She Taught Me the Value and Intelligence of Nature in Writing

An appreciation by one of the many authors Toni Morrison inspired

AsAs soon as I read that Toni Morrison had left this plane, I went straight to my garden for comfort and balm, to take my grief to the Mother Spirits. I didn’t know if Morrison would be there, but I was sure the zinnias were still blooming. The moonflower vines were still reaching for the trellis. The compost pile was still hot in the middle. The tomato plants still bearing. It was right and proper that I headed there. It was Morrison, along with Zora Neale Hurston, who taught me the value and intelligence of nature in writing. In fact, it was through nature that I first encountered and was captivated by this American treasure.

In the ’70s when Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was published, I was a rising newspaper editor in Atlanta. However, as soon as I read the lines:

Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody’s did.”

I read her novels with a dictionary, thesaurus, and books of African and Greek mythology at hand. I studied them and learned.

I immediately recognized the genius and the teacher in Morrison. I had been looking for a mentor in my mind for some time. In fact, from the moment I created wild stories on the playground of St. Peter Claver Elementary School to entertain my little friends, I had pondered exactly what an African American writer of fiction could be. How did she live, write, improve, date, entertain, make friends, reveal secrets, impart wisdom?

In work after extraordinary work, Morrison explored our humanity and our mortality. I read her novels with a dictionary, thesaurus, and books of African and Greek mythology at hand. I studied them and learned.

Two decades after The Bluest Eye was published, I met Morrison for the first time in the living room of Reynolds Cottage, the residence of the president of my alma mater, Spelman College. At the time, the redoubtable and kind Johnnetta B. Cole held that position, and was kicking butt by bringing in extraordinary artists and scholars to present to and interact with the students. I was a writer in residence there for the semester, and had just published my first novel Baby of the Family the year before. Morrison was working on Jazz, her sixth novel, pages of which she read to a packed audience at Sisters Chapel, followed by a command reading from her towering classic Beloved. Later, Dr. Cole had invited a few blessed students and writer/scholars for private drinks and dinner with Morrison at the Cottage.

I arrived early.

To allay my nervousness at sitting on the sofa next to my elegant, dreadlocked icon, I offered to make Morrison a drink. She had one. She agreed that the Atlanta campus was indeed lovely in autumn.

Crickets.

At my core, I longed for just this opportunity: To have her all to myself. To discuss her works and mine. To ask foolish questions about her process. (Can you imagine what this Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s process must have truly entailed?) To compare her Lorraine, Ohio to my Macon, Georgia.

But I could not bring myself to be myself in the presence of the great writer, and I breathed easy for the first time that evening when other guests arrived. I moved to the side and just quietly lapped up her essence like cream. How she positioned her head when she spoke. How she sat. How she pursed her lips when she blew out plumes of cigarette smoke.

I may not have been as bold as I later became, but I did have enough sense even then to breathe in and listen to her wisdom. Though quiet, I knew I was sitting in the presence of greatness.

Morrison showed me that a great writer not only writes about life. She lives it, bringing all the facets of herself to the work.

Early on, her writing inspired me to write — and to write the way I do. I had just learned that one could write about the effect of nature on an unnatural situation. That one can write about poor Black country people in the South, about the men and women who lived and worked as slaves, about those African folks living in and away from the northern cities in ways that make their lives, their beliefs, their secrets, their internal as well as outer struggles such rich, deep literature. Hurston, the astounding novelist, had certainly shown me how. But Morrison, the professor with her beautifully crafted novels and essays, taught me how.

Indeed, she taught me, through her life, just how complex and multifaceted an African American artist could be. Morrison showed me that a great writer not only writes about life, she lives it, bringing all the facets of herself to the work.

For all her seriousness, her prescient and scholarly work, and her incredible insight into culture, literature and politics, Morrison could also be flirty and girlish. Yeah. Toni Morrison.

Our second meeting proved this. It was at an extraordinarily stellar dedication of the Langston Hughes Library on the grounds of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Tennessee Haley Farm in 1999. Guests and speakers included Morrison, Maya Angelou, Maxine Waters, Hillary Clinton, Joyce Carol Oates, Martha Stewart, and CDF president and my Spelman sister Marian Wright Edelman.

On the first evening, after an elegant outdoor dinner under beautiful white tents, the “entertainment” was the late, great Maya Angelou, who read her poetry and spoke eloquently about her work. The second night, the “entertainment” was Morrison. After speaking seriously and intensely about her work, she headed for the three wooden steps with no handrails, situated at the side of the platform. My husband Jonee’, who had chatted with Morrison earlier, looked to me, jumped up, and hurried to the stage with his hand extended to help her down the steps. But the audience was having none of that. Earlier in her speech, she had promised a reading before she finished, and we wanted our reading.

Reluctantly, she turned and headed back to the podium.

“I did promise you all that, didn’t I?” she said teasingly.

Jonee’ returned to his front-row seat, but everyone could see he was chomping at the bit to escort the esteemed Toni Morrison down those three steps as soon as she finished reading from Paradise.

When she did, Jonee’ pounced and was at the edge of the stage with his hand extended before she closed the book. This time, confident that Jonee’ would have carried her down those steps if she wished, Morrison practically sashayed rhythmically to the edge of the stage, took his hand, and seemed to float down to the ground. Then, as if she and Jonee’ had been practicing all week to music, he gently swung her around about 180 degrees to land precisely and daintily at her front-row seat.

Jonee’ bowed. Morrison smiled, thanking him for their little pas de deux with a slight lift of one shoulder. And the crowd went wild.

I just sat there applauding and, once again, lapping it up: the woman recognized as the finest American writer of our time and the gay, flirty woman who recognized how adorable she was in the spotlight. One and the same.

Toni Morrison. Herself. Complete.

Rest.

Award-winning writer/raconteur, marsh/beachlover, founder DownSouth Press & Sea Island Writers Retreats, editor/coach, joyful #SECRETSofaBOGARTQUEEN 2019

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