Book Review: Andrew Gifford’s “We All Scream”

0609171345_resized (2)I couldn’t wait for my copy of We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford’s Ice Cream Empire by Andrew Gifford to arrive in the mail.

The book promotion said, For more than seventy years, Gifford’s Ice Cream and Candy Company was associated with nothing but pleasure for native Washingtonians and visitors to the nation’s capital. But behind the iconic business’s happy façade lay elaborate schemes, a crushing bankruptcy, two million dollars of missing cash, and a tragic suicide. As the last Gifford heir unfolds his story with remarkable immediacy and candor, he reveals the byzantine betrayals and intrigue rooted in the company from its modest beginnings — dark influences that would ultimately destroy the legendary Gifford business and its troubled founding family.

When the book finally landed in my post office box, I saved it for just the right time, packing it in my purse to read to my husband as we drove from North Carolina to Tennessee and back on vacation (I’d done the same on the way to and from Maine last year, reading myself hoarse on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, another fine book).

Andrew’s We All Scream gripped us like tires on mountain curves, our emotions shifting gears with each climb and descent in the author’s life. Chapter upon chapter piled up the familial baggage, which he then methodically decluttered, one disquieting revelation after another. By the time we arrived back home four days later, weary and with cinders still in my purse from a coal-fired ride on the Tweetsie Railroad, we still had a hundred pages left to finish. We savored them over three quiet evenings, left to discuss the humanity of our own families in the end.

The real story of Andrew Gifford’s life was everything I suspected it would be, and more. I wasn’t looking for the dreamy nostalgia of Gifford’s Ice Cream, so you won’t find any sticky sweet sentiments here. In fact I think I only went to their store once, with my friend Kathy and her sisters, when we were in our teens, back in the early 1970s. It was the popular place to go. At the time I was a troubled adolescent. Hanging out with Kathy’s functional family kept me going until I could find the emotional growth and faith to deal with my demons. I had no idea that behind the freezer cases and candy counters lurked a family more dysfunctional than my own.

I didn’t pick up the book to looky-loo at the Gifford’s business fail and missing millions. I could have picked that up from news articles.

What I wanted to hear was Andrew’s voice, the voice of The Boy Who Survived, now a man, freed from the horrors of an abusive family. Andrew’s book delivered that, loud and clear. As someone who also turned to writing to heal wounds, I cheered as he steered clear of self-destruction, and processed his feelings on paper. He plotting his escape, worked to fund it, and succeeded, despite many obstacles. Along the way he helped other writers by producing publications that showcased their work.

Reading We All Scream was like sitting in a counselor’s office and spilling out the most horrifying revelations while water gurgles in a coffee table rock fountain. He plays the long game, leading his reader from a child-sized exploration of a basement laundry chute, where we run our fingers along mysterious scratched lettering to, by book’s end, the closet of an Atlanta apartment where we are primed to unlatch his father’s long-lost briefcase.

The author claims his space. He is Andrew, not the heir to a legacy, not the breadwinner, the invalid caregiver, the  co-conspirator, the savior. Because he makes it okay to just be Andrew, his book gives the rest of us a roadmap to overcome the roles others force on us. We are not victims, not heroes, just survivors. We want to “be.”

The author recognizes he can’t fight the cult of Gifford’s Ice Cream and fan nostalgia for memories of Swiss sundaes. At least now he can deflect them, with “have you read my book?” and offer them the link to a buy button. I wish him many book sales. I wish him peace.

I don’t keep many books. I’ve already passed on Hillbilly Elegy. This one I am keeping.

 

Street poetry: Selma at the Crossroads

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Town of Selma, North Carolina Sesquicentennial 1867-2017

 

On May 1, I had the honor of reading a poem I wrote for Selma, North Carolina’s sesquicentennial. Museum volunteers held a brief Founders Day ceremony with a few costumed citizens and refreshments in a pocket park on Anderson Street. There at the podium, with modern trains and traffic in the background, I read this:

Selma at the Crossroads

Weekday morning, Selma stirs

With railcars rumbling from the feed mill.

