Sunday, December 21, 2008
There was a lone and empty hummingbird feeder dangling from one shepherd's hook and an overgrown hanging basket of mint from another. The dandelions that I had so energetically pulled up by the roots and left to dry in the unseasonable warmth the previous weekend had become piles of slimy green mush in the week's rain. It was all a stark and embarrassing contrast to the bright and festive inside where the tree stood so humbly regal in the corner of the living room and candles stood like posted guards on all the tabletops.
I'd gotten most of the dead mint stems plucked and had started on the dandelion piles when I got the oddest sensation that someone had just tapped me on the shoulder. I stood up quickly and turned to see a what looked like a huge egg yolk rising slowly, as on a hydraulic lift of some kind, over the horizon. With the perspective of a couple hundred yards the bright yellow bulb seemed to stretch the full depth of the tree line that marks the edge of the farm and it felt almost as though the rising had a pulse, that the gravitational pull that creates the tides was reaching far inland to draw me farther out into the wake.
I've been a full-moon watcher for years now. Each one makes me melancholy for all the ones I missed before I started acknowledging the wonder and I am always enraptured by the liquid silver light that spills out over the landscape.
But this one was different. This full moon, at the end of the year, just before Christmas, had something to say and, in order to make itself heard over the din, it had come nearly 19,000 miles closer than usual. When something, or somebody, goes to that much trouble to get my attention I tend to drop what I'm doing and listen.
So I stopped. Got still. Took a deep breath. Listened to the moon.
Funny thing: The voice I heard was remarkably like my own and the words were familiar ones. "You know all you need to know."
For someone whose college major focused on popular culture and current events, I am remarkably uninformed these days. I don't watch CNN or Fox News. I don't have a blackberry and learned to text only because it is my niece Kate's preferred form of communication. I have two friends who save their People magazines for me so that when I visit for the weekend I can at least familiarize myself with what passes for celebrity these days and not go out in public sounding foolish by asking questions like, "Who is Lindsay Lohan?"
But I know all I need to know.
I know that truth will always win out. I know that patience, especially the kind that is tinged with pain, is both the result of and the source of strength. I know that the only real power I have is the power to choose.
I know that the dearest and deepest attachments are the ones that cannot be explained. I know that silence is a language too few people speak. And I know that Christmas, like the moon, has a message.
And all we have to do is listen.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
And in that moment, that half-second of total lack of vision, there is absolutely nothing to do but trust – trust your muscle memory from 35 years of navigating that same curve and trust any oncoming drivers to stay on their side of the road.
It's a scary thing, trust.
One bright summer Sunday Jason finally made good on his promise to take me out on his sailboat, a little Hobie. We pushed off from East Beach on Saint Simons into the cool turquoise water and Jason began maneuvering the ropes and sails in short quick movements while I sat idly on the tight canvas.
I had my back to the ocean, watching the bright dots of people stretched out along the beach. I could feel the shallow waves bumping underneath us as we moved away from shore.
We'd gotten no farther than the sandbar when I felt the boat rise suddenly on a building wave. "Hold on!" Jason screamed and I reached out to grab, I think, the mast as the rear of the boat rose straight into the air.
"Let go!" he screamed almost immediately and I opened my fists as I felt myself being thrown into the water headfirst.I came up gasping, looking around for the boat and for Jason. The wave that had catapulted the boat head over heels was long gone, spread smoothly out onto the beach like cake icing.
We managed to wrestle the boat back upright and, still trying to catch our breaths, paddled back to shore while Jason explained that had I not let go, had I not responded to his command without thought, I would have taken a blow to my head with the boom, a blow that – most likely – would have left me unconscious and, quite possibly, drowned.
All very dramatic.
Only later, after we'd told the story three or four times – with appropriate embellishment, of course – to the folks on the beach who'd been able to do nothing except watch as the little Hobie "turtled" and threw us into the air, did I fully understand the extent of the danger we'd encountered only a few yards from shore and in chest-high water.
Just a few days ago, in the midst of a conversation that I'd not really wanted to have, the person to whom I was talking responded to my long, drawn-out, far-more-intense-than-I'd-intended diatribe, with a softly-spoken two words: Trust me.
I didn't know at that moment whether I could or not. Didn't know if I even wanted to. And I remembered, for what at the time seemed no reason at all, that day on the Hobie. That day when, in response to "Hold on!" and "Let go!" (Interestingly enough, also two words.), I had done exactly as I was told without having any idea why.
I didn't have time to think about whether it was a good idea. Didn't know enough about sailing to determine on my own whether I stood a better chance one way or the other. I just knew Jason.
That's all trust is, really. Acting in response to what you know about the person, not the situation. It's what throws a baby off the counter into her father's arms. It's what sends the underdog back onto the field from the coach's huddle. It's what threw me off that sailboat and into the ocean. The father, the coach, the friend.
Trust me, the voice on the telephone repeated. And I found myself answering, I do.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Her yard was a quilt of flower beds and brick-edged paths. Outside the back door was a patch of succulents that seemed to multiply like science fiction clones and flanking the front door were two cedar trees she nursed from saplings so that by the time I was a teenager they were tall enough to decorate with fat colored Christmas lights.
Fig trees and hydrangeas. Mimosa trees and Cherokee roses. Petunias and verbena. Wisteria and honeysuckle. Grandmama's green thumb touched them all.
I'm really not much of a gardener. I tend to forget to water things that need watering and to prune things that need pruning. The pollen of practically everything that grows within two miles of Sandhill makes my eyes red, my nose run and my head ache. So instead of getting my hands down into the dirt, etching my cuticles with the deep chocolate of potting soil, I have generally depended upon the pity of my parents or the pecuniary interest of professionals.
