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 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, 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 to) 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 simply summed 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.
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 smackdab in the middle of the state instead of way to hell and gone like Eureka Springs, which is tucked into the northwest corner of Arkansas, 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 the children 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 into 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 usually 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.
SuzAnne Akhavan-Tafti says
I took a fearless writing class from you at Dairy House Hollows Band B
We both had a broken ankle,foot? Caste aka the achey breakie twins in the IACP magazine
I was in a wretched place at the time and as most disastrous seasons, the sun set and finally came up in a better place . It felt good
I love your voice and stories
Take real good care
Diane Durham says
Your writing still captivates me, just like the first time I read your cookbook ‘Soup and Bread’ cover to cover. It is so much more than a cookbook. It has great wonderful earthy recipes but more importantly it paints a clear picture of the place, the people, the food and a special moment in time. Even after reading over a hundred cookbooks as if they were novels, Soup and Bread is still my favorite, from the heart of one of my favorite writers. Thanks again for the gift of your aunt’s bracelet given to me on that special night after dinner at your home following a Fearless weekend in 2010. It remains high on my list of incredibly blessed experiences!
Crescent Dragonwagon says
Thank you, Diana! I well remember your making your way to Vermont… I admired a brown t-shirt of yours and at the end of our weekend together, you gave it to me. Wore that think just about to shreds. I am glad that weekend remains on your blessings list! xo
Robin Mero says
Good morning! I love this sentence:
“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.”
And Ned has kind eyes.
The Fearless Writing workshops have allowed exactly what I hoped … for me to tap into a rich thought life I knew was there but had become sterile and depressed.
I just read an essay in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly about a poor Arkansan born in 1888 who kept prolific, mundane diaries, Minnie Attenberry. It left me thinking about the value and variations of how we document our daily lives. She did nothing “significant” but to write down everything she did in such detail as to include how much sales tax she paid for a purchase, the radio program she heard and how she scared off a rattlesnake from her kitchen. She lived to survive; there was no pondering of life’s meaning and themes. Maybe that is a luxury of our times; born of our affluence, leisure and globalism.
Enjoy the day, Fearless Dragon!
Becky Lillywhite says
No matter what version I read, my eyes always well up with tears and my heart with wonderment.
Lisa Elvin Staltari says
16 years ago, I gave birth to my baby girl Samantha Kay. I was a scared,new mom, who had just immigrated from Canada to a crazy place called California. Someone handed me a copy of Soup and Bread and somehow, somewhere this person called Crescent guided me to a safe place, a place where I felt nourished and cared for. I had left my family and friends behind in Montreal, so I could relate to her Arkansas journey. I had just married my “Ned” only he was called Chris, and his mother, my new mom in law was from Little Rock. Did I need more signs? I worked on learning how to cook and gradually became confident in my new surroundings.
I am so glad I found this website! I have for so long wanted to tell you how much of a difference you have made in my life. Your book sits on my bookshelf, waiting always for me to reach for it in moments of stress or uncertainty. It never fails to soothe, inspire and comfort me.
From a very grateful reader,
Lisa Elvin Staltari
Crescent Dragonwagon says
Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Lisa! I am so happy S & B has had this meaning in your life. Especially as this is its 25th anniversary, and my friend/business partner is finding a way to reissue it. I am touched, honored, and moved that you were able to be reassured and comforted by it. I am grateful, too; that the book spoke to you, and that you took the time to reach out to me.
I stumbled upon your site while looking again at the house where my husband’s father was born in 1985. His father and new bride were originally from Brooklyn, NY and when he graduated from medical school at Dartmouth, he ended up in 1404 Scott St to start his new practice as a family physician. Unfortunately, they had to leave that house after five years because the young mother had a heat stroke and couldn’t live in the south anymore. They moved to Vermont. I am so happy the house is still standing so I can go back on my computer and imagine the life they led there. Good luck to you, and I’m very, very sorry to heard about your Ned’s passing.
Please do keep on writing.
Corrrction to above; My husband’s grandfather started his new medical practice in Little Rock in 1894 and lived in1404 Scott St where my husbands father was born in 1895. They lived there until 1900. The house still looks grand.