Heart Beat: Washington County News (Selected Columns from the Past by Felicia Mitchell)

"Heart Beat" columns appeared weekly in "Washington County News," a paper that serves rural Washington County, Virginia, for ten years. Some were reprinted here and will appear in the future in a digital collection more easily accessed.

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Location: Emory, VA, United States

This blog is no longer kept up, but it includes some reprints of old columns from WASHINGTON COUNTY NEWS. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Haiku Lessons

Outside my window, a blue jay picks up a seed and flies to a branch. A chickadee lights on the porch, its song like spring in dead of winter. Do I love these birds? I could try to cherish them more, withholding seed.

If I do love birds, do I need to love cats less? Usually, birds fly.

On the bathroom floor, two feathers are wet with tears. My cat is not sad. The cat brings me birds. He thinks they are what I need. What I need is spring. Spring is on my mind, not even summer or fall. I want winter gone.

Mornings by the street, I see deer eating young buds. Spring will still blossom.

Snow is heavy now, as heavy as wet firewood. I need both for warmth. In February, bulbs grow underneath the soil. The cat tracks in snow. I forage out back, tramping through snow to find wood. Seasoned logs will burn.

Near the cherry tree, tulips are hibernating, the color of hope.

The poet Basho, in so many words, once said nature precedes art. My time in the woods, woods where I live or farther, gives me words to write. Art makes me wonder. Why does the cat bring me birds? What makes winter spring? I do not eat birds, only chickens neatly plucked. My cat eats cat food.

The sparrow, artless, forages for seed, not meter. The cardinal is red.

Basho’s home burned down, so his friends built another. Snow falls on poets. Rain falls on poets, too, and on roots, seeds, bulbs, life. Snow can turn to rain. But I should not wait for spring to turn the corner. Today is the day.

Tomorrow may come, tomorrow may go away, a bird flying from a cat.

Buson the poet followed Basho’s tradition, beginning his own. To him, it is not the goldfinch that I must watch, but what goldfinch means. Stuck in winter now, waiting for golden feathers, I think far too much. What came first to me, the feather tickling my brain or one the cat brought?

Short of sunshine now, I could take watercolors and paint a tulip.

Issa wrote haiku to house a soul in winter, his words his firewood. I could be like him, both playful and poetic, if I tried harder. I could sweep feathers from the bathroom floor, dry tears, hang bells on my cat. I could throw birdseed far away from the front porch and watch birds in trees.

The music of the pileated woodpecker means more trees will fall.

And what of the birds that neither toil now nor spin? Why do I seek them? Is it company or color I seek the most, harbinger of spring? Why hold out hope now? The fated always happens. Seasons always turn. A rainbow forgets just how much rain has to fall before the sky clears.

Spring forgets winter, just as winter begets spring. How many weeks more?

Credit: Washington County News (VA)
2 February 2011

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Why I Teach

I don’t know why I teach. It’s not that I’m chock-full of wisdom that I need to impart. Any facts I know a good reader can find in a book. And it’s not that I have a charismatic way of packaging ideas. I don’t. Sometimes I’m vibrant. Sometimes I’m a little tired.

I’ve had other jobs, and every job I ever had I cherished. Even so, I remember sitting in a small room where I typed eight hours a day for professors who were publishing scholarly articles, thinking that I’d like to trade places and try my hand at their job. So I saved money and went back to school and worked others jobs and did it. I got to stand up in front of my own classroom and write my own articles.

Since moving into academe, I’ve learned one thing about the teaching profession I didn’t pick up on typing scholarly articles. Teaching, or working in a college, involves more than a profession. It’s a way of life that consumes both heart and soul.

Last week, I stood in a circle with students from Emory & Henry College, where I work. The students were holding a vigil in honor of Virginia Tech. “This week we are all Hokies,” one of them said. That was true. At the same time, feeling their empathy for the slain students and professors, I never felt more like a Wasp.

For too many days, I’d been watching television and reading newspapers. I was shocked and appalled and a little angry at the same time I was comforted by the thought of heroes like 75-year-old professor Liviu Librescu, who saved the lives of students as he sacrificed his own. My head hurt. I wanted to shiver, and I wasn’t cold.

Listening to a student strum a guitar, I felt my head clearing to feel more like an unclouded day. I stopped thinking about the massacre. I thought instead about the week before, when I was depressed about something and a student I did not know noticed my black cloud and stopped me in the hall to joke with me.

