Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (10/19) — Chapter Ten, Camellia (2/5)

OUR NEIGHBOR’S CAMELLIA is covered with buds, while the small camellia we planted two months ago is still trying to take root. But the bush next door is huge and has been there a long, long time.


MORGANTON, N.C. (Jan. 30, 2020) – Poet Nikki Giovanni’s joints are like camellia buds in January—tough, resistant to coldness, blunt … but when her words blossom … worth the wait. Inside those tightly wrapped layers of pink, brown and white, her poems are as soft, as warm, as right as our hearing allows.

For the second time in our lives three Mondays ago, Timberley and I heard Miss Giovanni speak, both of her appearances at Appalachian State University in Boone. The first time was in 1995 at a children’s literature institute that also included children’s authors Brock Cole and Gloria Houston. I don’t especially like that label—children’s author—because it implies, to me, anyway, that the stories and poems aren’t also good for adult consumption. Often I’m nourished so much more fully by children’s literature than adult.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT, two new teas for the two of us to taste; HamBeens’ Cajun 15 Bean Soup for dinner two nights this week; Camellia Brand Beans even sells black-eyed peas; and a third cup of tea with honey in my Cafe Du Monde mug.

Though I understand why literature is labeled (so that you can find it in a bookstore), its simplicity isn’t the best measure of its educational, emotional, nutritional value to the consumer who might buy a book to read to a child. Yes, I was a kid who literally gnawed on his Little Golden Books. Now, as an adult, I still try to devour, figuratively, the best children’s books, but I share them with others at the same time.

I love to read aloud. It was my favorite thing to do as a high school English teacher, whether my fellow educators approved of my approach to teaching literature to non-reading teenagers or not. Several years I taught remedial classes and used sets of Great Illustrated Classics that I’d bought myself to help slow readers consume novels from American authors like Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain and Crane. I was trying to nurse kids with big literary ideas, not force-feed them 19th-century language conventions.

Even then, I read the books out loud in class, calling on individual students now and then to stir the pot while I took a reading break. Also, I used food in conjunction with several novels. We ate New England clam chowder for Moby-Dick. We drank buttermilk and ate cornbread with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And we munched crackers—err, hardtack—with bacon and cheese, and sipped hot, black coffee to “commune with the viands” in The Red Badge of Courage. A steady diet of state testing spoiled that.

Gosh, all of this talk about juvenile literature is making me hungry—which sets the table for me to tell you what Nikki Giovanni told us 25 years ago at that summer conference, well, one thing, anyway, that I’ve carried with me and repeated to my own students. In connection with one of her stories or poems—I don’t remember which one offhand—Miss Giovanni said that sharing a meal with someone should be a special time and that we shouldn’t eat with persons we don’t like. Maybe we were getting ready to break for lunch right then, or maybe we’d just returned for the afternoon—to the haunted old I.G. Greer Auditorium, by the way. But her advice made perfect sense, and I’ve tried to follow it ever since then.

Miss Giovanni also told all of us teachers and wannabe children’s lit writers back then not to take notes while she was speaking—instead, to look up from our notebooks and make eye contact with her, as if it were possible for everyone in the auditorium to do that. As a former news reporter, I was a compulsive note-taker, but I did as the poet asked and laid down my pen that day, and I did so again three Mondays ago when she spoke at App State’s Martin Luther King, Jr., commemoration at Farthing Auditorium in the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts, where we’ve also heard film director Spike Lee, actor Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the old Derek Trucks Band, and Trombone Shorty. ASU is equal opportunity. (My first real concert ever was Maynard Ferguson in old I.G. Greer.)

Of course, if I’d been taking notes, I’d now be able to tell you the names of all the poems Miss Giovanni read, instead of just the one she ended with, “Quilts,” which brought her and us to tears; and I could tell you more of what she said about food, one of her favorite metaphors, in order to loop this essay back to what we’d taken from her talk 25 years ago. She did say the other night that one of her bucket list items is to beat TV chef Bobby Flay on his Food Network cooking show (with rack of lamb, no less); and that black people do fix the best fried chicken, a fact that Timberley and I bemoaned a few long months ago when Hunter’s Fried Chicken over on Rocky Ford Street closed. As Huck Finn would say, facts is facts.

