Sunday, December 31, 2017

Natalya Ilyina A Flower of the Heart

Photo of red iris by Vera Belikh

Flowers of the Heart Fourteen

For Natalya Kirilovna Ilyina

I became acquainted with Natalya in1995.
I was to teach in the English Department
at Kostroma University for two months.
She was in the Literature Department
teaching English authors. Earlier in that
visit, Vera Lebedev pulled her in to translate
when she showed us the Chestnyakov
exhibit. When I began teaching, she took
the role of checking on me. My friend Yuri
had invited me. He taught Russian lit in
the Literature Department. I was giving
a course on American poetry and one
on translating Akhmatova. My students
weren’t required to attend, nor could I
give them grades, which I didn’t know.
It fell to Natalya to tell me, and that 
was hard for her. The Russians don’t 
like to give you bad news. They would
rather indulge you with compliments.
She always attended my classes. A few
other teachers did, but only once. Some
English profs pressed their students to
attend, but that worked only occasionally.
Natalya had me to dinner and invited other
friends. She lived with her mother. In the
summer they gardened and preserved 
food for the winter. Natalya liked 
to talk about modern British authors: 
James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. 
Once she took me to eat with a family  
she was tutoring in English, as 
they planned to emigrate to America. 
Russian professors were paid very 
little in the nineties. The English 
profs often tutored or led tours 
in the summer to supplement their 
salaries. In 2007 I returned, invited
to a literature conference on “Spirituality 
in Russian Literature.” I wrote a paper
on “Betrayal in the Work of Anna 
Akmatova.”  She translated it into Russian. 
When we met in a smaller session on 
twentieth century literature, she urged me
to read a small part in Russian, which I did,
feeling awkward, but the others present
seemed happy I was there and thanked me,
the only Western participant, for coming.
After the two-day conference, my friend
Mikhail being out of town, she invited
me to stay with her, and I did. Natalya
then worked out a program for me to
see my friends, some painters and even 
the former Mayor Korobov, the first
Russian I had ever met, who made a film
of us talking. He later sent it to me.
When Mikhail returned, he carried
me off to stay with his family. Several 
times, over the years, Natalya has helped me
contact other friends in Kostroma. Hers
was a friendship of devotion. She always
did for me whatever she could to make my 
life easier and better. For herself she was
very strict. She used cold showers to cure
a cold and worked late into the night.
She was devoted the way a servant might
be, no matter what cost to herself.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Shron Ramirez Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Thirteen December 24, 2017

For Sharon Ramirez

I met her in 1975. We were both visiting 
our friends Paul and Foster in Berkeley. I 
was returning from a small press conference
in Davis, where I was almost elected chair.
Some men editors were afraid of the new
women editors, and there were now three
on the board of seven. When we three
went off to talk about what our organization
could do, the men called us “The Feminist
Conspiracy”: Mary MacArthur, Anne Pride,
ad I. The men elected first and second quit,
and I was third, but they wanted to get the
seventh vote before letting me reign. Sharon
did astrological charts, and she told me
my trine between Uranus and Neptune meant
I could work well with mavericks, and so
I was. The small press editors in 1975–men
and women--were feisty and independent. 
They were hard to manage, which I did
for three years. The next year Sharon
invited me to stay some weeks with her
in Cupertino. She lived in a big house on
a small lot, with many plants, three sons,
a husband, a cat, a dog, and a goldfish
pond. She watered her plants constantly.
She played tennis every day. I wrote poems
and love letters. I ranged the hills around
her house, sometimes finding apricots on
limbs hanging over a wall. There had once 
been fruit farming there. When I made my
lunch, I had to watch out for the cat and
dog. If I left my food on the table, they’d
jump up and eat it. Some of the herbs I
brought home to try in the cooking, she 
distrusted. Were they poisonous? I told
her no and used them anyway. She showed
me two novels–one about tennis players 
and one about her childhood during World
War II. She said that one was too painful
to write. She tried not to, but it wouldn’t 
let go of her, and I told her it was the one she
needed to write. Later I published Brinktown.
She saw all these love letters waiting for
the postman, and suggested maybe I should
 marry the postman. I never did marry that
beloved, but writing those letters and poems
made me happy. 

