The Veil is Thinning…

The veil is thinning,
and I hear your call.
You always speak loudest in the fall.

The rustling of the browning leaves
is an echoing chorus;
The cooling heat of the sun,
the touch of many hands
Of the ones that came before me,
And the spirits of the land.

The veil is thinning
And we hear your call.
The ancestors have not left us at all.

The start of the day found the temperature just shy of chilly, with an overcast sky, and a draping fog over the land…but North Carolina is fickle about her weather and the day will no doubt clear, with a warm rush of sunlight, and the scurrying of small animals and birds in the trees and brush.

Today is my 35th birthday and I find that the ancestors are on my mind.

The reasons for this abound, but none have to do with getting older. Getting older for me is just what it is. We are born, we grow up, we get older, and then when our time has come, we join the ancestors on the other side.

When I was a child – even a child as young as seven or eight – I felt the ancestors at this time of the year. When I wandered around our large backyard, or played in the field around our home, the whispering leaves and the quiet anticipation that the whole world seem to be filled with filled me up at well. I would often think of colonial times – when there were supposed to be witches and spirits and headless horsemen in the world. I would think of the Native Americans, the first peoples of this land, who were one with it and who were driven off of the land. Whose spirits I imagined I could still feel in the chilly autumn air.

Perhaps I was a sensitive child. Perhaps I had a good imagination. And perhaps I watched too much television.

Regardless, the fall and its main holiday – Halloween to most, and Samhain to a few – captured me and held me tightly until the Christmas seasone swept away the more quiet, magical feelings I held inside with anticipation for rich food, presents, and Santa Claus.

But even then, the feelings that the ancestors were there on the outskirts watching and whispering never truly left. I could feel their presence in the celebration of Thanksgiving, and I would wonder about the Native Americans and why I’d never met any. I could feel the ancestors’ presence in the songs about the virgin birth of Jesus, the Christmas tree, or about decking the halls.

The silent, holy nights. The angels appearing to shepherds in the field. The evergreen boughs of the tree and the decking of halls. The singing of yuletide carols.

Even before I knew the histories of some of our most prominent fall and winter holidays, the hints were there. The voices muted, the language changed, but the presence of those who came before were still there. And still are.

The fact that I’m harping (can I harp? I didn’t know it was a verb) on thoughts of the dead and deceased on my birthday might frighten some, make others nervous, and still others question my state of mind, but I assure you…I’m quite all right.

In truth, thoughts of the ancestors comfort me in these shorter, colder days of the year. Their voices soothe me in the darkness before bed.

I sit in the yard, listening to the wind in the trees, the scurrying animals, feel the faint warmth of the sun, and know that they are there with me. Thoughts of the long-gone and dearly departed do not depress me but move my spirit to peace.

I tell them that my soul remembers them, even if their faces or their names are lost to me. I tell them they are not forgotten. They live on in this world because we, their descendants, live on in this world. We struggle and love and work, just as they struggled and loved and worked.

I may have said it before, but the fall time is my favorite time of the year…because it is a quiet, reflective, magical time – when the veil is thinning, and our hearts can entwine more fully with those who have gone before us.

Enough – a poem

I don’t remember your laughter
or the sparkle of your eyes
I don’t remember the strength of your arms
as you picked me up, brushed me off
when I fell and scraped my knee.

I don’t remember your tussled black hair,
tangling in the wind.
Even your voice is a mystery,
I don’t remember the sound.

But I have pictures
nestled in a cardboard box
in the attic, gathering dust
of you, of me, of us.

I remember your presence.
I remember warmth
and I remember love,
the kind of love I like to think
was just for me.

And that was
and is
and must
be enough

Copyright © J.S. White

Drinking from a Literary Wellspring in 2020

“I can tell you, without diversity, creativity is stagnant.” -Edward Enninful

Just before the start of 2020, when I reached a point in my writing journey where I had little inspiration and even less motivation to write, I took a hard look at the influences around me. I looked to my bookshelf, in particular, and realized there was a distinct lack of diversity. The shelves were overwhelmed by authors who looked like me, talked like me, had similar backgrounds. The lack of diversity made me a poorer, less inspired writer.

