Two, Together

I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things as crawl upon earth.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948; Indian lawyer, politician, social activist, and writer; embraced nonviolent resistance; inspired movements for civil rights and freedom around the world)

The blacksnake and I friended the moment we first laid eyes on one another.

The early, dew-pearled spring morning remains as fresh in my memory as if it were yesterday. I had gone to my towering compost heap, bucket in hand, to retrieve some black gold. As I knelt at the base of its old, sweet-smelling richness, I suddenly sensed eyes. Someone or something was scrutinizing me. I was being watched. I could feel it deep in my bones. I looked all around me and saw no one. Then I lifted my eyes, and there on top of the compost heap was an incredibly beautiful, brilliantly glossy blacksnake, leaning over, looking down at me with its small eyes, its tongue darting, in red contrast to its white under chin, mellowing into soft yellow. I felt neither chill nor threat. I continued my task, all the while the two of us kept returning glances as if to make certain that we did not snap our nanosecond bond, perhaps never to connect again.

Surprisingly, the bond stretched and sunned itself over the summer. Even though I was always hoping to see my blacksnake–so much so that I often went looking for him–our encounters were sudden, unexpected ones.

Not long after our initial meeting, I was hard at work, planting a new specimen tree in the upper yard. The curly, contorted willow was already a large tree with a root ball that seemed far more immense when delivered than when purchased. By the time I dug the hole and positioned the tree, I was exhausted, but I still faced watering, backfilling, watering again, and mulching. Edging near tiredom, I walked a few steps to the nearby waterhose. Reaching down, I lifted with an intent to pull. In an instant, I realized that what I had in hand had no drag. I looked. There I stood holding in midair my blacksnake friend whom I had mistaken for my black water hose. It was my second one-on-one experience. Once again our eyes locked. But this meeting was more special than the first. Now we knew one another’s touch–warmth against cold, cold against warmth. I put the blacksnake down as casually as I had picked him up, and we each continued what we were doing. I could not see him, but I sensed that he watched from somewhere nearby as I finished planting the willow.

On another occasion, I had spent the better part of my day laying stone pavers for a short walkway through the garden bed outside my kitchen and building a low stone wall along the walkway’s meandering edge. The sunny day bordered on scorch. I sat on the walkway, leaned back into the flower garden, admiring my handiwork. As I gloated, a cold black stream soft-bellied itself across my sweaty outstretched arm. I looked back and my eyes met the eyes of my friend, the blacksnake. I remained motionless, holding my breath, hoping that the snake would stop, linger, and perhaps even explore. Instead he slithered on his way, calmly and unhurriedly.

My next visitation was perhaps my most unexpected and the most short lived. One summer evening, I had gone for a walk in the yard. When I went out, I didn’t consider turning on the outdoor lights. But darkness had fallen by the time I started back. I could see my way easily enough because the indoor lights were on, including those in the foyer. Even if the lights had not been on, I could have footed along without really looking. And that’s exactly what I did, that is until my hand clutched for the storm door and instead of an iron handle I felt a cold, smooth, muscular surface, pulsing to my touch. Only then did I look. The foyer light dimly illuminated my blacksnake friend, partially coiled around the door handle, upper body stretching toward the door top and lower body draping downward. I opened the door and went inside. My friend remained outside, leaving me to wonder whether he had hoped, for once, to be visitor in my world as I had been so often in his.

That rendezvous was the most fleeting. My fifth was the most lasting. As autumn started, my late partner Allen and I grew weary of removing fallen leaves from our Koi pond and cascading waterfalls. To make our task easier, we covered both with invisible black netting.

Our solution was perfect. The leaves floated on top of the netting instead of on top of the water. But the day came when our hearts sank as we discovered a scarlet red, black-faced cardinal struggling to escape the black netting’s grab. We lifted the netting to winged flight.

“So much for that brilliant solution,” we sighed simultaneously.

I rolled the netting into a ball, left it on the small patio beside the pond, and went back indoors to help Allen with dinner.

After dinner, I went back out to throw the netting away. Reaching down, I saw my blacksnake inextricably interwined in the ball.

Allen came out to see what I was doing.

“Look at what we’ve done. This is all our fault,” I lamented. “We have to get the snake out of the netting.”

“And just how do you plan to do that without getting bitten?”

“Go get some scissors, and I’ll show you what I have in mind.”

Allen came back out with a pair of surgical scissors that he was so skilled in using.

“I’ll get a hold of the snake just behind his head so that he can’t bite me, and you cut away and remove the netting.”

Ever so cautiously, I knelt and took gentle hold of the blacksnake behind his head. Allen starting cutting away at the netting, gradually freeing the snake’s tail.

As he snipped away more and more netting, the blacksnake began coiling his emerging body ever so slowly and calmly around my arm.

As Allen snipped, I gently rubbed my other hand against the snake’s skin, making certain that no black netting had been left behind.

Finally, the moment came when Allen finished. I remained kneeling on the patio with my blacksnake friend coiled entirely around my arm.

What was I to do now? I had not planned for this moment of release, this moment of letting go.

I stood up slowly, all the while watching my blacksnake friend watching me. It was as if he knew that Allen and I had rescued him. It was as if I knew that my friend would do me no harm.

I walked up to the bank beside the waterfalls, gently lowered my snake-coiled arm to the ground, and let go my grasp around the snake’s head.

Two, together, frozen in spirit and frozen in time, just for one second and one second only. In the next, our eternity melted. My blacksnake friend started uncoiling himself from around my arm, pausing to look back. Our eyes locked one last time before he slithered his way back into our world.

Foolin’ Around with Time

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

Hopefully, you paid close attention to the title of this post. I don’t want anyone jumping to the wishful conclusion that I’m fooling around. Well, I guess I am, but it’s not with someone. I’m fooling around with time which surely makes fooling around permissible albeit boring!

But let me share with you what made me start fooling around with time in the first place. When I look around me, I seem to see lots of folks who have time on their hands. Sometimes I even hear them saying to one another, “Oh, I’m just killing time.”

Thankfully, I’m not one of those folks. Instead of time on my hands, I seem to have time on my mind. I think about time a lot of the time. And I never have time to kill. I’m not even sure that I know how to kill time.

Both expressions–time on my hands and killing time–strike me as rather lame, but not lame enough to keep me from looking up their origins in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

“Time on your hands” goes back to 1668 with Flavell’s Saint Indeed Ep. Ded. sig. A7:  “Leave trifling studies to such as have time lying on their hands, and know not how to imploy it.”

Of course, I am intrigued by the reference to “trifling studies,” but I don’t have time right now to look it up.

“Killing time” dates to 1751, when it appeared in Richardson’s Clarissa (ed. 3) VIII. Concl. 266:  “The more active and lively amusements and Kill-times.”

In the next century, Coleridge used it in a way that intrigues me. In his Lect. Shakespeare (1856) 3, he writes: “Where the reading of novels prevails as a habit…it is not so much to be called pass-time as kill-time.” As an English professor, I am stunned that a poet would speak so unkindly of novels!

Sometimes folks killing time or with time on their hands look at me and ask, “How do you find time to do all the things that you do? You must have all the time in the world.”

I want to come back with, “Find time? How could I do that? You have 24 hours in your day, just as I do.”

But, instead, I count to ten, smile, and bide my time.

Even so, those questions set me to thinking, “How do I find time to do all that I do when I’m not foolin’ around with time?”

The answer is not as straightforward as it might seem. In reality, it’s not about finding time. It’s about managing time. It’s about realizing that when work is to be done–when goals are to be accomplished–time is not on my side. I have to worry not only about how much time I have to do the needful but also about how much time I will set aside to do the needful.

When it comes to managing time for goals and projects–both long- and short-term–I am downright SMART. I know how to get things accomplished on time or ahead of time.

S–Specific.

M–Measurable.

A–Achievable.

R–Relative.

T–Time-based.

In my head, I know that SMART can be applied successfully to daily time management, too.

But I don’t always practice what’s in my head. As a result, time and time again, I discover that I am not the best time manager, even of my own time. Nonetheless, I always develop some kind of plan for my time every day. Usually, I do that planning the night before, while lying in bed, right after I finish taking time to work on my blog post.

The way that I develop those plans has everything to do with how productive my time will be the next day.

Over time, I’ve picked up on patterns–what works and what doesn’t work.

Let me start with the latter. What doesn’t work for me is when I make sketchy notes of what I hope to accomplish for the day. I approach the plan so cavalierly that in no time, I’m done.

Here’s a perfect example of my sketchy planning for one day, a week or two ago. Let me share without any further loss of time.

Morning Goals

* Meditate

* Bike

* Student Engagement Hours at Laurel Ridge CC

By the end of such a day, I might well have accomplished those goals and more, but I know that they did not require the entire day. I’m left somewhat satisfied, but not entirely. I have the sinking feeling that time slipped through my fingers into soft, billowy expanses of nothingness.

We all need downtime like that from time to time. In fact, some of my best ideas appear in moments when seemingly I am doing nothing.

But, as a rule, I am no fonder of nothingness than I am of stillness. I like my days to be chock-full of activities so that at day’s end I can look back knowing that I had a whale of a productive time.

Here’s an example of what works best for me when I’m planning a typical day. For the time being, one example should suffice because time’s a-wastin’.

Morning Goals

5:00-5:30am | Meditate

5:30-6:30am | Bike 20 miles

6:30-7:30am | Shower, dress, and have breakfast

7:50am | Leave for Laurel Ridge CC. Stop for coffee and pastry at Flour and Water. Take the leisurely and scenic Valley Pike route to the college.

