Monday, December 24, 2007
The problem with 80-degree weather in December, however, is – as everyone was sighing last week – "It just doesn't feel like Christmas."
It was looking like Christmas, of course. Wreaths with red velvet bows. Twinkling lights. Holly and poinsettias. The ubiquitous Christmas sweater.
So it was that into the contradiction between sight and sense that I woke up last Saturday to the sound of rain hitting the windows like bird shot. On Sunday it was the wind that greeted my awakening. On Monday it was the silence of hard cold.
I stood at the door and looked outside at the frost wrapped over the landscape – in some places shiny and slick like aluminum foil, in others clear and wavy like Saran wrap. The whole world was white and pale gray and silver. Pulling my overcoat and gloves from the hall closet before rushing outside to warm up the car, I thought, "Now it feels like Christmas."
The funny thing is, of course, that most of the Christmases I've known have been nothing like iconic Currier and Ives prints. Only once can I remember snow anywhere near December 25 on the calendar. Old photographs of me and Keith and our cousins playing outside with our Christmas toys show us in nothing warmer than a sweatshirt and plenty of them show us with bare arms.
The difference between romance and reality isn't limited to weather issues. There's that whole magazine- and Food Network-encouraged delusion of the formal meal where the family dons its nicest clothes and gathers around a table set with Grandmother's china and silver and everyone comments on the deliciousness of the roasted brussels sprouts.
Does anyone arrive on the doorstep holding an armload of beautifully wrapped gifts none of which has a smooshed bow?
I think it would be lovely to have that kind of Christmas – elegant, unhurried, and draped in pristine snow – , but the truth is that I would have no place in such a Christmas. I am neither elegant nor unhurried (though I am working on being both by the time I reach my dotage). My place is in a Christmas where people shaped by a life that isn't always easy, hasn't always been fair and has forced on them grief they feel ill-prepared to carry pause long enough to realize that what matters isn't how Christmas looks, but how it feels.
And how should it feel? How did Mary and Joseph feel? How did George Washington and his army, crossing the Delaware River, feel? How did the World War I soldiers who sang with their enemies on the battlefields of Flanders during the Christmas Truce of 1914 feel? How did the crew of Apollo 8, the first humans to orbit the moon and the first to spend Christmas in space, feel? We can only imagine, but I think they may have all felt similar things. Fear. Anticipation. Uncertainty. Awe. Because whatever happened next, whatever the results of the next few hours or days, the world would be changed forever.
Christmas changed the world forever. May we embrace that feeling and go out and do the same.
Monday, December 10, 2007
"What in the world do you want with a chinaberry tree? That’s the aggravatingest thing I’ve ever seen."
I explained to him that there is something quintessentially southern about a chinaberry tree, that it reminds me of old farmsteads and bare feet and Sunday afternoons. I tried to get him to understand that I didn’t care that the fallen berries tend to sprout into saplings almost overnight and that they stain anything with which they come in contact. I did my best to convince him that it was a good idea and, eventually, I got my tree.
In the summer, the delicate branches bloom first with long languid leaves and then hard green berries that droop from their stems with disproportionate weight and always remind me of a pawn shop sign. As the season fades, the berries themselves fade to gold and dry up light and leathery into miniature versions of deflated volleyballs.
In late fall, the berries fall to the ground and the leaves get blown away and the tree stands naked with its skinny arms stretched toward the clouds as though entreating some divine intercession to cover its embarrassment.
That’s what I noticed the other morning when I stepped out on the deck to check the temperature. Silhouetted against the dull early morning sky, the tree looked small and vulnerable and not the least best reminiscent of her summer self dancing in the warm breeze.
Behind her was the harrowed-over corn field and beyond that the dried out remnants of kudzu vine wrapped around the trees at the edge of the pond. The world was still and empty and colorless.
Just as I was about to go back in, I heard geese honking. From far away, probably across somebody’s else farm, they were flying and calling to each other in voices faint, but exquisitely clear and I realized that in the near-empty landscape of winter I could hear other things more clearly, too. Wind chimes and the call of a loon. Dogs barking and the blast of a shotgun. The scurry of an unidentified small animal through the underbrush.
I’ve often wondered at the reasoning behind the early Christian fathers’ decision to place Christmas in this darkest, coldest part of the year. The carol calls it "the bleak midwinter." It is said that they simply wanted to piggyback on or, even better, eclipse the existing pagan celebrations that already existed, celebrations rooted in the fear that with each setting of the sun there was the possibility that it might not ever reappear.
Whatever the reason, it occurs to me that maybe one of the reasons we are called to celebrate the birth of the Christ child in the time of hibernation is that we hear better in the darkness. Without the distraction of spring’s heady scents and summer’s fresh tastes and autumn’s riotous colors, we are left with only the sounds.
The gasp of a young girl at the sight of an angel and the angel’s whisper, "Fear not." The scuffling of pilgrims down rocky roads and the harried voices of the census takers in the tiny Palestinian towns. The whimpering of sheep, the lowing of cattle. And the first breathy cries of a newborn.
It is easy to see the stars out in the country. I can stand in my front yard, tilt my head back and feel all my self-importance drain away. At this time of year, in the bleak midwinter, I can hear them, too. They are singing. And their song is a familiar one, the very first Christmas carol – "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
Monday, November 26, 2007
A few months ago Tamar has hit by a truck. Her hip was dislocated and it took the sweet and gifted folks at Saint Buddy's Hospital for Well-Beloved Animals two separate surgeries to get her pieced back together. Since then, she has been on restriction. She is not allowed to roam free and takes walks only while clipped to a long, but still confining leash. She spends the majority of her days lounging on the deck.
This, I would like to make clear, was not my idea. Mama, who in a rather imperial, but nonetheless understandable way has assumed full custody of Tamar, decided that she could not bear to consider the possibility of her getting hit again and Tamar has become more or less a house dog.
The other afternoon, however, Mama, Daddy and I were standing outside chatting when a truck drove by and there was Tamar tearing across the front yard in pursuit. Daddy yelled for her to stop, but to no avail. Paradoxically fortunately, her injury and subsequent surgeries have left Tamar with a slight limp and her speed has been reduced significantly. The truck was past her long before there was any chance of a physical encounter.
She turned back toward us and obediently trotted back to the steps of the deck where she waited to be reincarcerated.
It didn’t take long to discover that she’d managed to push open one of the gates that had not been completely locked and had, thus, made her escape.
Mama, all aflutter, reprimanded the still panting dog while Daddy shook his head and mumbled, "Getting hit didn’t make a bit of difference to that dog. She’s still gonna chase a truck if she gets a chance." And he is right. She will. It is who she is.
We’ll never know, I suppose, why Tamar feels this untamable compulsion to throw herself into the path of large and noisy objects. Maybe she is being protective and thinks she is chasing away evil. Maybe she is competitive and thinks she has been invited to test herself. Maybe she just likes the way it feels when her heart is beating fast and her legs are pumping.
We’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter. Tamar is a dog who loves to chase trucks and it is one of the characteristics, along with her insatiable need to lick and her staccato bark, that make her Tamar.
Just another example of the similarities among animals, including the ones of us who have proportionally large brains and reasoning skills. No one of us can ever really know why anyone else is the way she is. We deceive ourselves when we assert otherwise and we disparage our relationships when we insist on trying.
"It is a fool playing God who pretends to understand everything that passes in another’s heart," I read somewhere a long time ago and I’ve had to remind myself of that truth often as I have navigated the unpredictable and often uncharted waters of life.
Wanting to understand, pretending I do – it is such a waste of time. Better I should invest my minutes and hours and days in appreciating the uniqueness of each soul who, momentarily or permanently, imprints my heart.
One more thing about Tamar: She was completely nonplused by the effect that her brief breakout had on her humans. She just walked back over to her favorite spot, sat down, looked up and – I promise you – smiled.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
I was born in October; she was born the next May. Together with our parents and siblings we spent the vacations of our childhood wandering all over the state, and occasionally over the edges into the adjoining ones, visiting state parks and what we called tourist attractions. Our fathers worked for the same company. We bunked in the same cabins at church camp.
Mama has lots of photographs of us. In nearly every one we have our arms around each other’s shoulders and our faces turned straight toward the camera – sweetly guileless, totally innocent and proudly uninhibited. Happy children.
When we were teenagers, her dad accepted a promotion and a transfer that whisked them out of our daily lives to far-away Mississippi. I rode with them on the trip to scout out houses and it was a great adventure, the farthest west I had ever been. Still is.
The summer after my freshman year in college, there was another trek across the deepest part of the deep south so that I could be one of her bridesmaids. But before I could don my pale blue dotted-Swiss dress and wide-brimmed white hat, we had to climb through the church’s bathroom window because somebody forgot the key. There is, much to our horror at the time and to our delight today, photographic evidence of breaking and entering.
After that hot June afternoon we rarely saw each other. We wore matching yellow dresses when her sister got married a few years later and visited briefly at her grandmother’s 80th birthday party, but beyond that the only contact we had was the occasional Christmas card. While I finished college and law school and came home, she settled in Louisiana, reared two boys and helped her husband start several businesses.