So I decided to make a change. I gave myself a reading challenge.

As it was 2020, I added those two twenties together, making a nice, even forty – I would read at least forty books by diverse writers. Knowing my weaknesses (and foolishly/arrogantly thinking I may not be able to find enough diverse books to read), I gave myself these minimal criteria to use while picking the books I would read”

  • 20 books written by male authors.
  • 20 books written by female authors.
  • At least 20 books had to be written by BIPOC men and women (diverse nationalities, ethnicities, backgrounds, etc.
  • Up to 20 books could be written by non-BIPOC

I made certain that my challenge was S.M.A.R.T. – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. I would read 40 books, where at least half were diverse authors. I would record each book I finished on a word document, where I would include the book’s title, author, author country and ethnic group, and book genre. I would give myself an achievable and realistic monthly goal of 3-4 books, and I had all year to do it.

The year started out slow, but steady. January and February went by, with three and four books read, respectively. March was very slow, with only two books. But beginning in April and May, I began to hit my stride – my interest was really peaked by the books I was reading, and I couldn’t get enough.

June came and I completely outdid my earlier attempts and read twelve books, finishing my original goal of forty books early. I upped my goal to sixty and read the twenty additional books in July and August. I upped by goal to eighty and reached that goal in late September, with twenty books read in one month. Honestly, I believe a madness took over my mind – and I couldn’t stop.

My well of creativity was so terribly dry. I saw through this reading challenge that one of the reasons for this feeling of aridness was because I was starved for stories which made me think, made me feel, made me laugh and cry. The fountains from which I drank inspiration and meaning had become stale, uninteresting, and meaningless.

The books I read from Muslim authors were eye-opening and heart-wrenching. The books I read from African and South American authors were breathtakingly beautiful and epic. The books I read from African American and Indigenous Americans filled me with a sense of conviction and humility.

It was as wonderful as it was painful. I could talk to others of nothing else. I had to share the stories I was reading with friends, family, anyone who would listen. They got quite sick of it, but I was enjoying myself so much that I couldn’t help it.

My final count for the year 2020 was one hundred twelve (112) books. Of those one hundred twelve books, ninety-one different authors are represented, of which forty-seven of those authors are BIPOC – which I’ll admit was less than I had hoped.

I had new favorite authors, however, and a much greater awareness and appreciation for how diversity is a glorious, beautiful state of being. I also learned how far we still have to go in the struggle for equality and the protection of human rights – not only here in the United States, but also all over the world.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Photo of the fountain outside the Cincinnati Public Library, taken by J.F. Schmitz.

With Mortified Fondness

In many ways, I was a typical teenager. I spent a great deal of time in my room. I listened to music and wished I was anywhere but where I was at any particular moment. And starting sometime during my sixth-grade year (I was eleven at the time), I started writing poetry.

I fell in love with Edgar Allen Poe. I had dedicated journals where I would painstakingly copy the flowery, overwrought poetry I’d ‘perfected’ on simple notebook paper several hours before, and I suspected that one day they would become collectors’ items when I was older and much, much more famous.

I still have those journals. Sometimes I open them up, sift through the pages, and feel mortified fondness for the poems written there.

My poetic style is more sparse than before; I became enamored with haiku and tanka and never really looked back. It is very difficult for me to write a poem that expands beyond a half a page. But that poetry was the beginning of so much more…

Like most poets (and writers in general), the same themes come up all the time in my work.

Despite what some think when they meet me in real life, my inner world can be quite dark and filled with shadows.

Themes of loneliness and heartbreak abound. A turbulent and fractured spirituality colors perception and experiences. The desire for connection is overwhelming and the emotional distance between myself and others seems quite real.

It’s one of the reasons I love Poe so much.

