Jacki Kellum

Juxtapositions: Read My Mind

Category: Mindfulness

My Memories of the Cotton Fields of My Childhood Home

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Although I lived most of my life in Mississippi, I actually grew up in Gideon, a very small farm community in Southeast Missouri. This is the area that is called the Bootheel, which is is the part of Missouri that juts down below the rest of the state line– downward into what would otherwise be Arkansas or Tennessee.

When I was a child, I was surrounded for miles by cotton fields, cotton gins, and the dark, rich soil that the Mississippi River had deposited there in earlier years. Because this is the flood zone of the Mississippi River, the soil is so very rich that hardly any of it is wasted on trees. Occasionally, you might see a narrow line of vegetation crossing the terrain; but that would probably be on the banks of one of the small creek-like waterways that was long ago dug there to catch the river, should it flood again.

Collectively, the waterways around my home were called The Floodways. Individually, each of the bodies of water had one of the following less than illustrious  names: 1 Ditch, 2 Ditch, 3 Ditch, etc. That is the truth.  During the 1950’s and 1960’s, there wasn’t a lot of effusiveness or ornamentation about Southeast Missouri, but it was enough. In fact, it was more than enough, and in many ways, I’d give anything to get back to the Gideon of my childhood again, but that playground is gone in every way but that of my mind.

Fortunately, my memory of childhood is still very sharp and fairly reliable.  One thing I recall is that when I was a child, life was rather immobile. We had cars, but there was very little jumping behind the wheel and darting here and there. My diminutive hometown was actually fairly self-sufficient, and at that time, there was not much need to commute far beyond there. That, in itself, added to the quietness and simplicity of my childhood.

Because the Bootheel’s farm children  were bused into town for school each day, tiny communities formed around places where the school buildings were established. A few of those communities even had a store or two. When I was very young, there was a little, general department store a dimestore, a hardware store, a drugstore, and an IGA grocery store in Gideon, but those places are gone now. Times have changed, but when I was a child, Cotton was a prosperous King in my hometown, and his people lived fairly well.

The above is my unfinished pencil sketch of a cotton plant. The drawing is fairly accurate but it is messy and it needs to be cleaned up. I always tell my students to draw what they know, and I know cotton.

I especially know cotton when the leaves have begun to dry up, but the cotton is still fluffy and is beginning to fall out of the hulls.

In many ways, my childhood was determined by Cotton, and my calendar was punctuated by the various stages of its growth cycle. The winter was slow and quiet. Spring was an awakening, and summer was a time of growth. During fall, the roads were lined with trailers being pulled by tractors. In ant-like procession, they were going to and coming from the gins. At that time, living became the everyday humming of the harvesting of cotton.

When I was young, a sharecropper picked up us kids and we rode to the farms in the back of an old pickup truck. About the time that the sun was creeping above the cotton fields and the dew on the cotton was beginning to sparkle like diamonds, all of us pickers would begin scurrying through the plants to begin picking back toward the wagon from the farthest end of the row. Every cotton picker had a long and narrow canvas bag strapped over his or shoulder, and picking cotton was a process of plucking the fluffy white part of the plant from the hard and wooden-like hull where it had grown.

As they dry out, the tips of the cotton hulls become sharp shards that are eager for the opportunity to lodge themselves in a picker’s hands. Stinging caterpillars attach themselves to the leaves of the plants, and getting stung is another hazard of picking cotton by hand. On lucky days, I  picked from plants that were about my height, but on most days, picking cotton meant bending over and creeping along until I thought that my back would break.

It probably seems that I am complaining, but I am not. Because I picked cotton as a child, I was allowed to experience the last days of a way of life. When I was a child, children were allowed to stay home from school to pick cotton for six weeks during the fall. The days of cotton vacation are over now, and today, machines harvest the cotton. When I was a little girl, I was paid 3 cents a pound to pick cotton, and since cotton is so very light, I didn’t earn much money in the fields; yet, I consider the days that I picked cotton to be priceless.

When we had picked enough cotton to fill our canvas sacks, we would heave it across our shoulders and carry our pickings to be weighed at the wagon. Before we returned to our spots in the field, we would drink a swig of rusty-tasting well water from the aluminum ladle that was strapped to a bucket. At lunch, we would gather back at the wagon and sit in its shade while we nibbled on whatever had been packed in our sacks for us to eat. It seems that my lunches were primarily fried Spam and mayonnaise on Wonder bread. In the place where I picked, the sharecropper’s large family were all singers–Pentecostal singers. Throughout the day, they would warble glorious hymns. They sounded like a band of angels. My memories of picking cotton are almost surrealistic now, but I believe that they are close to the way that things actually were.