I thought about another student who stuck his head in my office a few days later because I was coughing loudly. “Are you all right?” the student asked. “I’m okay,” I said. “Thanks for checking on me, though.”

Standing in the circle at the vigil, I saw students I had taught, students I knew from the halls and cafeteria, faculty and staff members and friends from the community who had stopped by. I saw these students and twenty years of memories of students lighting up my night like the candles across the way by the duck pond.

I watched the students hug each other and cry. When one walked up to hug me, to let me hug her, I knew it wasn’t because I had taught her something about writing. It was because she knew I had a heart, and I knew she had a soul.

Felicia Mitchell. First published in Washington County News (Abingdon, VA), 25 April 2007, p. A4. WCN is a publication of Media General Operations. Copyright 2007.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Southern Pastorale

I like frogs. I’ve liked the slimy little critters since I was knee high to a tadpole. So the other night, when it was raining cats and dogs, it was really raining frogs. Driving home, I was in hog—or should I say “frog”—heaven. I was as happy as a Nascar fan at the Sharpie 500.

I must have passed dozens, though I counted only four frogs through the slap-dash dashing of my windshield wipers. Three of these frogs were hopping as fast as they could across the road in a noble attempt bound to teach some possums or race-car drivers a thing or two.

The fourth frog, as sleek as a moss-covered stone in a slow-running creek, was not so swift. Not even slow as molasses, it had just plain stopped in its tracks, as if it were having some sort of identity crisis: deer? frog? deer? frog?

What could I do? I pulled over, turned on my blinkers, and walked into the middle of the soggy blacktop to stare at the frog that huddled there, not quite sure what it was doing in the middle of a blacktop .

I won’t tell you what I said to the frog that was marching (or not) to its own drummer. I will say that I picked it up and carried it across the road, since it seemed to be pointing southwest, perhaps to follow the trail down the hill. Then, eager to get settled by a nice fire, I got back in my car and made it safely home in the rain.

In retrospect, I sort of wish I had stayed there on the side of the road for a spell. I could have pulled out my cell phone and called up Larry Seaquist, the politician from Washington (state, that is) who’s been trying to block a Nascar race track that some people want.

It may be impractical to put one out there, but why make us folks down here look slimy in the process of fighting it?

“These people are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you,” Seaquist said. “They'd be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law.”

You could’ve knocked me over with a goat-feather. I thought that sort of stereotyping about these parts had died and gone to you-know-where to reside with jokes about the farmer’s daughter.

Although I’ve never been to a race, and don’t plan to, and even think the whole race thing (frog-racing excluded) feels like an odd use of natural resources, I have lived amongst Nascar fans for fifty years. Nascar fans are regular folks, like me—and like you.

On the side of the road, rain falling, I might have been able to get some ribbiting vocals to accompany me in an appeal to Seaquist and the like to broaden their minds about southerners and northerners too. We’re all human together, warts and all.

Felicia Mitchell. First published in Washington County News (Abingdon, VA), 7 March 2007, p. A4. WCN is a publication of Media General Operations. Copyright 2007.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Who Wrote the Book of Love?

Wikipedia, who else?

If you haven’t turned to the pages of the largest reference database on the Internet, on the Web since 2001, let me cite Wikipedia’s definition of itself: “Wikipedia is a multilingual, Web-based, free content encyclopedia project.” The important thing to remember is that “Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world.”

Almost anybody with access to the Internet can edit an entry in this massive encyclopedia, and even add something. You would think that free access would invite gremlins, and it does. That’s the quirky thing about Wikipedia. Readers can be misled if they get to a site that has not been back-read yet by one of the thousands of volunteers who check entries. Take “love,” for example.

Appointing myself a world-renowned expert on “love,” I decided to visit that entry in honor of Valentine’s Day.

Here’s how Wikipedia opened its entry Sunday: “Love is any of a number of emotions and experiences related to a sense of strong affection or profound oneness. Depending on context, love can have a wide variety of intended meanings. It is commonly conceived of romantically, as a deep, ineffable feeling of intense and tender attraction shared in passionate or intimate interpersonal and sexual relationships. Love can also be conceived of as Platonic love, religious love, familial love, and, more casually, anything considered strongly pleasurable, desirable, or preferred, including activities and foods.”

I fiddled with that paragraph and changed a few things, including the third sentence: “Romantic love is seen as a deep, ineffable feeling of intense and tender attraction shared in passionate or intimate interpersonal and sexual relationships.” I also repaired the wording of the last sentence.