I’ve walked my whole life
down an aisle between pines
toward you.
The clearing opens.
In my hands
I have only apricots.
VII. 10. Sun-Blazoned. P. 44.

Later I published them. Sharon did her own
writing, but her gift to me was as a guardian
of my creativity: giving me a room, privacy,
time to write, and laughing at my foibles. I
Visited her again in 1978, when the small
presses met on the Olympic Peninsula. And
still again in 1992, when she lived in Oregon
and was a beachcomber, looking for agates 
and other semi-precious stones. They rolled
in along that coast. We were both writing.
She introduced one of her friends to me.
He was an amateur pilot and took me for
a spin. He did some risky swoops, but
we didn’t crash. Sharon also attracted
mavericks. Sometimes they drove her
crazy, but she held onto her friends, even
at a distance. I’ve never been able to get
her to visit me on the East Coast, but she
still eggs me on. She told me a few years
ago that we were too old to get published. I
said I didn’t think so, and I began to get
books in print, doing some myself. She
still laughs at me in a loving, nurturing way. 
Not too many people can do that!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Vera Belikh A Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Twelve. December 17, 2017

For Vera Belikh

Like Odysseus, she was never at a loss.
I met her because I wrote to the painter
Aleksei Belikh in English, and she
translated my letters for her father. He
called her Verochka. Aleksei and his
wife Nadya were both painters, and
their other daughter Lyuba, was, too.
About this time Vera began painting.
She had graduated in Philosophy and
studied English, German, and Old
Church Slavonic on her own. She
went to lectures on ikons. I met her
in 1992, when I was visiting Kostroma,
and her family invited me, my 
journalist friend Susan, and Mikhail’s
family for a meal in their apartment. 
Lyuba was the cook. Vera was there 
with her two young sons. She had wanted 
to talk to me, but there wasn’t much 
chance with all those people. Later,
when I returned in 1995 and stayed
two weeks, I saw Vera often, ate
with her husband and sons, and walked 
with her to see where Akmatova 
lived on the Fontanka. We visited
graveyards where Dostoevsky and
other famous dead were buried.
The gloomy, neglected city came
alive. “Here was where Dostoevsky
lived. He liked to look at the church
he could see from his window.” In
1995 Vera was pregnant, still light
on her feet like a dancer. Her living
room full of her paintings. When we
descended the long escalator for
the Metro, she turned around to 
talk to me. I always held tight, 
afraid to look at how far down we 
were going. Since then, she has kept 
in touch, always remembers my
birthday and sends me photos of her
and her paintings. Her husband died
a few years ago, and she teaches children.
She also sells her paintings. Her parents
and her sister are always there to help,
but Vera has the inner resources to
cope quietly. The surface of the lake
she is is never turbulent. Shadows
cross it, occasional ripples, but she
finds her way easily, without fanfare.
The world of the dead doesn’t 
frighten her. The dead are her friends.

