celestine and me

When I was in my twenties, I wanted to write essays, so I went to the library and read my way through the 800s -- particularly the 814s -- and fell in love with White, Thurber, Perelman, Goodman, Didion, Trillin.

I particularly loved the essayists who wrote about home and family. Some were famous, and some obscure: Pat Leimbach, Erma Bombeck, John Gould, Robert Hastings, Annie Dillard, Gladys Taber, Gladys Ogden Dimock, William Childress... and that's what I remember without getting up from the couch to peruse the bookshelves where my used copies live.
Yesterday my friend Cyndi offered up a quote by Anais Nin: Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.

I have met some of my most intimate friends between two book covers; living human beings whom I have never met in person, but know so well because they have shared their stories. They never knew me, but I have been changed by them. They have opened up worlds for me.
When I read all those essayists, when I studied them so thoroughly, I was learning to write -- attending a school of my own divising -- and I copied these writer's styles. Soon I developed a voice of my own, and I got a gig at the local paper, writing opinion pieces -- for free, at first -- and then a gig at a magazine, writing local color, and features.
Personal narrative was and remains my first love. I wrote hundreds of essays in those years -- decades. Nothing was wasted. If a piece wasn't published, I kept it with the published pieces -- I had documented my life and my family's growing up. And one summer when we went on our annual pilgrimage to Garrett County, Maryland, where we stayed in a cabin in the woods and hiked, fished, canoed, swam, ate and slept and did nothing electronic, I bought a book of essays at Yoder's Market by a woman I'd never heard of, Celestine Sibley. The Sweet Apple Gardening Book was the title, all about Ms. Sibley's gardening adventures in a restored 1842 cabin in the foothills of the north Georgia mountains.
These essays opened a world for me -- a world I had been hoping to inhabit for years. Celestine Sibley left the city and found a piece of rural property, restored a cabin and lived a sustainable life, while supporting herself and three children with her writing. She planted and put by, hung her sheets on the line, plopped zinnias into Mason jars, snapped beans on the front porch, fed the neighbors and fought the squirrels and looked up at the black night sky and picked out the constellations, while the cicadas sang away summer.
I never inhabited that world. Or did I? Is it a matter of how you look at it? I have a screened in porch, I plop zinnias in the jar, dress the back yard with bedding so it can sun, gratefully feed the willing neighbors (and they feed me), lie on a blanket under the stars, and garden to my heart's content. I live not far from where Celestine (may we call her Celestine?) lived on Thirteenth Street in Midtown Atlanta before she made her trek to the country... the country that is no longer the country.

Roswell, Georgia is now a suburb of Atlanta. Celestine wrote prolifically about the bulldozers and the developers that were eating up her countryside. She wrote once that she loved a rainy day because it meant she didn't have to listen to the chain saws.

Roswell is a short drive from Atlanta, in fact, and is not what I'd call the foothills -- that's another hour up the road, near Dahlonega. But I got to thinking about Celestine last week, about how she supported her children working at the Atlanta Journal Constitution for over fifty years, how she wrote countless articles, several novels, and thousands of essays... and books about her beloved Sweet Apple in the foothills. I wanted to find this place that had opened up a world for me, a place that had existed only between the pages of a book.
Although Celestine died in 1999, an online search told me that Sweet Apple was still standing, still in the family, and one of the lone holdouts to the rabid and rapid development surrounding Atlanta. I clutched the directions I'd sleuthed out from several articles I'd found online, and with just a few missteps and wrong turns, Jim and I soon found ourselves on a dirt road that led to a mailbox that stood in front of a cabin. Sweet Apple.

There it was. It looked as if no one was home, and I didn't want to intrude even if someone was, so we took a few photos and were on our way. But not before I stood there for a long time, just looking at Sweet Apple. It represented home, family, simplicity, love, longing, and hope... to Celestine, and also to me. A world had been born for me, again, right there on that dusty dirt road in front of a house I never knew but knew all too well.
We drove away, back onto the pavement, past the Krogers and the Olive Gardens and the strip malls and the broad roofs of the huge homes in spanking-new subdivisions. We drove into the actual foothills, like we always do. The car found its winding way to Dahlonega, where we always go, to the Crimson Moon, where we always eat, to the music that we love to hear. The music that has, for so long, been my friend as well.

We -- all of us -- have so many friends, not all of them human, and there are lots of worlds being born, over and over again, in a myriad of ways... all represented by stories.

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.