Somewhere along the line they bought a place in Florida, on the Gulf side, and a few months ago, when her parents were visiting mine and as we laughed and reminisced, I found myself responding to a invitation to meet them there by saying, "Just tell me when." So it was that last week I found myself heading west on I-10 to Destin.
One of the great blessings of my life is that I have a lot of friends. Mama likes to tell people that if I decided to make a cross-country car trip I could stay gone a couple of months and never have to stay in a hotel. She is probably right. The last time I counted, I’d stayed overnight in over 60 of my friends’ homes.
You learn a lot of things by doing that, the main one being that the level of psychic comfort you feel while staying in someone else’s home is directly proportional to the depth of your relationship. Let it be said, then, that from the moment I stepped into the house at Destin I felt as comfortable as if I’d been at Sandhill.
I had a lovely couple of days with Paulette’s parents before she joined us on Friday night. Saturday morning she and I, along with her 3-year-old granddaughter Macy, took a walk along the sugar-sand beach. The late-autumn sun was sharply angled across the clear clear water that gives the Emerald Coast its name and, despite the calendar having just turned to November, children played in the water while their parents stretched out in deck chairs, dozing in the sunshine.
Watching Macy chasing and being chased by the waves out of the corners of our eyes, we strolled along the water’s edge and talked. Talked in tones that were slow and easy and cathartic. Talked about things and people from our shared past and from our separate presents. Talked about ourselves, where we had been and who we had become.
That afternoon we said good-bye and promised to get together again soon.
The photos I took on my trip, once developed, will show us, as before, with our arms around each other’s shoulders. The faces, though, will be different. No longer guileless or innocent or uninhibited. No longer the smooth faces of children, but the sculpted faces of women. Women who understand that – in the midst of a world that doesn’t always reward that which is authentic – one can always find a clear reflection, an undistorted image of who she is in the mirror of a friend.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
I came to this realization last weekend watching the ocean lap at my feet as I sat on a barnacle-crusted rock that, among many others, had been hoisted onto the beach in an effort to slow erosion.
I happened to be sitting there in an effort to forestall a different kind of erosion: four friends and I had come to the island to breath deeply and talk seriously and laugh loudly and now, on Sunday, they had left for home. As soon as the towels finished drying back at the condo, I would do the same, but as long as I sat on the rock, staring at the wide flat ocean, nothing could eat away at the peacefulness and serenity that buds in the human heart when it feels safe.
There were few people on the beach. It was, after all, October. A couple of kayakers paddled in unison in water just deep enough for their paddles. An awkward teenager splashed in the shallow puddles that surrounded the rocks and squealed as the waves wet her rolled-up pants legs. A man on a bicycle made a wide turn and headed back the way he had come.
I sat with my knees pulled up to my chest, arms wrapped around them and chin perched atop them, as though I'd been spring-loaded, ready to be flung into the sky and out over the ocean in a long wide arc that ended at the horizon. A seated fetal position, a not-so-subtle manifestation of something gestating, but not yet ready to be birthed.
I stared at the sandbar, covered in water, where the rolling sea first makes white foam. I imagined a spot in the middle of the ocean, miles and miles away from land and people, where the water and salt and air that will become the waves seem motionless, the surface almost like glass. But they are not motionless, the water and salt and air. Gravity –– the magnetic force that through the rotation of the planet and its moon creates the tide, pulling in, pushing out, in a predictable rhythm –– has already begun its work.
Making its imperceptible journey toward land the waves feel the resistance of the ocean floor as the water becomes shallower. They move faster, developing power with their speed, and they begin to fold over themselves, grabbing the hovering air, ready to throw themselves in graceful, leaping curves at the shore, ready to lick at the sand beneath me, beneath the rock.
That's when I wondered, for the first time since I'd walked down to the beach, whether the tide was coming in or going out. And that's when I realized, for the first time ever, that a quick glance won't tell.
A quick glance is pretty much all we give most things. A quick glance at the newspaper, a quick glance at the mail, a quick glance at the price tag. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror before changing lanes. Sometimes a quick glance is enough.
But not always. A quick glance at a child's tear-streaked face is not enough. A quick glance at a sunset that smears the sky with the colors of a neon sign is not enough. A quick glance at one's own heart is not enough.
These are matters that require prolonged gazing, lengthy contemplation, lingering consideration. These are matters the essence of which are revealed only with the investment of deep and sometimes painful examination.
Like the tide, these are matters of mystery and magic. Like the tide, their rhythms are ebb and flow. But like the tide, they can be trusted.
One of the things about the beach that always amazes me is that the constant movement can seem so still, that the noise can seem so quiet. That in that place and in that moment I can seem so still and quiet.
I looked down at the water slapping the rocks beneath me. The tide, I could tell, was coming in.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
I cocked my head for a better look and saw that the vent was completely filled with twigs. It was, in fact, a nest and as I gently scooped it out all I could see was the six loads of clothes I'd dried over the last few days and the conflagration that could have been Sandhill had the nest caught fire.
The nest was about the size of a saucer and only about an inch deep at its center. The outer twigs fell away in my hands with a small poof of dust. Nestled in the hollow at the bottom were four tiny eggs. Tiny like a jelly bean. Tiny like a peanut. Tiny like a pearly button on a baby's christening gown.
Having touched the nest and contaminated it with my humanness, I knew – according to all the nature lore I'd learned as a child and which, admittedly, may or may not be true – that the mother bird, wherever she was, would now abandon the babies-in-process. What was probably closer to scientific actuality is that the eggs were old and the embryos inside were long dead.
Months ago, in spring, I had sat on the deck and watched a little bird, a Carolina wren, dart in and out of the dryer vent. From a distance I'd not seen that she'd been carrying bits and pieces of nest to her new place of abode. I'd thought she was just engaging in the avian version of a real estate showing when what she was really doing was moving in. The mortgage had been signed, the electricity turned on, the change-of-address cards mailed.
Too bad she hadn't talked to the neighbors. I could have told her that central heat, in this case, wasn't such a good idea. That the need for incubation aside, too much of a good thing can be deadly. That there is more to safety than isolation and darkness.
Nestled in my cupped hands, what had been a perfect home – if only for a moment – was now nothing more than a bunch of tender twigs gone brittle in the lingering heat of a lingering summer. The chocolate brown of new shoots had faded to the dull gray of lint. The sap that had made them flexible had dried up like a creek bed in drought.
I stood there staring for a few minutes. Eggs. Usually symbols of new life and beginnings, these four round balls of calcium carbonate contradicted all the myths and fairy tales and traditions. Instead, they had become a metaphor for the result of ignorance, haste, inattention. They had gone from being cradles to coffins.
And as is always the case when I stop to consider the world revolving around me and the fact that it doesn't really revolve around me, I realized how like that little Carolina wren we all are.
We make choices based on limited information and later find ourselves stunned by the unavoidable results of those choices. We elevate comfort over safety and safety over breadth of experience and breadth of experience over loyalty and never even realize that its not elevation we're reaching at all – that this life is not a staircase moving us ever higher, but a Ferris wheel looping us up and down in a never-ending circle.
Something of great importance demanded my attention at that moment, so I laid the nest on the floor of the carport and went inside. That was two days ago. Since then I've been leaving home early, getting home late, suffering with the red eyes and runny nose and hacking cough of allergies and, in general, not paying much attention to anything other than myself.
I have no idea if the nest is still there, if the mother is aware of her dispossession, if the eggs have been desecrated by some night-moving animal. I should know. But I don't.
And that, I have to admit, is as much a metaphor as anything else.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
When I got there, however, there had been a mistake in the scheduling and it appeared for a moment that I would, in fact, be consigned to wait. I must have sounded pretty pitiful when I asked, "Do you have anything at all available?" because the older of the two gentlemen at the rental desk looked at the other and said, "Well, we could let her have the little red car."
The first image that came to mind was a loaner Mama got once when her van was in the shop after hitting or having been hit by (depending on one’s interpretation of events) a deer. It was a Dodge Colt and sounded like a sewing machine mounted on a wheel barrow. Beggars, of course, can’t be choosers so I just smiled and walked outside to await the arrival of my transportation.
As anyone who has ever read a fairy tale or a John Grisham novel knows, life is full of surprises and I couldn’t help laughing out loud when the rental desk man came wheeling around the corner in a candy-apple red Mazda RX-3. (I know the make and model only because I read it on the flashing digital dashboard display as I was trying to figure out how to turn on the radio. Before that moment I would have simply called it a sports car.)
The rental desk man smilingly explained to me that I did not need a key to crank this beautiful piece of machinery – only a very thin computer card which had only to be somewhere inside the vehicle when I turned the knob that looked for all the world like an ordinary ignition switch into which someone on the assembly line had forgotten to cut the keyhole.
Correctly identifying the bewildered expression on my face as that of a person who suspects that she has just been given far too much power, he went on to say, "You’re going to be fine." This man had clearly not been present during my first driving lesson some 35 years ago when I nearly hit a fire hydrant, burst into tears and promised Daddy that I would never get behind the wheel of a car again.