From Sun 12 

September 18, 1995

Vera finds blue water and gold spires
in St. Petersburg; a red maple leaf,
the only thing alive in the necropolis.
She takes my arm, and we walk
to see the graves, the sculptures
of the famous Russian dead: Dostoevsky,
Tchaikovsky, Andreev, Borodin,
Mussorgsky, Pavlov, Lenin’s mother,
monks killed just after the Revolution.
Some sculptures are missing.  We
don’t know who sleeps where there
was once a face, a name, dates, what
they were famous for. Passions run high
in Russian graveyards. I am relieved
that Dostoevsky stands, that a favorite
epigram of his is still legible on
his tomb. Vera translates and
holds an acorn in her palm: “The seed
must die for the plant to live again.”
I understand. Life renews itself by
accepting death.  I know that Vera does,
and it is why she can be cheerful
in a gloomy city, serene in the necropolis.
The dead are her friends.  I think she
knows that one day she will be here
among them. Painters. Here lies
one of her sister Lyuba’s teachers;
dancers; film stars; scholars;
scientists. Socrates’ wish come true.
He can speak with all the great
thinkers in the afterlife.
wanted to know if I believed in
the afterlife. I said I didn’t know
about the afterlife, but that this 
life gave us our main chance:
to live well, to become the best
people we could, to learn what life
is, to grow wise and ready for
the next life, if there is one.  She
misses Andrei. So do I. But Andrei
lives with me.  I translate his
poetry and learn how his mind
worked, though I learned from
his presence, too; his silences
and jokes; his acts and his
words: “my most unusual friend,”
he called me. I learn from
his wife’s eagerness to talk to me.
I think that Andrei, too, lived 
ready to die. We must do his 
work now, since his chance is
But it is Vera who teaches me
how to live in Russia, how to find
red leaves and gold spires, and quiet
blue water reflecting sun-warmed,
reddish stone. It is Vera who
walks so firmly, as light on her
feet as a dancer. The escalator
descends deep under the earth. I
hold the hand rail tightly, prefer
not to look down.  She steps in
front of me, turns around, is as
at ease, as if we were able to stand
on fluffy clouds and not fall.
She brings me soup and bread,
tea and cookies she has made.
Her boys skip in carrying plates
and teacups.  Her husband listens
intently as I explain something in
Russian.  Their living room is
crowded with Vera’s paintings.
Wall to wall books and then, resting 
against them, still lifes, scenes of
St. Petersburg.  The buildings are old
and grey, in need of paint and repairs;
the sidewalk and the street are broken.
I do not walk surefootedly. But
Vera takes my arm and points out
a building where Akhmatova and her
poet friends gathered; where Nastasia
lived, she whose passions and pride
dominated The Idiot. We pass 
Dostoevsky’s home.  “He liked to look out
the window at the church spires,” she says.
I have seen the gold statues at
Petergoff, standing in and near the
great fountains, and the gold in the
Peter and Paul Cathedral, overwhelming
to the eye.  But in Vera’s vision
of St. Petersburg is the real gold.
The blue of the living water, the gold
of a life lived simply, cheerfully, well,
with an eye always open to the only
red maple leaf that lies among
the stones of the dead.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Yuri Lebedev: A Flower of the Heart

Orchid buds by Rita Baldwin

Flowers of the Heart Eleven December 10, 2017

For Yuri Lebedev

Last night I said that the knowledge and mental development in Vera, in Yuri, in me was rare and irreplaceable. So we must do what we could. –Judy’s diary 1995