Late in the fall, after the pickers had saved a few dollars, the carnival rolled into town. That was about the only time that there was much excitement in Gideon. During the night time, the air would become crispy and moist and colorful lights would begin to reflect across the sky. The smell of corn dogs deep-frying would hover in the air and from anywhere in town, the children could hear the carousel’s calliope playing, up and down. Late in the fall, the hard choice was whether I would spend a few of my hard-earned quarters at the carnival or whether I  would save all of my money to buy new school clothes from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.

For the most part, my childhood was a sweet and simple time–or at least, that is how I remember it, and my memories are invaluable. But like my home town, my childhood is gone, too, and memories can be deceptive.

“You can never go home again.” – Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe is correct in saying that people can never  go home again. The folks of home change and die and in some cases, like that of my hometown, businesses close, people move away, and the town itself disappears. There are other problems with returning to our childhood homes, however. Often, as we look backward in time, we look through ruby-colored glasses, and we don’t actually see the truth of what was really there. In other words, we cannot believe all of our memories of home.

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When I was a child, I lived in a little white house that was situated on a gravel road, and my grandparents lived in a brick house on  the next road. My grandmother was a gardener, and she filled her yard with flowers. At least once every day,  I would walk through my neighbors’ yards, through my grandmother’s flowers, and I would end up at my grandmother’s back door. My grandmother was a gentle and kind person, and I was her only granddaughter. Life was idyllic at my grandmother’s house, and in my child’s memory, my grandmother lived in a grand home. After a more critical analysis, however, I realize that my grandmother’s house was actually rather small. It only had 2 bedrooms and one tiny bathroom. Because many of our memories of home are romanticized and deluded, we cannot return to the home that we remember because the home that we remember was never actually there. Our understandings of homeare more than that of a brick and mortar or wood and nail place.

Because most of the people have moved away from my Bootheel town to places where they can find work, the businesses and offices in my home town are closed now. Children don’t pick cotton any more, and the life of cotton-picking children is gone. Cotton farming isn’t even the massive industry that it once was in the place where I grew up.  At one time, the autumn air around my home was filled with gossamer-like lint that floated from the cotton compresses. Like spider’s work, the cotton lint attached itself to trees, poles, and other things nearby. Gauzy and ghostly, the lint-webs seemed to be warning me–even many years ago. They were hinting that the simple, quiet times of my childhood would eventually end. While Cotton flourished in my little town, his people flowered, too. I don’t believe that people realized then that Cotton was the King in the Bootheel. They didn’t realize that not until later, when time took cotton’s throne. Now, the little farm communities of the Bootheel are shadows and their specter-like people are silhouettes. In my hometown, life itself was boarded shut many years ago, and now it is stone-stagnant, cold-condemned. and left gasping for remnants of itself.

I can never go home again, but many years later and thousands of miles away from my cotton-field home, the rhythm of my country childhood still pounds through my veins. As soon as the weather begins to chill in September, I begin to long for my homeland–for its dewy-covered cotton patches and for its little general store. I still have my cotton clock, it ticks my cotton song–a song about a place that no longer exists, and I am out on the pavement, holding a tin cup, crying: “I am still a cotton-child, a child that lost my home.”

©Jacki Kellum September 3, 2017 [Reprinted from several previous versions of this material]

Priceless

Critical

Being Alone Is Not the Same Thing as Being Lonely

Last January, I was waiting for the arrival of an impending snowstorm, and I wrote about the things that I would do while I was snowbound. Unlike some, being isolated and alone doesn’t bother me. Over the years, I have learned to enjoy being alone, and when I finally reached that place in life, I became free–free of the fear of being alone.

When I am alone, I think better, and when I am alone, I can separate my preferences from what the world seems to wish that I would prefer. When no one else is around, I can pace myself by my own, unique clock. I can sleep when I am tired, and when I am refreshed, I can awaken. When the muse visits, I can write, and when I feel inspired, I can paint. When I am alone, there is no need to schedule my moods around anyone else, and I have no need to try to guess what the other wants from me. I only have the need to discover what it is that I truly want from myself. The next challenge is to pursue that goal–alone.

I am a big nature watcher. When the weather permits, I grow a massive garden, and I often sit in my garden–just watching my flowers bloom. I love to walk in the mountains and feel the expansiveness that is there. I love listening to the rain, and I love to watch it snow. If I were with anyone else, none of that would be the same. Chatter would drown the sound of the raindrops, and the language of the birds. If someone else were in the same room with me, I would not sit for hours at a time and stare out the window. I would not have the same enjoyment of watching the snow’s dance that quietly and gently alters the world, one flake at a time. When someone else is involved in moments like these, we feel the need to interact with the other person. When that occurs, we no longer are part of the moment that we are watching unfold. We lose our opportunities for mindfulness.

