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

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