9:30am-12:30pm | Student Engagement Hours at Laurel Ridge CC

Hopefully, you get my point. When I anchor my goals to time allotted to each task, I have a specific plan for how I will spend my time.

The beauty of this approach–aside from being more productive–is that I escape to a once-upon-a-time world simply by setting aside time to motor to the college via Valley Pike–past cornfields and the meandering Shenandoah River–rather than whirring to the college mindlessly at 70 miles an hour on the interstate.

No doubt even Benjamin Franklin would have been proud of me on my days when I use time management effectively. Franklin, of course, was ahead of his time in so many ways. Aside from realizing that time is money, his way of scheduling his own days became the prototype of the American day planner.

Sadly, I am not ahead of my time, and, most assuredly, I am not a legend in my own time. But I am fully confident that my way of planning a fully productive day–of making time for the goals that I want to accomplish–will withstand the test of time.

Painfully, too, I know that time and tide wait for no man, least of all for me. For now, then, the time has come for me to stop foolin’ around with time, yours and mine.

Writers: Our Forever-Friends

“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”

Walt Whitman, “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” (Leaves of Grass, 1855)

Whenever I teach a literature course, I tell my students that aside from celebrating their achievements as they master the course content, I have one special hope for each of them. I want them to find one writer who will be their friend. One writer who will never unfriend them as other friends sometimes do. One writer who will be with them through all the storms of life, for a lifetime. A writer who will be a forever-friend.

What I have in mind is similar to the handful of real-life, forever-friends whom we might have, if we are lucky. It’s never many. At least it has never been many for me. I have perhaps one handful of such friends. All right. Perhaps two handfuls who are in the friends-forever category. With us, we’ve shared so many past experiences that even if we have not seen one another in years, when we reconnect, we pick up magically on the same conversation that we were having when we last met, and we do so without missing a beat. Friends. Forever-friends.

Writers can be our forever-friends, too, with an added bonus. We can have lots and lots of them. As we read more and more, we discover more and more writers who might end up as our friends. We like them. We like what they have to say to us. We like how they inspire us. We like how they make us believe. We like how they make us feel…unalone. We like how they heal our…brokenness. Before long, we want to hang out with them. We can. Whenever we want. For as long as we want.

The great thing about writers who are our forever-friends is that when they pop up unannounced and uninvited, it’s never a problem. We don’t have to clean for them. We don’t have to cook for them. And we don’t have to clear our calendars for them. They can tag along with us just as we are. And they will do just that if we let them.

All that we have to do is be attentive, smile when they arrive, and even smile when they leave, knowing that they will come back to visit us again and again and again.

Their arrival coincides with something that we are experiencing that makes us think of something else. It’s the power of association. Robert Frost captures it best:

“All thought is a feat of association; having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew.”

That’s the beauty of having writers who are forever-friends. Their arrival is based exclusively on what’s right in front of you or something that you’re thinking about. Something that you almost didn’t know you knew.

No doubt, you have your own writers who are your forever-friends, just as I do.

Obviously, I don’t know about yours, but mine visit me multiple times throughout the day, every day without fail. I never know which writers will visit or when. But I go forth daily, confident of being strengthened and girded up by their company.

For example, Walt Whitman shook his silvery locks right in front of me as I was writing this post. I was thinking about the fact that only a snippet of a writer’s work comes to my mind during an association, while all the other details of the work are seemingly long forgotten. Instantly, the lines from Whitman’s “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” flashed across my mind:

“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”

Here’s another example.

When I met with my Creative Writing class for the first time this semester, I had a slap-stick time promoting this blog. It was nothing more than nonsensical banter aimed at entertaining my students, but they picked up on it.

Not long after I managed to restore myself to a modicum of seriousness, one student raised her hand as if to ask a serious question.

“Professor Kendrick, did you say that you have a blog?”

I started laughing, as did the rest of the class.

A little later on, her hand went up again. I was on to her by then, but I was having far too much fun, so I acknowledged her.

“Professor Kendrick, did you give us the name of your blog?”

(When our laughter died down, my forever-friend Edward Albee paid me a momentary visit. He has chummed me since the 1960s when I was in college and he was a controversial Broadway playwright.)

“Very funny! You know, Caitlin, my hell-bent banter to promote my blog to a brand-new group of students, reminds me of the first line from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.”

In the play, Jerry approaches Peter, a total stranger, sitting on a bench in Central Park.

I’ve been to the zoo. [PETER doesn’t notice.] I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO! 

I was thrilled by Albee’s visit, especially since I was able to share it with my class. He came as he did and when he did because of my dogged determination to tell my students–a group of strangers, if you will–all about my blog. In the process, I remembered Jerry’s insistence on telling Peter, a total stranger, that he had been to the zoo.

My students got it. They saw the association with great clarity.

On another occasion, something similar happened at the start of the same class.

As I drove on campus. I was aware–painfully so–that the grassy, undeveloped acreage all around the college was being gobbled up by townhouses.

At the start of class, one of my students shared the same observation.

In that nanosecond, former United States Poet Laureate Phillip Levine appeared. Immediately, I walked to my teacher station, googled his poem “A Story” and flashed it on the screen for students to see as I read it aloud.

It captures perfectly what my students and I had witnessed with pain that morning.

Levine chronicles the life and death of the woods that once surrounded us and ends with a chilling doomsday prophecy:

where are the woods? They had to have been

because the continent was clothed in trees.

We all read that in school and knew it to be true.

Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows

of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes

into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,

there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles

of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.

And right now as I typed the above quotation, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell popped into my head, chanting a few lines from her “Big Yellow Taxi”:

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot.

My writers–my forever-friends–visit me far more in my alone times than they do when I am teaching or, for that matter, when I am socializing.

Maybe they appear then because they know that in my alone times friends can add a richness to any moment, even ordinary ones.

Ordinary moments like weed whacking. Somehow, I end up doing that chore on Sunday instead of going to church. That’s no big deal to me. I consider myself Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). Emily Dickinson must be SBNR, too, because she is always with me on my Sunday morns. Her “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” overpowers the Stihl noise through all the stanzas, rising triumphantly in the final one:

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.

Or sometimes it’s as simple as visitorial moments that occur when reading emails from regular friends who aren’t writers. Recently, a friend who is my age wrote that his hands had grown old. I sensed his sadness and immediately thought of a poem about aging by former United States Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz: “Touch Me.” It includes the poignant lines:

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.

One season only,
and it’s done.

[…]

Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

And then I immediately thought of Ben Speer singing “Time Has Made a Change in Me.” The title alone was touchstone sufficient. And that led me to W. S. Merwin reading his “Yesterday” with the ever-chilling line:

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time

It’s amazing: the rich literary company that embraced me, all because of one single solitary email sent my way!

Sometimes, though, my forever-friends arrive as I try to make sense of all that’s going on in our world. The ongoing COVID pandemic. The invasion of Ukraine. Recent SCOTUS decisions. The January 6 Hearings. Global Warming. Poverty. Food scarcity. Gender inequality. Homophobia. Transphobia. Growing humanitarian conflicts and crises. The 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on America.

Need I go on? Sadly, I could. Gladly, I won’t. It’s far too sobering.

But in those dark moments when I find myself spiritually staggering under the weight of it all, I take strength from William Faulkner’s Nobel Acceptance Speech, delivered in 1950 when the world was staggering under the burden of the Cold War:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? […] I decline to accept the end of man.  […] I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

Maybe, just maybe, the need to have writers who are our forever-friends, boils down to nothing more than this. They come regardless of what we are facing. They reassure us that goodness and mercy shall prevail. They remind us to grapple with our soul, to grapple with our spirit.

They come, as Robert Browning came to me just this second, to calm us and anchor us in the full and steadfast belief that despite all the injustices, all the wrongdoings, all the travail, and all the sorrows,

God’s in His Heaven,

All’s right with the world.

Pippa Passes, Song I (1841)

A Poetic Celebration of Labor Day

As we celebrate Labor Day–a day established to honor the American Labor Movement and all that American workers have contributed to our nation’s strength, prosperity, and well-being–let’s also take time to celebrate the dignity of work itself–all work–and to reflect on the importance of work in our own lives.

American poet Walt Whitman is in my thoughts on many days, but perhaps on no day do I think of him more than on Labor Day.

Whitman is the poet, America.

Whitman is the poet, Democracy.

Whitman is the poet, Labor.

This Labor Day, I hope that you, too, hear America singing.

I Hear America Singing

Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass, 1860 ed.)

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Less Is Not Always More Until It Is

Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says, (I know his name, no matter)—so much less! Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.

Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”

Less is more has been around since 1855 when Robert Browning coined the phrase in his “Andrea del Sarto,” a dramatic monologue inspired by the Renaissance artist having the same name as the poem’s title. Nearly one hundred years later, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe made the phrase really popular when he adopted it as a mantra for architecture, art and design. Today, less is more is more popular than ever because minimalism is gaining more and more traction.

I get it. I guess. Well, actually, I guess that I don’t get it. To prove that I don’t get it, I had to Google some examples of less is more so that I could include them here at the start of this post. I can’t believe that I couldn’t come up with any examples on my own, but I couldn’t.

Fortunately, I found a lot of examples on the Internet. However, only one or two of them found me nodding in agreement.

I really do understand that putting less focus on material things–consumerism–allows us to focus more on things that really matter and that bring us lasting happiness. Got it. Endorse it.

And I really do understand that minimalism can help the environment by reducing our carbon footprint. Got it. Got it. Endorse it twice over.

Those two concessions are about as far as I can go. Some of the other less-is-more examples leave me shaking my head.

Sleek, smaller design, often in a black and white scheme. Nope.

Decluttering. Nope. Nope.

Digital decluttering. Nope. Nope. Nope.

