Monday, March 19, 2007


It was supposed to have been a very busy Sunday – to Savannah for my namesake’s confirmation, then to Macon for the funeral of one of my Wesleyan professors, then to Perry to celebrate Katherine’s birthday. It turned out not to be.

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.

Copyright 2007

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Latitude and Longitude

Gray-brown like south Georgia dirt, the hickory nut rolls around in the palm of my hand. It is cracked, but still whole. The little point at the end, what the botanists call a stigma, is worn down to a smooth nub.

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.

Copyright 2007