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"Gimme Shelter" (like the Rolling Stones said)

In Greensboro, I claim this place as my own: a huge vacant grassy lot to the right of a Presbyterian church which posts a weekly message on a wooden signpost. Today’s is, “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Psalms 16:8, NIV. This is one of my favorite biblical verses, especially right now when I often feel (as the song says) that I am “standing on shaky ground”. On the perimeter of the field are a rich assortment of trees, even some longleaf pine and delicate purple flowers whose name I do not know, mixed in amongst a canopy of brown and burnished leaves. Someone has placed an old wood Adironack chair near an edge of the field. Although empty, it is still redolent with meaning and purpose, and I wonder for a moment who has sat in it and whether its comfort and unexpected appearance were appreciated. I have a photo of it, leaning into a sudden wind, beset with shadows thrown into relief by a sudden emergence of sun. The grain of the wood is strongly defined as though it is bent on making a statement. I take a cursory glance around to make sure that no snakes are anywhere in evidence, especially the copperheads who with one good bite can potentially send you to Your Maker, and place an old torn blanket near a bush heavy with red berries, so I can look up and glimpse their beauty at any time. With me I have two books: “The Last Ballad” by North Carolina native Wiley Cash and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. I am reading them conjointly, hoping to glean some wisdom from each and thinking there might be stories in them that I can use to create word pictures of my own.

This past year the coronavirus pandemic has taken so much of our lives, and I have found it imperative to find a small natural room where I can still thrive, nature rising up around me. Sheltering in my home doesn’t fulfill the definition of sanctuary for me – the cell phones, computers, and instruments of technology are a constant intrusion on a writer’s creative process and interfere with insistent demands that calls and emails must be attended to. I have the sense oftentimes that I cannot breathe in my own home where there are constant events requiring attention and things keep unaccountably breaking. Although my family and I enjoyed watching Stephen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”, the film is now stuck annoyingly in the DVD player and we cannot get it out. The refrigerator is humming loudly and the metal netting on a screen door has come loose. Although I have made my peace living with a resident male spirit who occasionally softly calls out my name and several times I have actually seen in profile going by, I walk into the den and see he has once again thrown the “Black’s Law Dictionary” from its regular place on the Harper’s Ferry oak desk into the middle of the room’s carpeted floor. I think in some way this is a passive-aggressive attack on lawyers of whose tribe I once belonged but that it happens with regularity no longer amuses me.

The sanctuary that my soul craves is lacking in the place where we inhabit, and I have a sense that the house itself is registering a protest, although I know not whom against. In the middle of the night, I am suddenly awakened by the blaring “you got mail!” words from my desktop computer which has managed to turn itself on even though I had turned it off before going to bed. The pandemic is thus not only an event in the outside world, plying us with its not completely understood terrors and remonstrations, but something that with its consequences inheres in the environment that I call home. In league with my habitat, I am breaking down and the stories which I want to write withhold themselves although still clamoring for their expression.

I have found a place, however, which provides some solace and consolation where nature is abundant, admittedly a bit desolate and off the beaten path enough that others care not to find some refuge in. I revel in the fact that for the moment it is mine alone. It is here in the church’s adjoining field that I do my best thinking, making, and re-making of stories that I begin to limb out and fill in where no ringing phone can interrupt me. On a nearby tree someone has carved out the words “I still love you” and my heart leaps to the recognition that these words have import in my own life. I return to memories of my own partner, a Vietnam nurse medic veteran, who often told me “there are three of us in this relationship: you, me and Vietnam” and how he died of a stroke on an afternoon where earlier in the day we had plotted a move to my native Canada where I would write a novel about bravery and new beginnings. I remember how he almost always had a book in his hand and read constantly with an urgency I did not then understand, as if he knew his time was coming and he had to get in all the reading that he could. All the easy laughter between us, how simple it was to be silent together hangs in the air with its own density of thought, pre-pandemic without masks or social distancing protocols.

As I traverse the grass, near where some of yesterday’s rain has pooled and blue dragonflies are now negotiating, I recall my promise that I would write an ode to him and our shared life. Out of nowhere an Irish proverb comes into my mind: “You will never plough a field if you only turn it over in your mind.” A red-tailed hawk is hovering overhead intent on finding some prey and watching it. I make a resolution to pen that story now. The isolating constraints of the pandemic have brought out the sharp contours of my solitude, but it is here in the natural environment that my heart yearns to ensure that I put ink to paper and thereby encapsulate stories, of loss, of gain, of hope, of love so that they are always memorialized and may be of assistance to someone out there needing that, particularly in a time like now which so harshly takes from us with no concern for pleas or prayers.

Each of us has a story and this is mine: his name was Bill Waters. We spent 12 years together and he helped me raise my special-needs son with reason, rhyme, and humor. The story expands voluminously to fit the banks of my memories but of this I am sure: he provided uncompromised moorings for someone invariably lost in an emotional storm at sea. One also needs to be grateful for any gift because in the lack of it do you find a later graveyard of regrets. I think of Bill, looking at the conceit now made a part of this fir tree, and am grateful that they have pushed me into the unforgiving territory of finding necessary words, of doing what a writer must do which is simply to write and do so unabashedly. It is time for the full-court press and taking that ball where it is destined to go, without chatter or complaints. My therapist’s words come to me: in all adversity, there is a silver lining. The pandemic has impressed upon me the necessity of finding a shelter for my soul where it can do what needs to be done, a place where impermeability and determination meet. In the midst of nature, in a field strewn with flowers, and even with some debris, I remember that I am part of the unbroken circle of nature, as the hymn that recites this goes in my head.

After Bill’s passing, I didn’t write because all that was left in me was the impulse to grieve and uncover a way to reconstitute a life for my still ebullient boy and myself. I do not credit myself as being particularly insightful, I have waged a lot of battles and lost unnumbered wars – but I do know this: the value of having something that serves as, if you will, a room of one’s own, a sanctuary which can buoy one up against the pestilences and vagaries of time. Here in Greensboro, in this errant field of unmowed grass, and red-toned dirt, reclining on a weatherbeaten but still-standing chair, I am opening the gates behind which the words hide, bucking and gesticulating wildly. The fear is that I’ll be thrown from the saddle, not able to complete even an 8-second ride which could net me the gold. The word bronco is ready to cast me heatedly to the ground. But the pandemic rears up: it is a story maker, a story promoter and out here, under a darkening sky and the sounds of the mourning doves, the grim arithmetic of the viral scourge never far from my mind, I am realizing that the words of the Rolling Stones – “gimme shelter” – are not merely filler, decorative stuff.

Each of us needs a shelter, real or symbolic, in which to begin your work and rage against the indignities of a so-often indifferent world. It took the pandemic, in a great stroke of irony, to make the stories once again bubble up in me, I who am surely a part of that fierce and ceaseless cauldron, with my own personal and unfinished anguish. The fact that I have a sanctuary, even for a little while, on a patch of undistinguished earth, in a city somewhere in the Southeast, emboldens me to put to those stories out in the world where they can percolate and be a blessing to anyone who might run across them in their literary travels. As the character Rafina says in the Irish film, “Sing Street”, “You can’t do anything by half.” Having a shelter backs my resolve and as the rain begins to fall, I still sit here, beginning to write.


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