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It’s mid-January and I’m sitting here in my study next to my Christmas tree, which is shining forth from the front window in a blaze of white plastic, Wal-Marty glory. It’s time for it to come down, I know, but it’s been gray and rainy for over a week now, and the tree is such a lovely antidote for the darkness.

I like it, okay?

I like it, okay?

One July in the early 2000s, when I was a newspaper reporter in Middle Tennessee, I was sent out into the country to interview a woman who kept her Christmas decorations up all year. This didn’t involve merely a tree and a wreath on the door, as I’d anticipated. No, this sun-baked home on the outskirts of Mt. Pleasant was engulfed in Christmas. The shades were drawn against a blazing summer’s day and a scented candle in a jar overpowered the place with cinnamon. The house was stuffy, and many of the ornaments she collected played tinny renditions of Christmas carols. I can’t even remember why she kept everything up all year – I feel like her only answers to my questions were variations on, “I really like Christmas.”

I really like Christmas, too, but it seemed oppressive, this Christmas in July. To this day, there will be a summer afternoon when I have the AC cranking, a cold drink in one hand and a book in the other, and I’ll suddenly think of that woman. I’ll think about how she is sitting in shade-drawn darkness with a gingerbread candle blazing away while battery-powered Hallmark characters trill “Silent Night,” and it makes me a little sad. Life is meant to be lived in seasons.

I know I can’t judge the woman too harshly since I am, after all, sitting here with a tree that’s ready mark MLK Day celebrations. There’s a good chance that her early Christmases were spare occasions. Or she could just be really eccentric. Or both. Probably both. In any case, my tree is coming down very soon, but I might throw some colored lights up around my windows, because any light we can muster at this time of year is good to have.

January is when I feel most grateful for the fact that I am familiar with the liturgical calendar. In January, the weather is rainy; the sky moves in, close and cold. It’s dreary, but it’s also not a terribly busy time of year for me, so I can write and continue the contemplations I began during Advent. January brings the season of Epiphany. Advent is all about waiting for the Incarnation, reflecting on it. Epiphany is a chance to celebrate what the Incarnation means. Christ came for everyone, not just a chosen few. That’s a beautiful and weighty concept. The sermon I heard on the first Sunday of Epiphany dealt with that concept of Christ being a light for all people. The three kings (who were probably neither three, nor kings) are the ones who first had the wits to “search diligently,” as bad-guy Harod put it, for Christ. They saw what they believed were signs and acted on them.

As in Advent, Epiphany focuses on the symbolism of light. There are hymns about stars and the Old Testament scripture from Isaiah: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

The purpose of starting this blog up again is two fold – first, I wanted to post excerpts from essays I’m working on. Second, I wanted to reflect on the research I’m doing and the themes I’m mulling over – the big ideas behind the stories. This post serves the latter purpose. I’ve been working for some time now on an essay about travelling at Christmas.  And here, in the flat light of January, there are thoughts from this past season that just won’t leave me, some ideas from December that I hope will continue to grow.

I enjoyed the Epiphany sermon this year because it seemed to fit in so well with the thoughts that rattled around in my brain during Advent. Like most Advents, I drove a lot, walked the dog a lot, read and journaled a lot. In the middle of all this contemplation came a national tragedy and its subsequent finger-pointing. I watched the news and read my facebook feed and did finger-pointing of my own. To me, the Sandy Hook shooting was a sign of our individual failures contributing to our failure as a society, our darkness. Sermons and Advent readings; however, helped to shift my focus just a bit. We dwell in darkness, it’s true, but it’s seeking Christ which is important. If I focus on my sins or on the collective sins of a society, if that is where I pour all my energy, I’m doing it wrong. In December, I read Watch for the Light, a collection of essays devoted to the season. One essay and story in particular will not leave me – Brennan Manning’s “Shipwrecked at the Stable.” In it, among other things, Manning relays an imagined conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo:

“Leo, do you know what it means to be pure of heart?”

“Of course, it means to have no sins, faults or weaknesses to reproach myself for.”

“Ah,” said Francis, “now I understand why you’re sad. We will always have something to reproach ourselves for.”

“Right,” said Leo. “That’s why I despair of ever arriving at purity of heart.”