We are living in a culture that seems to pay lip homage to mindfulness, but many do not realize that being alone is the key to mindfulness. Mindfulness is not a state that you can share. When a person is fully mindful, he is absolutely within himself–he is at his own absolute core. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot be a participant in a group–not even in a small group of two–and become totally mindful. Mindfulness is about being alone.

l realized long ago that society is suspicious of people who opt to be alone. Mindful or not, the solitary people are classified as the cat ladies and the toothless crones who grow herbs and live in dark cottages on the fringes of the forest. The world view is that those alone should be pitied. Popular opinion is that the alone are isolated because no one wants them. They are the rejected.

That may be true, but the good news is that rejected or not, the alone do not have to be lonely. Being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. The lonely person is still invested in the myth that other people are the key to his or her happiness. When that is the case, the isolated are saddened by aloneness. Being alone doesn’t make me sad.

Consider this: Very rarely do married couples die at the same time. When one person from a couple dies, the other is still left alone. Aloneness will inevitably become part of  almost everyone’s existence. I advise people to begin cultivating their aloneness long before that happens.

It might seem that I am advising everyone to dump their partners and to immediately jump back into the life of being single, but I am not. I actually abhor divorce, and I rarely advocate it. In fact, I would love to find a truly compatible mate; yet, I would hope that I could be in a union that allows spaces for each united person to have quality moments alone.

“But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.” – Kahlil Gibran

I propose that every couple find spaces within their union–spaces that allow each person to celebrate himself, as an individual. Only from somewhere within one’s own, individual being, can a person’s find true contentment. We must learn to love aloneness–that is the harbor within our own spirits. Aloneness is the place that we learn to cradle ourselves. It is the pillow where we will finally rest our heads.

©Jacki Kellum August 18, 2017

Solitary

Reasons to Write Daily in a Journal – Anaïs Nin, C. S. Lewis, Joan Didion, Franz Kafka, and Susan Sontag Tell Us Why They Wrote in Journals

In her Grasmere Journal, William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy wrote that Wordsworth often sat in a crude shepherd’s hut or a writer’s hut to write. Wordsworth’s writing huts were little more than a roof and a desk that were beneath a covered shelter, and they had no walls that separated him from nature. The huts were situated in places where he had a natural view and a first-hand experience of his natural environment. Wordsworth clearly wanted to write from a place where he could directly respond to his natural setting, and his intimacy with nature allowed him to have the fodder needed to write authentically and from an immediate overflow of emotion.

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Anaïs Nin also talked about writing authentically–about writing from an overflow of emotion that can result from a first-hand writing after observation.

“You must not fear, hold back, count or be a miser with your thoughts and feelings. It is also true that creation comes from an overflow, so you have to learn to intake, to imbibe, to nourish yourself and not be afraid of fullness. The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries you, sweeps you into experience and into writing. Permit yourself to flow and overflow, allow for the rise in temperature, all the expansions and intensifications. Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them. If it seems to you that I move in a world of certitudes, you, par contre, must benefit from the great privilege of youth, which is that you move in a world of mysteries. But both must be ruled by faith.”
― Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947

Anaïs Nin recommends that writers keep a journal:

“This diary is my kief, hashish, and opium pipe. This is my drug and my vice. Instead of writing a novel, I lie back with this book and a pen, and dream, and indulge in refractions and defractions… I must relive my life in the dream. The dream is my only life. I see in the echoes and reverberations, the transfigurations which alone keep wonder pure. Otherwise all magic is lost. Otherwise life shows its deformities and the homeliness becomes rust… All matter must be fused this way through the lens of my vice or the rust of living would slow down my rhythm to a sob.”

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 1.

“The diary taught me that it is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. I learned to choose the heightened moments because they are the moments of revelation.”

From Nin’s essay “On Writing,” 1947.

“The theme of the diary is always the personal, but it does not mean only a personal story: it means a personal relationship to all things and people. The personal, if it is deep enough, becomes universal, mythical, symbolic; I never generalize, intellectualise. I see, I hear, I feel. These are my primitive elements of discovery.