(If you desire a full understanding of why I dissed sleek design, decluttering, and digital decluttering, see “OHIO on My Mind.”)

Having scoffed at those examples of less is more, you can rest assured that I would never consider less is more when it comes to gardening. That’s when I draw the line in my compost heap and step across it to join sides with Robert Venturi, one of the major American architects of the twentieth century, who proclaimed that less is a bore.

As for me, I want my garden right now. No. I want it yesterday or the day before, and I want it to look as if I have been enjoying its lushness for years, if not forever.

Hear me and hear me well. Less is not more when it comes to the way that I garden. I garden, I garden my way.

I want nothing–absolutely nothing–to do with seeds. They take days to sprout, more days to grow, still more days to selectively thin, and even more days to bloom.

I want blooms, blooms, blooms. Glorious blooms. And I want them instanter.

“Those 4-inch pots are gorgeous! Look at all those blooms.”

“You must like them a lot to be buying fifteen each of three different annuals.”

“Oh, my. Yes. I love mass plantings.”

That’s a typical conversation as I make early spring pilgrimages to local garden centers, always to be reminded right after I have made my purchases:

“Keep ’em indoors until the danger of frost has passed.”

No big deal. I’ve never minded dragging a gazillion potted plants day after day–from mid-April to mid-May–in and out of my home, kitchen to deck and back again. Hey. Like I said. I want my garden yesterday or the day before. And either way I want it looking like it’s been there forever.

If you think that I have a bad attitude when it comes to seeds, I have an even worse attitude when it comes to saplings. (Think of me as a modern-day-Mae-West gardener: “When I’m good, I’m good. When I’m bad, I’m better.”)

If I’m going to plant a tree, I certainly do not expect to sit under it from the get-go and be shaded–Hmmm, that is something for me to think about–but, at least, I want it to be big enough and bold enough to cast a shadow.

When it comes to how many plants and trees I consider to be enough, it’s really simple.

For specimen plants and trees, I’m fine with one of each.

For all others, if one is good, then three, five, seven, or nine have to be better, especially since I garden in odd numbers when it comes to layout and design.

In fact, my odd-number planting rule struck me as perfect when I decided to plant bamboo. Nine clumps. Not to worry. Non-running.

That rule seemed equally perfect for my hardy bananas. Three groves. They were so small when I first planted them, that I hoped my neighbors would not notice. Trust me. They didn’t. Bigger is better even when it comes to bananas. But these days my neighbors get whiplash as they drive past, and it’s not because of our well-rutted road. Groves of big banana plants on a Virginia mountaintop make heads turn and make cars turn around.

Let’s see whether I have anything else to prove that less is not more when it comes to my gardening. Goodness! How on earth could I forget English ivy. Well, I nearly forgot it, no doubt because for once I broke my cardinal rule of planting in odd numbers. I planted the ivy in twosies. I needed ivy to hide not only a humongous and hideous stump just below my driveway but also to hide the rock wall that I built to hide the stump.

It worked so well there that I decided some ivy would soften the stone wall surrounding three sides of my Koi Pond. The fourth side, lest you think that I slighted it, is a dramatic waterfall, cascading from a height of five or seven or nine feet or so.

I wouldn’t want the world at large to know this–and I know that I can trust you, Dear Reader, to keep what I am about to say to yourself–but in my insistence on having my gardens look as if they have been around forever from day one, I confess that I may have made a mistake or five.

Mistake #1. Planting things too close together. Let’s face it. Too close is too close.

Mistake #2. See Mistake #3. My mistakes come in odd numbers only.

Mistake #3.  Not paying close enough attention to how big things will grow. Double disaster. Too close and too large.

Mistake #4. See Mistake #5. My mistakes come in odd numbers only.

Mistake #5. Not fully understanding that gardeners like me who nurture and care for their gardens end up with plants and trees that are much larger than expected. Miracle Grow grows miracles.

In case you’re wondering how my less-is-not-more approach to gardening played out over time, let me share with you.

Year One. Oh, joy. This is gorgeous. This is proof. My garden looks as if it’s been here for a while. It almost has that old-garden look. So there! I knew from the get-go that less is not more.

Year Two. See Year Three. I garden in odd numbers only.

Year Three. Oh, joy of joys. Everything is so lush. The garden really does look elegant and established.

Year Four. See Year Five. I garden in odd numbers only.

Year Five. Joy to the fifth. Cheers! This is an English garden at its best. Blooms, blooms, blooms. Glorious blooms everywhere. Everything in the garden is touching. I can’t even see weeds between the plants. Maybe there are no weeds. Better still, even if the deer have been in the gardens, I can’t tell what they’ve eaten.

Year Six. See Year Seven. I garden in odd numbers only.

Year Seven. Well, if I must say so myself, the stone walls really do look mysterious hidden beneath the English ivy. Here and there the sunlight bounces off a stone. For all that I know, what I’m walking past might be the foundations of ancient Roman ruins awaiting an archaeological dig. And I am rather glad that the manicured borders around the garden beds have disappeared. Too formal was a tad too much for a mountain man like me.

Year Eight. See Year Nine. I garden in odd numbers only.

Year Nine. The season of the slow awakening finally came. I looked out my windows one day, and I realized that it was gone. All gone. To be certain, it’s all there, but now it’s all so overgrown and all so close together that it looks like an Impressionistic study in shades of emerald green.

From afar, it’s rather dramatic. But let’s face it. Gardening cannot be done from afar. Gardening requires down and dirty.

Recovery from my initial Impressionistic shock was slow, and I confess to having been in denial for a year or three. It was a downer. I felt overwhelmed by the “muchness” of it all, just as Frost’s farmer felt in “After Apple-Picking”: “For I have had too much / Of apple picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.”

But I started to take heart when I started ripping out enough English ivy to fill five, seven, or maybe nine forty-five-gallon yard bags.

I got really hyped when I discovered the stone wall surrounding the red-leaf Japanese maple. Now, though, the maple has overgrown its stone wall boundaries. Joy!

“Mr. Gardener, tear down that wall.”

I did, and I rebuilt it sufficiently far away from the mature maple–exactly where I should have built it to begin with.

Then I repeated the ivy demolition on the three sides of the Koi Pond. Wow! What rocks I have! I can’t believe that I dug those stones out of the ground using just my pick and then managed to position them so expertly. They are stunning. Simply stunning. And with all that ivy gone, the pond is every bit as big as I recall it.

In case you’re wondering about the bamboo, let me just say this. Those nine clumps have an impressive diameter of six feet. Each. Non-running? Right. This bamboo is leaping! I have renamed it Bamboozle Leptomorph! (Patent pending.) I’m still trying to remove as much of it as I can from my gardens, while leaving the original clumps intact. They are gorgeous. Nonetheless, Dear Reader, if you would like to gift your best enemies with some of my bamboo, please leap out to me. You can assure them, if they ask: Clumping. Non-running. Caveat inter vivos. 

No doubt you’re wondering about my bananas. Of all my less-is-not-more gardening ventures, the bananas might be my greatest success. A recent visitor commented that they reminded him of Peru! Imagine that! My own piece of Peru right here in the Shenandoah Valley. Rest assured: I’ll keep the bananas. Even though they are hardy, I have to work hard at wintering them over. When they start to outgrove their allotted space, I simply overwinter smaller sections of the groves. Or I dig up perimeter pups and give them to friends. (Enemies get the Bamboozle Leptomorph, sine caveat.)

The annuals? Never a problem because at the end of the season, Voila! They’re gone. If I want more, I’ll plant them again next year.

No doubt you know exactly where I am. That’s right. I am ripping out lots of my gardens that have exceeded by far my wildest dreams nightmares.

This fall, just as an example, I’ll be lifting and replanting 55 or so peonies that have been anchored in their spots since 1998 when I planted them with fierce determination to make them look as if they had been there forever.  Trust me. These days they look as if they have been there forever and a day.

The same can be said for all of my gardens.

As I move forward with these gardening challenges opportunities, I will be gardener enough to own up to the fact that “Less is not more until it is.”

What worked great for me for so many years is now simply too much. And too much is just too much.

But, as I own up to the shortfalls, I am seeing wide open expanses opportunities that I have not seen in decades. At the same time, I am seeing metaphorical steel and copper plant markers nudging their way up through the soil here and there and everywhere: Gardening Opportunity.” “Plant Tomorrow, Today.” “Just Plant It.”

Yep. I will savor the landscape’s openness through fall’s brilliant blaze and through winter’s snowy silence.

Come spring thaw, however, my unrepentant self and I will be right back at all the local garden centers. In all likelihood, I will do it all over again unless I somehow discover that sweet spot, somewhere between less is a bore and less is more.

 Piecing Together the Pieces of a Tale.

What matters even more is that a Southern woman’s generosity in the face of her own starvation—“You can have the honey, but please, please don’t break my jar”—ricochets through the ages together with the Union soldiers’ noble act of harming neither the old woman nor her treasured wedding jar.

In Remembrance of Mary “Polly” Conner Slaughter (August 17, 1806-April 10, 1891)

1.  Relic, n. [1] Something kept as a remembrance, souvenir, or memorial; a historical object relating to a particular person, place, or thing; a memento.

-“Luther’s…apartment…contains his portrait, bible, and other relics.”

Piecing together the pieces of a tale is never easy. Like shards from a broken vessel, the pieces are rough edged and resist coming together again. Yet, with loving care, a craftsman can piece together the pieces, yielding—once again and for all eternity—remembrances of that which was.

May the piecing of these pieces bring forth such a tale.

2.  Marriage, n. The action, or an act, of getting married; the procedure by which two people become husband and wife.

–“Euery Minister shall keepe a faithful…Record…of all Christnings, Marriages, and deaths.”   

