Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Rare Poet: Jaki Shelton Green

Christmas Cactus in my Kitchen Window.

Flowers of the Heart Three October 15, 2017
For Jaki Shelton Green

We live in racist times. It was bad
here in the early seventies, but Jaki drove
to our old farmhouse set off away from
the farmer’s new brick one, with a
briefcase full of poems. Slight, but 
determined. Brave, undaunted. I’d had 
a postcard: “We are two black writers. 
Are you interested in our work?” I wrote
back to send it. They did, and then Jaki
arrived alone. I was shocked to read:
“The moon is a rapist peeing in my
window,” but I recognized a different
cultural take on the moon in the Ku Klux Klan
South. I published her first book Dead on
Arrival. She had two young children, as
did I. Sometimes I picked up Segun when
I got Ginia from the Victory Village Daycare.
Once I hosted local poets for a potluck at
our farmhouse. Another poet’s teenaged
son, when Jaki was working with a wok
in the kitchen, thought she was the maid.
We laughed. It has been forty-four years. 
She has won so many honors: Piedmont
Poet Laureate, North Carolina Award, North
Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Once she was
angry when I refused one book, but I published
Dead on Arrival and New Poems. Later,
those who took up Carolina Wren Press, 
brought out newer ones. When her daughter
Imani died, after a short and terrible fight
against a raging cancer, her sun went into
a shadow realm. She was terribly sick, even
paralyzed. Finally, a holistic doctor helped
with diet and other treatments. Jaki began
to heal and once more gave readings. Now
she has a major art show of remembrance
for her lost Imani. Years ago she was
invited to a poetry event in the mountains
for the Fourth of July. We had her third baby
with us, little Eva. We sat outside, and
Jaki wrote a poem in her notebook;
“Simmering in blood. Simmering in blood...”
Those lines repeated over and over. I published
it. Her candle has burned bright these forty-four
years, except for that darkness when Imani died,
and grief imprisoned her. Our friendship held.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Someone I can always count on

Flowers of the Heart 2 October 8, 2017

For Katherine Wood Wolfe

Katherine drove to Durham from her 
home in Goldsboro every week to my
writing classes in the late 1990s. I was
selling bread, and Katherine always bought
a cinnamon loaf and ate some driving home.
When she stopped commuting those ninety
miles, she worked with me by mail. She 
had been crippled by arthritis, but her 
spirit was so strong and determined, we 
forgot to notice. When I taught Proust, 
she had re-married, and I mailed her notes 
and my comments on her writing. She 
helped another woman write and publish 
her book. When my first mystery 
Killer Frost came out in 2012, she 
arranged a reading in Goldsboro and 
pulled in all her friends. I’ve been
each year since with new mysteries and
books of poetry. I go next Tuesday to
talk about my grandmother Grace. She
always indulges me, gives me flowers, 
prepares snacks for the occasion, and
late at night we talk about our lives and 
our writing. She publishes more of her
own work now. Her voice is strong
but not loud. She imagines the feelings
of children and gives them voices. She
notices things other people skim over. 
We were both born in 1937, I, in May; 
she, in September. She’s someone I can
always count on. Other people’s needs
don’t frighten her. She quietly adds
them to her “to do” list.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Flowers of the Heart

Cosmos from my garden October 2011

Flowers of the Heart

One. October 1, 2017

For Marja-Sisko

We met in 1981 on a boat train out of London
to Harwich. I had waited hours for my standing-
room-only ticket. You had one, too, came over
to ask if I’d like to board with you, find a couch
in a lounge where we could spend the night.
You were twenty-one, had toured Europe and
North Africa on a youth pass. You pulled out
a sleeping bag, and slept at my feet, giving me
the couch. You were a teacher of learning-
disabled children, and my son was one. You
held onto me when we parted at Hoek Van 
Holland. I got cards: “It’s spring. We go
ice fishing.” and “Come to Finland!” In
1985 I visited you, Matti, and baby Eero for
two days. We picked berries and fed them
to Eero, made coffee from a clean stream,
ate roasted hot dogs. You taught me the
sauna ritual and explained it was a place
and time to speak of everything, even God
and sex. We visited an art gallery. In 1988 
I took Ginia, a vegetarian who wanted world 
peace. Ossi and Timo had joined the family.
We picked strawberries and went to an 
outdoor play while Matti bathed the boys, 
made supper, and even a pie. If world peace
begins at home, you and Matti were the
models, and your sons were learning to
make peace. They rarely quarreled. You 
and Matti shared the home chores and gave 
each other vacations. He went to Lapland to
fish, and you went to Russia, to Karelia,
where your roots were. We celebrated
Ginia’s sixteenth birthday with a berry
cake. In 1990 I took Tim, twenty-one
by then. We were traveling to Russia
for the first time. You took us to an
exhibit of Russian paintings, and I understood:
the Russians did not want war. I returned
in 1992, after two months in Russia. Always
there was the sauna, berry-picking, open talk,
fresh fish, even caviar, and very strong coffee.
In 1995 I came on my way to Russia for four 
months, and you had invited me to spend January-
April in your summer house on Maxmo Island, 
so I could write. I worked on my Russian books
and told also of my Finnish family. The boys
spoke English by then, and they helped with the
chores: making the sauna, laying out breakfast,
making the fire, going ice-fishing. You called me 
your window on the world, treasured me, and 
listened to my love song. Now I’m eighty, and
and you’re sixty. Your boys are grown. Matti
will retire, but you want to keep on working.
When a therapist asked me if I had any friends
who were my equal, I named you. In 2007 we 
went to Russia together. You entered gladly into
all our meetings. The Russians had seized Karelia
in World War II–your homeland--but you wanted
peace with your big neighbor. All this richness

began because I had a standing-room-only ticket.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Way the Universe is Made