Gates descend; Amtrak slows into Union Station.

Commuters wait as each train

Rolls out past farmers turning the gray soil.

 

We are Selma at the crossroads

Measuring the past in wars;

From land parcels sold at Civil War’s end

To the blast of munitions at Catch Me Eye

That smashed 900 window panes three miles away.

 

Every fall we march a pageant of what we hold dear

Down Raiford Street, waving at the pretty girls

In their sparkling crowns

Praying our own children grow up and stay here

To raise families, to own homes, to run businesses.

 

We are Selma at the crossroads, between those

Hungry for knowledge and those for food;

Between the hard choice to pay bills or buy medicine.

It takes courage to smash apathy like a glass jar

Of “Selmalaise” from the shelf of the market store.

 

To do more than just pass each other

On Pollock, Anderson or Webb.

To mentor young leaders, to revive our faith,

To reach down to the tangled roots

And aerate the soil with reconciliation.

 

To pull the weeds of despair and doubt,

Prune the dead branches of pessimism

And let new growth have room to flourish.

Don’t just hum that lingering Sunday hymn

Join the choir. Take part in outreach.

 

We are Selma at the crossroads,

Between what was and what we will become,

Between labors ended and labors begun.

Between buildings vacant and those awakening

To red awnings, fresh paint, new lumber, nail gun to shingle.

 

Stand at the cornerstone laid 150 years ago

See the Selma that rises beyond

Linear tracks and street grids

With a vibrancy that moves in panorama

And soars spread-winged like an eagle above.

 

See Selma as if you had to leave her tomorrow

And carry her in your heart.

What would you take?

Would you come back?

We are Selma at the crossroads.

 

Cindy Brookshire

Town of Selma Sesquicentennial

Founders Day, May 1, 2017

 

If you want to see a short video, it’s posted on Facebook here (look in the video section or scroll to May 1, 2017).

As a backstory, I’d been working on the poem several weeks. The only person I showed it to, besides my husband, Curtis, was my pastor, Rev. Jim Melnyk of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield. Priests are like doctors, they have this cowboy code where they are compelled to tell you stuff straight up. I knew if it fell flat, he’d let me know. And he’s a poet, along with his brother. Father Jim came through. He gave me some good editing points, especially this:

My brother (who is better than I am at this – much better) always tells me I have too many words… I need less to say more. 

Less is more.

I edited the poem, mowing away the overgrown prose, and leaving room for the reader or listener to call up their own images of Selma, not mine. Here’s the earlier version, for comparison. Have a wonderful May, remember “less is more” and take your poetry to the streets!

Selma at the Crossroads (an earlier draft)

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Psalm 118:22

Weekday morning, Selma stirs

With the rumble of rocking railcars

Leaving the feed mill. Gates descend;

Amtrak blasts and slows into Union Station,

Disembarking travelers. Each train’s freight

Of soybeans or passengers rolls past

Farmers turning the gray soil of North Carolina,

Rotating collards, sweet potatoes, tobacco.

Commuters, compliant at the crossings,

Tap iPhones, sip coffee, bite into a sausage biscuit.

 

We are Selma at a crossroads

Measuring the past in wars; when land parcels

Sold at Civil War’s end and roads were

Packed by wagon dirt and mule-pressed mud.

Seventy-five years ago, a blast of World War II

Munitions leveled the Talton Hotel at Catch Me Eye

And smashed 900 window panes

Of the Selma Cotton Mill three miles away.

We fought to preserve this small town,

So our children would grow up and stay

To raise families, to buy homes, to run businesses.

 

We are Selma at a crossroads

Between those hungry for knowledge

And those for food; between pride in our property

And those so beaten down by low wages,

Long work shifts and doctor bills

They can’t see up from the bottom rung.