The first question he ever asked me was:
“Do you teach Russian literature?” That
was during my first visit in 1990 to Kostroma
and to their Writers’ Organization. I said, “No.”
By the time Yuri came in 1993 as one of
three Russian writers, to Durham and to my
village of Saxapahaw, I was teaching Anna
Akhmatova and took them to that class.
Later he invited me to come and teach at his
Kostroma University in 1995. I taught
American poetry and translating Akhmatova.
When I had very few students, he called them
glupi [stupid]. He and Vera kept me a week
in their apartment, where his son’s young
family also lived. We’d sit for hours after
meals talking with my rudimentary Russian
and my dictionary. Meantime he arranged
for me to live in one of his colleagues’
apartments for the next two months. Vera
took me shopping to the big daily farmers’
market in the city center. He and Mikhail
checked on me and had me for meals.
Once it was so cold–fifteen below freezing--
that Vera thought I would not come, but
I bundled up in my three scarves, two
pairs of warm socks, and the fur-lined vest 
from the painter Aleksei Belikh, and
when I got off the bus, Yuri was watching
for me. He was thoughtful and gracious
to a fault, and modest. Who would know
how much he knew about nineteenth
century Russian literature. He would astonish
me with his quiet comments: “Tolstoy
wrote about Russian life as it was in the
mid-nineteenth century, but Dostoevsky
wrote about what it would be like in the 
twentieth century.” When he was one of
the three Russian writers visiting Durham 
and my village of Saxapahaw, he’d always
be ready for the day’s meetings when I
arrived, and when I asked him how he was, 
he’d beam and say, “Otleechno” [Perfect].
When I, who was their chauffeur and, when 
we were alone, their interpreter, got sick 
with a bad cold, he exclaimed, “Judy, you
must not get sick, or we’ll be dead.” I didn’t 
drink his recommended toddy, with vodka
and hot pepper, but I did stay home to rest
for two days. My landlord, their host, John 
Jordan, took them to a turkey shoot. John
knew no Russian. They later described arriving
in the dark and seeing a lot of men with
guns. They thought the end was near, but
when it was their turn, they won two turkeys
and a ham. Rarely was Yuri angry, but
injustice infuriated him. A few months ago
he wrote to me about my country’s foolishness 
in its treatment of Russia and other countries. 
We were, he said, making the same mistake
the Soviet Union had made when it tried to 
force other countries into Communism,
as we now tried to force all the world into our
form of democracy.  He wasn’t angry at me.
He welcomed me to his home, told me all
the news of his family. When I answered, I
had to agree that our country was making 
plenty of mistakes, but also that I hadn’t much
power to change our approach to international
politics. I did hope to publish books about
my Russian experiences. I will never forget
the warmth of their hospitality in their small
apartment. The last meal we had together
in 1995, I began to cry. I didn’t want to
leave. He comforted me: “Don’t cry, Judy.
Have some more wine.”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Gene Dillard: A Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Ten December 3, 2017

For Gene Dillard

I loved him for his open heart, his brash speech,
and his outrageous behavior. He came into a diary
course in the main Durham Library, making sure
we all knew he was there, and asked was this the
class about keeping a journal. “Yes,” I said, and
he settled in. Later he took poetry classes, after
making sure it wasn’t a sissy thing to write
poetry. Some women were offended by his
unpredictable commentary. I never was.
Gradually he quieted, let us know his deep
feelings. He stuck with the poetry, let us meet
in his home, where we read Whitman, Dickinson,
and Charles Eaton. He never did my assignments,
but his poetry flourished. On several occasions
he fixed my car, which broke down before
or after a class. Once he lay under it, and
when I handed him the wrong tool, he fussed,
but he fixed the radiator hose. Another
 time he kept me at his house overnight,
then took me to buy a starter the next
morning. He liked to call me and ask if I
were decent. He made me laugh. Over the
years he has sometimes changed his voice
and asked, “Is this Judy Hogan, the famous
writer?” He joined the Peace Corps in 2002,
and went to Honduras, fixed water systems.
He could fix most things, and his regular
work was fixing heating and air conditioning
problems in university labs and businesses.
He was self-taught, but read widely in
philosophy and admired outdoor sculptors
who were whimsical. He’d drive a thousand
miles to see outside art that defied the
categories. In 2005 I invited him to speak
to my reading classes at the college, and he
told them how hard he studied for his license,
and had to take the exam three times before
he passed and could go independent. Then
there were our Charles Eaton years. Charles
was, I thought, the best living American poet.
I reviewed all his books and was invited to
visit him three or four times a year. Charles
didn’t cope well with his aging, and I heard
his laments. Gene began visiting him,
giving him rides, helping with household crises.
When a relative tried to declare Charles mentally
incompetent, and they took him to UNC’s
psych ward, Gene went to bring him home.
Charles was waiting in a wheelchair while
some doctors conferred nearby. Gene got
tried of waiting, grabbed the wheelchair
handles and hustled him out of the ward
and onto the elevator. An aide saw them
and went in pursuit, but Gene had
Charles in is truck by the time the aide
caught up, breathless. Charles was
shocked into laughter, but though Gene
offered to cruise Franklin Street, Charles
insisted he wanted to go home and back
to Pat, his wife. After Charles died,
Gene looked after Pat. I suspected she
was in love with Gene. Sometimes when
Gene calls, he says, “This is Charles Eaton.”
When I had to have my cataract surgery,
I told him I was worried. My mother had
lost her eyesight after a bungled surgery.
He called as soon as I was back home
and asked, “Is this one-eyed Hogan?”
I laughed.