Those Eternally Linked Lives 30 September 24, 2017

I’m the vessel, the way our story
will be told, is already being told.
Two books in print and more coming.
You can’t help except maybe by
your voice planted deep in my
memory. “We were fools, Judy,
and miracle-workers.” Now my
country makes out your country
as an enemy. Yuri was worried:
what if Americans used nuclear
weapons against Russia? I write
to save one human experience
that will make war-mongering
irrelevant. The human race has
brought on itself huge and 
devastating storms; floods,
drought. Yet we two believed
God helped us. Not a personal
god, but the way the universe
is made. Evil exists, but it wins
only if we let it. The universe’s
binding of our two souls taught
us where the real power lies. We
are helpless only if we say we
are. We get reminders of our
frailty and then of our strength.
The zinnias I planted barely 
survived, but the lantana and
the small sunflowers took over,
and the forgotten naked ladies.
Pink morning glories ran over
the back porch railing. Cosmos 
leaped into the air from the 
unweeded garden. I set my
worries aside. Rejoiced when
editors I’ve never met want to 
read about my love for a Russian
man that leapt over all the 
boundaries of time and distance,
language, lifestyle. Metaphors
carried us past all the gate-keepers.
We had our wings–in-spirit--and
our souls fused. If the spirit is happy 
in its dwelling place, the body will 
keep up as best it can. After all, what 
is eternity but that which flies beyond 
all the human definitions of stopping 
places. Let me die only when my 
story–our story–is alive for the whole 
human race to treasure and save.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

You Know How To Go It Alone

My bumper crop of zinnias back in October 2009.

Those Eternally Linked Lives 29  September 17, 2017

When you have an inner guide, be
thankful. You know how to go it
alone. You listen to those who
care and worry about you, but
ultimately it’s up to you as you
enter that stage of your life when
more losses will come your way.
For eighty you’re not doing too
badly. As it gets harder, you find
the grit you need to hold your own.
“A day at a time” is always a good
approach. Keep listening to your
deep wisdom. It has never let you
down. Your own individual path
is well-marked now, but such paths
always throw up something new.
Not everyone is up for the wholly
new, but you are. Keep yourself
fit and happy. Enjoy the orange 
zinnia that survived the dog’s vole
digging and being bent down by
the wind only to rise and flourish

anyway. Take a leaf out of that book.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Every Reason to be Happy and Brave

Those Eternally Linked Lives 28  September 10, 2017

The answer is 
simple and obvious: in our deep
souls we know we can’t be seriously
harmed if we refuse despair. Insights
will arrive. Courage will appear
against the odds. The grain of the
universe doesn’t go away. Furthermore
other people gather around us, one 
at a time. If we ask, we receive, and
not infrequently, we receive the help
we need before we ask.
–Those Eternally Linked Lives 19

Slowly I clear weeds, pick grapes,
cook out the juice and make Muscadine
jelly. The hens get the grapes. They
lay better. The zinnias rise again
and bloom. The spider lilies make their
annual surprise and throw up exultant
pink petals and whiskers. The next door
cats make friends with Wag. Are they 
keeping warm together at night?
Arching over the garden weeds are
sunny yellow flowers. I forget their
name, and the rainbow lantana. The
high grasses aren’t dwarfed but have
competition. Reckless blue and purple
morning glories cover the porch
railing, determined to cheer me up.
My heart is pronounced normal.
I heal and resume more work as
the air cools. I tackle the high
grass a little at a time. My students
bring laughter and comfort. Observation
wins over theory. I have every reason
on earth to be happy and brave.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

You Know How to Weather Storms

Indoor zinnias from 2011. Not to plentiful in 2017, but here.

Those Eternally Linked Lives 27 September 3, 2017

When I can’t see
very far ahead, I hold on. I’ve been in 
so many dark places before. Light 
always finds me sooner or later if 
I keep myself from despair.
–Those Eternally Linked Lives 16

This life is not for
the faint of heart. We let go only what
we must; hang on for a rough ride, remount
our courage and listen to our hearts. It’s 
the only way to stay whole and keep our 
true Selves in tact until we die and see 
that Death is still some distance off.
–Those Eternally Linked Lives 17

Sun is back after our storms
that flung down dead branches
but watered the grapes, zinnias, and okra.
I revel in three zinnias, their petals
fanned out to imitate suns, and I eat
five okra, some so tough only the seeds
are edible. I make tea from my huge
crop of lemon balm, and the dog and I
resume our normal walk. We both
sleep hard these days and have less
patience. I can tell I’m healing. I’m
not ready to be put on a shelf. It’s
up to me to keep up the yard,
check on the hens, keep my active
healthy lifestyle. Aging takes courage
in a new way. Other people worry
and need reassurance. When she took 
my heart’s pictures, I could hear
its steady beat. I’ve had doctors
try to slow me down before, but
the wise ones listen to me. Trust
myself. I feel good, normal. Worry
wears down the soul. Let it go.
Move the dead branches. Watch
for the zinnias to rise again. Check
the grapes and okra. You know how
to weather the storms, in the sky,
and in your soul.