 

It takes courage to smash apathy like a glass jar

Of “Selmalaise” from the shelf of the IGA.

To do more than just pass each other

On Raiford, Anderson or Webb.

To mentor young leaders, to revive our faith,

To reach down to the tangled roots

And aerate the soil with racial reconciliation

Pull the weeds of despair and doubt,

Prune the dead branches of pessimism

And let new growth have room to flourish.

Don’t just hum that lingering Sunday hymn

Join the choir. Don’t just wave back

At the pretty girl in her sparkling crown

At the Railroad Days parade.

Make sure every teenager in Selma

Has an opportunity for scholarship.

 

We are Selma at a crossroads

Between what was and what we will become

Between labors ended and labors begun

Between buildings vacant and those

Awakening to red awnings, fresh paint

New lumber, nail gun to shingle.

 

A strong town can’t happen

Without people who care

And understand what others around the state

Know: Place matters more than ever.

Come back to the cornerstone laid 150 years ago

See the Selma that rises beyond

Linear roads and railroad tracks

The vibrancy that moves like a Facebook 360

And soars like a drone above.

 

See Selma as if you had to leave her

Tomorrow and carry her in your heart.

What would you take?

The music from The Rudy?

An ice cold milkshake from Creech Drug?

I would take this: Sunrise service

At Greenwood and the way my heart beats

Under my hand when I rise

To say the Pledge of Allegiance

At a town council meeting.

The laughter coming from the barbershop

While swapping stories

Relay races at the Boys & Girls Club

Welcoming the stranger to town at the visitor center.

We are Selma at the crossroads.

 

Cindy Brookshire

Town of Selma’s Founders Day

May 1, 2017

 

 

A Poem a Day

 

 

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Reading “Poison Ivy” and “Aqua Motion” at the fourth Friday Open Mic at Hula Girl Café in Selma, NC.

Yay! My poem, “Flowers Bruise Too Easily,” and short story, “Saturday Morning Skate,” have been accepted for publication in The Virginia Writers Club Centennial Anthology. Release is targeted for VWC’s annual meeting in November 2017 to kick off the club’s 100th year in 2018. I am so happy!

 

It’s like plucking a ripe tomato I grew to give to a neighbor. Something I nurtured took flight beyond me. My writing and my tomatoes have wings!

Every April, which is National Poetry Month, I like to write a poem a day. I started in 2014, when Katherine Gotthardt led a poetry workshop in historic Manassas, Virginia. I wrote one with Katherine. Then I wrote another. And another! I filled April with poems. I didn’t realize I had them inside me. Now, April has become like poetry-hatching season.

This month, I’m encouraging everyone I know to join me and write a poem a day. In fact, every Thursday this month (April 6, 13, 20 and 27), from 4 to 6 pm I’ll be hosting a “Coffee with a Poet” at Grapes & Grounds, a coffee shop at 135 S Third Street in Smithfield, North Carolina. Hang out with me over coffee or a glass of wine and we’ll write poetry together or just talk about writing. I’ll have lots of poetry templates and writing prompts on hand, thanks to tips from poet John Dutton, a nominee for Prince William Poet Laureate and facilitator for Spilled Ink, an open mic at Jirani Coffeehouse in Manassas, Virginia.

Then, on Friday, April 28 from 7 to 9 pm, come to the fourth Friday Open Mic at Hula Girl Café, 103 S Raiford Street in Selma, North Carolina and sign up to read your poems! This open mic is hosted by Cornerstone Writers, a new writing group in Selma, facilitated by Susanne Pote of Platform Pounce, Hula Girl’s next door neighbor. Come with an appetite — Hula Girl is famous for their applejacks (fried fruit pies). Jennifer serves them with scoops of ice cream and whipped cream on top.

Meanwhile, here’s a poem I wrote last year. I carried wallet-sized copies of it in my purse and handed them out at one of those business after hours that the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce sponsored. Taking poetry everywhere!