Until recently. Until this spring when, at the behest of a plant-loving friend, I planted some rosemary and lavender and, over the next few months, watched the seeds break the soil in thin green sprigs and then straighten themselves into tall slender stalks. One afternoon I rubbed a few leaves between my fingers – rosemary in one hand, lavender in the other – and carried the two scents with me for the rest of the day.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I found myself with one foot in a ditch, the other braced against the bank on the other side, trying to dig up an American beauty berry bush. I was there because my friend Debra had told me, along with our friend Emily, that the large beauty berry bush in her backyard had been rooted from a tiny one she had found in the woods. Being the kind of women to whom such a remark becomes an immediate challenge, Emily and I soon found ourselves armed with two shovels and more enthusiasm than sense as we drove slowly down the dirt road leading to Sandhill, scouting the ditches for the bright flare of color that would pinpoint our targets, spindly little roadside trees whose neon magenta berries appear along with the first cool snap and just about the time the chartreuse leaves begin dropping.
There was one near a tree stump! Another one at the foot of a scrub oak!
But these were not baby bushes like the ones Debra had found; these were two and three feet high and just as wide and one quick jab of the shovel into the sandy dirt around the first demonstrated that beauty berry bushes are blessed with very well-developed root systems. The digging radius got wider and wider, deeper and deeper. Just when I was about to suggest that we abort the mission, one more massive tug dislodged the bush from the dirt and sent me stumbling backwards, trying not to end up on my backside at the bottom of the bank. An equally emphatic pull by Emily and we stood in the middle of the road, holding up our bushes like weekend fishermen showing off the big catch.
Twenty minutes later I'd sent Emily back in the direction of Gwinnett County and stuck my beauty berry in a bucket of water to await planting. And, suddenly, it seemed as though Grandmama was there, standing under the carport with me, staring at bush's hairy roots waving in the water, asking me where I thought I'd plant it, telling me where she thought it might do well.
I doubt that a rose bed or cutting garden ever finds a place at Sandhill. Or that trellises and pergolas draped with Confederate jasmine or honeysuckle ever guard the driveway. But I'm encouraged that the sycamore tree in the backyard seems to have established itself and the gardenia under the kitchen window is still alive. And as soon as I get a few minutes, that beauty berry bush is going into the ground.
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Just across a small courtyard from the solid sanctuary with its flagstone narthex and exposed buttresses was the prayer chapel. Made of the same stone as the church, its six walls enclosed an area hardly bigger than a master bedroom. The circular altar, made from a three-hundred pound piece of Jerusalem stone, had one of the Hebrew names for God carved on each of its four sides. It was centered beneath a suspended cross and surrounded by a kneeling bench of iron wrought to resemble a crown of thorns. The ceiling above the cross extended up two stories and ended with a skylight.
I looked over at my friend Margaret. She had known I would love this place. "Would you like a few minutes?" she asked and then quietly slipped out the heavy wooden doors leaving me alone.
I stood at altar, tilting my head back as far as it would go to look through the skylight at the quickly fading day, took a deep breath and lowered myself down onto the kneeler.
I was tired. And sick. And anxious. If anybody needed to be kneeling in a quiet place and opening her heart to healing it was I.
And, oh, yes, I was grieving, too. Grieving over the death of my friend, the one who, in the darkest time of my life always ended our telephone conversations with, "I'll say a rosary for you tonight." It was a soothing image even to this non-Catholic, the image of someone moving her fingers over worn beads, repeating sacred words and calling my name.
I folded my hands tightly together like a child playing "Here's The Church," felt my chin fall to my chest and heard myself praying.
I don't know what I prayed, just that words came out and drifted up and got caught in the great whirlwind of breath that constantly rises to worship that which is not – and never will be – human. I felt my eyelashes grow heavy with tears that did not fall, but floated, trembling like an over-full cup.
This wasn't my place. I had no history here. Had not witnessed baptisms or weddings or taken communion at this altar. Had not sung hymns or recited creeds under this roof or watched sunlight shoot through these stained glass windows to draw hopscotch courses on the floor. And, yet, it became in those moments a sacred place. One of my sacred places.
I have quite a few sacred places. Since I know that the sacred can not contained within the walls of any one church or even all the churches put together, that the sacred can not be contained at all, I have learned to find it everywhere.
The Celtic cross in the middle of Wesley Memorial Garden on St. Simons, surrounded by the unruly flowers and shrubs of the coast, is a sacred place. So is the top of the Temple Mound at the Ocmulgee National Monument, the ground around a particular fire-scorched pine tree just inside the property line behind Mama and Daddy's house and the roof-top deck on a certain beach house.
They are all places where I have experienced grace, the unexpected outpouring of the weighty, yet ephemeral, assurance that, as Julian of Norwich said, all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
I blinked and the over-full cup emptied on my cheeks. A self-baptism as it were.
I stood and walked toward the door where I noticed a set of votive candles on either side, a very non-Protestant accoutrement to worship. I felt the skin around my mouth loosen as the corners rose into a smile.
Okay, Nancy, I thought as I picked up the lighter, this one is for you.
The wick flickered and then caught, stretching itself into the air, into my breath, into grace.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
I walked to the door and saw a mockingbird dive bombing the patio door. Beak against glass. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Poor thing, I thought. He sees his reflection in the glass and wants to scare away that other bird. And I got all thoughtful, saw myself in the mockingbird – that way that I tend to notice, analyze and criticize in others the things in myself that most make me want to cringe.
Poor thing. But then I walked outside onto the deck. Sympathy and thoughtfulness evaporated. All over the deck railings, the deck floor and the lawn chair were bird droppings. Purple and white poop interspersed with unidentified seeds. I forgot about self-analysis and insight. I forgot about appreciation of the natural world. I forgot about life lessons. I was nothing less than completely irritated.