Taking a deep breath, I adjusted the seat by pressing three separate levers, turned on the windshield wipers (the only thing in the entire car that looked like and was located in the same place as the corresponding item on the Escape) and eased slowly into traffic. I must say that I felt a bit conspicuous – almost as though I was wearing a skirt that was little too short – but by the time I got back to the interstate and accelerated down the ramp, that feeling was long gone.
It had been replaced by a feeling I couldn’t have identified even if I’d tried, but I wasn’t trying. I flashed down that highway, moving from lane to lane with a unnaturally languid grace. I settled into a pulsing rhythm that was at the same time comfortable and exhilarating. I watched light glint off the glossy-like-nail-polish paint job and heard myself singing along with the radio so loudly that, had the sun roof been open, the Mack truck in the other lane could have heard me.
And at that moment I understood.
There is something about a car that is fast and flirty and shiny and more engine than anything else that turns a utilitarian object, a means of getting from one place to another, into a symbol and that makes the driver of that object an archetype – man or, in this case, woman searching for freedom.
People drive expensive sports cars for lots of reasons, but I know now that for at least some of them, it has nothing to do with showing off or gaining attention (though I did find that attention can be thusly gained). For those people, it has nothing to do with the response of others, but the response of oneself.
In that little red sports car I did not think about the files on my desk, the numbers in my checkbook, the to-do list on my calendar. For a short while, I was totally, absolutely, decisively unencumbered.
And it was fun.
The Escape and I are still together. As far as I’m concerned, we’ll be together for another 90,000 miles. But, to be honest, I’m hoping that the next time we go in for a check-up and I need temporary transportation, I’ll be lucky enough to get that little red car. And next time, I’ll be ready.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
A couple of Saturdays later I was headed north following directions by which only a girl raised in the country would not be intimidated. The sun was high and white making the two-lane asphalt roads glimmer like a mirror ball in a disco. The drought had not yet leeched all the color from the grass along the rights-of-way and the tall green blades swayed back and forth in the breeze of the passing cars.
In Wadley I got detoured by road construction and pulled into a church parking lot interrupting the conversation of two parishioners to ask directions. "Just follow me, honey," one of the ladies said. "I’m going that way."
She got into her car and said, "Now, when I turn right you just keep going straight." And when she turned right, waving wildly out the window, I kept going straight, back on track.
I drove through Sparta and Greensboro, towns where the streets downtown are still busy on a Saturday morning, now paying closer attention to that part of the directions that said things like, "Be on the look-out for a faded wooden sign." Before long the tires on the Escape were crunching over gravel strewn on red clay and I knew I’d arrived.
It is, as I suspected it would be, a beautiful spot. The house looks as though it were built by the trees themselves, as though they had simply leaned themselves against each other in perfect symmetry and balance and melded into each other to keep out the elements. The land slopes gently down to the water where wide shallow waves made by passing boats lick the spit of sand that Tim and Lori’s girls call the beach.
The girls and I played in the water, stuck sycamore leaves in our ponytail holders and called ourselves Indian princesses. We searched for treasures of rocks and twigs and recently-deceased insects. We had hot dogs for lunch and then all went for a ride in the boat, going fast and slow and fast again. We waved at people we knew and people we didn’t. And the day wound down in sentences that got softer and slower as the sun slipped closer to the horizon.
We were sitting on the porch, chairs rocking in unintended rhythm when Tim said, "The sunset. You’ve got to see the sunset from the boat."
Back out on the water, it was then that I identified the mental gnat I’d been swatting all day.
There is another lake house where I’ve spent a lot of time. Another lake. Another set of friends. That house faces east and it is the sunrise that is so exquisitely beautiful, the morning whose quietness drapes around your shoulders and calls you out to see. A mirror image of this place, these friends, this evening.
We are creatures of habit, we humans. We fall into patterns and then assume that those patterns are the only ones. We get used to the sunrise outside our windows and forget that there are windows that frame the sunset. We forget that what we know is not all there is to know.
Later, in the shallow darkness of early summer, we sat in front of a fire listening to crickets and telling stories. The girls came outside smelling like soap and sunshine and convincing their daddy, with little more than a look, that it was a perfect time to roast marshmallows.
His big hands dwarfing the puffy white squares of sugar and egg whites, Tim stuck one on a metal rod and kneeled down in front of the fire. He turned the marshmallow round and round, just barely above the reach of the flames, the color changing from white to yellow to gold to caramel.
"Didn’t you like the sunset?" he asked me without taking his eyes off the marshmallow.
"Yes," I answered him. "Yes, I did."
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
August in south Georgia. It’s why the sissies move to Atlanta.
About half a mile from the house, headed up the hill toward the crossroad, we came up on one of our neighbors, his truck and those of his companions loaded with deer stands.
"It’s that time of year again," Bruce said in greeting.
"Yeh, and you couldn’t pay me money to be sitting in a tree stand in this kind of weather," I told him, understanding, of course, that this is only one of many reasons why I’d never make much of a hunter.
It was then that I noticed the little girl. Seven or eight years old, I’d guess, she’d stepped out of her daddy’s truck and was looking at Lily. She reached out her hand, palm up, and Lily moved over to sniff. The little girl stood very still while Lily nuzzled her fingertips.
"You know how to make friends with dogs, don’t you?" I asked.
She didn’t say anything, just turned her hand over to rub it across Lily’s black head and my usually manic dog sat down in the road, panting quietly, as the little girl’s gentleness and innocence came pouring out in the light strokes of her fingers.
For a moment, I was oblivious to the heat, the humidity, the hum of the insects around my face. For a moment, all the irritations and uncertainties and sadnesses that had crept onto my shoulders for the last few days seemed weightless. For a moment, the sun and summer and time stood still and all there was was a little girl and a dog looking into each other’s eyes.
I asked and she told me her name was Brin. At least I think that’s what she said. She spoke in a soft voice, almost a whisper, and she didn’t look up at me for more than a second. It was Lily that interested her.
I said my good-byes to Bruce, waved to Brin’s dad in the truck and started back down the road. Lily reluctantly followed.
Earlier in the morning the radio had reminded me that it had been ten years since the nearly simultaneous deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. Much had been made at the time, and was being made again on this anniversary, of the vast divide between the lives of two women who, in life and in very different ways, had touched the lives of millions and who, in death and surprising similitude, had taught us all lessons about connectedness.
Princess Diana’s gift, a commentator noted, was being able to create a sense of intimacy between herself and whoever else was present – be it a crowd of paparazzi or a single AIDS patient – and it was that ability that endeared her to anyone who ever met her. Mother Teresa did that with the poor and dying with which she chose to be surrounded, offering intimacy to those who had never known the healing power of relationship.
Both of them, like all of us, were haunted by the pain and affliction of a less-than-perfect existence and from that pain and affliction had grown to understand the dependency of all creatures on each other. And both of them had learned the lesson that Mother Teresa articulated in these oft-quoted words: "I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love."
Something about the encounter with Brin made me think that she had already, somehow, learned that lesson herself and that my own knowledge of that truth would grow, somehow, deeper and truer as a result of that chance meeting.
In the stickiness and sultriness, Lily and I walked almost all the way to the highway. On our way back, we found tire tracks and footprints in the powdery red dust at the top of the hill, the only evidence of our visitation by an angel in blue jeans and a camouflage baseball cap.
Monday, August 20, 2007
I was particularly excited at the prospect, faint though it was, of catching a foul ball. Except for the fact that I do, sadly enough, throw like a girl, I’ve always been a pretty good ballplayer and back then Katherine and I were rabidly competitive members of the rec department church league, thus I was completely prepared for the possibility of catching that ball by the presence of my glove in the trunk of my car.
After purchasing tickets from a scalper, – an act the criminal nature of which I was completely oblivious at the time –, we made our way to seats along the leftfield line, just a few rows behind and past the opposing team dugout. The Braves were playing the Phillies that night; about mid-way through the game future Hall-of-Famer Mike Schmidt hit a homerun over the left centerfield wall making it clear that the Braves didn’t really stand a chance of winning. At that point I stopped paying close attention to the action on the field.
And so I was to take the first step toward that aforementioned awakening: As the three of us chatted, occasionally glancing toward the diamond, someone (Brave or Phillie I can’t remember) hit a ball that flew into the heavy Georgia sky in a high arc away from the players and toward the section in which we were sitting, toward the seat in that section in which I was sitting.
My glove was under my seat. There was no time to pull it out and stuff my hand into its soft leather. There was time only to register the speed and force of the ball and recognize the fact that if I attempted to catch it bare-handed I would most likely end up at the Grady Hospital Emergency Room getting a finger splinted.
So it bounced on the hard concrete and ricocheted into the hands of the man behind us.
Katherine has never let me forget it.
I thought the lesson was that being prepared isn’t always enough, that being prepared has to be accompanied by being alert if one is to catch life’s unexpected foul balls, receive life’s unexpected gifts.
