Smile. It’s the message of the lady bug and I almost missed it for not reading the book. The Book, not just any book, is thick with cardboard pages, each one beautifully illustrated to capture the imagination of a child, ages 0 to 100. It’s by Nancy Tilllman, and called, “On the Night You Were Born.” It was a gift from Kate before she died.
While visiting Kate in the hospital last May, she wanted me to fetch several important items from her desk at home. She trusted the task to me, even promising me snacks she’d hid in the left-hand drawers. We both laughed when I reported back to her that the Grandchildren had already ransacked the snacks. Judging by the wrappers, I missed out on some good ones.
One item I returned to her is what I’d call a baby-book. It’s a toddler’s first reader, the kind they can teethe on and not shred pages (easily). She told me to make sure her three-year old Granddaughter didn’t see it or she might think it hers. She had one and now, I did, too. I was a bit puzzled at first until Kate read me the book. It begins:
On the night you were born,
the moon smiled with such wonder,
that the stars peeked in to see you
and the night wind whispered,
“Life will never be the same.”
I’m at one of those moments where I know life will never be the same. I’m packing, dealing with panic attacks and wavering between hope and hopelessness. Many possibilities are in the air like floating dandelion seeds and instead of my usual excitement for all that is possible, I feel like my compass point is spinning when I need a clear path. I want a single possibility to resolve it all.
Kate gave me this book because she understood that our friendship was one of sharing the bad times as well as the good. And she knew that when I faced a rough spot without her, I’d need the reminder that:
…whenever you doubt how special you are
and you wonder who loves you, how much and how far,
listen for geese honking high in the sky.
(They’re singing a song to remember you by.)
I almost didn’t read the book, and was about to pack it away. There’s a dark reality that anything I pack in storage I might lose. What if we can’t find a home? What if my client contract doesn’t come through? What if I fail to publish? What if the money owed to me by Go Idaho is truly unrecoverable? What if my check from Sandpoint Magazine doesn’t arrive in time to rent a temporary place on short notice? What if I succumb to my own dark thoughts?
Smile. Really? Smile at time like this! As I pull the book off my desk shelf, its clunky pages it opens naturally to a page with a single line: “And none of the ladybugs flew away.”
It might not read as profound to you as it does to me. You see, the day Kate died, I sat on a patio with her youngest daughter, M, and her best friend. When I formally met the best friend was when I returned to be at Kate’s side. I walked into the hospital room and a young woman grabbed M in a protective hug and boldly said, “This is my best friend!” I nodded, walked over to Kate’s side, put my hand on her shoulder and said, “This is mine.” That day, we best friends shared a bond of being-there-no-matter-what. And the worst that could happen, did. Thus the three of us sat numb in the sunshine of a patio the day Kate died.
That’s when a lady bug began to harass me. No matter how many times, I placed it on a plant or blew at it, that lady bug would not fly away. With tears in her eyes, M said, “It’s Mom.” I’m not an insect kind of buckaroo and Kate knew this about me. So of course, if she came back to visit me she’d find it funny to do so as a bug. I accepted the lady bug and it stayed on me the entire time we sat outside.
Now, nearly a year later as I pack with a sore heart and mind full of doubt as to my worth, I sit on the floor among half-filled boxes and read, On the Night You Were Born. And I find the message of the lady bug, the message Kate wanted me to remember:
If the moon stays up until morning one day,
or a lady bug lands and decides to stay,
or a little bird sits at your window awhile,
it’s because they’re all hoping to see you smile…
Last night I drove to town without a smile. I thought about canceling Wrangling Words at the library. What good am I to other writers? Oh, yes, lead the writing life just like me, go places, don’t get paid and get evicted for no solid reason other than you are the one renting because you don’t have the means to buy. Yes, I was in a full-blown pity-party, the kind to crush all smiles. While packing, I had come across my college work from the 1990s. I found my outlines and character development for two novels that withered and died in those boxes. I was considered adept enough to do two independent studies on those novels. My professors once called me Super Woman. Well, didn’t I go out in the world and crash my invisible plane.