 His full genius came to flower
when he began turning his home into
a work of art. He did some yard ornaments;
then began making mosaics of the walls
of his garage, then a wall in his garden
using bottles. Eventually, all the walls
of his house were mosaicked; then the
inside, even chairs and tables.

 Now he
lives inside his art. He reminds me of
Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth.
Gulley would paint murals wherever
he could find a good big space, even if
that wall was destined for demolition.
People stop by Gene’s house regularly,
and he gets coverage on TV and in the
local papers. Gene is moving out
now into the community with his
mosaic projects. There is so much to
see and love where Gene has been
turning what he sees in his mind’s eye
into stunning works of art.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sharon Ewing: A Flower of the Heart

Sharon and her daughter Nancy, 2014


Flowers of the Heart Nine November 26, 2017

For Sharon Dobbs Ewing

We sat together on the back row
of Svensen’s Shakespeare class.
He used to make fun of the girls
on the front row, say only the
pretty ones could sit there. Sharon
was a sorority girl, whose role was
to keep their grade average up.
I was a minister’s daughter and
rebelled against grades by my
senior year, but I loved that class.
We both made As. I visited her
family in Altus, for Thanksgiving,
and we lunched with our mothers 
at graduation. After that we lost
touch for nearly thirty years. In
1986 she wrote to me, saw my
name in the alumni mag. Was I
Judy Stevenson? Yes. I was editor
of Carolina Wren Press, and she
was looking for a publisher of
her poetry manuscript. She sent
it. I rejected it. She held on, and
that fall came to Chapel Hill with
her daughter Nancy to look at 
UNC as a possible college. That
fall I was overwhelmed. I had a
new NEH grant. My son had a
drinking problem, and I had to
move because the foundation
of my rental house was sinking.
I went to her motel room to meet
her. She hung on. By 1991, when 
I expected my first Russian visitor, 
I stayed with her and John in 
Alexandria. Mikhail was a no-show.
They helped me cope. When I
got home I learned he hadn’t been
able to get his visa. He came in
May 1992 for several weeks. 
Sharon had told me about the 
exchanges with Russian writers 
which the Virginia Center for
the Arts was doing, and i won
a place for July. I left for Russia
from their house and stayed in Russia
two months. I visited European and
then American friends and returned 
to Saxapahaw only at the end of
1992. By 1993, three Russian writers
arrived on Halloween for a month.
Sharon and John helped us see
the sights of Washington and visit
the Library of Congress to meet its
Russian expert. I was the interpreter
when John started a discussion
about God. I did my best with my
baby Russian, but I doubt the three 
Russian bears were very enlightened. 
In 1995 the Ewings came to Russia,
and we spent two weeks with Mikhail 
and his family. Sharon brought lovely
clothes for Katya and baby clothes
for the new granddaughter Dasha. In
1998, when I helped host Nikolai
Smirnov painter and Alyosha,
Mikhail’s son, they took Alyosha
to visit their daughter Nancy’s classes
and also brought him to Durham, 
where he could meet historians from 
UNC and Duke. When they boarded 
their Aeroflot flight home, Nikolai
carried a huge chainsaw which John
had helped him buy with his paintings
money. In 2001 she and I, Mikhail 
and Alyosha produced Earth and Soul:
An Anthology of North Carolina Poetry.
She was editor. I raised money and 
found poets. Alyosha typeset it, and
Mikhail designed and published it
in Russian and English. A few years
later I began attending the big mystery
convention: Malice Domestic. I stayed
with them. I’d talk her into going 
for one day when I was on a panel.
How to describe this faithful friend, 
always eager to help: A fairy godmother.
It was Mikhail who saw clearly her
compassionate nature. I trusted it and
leaned on it. Over time we shared our 
ups and downs. Sometimes they came 
here, slept on an air mattress on the
floor. She always brought food, and I
shared jellies, preserves, and applesauce 
cake. She’s still arranging readings 
for me in the D.C. area, and I still lean
on her, my faithful friend.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sam and Marie Hammond: Flowers of the Heart