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Drive-thru Poem

As workday morning rises

Cars ring-a-round drive-thru lanes

Of a nearby fast food restaurant.

It doesn’t matter which chain.

 

They would circle Dante’s Inferno

If the poet advertised

Bacon egg and cheese biscuits

On the way down.

 

I’m hungry for a poem

But there’s no window for that.

Not even a pizza poem, vegan verse

Or raisin rhyme.

 

I’m left to bake my own

Jotting it down on the back

Of a Val-u-pak coupon

While waiting at lights for change.

 

I find it weeks later, squirreled

In the glove compartment

Of a 16-year-old Saturn

In need of two new tires.

A gift, like a coupon

That never expires.

 

Cindy Brookshire

I have a Quran in my home

booksThe recent Muslim travel ban, which has no credible national security rationale for it, reminded me of the ignorance and hate against immigrants and refugees that I encountered when I lived in Manassas, Virginia.

I was working the counter at a local government office one day, when an elderly white man came in. I can’t remember what set him off, but he went on a long-winded rant about radical Islamic terrorism, ending with “Read your Quran!” as the bell-jangling door closed behind him.

He didn’t know it, but I have a Quran in my home.

When my first husband, Martin, was senior warden at Trinity Episcopal Church, he visited Manassas Mosque with our rector, Rev. Stuart Schadt. On that visit, Imam Abu Nahidian gave him a copy of the holy book.

I know Martin read it. After his death in 1998 I found his bookmarks and handwritten notes on legal paper throughout its pages. I cherish it because he studied it. And while I didn’t read it at the time, I believe I see it revealed in the people who live its teachings.

Like Mr. Nahidian. When his mosque grew into a new location at an industrial park near I66, it was spray-painted with graffiti numerous times. In 2014, when it happened again and a glass door was also broken, he welcomed Unity in the Community, an outreach group of which I was a member, to come and talk about ways we could counter these hate crimes with education.

Or like Taalibah Hassan, the chair of Unity, who welcomed us to Dar Al Noor Islamic Community Center on Hoadly Road in Manassas for numerous community events, including the showing of a film about the rise and fall of Islamic culture in (now) Spain. I went there with a fellow writer, Adelaida Lower, a native of Morocco, who was working on The Red Ribbon, a novel set in 1491 Spain. I admit, I was anxious about the unfamiliar customs at the center – walking through a door separate from men, leaving our shoes in a cubby, covering our heads with scarves – until, once inside, we encountered the familiar – a Girl Scout troop selling cookies in the foyer. After the film discussion, we were invited to prayer and a shared meal of kebabs, pastry pies, vegetables, figs. Delicious!

Or like Afzal Nasiri and his wife, Marie Khalili. I met Al through the Prince William Chamber of Commerce. He hired me to help edit an English translation of Marie’s book, Memoirs of Khalilullah Khalili, An Afghan Philosopher Poet: A Conversation with his Daughter.

khaliliI sat typing on a notebook computer with Al – a former editor of the Kabul Times – while he translated from Persian. I was fascinated at how Marie’s father, an eyewitness to eight decades of Afghan history and the reign of four kings, from British rule to Soviet coup, could end up sitting in a lawn chair in New Jersey, talking into a tape recorder as she interviewed him about his life. He was once ambassador and secretary to King Zahir Shah. He authored 70 works of poetry, fiction, histories and Sufi studies. He had even been unjustly thrown into an Afghan prison at one point. In his words:

“It was evening and darkness fell. I picked up a few pieces of coal and wrote a poem on the wall of the prison cell … In the morning … as soon as [the guard’s] eyes fell on the wall he said, ‘Are you trying to have me killed? … Your right to write has been taken away. The investigators will come and I will be in trouble!’ He wiped my poetry from the wall and cleaned it, despite my pleas to leave it there. ‘It’s only a poem,’ I said.”