No more, "Poor thing." Now it was, "Come on, stupid bird. How many times do you have to crash your brain into the glass before you figure it out? And why in the world do you have to poop every time you do it?" I'm sure there is an actual answer to that last question, but I'm not sure I want to know it.
I sighed – not a shallow, slightly sad exhalation, but a deep, forceful expulsion – and went back inside. At least, I reminded myself, someone was coming the next day to pressure wash the house. What fortunate timing.
The next morning Travis sprayed off a couple years' worth of dust and cobwebs and dirt dauber nests and kamikaze mockingbird poop. The deck railings, along with the front porch rockers which had also been victimized, were sparkling white. I stood with my hands on my hips breathing in the early autumn air and lapsed back into generosity toward the poor bird.
Travis hadn't been gone for fifteen minutes when I heard it. Tap. Tap. Tap.No! Not again!
Yes. Again. Bright purple splotches at the foot of the patio door, along the railings.
If I were a woman bent toward profanity I would probably have uttered some at that moment. Instead all I could muster was, like Charlie Brown, a long loud drawn-out, "AAUUGGHH!!"
A handful of wet wipes later most of the avian fecal matter had been cleaned up. An hour later the whole process (Tap. Tap. Tap. AAUUGGHH!! Wipe.) was repeated when I discovered that the bird had resumed his attack on the front porch windows. By sundown I had given up. Thrown in the wet wipes. Raised the wing of the mockingbird and declared him the undisputed champ.
It's been three weeks. The splotches have multiplied and dried into powdery Rorschach tests. New ones greet me every afternoon. The tapping continues and I find myself wondering if, like the anonymous narrator of "The Raven," I should just open the door and invite the bird in. Maybe he has something to say.
And, of course, he does. It is, in fact, exactly what I heard him saying before I got so angry and stopped listening. It is always myself that I see in the intolerant, ungrateful and indecisive. It is my hands that remain folded in the presence of so much need, my voice that remains silent in a world that needs to hear truth.
Are you ... tap ... going to keep doing ... tap, tap, tap ... the same old things ... tap, tap, tap ... and expect different results ... tap, tap ... or are you ... tap ... going to ... tap, tap, tap ... stop the madness ... tap, tap, tap ... and fly?
Sunday, October 12, 2008
You know this because of the scent – damp earth and nitrogen. It is the perfume of a south Georgia October. It hovers over the yards and roads, seeps into the houses and alerts those who sleep in those houses to be aware of slow-moving vehicles grunting their way toward town hauling jewels weighed by the ton, not the carat. The languor of late summer has shifted into the urgency of harvest.
And while there is no canonized text or organized presbytery, this work, this repetition, this ritual is as much liturgy as is holy communion. Those who plant and plow and pray for rain are the priests who tend the temple of the earth year after year, who keep the fires lit and offer the sacrifices of hard labor and harder faith on behalf of the rest of us.
I was not born with dirt under my fingernails. I came late to the life of farming, a recalcitrant teen-aged companion to my father's following his bliss. I resented the dust and the isolation of the dirt road. I came as close as I ever have to cursing as I ran barefoot across a field in blistering heat helping chase a blind cow. I couldn't wait to be gone.
I left for college before the first harvest. It was seven years before I returned. By that time I had, mercifully, learned a few things and that fall, standing on the front porch as my father and my brother, covered in dust and bone-weary, climbed into the cabs of their trucks and jerked their way up that dirt road pulling trailers into the quickly waning light, I bowed my head and prayed.
Prayed for the daylight to last so that the trailers could be seen by other vehicles, prayed that the tires would hold up, prayed for all the traffic lights going through town to be green. Prayed for every farmer in every truck pulling every trailer in every town. That was 27 years ago.
The highway into town is four-laned all the way now so the people with tags from Gwinnett and Cobb and Fulton don't get to blow their horns and shake their fists quite as much anymore, but not much else has changed. There's still a chance that the rain won't come soon enough to loosen the ground and the peanuts will fall off the vine as they are plowed up. Or that, once they're plowed up and drying, the rain will come and produce mold. It's quite likely that a fully-loaded trailer will blow a tire at some point.
But what's certain is that the hum of the plows and the pickers will begin with daylight and continue long after sunset. That the men driving them will pause only long enough to disengage a knot of vines from the plow and swig down a Coke or a jar of iced tea. That the last load will be the subject of great rejoicing. That the earth will yield its increase and be gladly put to bed.
You wake up one morning. You walk outside. You take a breath and you know. There is a peanut field somewhere that has been turned over and the call to worship has been sung. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Amen.
Monday, September 29, 2008
We have had quite a few downed trees in our corner of the county this year. Several have fallen on power lines leaving us waiting perhaps not so patiently while the folks from Excelsior Electric made their way slowly through arteries to arterioles to capillaries. Most of them, however, have landed, without any interference, to very neatly bisect the road and divide the world into those at home and those away.
The unusual number of collapses is due, I think, to several reasons. The heavy equipment of loggers who have been harvesting the forests along the road have weakened the trees' root systems. County road maintenance includes dragging the ditches for debris, a practice that results in the trees closest to the road balancing on smaller and smaller pedestals. And, of course, some of the trees are just old. They hit the ground and, instead of splintering, dissolve into the finest of sawdust.
Whatever the reason, we've all learned to be watchful this summer, to pay closer attention to what lies ahead in the rocky gray dust.
Or, at least I thought I had. Driving home the other afternoon, not just daydreaming, but completely lost in somber contemplation, I topped the hill and was jolted back into reality by the sight of a tree stretched across the road as though it had simply gotten tired and decided to lie down. It was a scrub oak, gray and gnarly, bare of any foliage, its branches thin and bent at odd sharp angles. It covered about three quarters of the road, leaving just enough room on the far side to ease a car by without sliding into the ditch.