“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is – your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him. The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness, and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble, distracted, insecure, and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled – stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”

Of course, now that it’s January and life has moved back into its usual rhythm, the immediate instinct is to look at this passage and wonder how I’m doing, which is exactly what St. Francis says we shouldn’t do. It’s hard to quash that. The issue, I suppose, is walking the line between self-reflection and idolatry – a struggle which those of us who write creative nonfiction are already aware of.

A few years back, I went to church in downtown Jacksonville with my father on the day after Christmas. During the sermon, the priest gave a sigh and said, “Now it’s back to ‘the real world’, right?” Then, she corrected that perception. A world where we get caught up in the day-to-day, where we live by a mantra of ends justifying means, where we forget to treat the needy with respect and dignity – that’s not the world God intended. The real world, she said, is the one we celebrate at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. That’s the one we need to carry forward.

So, yes, it’s January. My tree will come down, but the lights are going to stay up, and I will continue to work on my essay about Christmas traveling and what that entails, not because I can’t let go of Christmas, but because Epiphany means I shouldn’t let it go, not yet. Winter looks promising indeed.

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Immediacy

While erinetocknell.wordpress.com went dormant for most of 2012, I most certainly did not. From a writing perspective, it was a splendid year. I gave a reading and met with the students of Tusculum College in March. I had a residency at the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences not once, but twice!  The first, for the last two weeks of June, was applied for and planned out. The second came when I got an email about a vacancy in one of the cabins over Thanksgiving. I leapt at that opportunity and so had a good five-day chunk of time to regain my momentum as a rather frantic fall semester drew to a close.

During fall break in October, I drove the ten hours from Chattanooga, where I now live and teach, to Morgantown, West Virginia, where I earned my MFA from 2004-2007. I wanted to see friends, walk along the Monongahela River, eat a pepperoni roll, and experience West Virginia in the fall, and I did all those things. Something else I did surprised me – I got nostalgic for grad school. Not nostalgic enough to go back, mind you, but I did miss it. In grad school, I was so fantastically busy that it actually morphed into a finely honed singleness of purpose. There was none of this scattershot approach we have in “real life,” no attempts at being well-rounded. If I was awake, I needed to be reading, writing, prepping, or grading. I compartmentalized those tasks, devoting huge chunks of time to each one and, somehow, still managed to make friends that I keep up with and want to visit five years later. In thinking on my time at WVU, I keep coming back to an adage a colleague of mine often recites, “If you want something done, ask a busy man (or woman) to do it.”

Now that I have a full-time job, a steady source of income, and free time, life is easier, but there are things I miss about my years in Morgantown, especially as a writer. I miss workshopping. Specifically, I miss the community of people with whom I shared work. I miss the “post-workshop-workshop” when friends and I would convene or talk on the phone and analyze each others’ pieces even further. Also, I miss the immediacy that came with being a part of a workshop community. As a student typing away at my keyboard, I knew I had to get that sentence right because someone would be reading it the next week, whether it was ready or not. The opposite is true now. I can tinker with an essay forever and then send it to a journal where someone may love it or skim a page and toss it. You never know.

I’m not complaining, per se. Writers are solitary and that’s the nature of it. We get the community early in our careers to prepare us for working alone, we can always sign up for a workshop or two, and we do tend to seek each other out and support each other, but I miss those semester-long journeys.  I miss those deadlines, the urgency and, frankly, that fear of scrutiny that forced me to sharpen a sentence.

I don’t have an MFA program any more, but I do have stacks of writing I need to hone, and I have this blog. So, this is what I’m going to do:

1) Periodically (bi-weekly, ideally), I will post a section of something I’m working on. My essays are braided essays, so it will be easy to isolate a portion, polish it, and put it up on the blog.

2) In between those intervals, I will post reflections on my research. For example, in revising a sprawling mess of a Christmas essay over break, I read a lot of Marilynne Robinson and Thomas Merton, so expect to see something about them in this space.

But wait! There’s a huge catch here! Read on! Today I learned that if I post even the tiniest piece of a larger essay on this blog, I ruin any chance of it being published by a lit journal or magazine. (It has something to do with first rights that I don’t entirely understand.) However, if I post an excerpt and password protect it, it’s free and clear.