Judy's orchids on the kitchen table

Flowers of the Heart Eight  November 19, 2017

For Sam and Marie Hammond

To understand Sam, think of Samwise helping Frodo
in that last climb in the Lord of the Rings. To think of
Marie, imagine a child born to an American Jew and 
a German Christian at the very end of World War II
and how she reconciled that paradox. She became a
devout Methodist, and in recent years has joined the
local Jewish choir, where they sing in Hebrew. To
envision their partnership, learn that he accompanies
that choir, and that every afternoon when Sam plays
the carillon at Duke Chapel, Marie comes to listen
and take Sam home. They met at Duke University when
she taught mathematics, and he was a music librarian.
Later he became a rare books librarian. One son became 
mathematician; the other went on to study music, but
then he became a priest who now studies canon law
at the Vatican. Parents do have these surprises, but Sam
and Marie took that fence with love and grace.
I met Marie first when I was teaching Daniel Deronda
as a model for writing fiction. She loves nineteenth
century novels. The both encouraged me to edit and 
annotate my grandparents’ diary kept in China. I waxed
and waned on that project, often setting it aside, but
Sam kept urging me on when I’d turn back to it.
“Find out who all these people were, and what all these 
Chinese place names stand for." He did research on the 
music mentioned and discovered answers for 
misspelled words. A kori [not cory] was a woven 
traveling basket made in Japan. The baby’s formula 
contained Mellins [ not mulins], an extract made 
from wheat and barley malt. I’m not an enthusiastic 
researcher, but Sam is, and they both read Grace
for typos and accuracy. I tried university presses, 
with no luck, but they recommended Wipf and 
Stock of Oregon, where Marie’s two books, one on 
Jeremiah and one about The Rabbi of Worms, Rabbi
Solomon ben Isaac, of eleventh century Germany,
had been published. Grace: A China Diary, 1910-16 
was accepted. I had the nearly overwhelming task
of formatting Grace properly.  It appeared in April 
2017 and has been my best seller. Sam and Marie 
took me to supper and we celebrated. When my son Tim
visits, we’go out to eat Chinese at their favorite
restaurant. Tim works with children in shelters and 
homes, with adults who have addiction problems.
They always praise him. At home they keep it simple;
no big screen color TV, only a small black and white; 
no answering machine or computer. Sometimes it’s
hard to get them to talk about themselves, but they
are good at getting their guests to talk. They regularly
visit their grandchildren in New England and Sam’s
elderly relatives in Georgia. Sam’s manners are
courtly. Marie’s the letter writer, by hand, by mail.
They go to the bi-annual meeting of the society that
honors Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others of that 
Inklings group, and Marie reads her papers there.
They also attend carillon conventions together and
teach Shakespeare at a local retirement center.
If you have Sam and Marie in your life, you 
have a gift without price.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Flowers of the Heart: Doug Williams

