It's not quite a month now since I came back from Little Rock, Arkansas, where, among other things, I met the Buffalo Girl. I will probably never know her name, but I'll remember her for a long, long time.
I went to Little Rock, this time, for several reasons. As y'all who read this blog regularly know, I now reside in Vermont, but I lived in Arkansas, mostly in the off-the-wall little town of Eureka Springs, for 33 years. But at this point, whether I leave Vermont and arrive in Arkansas, or leave Arkansas to return to Vermont, it feels like home on both ends of the journey.
So what brought me back to Arkansas? First off, I was to address the Arkansas branch of the Young President's Organization. Secondly, I'd lead a Fearless Writing workshop. And third, I'd give two presentations at Historic Arkansas Museum, one to those who work in and with area museums, and one to a group of 80 third-graders, from e-Stem Charter School.
First, just to set the background scene: of this trip: I was three weeks out of
arthroscopic shoulder surgery (the necessity for which had become apparent long after
I had already made my speaking and teaching commitments, which I was
not about to break, being a the-show-must-go-on girl down to the nuclei
of my cells). So there I was, wearing a sling, still needing
painkillers to sleep partway through the night, but basically boogeying
along in game fashion. And why not? Darling David (boyfriend;
filmmaker) came with me --- I still couldn't drive, plus he and my
agent had conspired and decided I really needed to have some of my
talks on film, and DK was going to film them. All this was good enough,
but we were ALSO staying at the home of two of my dear, dear long time
friends, George West and Starr Mitchell. (Also present in their home was Scratch, George and Starr's
very mellow old gray cat, who did everything he could to make us
comfortable. Picture: here I am in George and Starr's guest
bedroom, just woken up, snapped by David, slung in the sling, with
Scratch cozying up.)
I cannot tell you how much I prefer staying with friends to staying in a hotel. And when those good friends live in a welcoming comfortable home, complete with amiable cat, and when one has the chance for the odd late or early bit of easy, natural, catch-up conversation with either or both of said people, so much the better. In this case, so very much the better: these are two interesting, funny, kind people who are intellectually vibrant, loving, and deeply committed to justice and understanding (to get a sense of this, check this article, which touches heavily on George's work with Central High students and bringing the institution's difficult, meaningful history alive and into a very different present). That they are my loyal long-term friends is my great good fortune. That they loved my late husband, Ned, yet have welcomed David, as well and as compatibly, is almost miraculous.
How, under these benign circumstances, could things not be basically good, even with a shoulder that hurt like hell?
But back to Buffalo Girl, and my talks in Little Rock.
Now, any time I give a talk, anywhere, there's one question that I can be almost certain someone in the audience will ask me, whether that audience consists of YPO members, third graders, museum keepers. Well, actually there are two usual questions: "Is that your real name?" and "What are you working on now?"
A freelance writer's life being inherently unstable and unpredictable, this last can sometimes be a painful one to answer. But this time, thankfully and happily, after a somewhat difficult and dry spell, I had a nice, gratifying three-fold response. Because, to my own joy and wonderment (for reasons that will become clear) I was working on, and actually under contract for, three new books.
The first of these is a cookbook, The Bean Book (actually a wholly rewritten version of a book I first wrote in 1972). It will be published by Workman later this year or early next year. (Left, you can see some of my hands-on work for The Bean Book. This is what we had for dinner the night before last; a close-up of a plate of feijoada completa: Brazilian-style black beans over rice, with sliced oranges, cooked greens, and farofa, toasted tapioca flour --- that's the white powder which looks a little like Parmesan, sprinkled on the beans. Molho de vinagrete, a sort of chunky, non-spicy vinaigrette salsa, rounds out the plate. Not pictured: the tiny, beautiful piri-piri --- very red, fiercely hot little peppers on the side). I will just mention here in passing, that, quirkily enough, Little Rock has an extraordinarily good Brazilian restaurant, Cafe Bossa Nova, which had spiked my interest in that particular cuisine. If you happen to be in Little Rock, eat there. But I digress.
The second book I'm at work on is a new genre for me: how-to/inspirational. It's Fearless Writing, about the writing process as I understand and teach it ... how I infect (in the positive sense), others with it. This book will be published by Ten Speed Press in 2011. As I mentioned, I was also teaching a workshop on it, while in Little Rock. (Pictured right: most of our wondrous, energetic recent Fearless group in Little Rock, at the end of our time together).
The third book I'm working on is a children's book.
Now it happens that when I was answering the "what are you working on" question at "Ordinary Miraculous", the talk I was giving to the museum folks, I screwed up big-time in the part of my response where I was talking about this children's book, which will be published by Little, Brown (I don't know when yet; they have to decide on an illustrator, and publication date will depend on the illustrator's scheule).
And of course, because David was getting tape, it's on camera. In that remarkable way the Internet makes possible, I'm going to include a link to a You-Tube clip of this actual hilarious, and completely unintentional, screw-up ... my story, inspirational and nominally informative at the start, eventually going very, very wrong. Watch, please, before we continue, or what happens next will not entirely make sense.
(Have not yet figured out how to "embed" a video here, though I've diligently tried... sorry.)