While the education coordinator finished setting up refreshments for Wrangling Words, I sat in silence. I hoped no one would show. I sat for 20 minutes and realized I could leave in three when a man walked through the door. Maybe he had the wrong room. “Is this where the writers meet,” he asked. I confirmed it and asked him what he wrote. Ah, I recognized that pure enthusiasm for one’s work as he explained his novel in progress. Despite my gloom, I began to smile. Then a woman walked in and I resigned myself to a the truth of that moment — I need to feel needed.
It’s not my ability to write that I doubt. It’s that I know how hard this journey is and sometimes I doubt I can take another step. It keeps me going when I can help someone else along the path. In a way, I feel like a trail guide. Sooner or later, every serious writer (and even the light-hearted ones) discover how rocky the writing path can be. At times like this, I pull out of my own funk, shaking off the dust of the trail, to talk two other writers through the dust. Giving someone else clarity, re-orientates my own compass. And I remember to smile.
I also remember to plant columbines for strangers, leave dandelions for the bees and invest in my writing that risks no payback.
Wendell Barry once wrote a poem about doing things that are contrary to circumstances, defy politics and profit, and call us to do things we will never see come to fruition. Mad Farmer Liberation. Part of his manifesto from 1974 reads:
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Laughter can’t tumble from a clenched frown. To be joyful requires a smile. I look for these messages in baby-books and poems. Call me crazy. Call me a writer.
So damn all you property managers to the place Trump will end up one day (may you rot in in the waste heaps of Washington DC for all I care). I cry out the psalms of disorientation, the ones where David asks God to bash in the teeth of his enemies. I shout this to the wind, I show the lavender-gray clouds of dusk my fists. I kick at the pavement of the driveway for no matter how angry I am at common injustice I can’t kick the land.
No, I revere the peat, honor the budding sweetness of clover and I gift my columbine to the next landowner on Elmira Pond. I never planted bee-bombs last summer, thinking they were for me to see. I planted bee-bombs as an investment in the future of pollinators. I planted columbine in the belief that beauty is perennial not annual; it’s for all of us or else we become Trump, blinded by a bad comb-over and lack of human dignity.
I write. For I am human despite my housing failings. I write. For I am always a student and no novel is ever truly finished even when published. I write. For I have so many stories in my imagination that if you were to peer through the window you’d think it was infinity. I write. For I feel deeply beyond the pit of my despair and I dig into pit-roots and use what I find like Indian Jones barely surviving another adventure. I write. For I fear not the darkness and dare to illuminate with words. I write. For sometimes I am scared but it’s my prerogative to contradict myself, to re-invent myself, to tell you who I am and not the other way around.
Sarah Shull rode horses the way I write. She had no where to go, but she went. No one would hire a female accountant except for her one-time lover who jilted her to return to his wife. She didn’t own her own place and was at the mercy of many before she succumbed to cold alone in a desolate cabin among the stumps of trees she once knew as a forest. She rode because she kept a secret. She rode because others judged her without knowing her. When arthritis and age crippled her frail body, damn them all, she rode in her dreams until the day she died.
To you Sarah Shull, I recite these words from my baby-book:
For never before in story or rhyme
(not even once upon a time)
has the world ever known a you, my friend,
and it never will, not ever again…
The world will not know the likes of her, and I write because I have seen her in my storehouse of an imagination. I write because I want to see Sarah Shull smile despite 98 years of hardship and holding a secret to protect her friend who…well, I know her secret and I write so one day you might realize it, too.
May 24, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that changes with a smile. It can be a character, tone, setting or any creative use of smile. You can go deep and consider motive and influence, or you can light up the world with a brilliant flash (of teeth as well as fiction). And smile, because your writing matters and is not hostage to your level, experience or circumstances.
Respond by May 31, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Heaven Smells Like Nebraska Territory by Charli Mills
The girls clung to each other and crept to Sarah’s bed. The one-room cabin was dim and drafty. Sarah’s form was still as death in the sag of a discarded mattress.
Even Sarah thought she was finally, blissfully, dead; drifting away from the squalor of stumps, escaping the putrid pollution of wood mills, leaving behind decades of condemnation as a fallen woman. Shulls Mill receded and Sarah could feel the tug of a galloping steed. She smelled morning dew on prairie grass. Was heaven carpeted like Nebraska Territory?
She smiled. The girls squealed and Sarah woke up, yet alive.