As a writer, I couldn’t think of anything worse than being confined without the means to write, and censored by a government. I learned Khalili died in exile and was buried in Pakistan, near the tomb of Pashtu poet Rahman Baba. In 2012, Marie’s father’s remains were finally returned to Afghan soil and re-interred in a place of honor near Kabul University.

In 2017, I am living in eastern North Carolina. Now the rants about radical Islamic terrorism are coming from another elderly white man in highest government office. His words, ringing in the House Chamber at the center of the U.S. Capitol, are as sharp as the spray-painted words and broken glass that confronted the children of Manassas Mosque that summer day. He protests he’s not talking about American citizens like Mr. Nahidian or Taalibah or Al or Marie, but his words stir up hate and fear, all the same.

The Rev. Laurie Brock, in a Lenten meditation on her popular blog, Dirty Sexy Ministry (because faith is…), suggests that we consider experiencing other faith traditions as part of our journey toward Easter this year:

The religious literacy of most people in this country is limited. Lent is a wonderful time to experience and learn about other faith traditions. Visit a synagogue or mosque. Attend another Christian denomination. Read the holy writings of other faith traditions. For a great primer on this, explore Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy. Further, offer yourself to experience other faith traditions not to feel superior about our own traditions, but to see the truth in their expression of God.”

One such opportunity is an open house hosted by the Islamic Association of Raleigh on Saturday, March 11. The event is 11 am to 4 pm and includes tours of the Mosque, lunch, and a keynote address by Imam Abu Taleb, PhD. The location is 808 Atwater Street in Raleigh.

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If I don’t attend the open house, I have another opportunity – to hear Nida Allam speak. She’s the newly elected Third Vice Chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, and has been vocal about politicians who use the rhetoric that attaches Muslim to ISIL, which only feeds into the narrative of us vs. them. Nida will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Democratic Women of Johnston County/Democratic Men of Johnston County, on Thursday, March 16 at 6:30 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 218 S. Second St., Smithfield, NC. The group is collecting donations to Harbor, Inc. Use this link www.harborshelter.org/donate to see what items are needed.

And yes, I will read my Quran.

I was inspired to write this after reading Barbara Presnell’s “Muslims who have changed my life” in the Lexington Dispatch.

http://www.the-dispatch.com/entertainment/20170216/barbara-presnell-muslims-who-have-changed-my-life

Waiting for the Doctor

0130171155a_resizedNothing makes me more humble than sitting in a tiny exam room at the clinic, waiting for the doctor to enter.

Time expands. In the waiting room, there is an endless stream of people to probe and measure, diagnose and prescribe. We are all slowly floating along, vinyl tubes in a wide, slow river.

I read the taped notices on the wall, from “cover your cough” to “have you had your flu shot?” The stack of dog-eared magazines next to a toddler toy and box of crayons does not appeal. In the distance, a child cries. I am reminded of a time, almost 35 years ago, when my soon-to-be husband and I waited in a similar exam room of a harried young oncologist with a brusque manner. My guy had just been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and we were still in shock. Through the wall we could hear an adult shouting in the next exam room, then moaning, then weeping. It scared the crap out of me, but didn’t stop me from marrying him. We had a long and loving journey of 16 years.

I scramble around in my purse for a pen, and start drafting this blog post in the margins of a program leftover from Sunday’s church service. A plain, boring room is suddenly brimming with details I feel compelled to list, much like the “I spy with my little eye…” game. Above the exam table, I spot a soft ceiling panel painted to look like a serene lake scene with a small boat floating amid cattails. How delightful! My dentist in Manassas, Virginia had done something similar, tacking exotic photos from his world travels on the ceiling over his patients reclined in dental exam chairs.

On the back of the door is a “leaves of three, let them be” faded poster with rows of photos identifying poisonous plants to avoid. Beside it is taped a bright yellow ruler chart with vertical markings for measuring height. The dam of memories breaks, washing over me. How many times? – twelve? twenty? fifty? more? – did I bring our children into rooms like this for vaccinations and wellness checks, sports physicals, strep throat, ear infections, fevers, a bike accident. We were blessed with a girl and a boy, even after my husband’s cancer treatments. In the blink of an eye, they are now 26 and 30 years old. Their pediatrician is probably long retired.