On Thursday, August 11, 1825, Mary “Polly” Conner (daughter of John David “Daniel” Conner and Lucy Fox Robertson) married Martin Slaughter (son of John Slaughter and Mary Handy). They exchanged vows at home in Elamsville, Patrick County, Virginia. Mary was eighteen, just a week shy of nineteen. Martin was twenty-three, just a few weeks shy of twenty-four. Mary’s father, an elder in the Primitive Baptist Church, gave surety, he performed the marriage ceremony, and he filed the minister’s return.

The marriage license and the return survive.

3.  Infare, n. A feast or entertainment given on entering a new house; esp. at the reception of a bride in her new home.

―“The day after the wedding is the infare … the company is less numerous, and the dinner is commonly the scraps that were left at the wedding-feast.”

The next day, Polly and Martin had their infare. It is not known who attended. Polly and Martin were country people: she, a housewife; he, a farmer and later a minister. What is known is that Polly wore a special infare dress on that Friday reception in their new home. It was dark brown muslin, with an empire waist. Richly patterned in small bright red and orange oak leaves with tan acorns, it was perfect for a heavy-harvest reception.  From the high neckline down to the waist were small black, ivory buttons. At the end of the long sleeves, the same. The dress shows Polly to have been tall, full bosomed, and thin waisted.

The infare dress survives.

4.  Jar, n. A vessel of earthenware, stoneware, or glass, without spout or handle (or having two handles), usually more or less cylindrical in form. Orig. used only in its eastern sense of a large earthen vessel for holding water, oil, wine, etc.

―“At the dore there is a great iarre of water, with a…Ladle in it, and there they wash their feete.”

Also surviving is one marriage gift: a five-gallon stoneware jar, ovoid in shape, with two side “pocket” handles just below the rim. The handwritten note taped to the bottom of the jar authenticates the occasion. The jar itself also confirms the time period. Its thick, rolled rim and its cobalt-glazing are typical of such jars made between 1750 and 1820, more likely closer to 1820. The jar itself weighs twenty-seven pounds. When filled with water, it weighs seventy-five pounds.

The jar survives.

5.  Civil War, n. War between the citizens or inhabitants of a single country, state, or community.

―“The Civil War and Reconstruction represent … an attempt on the part of the Yankee to achieve by force what he had failed to achieve by political means.”

 According to the Federal Census taken on August 1, 1860, Martin Slaughter was 57; Polly, 53. They had four children living with them at home: Judith D., age 25, Martha Jane, age 16; Lavina, age 13; and Dicie Laroma, age 9. (They had six other children, no longer living at home, and thus, not enumerated on the Census: a son, John W. and five daughters: Mary Elizabeth, Lucinda Lucy, Emilia Ann “Millie”, Nina, and Rosina Lee.) Their real estate was listed with a value of $1,300 (equivalent to $456,300, using today’s economic status calculator) and their personal property was valued at $3,000 (equivalent to $1,053,000, again using today’s economic status calculator). According to family lore, “Martin Slaughter gave each of his daughters at the time of their marriage $800 in gold and a fine horse. His wealth was in gold coins, and it was thought his coins were buried near his spring when he died.” By the time of that census, Martin was a Primitive Baptist minister as well as a farmer.

The next year, 1861, the Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter, April 12-14. Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, becoming the seventh state to join the Confederate States of America.  On April 19, Company D (formerly the Lafayette Guard, Petersburg) enlisted in the 12th Virginia Infantry.  It reorganized on May 1, 1862, supplementing its roster with conscripts from Patrick County. John W. Slaughter (Martin and Polly’s son) enlisted and became one of Virginia’s 155,000 men who joined the Confederate Army. He fought in the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31 and June 1, Henrico County), and he fought in the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, Henrico County). On July 20, 1862, John died of pneumonia at a field hospital in Falling Creek, Chesterfield County, Virginia. 

John W. Slaughter joined the ranks of 624,511 soldiers (Confederate and Union combined) who did not survive.

As the Civil War continued, it could not hit Martin and Polly Slaughter any harder than it had hit them in death, but it could hit them—and other Virginians—closer and closer to home.  Because of Virginia’s strategic proximity to the north and because the state housed the Confederacy’s capital, Richmond, by 1864 major Union campaigns throughout the state with ongoing raids aimed at diminishing food and water supplies, left Virginians facing a level of famine they had never faced before.

Despite their economic status, Martin and Polly Slaughter were not spared from the food crisis. At one point during this period in the War, so the tale goes, Polly was at home alone, as Union soldiers approached. 

Did she hear the sound of thunderous horse?  A “hello” from the yard?  A knock at the door?  Did they enter her home? 

What look was in her eyes? Fear? Confidence? Defiance? How did the soldiers see her?  Old?  (She was 60.) Vulnerable? Motherly?

The Union troops demanded food. 

“We’ve no food left; we’ve no animals left; we’ve nothing left,” she told them. “Look all you want—there’s nothing here. All I have is a jar of honey in the spring house. You can have the honey, but please, please don’t break my jar.”

The troops advanced to the spring house and devoured the honey.

Did Polly watch as they went on their way?  Did she rush to the spring house to check on her jar?

Poignantly, it had been spared.

The jar survives.

6.  Gravestone, n. A stone placed over a grave, or at the entrance of a tomb; in later use also applied to an upright stone at the head or foot of a grave, bearing an inscription.

―“Cast the shadows of the gravestones on the silent graves.”

Martin Slaughter died on May 7, 1884, age 82, and was buried in the Slaughter family cemetery in Elamsville. He had carved his own soapstone grave marker:

Dear children and companion too I leave you all in God’s care. I hope we will meet in heaven above when parting and mourning is no more. Blessed are the dead that died in the Lord.

Polly died 7 years later on April 10, 1891, “Age 84Y, 7M, 24D”, and was buried beside her husband.

Their stones survive.

7.  Lineage, n. Lineal descent from an ancestor; ancestry, pedigree.

―“The quiet and lowly spirit of my mother’s humble lineage.”

One daughter born to Martin and Polly plays a pivotal role in this tale. Her name was Martha, and she married John H. Adams. Two children born to Martha and John play roles in this tale as well.  One daughter, Cora Belle Martha “Sweety” Delilah Adams, married Pierce Ulysses Witt; another daughter, Jo Ann Adams, married George Harbour. To Sweety and Pierce was born Bertha Pearl and to Jo Ann and George was born Clara.

As first cousins, Clara and Pearl were close and best friends until marriage and relocation separated them. After more than fifty years they were reunited when, in 1980, I took Bertha Pearl—my mother—back home to Patrick County, Virginia, to visit Clara. Although it was the first time that I had met my second cousin, it seemed that Clara and I had known one another forever.  For more than a decade thereafter, mom and I made annual pilgrimages “back home” to see Cousin Clara. Through listening to all the stories that kept the two of them up until the early hours of morning, the lineage that my mom had shared with me as a child took on a richness and a life that had been missing before.

It was during one of those visits that Clara told me the story of Mary “Polly” Conner Slaughter’s encounter with the Union soldiers who took her honey but spared her honey jar.  This was the moment when, in my mind, I helped Polly lift the jar filled with honey—far heavier than the 75 pounds if filled with water—and take it to the spring house.

It was during one of those visits that Clara opened up a brown paper bag and pulled out Polly Slaughter’s infare dress. This was the moment when I clasped the dress, I touched the muslin, saw the vivid red and orange leaves, and rubbed each and every button. This was the moment, even if fleeting, when I took her hand—her eyes level with mine at 5’ 8”—and danced around the room as I imagine she had danced with many of her guests at the feast she and Martin hosted after their marriage.

It was during one of those visits that Clara showed me the large charcoal-on-paper portrait of Polly Slaughter, still in its original frame though painted over with gold radiator paint.  This was the moment when I saw Polly’s penetrating eyes, saw the firm resolve in her face, and understood why the Union soldiers spared her jar.

It was during one of those visits—much later, when Clara was exceedingly ill and close to death—that I went to visit her alone and found more pieces to the tale.  I did not look forward to that visit, I was not certain whether she would be up for company, and I dreaded those awkward silences that punctuate conversations with the sick and dying. But I knew that I had to go to say goodbye. So, I took along some photographs of my Christmas tree from the holidays just ended.  Nearly touching the Cathedral ceiling, the tree was a gorgeous sight to behold, certain to prompt conversation.  And it did.

As Clara looked at one photograph in particular, one that offered up a closer view of my living room, she raised herself up in bed, saying to her daughter, “Why, Iris, looky here.  Brent’s got a whole navigation of crocks just like the one Great, Great Grandma Slaughter had.  You go find her crock and bring it on in here to show Brent.”

Iris came back in a few minutes, proudly holding a five-gallon stoneware crock. 

“Now, Brent,” Clara said in a low, weak voice, hardly above a whisper, “that’s the jar that Great, Great Grandma Slaughter got on her wedding day.  That’s the jar she always kept her honey in.  That’s the jar the Union soldiers spared.”

I was thrilled and flabbergasted at the same time. Thrilled, knowing that the honey jar still survived.  Flabbergasted, wondering why Clara had not shown me that honey jar during one of my many visits “back home” in search of relics.

8.  Mantel, n. A shelf formed by the projecting surface of a mantelpiece.

―“Above the mantle a painting by Gordon Smith…seemed full of an energy to break free.”

Clara died on November 28, 2000. Not long after, Iris called me and wanted to know what I thought Polly Slaughter’s honey jar was worth and whether I was interested in buying it.  I knew, of course, that it was a family relic of inestimable value, but as a collector of Virginia stoneware pottery, I knew, too, what the jar would fetch at auction. I offered Iris a more-than-fair market price, and she accepted.

