The sun flashes white
On the crow as it flies
And it climbs over treetops
In the bright winter sky
And the ice on the creektop
Is silver and blue
And beneath winter’s crust
The slow stream bubbles through
I didn’t want to hit him.
I had nothing against him. No malice, no hard feelings of any kind. He had done me no harm.
It surprised me when he took that first swing. His eyes wild, hopped up on something, sweat running down his forehead and into his eyes.
I leaned back a little, dipped to the right and easily dodged his looping attempt to take my head off.
It surprised me even more how quickly he took his second swing, this one coming from his left. It caught me in the neck and knocked me back. It didn’t hurt, but I knew right then I’d have to hit him.
He kept coming at me, wailing away as I covered my head, his punches landing on my arms. Then he stopped.
I peaked out between my arms and saw him standing there, his hands by his side, gasping for…
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Inasmuch as Shelton College is a liberal arts institution, we recognize not only local writers but also – as of today, at least – visual artists as well. Our first hat tip goes to Donnie Burford, a young man I know from church. He’s a Saint Albans dweller and has been painting for a little while now and – as I think he would admit – is still in his formative stages as an artist.
I don’t recommend every local artist I see and I don’t recommend every artist whom I know, but Donnie caught my eye through a recent Facebook post. That post featured a painting of a man sitting on a rock in a trout stream, fixing some tackle to his rod. The work in general is very pleasant and praiseworthy – it catches the subtle light and color tones that are unique to mountain streams. I think one of the reasons so many people love trout fishing is the immersion in the beauty of these hard-to-reach environments and it’s a credit to Donnie that he’s captured a bit of that rare world in this painting.
Here, with permission, is Donnie’s painting:
Around the same time I first saw this one, I was taking another look at some of Joni Mitchell’s paintings. She did one of Charley Mingus that is famous and I’ve got to say that Donnie’s work here compares favorably to it. In fact, I see a similarity in the color shades and the forms.
Here is Joni’s painting of Mingus:
But the thing that most impressed me about Donnie’s painting was the detail of the fisherman’s face. You see, I know that guy. He’s Donnie’s father and I would have recognized him in the painting, even if I had not known who painted it. It’s just something about the lines in his face, particularly his mouth, which Donnie got just right with one stroke of the pen or brush. For my money, the ability to do that is what separates the real artist from the wannabe. Joni Mitchell could do it, of course. In just a few lines she could give us a portrait of Neil Young that was immediately recognizable.
Donnie’s painting of his father is evidence that Donnie has that same talent.
Let’s have more.
This hip chick is my mother.
The photo was taken around the time she began her career as a stay-at-home mom.
After giving my father credit for his hidden artistic talents (and at the risk of turning this forum into Joe’s nostalgia corner), I wanted to take a look at a different creative type. If my father was a left-brain analytical, my mother personified the right-brain free spirit.
My mother had artistic ambitions. She was good with sketches, and I think I remember her working with pastels. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.
She was also a musician. She played the clarinet in the high school band (or faked it, as she would say, a skill I managed to master when I was in the band), and she was an excellent piano player. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.
She loved to write and was a master of the funny story. She wanted to be the next Erma Bombeck (a popular humorist of her day) and probably had the skills to pull it off. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.
Did I mention poetry? No, not the soul-searching free verse that is popular today, but poems that actually rhymed. And again, many were humorous. But she was raising a family it was hard to stick with it.
She also sewed and made clothes for the family. I consider sewing an art form, but for my mother, it was a necessary skill, one that she was able to stick with, because she was raising a family.
Like most right-brain thinkers, my mother had dreams of making it big, but they never panned out. Even so, at every stage of her life she was able to find contentment in the work that she did. Yes, she found happiness in her art, her music, her writing, her poetry. But she knew what was really important. It wasn’t a sacrifice for her to let her dreams take a back seat, it was her act of love for her family. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Times have changed. With more options available, many mothers are able to work outside the home, fulfill their obligations as a mother, and still find time to pursue other interests. Roles are changing, too. Stay-at-home dads are much more common and give women even more choices.
But my mother’s world was different. Still, one truth remains.
Our time is short and our work is ephemeral.
Know what really matters and make the most of it.
This young man is my father.
The photo was taken in the early days of his career as an electrical engineer.
In many ways, he is the stereotypical engineer. He’s analytical. He’s a logical problem solver. He pays attention to detail. He would be considered a left-brain thinker. Creative types – your artists, musicians, actors, dancers – are generally considered right-brian thinkers. If you think with the left side of your brain, you’d make a good engineer. If you think with the right side, you might be a good writer. And for much of what I remember about my father, this would seem to hold true.
When I was growing up, I never remember him doing anything very creative. He was very much an engineer, and was a great (if sometimes intimidating) teacher of math and science to me and my sisters.
Most of his career he worked for Union Carbide and when they began to build new production facilities in Texas, he was transferred to Houston. My family moved to Texas twice, and when he was sent to Houston for a third time, he opted to go it alone and not put the family through another move. So what does an engineer living by himself do in his spare time?
Golf? Maybe jigsaw puzzles? No. He took up painting. When he returned home we were astounded by what he had done. Among other things, he painted this scene of the old Morgan homestead near Winfield (WV), across from what is now the John Amos power plant.
