A Brush with Literary Excellence

My friend, Lexington poet Barbara Presnell, invited me as her guest, to attend the sixty-sixth meeting of the North Carolina Writers Conference in “Little” Washington on July 24-25, 2015.

This was a summer meeting-of-the-minds for the state’s most dedicated novelists and poets, playwrights and historians, editors and educators. Many are literary hall-of-famers and their works are preserved in the state literary collection at Chapel Hill.

So I might have been intimidated by this brush with literary excellence, but I wasn’t. I was among many guests, and the distinguished members made us feel welcome in the Old Atlantic Coastline Railroad Station of this coastal town. The rafters resounded with their kind words and music, inviting us in.

Where else would I have heard “Wilson” Jim Clark read excerpts from conference honoree Michael Parker’s short story collection, Don’t Make Me Stop Now, peppered with a boom-box mix of tunes? Aretha Franklin singing I Say a Little Prayer for You is still, gloriously, in my head.

Bland Simpson followed him on keyboard at the Friday night opening, performing selections from King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running in tribute to the late Jerry Leath “Jake” Mills, who contributed original lyrics and stories to the musical and, among many other accomplishments, was well loved by many writers and wrote the classic Southern Literary Journal essay, Equine Gothic: the Dead Mule as Generic Signifier in Southern Literature.
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Liza Wieland and Charles Dodd White

Saturday craft talks included:

• Historical fiction (Valerie Nieman moderating a discussion with Charles Dodd White and Liza Wieland),

• Graphic design (Dana Ezzell Gay, art director for the North Carolina Literary Review, which celebrates 25 years with the 2016 issue),

• Research (Gregg Hecimovich presenting his detective work on The Bondwoman’s Narrative), and

• Memoir (Jim Grimsley moderating Michael White — Travels in Vermeer — and William Price. William, the literary executor for Reynolds Price, shared the afterword he composed for his brother’s posthumous book, Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir).

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Dr. James W. Clark

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At lunch, the assembly honored “Raleigh” Jim Clark, Professor Emeritus of North Carolina State University. Clark was recognized for what I would call “literary farming” – decades of grassroots work to cultivate and nurture the environment for writing in the state. He leads – or has led – many foundations, societies and historical associations. What a natural connector – he not only knew exactly where Pine Level is (most didn’t), he gave me the names of two people, scholars and fans of Thomas Wolfe, who live in my new hometown. Clark teaches “life writing” in his so-called retirement – and encouraged others to do the same. He echoed what Wingate Lassiter told our Johnston County Writers group this past winter; that writers are needed to document their own stories and the everyday stories of people in our community, especially our elders.

The conference-ending banquet – really, an informal barbecue with “pig pickin’ cake” for dessert – was a warm tribute to Michael Parker, a native of Clinton. You can find his seven books online, or read his regular articles in Our State magazine (the current editor is one of the many former students whose lives he has touched). Watching Parker honored by his peers for his significant contributions to North Carolina literature, was very humbling. You can’t walk away from such an experience and not feel changed.

Through all this, my brain was electric with ideas. I filled page after page of my pocket-sized notebook and frequented the book sale tables for Margaret Maron’s Designated Daughters and Ruth Moose’s award-winning Doing It at the Dixie Dew, as well as several copies of the North Carolina Literary Review. Barbara took home Jim Grimsley’s memoir, How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.

Barbara Presnell

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From left, Janice Sullivan, Ruth Moose, Cindy Brookshire

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From left, Sara Claytor, Susan Laughter Meyers and Sally Logan

I took home things you just can’t pack, sharing a meal at Down on Mainstreet with a round-robin of women writers: Barbara Presnell (Lexington), Sally Logan (formerly Whispering Pines, now Chapel Hill), Susan Laughter Meyers (formerly Albemarle and Greenville, now Summerville, SC), Sara Claytor (Chapel Hill), Janice Sullivan (Greensboro) and Ruth Moose (Pittsboro).

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NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson

I liked watching NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson whip out a poem to recite about the ordinary – getting a hunting license – and making it extraordinary. If you haven’t seen this poet traveler as he criss-crosses the state, taking his song-and-verse to as many North Carolinians as possible, consider visiting Manassas, Virginia on Oct. 11, when he gathers with poets laureate from four states at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

I also took home the memory of Barbara and our afternoon stroll on the boardwalk overlooking the Pamlico River. We stretched our legs along the brick pathway to the NC Estuarium, sat in a double swing to track the loud party boats puttering by and leaned over railings to snap iPhone photos of a turtle sunning herself on a rock. Lily pads shook like a hand bell choir with the underwater maneuverings of other turtles. Under tree branches, we spied a brick monument to the former iron forge or foundry, the centerpiece of which was a cast iron furnace door. When I told my husband about it later, he suggested we may have found the gates of hell, teasing me.

I’m back in Pine Level. I’ve come “down from the mountain” even though my return was from the coast. I feel invigorated. I submitted the first two chapters of my fourth book draft to a critique group I joined in Goldsboro, and I’ve started weaving a new short story. Time to get back to work.

A-mazing New Labyrinth at St. Paul’s in Smithfield, NC


Our letter of transfer arrived this past week, the one that clears the way for us to become members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield, North Carolina. The letter came the same week a labyrinth was being installed on the church grounds and of course, I took it as a good sign.