The jar is ovoid in shape with “pocket” handles. Its base and rolled rim have the same diameter:  6 1/2 inches. It is 14 inches tall, and it is 10 ½ inches across the middle.

The jar is in my kitchen, resting securely on the mantel above the fireplace.

It continues to survive.

9.  Portrait, n. A drawing or painting of a person, often mounted and framed for display, esp. one of the face or head and shoulders.

―“Fixing his starting eyes upon a portrait of Dr. Enfield which hung over the chimney.”

When I bought the jar, Iris sweetened the deal by giving me the framed portrait of Polly Slaughter.  It measures 15 x 30 inches.  A restoration specialist removed the gold radiator paint, revealing the original ornate composition frame of plaster, wood, and gold leaf.

The charcoal-on-paper portrait is head and shoulders. Polly looks to be around 60 or so. No doubt she sat for it just after the Civil War ended. Her hair is parted in the middle. Whether it is pulled back into a bun cannot be determined because her head is covered by an indoor, ruffle-edged bonnet, tied beneath her chin. Her dress has a small plaid pattern with a high neckline and lace collar. She’s wearing a solid black cape, typical of the period.

Her eyes penetrate, watch, follow all around the room wherever I go, and, I like to think, protect.

It seemed fitting that I hang Polly’s portrait above the mantel, just above the jar that she owned. There, she stands guard over the jar that she so treasured from the day of her marriage, all through the Civil War, and all the way until her death.      

10.  Survival, n. Something that continues to exist after the cessation of something else, or of other things of the kind; a surviving remnant.

–“What are they But names for that which has no name, Survivals of a vanished day?”

The survival of the portrait alone does not matter. Without the tale, it’s just one more family portrait that can be found in any antique shop. The survival of the infare dress alone does not matter. Without the tale, it’s just a rag in a brown paper sack. The survival of the honey jar alone does not matter. Without the tale, it’s like one of many that can be found throughout Virginia and the South.

What matters are the women who held in trust Polly’s jar, her dress, her portrait, and her tale and passed them on for generation after generation after generation.

What matters is the woman who posed for that portrait. What matters is the woman who wore that dress. What matters is the woman who owned that jar.

What matters even more is that a Southern woman’s generosity in the face of her own starvation—“You can have the honey, but please, please don’t break my jar”—ricochets through the ages together with the Union soldiers’ noble act of harming neither the old woman nor her treasured wedding jar.

What matters is piecing together the pieces of a tale. 


[1] Throughout this tale, the word definitions along with quotations supporting the definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Why an Education Matters | The Softer Side.

“If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac)

This week I’m thinking about education, far more than usual. The reason is simple. Exactly one week from today, I’ll be meeting a new group of community college students who have decided wisely that getting an education is their best move. With them, I’ll be standing on the brink of now and the future. It’s a new beginning for me and a new beginning for them.

As an educator, my role is to provide students with the knowledge base they need in English, especially American Literature, Appalachian Literature, and Creative Writing.

Aside from equipping them with the needed knowledge base, my goal is to turn them on.

“Turn students on to English? No way!”

“When pigs fly,” someone else squealed.

I understand. I have understood since I started teaching. From the first day that I enter a classroom at the start of a brand-new semester, mine is an uphill battle. But that’s perfectly all right. I love challenges. I have every confidence in the world that by the end of the semester my students will see that language and literature can help them discover their own worlds and the worlds around them. I have every confidence in the world that by the end of the semester my students will see that language and literature matter. “He can inspire a rock to write,” wrote one student in my early teaching career at Laurel Ridge Community College.

Nonetheless, I am aware that I may not have one student who is majoring in English. So, while I am passionate about language and literature and while I know that I can turn my students on to those subjects, I feel an equal responsibility to be passionate about education. I want my students to believe that education–their education–matters.

Sometimes getting them to believe that is an even greater challenge than turning them on to English.

I have to meet that challenge, too, right from the start, because I know that the community college graduation rate nationwide is about 62%.

I celebrate the students who make up that percentage. And I celebrate the 30% of community college students nationwide who transfer to four-year colleges and universities.

Yet, while celebrating all those students, I want to do my best to reach out to the others who might not be part of the 62% graduation rate or the 30% transfer rate unless I convince them that an education–their education–matters.

Why an education matters is abundantly clear to those of us who are educated. Career options. Job security. Expanded earnings. Networking. Professional connections. Increased happiness. Friendships. Better health. Even longevity.

I could include statistics to support those claims. I won’t. Candidly, they don’t do much for me.

And, candidly, when I talk about the practical benefits of an education–and I do–eyes glaze over and my students search for imaginary exits, especially when I start bringing in statistics to support my claims.

On the other hand, when I switch my focus to the softer side of why an education matters–the side that allows me to be personal and passionate–vision returns to glazed eyes and students return to the classroom that they just fancifully exited.

Sometimes–actually almost always–I’ll start the soft-side conversation by asking my students how many of them are the first in their family to go to college.

Usually about one third of their hands go up–a response that’s consistent with national data for community college students.

They seem to take notice when I tell them that I am a first-generation college student, too. They really take notice when I share some personal information about me. Son of a West Virginia coal miner and his wife, a Pilgrim Holiness minister. Grew up with three books in my home—the King James Bible, Webster’s Dictionary, and Sears Roebuck Catalog. Made it to the halls of the Library of Congress, which for 25 years became my home, with more than 20 million books. Then to the halls of Laurel Ridge Community College which for the last 23 years has been my home, where I’ve taught more than 7,000 students. Without being boastful, I want them to hear and see firsthand how an education transformed my life. I want to convince them that an education will transform their lives, too.

They get turned on more when I tell them that with an education they can go anywhere because they will be experts in their field. These days, I seem to have more and more students in health sciences, so I make a point of emphasizing that they can go wherever their credentials are recognized. Their eyes light up when I talk about the option of being a traveling nurse or a traveling surgical technologist. Their eyes really light up when I talk about the bonuses and salary increases that go hand in hand with adventuresome, free travel.

I remind them as well that an education empowers them to become their own knowledge navigators. I share with them what Robert Frost once wrote: “We go to college to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven’t learned in High School. Once we have learned to read the rest can be trusted to add itself unto us” (“Poetry and School,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 1951). Frost, of course, is talking about developing critical reading skills and critical thinking skills, both at the heart of all education.

Or perhaps I help them understand that an education matters because books matter. Emily Dickinson says it best: “There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away.”

Some days I emphasize that an education matters because it emboldens you to follow your passion. I share with them my own undergraduate struggles as English, Pre-Law, and Pre-Med messed around with my head. One day, after switching majors several times, I allowed my passion to take hold of my heart. From that point forward, English prevailed.

Or what about the notion that an education enables us to be anchored and hopeful amidst the storms of life that are certain to come our way? I’m thinking again about Robert Frost and his poem “One Step Backward Taken.” The speaker in the poem is shaken by a universal crisis, “But with one step backward taken / I saved myself from going. / A world torn loose went by me. / Then the rain stopped and the blowing, / And the sun came out to dry me.”

And how about this one that I like to use when students wonder whether an education is worth the cost, especially as their student loans grow larger and larger. I remind them that an education is one of their best investments. No one can take it away, ever. Perhaps even better is the way that the investment keeps on growing through lifelong learning.

Those are just a few of the “soft” reasons why an education matters to me. They are the ones that are on my mind this week as I anticipate next week’s new beginnings.

There’s one more, though, that’s always on my mind. It’s the University of South Carolina’s motto surrounding the seal on my doctoral class ring. It’s a quote from Ovid, “Emollit Mores Nec Sinit Esse Feros,” which translates to “Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel.”

Ten Guaranteed Tips to Increase Blog Traffic | Top-Rated and 100% Unproven!

How far that little candle throws his beams!

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Act 5. Scene 1)

Without a doubt, you will recall my post from several weeks ago: “Take Four | Living with a Writer: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts.”

It was characterized as “destined for fame … for greatness … for glory … the most historic and historical blog post ever published.”

It received rave reviews:

“Hilarious!”

“Hysterical. I would have laughed harder if I hadn’t been so horrified at your undertaking.”

“This is one of your most entertaining, funniest posts, and I thank you for … sharing it with the world.”

And it was LIKED by a comedian and a college president–two entirely different people, with two entirely different occupations, although the college president knows that humor is a close ally to successful and dynamic leadership.

All right. In the interest of partial disclosure and full but muddy transparency, I’m the one who characterized my post as “destined for fame … for greatness … for glory … the most historic and historical blog post ever published.”

And it was just one faithful follower who called it hilarious.

And it was just one faithful follower who called it hysterical.

And it was just one faithful follower who said that it was my most entertaining and funniest post.

But I believe in the power of one. If it’s good enough for a bank, I suppose it’s good enough for me, especially cents that bank does not have one cent of my money.

The good thing, however, is that those three rave reviews came from three entirely different followers with three entirely different occupations.

But enough of my noncents. I will, post mortem, return to my serious side instanter.

A stand-up comedian really did LIKE that post. Thank you! Please: feel free to sit down. (And, just as an aside to the stand-up comedian: I’m giving up my 25-year teaching gig at the end of this coming fall season. Do you need a jokester–I mean a writer? You know. Just hinting.)

And a college president really did LIKE that post. Thank you! Please: feel free to preside. (And just as an aside to the college president: I’m giving up my 25-year teaching gig–I mean professorship–at the end of this coming fall season–I mean semester. Do you need a Visiting Professor? A Visiting Scholar. Both? I’m good at wearing two hats at the same time as long as they don’t mess up my hair. You know. Just hinting.)