Music, dance, poetry and painting are the channels for emotion. It is through them that experience penetrates our bloodstream.”
― Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947

Monochrome head-and-left-shoulder photo portrait of 50-year-old LewisC.S. Lewis Talks about Keeping a Journal

[About his journal after the death of his wife] “What would H. think of this terrible little notebook to which I come back and back? Are these jottings morbid? Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on think about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief. Do these notes merely aggravate that side of it? Merely confirm the monotonous, treadmill march of the mind round one subject. But what am I to do? I must have some drug, and reading isn’t a strong enough drug now.”

From A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis

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Joan Didion Tells Why She Writes in a Journal

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” From “On Keeping A Notebook” – Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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Franz Kafka Tells Why He Wrote in a Journal

“One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer….In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today…..” From Diaries, 1910-1923.

Susan Sontag Tells Why She Wrote in a Journal

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Susan Sontag

“On Keeping a Journal. Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts — like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.

From a December 31st entry in her journal, as printed in Reborn.

 

Julia Cameron vehemently recommends journaling in a format that she calls morning pages. In reading her book the Artist’s Way, it sounds at first as though Cameron advocates morning pages as a way to leech all of the bile that has backlogged throughout one’s being, but I believe that further reading of her book reveals that Julia Cameron would agree that once we have exorcised our demons on paper, morning pages can be extended to include more than a listing of our negative qualities and our inadequacies. Morning pages are a way to dig into our deepest extremities or into the roots from which we have sprung, but morning pages are also a place that we can register ideas for future books, stories, or pieces. They are about moving beyond our roots–about growing forward.

Morning pages are also a way to celebrate the everyday, the mundane, the what’s-happening-now in our lives. Keeping a daily journal is a way to stop, look, listen, and write.  Grander writing may spring from our journals later, or they may not. As in most art, the product of keeping a journal is not what counts. It is the process. As we begin to write daily, we begin to notice more of what lies around us and we expand. As we begin to journal, life becomes more meditative for us, and we learn how to live in the moment and how to write from that same moment.

On page 52 of the Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron shares that she learned about mindful observation and writing from the moment from her grandmother’s letters.

” ‘The forsythia is starting and this morning I saw my first robin. . . .  The roses are holding even in this heat . . . . The sumac has turned and that little maple down by the mailbox . . . . My Christmas cactus is getting ready. . . . .’

“I could imagine. Her letter made that easy. Life through grandma’s eyes was a series of small miracles: the wild tiger lilies under the cottonwoods in June; the quick lizard scooting under the gray river rock she admired for its satiny finish. Her letters clocked the seasons of the year and her life.” [p. 52]

. . .

“My grandmother was gone before I learned the lesson her letters were teaching: survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention. …

“The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.” Cameron, Julia. the Artist’s Way, pgs. 52-53.

Julia Cameron Tells Us about May Sarton’s Journal of Solitude

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“In a year when a long and rewarding love affair was lurching gracelessly away from the center of her life, the writer May Sarton kept A Journal of a Solitude.

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“In it, she records coming home from a particularly painful weekend with her lover. Entering her empty house, ‘I was stopped by the threshold of my study by a ray on a Korean chrysanthemum, lighting it up like a spotlight, deep red petals and Chines yellow center. . . .  Seeing it was like getting a transfusion of autumn light.’

“It’s no accident that May Sarton uses the word transfusion. The loss of her lover was a wound, and in her responses to that chrysanthemum, in the act of paying attention, Sarton’s healing began.

“The reward for attention is always healing. It may begin as the healing of a particular pain–the lost lover, the sickly child, the shattered dream. But what is healed, finally, is the pain that underlies all pain: the pain that we are all, as Rilke phrases it, ‘unutterably alone.’ More than anything else, attention is an act of connection.”  [Cameron, Julia. the Artist’s Way, p. 53]

Julia Cameron Tells How Her Writing Is Linked with Painful Experiences

“It may be different for others, but pain is what it took to teach me o pay attention. In times of pain, when the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past too painful to remember, I have learned to pay attention to right now. The precise moment I was in was always the only safe place for me. Each moment, taken alone, was always bearable. In the exact now, we are all, always, all right.

. . .

“The night my mother died….A great snowy moon was rising behind the palm trees. Later that night, it floated [p. 54] above the garden, washing the cactus silver. When I think now about my mother’s death, I remember that snowy moon.

“The poet William Meredith as observed that the worst that can be said of a man is that ‘he did not pay attention.’ ”

“When I think of my grandmother, I remember her gardening…. [p. 55]

“I remember her pointing down the steep slope from the home she was about to lose, to the cottonwoods in the wash below. ‘The ponies like them for their shade,’ she said. ‘I like them because they go all silvery in their green.’ “Cameron, Julia. the Artist’s Way, pgs. 54-56.

©April 26, 2017

 

Roots

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