We had a labyrinth ministry at our former parish, Trinity Episcopal Church in Manassas, Virginia, where I worshipped for 33 years. A succession of hearts and hands keep that ministry going – the ones I knew were Pamela, Dexter, Christina, Jane. They would pull the bin that contained the bulky canvas mat out of its storage space, roll it out on the floor of the parish hall, set up music, luminaires, socks if you needed them, a flyer with directions for newcomers, and stones or pieces of cloth to carry with you. At the center there might be a small stand with a bowl to place stones, personal notes or anything you wanted to let go of. After a Friday night or Saturday walk, they would re-roll the canvas and neatly tuck everything away in the bin – including freshly washed socks. The portable bin was available for loan-out.
Trinity’s labyrinth was unfurled in the sanctuary during a time when pews were removed for floor repairs and restoration.

One spring Christina set up a garden labyrinth outside. Jane has several times drawn chalk labyrinths on the surface of the church parking lot, for solstice walks.
Summer Solstice 1
In nearby Bristow, Virginia, there’s a labyrinth at the Benedictine Monastery.

There’s also a stone labyrinth at Shrine Mont, the Episcopal retreat center at Orkney Springs, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Mountains.
shrine mont labyrinth
There’s a special pilgrimage and labyrinth walk planned there in October 2015.

So it was with joy that I learned a labyrinth was being installed at St. Paul’s. Thanks to The Rev. Jim Melnyk’s photography and the wonder of Facebook, I could tune in daily for the pictures in progress and even videos of the local landscaper, Matthew Creech, using a plumb line to measure the circuitous layout, dig out the dirt space with a backhoe loader, and his crew, laying down the stone pavers.

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Photo of the completed labyrinth at St. Paul’s by The Rev. Jim Melnyk

He posted that it was designed by The Labyrinth Company in Connecticut in a seven-circuit design, like the fourteen-circuit labyrinth at Chartres.

I also learned that memorial funds, given in memory of Beverly Jordan, the wife of parishioner, Dr. Lyndon Jordan, had made the labyrinth possible. I didn’t have a chance to know her – she passed away a few months before Curtis and I moved to the area. But this lasting gift especially touched me, as I was widowed in December 1998.

After my first husband, Martin, died, I discovered the labyrinth-like Old Rose Garden, part of the historic Ben Lomond Historic Site in Manassas, Virginia. While my daughter had dance lessons at the community center across the street, I would walk the garden’s paths. When I started in winter, everything was brown and dormant. By spring, I was walking in bare feet on the green grass paths, and all about me the roses were fragrant and beautiful. I learned from that experience how healing such walks can be.
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Photo from Prince William County’s website for the Ben Lomond Historic Site

What a beautiful living tribute to Beverly Jordan, to provide this sacred space where anyone in the community or visiting can lay down their burdens and concerns, and spend quiet time walking with God.
I walked it for the first time on Sunday, and I hope to walk it again today. It was breathtaking to stand at the center and get the wide-angle feeling of pointing true north, centered, with everything green and growing around me. I truly feel at home in this parish now, because we are part of something new. Thank you, people of St. Paul’s, for welcoming us.

The labyrinth at St. Paul’s is open to anyone who wants to walk it. There are brochures in the plastic tube near the entrance. The labyrinth will be dedicated in the fall.

Looking for a labyrinth in your area? Check the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator. If there is a labyrinth that you know of that isn’t in the database, please add it.

Link to an article in the Smithfield Herald — The Rev. Jim Melnyk explains the difference between a maze and a labyrinth. http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/smithfield-herald/article27902770.html

Celebrating America in ‘The Best Little Town in North Carolina’

I opened up the small town newspaper I get in my mailbox at the post office, and there, in the middle, in a two-page spread, is a full size American flag.

I don’t know how much it costs to buy advertising space in two front-and-back pages of the newspaper, but 42 local merchants, professionals and government units got together and did just that so we could have an American flag to put on our front door in Pine Level, North Carolina today.

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Thank you to the Kenly News, The Selma News, the Pine Level News and the Princeton News Leader for printing the American flag.

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And thank you to the folks who sponsored it in Johnston County, North Carolina:

A-1 Mobile Home Supply
Atlantic Coast Protein
Bailey Pharmacy
Boykin Jewelers
Casey Funeral Home
Charlie’s Body Shop
Clayton Homes
Cyn-Mar Whole Sale Florist
Dot’s Cleaners
Dr. Dicky Parrish
Durham’s Garage
Harrison Hardware
Hula Girl Ice Cream & Grill
Johnston Industrial Machinery
Kenly Automotive Supply
Kenly Drug
Kenly Medical Associates
Kenly ServiCenter
Photography by Cindy
Piggly Wiggly Kenly
Pikesville Tire
Pikeville Insurance
Princeton Tire
Selma IGA
Selma Self Storage
Southern Bank Kenly
Stormin’ Norman’s BBQ
Town Market
Town of Kenly
Town of Pine Level
Town of Princeton
Town of Selma
Town of Stantonsburg
Triangle Service
Tri-County EMC
Wayne Wallace State Farm
Wilson Community College
Wilson Parks & Recreation
Wilson Woods
Woodard Drug
Woodard Insurance

Happy July Fourth!