And again, just as an aside to the comedian and to the prez–who must be reading this post, right? I mean, you just don’t LIKE ’em and then leave ’em, do you?–it’s not like I’m desperate or anything, because, hey, I’ve got this blog, and after today’s unviral post, I’ll have talent scouts unlined up my ungraveled, rutted country road all the way to my no-parking space in the uncleared forest, assuming, of course, the scouts have four-wheel drive. Good talent these days is not easy to get to.

And let me not forget to mention what one other faithful follower advised me to do: “Perhaps you shouldn’t discard the legal pad and #2 pencil. …  To help your nightly challenges of writing in this manner, I can offer you … a backlit pen.

Well, as you know from many previous posts, I listen to my followers. So I immediately ordered myself two backlit pens from Amazon. You can get anything these days from Amazon, yesterday. Someone told me day before yesterday that I could even get a husband from Amazon, as soon as tomorrow or three days before. Dayum! Imagine that. I checked immediately. Unfortunately, Amazonian husbands are backordered. Unfortunately, too, they are not backlit.

My pens, on the other hand, were not back ordered, and they are backlit. They arrived just when I started writing this post, so what you see here was written in bed at night on a yellow legal pad that isn’t legal, using a pen that is legally lit.

Wow! Using this pen to write in bed in the dark is amazing. I am transfixed if not transformed. If I had known about these backlit pens decades ago before they had never been invented, by now I would have written the Great American Novel that has never been written. Or not. I’ll be dealing with that topic in a future post.

But I can’t deal with any of that right now. Right now, I am so enamored of this little backlit pen that all I can think about are little light quotes. Most are from songs, so I’m humming–can you hear me? Let me give you the links (below, in unalphabetical order) in case you want to hum along or sing along. It’s a FREE perk for being a FREEloader–I mean follower! Get someone else to follow, and I’ll let you hum along or sing along forever, for FREE.

“This Little Light of Mine.”

“Glow Little Glow Worm, Glimmer, Glimmer.”

“How far that little candle throws his beam.” (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice. Act 5. Scene 1)

“Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.

Light My Fire.”

“A light unto the world.” (John 12:46)

Well, good grief. Why on earth did Euterpe muse me up like that? Your guess is as good as mine.

So let me hie myself back to the business at hand–sharing with you my ten guaranteed tips to increase blog traffic, top-rated and 100% unproven. Is that a deal or what? But before I do, don’t you just love that word: hie. I do. I love verbs and verbiage. (But I shudder to think about conjugating hie.) Anyway, I love that word. I’m not sure why. Maybe I saw it somewhere once, probably in a romance novel that I never read. Clearly, then, I have no idea who was doing what to whom in the novel that I did not read. I don’t think that anyone in the novel uttered the word either. But I happened to think of it just now, and I thought that it would be an awful lot of fun for me to use it right here. Now I feel funfilled.

Well, gracious me. Now I have to hie myself back once more. I guess all this is going down because my muse likes the fact that my pen is lit. That’s right: my pen.

As I was saying, the initial accolades calling my post historic and historical and the initial reviews hailing it as hysterical and hilarious and entertaining and funny got me all pumped up and gave me great expectations that my viewer stats would jump off the charts.

I had such high hopes, especially since the views on the day that I published the post were 555% higher than the day before. Talk about being pumped. I was beyond pumped. I had such heightened expectations that I set my alarm clock to awaken me hourly throughout the night for the sole purpose of watching my stats skyrocket.

Sadly, nothing skyrocketed. Nothing. Not one thing. Except my blood pressure and my stress from waking up every hour to check on my stats. My blog stats, mind you. I don’t need to check my personal stats. My Fitbit does that for me without even asking. And let me tell you: my personal stats dropped big time, especially my sleep score and my readiness to exercise score.

They were so low that I vowed that I would never do such a wired stunt again. I doubled my vow–Never, Never–when I charted my blog stats over the course of the next few days. It goes without saying that you can’t increase your blog traffic unless you chart it. Right?

So that’s precisely what I did on a flip chart–using royal blue and royal purple magic markers–to capture how the traffic plummeted. Those lines went so low that they fell all the way down to the floor where I continued to chart them all the way across the room.

When I finished the chart, I taped the unfloored part of it to my office wall–I write my blog in bed; I chart it in my office–and since then I have been waiting ever so patiently for my blog traffic to increase. It should. Right? I just charted it, and as I said in the preceding paragraph–or somewhere–you can’t increase your blog traffic if you don’t chart it.

And if you don’t believe me, you surely believe Kevin Costner. Who doesn’t? I know that I sure do, so much so that emblazoned on my chest–not too unlike Hester’s scarlet letter A–is the famous line from his Field of Dreams: “If you chart it, they will come.”

Now, listen up. Without further adieu–you wish, but not yet!–I am proud to share the ten hollow tips that lured you here, just like a moth lured to a flame. Yep. Ten tips. Guaranteed to increase your blog traffic. Top rated. 100% unproven. Trust me. They are unreal doozies.

Tip #1. AERIAL ADVERTISING. I cannot guarantee that this would work for you, but I am fairly uncertain that it would work for me because my mind is always up in the air. Why not skywrite my blog URL up there, too, maybe all up and down the California coastline where folks are more unwired than they are on the East Coast.

Tip #2. BILLBOARDS. Again, this might not give you more blog traffic at all. But, after I float down from my aerial habitation and walk once more upon terra unfirma, I am fairly certain that billboard advertising will be worth the cost. I plan to keep it short and simple, the same way that I keep my weekly blog posts short and simple.

I’m thinking something along the lines of:

Feeling WIRED???

Me, too. I’m here to help! Check out: thewiredresearcher.com

FREE Lifeline Subscription

Tip #3. DOLLAR BILL PROMOS. This tip would probably work for everybody, but only the bold and courageous should try it. Actually, it’s been around for years. I’ll bet you’ve seen one: a dollar bill with a Biblical reference written on it? Maybe even a phone number–call me? What I’m thinking is simple: Write your blog URL on the edge of a dollar bill. A dollar bill changes hands about 110 times a year. Wow! Write your blog URL on the edge of lots and lots of dollar bills and see how your blog traffic increases. I wonder, though, whether your increased blog traffic will be following you directly to jail. If I am not mistaken, writing on money is considered defacement under Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code. Blogger beware!  

Tip #4. BUSINESS CARDS. These can’t be just any business cards. They need to be all glamour and glitz and gimmick. Maybe something like: Limited time only. FREE Access to a blog destined to be featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the defunct Saturday Evening PostTrue Grit, and the 1931 first edition of The Joy of Cooking. But it won’t be enough to just have those cards printed. You’ll need to find someone to hand them out. In my case, my Linden (VA) and Front Royal (VA) correspondent–Yes. No s. She’s one and the same person–has been given the right of refusal to pass them out at all the unlarge stores in our unmetropolitan area as well as at the five churches located at each corner of a four-cornered crossroads in one of our unknown villages near us both.

Tip #5. FOOD TRUCK. This one seems perfect for me since I like to bake. You might get a rise out of it as well. I’m thinking about renting a food truck for a few weeks and customizing it, using temporary paint. A pale tan, maybe, about the color of lightly browned, crusty bread. With a slight stretch of anyone’s doughy imagination, the food truck might look like a loaf of bread. And for those who don’t have a doughy imagination to stretch, I plan to paint on one side of the truck, Oh, No! Sourdough. And on the other side, Baking Up My Past. On both sides, of course, I’ll paint my blog’s URL. I’ll offer up my full range of sourdough baked goods–regular sourdough bread, multigrain sourdough bread, as well as parmesan and black pepper sourdough bread, along with doughnuts, scones, biscuits, and dinner rolls. I’ll also offer up my full range of cakes including, but not limited to, my Chocolate Weary Willie Cake and my Chocolate Prune Cake. But here’s where the sweet part comes in. On both sides of the truck, FREE will be prominently lettered. Yep! Anyone who stops, gets one of my goodies FREE, with absolutely no wires attached–absolutely none, not one–other than signing up as one of my blog followers right then and right there on the spot while I watch. If this works, I promise to keep the FREE in subscription. (“Say whaaat? Are you lit?” Nope. See Tip #1.)

Tip #6. CHAIN EMAIL. Chain emails go all the way back to ye olden days of 1990. They waned but then returned with a boring resurgence during the pandemic. Their predecessor, of course, was the famed, infamous, and ancient artifact known as the litterae. Chain letters go all the way back to the 1930s when people included a dime in their chain letters. Later, they included recipes. And one of my Virtually (Anywhere) but nonetheless trustworthy correspondents tells me that chain emails these days often focus on sourdough starters and that she is certain that she unraveled the original Egyptian sourdough starter recipe cryptically hieroglyphed in the soon-to-be-famous post Oh, No! Sourdough. Well, to be honest and to be as transparent as the windowpane test that dough must pass, I’m not sure how a chain email could be used to promote blog traffic. I’m told, though, that chain emails are “Unstoppable.” If you figure it out, come back to my blog and send me a reply. Ka-stats, ka-stats, ka-stats!

Tip #7. CHALK WALK. I like this one a lot. It’s so cheap that it’s nearly FREE. Plus, it brings out the kid in me. Chalk my blog’s URL on sidewalks, using glow-in-the-dark chalk. It would bring an unsensational light unto an unliterary world. (I’m just kidding.)

