An unexpected package arrived in the mail the other day from a friend I hadn’t heard from in a while. I was at first delighted simply to see her name on the return label. Memories of our time together as part of a singing group that met weekly near my then-home in Western Washington flashed through my mind. But what had prompted her to go above and beyond the usual Christmas update? It’s not everyday a true surprise comes along.
Inside, a card and hand-written note: “I was so excited to see this little book of beautiful poems. It made me think of you. I picked up a copy for myself and have really enjoyed.”
“Voluntary on a Flight of Angels: New and Collected Poems,” by Carolyn Maddux. Even before reading a single word of its insides the gift was a treasure to behold. Carolyn, one of those people whose paths I’ve been blessed to cross; someone who became a mother to me in my young adult years when my own mother was far away, and certainly, has been a mentor in every sense of the word ever since.
When I first accepted the job as reporter at The Shelton-Mason County Journal back in the early 1990s, we wondered just what we’d gotten ourselves into, having stepped into the world of a depressed logging community off the southeastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula.
We’d been drawn to the Pacific Northwest because of the gorgeous terrain and thought of working in the bustling, hip city of Seattle. But this latest job offer had taken us one step further from that latter goal, landing my husband and me in what seemed the sticks of the West. Though speckled with natural beauty, it also carried the small-town, backwards kind of feel we’d been trying so hard to escape.
In time, we’d see it differently, but initially we were tentative. Enter the talented, articulate, creative Carolyn. She would be training me in my new role, and I would be assuming her “society” beat while she moved onto covering the more grungy cops and courts news, trading in features and wedding pieces for drug raids, abuse and scandal.
From the beginning, I knew she must be a brave soul, and certainly, she was no run-of-the-mill reporter. Firstly, the fact that she was a mother and wife of the local Episcopal priest drew my curiosity. My faith was at a crossroads, and I would come to see later how much God loved me by placing me in that particular newsroom, in part so I could work out some of my big questions one by one with her and some of the others. But other special qualities quickly emerged as well. Among them, I discovered a floral fashioner, culinary creative and poet.
Carolyn once told me she suspected her draw to poetry had been, in part, due to a day job that required her to promulgate an abundance of words, and that writing poetry and keeping things succinct helped balance things out and offer reprieve. I suspect, too, that it gave her a chance to continue dipping into her amazing pool of creativity, which seemed endless.
She wasn’t the only co-worker in that newsroom who would help mold me. It was a unique and rich place to be at that time in my life. But there was something amazing about Carolyn. She seemed to believe in my abilities from the get-go and gave me as much responsibility as I was willing to take on. Having the chance to work so near her in a small newsroom was nothing short of a divine gift. I watched as she started a wildflower collecting and arranging business, entered cooking competitions, and gathered poets from all over the region into our little town for readings at local coffee shops. Hearing about the writing workshops she both attended and taught was inspiring. She seemed abundant in the ability to honor the craft of others while still valuing her own talents, clearly seeing both the give and receive of the artistic circle. Best of all, perhaps, she had a genuine respect for all human beings no matter their lot in life.
Looking back now, I realize that in absorbing this day by day, I was beginning to believe in my own abilities and what might be possible. She’d already attained published-poet status by the time I entered the picture and her optimism and grace quickly started rubbing off on me. I began seeing my own writing aspirations not as faraway dreams but achievable. She had a great deal to do with that.
So when this lovely gift arrived in the mail, I brimmed with emotion. Because, first off, the friend who sent it knew exactly what would prompt my heart to smile. That in itself solicited a moment of gratitude. But beyond that, for a time, the three of us had shared the same space, and my friend knew as I did that this book of poems was extraordinary, for it had been birthed by someone with whom we had a personal connection and who’d touched us each in different ways.
Cracking open the book, a smile came even before I’d read the first line of the first poem. She’d dedicated the book to a woman named Elspeth — one of the first people I interviewed for a feature story all those years ago. I can picture Elspeth now in her beautiful home in the woods, the apple trees nearby, the printing press in her basement. When she’d become ill, Carolyn had given me updates and asked for prayers. She’d died a brave but difficult death, and now that courageous life was being honored in black and white.
I’ve only begun to peek at the poems, but already, I’m drawn in. The one that bears the name of the book’s title begins:
“Busy about your hands, they rustled
wings among the pipes. You pulled
the stops: gedecht and gemshorn on the swell,
rohrflute on the great, and coupled;
better today’s great instrument, they thought,
than that mechanical thing. To contain
angels in the clockwork – what an insane
idea, even for Handel, but when he sent them,
obedient they went…”
I am in another world, transfixed by an old, musical clock containing bells and a pipe organ, for which Handel once wrote a few tunes, or so an introduction explains. I will absorb these words bit by bit and, I know already, love every one of them.
Q4U: Who has been a mentor to you and in what ways did they influence you?