Having hit the brakes at first sight, I maneuvered the car slowly between the topmost branches and the slanted face of the ditch with inches to spare on either side. I drove the remaining half mile to home and promptly forgot about the tree.
Until the next morning when it startled me coming from the other direction. And then that afternoon when it surprised me again. After a couple of days it occurred to me that no one was going to move the tree.
The tree was not a sapling. It could not be dragged out of the road by one or even two people. It would have to be cut up or pulled away by a tractor pulling a heavy chain. I, having neither a chain saw nor a tractor, had no responsibility for the removal. But because I traveled that way every day, I had to be aware of its presence, had to circumnavigate its substantial self, had to avoid the dangers that it offered simply by being.
After about a week of making a loop around the poor dead tree twice a day, it occurred to me that I was probably supposed to be learning something, something beyond the idea that it would be handy to have my own chain saw. Something along the lines of: There are things in life over which I have no control, whether minor annoyances or life-changing events, and if I'm going to be able to keep moving, not be wrecked on the rocks or stuck on the sandbar, I can't just wait for someone else to come along and remove the obstacle. I, on my own and for myself, have to find a way around.
I have to be honest. That doesn't necessarily appeal to me. Not the thought of having to find my own way. I'm really good at that. No, the part that makes my fur stand up is the necessity of acknowledging that my own way will sometimes have to be around, not through. That more often than not I'll be hugging the edge of the ditch rather than straddling the centerline. And that getting home will take more effort than I thought.
I guess it's a good thing that getting home will be worth it.
Monday, September 15, 2008
When every trip begins on a dirt road you develop the ability, not quite an instinct, to respond to the sudden dart, the unexpected flash of fur that moves from periphery to focus in a fraction of a second. You learn that a rabbit generally runs straight across and the only effort needed to avoid it is a slight turn in the direction from which it came. You learn that a squirrel is decidedly undecided and the only thing you can do is grip the steering wheel, mutter "Please, please, please! Don't, don't, don't!", and hope you won't feel that slight thud under the chassis.
A turtle you just go around. You just wait for the wild turkey to stumble toward the ditch and, at the last possible moment, throw itself into the air. Deer, dashing across a field or out of the brush, call for nothing more than quick reflexes. Sometimes even that doesn't help.
Rabbits, squirrels, turtles, deer. You get used to them.
This morning, however, there was something else. A pedestrian I'd never encountered before. A sudden flash at the corner of my eye and then, headed straight into the path of the car, something long and wet, fat and round. In that strange way that the human brain processes thousands of pieces of information in less than a second, I experienced simultaneously panic and repulsion and fear, exactly what anyone experiences when The Unknown takes material shape and invades one's conscious.
As I lifted my foot from the accelerator and goose bumps rose on my arms, I realized that the creature was a beaver, not yet full-grown, his dark wet fur plastered against his skin and glistening in the morning sunshine. He had darted from the pond that comes right up to the edge of the pavement straight onto the county-maintained road and, clearly, had no idea that his impulsivity would land him in harm's way.
Spinning around on himself, he scurried back the way he had come and disappeared back over the edge of the dam. I shook myself to dispel the goose bumps and speeded back up.
This has been the summer of the funerals. Eight since the first of June. I am weary of funerals. Weary of watching the faces of people I love reflecting the pain of losses that can not be recouped. Weary of trying to find words that do not sound trite and insincere. Weary, quite frankly, of the flowers and food and fatigue of jarringly inane conversation.
It is not as though death is a stranger. It is, as the paradoxical cliche' tells us, a part of life. But no one, not even the most exhausted caregiver, is ever prepared.
Most of the deaths I've noted this summer were like the rabbit or squirrel or even the deer: I was startled out of my ordinary daily routine, but responded appropriately without thinking. Three times it was the long-ill mother of a friend. Twice a grandparent of someone close.
A couple, though, were like that unfamiliar, chill-producing beaver. Out of place, stunning. They left me reminded in jarring terms that all we hold close, all that motivates us to get up each morning, all that provides any meaning is so ephemeral, so transient, so temporary.
They reminded me that, despite our ridiculous efforts at preparedness – whether for a hurricane that never arrives or the death of someone we love –, life is a serious of shocks and surprises. Some are heart-breaking, some are delights. Some are history-altering, some are inconsequential to all but a few. Some are nothing more than inconveniences, all are pedestrians demanding the right-of-way. And as for all pedestrians, the only thing to do is slow down and watch what happens.
Monday, September 01, 2008
Life is not my attic.
The Container Store is open and bright. Its aisles are wide and its shopping carts are shiny stainless steel.
The Container Store is filled with empty things (boxes, cabinets, trays, bottles) made from various materials (paper, glass, plastic, straw) offered for purchase by consumers who have items (socks, CD's, spices, staples) they wish to contain. The empty things are stacked and sorted on rows and rows of identical shelves set out on a grid that looks like a vast magnification of the graph paper we used in high school to plot coordinates for Miss Kemp.
The empty things are clean and clear. The empty things are beautiful and seductive. The empty things whisper, "I will make your life better if you will only take me home."
My attic looks nothing like The Container Store. It also has boxes, but none of them are empty. Some are labeled, some are not. A few match, most don't. All are gathering dust.
One box is all that is left of Ginny – her collar, her blanket, her vet records. For 11 years she came when I called, loved me when I didn't deserve loving, offered her ears as handkerchiefs. Another box is Wesleyan – birthday cards, programs, costumes, purple everything, reminders of the four years during which I figured out who I could be. There is one box that holds toys and puzzles from Adam's and Kate's childhoods, one that holds my Girl Scout badge and ceramic projects from summer camp, and a couple that hold secrets.