A few weeks ago, my friend Loretta invited me to a Braves game. Someone had shared with her a couple of seats directly behind the Braves’ dugout and, generous and understanding soul that she is, she wanted me to have the whole VIP experience, including in-seat service by the concession staff.
It was a beautiful night. The Braves were playing good baseball. Turner Field was green and luminous. The stands were full. Could it get any better?
Tim Hudson was pitching that night. He took the mound in the first inning and gave up a hit to the first Colorado Rockies batter. The second batter flew out. The third batter hit a squibbler to the shortstop Escobar who deftly tossed it to the second baseman Johnson who rifled it across the red clay to the newly-acquired first baseman Teixeira. Double-play.
The crowd rose to its feet and cheered as the team ran to the dug-out. And, suddenly, there it was – the double-play ball – rolling gently across the roof of the dug-out toward me. Smooth white leather, tight red stitches, black Major League Baseball emblem. I felt my eyes open wide, heard the gasp that came from my mouth and reached out to cup it in my hands.
I hadn’t even tried.
It was probably 25 years between those two games. Sometimes it takes that long to learn something important. Sometimes it takes that long to know how to appreciate unexpected gifts.
Monday, August 06, 2007
They are bright magenta, the color of a lightning flash over the ocean, the color of cooked rhubarb or just-cut pomegranate. The flower heads balance themselves on the tops of long straight stems and the petals reach out and down in gentle curves that makes them look as though they are arching their backs as they stretch into the sunlight. The leaves are broad and thick and the color of pine needles in deep summer and their edges are ruffled like the hem of a chiffon cocktail dress. They are showy without being ostentatious, more flirts than trollops.
Just the other morning I walked out on the porch to check the pulse of yet another hot and humid south Georgia day and noticed that one of the pots had five blooms. The other had none. I poked around in the barren pot and noticed a couple of short stems with closed buds beneath the dark green leaves, but it was clear that it would be days before they grew into the sunlight. On the other side of the steps, the sorority of five bounced and swayed in time to the breezy music of the wind chimes, oblivious to the deficiencies of their neighbor.
When we were in law school, my friend Linda often bemoaned our lack of a social life. She had been an Alpha Gamma Delta at Mercer, a member of a tight pack of cute and funny and popular girls whose weekends were always full. On one particularly dull night, Linda looked at me and said, "You know, Kathy A. Bradley, I think that maybe a person is assigned just a certain number of dates in her life and I used up all mine in college."
Considering my own less-than-sparkling social calendar during that four-year period, I replied, "Well, if that’s true I guess I have a lot to look forward to."
Without a second’s hesitation Linda looked at me sympathetically and said, "Oh, no. You don’t understand. Not everybody gets the same number."
Ah, yes, that old "life isn’t fair" thing.
I thought about that as I looked at my daisies. Same species, same front porch. Same sunshine, same water. One fertile and engaging. One just ... well ... sort of plain. The luck of the draw. The roll of the dice.
My last year of college (during which my friend Linda was across town using up her date allotment) I took a course in which the professor utilized contract grading. On the first day of class he gave us, along with the syllabus, a list of what it would take to earn an A, a B, a C. There would be no curves, no ranking. If every person in the class met the contract requirements for an A, then every person would get an A. If no one did, then no one got an A. What a great idea! Certain. Absolute. Foolproof.
How many of us, in the midst of great upheaval of one sort or another, have craved exactly that? A contract, a list of requirements that can be checked off when complete, a promise that if we do all the right things we’ll get what we want. A guarantee that life will be fair.
And, yet, even as the craving gnaws away at our equilibrium, in the midst of the anger and tears, we must acknowledge that that kind of fairness would rob life of its beauty and its tenderness. Knowing what will capture my heart tomorrow would surely prevent me from giving it today.
I water the daisies in the evenings, after the heat of the day has waned and the stillness of dusk has settled on Sandhill. I fill up the watering can and watch as the water splashes into the flower pots, half a can in each one. And this time I can’t help noticing that a couple of the flowers in the blessed pot are beginning to droop. The petals are turning a burnished red color and the stems are beginning to bend into a dowager’s hump.
In the other pot, the short stems are taller and the buds are plumper. Their day is coming.
And knowing that makes me smile.
Friday, July 27, 2007
Up until about a year ago, when people mentioned the Food Network or Fox News, I could only nod in vague understanding because, up until about a year ago, my television viewing, which could be called minimal at best, was limited to one really clear channel, two sporadically clear channels and two more on-a-cloudless-night-after-nine-o’clock-maybe channels. I was restricted to viewing what is known as network television by a tall tower of aluminum stuck into the ground just outside the dining room window and connected to the television by a long spool of coaxial cable that my poor daddy, on his back and in the dark, had had to snake through the crawl space under the house.
Things changed when, as a part of the renovations on Sandhill, the antenna was unbolted from its brace at the roof line so that the new siding could be put up. That very afternoon a stiff spring wind came up and knocked the antenna to the ground and that night, after a long day of being beaten up by the system I am sworn to support and defend, when all I wanted to do was stretch out on the couch and be mindlessly entertained, my five channels had been reduced to one.
And on that one channel that night was the season premiere of American Idol. I’d never seen it, but after the first hour of what was a two-hour show I was convinced that American culture was in quite a bit more danger than I had previously known.
All that to say that when my boss forwarded to me an e-mail containing a video clip from YouTube (another cultural phenomenon to which I have only recently been introduced) regarding the British equivalent of (and predecessor to) American Idol, I was prepared to be amazed all over again at just how far people will go to get attention.
I was amazed. But not in the way I had anticipated. I was amazed in the way that causes the hairs to stand up on your arms, the way that brings tears to your eyes, the way that reminds you that there is a seed of nobility in every human heart.
The clip was of a man named Paul Potts. He showed up at his audition and told the judges he would be singing opera. There were patronizing smiles and a slight raising of the eyebrows. And then he began to sing.
In a voice so clear and so true and so honest that it made absolutely no difference that he sang in a language most of the audience could not understand, the 36-year-old car phone salesman from Wales brought down the house.
Subsequent clips showed him moving through the competition, each night filling the auditorium with passion and humility and each night rousing the listeners to their feet to applaud as they tried to wipe their eyes. In an interview, Potts said, "My voice has always been my best friend. If I was having problems with bullies at school I always had my voice to fall back on." Confessing that self-confidence had always been "a difficult thing" for him, Potts said, "When I’m singing I don’t have that problem. I’m in the place where I should be."
Ah, yes, Paul Potts understands. He knows that we all need some place within ourselves that we can go to get away from the bullies.
The story has a happy ending: Paul Potts wins the competition, signs a record contract with Sony and sings for the queen. Not bad for a man who first sang opera at the age of 28 for a karaoke contest.
I’ve watched that YouTube clip about four times now. And I’ll watch it again. I’ll watch it every time I need to be awakened from the lethargy of mediocrity, every time I need to be jolted into the action of soulful living, every time I need to be reminded of the power of dreams.
Sunday, July 08, 2007
The introduction describes the volume as “one year’s worth of daily readings that will refresh your spirit, stimulate your mind, and help compete your education.” Who wouldn’t want that?
I’ve learned a lot of interesting things in the past six months. For example, one Thursday (science day), I learned about nociception which is the perception of pain. The anterior cingulatecortex is the part of the brain responsible for that and, interestingly enough, it does notdistinguish between physical and emotional pain. As the authors put it, “It responds equally to a broken arm and to a broken heart.” Imagine.
I tend to see things metaphorically so one Friday (music day) as I read about harmony, I couldn’t help reading an important life lesson into the comment that “[w]ithout the instability of temporary dissonance, tonal music would be boring; without the stability of consonance, it would be unsatisfying.” In the back of my mind I kept hearing a wise teacher telling me that without the hard times, the good times couldn’t be appreciated and without the good times the hard times couldn’t be borne.
You can see, then, why I’m always eager for each morning’s dip and why there are
underlinings and scribbled notes all over the pages. Each day there is something that makes me think and, in a world where there is less and less of that going on, I’m grateful for the challenge.
Which brings me to today’s reading. I’m writing this on Thursday which (as noted
above) is science day and the topic is reproduction. The reading begins, “In the plant and animal kingdom, there are two main ways to reproduce: asexually and sexually.” Yeh, yeh, tenth grade biology stuff. Not going to be all that enlightening.
Or so I thought.
Second paragraph: “Budding is a common form of asexual reproduction found in
strawberries, aspen trees, and coral. In budding, the offspring grows from a part of the parent. Sometimes they break apart, but other times they remain connected for life” and, as a result, have “a more difficult time evolving to changes in the environment.”
As I read it, I could hear my brain adding the phrase, “like some people I know.”
What? From where did that idea spring forth?
My Adam graduated college in May. Light of my life from the day he was born, fearless
and opinionated, great joy and irritant simultaneously, he is now out there. He has a job and a life and he doesn’t call me three times a day anymore for phone numbers or favors or advice.
