and pick blackberries on the way in!

via Going to the Farm by Melanie Foster Taylor | Esse Diem.

All These Things – E. B. White and Letting Go

            In his essay, “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” E. B. White uses two distinct tones toward his subject matter of the problem of human acquisition and inability to shed our possessions. By initiating the essay with a wry and occasionally sarcastic tone, White creates an expectation in the reader that there will be a humorous approach to his subject throughout the essay. This continued singular tone for most of the work makes his last-minute shift to a more wistful and vulnerable approach to his subject an effective, forced reflection for the reader on how we use – often unwittingly – our physical environment to protect our emotional and psychological worlds.

            Early in the essay, White suggests that the things in his apartment have a will of their own:

For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of ones worldly goods to go out again into the world.

The reader knows right away that this will be a tongue-in-cheek narrative; naturally, the narrator is the only one with a will in this series of events, but his suggestion that he is in some kind of battle with the objects in his life is funny. The narrator is in some form of denial. He suggests that he is a victim of some sort of universal scheme.

Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ball point pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I once had a man send me a chip of wood that shows the marks of beaver teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood.

This series of random acquisitions as preying on the narrator begins to raise the reader’s eyebrow. The gnawed wood chip is especially noteworthy, as one can imagine no purpose in retaining something like that; yet White did keep it. One might use a bank memo book, but what can one do with beaver-chewed wood chips? By throwing in that ridiculous item, White now creates suspicion that he is more culpable than he admits.

Another day, I found myself on a sofa between the chip of wood gnawed by the beaver and an honorary hood I had once worn in an academic procession. What I really needed at the moment was the beaver himself, to eat the hood. I shall never wear the hood again, but I have too weak a character to throw it away, and I do not doubt that it will tag along with me to the end of my days, not keeping me either warm or happy but occupying a bit of my attic space.

At this point, White decides to lock up the apartment and go to a fair, further enhancing the reader’s growing belief that the narrator is in denial. White meets that belief:

A fair, of course, is a dangerous spot if a man is hoping to avoid acquisition.

For multiple paragraphs after he locks his apartment, White writes about his experience at the fair. It is a seemingly strange shift, until he reconnects with the last lines of the essay, which open, “But that was weeks ago.”

As I sit here this afternoon in this disheveled room, surrounded by the boxes and bales that hold my undisposable treasure, I feel the onset of melancholy.

No more jokes. Now White is allowing himself to feel the pain and loss of leaving the familiar.

After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on.

Visiting birds, dogs, gardens, “the cat, the vine, the sky, the willow” – now White’s loss is shifting to life. The reader understands that the possessions have only been a cover for busying the narrator with things that are not important. What is painful and held at bay in his emotions is the living elements of his home that he must abandon and cannot take with him. This revelation makes the delivery of White’s final words devastating, when the reader realizes the entire essay has been a protective cover for another reality:

In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation to fortune, whim, and need. And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable.

A True Story and the People to Go with It

. . . my father once asked me a series of questions that suddenly made me wonder whether I understood even my father whom I felt closer to than any man I have ever known. “You like to tell true stories, don’t you?” he asked, and I answered, “Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.”

Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it?

“Only then will you understand what happened and why.

“It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

– Norman  Maclean, A River Runs through It

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (conclusion)

In a recent public conversation about young educated people leaving West Virginia to find their fortunes elsewhere, I heard someone say, “Maybe someday they will appreciate the security of these mountains.” The word security struck me as strange, and so I asked the speaker what she meant. “That word you used, security, why did you choose that word? Because I don’t see this place that way. Help me understand.”

