I blame, or credit, Carol Gaddy.
She heard me reading poetry between sets of a bluegrass band at a now-defunct nightclub in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. If you are silly enough to attempt such a reading, you will find your poetry greatly improved by the endeavor. The feedback is like no other: if one single phrase isn’t smacking your audience upside the head, you’ve lost ‘em.
Carol came up to me and said, “I’m with the Arkansas Arts Council. Would you like to be part of Arkansas Artists-in-Schools?”
I was 22; it was 1976. I said, “Oh, you wouldn’t want me, I’m a high school drop out.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said.
She told me about Artists-in-Schools. How professional writers, musicians, painters, actors, sculptors signed on for a school year, and for one week out of each month, they visited schools, doing what they did with children and teenagers. Four small classes a day. Regular income. Different schools, all over the state. (Left, me, a few years later, with one of my students at the Alexander Girls Training School).
I was still hesitant. “I don’t drive,” I told Carol.
“Now that,” she said, “could be a problem.”
“Well,” I said that night. “Maybe. Let me think about it.”
Did I suspect, way down underneath, “where the spirit meets the bone,” as the poet Miller Williams wrote, that I might be able to become thekind of teacher I’d never had? That I might possibly be able to reach the kind of indifferent, restless, bored student I had been? That I had another vocation in addition to writing?
Or was it just the lure of regular income? Or the irresistible seduction of the chance to do something that scared me?
I don’t know. I certainly didn’t imagine that (loosely as a result of this) developing and teaching an immersive course called Fearless Writing lay in my future, and that it would become a deep part of my creative, personal, and professional life for decades, or that Fearless would affect hundreds of writers and would-be writers, in half a dozen genres, many of whom went on to publish, all over the world.
Or that I would have to learn fearlessness in ways that always included, but went far beyond, writing… that extended to living life itself, on its own non-negotiable terms.
But I do know I stopped talking myself out of the invitation Carol had so generously extended to me.
Cautiously, I let it sink in.
This was a choice, and one which would prove personally seismic. Though, like most such choices, I had no recognition of this at the time.
Over the next few months I learned to drive. I bought my first car, got (and wore, and paid attention t) my first watch. I had a telephone installed. I shifted from identification with the so-called counter-culture to participating in that ecosystem of education, geography, history, art, and social interaction which we simply sum up as culture, period.
Six months after Carol had spoken to me at the Quiet Night, I was driving down Arkansas’s famed, rugged, twisty, scenic Pig Trail to my first Artists-in-Schools gig. I was in my brand-new bright yellow Honda Civic. I felt woefully uncertain.
So, as is my lifelong habit, I had a serious discussion with myself.
“How,” I asked myself, downshifting into the curves, “are you going to do what you do, be yourself, and yet be comprehensible and palatable to Arkansas school administrators?”
“Well, Crescent, ” I asked myself back, “Are you going to speak the truth to them?”
“And isn’t truth truth? Recognizable, universal — or it wouldn’t be truth, right?”
“Yes, but —”
“Well, then most people will recognize it if you say it clearly in language they understand. Speak truthfully in easily-understood language. Stay away from jargon, hippie and otherwise. Stay clear. Simple.”
Thus do we talk ourselves into growing up.
Here’s how it turned out. I fell in love with doing Artists-in-Schools. I fell in love with the whole state, not just tiny off-the-wall Eureka Springs. Then I fell in love, period.
The next school year, I rented a studio apartment in the Quapaw Quarter of Little Rock, from a then-young woman who would become a lifelong close friend.
Little Rock was dab in the middle of the state instead of way to hell and gone like Eureka Springs, which is tucked into the northwest corner of Aekansas and not convenient to anywhere. Whether I was going to Crossett or Jonesboro, Walnut Ridge or DeQueen, whether I was working with the children of sharecroppers in the Delta or of attorneys and real estate brokers in Maumelle, living in Little Rock put me closer.
The home in which I rented the apartment was the Garland-Mitchell House at 1404 Scott Street, a two-story steamboat gothic on a lawn punctuated with Tuscarora crepe myrtles. (Left, a watercolor of the house, painted by Starr’s friend and mine, George Wittenberg, who mailed it to her as a postcard, hence the stamp.)
Starr, my friend who started out my landlady, was a Mitchell — Starr Mitchell, who was gorgeous and about my own age. She lived in the larger, usually messier, apartment across the hall. I loved watching as each day she emerged from it butterfly-like: slim, shiny dark hair, immaculately dressed, the picture of order from chaos.
Starr held a weekly potluck dinner, in her apartment. (Picture below, Starr and me in 2009, a full 33 years — how can it be? — after these events I’ve been describing took place. We’re still laughing, still friends, still crazy after all these years. Taken at Cafe Bossa Nova, Little Rock).
One Tuesday she waltzed in to 1404 Scott and said to me, “I get the prize for inviting the best-looking man in Little Rock to potluck, you just wait and see.”
And, that evening, setting down a hot apple crisp, I did.
And reader, I married him. That was Ned Shank. (A few years later, Starr would marry George West, who became Ned’s close friend.)
Not long after that potluck dinner, before we married but after Ned and I had fallen in love, stepping into the shower one day, I thought, “I could die now, I know how it all comes out. This is the man I marry and live out my days with. “
This was not quite accurate.
On an unseasonably warm fall day, about 23 years after I first set down that steaming apple crisp on a trivet, on Starr’s table. and looked up and into the extraordinarily large blue eyes of that tall handsome man who would be the great love of the first part of my life, Ned went out for the bicycle ride he habitually took, twelve miles out from Eureka Springs to the Conoco where they used to rent canoes, which he always called “Canoe-Co.”
On the way back, he and a small pick-up collided, about a quarter mile west of the Lake Leatherwood turn-off on Highway 62.
The large events which shape one’s life do not appear large at the time. They appear typical. Ned had no idea that particular bike ride, out of thousands he’d taken, led to eternity. I had no idea that particular apple crisp, out of the thousands I’ve made (always with fresh apples, always with cinnamon and a tiny bit of black pepper in the topping, but never spices on the apples themselves) would lead to Ned.
And what if I hadn’t read poetry between bluegrass sets at the bar, that particular night?
That is why I blame, or credit, Carol Gaddy.
Otherwise, I would be forced to say, “Life is mysterious. It is as sweet and fragrant as an apple crisp straight from the oven. As round as a spinning bicycle wheel. As twisted as the Pig Trail. And at any time, it can change utterly and forever, as it did for me on a day in Little Rock.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the magazine Little Rock Soiree, in 2009.