We still call him, occasionally, by one of his childhood nicknames – Bud –, but the truth is that Adam is not a bud. He is a separate unique organism. He carries a little of each of us, but the combination is his alone. And that combination, I have to believe, will be enough to get him through the inevitable “changes in the environment” – the stresses, the losses, the frustrations.
Believing that does not, of course, eliminate the instinctual desire to shield him from those things (a desire that has a lot to do with nociception and the anterior cingulate cortex perception of broken arms and broken hearts). The truth is that I’d just as soon save the people I love from affliction of any kind.
But I would be wrong to do that. Wrong to deprive anyone who means anything to me of
the flaming hot, ice cold, blood boiling, bone chilling experience of real pain. It comes to us all and, without it, we would never know how strong we are.
It’s a lesson I learned not from The Intellectual Devotional but from living, not from a book but from birthdays. And that single lesson – that each of us can be strong enough to handle whatever comes her way – may very well be the sum total of all the other lessons combined.
Monday, June 25, 2007
After so many weeks of choking dust and bleaching light and burning heat, the landscape was thin and flat, but in a matter of only moments, it seemed, depth and color returned. Shallow puddles appeared in the yard. The dull monotone green of grass and trees and kudzu changed into luminous Crayola hues of kelly and chartreuse and olive.
As soon as it stopped I put on a pair of mud-worthy tennis shoes and set out. Down the field road, over the newly-cleared pond dam and around the edges of the laid-out corner field, I walked deliberately, measuring my steps, taking in the inimitable scent of corn-after-rain. My breaths slowed, my steps slowed, my thoughts slowed.
Mist settled on my arms and in my hair. Wet itchy vines wrapped around my ankles. Branches shook in the breeze and baptized me with a million tiny drops. Like the ground beneath me I was soaking it in.
You see, drought isn’t only a condition of geography and weather. It is, at least metaphorically speaking, an emotion and, like a literal drought, can result in wildfires – wildfires of self-condemnation or, in the other extreme, self-importance.
Go long enough without rain and your heart will lapse into survival mode, holding on to everything, giving up nothing out of fear of losing all. Go long enough without water – without the thirst-slaking taste of it in your mouth, without the cleansing feel of it on your skin – and your heart will shrivel up and die.
I was almost there and the rain had come just in time.
Now, no longer panting, I could begin listening to the conversation that had been going on between my heart and my head for days, maybe months. A conversation I had effectively ignored by focusing on the drought.
You have to listen hard when a conversation is being carried on in a whisper. You have to pay close attention to grasp the gist of the exchange. No longer consumed with thirst, I could.
I listened all the way back to the house and I was still listening when I talked to a friend of mine yesterday. She mentioned someone we both know who was going through a drought. The life she’d been handed wasn’t turning out in accordance with the architectural renderings she had so carefully drawn and, as a result, she had done some uncharacteristic things.
She needs some water. She needs a tall glass, a hot shower, a long swim, a good cry. I know.
What I want to tell her is that in the middle of a drought – when all you can see are the stalks twisting tighter and the river banks growing taller and the dust clouds rising higher and it’s hard, impossible even, to remember the taste of sweet corn, the smell of bream beds, the tickle of an afternoon breeze, when the sky is empty and the heat of the day lingers long into the night, it is not a good idea to move around a lot. In the middle of a drought, you stay inside when you can and move slowly when you can’t. You save the striving and purposefulness for another day. You turn the pillow over to the cool side, lie very still and wait.
Wait for the rain.
That is what I want to tell her. I hope she’s listening.
Monday, June 11, 2007
I’ve gone out to sit on the deck, notebook and pencil in hand, intending to take a few notes on an interesting conversation I’ve been having with myself in the shower. The sun is well over the trees, its edges smudged by a giant thumb, and there is just the slightest hint of dew clinging to the pansies and geraniums.
The pencil is flying across the page trying to keep up with my thoughts in handwriting I’d be embarrassed to be seen by Mrs. Blitch who taught me cursive in third grade. I hear something that sounds at first like clothes on a clothes line flapping in the breeze. Distracted for a moment from my writing, I turn to see a bird perched on the top of the back steps, a tiny disheveled bundle of twigs in her mouth.
It is a small bird. Plump and brown with white eyebrows. A Carolina wren. (I learn this only after the fact when I look it up in the Audubon guide.) She hops down the steps, pausing on each one to look side to side. When she gets to the bottom she makes one good flap of her wings and dives for the dryer vent. Hindered by something I can’t see, she bounces out of the plastic hood and shoots into the wheel well on the car. A second later she appears again, flying out into the open sky, beak firmly clamped on the twigs.
I go back to my writing and, not one sentence later, am interrupted again by the flapping. She lands, hops, pauses, dives, bounces and shoots all over again. And again. She performs this ballet at least five or six times.
She is, of course, looking for a place to build a nest. The dark cavities of the dryer vent and the wheel well were appealing options at first, but clearly not suitable upon further inspection. So why does she keep coming back? She has everything she needs to make a home, a sanctuary, a place to settle. All she needs is a place to land, a place where her tiny twigs can be safely released from her grip.
There are all kinds of trees and shrubs available within 15 or 20 yards. There are eaves and posts and ledges. There are nooks and crannies, natural and man-made, all around her just waiting to be claimed and all she wants to do is to force herself into a spot that, clearly, isn’t right.
It is time to go to work. I leave my neurotic little friend to her dilemma – to live out her days fighting for something she can’t have or to relax, let go and open her eyes to the multitude of choices available to her.
I leave her, but I can’t forget her. So tiny, so determined, so confused. So like us. So like me, clinging tightly to my twigs and beating my wings against brick walls. Hopping, diving and bouncing in the same spots repetitively. Frustrating myself with my inability to make the right choice, find the right answer.
Later, at my desk, thoughts of the stubborn little wren bring an image to mind. I am five or six. I am uncomfortable – my crinoline is scratching the backs of my legs, the bow tied at my waist is pressing into my back, my ponytail holder is so tight that the skin at my temples is stinging. I am watching my Sunday School teacher put up a flannelgraph picture of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount. He is sitting on a big rock with his hand raised in blessing over the crowd that surrounds him. "Think about the birds," He is saying. "I take care of them. Don’t you think I will take care of you?"
Think about the bird. Think about the tiny little wren with her treasure of twigs that, in the right crook of the right branch of the right tree, will make a nest. A place to rest. And not just for the bird, but for me.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Accepting the invitation, I set out for a long walk with the intention of ending up back at Mama and Daddy’s house just as the fish were coming out of the frying pan. As is usually the case, I got there a little early and, entranced with the book that I taken with me on my walk, I decided to sit out on the porch and try to finish a chapter rather than join Daddy in watching Fox News.
It was balmy and just a little overcast. It was that moment in the evening when the sun has gone down, but the bugs have not yet descended in vengeance upon every available inch of uncovered human flesh. The late afternoon traffic on what used to be practically our own private road had slowed to about one car or truck every twenty minutes or so. The dogs were dozing on the deck underneath the rustling limbs of the pecan tree.
My reading was suddenly disturbed by Tamar running across the yard to stand at attention in the middle of the road. I didn’t hear a vehicle of any kind approaching so I dropped my head back to my book. She was probably scoping out a squirrel.
Then I heard her growl. That defensive growl that starts in the back of her throat and expands slowly until it gets to her mouth and forces it open to show teeth. I closed my book to look. This time she was shivering, her golden fur shaking like a cheerleader’s pom-pom. What in the world had her so wound up?
I followed the turn of her nose and raised my head toward the sky and that’s when I saw them: a bundle of balloons – five or six of them, red and blue and yellow, tied together with string and floating down the road toward us.
When you live in the country you pay attention to the sky. You watch for sunrise and sunset. You keep an eye on what might be rain clouds. You notice a hawk dive-bombing what looks like an empty field only to see him swoop back up with an unlucky mouse in his talons. You know what belongs there – rainbows and turkey vultures and crop dusters, butterflies and dragonflies and diesel smoke.
So when something as out-of-place as a bunch of balloons unattached to a hand comes floating across the landscape, you – if you are a dog – growl, then bark loudly enough to make sure your dog friend comes running and the two of you go chasing the balloons as the wind bounces them down the road just high enough above your heads that there is no chance you’ll ever catch them.
If you are a person, especially if you are a person who reads a lot and sees everything in literary terms, you stop what you are doing and watch the parade of balloons and dogs make its way down the road. You wonder who set the balloons free and how they came to be at this exact spot at this exact moment and, most importantly, you wonder what it means. You glance down at the title of the book you are reading which just happens to be Where God Was Born.
The author, who knows quite a bit about such things, supports the almost-universally accepted idea that God or, more accurately, religion was born in that part of the world formerly known as Mesopotamia. He’s been there and he’s seen the ruins of Ur and Babylon and what’s left of Old Jerusalem. He’s hiked through the Negev and climbed the Mount of Olives, even visited the spot that tradition says was the location of the Garden of Eden. He has a lot of support for his idea.
