dispatch from 37383, specifically a roomy porch in the nooks of the smoky mountains, looking out over the undulations of sewanee, tennessee….
i’ve run away to the smoky mountains. for a few days. to absorb the rhythms of poetry and southern-steeped prose at the sewanee writers’ conference, where the likes of alice mcDermott, marilyn nelson, and bobbie ann mason bring their writing wares. and where plain folk like me wave our paper fans to stave off the summer’s steamy heat, and drink in undiluted verse.
my dear friend katie (thelma to my louise) picked me up while the stars and moon still blinked, at four bells the other morning, peeling through the city, and down the interstate before too many truckers even roused from their big-rig bunks.
i climbed aboard with visions of a wide front porch, and mountain sounds lulling the night away. i climbed aboard because when nestled alongside an old dear friend, endless conversation melts away the miles. before we’d ticked even halfway through the list of things that must be explored, dissected, analyzed, and plain old pondered, we’d hit the nashville city limits, and not long after, the sign for sewanee, 93 miles, and up, up, up, along the winding mountain road….
the first sound i uttered — upon racing to the promised porch and drinking in the strata-upon-strata of leafy-knotted mountainsides and tops fading in the far-off faraway — was wordless: nothing but the sound of breath rushing in, the sound of drinking what you’ve thirsted for — for so so long you can barely remember a time when you weren’t so parched.
since then, it’s all been as gentle an unspooling as any day — or string of days — can offer.
that porch, equipped with wicker rocking chairs and ceiling fans whose paddles stir air as thick as meringue in the making (at midday, anyway), is Runaway Headquarters, the post from which all stirrings stir.
long stanzas of pure silence — save for birdsong in the morning, and crickets in the thick of night — punctuate the hours. the orb of moon over the mountains, the only speck of light for miles and miles and miles, grows fuller by the night.
dawn begins with softening of inky night. haze settles in the cleaves of mountainside. it’s all soft, slow, seamless, from start to finish, from first fluttering of eyelid to that uncharted moment when at last the sleep surrounds. and there’s no finer first breakfast course than just-brewed coffee and a prayer cast wide across the precipice.
mid-morning, we motor down the winding half-mile gravel drive to the many winding miles of road that deliver us to “the domain,” 13,000 acres of leafy campus, the pride of Sewanee, The University of the South, a literary mountaintop mecca. one that just happens to be the sole beneficiary of Tennessee Williams’ literary estate, and, since his only sister’s death in 1996 (long institutionalized, she was the one on whom williams modeled his character laura in “the glass menagerie”), Sewanee is the holder of the copyright to every play, screenplay, poem, letter, and story the twice-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ever penned. curiously, his papers went to harvard and columbia universities, but Sewanee got all the dough and this: his patio furniture, his breakfast plates, a working toaster, and a small bronze nude, tucked away in the archives.
it’s a place dotted with an architecture my favorite critic dubbed “Appalachia Ox-bridge,” modeled after the oh-so-erudite Oxford University (as in the one in England), only here it’s Tennessee limestone in shades of khaki and caramel. oxonian bell towers, complete with parapets, ring out on the quarter hour. rose windows shimmer in the late afternoon light. and nearly every walk leads through or to some medieval surprise — a cloister, a fountained courtyard, a spiral stair to who knows where.
four times a day, all the good folk of the writerly conference plus townies like us gather in a quaint old hall, where oddly dying hydrangea bushes (whole bushes, potted, not stems blithely plunked in a vase) flank the podium. writers, poets, teachers rise and read, recite, preach the holy word of literary craft. i’m not alone in madly scribbling notes, and looking starry-eyed toward the rafters. trying my darnedest to seize a certain turn of phrase, or some truth just lobbed our way, one that begs for at least a moment’s pause.
our collective breath was taken away just yesterday when a southern gentleman in straw hat, seersucker jacket, and French sailor’s striped T, a fellow by the name of allan gurganus (author of “oldest living confederate widow tells all”), rose to read his latest genius in the making, a chapter from a novel he says is titled, “the erotic history of a country baptist church.” while we all rose to a rare (i’m told) standing ovation, i leaned in and whispered to katie, “that alone was worth the 800-mile drive.”
you needn’t much else amid such sustenance, but we couldn’t resist the roadside stand, and lunched on perhaps the finest sandwich summer offers: sliced heirloom tomato, piled thick atop oatmeal bread, bare except for shake of salt and a grind or three of pepper. and last night’s porch supper was perhaps the finest tennessee gazpacho ever poured from a roadside canned-ham-camper-turned-cafe.
i’ve never been a natural wanderer; my nesting inclinations, hard to bend. i left a boy back home who filled me up with far more hugs than usual the day before i left; he told me plenty times that day that he’d miss me — words not often spoken by a kid a year away from packing up for college.
but sometimes a mama needs sustenance, needs silence, and poetry and birdsong to fill in all the cracks. i found it here in the mountains, here on the broad front porch from which i count the shining stitches in the night sky.
it’s been a long long time since i was home in the smokies. but, oh, sweet reunion it surely is.
thank you, beloved katie, for plucking me from the summer’s long dry stretch, and quenching me with mountain air and sewanee magic. and for this rare and wondrous chance to pull up a wicker rocking chair this week…xox and, emphatically, to katie’s sister beth, who so generously shares her slice of smoky mountain heaven….
where’s your summer runaway or retreat? and what unfolds once you’re there?
a gift from the mountains….(from maurice manning, Pulitzer-finalist poet, born and bred in Kentucky, and who had me on the edge of my seat at Thursday night’s reading.)
An Orchard at the Bottom of a Hill
by Maurice Manning
Why don’t you try just being quiet?
If you can find some silence, maybe
you can listen to it. How it works
is interesting. I really can’t
explain it, but you know it when
it’s happening. You realize
you’re marveling at apple blossoms
and how they’re clustered on the tree
and you see the bees meticulously
attending every blossom there,
and you think the tree is kind of sighing.
Such careful beauty in the making.
And then you think, it’s really quiet,
but I am not alone in this world.
That’s how you know it’s happening,
there’s something solemn and wonderful
in the quiet, a slow and steady ease.
Whether the tree is actually sighing
is beside the point. It’s better to wonder,
you needn’t be precise with quiet,
it just becomes another thing.
It isn’t a science, it’s an art,
like love, or a dog who’s pretty good,
asleep in the grass beneath the tree.
p.s. i’ll add postcard-worthy pics to this post once home. for the life of me, i can’t add from afar….