As far as I know, he had never painted anything before. There were other paintings, including a very lifelike portrait of Pittsburgh Steeler great, Mean Joe Green.
But when he came back home, he was done with painting.
In the 4o-some years since, he’s completed home improvement projects and done some woodworking, but not much that would label him as a creative type.
Then last year, my sister suggested to our then 86-year-old father that he should do pencil sketches of his great-grandchildren. He agreed. Here’s one of the twins, Bear.
For most of his life, my father has played the role of engineer. He is still very practical and analytical, and his fondness for logic would make Mr. Spock proud. And then he’ll surprise us with those sparks of creativity that seem to come forth every forty years or so.
Lessons in all of this?
Don’t sell yourself short. You may not even realize the potential within. Do your thing.
Too old? Nope. That just doesn’t cut it. Do your thing.
It will make your life better.
Oh, how I would love to see sunshine
The ancients said that it fed the soul
And I believe them
The new moderns say that it feeds the mind
And I believe them
And in the gloom of winter we are emptied of joy
The fringe-folk say that it feeds the body!
Those in India who survive on sunlight and water
As if capable of photosynthesis
And I believe them
C.S. Lewis, in his book An Experiment in Criticism, asserts that there are two kinds of readers in the world. There are those who read to “find out what happens,” and for them once a book is completed the fun is over. They don’t re-read; what would be the point?
For the other type of reader, the first time through a good book is just an introduction. This kind of reader will have books that they will read over and over throughout their lifetimes. They will linger over favorite paragraphs and passages like others will linger over a glass of fine wine. This sort of reader will memorize lines and scenes and find himself repeating them in appropriate moments – or maybe just repeating them.
I must be of the second kind. One of the reasons I know that is Cormac McCarthy. I first started reading him in 1992 when All The Pretty Horses was first published. I was forty years old then, married, with children, a law degree and a litigation practice. But in one way, before I read McCarthy, I was a kind of virgin. Although I was fairly well read by then, I had never encountered an author who did to me what All The Pretty Horses did. I fought him at first. The obscure sentences, the lack of quotation marks in dialogue, the long segments in Spanish untranslated, and the word here and there that sent me to the dictionary.
But I stuck with it long enough to be pulled in. And that is not too strong a description for what happened to me. Partly because his style forces you to focus so closely and partly because he so profoundly and subtly captures landscapes and scenes and characters and interactions between characters, I was drawn into the story – no, drawn into his world – as surely and maybe even more deeply as if I had been transported to west Texas in the early 1940s. I had heard that great literature makes you so aware of another world that you learn to appreciate the real world all the more. That happened with me. McCarthy described the forests and mountains and valleys of west Texas and then Mexico so vividly that I gained a new appreciation for the mountains and streams of West Virginia, where I live. He revealed the thoughts and intents of young men’s hearts so faithfully and so strongly that I became more aware and understanding of my own.
After reading All The Pretty Horses, I waited two years for the promised sequel and when it came I dove into it like I had once devoured the newest Beatles or Creedence album. Of the three works in the Border Trilogy, the second – The Crossing – gets the fainter praise.
But I picked the book up again just the other day and it was like hearing a poignant and almost-forgotten symphony. In the first three or four pages I was so carried away that I remembered why it is that I read. I read for the very thing this book affords. It is haunting, engaging, evocative, mesmerizing, enchanting. It sees and communicates the beauty of the surface and it sees and imparts the deeper beauty and horror of the emotion and motives that are beneath the surface. There are not three pages anywhere in literature that move and transport me the way these first few paragraphs do. There is simply nothing else like it.
Robert Frost once said that he could sum up in three words everything he’d learned about life: “It goes on.”
In this neat poem, at once in praise of the noble life of the beloved runner, teacher and coach, Joni Adams, who was swept away in the recent flooding here in West Virginia, Andy Spradling, with a touch as subtle as passing time and as surprising as rising floodwaters, revisits this universal and sometimes bewildering theme.
The warrior runner ignores the pain
And pushes on.
The gentle woman educates children for a lifetime
And pushes on.
The warrior runner charts miles month after month, year after year
And pushes on.
The gentle woman smiles warmly, treating people kindly, as only she can
And pushes on.
The warrior runner fights off injury from pounding the pavement
And pushes on.
The gentle woman lovingly cares for her elderly mother
And pushes on.
The warrior runner wants only to save some cherished mementos
And pushes on.
The uncaring water rises fast, enters her home
And pushes on.
Shelton College Quarterly welcomes a new contributor, Mr. David Hannan. This poem originally appeared in Marshall University’s Et Cetera magazine.
Replace a toga
With holey blue Dickies overalls
With sole-less Walmart moccasins
With jalapeño cheese Munchies
And the Greek amphitheater
With my grandfather’s garage
Amidst the aroma of spray paint
Stale Columbian coffee
And greasy Suzi’s biscuits
I absorbed the arguments of old men
From petty politics to polemics
Pontiacs to Buicks
Cosmology and Corvettes;
From Indian deities
To Oldsmobile leather seats,
Their words spilled amongst the oil on the floor
My grandfather, a man who could bend words
As well as fenders
Welded me into an academic
When his friends would trickle out
Like the last drops of coffee
Our dialectic would begin
Question and answer
Until one was silent
The man who never hugged my father,
Who recoiled from a touch
And embraced me with his mind
To try and make me Aristotle.
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