And on any other day I would probably agree with him. But this day, this night I’m standing in the lavender light of a place where there is always more than enough fish for supper, where looking at the sky will teach you everything you need to know, where balloons appear out of nowhere, and for this moment, at least, I think God may very well have been born right here.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
I’m pretty sure that the dryness has something to do with the fact that I’ve not seen any hummingbirds this spring. Not one. And that disappoints me.
Mixing up the nectar that looks like cherry Kool-Aid, funneling it carefully into the feeders and then watching the aerial stunt shows of the bird kingdom’s imps has become one of the truest delights of springtime for me.
We started this cooperative effort, the hummingbirds and I, about four years ago. I’d never noticed any of them around Sandhill proper though there always seemed to be a few floating around Mama and Daddy’s house. One day a visitor noticed a single bird hovering outside the living room window - mesmerized, apparently, by his own reflection – and videotaped the performance to show me when I returned from work.
I was so infatuated that I insisted we drive back to town immediately to buy a feeder. I put it up outside the dining room window and within a couple of days I was being entertained by the hummingbird and his friends while I ate dinner.
Last summer, when I added the deck to Sandhill, I also added another feeder, hanging it on a shepherd’s crook at the corner of the deck. This year I got a third – a globe the size of a small canteloupe made of thick glass like a Coca-Cola bottle the color of the ocean at mid-morning – and hung it in the chinaberry tree in the back yard.
On the first warm Saturday I mixed up some nectar and filled all three, ready for the arrival of my hyperactive friends.
Funny thing: Here we are, the middle of May, and I’ve not see a single hummingbird.
I come, the feeders are empty. I fill them up. A few days later, they are empty again. I fill them again. And again. And still no hummingbirds. I can’t make them come. All I can do is hope.
Standing under the chinaberry tree the other evening, at just twilight, ocean blue orb balanced in the palm of one hand, ruby-colored liquid pouring out of a pitcher held in the other hand, I had an epiphany.
"Feeding invisible hummingbirds requires not hope, but faith," I heard my heart whisper.
I stopped to consider that. Hope is very still. Quietly it gazes with rapt attention at the future that is not yet, but might be. Faith, on the other hand, is anything but still. It taps its foot, strums its fingers. It remembers, no, not just remembers, but depends on the past.
Hope pulls. Faith pushes.
Hope desires, longs for, imagines hummingbirds. Faith fills the feeders.
It is hard sometimes to know which of the two virtues is needed. Hard to know whether to turn one’s back on what has been and put all one’s eggs in the basket of what might be or to leave one’s eggs in the nest, knowing that they, kept warm by the body of the mother hen, will hatch in their own time.
And, then, like most epiphanies, this one shifted a little. "Of course," my heart said, still whispering, but a little louder, "sometimes you need both. Sometimes," she said, "faith and hope work together. Sometimes you need to act on what the past taught you in order to imagine what the future might be."
I put the rubber plug back into the feeder, hung it back up on the tree and walked into the house, fairly certain that all that whispering had to do with something other than hummingbirds. And absolutely certain that one day, one day soon, I was going to see a hummingbird.
Monday, April 30, 2007
A group of about a dozen high school students had gathered for the taking of prom photos. The girls were dressed in bright orange and deep turquoise, jonquil yellow and cobalt blue, their skirts all full and showy like peonies, fluttering in the breeze around their ankles. Their arms and shoulders glowed with the faux bronze of tanning beds. Their hair, pulled up off their necks, couldn’t withstand the teasing breeze and came loose in soft tendrils around their carefully lined and shadowed and mascara’ed eyes.
The boys stood awkwardly, hands in the pockets of their rented tuxedos, saying little, following the instructions of the mothers dressed in blue jeans and loose cotton blouses and wondering how exactly they had ended up here, in front of God and everybody, wearing pastel cummerbunds and pin-tucked shirts.
I sat on the grass next to a narrow creek that flowed with just enough water to shimmer like a million tiny mirrors or – better simile – the sequins on the red dress of the tall girl with dark hair and I listened to the giggles, watched from a safe distance the eye rolling and head tossing. I couldn’t help being mesmerized by the drawing room drama played out as the group moved from the bridge to the stone steps to the iron benches, posing and preening, smiling and leaning into each other with the right combination of timidity and sophistication.
Then I looked at my cell phone to check the time and realized I’d missed a call. Probably not anything important. No one was expecting me anywhere. No one should be needing me for anything on my out-of-town Saturday.
I was wrong. The call was from law enforcement, my job, the work that I didn’t want to follow me to Macon, and I knew before I dialed the number that something horrible had happened.
My friend Tom, who was born to serve and protect, outlined the facts. One child was dead; another child was arrested. The former now a victim, the latter now what the law calls a juvenile offender. And because he was a juvenile, the people back home had questions for me because I am what the law calls a juvenile prosecutor.
I listened to the story, as much as anyone knew at that point, and felt the light dim, the warmth cool, the musical sound of laughing teenagers transformed into dissonant cackling.
I closed my eyes and accessed that part of my brain that speaks the vocabulary of criminal procedure. I answered questions, asked a few of my own. And then I hung up.
There are moments when one can’t help being aware of how big the world is and how isolated we all are from the rest of the people living in it. Most of the time that happens, for me at least, when I’m stuck in Atlanta traffic, experiencing sensory overload and absently wondering where all the people in the cars are going, where they live, how much trash they produce each day and where that goes.
And then there are moments when the world contracts into one small square of earth. Moments when the connectedness of every human being to every other human being is as palpable as spring sunshine on bare arms. Moments when every face is the face of someone you love, every hurt a bruise on your heart, every loss your own sacrifice.
Sitting on the grass in Washington Park last Saturday, it was that kind of moment.
There is no way to make sense of what happened. Here or at Virginia Tech or, eight years ago, at Columbine. But there has to be a way to redeem those moments. A way to translate the language of loss into something speakable.
There has to be.
There just has to be.
Sunday, April 01, 2007
One morning I stopped for gas on the way to work and when I got to the office realized that my necklace was gone. I’d had it when I left home and it wasn’t in the car. It had to have fallen off at the gas station. I went back – anxious, almost panic-stricken – to scour the parking lot.
I found the chain, but the opal was gone.
Sadness wrapped itself around me like a blanket on a hot day. I wanted to push it away, kick it off. The necklace was, after all, only a thing. The opal was not expensive, what jewelers call a semi-precious stone. It could be replaced.
Except that it couldn’t. I wanted that opal, the one that came on the chain, the one that came in the green box that I had opened so excitedly. I wanted the opal that had absorbed my touch for years, that had moved up and down with my breath, that had vibrated with my laughter, rattled with my tears.
A friend at work had a metal detector and he volunteered to go to the gas station and run it over the parking lot, between the pumps, around the trash cans. He didn’t find my opal, but he came back with a theory: The clasp on the chain had loosened, the opal had slid off and, when the next car pulled up, had gotten stuck in the tire tread and rolled away.
As theories go, it wasn’t all that plausible, but it did give me a visual image to consider – my opal stuck in the tire of a shiny new mini-van taking a family to Disney World. Or maybe it had been picked up by a red convertible full of sorority girls on their way to the beach or a diesel-belching 4x4 pick-up truck hauling seed corn. Imagining my opal on various road trip adventures was helpful for, oh, about fifteen seconds. And then the sadness returned.
The realization that there was absolutely nothing I could do to effectuate the return of my opal was, while not intellectually challenging, emotionally impossible. Things shouldn’t get lost. I shouldn’t lose things. Things should know better.
It took a few weeks, but eventually the spot at the bottom of my throat where the opal used to nest began feeling less naked. I stopped reaching up to tug it across the chain like an acrobat on a zip-line. I didn’t startle myself anymore when I looked in the mirror and didn’t see it.
Then one day I didn’t think about it at all. And that day became a month and a year and several years. And the lesson is supposed to be that things are just things and a person can always get over losing a thing.
Except that that is not true. Because just this week, for some totally inexplicable reason, I thought about my opal necklace. And I remembered its milky whiteness and the threads of pale aqua that wound through it like a creek. I remembered the iridescence that made it, like a soap bubble, reflect pink, then gold depending on the angle with which the sunlight hit it. And I remembered how secure I’d felt every single time I reached up to touch it, how it symbolized for me something that had nothing to do with being lucky or nicely accessorized.
And I figured out that the lesson was really this: Things are never just things and a person never gets over losing something that was more than just a thing.
There’s a place at the bottom of my throat, that little v-shaped place where my collarbone dips down, and it is empty. Always will be. Because that which belongs there is lost.
We took deep breaths, listened to the water birds and squinted our eyes against the sun’s reflection on the water. A skinny snake paused on his dash from one bank of azalea bushes to another to make sure that we didn’t step on him. The breeze off the river caught in the ringlets of my hair and those of the Spanish moss dangling from the branches of the gnarled oak trees, tossing them both like confetti. And the unmistakable grief on my friend’s face was joined by an expression of contentment.
On my way home, because I feel something quite like a magnetic pull when I am that close, I stopped on St. Simons for a walk on the beach. Just above the horizon – the imaginary line that reminds me that the only thing that ends is my sight of the ocean, not the ocean itself – in a sky that was the palest shade of blue, the moon had risen, a white-washed half-disc. Behind me the sun was still up, egg-yolk yellow and warm.