My attic is dark and, this time of year, hot. Some of the boxes are held together by packing tape. Some of them have been infiltrated by mice. All of them are surrounded by a great swath of itchy insulation and a maze of PVC pipe.
The room at the top of the stairs would seem to have little resemblance to the pristine, almost Aryan, perfection of The Container Store. It would seem to be, in fact, at the opposite end of the spectrum.
I heard a song not long ago that began, "My yesterdays are all boxed up and neatly put away." The first time I heard it, I whispered to myself, "Yes!" The trap door to my mind's attic was closed and I smiled at the thought that I could walk down the hall under the swinging white cord with nary a notice. I had finally learned how to remember without recriminating, how to recall without reliving, how to recollect without rewriting.
What I hadn't learned, however, is that life, with all its unflagging determination to astonish, its frustrating lack of predictability and its constant requirement for recalibration, refuses to be contained. I hadn't learned that light bends. That the opposite ends of the spectrum – the spots where The Container Store, with its fresh and unused bins, and my attic, with its bruised and bulging boxes, lie – are, with all the flexing and twisting and turning, the same place.
You can get there by holding on to everything, every photo, every calendar, every ticket stub, or you can get there by holding on to nothing, turning your pockets inside out and opening your clenched fists. But you're still going to get there, the place where you finally figure out that, no matter how hard you try, life can't be controlled.
I hadn't learned it then, the day I heard that song for the first time, but I have now. And when I listen these days, I think I hear a little irony in Sheryl Crow's voice. I think she's learned it, too. That yesterday can't be boxed up. That it is never neatly put away. That life is not The Container Store and life is nobody's attic.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Flying always produces in me, contrary to what I would have imagined before ever taking my first plane trip, a meditative state. What is done is done. What is behind is behind. My usual tendency to re-examine, re-hash, re-live gets checked at the gate and, if I'm lucky, lost somewhere in the airport.
At 33,000 feet it is all anticipation.
But the plane can't stay suspended in the ether forever. Eventually it has to land. It must begin the slow, angled drop that will deposit me onto tarmac, into time. And with the descent comes the pain.
I understand the physiology: unequal pressure between the middle ear and the cabin of the airplane, pressure that can't be equalized as it normally would be by the Eustachian tube because the tube is blocked. And since the air flow is blocked the eardrum gets stretched; with the stretching comes the pain.
The only thing that makes it bearable is the knowledge that it won't last forever and that what awaits me on the ground is worth it.
Today, as I feel the pressure building, transforming itself from annoyance to discomfort to measurable pain, what awaits me on the ground are cooler temperatures and the hugs of two towheads. Not a bad tradeoff. So I move my jaw up and down and back and forth, pump my finger in and out of my ear like a mascara wand, close my eyes and visualize 82 degrees and a light wind.
And I find myself considering how often I have done just that in a less literal, more emotional way. How often I've been flying high, oblivious to everything not in Seat 27D, responsible for nothing beyond keeping my seatbelt fastened when I gradually became aware of a growing buzz, something not exactly a noise, clearly not a voice, but definitely a sound rising in my ears. Aware, but not bothered.
How the buzzing got louder and interfered with my self-centered thoughts, got louder still and started pushing those thoughts out with something like a dull ache that grew into a sting into a throb, ignorable no longer. How most of the time, at just about the moment I thought I'd rather cut off that ear than hear what was being whispered into it, my plane touched safely down and rolled to a stop. And how, just as I was dragging my suitcase off the carousel at baggage claim, the words came, in clear translation and with the impact of a left hook, to show me the way to the parking lot and beyond.
The intercom crackles and breaks my train of thought. "We have been cleared to land," says the man in the navy blue suit behind the metal door. "Please return your seats to an upright position," instructs the flight attendant. I look out the tiny window; the clouds have disappeared and I can see buildings and highways and green.
Forrest Gump thought life was like a box of chocolates. Poets have offered that life is like a river, a coin, a journey, a battle, a puzzle. Today I'm thinking that life is a lot like a plane ride from Savannah to Baltimore with a layover in Atlanta. And I'm thinking that what I got for my money was more than biscotti cookies and "Thank you for flying Delta."
Sunday, August 03, 2008
It is a truth of some wide acceptance that July's only saving grace is tomatoes, home-grown and thick-sliced and dusted with a heavy shower of salt, fanned out on the plate beside fresh corn and fried okra or slathered with mayonnaise and slapped between two slices of white bread.
It is a truth of some wide acceptance but it is not tomatoes that refresh my heat-withered spirits, not the juvenile pleasure of juice dripping off my chin, not the eye-closing satisfaction of the warm taste of summer spreading through my mouth. The sensation that pulls me back from the abyss of believing that I will never be cool again is the sight of a peanut field.
Unlike the corn stalks that stretch up into the sky, demanding their personal space while blocking the horizon, peanut vines grow close to the ground and spread into each others' arms, meshing their tender leaves and spindly stems into communal productivity.
Daddy, like the good farmer he is, rotates the location of his peanut fields, but every year, somewhere within sight from Sandhill's front porch, I can watch a field go from a graph of shallow gray ditches to a connect-the-dots game board of green pinpricks and, as the sunshine and water – God willing – come down in the right proportions, the dots get connected into endless straight lines that roll out like unspooled ribbon.
The spring before the summer that Sandhill was built, just before planting time, Daddy asked me, "You gonna build that house or not? It's time to plant peanuts." And when I couldn't give him a ground-breaking date, he plowed right across the three acres that had been marked with bright pink flags.
By July 2, the day the contractor and his helpers arrived to dig the footings, there were tiny little nuts, what Mama calls poppers, dangling from the vines they displaced. For the four months it took to build the house, the peanuts kept growing in what would be the front yard and the carpenters, the painters, the roofers all had the pleasure of pulling up a hill every now and then.