She never answered me, and while I thought several times about going back to prompt her again, I let it end there. I let the question linger in the air because that is its natural place. It is a place between mountains like echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

And so my heart returns to Charles Edward. I do not know very much about him at all, but in some ways I think I know enough. He was the father of 10 children. He had one devoted wife. He was a coal miner in West Virginia and he died at a young age. I imagine he gave his all to the people he loved, and that all probably meant very little of his true self left over for his own use. As a mother, in some ways I can relate to that. I imagine him drifting off at night to a hard-earned rest: Did he dream of his own boyhood, of what he thought the world would bring? Did he drift off to sleep in pleasant thoughts of life beyond the mines, or did he struggle with nightmares of never seeing light again? Though I don’t like to think of it, I worry that my great-grandfather was caught in the echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

Charles Edwards’ youngest son was my grandfather. He died this year, the last of the ten. He will be buried in Fayetteville earth with many of his brothers and sisters, though I don’t know in this moment where his father lies. He probably lies in the ground in Fayetteville with his family. His bones are melding with the land by now, a strange and lovely constitution of former miner, father, husband and mineral. There is poetry in the idea that a miner returns to the earth, lends his elements to reconstituting the very place from which he took value.

As I bury my own grandfather, I think of Charles Edward. I wish I could have been there, could have seen his body laid to rest, could have cried for him on the day he went into the ground for the last time. He hasn’t been much of anyone to me most of my life because he was literally cut out of the picture. He has been a ghost. It is not for me to judge why he has had no real presence with the living until now, but it is for me to call him up, now. It is for me, his great-granddaughter, to pull back the thin muslin curtains and call his name. It is for me to call out to my silent great-grandfather in my own moment of decision. I need him to talk to me.

What do you think I should do? Your great-great-granddaughter is here now. By the way, she’s gorgeous, I wish you could see her ride Lopaz, the wooden gliding horse you used to have for your own children on the porch in Fayetteville. Remember Lopaz? I wish I could know you knew Lopaz was making this generation of children happy. Did you make this horse? Buy it with the little non-scrip you had?

But I’m losing my place. What I want to know is what you think I should do right now. My husband has a calling to Vermont. It’s far away, but it’s mountains. Really nice mountains. And the work is all about helping people find good things to do that don’t compromise the life they want. He’ll be trying to help make fathers of ten children sleep easier at night. You’d like what we are doing. I think you would like it.

What was that you asked? Do we win, does your great-great-granddaughter win? I know why you ask that question, and I forgive you. I forgive myself for wanting to say yes. I think at the end of the long goodbye, my answer to you and to myself is that she one day will not recognize the question. She will live in such a way and in such a world that she tilts her head at the idea of winners and losers. There is very little, Charles Edward, that I can give you. You are gone in most definitions of a life, and yet here I am writing about you and feeling motivated by your spirit. I give you all I can around shaping the future.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

I say it is security because it does not change. I say that which does not change should be evaluated with a keen eye and unsentimental heart.

I say security is something to be challenged.

And I say letting go of this place hurts the heart, but only as the sunlight hurts one’s eyes when he walks out of the mine, and into his family’s future.

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 3)

As inelegant as it is, here I must say that not all things are wrong. There are many hard and beautiful truths in a West Virginia life that other places may never know. I am reminded of the betrayals of a true love. Not much is lost when you never cared, but there is a unique pain in the infidelities of the one to whom you’ve given your heart.  West Virginia births and raises true loves. We don’t do things half-way or a little bit. We come out into this place like wires, connected, to a land of creeks and sky and hills. We hit the earth a part of it, and “mountain mama” is not just a line from a song. Whether we want to have this relationship or not, it is both a birthright and a burden.

I think again of my great-grandfather. What did Charles Edward grow up believing? I imagine he was like the rest of us. He grew up believing that that is a good place. He no doubt came into the world with a strong belief that the land around him was worth fighting for, that anyone who would disparage what West Virginia is would be easily and swiftly defeated. What he did not know, what none of us know at first, is that this place is a commodity to be traded, and that loyalty to this place is like falling in love with a hooker. That sounds terribly harsh, but I believe it is accurate.

Those in the know will tell you that despite the fantasy, no one sells their physical and spiritual self because they want to do it. They do it because the children are hungry. They do it for reasons that call out for solutions, and the way in which the terrible wants are met with resolution is not in question; at least not in the moment of decision and transaction. As a parent myself, I understand this on a fundamental level. There are some things I like to think I would never do, but I’ve held a screaming, hungry child. I know what it is to have every element of your responsibility and your future literally in your hands, and to have to make a decision about how to help. All morality and ethical consideration goes out the window, save the system you’ve inherited as a parent. That system says that the ends justify the means. Feeding and clothing and caring for your child is the only purpose you have, and the only bedrock principle of how you make decisions.