So, the blog is coming back to life. Anything I post related to research will be public. Read it, share it, search for it on Google, it’ll be there. Essay excerpts will be password-protected. What I’ll do is post a link to the new entry on Facebook, along with the password. If you want to read those, you’ll need to like Confederate Streets or friend me so you can stay abreast of the password situation.

By the way, I’m very grateful for my grad school friend, Sarah, who is an editor at Brevity and alerted me to the dangers of posting essay excerpts. I would have negated a lot of work if she hadn’t straightened me out. She advised me to make sure other journals had similar policies, so I cold-called the Sewanee Review, American Scholar, and VQR because you know, heck, let’s just go for the big guns. Oh my goodness! Everyone I talked to was so friendly! It’s clear from the discussions I had that this issue of who owns what on the web is far from resolved, but for now, dear writer friends, know that posting excerpts on your personal blog is a bad idea if you have any aspirations for that piece beyond the blog itself.

Well, this has become a long post, but it’s good to be back on the web and getting stuff done. My first excerpt, which is about a New Year’s drive through the heart of West Virginia, will be posted very soon. Keep your eyes open. Get that password. Tell a friend. Thanks for reading!

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Wow! So, I’ve had this blog up since my essay collection was published by Benu Press in March. Through Wednesday, I’d had about 2,000 visits to the blog, total, with the largest day bringing about 160 views to an essay I wrote in the wake of the April 27 Tornado Outbreak. Yesterday morning, before I’d even had my coffee, I heard of the passing of Civil Rights icon Fred Shuttlesworth. My breakfast ruminations over the deaths of Shuttlesworth and Steve Jobs occurring on the same day led to an idea, which led to me holing myself up in my study and going on a writing binge of sorts. Around 2:30 p.m., hungry and thirsty and bleary-eyed, I posted “Fred and Steve.” The last time I checked, over 1,000 people had read the piece.

If you are one of those visitors, I sincerely thank you for taking the time to read that essay, check out my blog, and tell your friends. If you are interested in learning more about leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, my book, Confederate Streets, explores the history of Nashville, Tennessee, through the lens of someone who was born in the late 1970s. I was born after the movement, but the work of desegregation was far from over and, like most Nashvillians (especially those of us who attended public schools), the work of the Civil Rights leaders and those who opposed them affected virtually every facet of my life. (The book’s title comes from the fact that segregationists named all the streets in my neighborhood after Confederate leaders and battles shortly after the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education) You can find my book on amazon.com or, conveniently enough considering yesterday’s post, read it on your i-something for the low price of $4.99.

Even before people started sharing my work on Facebook yesterday, I was looking forward to this month as it connects to my writing career. You see, this time next week I will be on my way to Nashville to participate in a panel discussion at the Southern Festival of Books! I first attended the Festival in October 1994, when I was a junior in high school. It was just a short walk from my high school, Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet. We were given free rein and little supervision, but, being good little nerds, we all stayed around. I remember it as a spiritual awakening of sorts. I walked from table to table there on War Memorial Plaza, spoke with authors, and realized they were real people. I remember wandering around in that slanting autumn light and thinking to myself, “I can do this. I can be here someday.”

Someday” comes next Friday, October 14, at 1 p.m. in the library of the State Capitol. I will be presenting with Ms. Carrie Gentry, wife of Tennessee State University’s iconic coach and professor Howard C. Gentry, about whom she has written a book. We will each read from our respective works and then there will be a moderated discussion on race. I’m really, really looking forward to the realization of this dream and the chance to meet Ms. Gentry and hear her take on issues that matter so much.

But really, regardless of your interest in the book or your proximity to Nashville, thank you all so very much for stopping by. I do write pieces here about ideas that interest me – mostly topics connected to the Civil Rights Movement, social justice, or cultural geography. On Wednesdays, I post photos. I hope many of you return to the blog, but even if you don’t, I appreciate you taking the time to read my tribute to the two very different kinds of visionaries we lost on Oct. 5 – Fred Shuttlesworth and Steve Jobs.

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I get many ideas for my writing while I’m riding my bike – a steel-framed Jamis Satellite which I bought during the first summer I lived in Chattanooga. Biking is a lot like writing – I feel like I’m gliding through the world, observing and taking it all in, but keeping a bit of distance between myself and the goings-on of daily life. When I’m riding (or writing, for that matter), I see things I normally wouldn’t and I interact with the people around me in a more intimate way than I would if I was in a car or just not paying attention, but then I move on.