It's been 17 years since that summer. Lots of things, of course, have changed. There's a deck hanging off the back of Sandhill. There are shrubs and trees planted where the peanut vines were. The two tow-headed children who climbed all over the lumber stacked in the yard and picked up errant nails are grown. The dog who moved in with me is buried in the side yard.
And I've changed, too. But not just in the obvious, age-related ways. I've learned that farmers aren't the only ones who need to rotate their crops, that planting time can't be delayed, that the hottest, gnattiest moments will be survived.
In just a few weeks the multi-stepped process of harvest will begin; the plows first, then the pickers and trailers lumbering like the mechanical monsters in a science fiction movie. The sounds of their engines will fill the air as long as there is light and in a matter of days the fields will be flat and gray. I will have gotten my wish for shorter days and drier, cooler air.
For now, though, I sit on the front porch in a rocking chair in need of a fresh paint job, knees pulled up to my chest and bare feet hanging over the edge of the seat and stare across the way at the mounded green lines, drawn toward the far edge of the field, the place where all the lines converge.
And I don't even notice the sweat or the bugs.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
I heaved my briefcase into the passenger seat of the car, buckled my seat belt and turned the key, the sequence of rote motions that sets the rhythm of my life five days a week. Lifting my eyes to the rear-view mirror in preparation for backing out of the carport, my mind already racing through the list of tasks that awaited me, I felt the startle before I realized what I had seen.
Directly in front of me, stretching from one of the deck posts to the arm of one of the chairs was a spider web, at least a foot and a half across, dangling from the thinnest of supporting threads.
The diffused sunlight silhouetted every one of its strands glistening like icicles. It quivered in a breeze so slight that I hadn't felt it when I'd walked out into the damp morning. I couldn't move. Just stared for a few seconds like a hypnotist's fool.
When I felt my heart beating again, I unbuckled the seat belt, got out of the car and walked carefully – tiptoed really, almost like walking into a church – up the steps of the deck and over to the web, kneeling down to stare into the gauzy labyrinth. Surrounded by uncommon quietness – the morning birds having sensed, it seemed, that silence was the only psalm needed – I counted the sections, 23 pieces of spider web pie, each seam etched with beads of dew smaller than pinheads, tremulous and hesitant but never falling. I looked for the weaver, but saw no sign of the creature that had spent the entire night spinning.
Anonymity is not something to which many of us aspire. We want to be known in a deep and soulful way by those we love, but we want more. We want to be known by strangers, by people whose faces are caricatures, whose voices are nothing more than vibrations on our eardrums.
A significant portion of American children asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" now answer, "Famous." Not fireman. Not president. Not mommy or daddy or teacher or cowboy. Famous. Our children want to be an adjective?
There is an e-mail going around (and around and around) that asks the reader to name the last five Heisman trophy winners, the last five Oscar winners, the last five Pulitzer Prize winners. Only the nerdiest of trivia nerds would be able to get all the answers, of course, and the punch line comes with the last questions: "Who was your first grade teacher? Who taught you to drive a car? Who gave you your first kiss?"
Thinly disguised moral of the story: Being famous doesn't equate with making a difference in the life of another human being.
I have to admit that, as I approached the masterpiece spider web, I half-expected to see something written in its strands, half-expected to find in its elegant tendrils a personal note, an answer to the deep heart question that had been keeping me company for weeks. I wanted to believe that Charlotte, not just a great writer, but a great friend, had found her way to Sandhill.
But I didn't. At least not literally. There was no pronouncement of my terrific-ness or radiance or humility. No words proclaiming that I am "some woman." No answer to my question.
And, yet, there in the morning sunlight, kneeling silently before that web, the lifework of an anonymous spider, I did get a message: a reminder that one life lived, one effort made, one web spun with passion and love can change the world.
Sunday, July 06, 2008
Jake is Adam's dog, a thick-muscled golden Lab with a serious face. He is smart, one of those dogs with whom you tend to carry on a conversation and half expect to get an answer back. He was my only companion that afternoon. We'd been up the road a mile or so and were headed home when the rabbit showed up.
In a matter of seconds Jake had left the road, leapt over the ditch and hit the ground running on the overgrown timber trail that runs parallel to the road. "Jake!" I called out sharply. "Jake!" His long yellow legs kept galloping toward the white puff of tail that bounced ahead of him.
The rabbit had a head start and, moving surprisingly quickly on short stumpy legs, disappeared into the brush – sort of a reverse magician's trick. Jake came up short, his nose quivering just above the ground at the hole into which the rabbit had dived.
He lifted his head and quizzically tilted it toward me and the road. "Leave that rabbit alone!"
One more look at the hole. One more look at me. A soft – I promise you – sigh and then retreat. He jumped back over the ditch and trotted back up to me. "Good boy, Jake. Good boy."
To be honest, I was more than a little surprised that Jake abandoned his pursuit of the rabbit. He is, after all, a dog and dogs chase rabbits. It is instinctual and, as we often tell ourselves in defense of actions of which we are regretful but for which we have no explanation, you can't fight instinct.
Except that, apparently, based upon what I'd just seen, you can.
In that moment Jake, who isn't supposed to have a moral code, made a choice. Instead of responding to the adrenaline that made his heart race, that made his fur stand up, that sent him running madly after something that wasn't anywhere close to a physical match for him, he responded instead to my voice.
Jake knows me. I feed him when he wanders down to my house. I offer him a big bowl of water after we've been walking. I scruff his ears and talk to him in that strange voice we humans reserve for babies and animals. I love Jake. And he loves me back.
And so he comes when I call.
A triumph of love over instinct.
I thought about all that as Jake and I walked on down the big hill and back up the rise toward home and I realized that Jake's choice was the one that we are asked to make every day, many times a day.
We are asked to respond to all sorts of stimuli, everything from the car that brakes suddenly in front of us to the telephone call that brings bad news. We are asked to respond and we always have to choose. Instinct or love.
Sometimes the response is instantaneous, without conscious deliberation, but most of the time – in a world where "fight or flight" is not a literal confrontation – there is plenty of time to consider the ramifications of choice. And in that time, the moments or days or years that flow by between stimuli and response, we get to decide whether we will respond out of self-preservation or self-sacrifice.
Instinct or love. Jake understands that. I hope I do.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Last night, needing to think, needing to mull over, chew on, process the events of the last few days, I sat on the deck and watched the light fade. The sun had vanished beneath the horizon and the sky was washed in the pale chic pastels of a Pottery Barn nursery. There was a breeze coming from the east and the windcatcher, a pendulum hanging from the center of the wind chimes, whirled like a dervish in a tight spiral. The high-pitched bell song echoed out into the branch, a small stone making ripples in a small pond.
Where Dragons Lie.
I had just watched, at the suggestion of a friend, a science fiction television show in which a planet was discovered on which life could be maintained only inside a dome. The air and water quality outside had been so contaminated by centuries of industrial growth that life could not be maintained there; the people living in the dome, however, were content. Outside the dome, the area beyond which their maps had been drawn, was of no consequence to them. But, unknown to them, the dome was shrinking.
Where Dragons Lie.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see a jagged streak of heat lightning, bright orange like a hazmat suit. A mockingbird glided through the carport and came to rest on the deck rail, stayed long enough to make sure that I knew he was ignoring me and flew away. I noticed that the lavender I had grown from seed was a little taller, that the zinnias were healthy, that one of the hummingbird feeders would need more food soon.
The crickets and frogs began singing and I realized that I'd not done much thinking, mulling or chewing. Realized that as the day had wound down around me, gotten slower, gotten cooler, gotten quieter that so had my thoughts. And in the quietness I realized that the answer to my dilemma lay at the edges of the map.
We are the cartographers of our own lives. We are handed a compass, a quill and a few sheets of parchment and told to, "Go."
For much of my life I carried mine around in a field jacket and spent my time navigating by the maps that other had made. I picked up those maps at school and at church, at Girl Scouts and summer camp. I tore them out of books and magazines. I picked up several pockets full from my family. And, for the most part, I had a pretty good time. I saw lots of tourist attractions, read lots of historical markers, had my picture made in front of a lot of monuments.
But one day, while stuffing yet another ticket stub into my pocket, I found the compass. Lying in the palm of my hand, its needle quivered and so did my heart. With no hesitation, I threw away the others' maps and set out.
I could have stayed. I could have continued building my dome, making it self-sufficient, brain-washing myself into believing that the curve above my head was real sky, but eventually the dome would have started shrinking and so would I.
Some people are born running toward the edge, ready to explore and excavate. Most of us aren't. Most of us believe in dragons.
I felt a bug bite of some kind and knew it was time to go inside. One more glance around the night landscape. One more deep breath of midsummer air. One more sigh of gratitude for the compass that pointed the way to where dragons lie.
Monday, June 09, 2008
The water wasn't just one color of blue. It was every color of blue. It was the whole blue section of the original Crayola 64 – periwinkle and aquamarine, cornflower and blue green, green blue and turquoise blue.
And it was clear. So clear that I could see sandbars floating just beneath the surface as far as a hundred yards away. Tiny underwater islands that made me think of Atlantis.
The sensation of water on both sides of the road was unsettling and I turned my head from side to side trying to imagine how you measure the tides in such a place. The top was down and I could feel the midday sun radiating through the skin on my arms and legs. The wind snatched at my hair, tugging at random strands as though to lift me straight into the sky like a reverse image Rapunzel.
And then came the bridge. Seven miles long. Flat and straight and narrow, a seam down the middle of the channel that connects the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Strait. The crayon-colored water was under our feet now, under the levitating asphalt held just out of its reach by concrete pillars. From any direction the view was the same – water stretching to the horizon and melting into sky. Layers and layers of blue.
I'd not really expected this sensual assault. The road trip to Key West was a means to an end: There, at the literal end of the continental United States, I would see my Kate for the first time in a year. I was eager and anxious and wound as tight as Dick's hatband.
Somewhere around Big Pine Key, I think, I gave in. Stopped trying to download like digital photos every image that fell on my retinas. Relaxed my shoulders and let the light and warmth swallow me up. By the time the tires hit the bridge, time didn't matter.
I spent four days in Key West. Kate was a generous and indulgent tour guide. She took me to the Hemingway House and the Robert Frost Cottage. She let me take her picture inside the Butterfly Conservatory and at the "southernmost point" monument. She took me to Mallory Square to see the sunset and ignored my obvious amazement at all the things I saw on Duval Street.
When the time for goodbyes came, I squeezed her tight, reminded her of my love and watched her drive off in the car she'd bought without any help to the job she'd gotten without any help. And I didn't cry.
I was so proud of myself.
Later, several weeks later, this morning as a matter of fact, I finally grasped what my heart had been trying to teach my head. And it wasn't, as I might have guessed, that the journey itself is at least as important as the destination.
The point of all that endless blue water and the indelible image it left on my memory was this: The magic of the journey is directly proportional to the pilgrim's passion for the destination.
I had packed my bags and loaded the car with only one end in mind: Kate, my Kate. A year's holidays had come and gone without her presence. Four times the seasons at Sandhill had changed without her seeing them. Hundreds of sunsets had followed sunrises without her opening the back door and heading to the refrigerator for a Capri Sun.