If West Virginia were a parent, would she struggle so? I wonder when I personify this place if it would trade its streams, its mountains, its communities for food for its young? And as I even ask the question, I know the answer as clear as anything I’ve never known. It is as simple as not wanting to know. Yes, she has sacrificed all of that. And like real human children do, we have learned from our mother’s example. Give in, give up, justify. Do whatever you have to do so that your children don’t go hungry. Don’t obsess or worry about the now, or even about the consequences of the now. Save the little ones, and forget yourself. Your only real purpose is to keep them alive.

Charles Edward had ten children and a wife to keep alive. Did he ever even have the time to wonder about the effects of coal mining on anyone but himself? He was a miner back in the days when men bent low and stayed low in the dark from dawn until night, chipping away at the rock walls of the mine shafts with hammers and chisels. They loaded chunks of coal into rail cars that followed them into the dark and that carried their treasure safely out into the daylight; they continued to strike the hard earth, in the dark. At one time there weren’t many jobs for a young Fayette County man that would allow him to feed ten children and a spouse. Mining coal developed a reputation for being the only work worth doing that even approached paying enough to feed a large family.

Of course, the coal industry rarely paid actual money. Miners were paid in scrip, a form of artificial money that could only be used to cover expenses at company stores. I don’t know for sure if Charles Edward was paid in scrip, but I imagine that at least part of his compensation came in this form. This kind of control over the fruits of a worker’s labor is one of the most notorious and detested parts of the coal industry legacy in West Virginia. After days of mind-numbing hacking at stone walls and hour upon hour of breathing filthy and even toxic air, a man’s paycheck still was not a moment of freedom. Your compensation was something you were privileged to hand right back to the company that kept you in dangerous conditions underground, and you were supposed to be grateful that they would take it back from you for whatever they could spare.

You were supposed to be glad that you had a job at all, and while this trite outlook always has some genuine truth to it, the sentiment behind it has not served my people well in West Virginia. The gratitude philosophy just dead ends into a stone wall. There is never been much public discourse about deserving better, and I ask silently if that is because there hasn’t been much private speech about it, either. Somewhere along the line, articulating wanting and deserving more became corrupted into being selfish and disdainful of this place. Layered decades of a mono-economy made any words against the one thing everyone believed mattered, the coal industry, into dangerous hate speech.

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 2)

West Virginia has a long history of conflict. The conflicts are documented in our history books and highlight near-wars like the Battle of Blair Mountain and the textbook controversy that rocked Kanawha County in the 1970s. In these kinds of fights guns are fired; sometimes, people die; and almost always there is a gouged scar on our cultural landscape. On a recent visit to Vermont I heard myself trying to explain how things play out in West Virginia, and what came out of my mouth after a few glasses of wine was, “We are a culture of winners and losers.” My dinner guests were hooked, I could tell, when they put down their own glasses and leaned in to hear more.

I wasn’t sure there was more to say, and I didn’t expound much on my words; I think they speak for themselves. But I have rolled the wine-tinged phrase around and around in my own mind without ceasing for days now.

West Virginia is a culture of winners and losers.

It is something so obvious once I said it out loud that I hardly know where to start, and yet the looks on my dinner companions faces said it was not entirely normal or expected. I think communities that are thriving well  beyond where we are in West Virginia have either never accepted the winner/loser dynamic or have so solidly rejected it long ago that hearing it is still real in other places is like hearing that dragons exist. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but you are shocked nonetheless.

We don’t really resolve things in West Virginia, and accepting that reality has been a slow train coming for me. I haven’t wanted to internalize and deal with the fact that this is a place of hurts that fester untended. In an odd way I think we’ve learned, as a people, to allow our wounds to go full-tilt into permanent scars. When I look at mountain top removal, or mine deaths, or cancer rates or any number of “wound like” truths in our Appalachian landscape, I wonder. I wonder where that line is when people stop trying to get well and start trying to catalogue their scars. “We may never get well,” they say, “but we can make you look at what happened. We can try to make you look at what you did.”