By Kim Stafford
She was slumped against the wall on Decatur Street, close to midnight, crying. At her feet was a shrine—candles burning, flowers scattered, coins strewn, notes scrawled on scraps of paper, jack of diamonds, and a record-album cover showing a bullet plowing through an apple.
We were three friends on the New Orleans Writing Marathon, winding down from a day of scribbling in cafes and bars, at park benches, or anyplace we could hunch over our notebooks. And we stopped to ask her, this dark woman in the pale blue uniform of a city sanitation worker, “What happened?”
“Robin,” she said, “my friend.” She took a breath. “When he fix my hair he tell me ‘You a lady. You not about the sanitation service. You a lovely lady . . .”
“And then . . .?”
“And then he give his key to the wrong man. After Katrina, you know, some people lock their doors. But not Robin. He too generous. He helped. Wrong man shot him dead.”
She continued to cry, we said a few words, then we walked on. Later that night, late in my hotel room, given momentum by a day of writing with my friends, I felt the tug of her story. I realized my guitar wanted to sing the words she had said to us.
Late last night, down on Decatur, I met a woman cryin’.
She lit a candle for a man, and placed it in his shrine . . .
Before dawn I had heard my guitar make the whole song, and later that day, I sat in the corner where my fellow writers had gathered to share our marathon creations for a radio program. Others read amazing stories, poems, incandescent fragments that had seeped from memory, burst from observation, bloomed from the kind of meditative discovery writing in good company can provide. I contributed my song. And then, that evening, I staggered onto a plane for home.
The next day I got an email out of the blue from Robin’s sister. “I can’t believe you never met my brother,” she wrote. “I heard your song on the radio program about my dear Robin, and we tracked it down to play at his memorial service. That’s just what he always said! If you can dream it, you can do it . . .
I was deeply moved that my song had found such a place of honor in the world. This is my new standard for how writing can work: compose something to give away that may somehow enrich the place of creation. This is the writing marathon’s close circle of creation and sharing all in one. This is the story I will tell if anyone asks me whether I have written a best-seller: “No, I have not. But I had the good fortune to compose a song that helped someone I have never met.”
At the next marathon in the French Quarter, on my writing pilgrimage with friends and fellow writers, I’ll make my way to the hair salon where Robin once gave words of encouragement to his customers, his friends, anyone he met. And as we wander, I’ll watch for stories, listen for songs, and bend over my page to write in the sweet frenzy of our calling to witness what we are learning as we go.
Here is a link to the song: http://www.kim-stafford.com/songs.html
Poet and the former director of the Oregon Writing Project, Kim Stafford is the author of more than a dozen books. His poems can be found in national magazines, and one of his essay collections, Having Everything Right (1996), won a Western States Book Award citation. His books include a memoir of his father, Early Morning (2003) and a handbook about writing, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft (2003). His latest book is 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared.