Portrait of Carl and Lillian Sandburg by Edward Steichen

Carl Sandburg called it the “creative hush,” that holy place where the heart sings and the pen records. He found it at night, after everyone had gone to bed; while his wife and daughters slept he wrote in his upstairs office: poetry, Abraham Lincoln biographies, folk songs. At five in the morning he’d shuffle in his slippers over to his bedroom, hugging on the way his wife Lillian who was just heading out to milk her prize-winning goats.

There’s not much silence where I live. Bynum is quiet, but the acoustics in our old mill house produce more cacophony than symphony. House guests do not sleep in late chez Blackshaw-McKee. (Rio may chortle at your earplugs.) Annie and Rio both have the gift of the gab, and one generally knows where they are in the house, no matter what their activities. Rio has taken to busting out improvised rock n’ roll choruses while he plays, and Annie does a mean Ella Fitzgerald while cooking pasta putanesca. When Rio slips into bed with us in the early morning, he and Annie usually joke and giggle in a half-asleep state, me turning over and sighing histrionically, relegated to the outermost edge of the bed. The last time Annie was out of town, Rio came to bed as usual in the morning, nestled into her spot, and then said to me, rather formally, “Excuse me. Can we cuddle?” We did of course, but only after he relayed to me the dream he’d just been having.

Yeah, I get my quiet where I can. I read Rumi on the toilet.

But old Sandburg wasn’t so flexible. He needed his hush. He was 67 when they moved from Michigan to North Carolina. Lillian was sick of the cold northern climate, which proved difficult for her goats. She researched the best spot for raising her particular breed, settling on western North Carolina in a town called Flat Rock. Carl was fine with the whole thing as long as he didn’t have to change his routine. And so before they moved in, Lillian had the upstairs renovated so that it matched the exact layout of their house in Michigan. By the time they drove down, she’d had the contents of their entire house shipped and put in their proper place, down to the last book.

Carl wrote at this sprawling house until he died of heart failure at 88, winning the Pulitzer prize for poetry in his seventies. He said he only needed four things in life, maybe five: to stay out of jail; to eat regular; to have what he wrote printed; to have a little love inside the house and outside of it; and, he said, sometimes, to sing.

2 thoughts on “Quiet

  1. So beautiful. I hadn’t known that Sandburg ended up here. I always remember what I read about James Joyce. He wrote “Ulysses” in the middle of the living room of a small apartment inhabited by his own family of four and assorted brothers and in-laws and children. Of course, many will say “Ulysses” is unfathomable but I say “All those voices! All that life!” Silence is lovely but it also means sometimes that you are alone.

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