I think about my present doctor, a general practitioner. Since these diplomas were placed under glass and framed on the wall, she has probably seen a never-ending torrent of children and teens growing and developing, becoming sexual and fertile, birthing their own children. And she has seen adults, from idealist to aging in the natural course of life, and then withering in the devastation that comes from accidents and illness and disease. Where am I in this flow?

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I hear a noise, the scrape of papers from the plastic holder on the outside of the door. The metal knob turns. The doctor enters and sits on the once empty stool, apologizing for the delay. She keys information into her laptop as we talk, then rests it on the counter. She takes my pulse, listens to my heart and lungs, asks me how I feel after two weeks of antibiotics. She presses me on either side, and two sharp pains radiate upward. The antibiotics have done their job, but I am still healing, she says. Drink water. Lots of water. If the tenderness continues past two weeks, or any other sign pops up, contact her office.

I exit quickly, set free to breeze past the waiting room full of people to be probed and measured, diagnosed and prescribed. I am grateful for the warmth of the sun on my face and the steady ground beneath my feet. Reprieve.

Bathtub Books

0103171248_resizedThese days, I reduce, reuse and recycle books.

I reduce by avoiding Amazon.com. If I can’t find a book I want at a local independently-owned bookstore, I think twice about the purchase.

I reuse by giving away autographed books by local authors as auction items or door prizes at fundraisers. I borrow and return books in good shape to The Little Free Library in Pine Level, the Selma Public Library, the Harrison Center for Active Aging in Selma, and HealthQuest Fitness Center in Smithfield.

I recycle by sharing books with others in the book bucket at church.

But I have a confession to make. On occasion, I rip up paperback fiction, page by page, as I read and soak in the bathtub.

These are dog-eared paperbacks bought for 25 cents at yard sales.

I rationalize the books are going to get wet anyway. And no one is going to miss the millionth copy of a book by an author with a monopoly on an entire shelf in Books-a-Million in Goldsboro. You know, branded names who dominate endcaps, have promotional tent cards on Joe Muggs tables, and make the New York Times bestseller list before a single new volume is on the shelf. In a three-second glance at cover design, title, name, it’s an impulse buy. The author is cents-on-the-dollar richer, a million times over. The rest feeds the corporate machine of agents, publishers, marketers. The story is just another harpoon dragged along with the whale. The “buy” is all. By ripping up yardsale paperbacks, I’m not destroying a work of art – it’s just paper and color – the equivalent of a “paint and sip” painting.

Or so I rationalize. My latest bathtub book is by a male romance writer who bristles at the label. He insists he’s a fiction writer. No matter. He is creeping up into the Barbara Cartland (1 billion), Danielle Steel (800 million) and Nora Roberts (400 million) sales club with his 105 million books sold. The book is about a widow and her dog. I’m a remarried widow. I have a dog. That’s why I picked it up. But this widow exhibits none of the crazy tornado family rollercoaster behavior I went through 18 years ago. The auto mechanic friend who loves her, the crazy rich guy who tries to woo her – even the loyal dog – are all cardboard stick characters, and the plot is a half-hearted “stranger comes to town.” A typical online review is “wasn’t a huge fan of this one, but I am looking forward to his next novel.” Huh? But I paid a quarter for this one! I know I will forget this paperback as soon as I drain the tub and discard the last page.

I admit my compulsion in ripping up paperback fiction is rooted in jealousy. “I can write better than this,” I think. But then, I haven’t. And which one of us is in a little tub in Pine Level, and which of us owns a mansion built to his specifications lakeside with who knows how many bathrooms with soaking tubs?