Cosmos on my kitchen table October 2011


Flowers of the Heart Seven November 12, 2017

For Doug Williams

He’s a quiet man, not much for
direct speech, but he has been
a loving friend to me for thirty years.
He came first to my Roadmap classes
in the Durham Library. He’d been
trained as an electrical engineer; 
computers were his specialty. As a
writer, I depended on them, 
especially after the nineties. He
became my fix-it man. I opened
the literary world to him. He wanted
to learn ancient Greek, and I loaned
him a grammar and a dictionary.
He studied Proust with me, and
he took several lifestyle courses
in which we asked ourselves
hard questions about our goals
in life and how we’d meet them.
He liked to read about American
presidents and the lives of poets.
He wrote some poetry, but mostly
he liked to talk over what he was 
reading and thinking. Once I had
a publisher for my grandmother
Grace’s China diary, he helped
with formatting which bewildered
me.  He laughs now at how he
invented a program to deal with
some footnote problems. Then
the computer he’d installed wouldn’t
turn on. He sent it back because the
warranty was still running and put
all the China files on a tiny computer, 
so I could get the formatted book 
to the publisher in a timely manner. 
I try not to bother him, but computers
defy my understanding, and I
write to Doug, and he comes down 
as soon as he can. I always offer
lunch or supper, but these days
he usually has other plans. He
likes to treat me for my birthday 
at a good restaurant and have a chat. 
His trust and care are a great gift.
Where would I be in my writer’s

life without Doug on stand-by?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Flower of the Heart: Mary Susan Heath

Mary Susan Heath and Judy at Goldsboro reading May 1, 2015


Flowers of the Heart Six   November 5, 2017

For Mary Susan Heath

She said she used to think she was Mary,
but now she knows she is Martha. Her
husband Tom has been fighting cancer
some years and growing tomatoes. They
eat a lot of tomato dishes, which also
fights the cancer. She gets out of the
kitchen when he’s canning. Her mother
is in her nineties, and she helps her with
shopping and doctor appointments. Her
Durham grandchildren often visit, or she 
goes there. When I go to Goldsboro to
read and do a workshop, Mary Susan 
helps Katherine with all the arrangements,
and we three have a meal together. A few
years back she began driving to my house
for my Thursday afternoon “Life Story”
class. She had already worked ten or more
years on the book about her uncle’s life
in the army, but she began the editing
process. On winter days I’d have the
woodstove burning, and I offered hot
lemon balm tea. I also sold my homemade
breads, and she bought the cinnamon loaf
and ate it on the drive home. She also
brought wood. The last year she took
the class, she got the other students to
chip in and brought me a cord of wood.
I still have some, and she’s preparing
to publish her book. When I go to
Goldsboro, I take cinnamon bread,
and she gives me canned tomatoes.
I was in her home for breakfast and
watched her manage the dogs and the 
cat. Kind but firm. Once she brought
me a whole wardrobe of Thrift Store
clothes. She chooses well. They all
looked new to me, and they all fit.
I told her I was like Thoreau. I have
my favorites and I wear them until
they’re worn out. She said Thoreau
didn’t even have window glass to keep
out the cold. I was overwhelmed,
but now I look through all my choices
before I go to court about stopping
the coal ash, visit the Department
of Environmental Quality in Raleigh,
or give a poetry reading. Some outfits
are already favorites. Others are 
waiting for the right occasion. We’re
having a very warm fall. The fire is
laid in the woodstove, but the house
hasn’t gotten cold enough to light it.
My wood bin holds enough logs for
the winter when the Arctic blasts
sweep down on us from Canada. We
communicate by email, and sign

our letters “Love.”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Emma Smith: A Flower of the Heart