These are some shots from the ride I take most often here in the ‘Noog – a 20+ miler down Main Street, through St. Elmo, and out to Flintstone, Georgia. These photos are from late July. I’ve been busy with school lately and not riding as much as I would like, but this is a quick, easy ride, and I do always come up with new ideas or solve problems while I’m out there, cranking my way to North Georgia and back.

Starting the ride:

On Main Street

Across the street:

Houses on Main Street, Chattanooga

Near the turnaround point:

Sunset over Lookout Mountain

Flintstone United Methodist Church

Nearly home again as darkness falls:

Pardon me, is that...??

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Those of you who read Confederate Streets closely probably noticed a few recurring characters besides my immediate family. Two such characters are my good friends Eddie and Lynn, who were youth group counselors and Sunday School teachers when I was growing up. Eddie and Lynn are referenced on the very first page of my book and also feature pretty prominently in “Learning Glory,” adult voices of reason while I groused about singing Rutter’s Gloria for the big Christmas concert.  Those depicted conversations where they brought me around on singing classical pieces in Latin were just a few of the many, many discussions we had. We were all in the church choir together, you see, and one or both of them would give me a ride home from practice once a week for about three years. That’s a whole lot of car rides.

A news item I came across in the paper yesterday reminded me of another series of post-choir conversations I had with them. (this is one of those blog posts that’s going to end in a completely different place than it starts, so bear with me. )

Anyway, as youth group counselors, Sunday School teachers, and just general good people, Eddie and Lynn usually accompanied the youth group on its big, yearly service trip to repair homes up in the Appalachian Mountains with the Appalachia Service Project.  I came back from my first ASP trip in ’93 pretty fired up about Appalachian culture and issues, and I wanted to learn more.  I was reading everything I could find, but I couldn’t find much. Mostly, I was going through encyclopedias, geography books, stacks of magazines, that type of thing. Eddie recommended a novel he had read – The Unquiet Earth by Denise Giardina, which, he said, uses a series of narrators to look at various events and issues over the course of about half a century in a fictionalized West Virginia county.

It became my mission to find a copy of The Unquiet Earth.  Keep in mind, this was B.I. (Before Internet). I also didn’t have a driver’s license, so I had to prevail on older friends and my parents to pull over every time we passed a used book store or library branch.  Getting my hands on this book became quite the quest, and I dutifully reported my attempts to procure it to Eddie and Lynn every Wednesday night.   (Eddie had borrowed his copy from the Vanderbilt University Library, which I didn’t have access to.)

Several weeks later, I climbed into the car after choir and Eddie promptly thumped a copy of The Unquiet Earth into my open palm. It was grey with black binding and made a nice resounding  thud, the way hardcover books sometimes do. He had gone back to the Vandy library and checked it out for me.

Every literary geek has a story about a time when they were young and the very act of reading a specific book seemed like the most thrilling thing ever – this is mine. There was the long hunt for it, for one thing, and then there was the fact that an actual grown-up trusted me not to lose or damage a book checked out on his library card (had Eddie known then, as he does now, of my proclivity for leaving a trail of my possessions every place I go, I wonder if he still would have lent me that book, but I did take obsessive care of it) And then, there was The Unquiet Earth itself.

A couple days after I got it, I took the PSAT. I was just a sophomore, and I knew my scores wouldn’t “count” toward Merit Scholarships, so I flew through those tests, closed the booklet, and read that awesome, solid hardcover book under my desk.  Such was my absorption in that book that there was no question in my mind as to whether or not I should shirk the standardized test.  For ten minutes at a time, I escaped that miserable grey testing room with its teachers and clocks and journeyed to coal miners’ strikes and forbidden love in the hills of West Virginia. (The next year, I did quite well on the PSAT and got some recognition from the Merit folks. I remember my guidance counselor saying, ‘Wow, you must’ve really figured some things out between last year and this one. Great job.’ Uhhhh, yeah…I figured out I shouldn’t read a book under my desk if I want money for college.)