Tip #8. CUSTOM BUMPER STICKERS. I am probably the only one alive who remembers this. But maybe not, so I will ask.  Do you remember the streaking craze that struck the nation in the 1970s? I’m reminiscing about one super special, balmy spring evening in 1975. I had a hard time keeping up with the others–1,000 or so, all of us students–streaking our their stuff across the USC campus. It’s a wonder that I didn’t get trampled or worse. The best part came a few days later. It was hilarious to see genteel Southern ladies and gentlemen in their 70s and 80s driving around Columbia, totally unaware that a “I’m a Streak Freak” sticker had been proudly stuck on their rear

bumpers.

I’ve often wondered how they got there. (I probably still have one of those stickers somewhere in my loft.) Mind you: I’m not suggesting a streaking revival, but bumper stickers promoting a wired blog would certainly stop some traffic. (Hopefully, not the traffic headed to your blog.)

Tip #9. PENCILS PACKAGED WITH YELLOW LEGAL PADS. This is another one that would be perfect for me. I could go to all the bookstores at the colleges and universities where I don’t teach and hand out #2 pencils embossed with my blog’s URL packaged with a yellow legal pad, referencing my Take Four | Living with A Writer: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts, destined to go down in the annals of history as the most historic and historical blog post ever published, all because it was written in bed on a yellow legal pad using a #2 pencil.

Tip #10. DO NOT SEARCH FOR GUARANTEED WAYS TO INCREASE BLOG TRAFFIC. This is the most important tip of all. That’s why I saved it for last. Articles claiming to have ten guaranteed, top-rated but 100% unproven tips for increasing blog traffic are nothing more than bogus attempts to increase traffic to their own blog. Such hyped-up, sensational articles seem to be the unnormal norm these days. Don’t look for them, and, for God’s sake, if you do look for them, don’t tell anyone that you looked. Such articles lack the unmuddy transparency needed to be included in Wikipedia.

Please, though, finish reading this post before you wisely decide to follow my advice.

And–please, please–if you enjoyed this post, send the link to seven of your unfriends and ask them to do the same, starting with you at the top.

And–pretty, pretty please–if you enjoyed this post, share it via WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, Email, and Reblog. And, for God’s sake, LIKE it. (I’m Beggin’.)

Go now with heartfelt thanks from the bottom of my blog. May the traffic be with you.

The Story of Angel Falls

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

from “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

This is a story about a weeping pine.

But it’s not just any story. It can’t be just any story, because this isn’t just any weeping pine.

This weeping pine is a special weeping pine. It’s one of a kind. It’s unique.

I bought it about four months ago. Actually, I bought it on March 17. In case you’re wondering why I remember the exact date, here’s why. It was my late partner’s birthday.

I had not planned to buy anything that day. I was just browsing the local nursery’s new arrival of plants, mainly West Coast conifers.

As I walked past one conifer, it looked like a stunning, younger version of a stately, older weeping pine right outside my kitchen door. “Gorgeous!” I thought. “But no need for another one.”

At about the same time, the manager walked past and saw me looking. Lingering. Pondering. Wondering.

“You don’t want to miss out on this one, Dr. Kendrick. It’s super special. We only have two, and they’ll go fast.”

I’ve known John since he was a youngster, when his dad owned the nursery, and I trust him just as implicitly as I trust his dad.

“Oh, yeah?” I teased. “What makes it so special?”

John started telling me all the details, reassuring me that it’s mature size would be perfect for the small area where he knew that I wanted a unique conifer.

I leaned in close to take a closer look at the tag, and as soon as I saw the name–Angel Falls–I knew that this tree was going home with me. It had to go home with me. Aside from being Allen’s birthday, I had written a blog post about him two months earlier, “Honoring an Angel.” But this story is not about Allen. This story is about a special weeping pine.

I had an immediate plan. This tree would become one more focal point in the garden that I had designed for Allen. But, again, this story is not about him. This story is about a special weeping pine.

I had just one concern. Even though the tree was small–no more than three feet tall–it was in a large tub, the size, perhaps, of a bushel basket. I knew that John would help load the tree into my Jeep, but could I manage to unload it alone?

I decided to figure out the logistics after I got the weeping pine home.

And figure it out I did. I stacked bags of mulch below my Jeep’s lowered tailgate. I slid the tubbed weeping pine onto the top bag, and, then I continued stepping it down onto the ground.

From that point forward, I knew that dragging it downhill to its intended destination would be as easy as stepping into the future.

And, for a second, I stepped off the sharp edge of now into the softened expanse of tomorrow. I stood there–looking beyond the spot where I would plant the weeping pine–gazing ahead into years, each stretching beyond the next, further and further and further into the memory of forever.

And there it stood, as majestic and as grand and as unique as I ever dreamt or hoped that it would become: days, months, seasons and years melting into fluid time.

Then, suddenly, a March wind blew me back to my present reality, and I pushed the tub right beside the spot where, tomorrow, I would dig the hole that would become forever to my Angel Falls weeping pine.

The next day, I did the early, chilly morning needful. I dug the hole. I measured it precisely, making certain that it was the perfect width and depth. I added loam to loosen and enrich the soil. And I had my water hose at the ready to give a good soaking once the weeping pine was in place. I wanted to make certain that I did everything within my power to get the weeping pine off to the right start.

Then I locked the unsheathed blade of my utility knife and cut the sides of the tub so that I could free the weeping pine and anchor it to its new earth home.

The heave-ho that I gave was far more than needed. I found myself standing there with the weeping pine mid-air, with little more than a 5-pound ball of clay securing the roots of its foundation, the roots of its future, the roots of my hopes.

Where was the balled and burlapped bundle that I had always seen before whenever I gave a heave-ho to lift a tree from its tub? Where were the tender, wondrous roots pushing through the burlap? Where were the reassuring signs of life?

As I stood there, decades of gardening whispered to me, telling me to take this one of a kind, unique weeping pine back to the nursery and get a refund. The root ball was wrong. All wrong.

But I had dug the hole. I had freed the weeping pine from its tub. And I really wanted that tree in that spot. Now. Forever.

I sighed a sigh of hope, and I planted it. Now it was mine. All the worry about its well-being. All the responsibility of taking care of it. Today. Tomorrow. Beyond. Mine. All mine.

Nonetheless, I was so convinced that my weeping pine was a loser that I stopped by the nursery the next day and told John all about my experience and my misgivings. He was more optimistic than I, but he agreed to put my name on the second weeping pine as a replacement, just in case.

When I drove back home, I stopped beside my weeping pine. It looked stunning with its twisting, green-needled, falling branches contrasted against the fresh mulch.

As I looked, I wondered whether my morning assessment had been too harsh. I wondered whether my morning  conversation with John had been too direct. I wondered whether I had been too stern.

Confident that my assessment was correct and my conversation on target, I drove a little further up the hill and turned left into the driveway.

March melted slowly into April. Every day I visited my weeping pine. I was so proud. I wondered whether my neighbors admired it, too, as they drove past daily.

No one had said a word. Not one neighbor. Not one word. Finally, I asked one neighbor what he thought.

“You just planted it? You’re joking. I thought that it had been there all along.”

I thanked him for what I took to be a compliment. It was a compliment in my mind, because I like my garden plants to look as if they are growing in forever.

It was too early in the season for me to see new growth. But even so it was now my responsibility to water my weeping pine weekly during times with no rain or no snow.  And that’s just what I did.

By mid-May, my world was a mountaintop of spring growth and spring blossoms. Bleeding hearts. Clematis. Daffodils. Dogwood. Peonies.

More important, all of my specimen evergreens were putting out new-growth candles, especially my white pine outside my kitchen door: candles six inches long, if not longer.

Sadly, my Angel Falls looked exactly as it looked the day that I planted it.

“Well,” I thought, “at least its needles are still green.”

I checked, every day, attentively. It became my routine.

By the start of June, something started happening: yellowing, browning needles appeared on the lowest branches of my weeping pine.

Armed with a cell-phone photo, I stopped at the nursery the next day to show John the death that I was living.

He grimaced. “Not good.”

“Yeah. I know. Maybe I should go ahead and replace it with the one you’re holding?”

“Hmmm. Not yet. Try cutting off the dead branches and wait two weeks.”

My weeping pine looked better with the dead branches removed. Actually, it looked rather healthy once again. I was cautiously hopeful.

One of my neighbors agreed, reminding me that my weeping pine was probably in shock just from being transplanted from the West Coast to here.

“But you know,” he said, “It’s gonna do what it’s gonna do. It will all work out the way it’s supposed to work out. That’s how life is.”

Two weeks later, more branches had died.

Armed with more photos, I went back to the nursery.

“Should I give it some fertilizer?”

“That would just stress it more. It’s probably a goner, but let’s wait a couple more weeks, just to see.”

I had never lost a tree before in all my years of gardening. I kept replaying everything that I had done since planting my weeping pine. I couldn’t help but wonder whether what was happening was my fault. What had I done wrong? What could I have done better?

When I weeded the garden where I had given my weeping pine a home, I talked to it, encouragingly and out loud, especially as I sadly cut off more and more branches.

When neighbors walked past, I lowered my voice, hoping that they would lower theirs. I didn’t want my weeping pine to hear them as they bluntly asked whether I had noticed that it was dead. Dead. That’s exactly what they said. I was shocked.

“I’m not so sure. It’s still trying. It’s a fighter. You’ll see.” I know how to put up a front when I need one.

My weeping pine kept fighting, all the while that its branches kept dying.

“How long do I hold on?” I pondered.

Two more weeks passed. My weeping pine was an embarrassment, to me and to neighbors who, by then, didn’t know what to say. Sometimes, saying nothing is the best thing to say.

I resolved to take one final photo, show it to John, and drive back home with the replacement weeping pine.