Caught between the two, the fulcrum upon which the day was pivoting into night, I stood still and listened. The rush of the rising tide and the clanging of the masts of the boats in the boatyard and the cries of the children in the surf mingled to become the voice of the minister as he intoned the familiar words: "A time to give birth and a time to die. ... A time to weep and a time to laugh. ... A time to mourn and a time to dance. ... A time to search and a time to give up as lost."
For all the times I had heard the words read, read the words myself, quoted them from memory, I had never noticed the choice of conjunctions. The writer, who calls himself the Preacher, used the inclusive connector, not the limiting. And, not or. In a subtle choice of words, he reminds the reader that the time for being born is not separate and apart from the time for dying. The time for waging war and creating peace are one and the same. Laughing and crying are the same thing. They are joined, irrevocably linked. They happen not are different times, but simultaneously.
It doesn’t make sense, of course, to our linear-thinking minds. We move in increments, in steps, through stages. We compartmentalize everything, even the ephemeral. We decide how much we are willing to experience at any given moment and ignore anything not on the agenda. We split our lives into childhood and adulthood. We divide our days into work days, sick days, vacation days. And, most tellingly, we make strict distinctions between the sacred and profane.
What if, I wondered, I could believe that being silent is, in fact, speaking in the profoundest of voices? Or that in order to know deep love I must also experience intense hatred? Or that the truest way of holding something – or someone – close is by letting it go? Could I learn to live with the contradiction?
It is spring and, for Christians, it is also the season of Lent, forty days of contradiction: A king who refuses to reign, friends who betray and deny, death that results in life. Forty days of paradox. Forty days of pondering the Preacher’s sermon, recognizing it as prophecy and watching the prophecy be fulfilled. Of growing to hold in one embrace life and death. War and peace. Love and hate. Never either/or. Always and.
To every thing there is a season. And a time to every purpose under the heaven. With the season comes the purpose. And, if we are open, the grace to live it full.
Monday, March 19, 2007
One of my five-year-old original equipment tires blew out in the left-hand lane of I-16 just outside Savannah and, after the fortuitous appearance of a very kind gentleman who was most adept at the use of a jack and crowbar, I limped back home, wise enough to know that I didn’t need to be driving a couple of hundred miles on a doughnut tire.
Gifted, then, with a gloriously sunny Sunday and no expectations, mine or anyone else’s, I herded up the dogs and set out on a purposeful amble.
It took a few minutes to slow my normal pace, to let my footsteps fall into a sauntering, unhurried tempo, but once I was there I found myself feeling suspiciously like a ten-year-old and it didn’t take long before I was seduced into climbing the grain bin for a quick aerial surveillance of my kingdom. Having determined that all was as it should be, I climbed down, much to the relief of Lily and Tamar who had been unsure as to exactly what was expected of them during my detour, and crossed the road into the woods.
As I walked deeper in, the woods grew quieter and the sunshine dappled. I followed the fire break for a while, down a slope, up a rise, stepping carefully into the soft patches of wiregrass, not unaware of why the Rattlesnake Roundup is held in March.
Turning and heading back to the road I came across a fallen pine tree. I stepped up on the log and began walking its length, arms out to keep my balance. The rotting wood gave slightly with each step; it felt a little like walking on a trampoline. Halfway down my impromptu balance beam the wood had disintegrated entirely and fallen in mounds of sawdust on either side of the trunk. What remained to connect the two ends was a thin shaft of heartwood, what we country folks call fat lighter.
Heartwood is the inner portion of a tree that, as the tree increases in age and diameter, ceases to function. In old growth pine trees, the heart becomes saturated with resin and, as a result, will not rot.
Botanists will tell you that heartwood gets its name simply by virtue of its position at the center of the tree, not because of any vital importance. They will also tell you that a tree can continue to live even if its heart is decayed.
Bent over, hands on my knees, staring at the tree’s deep yellow entrails glistening in the sun, I couldn’t help thinking about the human application – the fact that the hearts of some people are not of vital importance, the fact that they continue to live day after day long after their hearts have died, the fact that – like fat lighter – they are heavy and flammable.
I straightened my back, put my hands on my hips and stretched my neck up to look at the clear blue sky. Who am I fooling? I asked myself. I am one of those people. Not all the time, but sometimes. Not every day, but some days.
Some days I wake up encumbered by unfulfilled dreams and unrealistic expectations and I feel myself hardening, my chest soaking up the resin of resentment and bitterness, before I ever put my feet on the floor. By the time I’ve brushed my teeth I’ve become intensely flammable, tinder for whatever fire is set around me. And by the end of the day I’m nothing but ashes. Fat lighter won’t rot, but it will burn.
I looked around to find that the dogs had abandoned their efforts to find something to chase and made their way back through the brush to see what had fascinated me into stillness.
"See that right there, girls?" I wanted to say. "That is not the kind of heart I want. I want a heart that is alive. A heart that can be touched by what happens to it. A heart that is tender and light so that, when I give it to somebody else, it won’t be too heavy to carry. That’s what I want."
But I didn’t say it because something told me that they already knew.
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
I picked it up eight or nine years ago one sunny fall afternoon from under a tall tree frosted with Spanish moss. The tree grew on the edge of a lake, on a lot my friends were considering buying. The three of us walked around, our feet shuffling through the leaves that had already begun to fall, and talked about where a house might sit, what the view would be, what good times could be had there.
The nut and a couple others like it ended up in a bowl in my living room along with a handful of acorns the size of quarters that I’d picked up along a hiking trail in North Carolina, some shells from the beach on Saint Simons, an abandoned wasp nest, some bird feathers and a pine cone the size of a dime. It has been there ever since.
My friends did buy the lot at the lake and they built a vacation house there. There were pansies in the window boxes and an aluminum windmill that spun like a top on windy days. From the rocking chairs on the screened porch you could hear the water lap against the sea wall, an echo of the wakes of the motor boats out in the channel. On clear nights the moon spread out over the water like a million mirrors.
Once, when I was lost and needed a place to try to figure out my coordinates, I went to the lake house to breathe. I had hoped to sit on the dock and watch the winter sun rise and set and find in that rhythm one of my own. Instead, I sat inside and watched it rain for three days, kept company by pencil, paper and homemade pimento cheese that my friend had laid in store for me.
The endless torrent of water was matched by the one that fell from my eyes. I huddled under the bed covers and asked myself how I would ever find my way. I read. I wrote. I prayed. I listened as the beat of the rain on the roof became the pulsing of my heart.
And somewhere in the coldness and darkness and wetness of the night I began to understand that I am lost only if I insist on knowing where I am going.
On my last morning there, as the sun began clawing its way through the clouds, I wrote in my journal a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor: "We [must] simply give up the illusion that we are in control of our lives and step out. Which is why, perhaps, it is called a leap of faith."
A couple of years ago, a spark ignited a flame which became a conflagration which ate up the lake house. It was too strong, too fast. By the time the fire truck arrived, it was out of control. In a few short hours, all that was left was the concrete piers, a post-modern Stonehenge. When I got the call I felt as though someone had desecrated my church.
My friends are resilient souls. They decided to rebuild and, this time, to make the lake house their year-round home. It would be bigger, big enough to accommodate lots of family at once. As a result, the hickory tree, already damaged from the intense heat of the fire, had to come down.
The construction is done now. Time to check the view from new windows. Time to move in and consecrate the new rooms with love and laughter. Time to put aside the old memories long enough to make new ones. Time for a housewarming present.
And I know just the thing.
The hickory nut rolls around in the palm of my hand. And today it is going home. A reminder of the connection between the past and the present, a link between what was and what is. And a gentle reminder that what will be is totally dependent on that leap.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
The story goes that only after a ball had been used for a while, whacked and beaten, scuffed and bruised, did it begin to take off, to lift into the air high above the heads of the golfers and caddies and spectators. It became obvious that the game was more interesting this way and in 1909 the Spalding Company began manufacturing balls with dimples, that is, imitation defects.
It is said that a dimpled golf ball will travel almost two and a half times farther than a smooth one.
Isn’t that a great story? A morality tale that reminds us that being used over and over isn’t always a negative thing. That paying attention to the way things work, rather than the way they are supposed to work, is the first step toward innovation. That it is sometimes the wounds we receive and the scars that remain that give us the loft to fly higher and farther.
I know some people who have been golf balls. People who rose to their greatest heights after having been beat up a few times. And people who started their lives’ journeys with all the right things – good family, intelligence, enough money – , but who didn’t accomplish much in the way of obtaining their hearts’ desires until they’d been through some days when it seemed as though all the blinds in the world had been drawn shut and it would never be light again. And people who remembered that it was a game and just stayed in it, confident that sooner or later the odds would fall in their favor.