After previewing my handiwork, I checked a box indicating “minor edit” and published my work. Then I delved back into the entry to see if I could find anything a little more profound to say. Under the subheading “Religious views,” there was an appeal for more challenging revisions: “The examples and perspective in this article or section may not represent a worldwide view of the subject.”

Talk about a daunting task. Do I have a worldwide view of the subject? I thought I did until I got my first ever case of writer’s block trying to add something here, anything, for more balance. The best I could do was mention how “The Bhagavad-Gita,” a sacred Hindu text, talks about how love evolves from selflessness. I wanted to take the time to add a reference to other sacred texts but just couldn’t. Surely there is somebody more qualified than I who can do that. You, maybe? Your grandmother?

My work wasn’t finished. Would you believe it? A gremlin was playing with the entry while I was writing (and thinking profoundly). By the time I posted my last addition, “love” had turned into “lovers.” What could I do? I moved the entry back to where it belonged. It may or may not be there today. Sometimes you may have to search for love.

Felicia Mitchell. First published in Washington County News (Abingdon, VA), 14 February 2007, p. A4. WCN is a publication of Media General Operations. Copyright 2007.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Reading Readiness

As I dip my paddle in and out of the water of the French Broad, I study patterns of light and ripples. The current creates small riffles around the rocks. I stare at these riffles as if they will tell me something I need to know.

It occurs to me that I am learning to read the water, just as I know that sailors can read the sky. Is this what my great-grandmother did so readily the times she crossed the more southern Congaree River, traveling from up country to town in a canoe?

I study the patterns on the surface of the water. Although I have kayaked this river before, this time I find myself needing to pay more attention. The water level is lower, the rocks higher. The wind is up, and rain is falling.

A river is never the same twice, I am thinking. What was a leisurely float down a calm path of water last time is now an exhilarating workout. It’s not especially white water, not exactly, but it’s white enough for me. Am I ready?

“You’re a perceptive person,” I tell myself. “You can figure this out.” I think of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who popularized a Native American proverb: “Call on God, but row away from the rocks.”

Soon I learn to avoid the patches of water that V out like wings of phantom wet birds. Once I don’t, and my kayak ends up skimming a rock where I use the paddle to push the kayak off and out. It’s not so hard being stuck between a rock and a soft place.

I paddle. Sometimes when I see a stretch of riffles crossing the entire stream, I imagine that I am about to tumble down a fall that is longer than the two-inch drop that is there in front of me. Other times, I let my attention wander and drift some, watching the birds fly from limb to limb on trees that bind the river.

The sun falls differently on water when a rock is closer to the surface. What I see then has no analogy to the alphabet I know, yet perhaps if I do this often enough, spend more time in the water, I will learn all the signs that make up the alphabet of a river.

When I am in a river, I think I want to be in one again, soon. Too much time passes before I find myself back between the pages of a book of water. Although I love the pace of a river, I am caught between living in the moment and trying to make sense of my adventure with the intellectual apparatus that serves me on land.

Now I begin to wonder how my experience reading signs on a river relates to children who are about to start school. Do children who learn to read nature, from three-leafed plants to riffles, glide into books as energetically as I am gliding in my kayak?

I imagine.

Felicia Mitchell. First published in Washington County News (Abingdon, VA), 1 August 2006, p. A4. WCN is a publication of Media General Operations. Copyright 2006.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Bedtime Story

You know it’s summer when the variegated pansies that have colored your doorstep all winter start to droop and bright petunias move in next to them. The purple odor of a full-blown petunia spritzes away musty odors as the last leaves of autumn are swept from crevices in porches ready for chairs and visitors.

You know it’s summer when a house finch flies by every few minutes with something in its mouth, and you wonder what tiny threads and bits of hair you have deliberately swept from the house into the yard will end up in the nests they think they are hiding from you in the eaves of the house.

You know it’s summer when your cat doesn’t want to come in at night, and when it drags itself in after an evening in the woods it sleeps for twelve hours straight.

You know it’s summer when you have to lock the dog in so it won’t run out the cat door and chase raccoons that come to forage on your porch. When the pale possum tiptoes by later to eat the remains of some overripe, store-bought berries you have set out for the critters, you listen for the sound of your dog’s breathing.

You know it’s summer when the bats return, and you spend a modest portion of each day sweeping up after them, wondering if they are earning their keep by eating enough insects to warrant a broom with their name on it.

You know it’s summer when your neighbor’s grass looks a little greener and you start to compare notes. You may not be too fond of the spongy patches where moles have constructed lacy networks to travel through easily, and to elude your cat, but you always breathe a sigh of relief when the cat drops a mole at your feet and it’s still alive, ready to be rescued so it can hurry back home.

You know it’s summer when the tomatoes in your garden start bearing fruit, and the basil planted in every other spare pot is starting to sprout. Competing with the jeweled colors of the nasturtium planted in all the rest of the pots, the basil promises to catch up in time to orchestrate its flavors with the succulence of the tomatoes.

You know it’s summer when poison ivy eyes you, your toes, and every inch of skin no longer covered by practical winter clothing. The elements threaten to make you itch as much as the bee balm peeking up next to the healthiest patch of poison ivy promises to bring hummingbirds and months of smiles.

You know it’s summer when the box turtles crawl out of their hiding places and crawl through the yard on their way to somewhere else close by.

You know it’s summer when you take one look at your daylilies and wonder when you will separate them again or if you can convince your friends and neighbors to come mine your yard for perennials so you won’t have to hazard poison ivy or too much hard work in the midst of your lazy summer.

You know it’s summer when the butterfly bush that is taller than any lilac in the yard is sprouting green leaves and purple buds that will attract butterflies from miles around. Across the yard, a yellow butterfly bush is growing up, not as hardy and not as lush, but just as intent on asserting its rights.

You know it’s summer when your faith in a reluctant fig tree returns tenfold and you know, just know, that it will bear brown fruit this year.

Felicia Mitchell. First published in Washington County News (Abingdon, VA), 7 June 2006, p. A4. WCN is a publication of Media General Operations. Copyright 2006.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

When All Is Said and Done

I guess I’ll sound morbid if I mention that I wrote my mother’s obituary last week, and she’s not even dead. This is the second time I’ve done it. By the time I actually need to turn one in, since she’s not ready to go, I may get it right. I may be able to capture the essence of this woman in just a few words.

It’s not morbid to think ahead. When one of my brothers died, my father dictated his obituary to me in a hotel room near the hospital where we had left my brother moments before. Listening to my father and then dictating the words over the phone to the newspaper were not the easiest chores I ever accomplished.

When my father died, I was called upon to write his obituary, although this time I could email it rather than call it in. Doing that, and seeing my words in print, I learned that in times of stress I make mistakes. My father wrote freelance articles for Southern Florist and Nurseryman. In the distraction of my grief, I wrote down Southern Living. Neither magazine looked me up to chastise me, but I chastised myself.

When my mother dies, I will be prepared. I won’t have to dry my eyes or cry through the composition of her death notice. I’ll just go to my trusty computer and call up the obituary, which I have in a neatly organized file along with a photograph of her looking as beautiful as she did the day I was born.

As much as I got my love of nature and my devotion to a messy but lively kitchen, I also got a morbid streak from my mother. I guess losing a sister at an early age made her precocious that way. Aside from writing too many poems, perhaps, about death, I have benefited from her lessons.

Some parents hide their children from death. Others help them to see that it is part of life. When I was four, my little green turtle died. What my mother did was help me to shape a coffin out of tin foil. Her nimble fingers made a sparkling but utilitarian coffin for the turtle, which we laid to rest under an azalea.

Now I like to read obituaries and not just to look for tips to jazz up my own. There are so many ways to say the same thing. Families work hard to capture the special memory of a loved one. Even clichés sound good.

When Martha Washington, the first First Lady, passed on, her notice in the American Mercury said something profound: “To those amiable and Christian virtues, which adorn the female character, she added dignity of manners, superiority of understanding, a mind intelligent and elevated.” What better definition of a good woman or a good mother?

My obituary for my mother, by contrast, is long winded. I try to say too much in too few words and end up a little clumsy. Perhaps one day I will be able to whittle it down. Just how important is it anyway to let people know how many times she volunteered in her children’s schools or how much she loved to garden?

My mother didn’t just teach me how to bury my critters. She quoted Shakespeare. Once she said she wanted this on her tombstone: “From her fair and unpolluted flesh, may violets spring.” That’s what Hamlet said when he found Ophelia. Right now my yard is sprinkled with violets. Lilacs and azaleas are lush with blooms. They remind me that death has no dominion.

Felicia Mitchell. First published in Washington County News (Abingdon, VA), 10 May 2006, p. A4. WCN is a publication of Media General Operations. Copyright 2006.