Oh well. This prolific male romance writer is cranking out two more books at this moment. He has the opportunity to make many more sales. Women in soaking tubs have made him so. His books pop forward on chain bookstore shelves like store brand tomato sauce cans neatly stacked at Town Market. I put one in my cart this week, and next week, there will be another.

Popular columnist shares humor, honesty over coffee

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Barry Saunders reads from his second book, “…And the Horse You Rode in on, Saunders!” Event organized by Mountaintop Productions Public Relations, Smithfield.

National Novel Writing Month, and our final write-in, ended with a great plot twist on Tuesday, Nov. 29.

 

Writers Gary Ridout, Evelyn Wool, Hope Dougherty and I were finishing our labors at Grapes & Grounds coffee shop in Smithfield, N.C., when in walked award-winning Raleigh News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders!

Saunders was there to discuss his book, …And the Horse You Rode in On, Saunders! The book is a compilation of his columns from 1995-2005.

We joined the gathering crowd and listened as Saunders spun stories and shared the humor and honesty of 23 years of toiling in newsrooms. The biggest surprise? He loves it when people criticize his columns. If he’s not being challenged, he doesn’t think he’s doing his job. He knows he has a tough audience to please, and works hard not to be predictable.

I started reading Saunders when I moved to Pine Level two years ago. His columns were a window on my new environs, where some locals called me “Miss Cindy” or “Suge” while others were taking a raised-fist stand on HB2, voting rights, eminent domain. All his subjects were relevant in my little corner.

The Saunders column that cemented my subscription to the N&O was “Writing Salvaged My Life,” (February 8, 2015). His subject was Shelby Stephenson, who grew up on a farm in Benson and was, at the time, being installed as North Carolina Poet Laureate. After reading an earlier column (Saunders: “If it weren’t for my danged deadline, I’d still gladly be listening to Shelby Stephenson’s stories.”) I drove to Raleigh to witness the installation myself. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to stand under the state capitol dome, in a chamber filled with educators and literary hall of famers and see a humble writer so honored.

Saunders wrote: “Stephenson said he sometimes reads publicly, often with other noted Tar Heel poets as Jaki Shelton Green. ‘She’s always getting on me for writing about possums,’ he said, laughing at the gentle rebukes. ‘I’ve written two books about possums. We ate so many of them growing up that I try to give back to the possum community.’”

He also quoted Stephenson: “Creativity is in each of us. It’s not something just a few people have.”

Saunders made me realize how accessible Stephenson is. So I asked the laureate to speak to our writers group in Selma, which he did. Stephenson also traveled to my former hometown of Manassas, Virginia, where he participated in a poetry event, “In the Company of Laureates,” at the Hylton Performing Arts Center that involved five state poets laureate and others, which a fellow writer, June Forte, arranged in October 2015.

Tuesday night, Saunders shared with the gathering at Grapes & Grounds about growing up in Rockingham, N.C. and his college days at Morehouse. His first newspaper job at The Atlanta Constitution, was writing obituaries. He said he learned the hard way, that spelling names correctly is vital, “because some people only get their name in the paper twice, when they are born and when they die.” He is still haunted by a hurriedly typed “Rhett” that should have been “Ray.”

Saunders shared that in 23 years of writing columns, he’s had to apologize and “eat crow” about 10 times. He said people respect you when you admit your mistake. And his favorite columns are the ones that produce positive action, like helping an ex-felon find a job or a teenager getting much-needed shoes. His worst column? Well, the title of his book is the tail end of a curse one reader hurled at him after publication of a particularly trouble-stirring one. Saunders joyfully admits his book would make a great holiday gift for friends and enemies alike.

Copies of Saunders’ signed book are available at Grapes & Grounds, located next door to the Howell Theatre at 135 South Third Street in Smithfield, N.C.

If you’d like to meet with other local writers, the Johnston County Writers Group meets the second Thursday of the month at 6:30 pm at the Selma Public Library, 301 N. Pollock Street in Selma. Our next meeting is Dec. 8, 2016.