Okay, by now, hopefully, you have finished laughing at, and with me.
And now let us fast-forward --- through the YPO talk, Fearless, and "Ordinary Miraculous." Let us come to the morning when I talked to the 80 third-graders from e-Stem (unfortunately, this was the only one of my presentations David did not tape, because by then he was understandably jonesing to be back online and working at his real work, which is not taping his girlfriend giving talks). So while I was with the kids, he was back at George and Starr's, with Scratch, working on his laptop while I did this final talk. It was on a Friday morning; that Friday, in the late afternoon, we'd fly back to Vermont. (Although I wasn't there, obviously, the scene may well have looked like this one George had photographer earlier in the week, with Scratch supervising David at work).
So, back at Historic Arkansas Museum with the e-Stem students, a morning not documented in pictures... so from here on my description will have to suffice.
When the third-graders asked me what I was working on now, I skipped over the cookbook and Fearless Writing and spared them the whole story about the long ten years of non-children's book publication. I just told them that I had just finished writing a children's book.
"What's it about?"
I told them, much as in the taped clip above, that a parent was trying to get a wide-awake child to go to sleep. I quoted the same bit of verse, and the same two animals, Antelope and Baby Bison.
"What's a bison?"
I started to explain what a bison was, but then asked "Well, does anyone here know what a bison is?"
A hand waved wildly in the middle of the room. "It's like a buffalo!" said a young man, excited to know. "Exactly so," I agreed.
"Does it look like a buffalo? "
There was a large flip chart at the front of the room. Though I am not a visual artist, I might have made a stab at trying to draw one had not my right arm been in a sling.
Now it happened that my friend Mary Springer had driven down from Eureka Springs, the little town in which I'd lived so long, with three other dear pals for dinner the night before (at Cafe Bossa Nova, naturally). They'd stayed over, and we'd spent time that morning, and they were sitting in the back row of the auditorium behind the 80 third-graders.
Mary (pictured left), who is an artist, is
also, like me, pretty much always up for anything.
"Mary, " I called to her, "Could you come down and draw a bison for us, please?"
Mary called back, holding one arm up, "Remember I told you last night I had carpal tunnel surgery? I still can't draw either!"
So I looked at the 80 e-Stem third-graders and said, "Can anyone here draw a bison or a buffalo?"
Many hands were waving.
But there was one little girl, right in the center of the front row of the auditorium, who caught my eye. She wasn't waving her hand; she had just shot it up and held it still; she seemed to almost be pulsing with confidence and conviction. "Come on up,"I said to her.
With great self-possession she rose from her seat, walked right over to the giant flip pad, and picked up a green Sharpie.
And she turned to me, and looked up at me, and, in front of everyone, said --- earnestly, sincerely, neither whispering nor especially loudly, but in a let's-get-down-to-business tone --- "Now, what does it look like?"
I was, for a second, speechless. She waited, gazing up expectantly at me, clear-eyed and with complete trust. She demonstrably believed that we were, at this moment, partners. Her belief was numinous: her belief that I had the ability to describe, in words, so accurately what this animal she had never seen looked like that she would easily be able to render it on paper. Her faith in all this seemed absolute and complete. It was faith in both of us, and in our ability to instantly and perfectly collaborate. Faith that moves mountains is one thing; but faith that can draw a bison, never having seen one?
Calm, purposeful, utter fearless, she looked up at me, waiting.
"Well..." I said, "I guess its shape is a little bit like a bull..."
She uncapped the green Sharpie and began to draw. Not perfectly --- this is not a story about her being wildly gifted with natural drawing talent --- but te shape she made was definitely bullish, and drawn swiftly and confidently.
Mary, by way of help, called from the back of the room, "It has a hump."
Immediately the little girl put humps on the bull, two, like a camel.
"Just one hump," I added.
"Oh, now I got it," she said, nodding. Deftly she changed the double green humps into a single hump.
And she did get it, sort of. The four-legged horned green humped
barrel-chested bullish-buffalo-bison looked amazingly like what it was supposed to be.
It had pretty much the shape of a bison.
She completed the outline, capped the Sharpie, put it down, and turned to go back to her seat.
"Thank you," I said, and everyone, including me, applauded.
Later Mary said to me, "She really did very well."
"Unbelievably well, "I said, and repeated to Mary what she had said to me. "Now, what does it look like? "
I shook my head in wonder, as I have several times, writing about this interaction, which took place in far less time than it takes to tell it.
As I said at the beginning of this post, it's not quite a month since I've been back from Little Rock. But I remain dazzled by that little girl and what she embodied.
She didn't know better than to suppose she couldn't do it. Or, more truly, she didn't know worse, the worse most of us carry around, the usual fictional parade of bad possibilities, what if this, what if that, that goes on and on inside our overheated, overactive, fearful brains. That child was heedless of failure. That she might do it wrong in front of a large group, maybe be made fun of, never even crossed her open, fearless small mind.
"We shall not cease from exploration, " wrote that most unchildlike poet, the cerebral T.S. Eliot, " and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time."
I think that arrival, which is both the beginning and the end, probably looks a lot like the gaze --- bright eyed, certain, open, ready --- of that little girl.