I was really into reading but, up to that point, everything I’d read was either assigned in school, non-fiction, or YA stuff. (I’m not saying all YA books are bad, but the stuff I read was mindless). The Unquiet Earth was the first contemporary fiction I’d ever read. It showed me that stories could deal with big, relevant issues and still be transcendent and entertaining.  It blurred the artificial boundary I had established between compelling narratives and nonfiction.

Like so many early loves, I hadn’t thought about my total absorption in The Unquiet Earth for a while. Lynn and Eddie gave me a copy signed by Denise Giardina when I graduated from high school and it sits on a shelf in my living room today.

Then, yesterday, a news item caught my eye. It seems some citizens of Kinston, North Carolina have decided kudzu growing on a telephone pole by a hot dog stand resembles Jesus on the cross. I immediately flashed on “Kudzu Jesus,” a chapter toward the end of The Unquiet Earth in which a Catholic bishop visits a priest’s struggling church in the small community. The bishop’s visit happens to coincide with the appearance of a mass of kudzu vines that resemble the face of Jesus. I can’t believe that chapter has stayed with me in such a way that I called it up so quickly, but I suppose that is the very nature of books and why we read them.

From the first time I read “Kudzu Jesus,” I was impressed with how Denise Giardina could render such a strong sense of place. There is a danger in regional writing, especially with Appalachia and the South, of leaning so heavily on images that they become cliche reductions of reality, or that they make a place feel cartoonish. A Kudzu Jesus sighting in the hills of West Virginia certainly treads dangerous literary water, but the characters are so fully and honestly rendered and their approach to the K.J. is so matter-of-fact, that it just rings true. The chapter resonates. It seems like something that could really happen.

And now it has.

Sure, the kudzu Jesus in Kinston doesn’t look like much, but I like that someone has decided that’s what it is. And I like that the hot dog stand owner has declared, “You can’t spray Jesus with Roundup.”

It’s a little absurd, but it’s real. A clear-eyed writer could get a lot of mileage out of it. But, if you don’t want to wait to read a vivid account of the significance of a Kudzu Jesus and the lives lived around it, find yourself a copy of The Unquiet Earth.  Unlike my search back in 1993, it won’t take you six weeks to track it down.

While you’re at it, I urge you to get a good, contemporary book into a young person’s hands, should the opportunity ever come about.  And, to bring this long, linear post back around to some sort of circle, today happens to be Lynn and Eddie’s wedding anniversary. Now that you dear readers of this blog and Confederate Streets know those particular characters a little better, do send some happy thoughts their way. 🙂

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Summer is in full swing now and I have been busy writing, recreating, and setting up readings.

I didn’t blog much last week because I was in a super secret undisclosed location, researching and writing for my latest project.  I bet you can’t guess what I’m focusing on for my next essay collection:

and now for something completely different...

I say it’s a “completely different” project from Confederate Streets, but really it’s not. Like CS, this project allows me to focus on my own interpretation of cultural geography – how we 21st Century Americans, especially Southerners, perceive place, space, and cultural issues, and what external and internal factors drive our perceptions.

For my next project, I’m taking it outside. And that’s really all I can say. It’s so new that it is completely nebulous. Along with reading lots of books (or parts of lots of books), I’ve decided that an important part of the research process is learning how to kayak.  I’ve chosen to intensely research what it feels like to go through rapids while upside down, so I’ve been doing that a lot. It’s all for you, dear reader.

My next project also is not completely different because race will be a factor. Why? Well, because race is a factor in every facet of American life, no matter where you live or what you do.

One of my favorite funny blogs, Stuff White People Like, gets (or got, since it hasn’t had new material in about six months) a lot of comic mileage out of the fact that one rarely sees people of color perusing the aisles of the local REI. But to say that “the outdoors” is purely the domain of middle class whites is pretty myopic. The 7th book up in today’s picture, The Colors of Nature, is a fantastic literary nonfiction collection by writers of color. I highly recommend picking it up, and I’m sure I’ll blog more about it later in the summer as I continue reading  the essays.

Do you know of another work of “nature writing” by a minority author? Please post a comment about it!

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In honor of my students who graduated on Sunday, I am posting the following poem by Richard Wilbur (b. 1921). It’s one of my favorites, and sure, it’s about a girl, not a boy, but, as I wrote yesterday – universality is the watchword here. Congrats, Class of 2011. I’ll miss you.  And, for the love of Pedro, keep writing.

The Writer
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

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