Emma and Robert Smith at the Mason Ball


Flowers of the Heart Five October 29, 2017

For Emma Smith

We met nineteen years ago. I was buying
this house and land, and she and Robert 
lived next door. I came with Liz, my real
estate agent, who was black. Emma said,
“You’re like us.” Robert is black, and she’s
white. She welcomed me from the first, as
did her three-year-old grandson, Demetrius,
who hugged my knees. Robert was more
cautious, but before long I talked him into
going to get horse manure with me. When
puppy Lucky came to live with them in
2000, when we had our big snowstorm, 
Lucky and Demetrius came over to watch
me plant flowers in front, and vegetables
in back. People asked Harold, who was
working with me against a low-level
nuclear dump, if I were Emma’s mother.
He said yes. It was Emma who did the
mothering. She told Robert’s friends
to bring me firewood. One cut down a 
dead tree for me. She’d come over and
tell me about her life. Robert was
difficult, but she stuck to him. When
he got cancer, she was right there
through surgeries, chemo, radiation.
Robert kept moving and held off
dying as long as he could. Emma was
always ready to give me a ride, to my 
mechanic or to the hospital. Once she
loaned me her car. When it was time
for her to sell their house, she stipulated
that my new neighbor had to promise
to help me. Emma said I should still
call her if I needed a ride. When I fell
in the road near my house in July,
she heard about it and came to check
on me. She has her health problems,
but they don’t slow her down much.
She always says what she thinks, even
more than I do. For that I love her, and
for her impulse to help other people. She 
lives for her grandsons. We lost Demetrius
when he was only thirteen. Emma grieved
but now that new baby has her glowing with
with pride, and Omari. She makes sure he 
does well in school, and she goes to all his
games. How lucky I am to have Emma in

my life: a few miles away but still close by.


Demetrius Alston with his father Kenny and his mother Novella (Missy)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Elaine Goolsby, A Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Four  October 22, 2017

For Elaine Goolsby

Her voice was never loud, yet
she stood firm when it mattered.
She listened well and then asked
penetrating questions beyond the
skill of most social workers, trained
though they are to get to the bottom
of things in other people’s souls. I
first met Elaine when her poet
sister Virginia visited me. I came to 
know and love her when I taught a
writing class through Durham Tech, 
and asked my students to bring in
a letter they, or someone else, had
written. She brought her pen pal’s, 
from when she and Graham began
their correspondence right after
World War II. This first letter,
recovered, set off what she called
her “letter in a bottle.” She wrote
to find him, and he called her up.
Their correspondence came back
to life. She showed me the letters,
and we decided to publish them, 
and did.  Graham came for the
occasion. Later she would go
to England, and I would meet him,
too, when I was in Wales. Elaine
and I became close and had lunch
together every few weeks, first at
the Greek restaurant, Mariakakis,
and later at Nantucket, both in
Chapel Hill. By the 90s, at Fortune
Garden or their Thailanna, near where 
she lived in Durham. Elaine, a good
listener, was occasionally fierce,
but only when it mattered. She knew
more about me than most people did,
and then she was always helping me.
In the 80s, my Carolina Wren Press
became a Durham Arts Council
affiliate, and all those boxes had to be
moved several times, and her husband
B.D. would help, too. When I left the
house on Barclay Road to move to
Saxapahaw, she and her son Chris helped,
despite icy rain, on January 1. One very
hot July day in 1995, she and B.D. moved
me from the room I rented in Saxapahaw
to a storage unit. We ate watermelon for
electrolytes. When I flew out of Raleigh-
Durham they’d let me sleep on their 
couch and then take me early to the airport.
When B.D. got sick, I’d call a cab. She
took nearly every class I offered, and
kept writing poems. She lost B.D. and 
other good friends. She has had a lot of 
losses, but she’d talk to those dying
and offer comfort. Slowly her mind
has drifted into early dementia, but she 
keeps reading. When she couldn’t take
care of her daughter, Heather began taking 
care of her. Now they have her quarantined
because she might have tuberculosis. No
one can go into the house, and she can’t 
go out until they know. As long as I could,
I took her to Thailanna and brought her
library books. She’d still ask those
penetrating questions, but she’d forget
my answers. Anna and Gif came to love
her, and we all miss her. She’ll soon be
eighty-eight. She doesn’t complain about
all her losses. Sometimes she laughs.
A very sturdy, sane friend, who, through
these years, has found the grace to accept
what she can’t change.

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.