LET THERE BE LIT

WRITING THE GHOSTS FOR GEORGIA AND FRANCE

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Heather M. Peters writes roots, of finding in rural France the Georgia clay that cakes her father’s boots. In her new memoir Sinking in the Stillness, Peters writes the ghosts of her French and Cherokee forebears and how they branch across the bones of her face.

It began two years ago, as required responses in a University of North Florida writers’ workshop that took Peters and several friends to Provence, France with the artist Louise Freshman Brown and the novelist, artist, and musician Mark Ari.

But back in Jacksonville, Provence took on a new life. Peters wrote of the Georgia she was surprised to find in France, and of the self she founded mirrored between continents.

Heather Peters appears predominantly in her own French memoir to tell us how she does not appear. She speaks of the names of goats, of vineyards, of a ruined castle.

“A small patch of nine poppies springs up in the middle of the path, right before the creek, a crossing that becomes something of a daily baptism for me. I stand in the center of the cold rush for a few moments with the bottom of my skirt bundled up in my hands, thankful for once for the calluses on my feet, and yet also for the rocks pressing into my arches. But mostly, I am thankful for the freezing water burning my legs.”

That’s as much of herself as she shows. Peters writes of herself as apart. She writes from the top of a hill, “alone and separate from the world,” looking down at vineyards and “tiny stone houses,” an “expanse of blue mountain” in the distance.

She writes of the blue distance she keeps from groups, of her quiet departures from meals, but only as to frame particular observances: the magpies in a treehouse, the English word “REGRETS” in the small French graveyard. Heather Peters is an unusually private person, and though she jokes about her social anxieties, the distance she keeps feels not cold, but stunningly graceful.

She holds herself upright and her dark hair reaches down almost to her waist, as she points to the crows that hop beside our feet as I sip my coffee. She notices how one crow limps with a foot frozen in an unbroken grasp.

She writes of keeping distant, socially, of a heightened outsider anxiety and awareness in social settings, and I ask her if this position makes her a natural observer. “It makes sense,” she says, but says no more.

She tells me of an antique typewriter she found as a little girl hunting through her father’s closet. The machine mesmerized her, and when she began to write stories, she found its old ink ribbon only printed in red.

“I write about other people because I keep so much to myself,” Peters says. “I try to make up for that egocentricity.”

Indeed, Sinking in the Stillness reads at times like a roman à clef of other Jacksonville writers and artists. Local writers Caroline Fraley, Jeff Jones, Phillip Wentirine, and Mark Ari have sections named for them.

Caroline “goes freely, sleeping among the poppy fields and goldenrods slid so easily behind her ear. The current will break downstream, her eyes say.”

One night, Jeff and Phillip sleep on the ground “far out past the creek, with Caroline above them in her hammock.” The boys come back in the morning, covered in snails and dew, and Jeff has “lost the sadness in his eyes,” though “writers often have the eyes of the broken-hearted.”

When she writes of other writers, Peters writes, truly inadvertently, of herself.

Then there’s Ari, as though he has but one name, though his novel The Shoemaker’s Tale bears also “Mark.” Ari, Peters writes, “is a pair of worn-out snakeskin boots.” His laugh wells up from “the soles of his feet, the most honest sound you may ever hear.” She calls him “a father to people he never helped conceive” and writes of his reading his writers to sleep.

Heather Peters writes of Ari as she writes of countries and the poetry of provinces, and of her own father. She writes of rural Southeastern France as of rural Southeastern Georgia.

She’s “perched upon a large rock the color of fire-ant beds,” as “cicadas take flight,” with a “little green notebook” in her hands.

Provence blends with Valdosta, Georgia, and Hilliard and Jacksonville, Florida. “The soothing, familiar clicking of cicada wings is a welcomed sound when I miss my Southern cradle. Home is where the frogs sing gospel when it rains. And home is where the only sounds you hear at night are passing cars and police sirens.”

As a little girl in the cab of her father’s pickup, Peters saw the cursive Chevrolet slogan “Heartbeat of America” and read “Heartbeat” as “Heather.”

And the heartbeat of Sinking in the Stillness reverberates in Peters’ passion for magpies and her father’s grease-stained hands and French fields where “hitchhikers are welcome to sleep when they pass through on rainy evenings.”

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