His work is romantic and melancholy, much of his work is somewhat autobiographical, and there is a spirituality in his words and his imagery that feels just as real as it is symbolic. It resonates for me now just as strongly as it did when I was an adolescent.

In addition to other projects, such as “The Bells of Reine” – a short fiction inspired in a loose sort of way by Poe’s poem “The Bells” – and my haiku anthology, I’m compiling a collection of poetry and short fiction entitled “Ophelia’s Tears”.

“Ophelia’s Tears” will explore themes of romance, heartbreak, my struggle with gender stereotypes, bisexuality, as well as darker elements like anger, trauma, and feelings of despair.

Some of those poems and short works will ultimately preview here on The Writings of J.S. White and I hope you enjoy them if, and when, they make their appearances. It is also my hope that they will resonate with you as much as Poe so often resonated with me.

Where I’m From – a poem

When I graduated from high school, there was a local writers group I joined. I was a member for quite some time, eventually taking over as the group coordinator (which is a fancy way of saying I would schedule meetings, take minutes, and generally keep the meeting organized and moving). One of the poetry exercises we did was called ‘Where I’m From”.

The idea was to take about twenty minutes to list all of the things you could think of about where you were from: your hometown, impressions, favorite moments or places, famous people from there, family or friends, sights, smells, memories, etc. After the twenty minutes were up, we were to take the pieces home and create a poem using some, all, or none of our brainstorming list.

Here is the poem that I created and refined over the years. It’s not award-winning material, but I love it all the same. I really feel this sums up – in a general sort of way – my hometown, my childhood, and the overall feel I get when I think of them both.

Where I’m From

I’m from dirt roads and hill-top churches
from Campbell’s soup and grape Kool-Aid.
I’m from the old house with the wood stove
and the red shag carpet,
from the pear tree and the honeysuckle vine,
blossoming in summer.

I’m from Jonas White and Frankie Silver,
from Jesus Loves Me and the children’s bible stories
my sister would read me before bed.
I’m from long-winded debates
and hour-long lectures,
from front porch swings and songs about
a hole at the bottom of the sea.

I’m from Casar, thank you very much –
where the C is said like a K, and the S like a Z.
I’m from red clay gardens, tenant farmers,
and women working long hours in the mills.
I’m from the graffiti on the laundromat walls
beside Turner’s Grocery on NC 10.

I’m from a time when bravery
was picking out your own hickory switch
and Dad was the one you went to for advice.
I’m from Scot Irish drunks and Independent Baptist,
from fried bologna and pinto beans,
mashed ‘taters and homemade ‘snow cream’.

I’m from the worn albums overflowing
with Polaroid memories,
tear drops and laughter,
creased and yellowed by Time,
and countless viewings
around the kitchen table.

Copyright (C) J.S. White

Forgive Me If My Religion Shows

This post is different than others. Forgive me if my religion shows just a little…

I learned yesterday that a man I admired has been diagnosed with a rare, terminal, and incurable brain disease. I haven’t seen him for almost four years now, but I feel sense of loss and sadness as though I saw him yesterday.

He was the parish priest who confirmed me into the Catholic Church not a year before my son was born in 2016. I came to the RCC from a lifetime of being a very lazy Independent Baptist.

This man – this priest of twenty-seven years – is someone I thought of (and still think of in many ways) as a spiritual mentor.

He was a shining example to me of a strong man of faith, someone who held himself to high moral standards, who cared about others, who did what he could to extol them to virtue. He had a wry, almost sardonic, wit. He was soft-spoken during his homilies despite the fact that the things he pointed out to the congregation were sometimes hard to swallow – classic spiritual conviction without the pain of condemnation, or even condescension. I saw a picture of him taken recently and the degeneration was startling.

His message to the newest seminary students right before he left to be with his family were short, simple.

In times like these, it doesn’t matter what side we find ourselves on – liberal or conservative – faith matters. God has a plan for us all, even if we cannot see it. Whatever happens, we must keep the faith.

To that I would add only:

Whatever faith we profess to have, let us keep it close to our heart in these trying, uncertain times. Let us see it as the bracing strength it can be, instead of the divisive force for which it is so often used. I am thankful that he was the priest that Confirmed me into the Catholic Church, who gave me the Blessed Sacrament for the first time.

He will be sorely missed when he is gone.

Eternal rest grant him, O Lord, that he might dwell in Thy light forever…In nomine patri, et fili, et spiritus sancti. Amen. †

Old-Fashioned Chicken ‘N Dumplings and the Writing Process

As a mother, it’s difficult to find the time or the energy to write. Often, I don’t have one or the other, and so nothing gets accomplished. But that isn’t to say I don’t work on my poetry or my stories every day.

There is more to the writing process that physically sitting in my chair and working (although, without that, there is no writing to speak of). On the contrary, my mind is always working on my stories or my poetry. I’m always considering little things that need revision, reworking, inclusion, or more researching.

The best part? Those things can be done anywhere.

When I do have some free time and a bit of spending money – those days when I can get out of the house on my own without having to run errands – I often like to go to restaurants or coffee shops. Unlike other writers, I don’t always take pen and paper with me. In fact, the majority of the time, I’m lucky if I have a pen in my purse somewhere, much less a pad of paper to write on.

Many may not realize it but going out and eating by yourself can be one of the best opportunities to work on your writing. I like to think of it as a dual-purpose exercise in writing and mindfulness.

When you go out by yourself (and make a point to avoid playing on your phone the whole time) you become very conscious of three things: 1) yourself, 2) the environment around you, and 3) everyone else.

Let me give you an example of my own experience the other day…

A couple of days ago, I had a chance to go to town after dropping my son off at pre-K. He’s a special needs child and so his pre-K starts later than regular classes, so I was free around lunchtime until the early afternoon.

I decided to stop a local bistro-style restaurant and, as I’d had a light breakfast earlier in the day, was hungrier than usual. I’d been thinking about trying the restaurant’s old-fashioned chicken ‘n dumplings – a down-home favorite in my little southeastern corner of the United States. I ordered that, a side of fresh-cut fruit, and a sweet, iced tea (another Southern US favorite).

While I waited, I took in the view. The place was bright and decorated plainly. The tables were simple and there were far more tables in the space than there should’ve been for such a small space. Most of the other patrons were people a bit older than me, many in their forties or fifties. A few were around my age or younger, they seemed to be having lunch with friends or perhaps lovers.

Most restaurants that I enjoy dining at have background music playing, but this one did not. The waitresses were dressed very casually – jeans and t-shirts. They were all women except for the cooks and bus boys. They were different ages. They were also very busy (it was lunchtime after all).

When my meal arrived, my chicken n’ dumplings were served in an individual cast-iron Dutch oven with a lid. When I opened it, a cloud of steam escaped and revealed the delicious, shredded chicken and thick, floury dumplings in thick aromatic gravy.

And instantly, I was reminded of my grandmother and my childhood spent eating home-cooked meals with my family. It made me think of all the elderly women in my life. Memories, sporadic and unconscious, moved through my mind. Tales wove themselves together, emotions surfaced, expectations relived. Disappointments and regrets rehashed…

So why am I telling you this? And what has it to do with the writing process?

I had some free time. I went out for lunch. I ordered chicken n’ dumplings.

My point is this. Even something a simple as going out to lunch rewards you with a rich tapestry of information that, if you can harness it and utilize it, will lend something beautiful and real to your writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a memoir, a poem, or an epic fantasy about elves battling demons.

Those elderly women I thought of become characters. Waitresses, bystanders, and bus boys become the background noise of your work. It gives a sense of reality and time to the events of your stories. It breathes life into your poetry and gives substance to your prose.

Whether you are physically seated in front of your manuscript or not, everything you do can be valuable to your process. Use everything. No matter how small. No matter how insignificant it may seem.

Your life is an amazing story. Properly distilled, any experience you have – no matter how mundane it may seem – can and will breed countless other amazing stories and works of art.

All you have to do is pay attention.