‘The Climb’ to Ruby Falls during a year that wasn’t

Is there a certain memory that has stuck out in 2020?
For myself, it was a grueling hike up a mountain in the South Carolina Upstate.

In a year dominated by the pandemic, most writers have opted to not write about the virus that has killed thousands and led to even more division in our country. The reason may be simply because most writers prefer to use writing as an escape, says Paul Reali, one of the co-founders of the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts organization.

“It’s particularly hard to write about the pandemic, especially when we’re sitting in the middle of it,” Reali said during a Tuesday, Dec. 15 Pen to Paper Live writing session, which is a weekly gathering where writers are given a mini-lesson and writing prompt. The sessions, which will resume in January 2021, are free and preregistration is required.

Writing can lead to revelation, Reali says, noting that “we write to make meaning.”

Sometimes a subject — such as Covid-19 and as he calls 2020 “the year that wasn’t” — may seem way too big to tackle, Reali says. It is those times when a writer must “chip away” and document those things one has witnessed and felt over the past 12 months. These pandemic experiences can be documented through short vignettes similar to the recollections told in the New York Times Metropolitan Diary.

As part of the Pen to Paper Live session, Reali encouraged the nine participants to write a moment from their pandemic experience. The following is my story.

The Climb

We stop halfway up the mountain. The air is thinning as we’ve climbed another 1,000 feet and our lungs are burning and our legs heavy. It’s a quiet Thanksgiving Day afternoon. If we listen closely, we can hear the Middle Saluda far below, its water weaving around and over boulders draped with green, clingy moss.

“Do we continue on or just turn around,” my wife asks. 

She is in much better shape than I and has always had more energy and spirit. In a lot of ways, I feed off of her and love her for that. But here and now, my ankles hurt and there is a gnawing tug along my muddied and bloodied right calf. I’m close to calling it quits.

There’s been job loss, death and multitude of change in 2020. We had decided to flee to nature as we considered how to give thanks in a year of Covid-19 and had mostly hiked the 4-mile trail at Jones Gap State Park alone. 

As we sit trying to capture our breath and lower our heart rate, we see two hikers carefully picking their way among rocks and tree roots on the narrow trail to and from Ruby Falls. They are much younger and hipper and the couple pulls up their neck gaiters as they near. 

We step back off the trail and we’re enclosed by the rhododendron and mountain laurel, a near disappearing act. They see us, husband and wife, hands held and maskless.

“You’re nearly there,” he says.

“Trust me,” she says, “it’s totally worth all the pain.”

After they pass, we stand on the trail. We look upward, a steep stair stepper of unforgiving rock awaiting.

“You lead. I’ll follow,” my wife says.

I look at her and smile. I turn and then we climb together.

Getting creative with Pen to Paper: Jelly and whiskey in the Mississippi Delta

Stuck in your creative work? Why not try Charlotte Lit’s Pen to Paper Live!
I ended up with “Jelly and Whiskey in the Mississippi Delta.”

Tuesday morning, Dec. 8, I took part in a Pen to Paper Live! creative program offered by the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, commonly known as Charlotte Lit.

The free weekly sessions offer a mini-lesson and and present a writing prompt. Though I have been a member of Charlotte Lit and its Author’s Lab for the past year, this was the first opportunity I had to participate in one of the writing-in-community sessions, which are usually held in person but were moved online with the pandemic and social distancing restrictions. This one was attended by 14 other writers.

I thoroughly enjoyed the hour-long meet-up and would highly recommend it for those creative sorts who are currently uninspired or stuck. Preregistration is required. For this non-coffee-drinking guy who can sleepwalk through the hours before noon, Pen to Paper Live! gave me a spark and led to me writing this blog and continuing work on my novel.

This week’s session was on Cento. Kathie Collins, executive director and one of the founders of Charlotte Lit, led Tuesday’s session and came up with the writing prompt from a recent article in the New York Times. You can read the article to learn more, but basically Cento is a sort of “collage poem” crafted from lines, words, phrases from other sources and then patching together those lines to create a poem.

It’s a way of allowing you to express some subconscious needs through someone else’s work, Collins said. “Consider it another tool for your toolbox,” she said.

I am far from a poet, as the following selection will absolutely prove, but I did find it a fun, creative exercise. For my assignment, I chose to pull from the writings of author Hank Burdine and his story collection “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy.” The story “The ‘Britchesless’ Bachelor” is one of my favorites, especially hearing Hank read it in person with his Delta drawl and his deep baritone acquired via healthy amounts of good whiskey.

Below is my first attempt at Cento. Let’s call it:

Jelly and Whiskey in the Delta

White-coated valets and 15 blue-haired little ladies

Gather for sundry debutante parties in Beulah in the Delta

Me, a member of the Bachelor’s Club, a pool for the Delta Debs

Made haste to Dossett Plantation in my black two-door Pontiac Grand Prix 

I arrived in a hand-me-down tuxedo with cummerbund

Yet, about to pass out because my britches were too tight

My date, Blanche Shackleford, fled to the slough unencumbered

As the Budweiser had filled her holding tank, quite a site.

Meanwhile, my unhitched pants fell to my knees

And I’d forgotten to put my car in park

Blanche emerged from the slough and the trees, 

And so, Blanche gave chase, shaking and boogying

So fierce, her left bosom shimmied out of her dress

And there it remained, quivering like jelly.

“Blanche, my Gawd” the little ladies shouted

Upon which, she tucked it right back into the top of her gown

And I, on a quest to drink good whiskey

found Mr. Dixon Dossett where we told tall tales in his gunroom until dawn.

Compiled from “The Britchesless Batchelor.” A story from “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy” by Mississippi author Hank Burdine.