Yeh, the golf ball story is a great one. Except it may not be factual. The Spalding Company website, which has an extensive section called Heritage, doesn’t mention 1909 at all. And it certainly seems that such an event, a modification that changed the whole game, would merit some mention if it actually happened.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that it isn’t true. There is a big difference between factual and true. Facts are verifiable. Scientifically provable. Authenticated, corroborated, substantiated by independent sources. Facts are universally recognized.
Truth, on the other hand, may not be provable. Truth is something that comes from the heart and no EKG in the world can produce a printout of love or loyalty or patriotism, all of which are very real. A particular truth may very well exist for only one person. And, interestingly enough, it is usually truth, not facts, upon which people are willing to risk their lives.
Just a few thoughts to say that I believe the golf ball story. Maybe it wasn’t Mr. Spalding who had the light bulb moment. Maybe it was a golfing physicist who stood at the tee one day, twirled the ball in his hand and thought, "This would probably go farther if it had a lot of little dents all over it." Maybe the guy who wrote the article I read made it up entirely. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that the story struck a familiar chord, gave me a visual image to consider the next time I’m feeling a little exploited or misused or the next time I need to encourage someone who is feeling that way himself. What matters is that, call it fact or call it truth, none of us gets through life without a knock or two and it helps to believe that we can be left with something more than just a bruise.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
"You need to have some fun and I can promise you that we'll give you some fun. So, when are you coming?"
I hesitated. Taken off guard, I mumbled a few words that neither of us understood.
"You can't tell me no. I am not a person that someone can say no to. You're going to come. You just tell me when."
"Let me check my calendar. I'll call you back."
Two weeks later Barry called me again. "You didn't call me back," he said matter-of-factly. "So when are you coming?"
As I said, Barry is tenacious. And he loves his wife. Though she is very happy in Indiana after living there for nearly 16 years, he recognizes that it can't hurt to continue to express his gratitude for the fact that she packed up and left Georgia, two toddlers in tow, to settle in a place where Easter outfits include overcoats.
Barry also loves surprises and he had decided that my visit would be a surprise. For three months we exchanged secret e-mail's and telephone calls and on the Thursday afternoon before Martin Luther King Day, I found myself on a plane to Indianapolis by way of Cincinnati (whose airport, incidentally, is not located in Ohio, but Kentucky).
My plane from Savannah to Cincinnati was delayed an hour. I called Barry. He was completely nonplused by the fact that his list of lies about why he would be getting home late would now need to grow by at least one. "I've got a plan," he told me and I laughed. It's hard not to laugh at Barry.
I finally got to Indianapolis at 10 o'clock. Barry and I hadn't seen each other in 15 years and I was wondering if we'd recognize each other. I rounded the corner and there he was. His hair was grayer, mine was longer. Otherwise we looked about the same. It probably helped that at that hour the airport was virtually empty and there weren't that many passengers/people waiting from which the two of us had to choose.
"This is the plan," he told me. "I got an empty pizza box last night. I'm going to call Sandra and tell her that I'm ordering pizza. When we get home, I'll go inside and then you can go to the front door with the pizza box and ring the doorbell."
It went off without a hitch. One of those I-wish-I'd-had-a-camera moments. And the look on Sandra's face was worth the delay, worth the earache I always get as the plane descends, worth all of Barry's lies, for which he was immediately forgiven.
And I did have fun.
It didn't surprise me really, but time and distance have a way of eroding things and anyone with any amount of living behind her knows that not everything lasts.
Sandra and I met when we were ten years old. We have never lived in the same town. We have never spent more than five consecutive days in the same town. Except for the fact that we both love to talk better than just about anything, our personalities are near-polar opposites. Sandra is spontaneous; I am deliberate. Sandra is self-effacing; I am self-critical. Sandra is blonde; I am not. And, yet, somehow over nearly 40 years we have remained friends. We have lasted.
What a comfort. What a joy. What a gift.
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Ramen noodles were one of the staples of my law school diet, available at the Piggly Wiggly on Vineville Avenue for six packages for a dollar. I think I tried the shrimp flavor once, but most of the time I rotated among chicken, beef and pork.
I wasn’t much of a cook then, but standing over my tiny little apartment stove and watching the brittle square of noodles fall apart and soften in a pot of boiling water made me feel, somehow, a little more human. The steam would raise and swirl around my face and, after I opened the plastic-lined foil pouch and emptied the flavor packet into the pot, the scent of chicken soup would spread through my three tiny rooms like a cartoon genie freed from a magic lamp. It would creep into the curtains and the carpet and my winter coat draped over the back of one of the two chairs that bracketed my cinder-block-and-2x4 bookshelves. The next day when I came back from class and opened the door the lingering aroma made those three rooms a little less empty.
Katherine was in graduate school at the same time I was in law school and her go-to meal (to use one of perky Rachael Ray’s favorite phrases) was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, only most of the time it wasn’t Kraft but whatever generic brand the grocery store in Athens had on sale for three boxes for a dollar. She managed to get two meals out of a box so she and I were pretty much on the same food budget.
At the time, of course, the idea of eating ramen noodles (or macaroni with powdered "cheese") three or four times a week wasn’t as romantic as it appears in retrospect. More than once I had to remind myself that the economic deprivation of being a law student would not last forever, that one day I would be able to choose my meals based on something other than price. Over 25 years later, I can’t remember the last time I bought a pack of ramen noodles. I haven’t asked her, but I don’t think Katherine has bought macaroni with fake cheese since her children were small.
The last time she and I ate together it was for a Christmas party at Sandhill. There was real china and crystal and flatware that I keep in a big wooden box. There were linen napkins and candles. And we ate real food, cooked from scratch. It was a lot of fun.
But, now that I think about it, not any more fun than the ramen noodles and mac and cheese days, the tiny apartment days, the our-whole-lives-before-us days. Days when there was nothing better than the free entertainment of standing on the Indian Mounds and watching the whole city spread out before us. Nights when there was nothing better than cruising down Highway 41 with the Guess Who wailing out "These Eyes" through the speakers on the 8-track tape player. Days and nights when there was nothing better than being young and eager and hungry.
The newspaper article that informed me of Mr. Ando’s death said that the Chinese eat nearly 30 billion packs of ramen noodles each year and that 65.3 million packs were eaten worldwide in 2004. Mr. Ando died a very rich man. I hope he also died a happy man. I hope he knew that his noodles were more than just food for the body, that they were – in that odd backward glance kind of way – food for the soul.
Monday, January 08, 2007
I stood in the dim light of one naked overhead bulb and wondered how I would decide which of the thousands of pieces of my history would stay and which would go. I was torn between wanting to toss everything blindly and wanting to go through every box, every file to make sure I wasn’t getting rid of something important.
The boxes stacked on top of each other contained everything from old cancelled checks to a wall calendar from 1975. In one of them was my Girl Scout badge sash, in another old school notebooks. There were doll clothes and 8-track tapes and scrapbooks with pages nibbled along the edges by mice.
Two large trash bags and six or seven trips up and down the attic stairs later, I had reached a compromise with myself. There had been some tossing, some tears and a lot of restacking. The attic was, as a result, neater but not a lot emptier.
The sense of righteous cleanliness that I’d hoped to attain had eluded me. The higher consciousness of detachment from tangible objects would have to wait.
I thought about that the other day when Aden’s mom called to tell me about Christmas. At four, she shared, he finally "got it." And what she meant by that was that the excitement this year was his own, not just a reflection of his family’s. He spent all day Christmas Eve going back and forth to the computer with his dad charting Santa’s progress around the world. "He’s in Peru!" he cried out running through the living room and, then a hour later, "He’s in Mexico!"
On Christmas morning he went outside and found a single jingle bell in the yard. He picked it up, dark brown eyes shining, and said in near-disbelief, "It still smells like reindeer."
Ah. I couldn’t help smiling when she told me that. I could just see him holding the shiny jingle bell in his little boy hand and staring at it with that special brand of awe that exists exclusively in childhood and fades so slowly that one realizes it is gone only too late to halt the process.
"It still smells like reindeer." And I knew, then, why I’d never be able to throw away the key chain, the note scribbled on the paper plate, the nametag, the smooth gray stone, the newspaper clipping. Each one, held in my hand and up to the light, conjures up a moment, a feeling, a promise, a memory. Each one still smells like reindeer.
Jingle bell awe exists only in childhood, but there is another kind that is available to even the most grown-up of grown-ups. It is the astonishing realization that even as our vision narrows to focus on those things like meetings and mortgages, to concentrate more and more on that which we can manage, govern or manipulate, our other senses, like those of the blind, can become more sensitive. It is the amazing revelation that we can still hear jingle bells and smell reindeer as long as we remember. And we will remember as long as there are tokens and talismans, relics and artifacts. As long as our attics and desk drawers and hall closets hold the keepsakes of our hearts.
I suspect that the jingle bell will be around for a long time. Will probably make its way into a box, into an attic at some point. And then one day, when someone is seeking righteous cleanliness, it will reappear, dull and rusted, and, rolling it around in his hand, Aden will be reminded of the Christmas he was four years old, the Christmas he tracked Santa Claus all the way cross South America and learned what it meant to believe.