The next morning, when I got up close to my weeping pine, I witnessed a few short candles, no longer than an inch. Not many, but enough to make me believe that my weeping pine was alive, that it really was fighting. I zoomed in really close on those candles, determined to capture their bright green.

“Dr. Kendrick, you’re holding on to false hope. Let’s get that replacement loaded into your …”

“But look!” I took my fingers and stretched the image as far as John was certain that I had stretched my hopes. “Look at how green those candles are. See? Look. Right here.”

“All right. If you insist. Maybe give it another couple of weeks.”

Every day, I visited my weeping pine, witnessing more and more green candles of life in the midst of more and more brown needles of death.

A little more than a week after that, I was ecstatic when I made my daily visit and discovered that all the green candles all over my weeping pine had unfurled into short, stubby, vibrantly green needles. At this point, my weeping pine was certainly not much of a specimen. In fact, it was just a shadow of what it had been. But it was a livng witness to life’s fierce determination to keep on holding on, against all odds.

By then it was near the end of July. One morning, I stopped by the nursery just to check out their inventory.

John approached and inquired about my weeping pine.

I beamed as I shared the recent turn of events. Beam begets beam.

“Here’s the deal, John. Go ahead and sell the replacement pine that you’ve been holding for me.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m absolutely certain.”

“Okay. I will. One thing’s for sure. If your weeping pine doesn’t make it after all this, at least you have a story.”

“You bet,” I thought, as I walked away. “It’s a story of survival.”

Gr!t ’R Done!

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

Confucius, The Analects

Needless to say, I need not even ask what I am about to ask. But I will ask it anyway.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

“Who? Me?” I just heard someone ask.

Yes. You. Maybe. But let’s edge our way in to this just a little more before you decide, lest you decide too hastily.

I’m not talking about the way you feel when that last straw is headed right toward you, and you know fully well that it’s the one that will break your proverbial camel’s back.

If that’s the mell of a hess you’re grappling with, I’m really sorry for your streak of bad luck.

The overwhelmed that I have in mind is when you have a mountain smackdab in front of you. It’s ginormous. And you have to move it, and you have no idea how you will ever get it done.

Maybe, in reality, it’s nothing more than a mole hill. But perceptions are perceptions. If that mole hill is a mountain to you, then it is indeed your mountain.

Aren’t we masterful at turning our mole hills into mountains?

I am. You are. We all are.

And, at the same time, let’s acknowledge that all of us face real life mountains, too, that we have to move.

It’s when we’re facing our mountains–the real ones and the mole hills that we have turned into mountains–that we feel overwhelmed. That’s when we sigh or cry or moan or groan because at that moment we just don’t see how we will ever move that mole hill. We just don’t see how we will ever move that mountain. We just don’t see how we will ever get it done.

To feel overwhelmed before the mountains of life–real or overblown–is to be human.

This week, I’m feeling superhuman. Overwhelmed is on my mind a lot: it’s the next to the last week before my summer classes end. Also, overwhelmed is on my students’ minds a lot this week: they have reading assignments and a final discussion board forum this week and a final reflection essay next week.

(A word to educators who would be wise: abandon those ridiculous final exams. Replace them with meaningful final reflection essays. Reach out to me using Contact, and I will share proven strategies that have worked for me during the last four years.)

My apologies for that digressory jab at defunct final exam practices that continue to plague the hallowed ivory halls of learning. I couldn’t help myself.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. My students are feeling overwhelmed by end-of-semester assignments and by final reflection essays.

Guess what?

I am, too. It’s a mountain of work right in front of me, so close that I can smell the virtual submissions, so close that I can hardly breathe. And I have to get it done.

Let me define the preceding “it.” I have to grade all of that student work that’s closing in on me and smothering me, because I have to submit final grades two days after those final reflection essays are submitted. My mountain seems even larger.

Oh. Yes. I understand how it feels to feel overwhelmed.

I know, too, that my students always feel overwhelmed at the beginning of the semester. They have so much to do before the end.

I do, too. I’m their learning coach. I’m their learning cheerleader. I’m there to help them move those mole hills. I’m there to help them move those mountains. I’m there to help them get it done.

I always suggest some strategies that they can use to see themselves through to the successful conclusion that they hope to enjoy and that they can enjoy if they work at it.

Ironically, the strategies are always the same whether it’s the beginning, or, as it is now, the end.

Ironically, the same strategies work for me, at my beginnings and my endings.

Ironically, the strategies will work for you, at your beginnings and your endings.

Following these strategies can help all of us–me, my students, and you–feel less overwhelmed as we tackle our mole hills and our mountains.

A good place to start is by realistically measuring our grit. Please tell me that you know about grit. You do, right? Sometimes I have to explain it to my students, so let me explain it here for everyone’s benefit.

And yes: after the explanation, you will have a quiz! Don’t worry. (1) It’s optional. (2) Anyone who takes the quiz will pass.

Grit has nothing to do with IQ. It has nothing to do with talent. It has nothing to do with luck. It has everything to do with your willingness to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work always required to achieve any goal, usually a long-term goal, but it applies as well to short term goals. Grit is all about perseverance and passion.

I have always known about grit, but Angela Duckworth is the one who turned me on to the power and awesomeness of grit. She has turned lots of folks on to it, too, and when you get turned on to grit, get ready to get it done, whatever you need to get done.

I start my semesters by having my students take Duckworth’s 10-question Grit Quiz. Why don’t you take it, right now? Hot Tip: Be honest. No need to fool yourself! Not now. Not ever.

After my students find out how gritty they are, I invite them to share their grit score with the class if they wish. I am always amazed by the fruitful and honest conversations that follow. I just heard someone whisper, “What’s your grit score?” Thank you, but no need to whisper. I’m proud of it. I scored a 5. Did you hear me? Let me shout it again. I’m a 5. I’m as gritty as they grit. My grit is awesome. When I start it–whatever the “it” is–I’m going to stick with it until I get it done. Count on it.

After our class discussion of grittiness goes wherever it goes–and wherever it goes is always exactly where it ought to go: learning is always spontaneous, and spontaneity is always all right with me–I get my students hooked on Duckworth’s TED Talk: “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” It’s powerful. It’s motivational. It makes you want to get down and get gritty. Go ahead. Watch it. It’s had 26,997,225 views. With any luck, this post might take it up to 27 million views! So come on! Let’s gr!t ‘r done.

As my students and I get deeper and deeper into the semester, I am always mindful that the journey that I am trying to make a fun and fulfilling one for them might start looking more and more like a mountain. Then I love to share with them little proverbs as little reminders that a little strength applied consistently and for a sustained period of time can bring staggering results. Maybe it’s as simple as “The man who would move mountains must begin by carrying away small stones” (Confucius, The Analects). Or maybe “Little Strokes Fell Great Oaks” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac).

Then as research papers start to loom on the horizon, I up the ante still more and share with my classes the backstory for Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing and living, Bird by Bird. In the introduction to her book, she tells the story of her brother who had waited until the last minute to write his paper that was due the next day. Interestingly enough, the paper was about birds. Lamott’s father told him to write the paper bird by bird. Looking at the component parts and completing one part of the paper at a time made the whole project seem less intimidating and less overwhelming.

What Lamott and Franklin and Confucius and a gazillion others are offering up as a pearl of wisdom is a lesson in incrementalism: progress comes gradually, in small steps.

It works for my students. It works for me. It will work for you.

As the semester progresses and end-of-semester fatigue raises its nasty and unnerving head, I can see in my students’ faces the reflection of their mountains right in front of them. Then I know that I have to up the ante once again. I play for the class one of my favorite poems by Rita Dove–“Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967. It’s an incredible tribute to learning and to libraries and to librarians and to getting it done. It has an even more special meaning for me because Rita Dove read that poem at the White House on May 11, 2011. Former President Obama–who believes that poetry and the arts matter (and they do)–provides a masterful introduction to the power of poetry, with wry, charming humor as only he can do. Afterwards the poet reads her poem. Both the former president and the former United States Poet Laureate are genuine charmers. I’ll provide the link in just a second. Watch the video, please. (But not until you finish my post, or, if you insist on watching the video before finishing my post, go ahead. Just come back. I’ll be lost without you.) Rita Dove: 2011 White House Poetry Evening — introduction by Barack Obama.

Without exception, my students always love watching this video. Sometimes they even applaud. Sometimes they even applaud without mention of extra credit. The video inspires. It motivates. It makes them know that they can get it done.

Here’s how Dove empowers my students–and all of us– to come to that understanding. The stanzas that follow are directly from her poem. They recount the poet’s journey home, as a 15-year-old, carrying six volumes of knowledge–six books that she selected on her learning journey:

“I carried [the books] home, past five blocks of aluminum siding
and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors,
someone had scrawled:

“I can eat an elephant
if I take small bites.

“Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That’s
what I’m gonna do!”

Overwhelmed? My students? Me? You? All of us?

Of course, we are. To be overwhelmed is to be human.

Thankfully, we’re not overwhelmed all of the time. But when we are, isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom as our ally–all the way from Confucius to Franklin to Lamott to Dove? Isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom cheering us every step of the way? As we carry away our stones. As we fell our oaks. As we write our birds. As we eat our elephants. As we get it done.

Isn’t it great knowing that a little gr!t will gr!t ‘r done?

It certainly calms me. And just as soon as I finish grading end-of-semester assignments and final reflection essays, I’m going to polish that nugget of truth as I face my next mountain: gardens (right here on my mountain) overtaken by a gazillion weeds, all reaching for the stars.

And guess what else? I will pump myself up just as I try to pump up my students–just as I have tried to pump you up here, so that you can face your own mountains, whatever they might be–and believe you me: I will tackle my mountain, and I will gr!t ‘r done.