Even ornery old Henry David Thoreau, another author whose work I read to my students, admitted that food is one of life’s four “necessaries,” along with shelter, fuel and clothes (except in tropical climates). I don’t remember anything in Walden or “Civil Disobedience” about fried chicken, but Henry did have much to say about beans, another Southern comfort food that I mentioned in an earlier chapter. Henry said he was determined to know beans, but one thing he left out was a recipe for a good pot of pintos.

The other day we fixed a slow-cooker of Camellia Brand pintos, the finest kind, with sliced jalapeño peppers, a chopped onion, a few pieces of rinsed-off salt pork and some lemon juice. Mm-mm-good.

I also took out Miss Giovanni’s poetry collection Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea and read “In the Spirit of Martin,” about how the American civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties reached back into the past and still reaches out to us today. About a society that jails anyone unjustly, she says, “But what … Mr. Thoreau said to Mr. Emerson … are you doing out? / This is a Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” adding toward the end of her “sacred poem” that Martin should have “wafted that wonderful laugh over a plate of skillet fried chicken … drop biscuits … dandelion greens on the side.” Nourishing our spirits.

Way back when, Miss Giovanni also told us that we shouldn’t worry about setting cups and glasses on books at home, because those coffee and water rings only add value—memories—to the book jackets.

Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, another speaker that Timberley and I have heard at Farthing Auditorium, explained his book’s title to us, that taking three cups of tea with a native of Afghanistan or Pakistan—in three separate visits, not three cups at once—seals one’s friendship with that individual. I don’t remember Mortenson going into any detail about the type of tea or how long it should be steeped before being poured. One can only assume the tea was from the Camellia sinensis plant whose leaves and leaf buds are used around the world for black, green, oolong and other popular teas besides herbal.

The other day we bought some oolong for the first time and some Darjeeling tea, as well. The Twinings oolong comes from Fujian Province in China; the Darjeeling tea, from the Himalayan foothills of India.

I also pulled out Mortenson’s book—yes, I know it’s controversial—and I re-read this passage: “We all sat there laughing and sipping tea peacefully, an infidel and representatives from three warring sects of Islam. And I thought if we can get along this well, we can accomplish anything. The British policy was ‘divide and conquer.’ But I say ‘unite and conquer.’” Whatever you think of the book, the idea is sound.

Today Timberley and I are volunteering as substitute teachers for the Burke County Literacy Council’s Project Flower, a non-profit program that focuses on helping immigrants improve their English reading, writing and speaking skills. The three “blossoms” in Project Flower’s logo are a book, a heart and, no, not a camellia, but a purple coneflower or echinacea. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say again that those opportunities—cooperative learning with motivated students—are the best of my teaching career.

Two years ago, when we last volunteered with Project Flower, the students made Guatemalan chicken tostadas for two local events that we attended—a fundraiser at Catawba Brewing Company and a year-end celebration at Grace Episcopal Church. I’d never had a tostada that good, certainly not at Taco Bell. The ladies used green beans instead of red beans or pintos, and the toppings were shredded, oh, so fine. We paired our tostadas with two Farmer Teds at the brewery and one, maybe two glasses of sweet tea in the parish hall of the church.

I’m so hungry right now. My stomach is growling.

So how can I end this essay about Nikki Giovanni? Isn’t that what I do—start with one topic and then seem to wander from one digression to another before turning my writing back on itself to finish with my original topic? Which was … what, exactly, Alex? Things I remember from a summer conference 25 years ago? That Miss Giovanni recommended the Sylvester Stallone movie Demolition Man to us, and that we later watched—and loved—that science-fiction thriller, even though I don’t generally like anything in science-fiction or fantasy genres? That in Demolition Man, Taco Bell—like today—takes over a strange new world, where music consists solely of commercial jingles, and where citizens are monitored electronically around-the-clock and tagged on the spot for curse words uttered? Where the nation is divided … literally … and the least and the last among us must go underground to live and love and keep from being lost for good in a universe that worships Money, Power and Fame?

I don’t know …

Maybe a third cup of tea … oolong … with vanilla almond milk and pure wildflower honey will help.

“Add freshly boiled water. Steep 3 minutes or to desired strength. Do not microwave.”