It was hunger I felt, hunger for the light of her smile, the lilt of her voice, the feel of her half-hug. It was hunger that drove me seven hundred miles. It was hunger that rubbed me sandpaper-raw and opened my eyes to the lessons and the loveliness of the road.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
So I did. I stood at the stove, stirring and stirring and stirring, watching the bumpy black berries soften and burst, coloring the sugar the shade of a deep bruise. As the juice ran and turned the sugar into syrup the stirring got smoother and a little monotonous.
It is highly likely that I could have left the jam for a moment or two – to answer the phone or move wet clothes from the washer to the dryer or check the score of the Braves game – without making any difference in the finished product, but there was something about the directness and simplicity of the instructions that called me to diligence. I would, as directed, stir for 15 to 20 minutes.
The rhythm of the stirring and the observation of the near-alchemy that was taking place before my eyes coaxed me into thinking about a lot of things. I thought about how much easier it would have been to simply buy blackberry jam (a thought I quickly dismissed by remembering the difference between Mama's creamed corn and that produced by the Green Giant).
I thought about the array of scratches all over my arms and legs resulting from my blackberry foraging. I thought about how accomplished I would feel once the jam had been spooned into the tiny Ball jars with the fruit-embellished lids. And I thought about the friends and family with whom I would share.
I watched my wrist rotate with the turn of the spatula, watched the tornado-like swirling in the bottom of the pot, watched the liquid slosh up in broad waves like purple ric-rac. And, staring into the soon-to-be jam, the thoughts turned to images.
I saw Mama standing at the counter slicing up cucumbers that would become pickles. I heard the whistle and jingle of the pressure cooker and the rip of corn shucks being stripped from their ears. I smelled the greenness of beans just snapped. I felt under my thumbnails the tenderness of an afternoon's pea-shelling.
And there I was, 10 years old and not-so-quietly stewing over what I saw as an imposition on my summer. Sitting under a tree in a folding aluminum lawn chair, balancing in my lap a blue plastic hospital pan, running my fingers through shell after shell of peas and listening to Mama and Grannie and an assemblage of aunts and cousins talk about people whose names I did not recognize, but who, I was assured, were kin to me.
I wanted to be inside, stretched out on my bed with the window fan blowing straight into my face, a Nancy Drew book in my hands. It was in that world, the world of daring adventures and unsolved mysteries, that I belonged. Not in the one where ordinary people did ordinary things. Shelling peas and picking off peanuts would not get me closer to the exotic life that I was certain was meant to be mine.
The timer on the stove went off and ended my reverie. The 15 minutes was up. I turned off the stove and moved the pot to another burner for the last step of the process: Cool.
Remembering the frustration of those sweltering summer days, it occurred to me that making my self has been a little like making blackberry jam. At ten, I was a combination of wildness and sweetness and life would have to do quite a bit of heating and stirring before the two things melded into something that was worth sharing, something that would keep.
So, I think I've come to turns with the idea that I'm never going to catch a nefarious criminal on a dude ranch or discover a hidden staircase, receive a mysterious letter or find a message in a hollow oak. That's just as well. I don't think Nancy Drew ever had time to make blackberry jam.
Monday, May 12, 2008
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Collin," he answered. "She wrote it right here in the front of my book." He pointed to the perfectly printed name his teacher had written under the RIF stamp on the inside front cover of "The Dinosaur Who Lived In My Backyard."
He then volunteered his last name and when I, thinking I might know his parents, asked their names, he squinted those luminous eyes, stared off into the distance for a moment and said, "My dad's name is Daddy. And my mom's name is Mama."
Well, of course.
Collin told me he was in kindergarten. I had to smile. Is there anything more winsome than a kindergartener? Anything more gripping than the openness of that face, the generosity of that smile?
The day of Adam's kindergarten orientation, he and I left his mom in the classroom talking to the teacher. We had taken only a few steps down the hall when he stopped, still holding my hand, and said, "Kap, I don't think I know enough to go to kindergarten."
My heart clutched. I want to grab him up and run all the way back to the farm, to secret him away from all the hard and unexplainable things that I knew he would have to endure once he embarked on this existence outside the security of his family's arms.
I've always thought it most noble and courageous and, well, mature of me that I didn't. Instead, I told him, "Oh, I think you do. All you need to know to go to kindergarten is your name and your teacher's name and how to get to your classroom."
The blue eyes, fixated on my face, were tentative, unsure.
"So," I offered, "what is your name?"
"And what is your teacher's name?"
"Good. Now let's go out to the front where I'll drop you off in the morning and you can show me how to get back to your room."
We started at the sidewalk where the carpool lines formed, walked down the long breezeway to the kindergarten wing, took a left and followed the circular hallway to the room where the door was decorated with a cartoon alligator.
"Yes!" I practically screamed. "You did it! See? I knew that you knew enough to go to kindergarten."
Relief showed itself in the slightest upward curve of the corners of his mouth, what – for the usually taciturn Adam – amounted to a smile.
It is not an easy thing to be an adult who loves, who adores a child. It is not easy to watch while he marches off to a place you've never been or to listen while she talks about people you've never met. It is not easy to acknowledge, even in the smallest way, the separateness of this being whose breath seems to be your own.
Collin, if he's anything like my Adam, will probably have little to say about his field trip when he is asked about his day by parents who soak up each word like intravenous nourishment. Two weeks from now he will not remember the name of his book or that a lady read it to him. But I will remember enough for both of us.
As the teacher called the children to line up to leave, I stood and patted Collin on the shoulder. "It was nice to meet you," I told him.
He smiled. And then, tossing the words over his shoulder as though they were birdseed, not gold doubloons, he said, "Maybe I will see you again."
I hope so, Collin. I hope so.
Friday, April 25, 2008
A person can have more than one home and I have left one to come to another. I have left Sandhill to come to Wesleyan.
It has been thirty years since I accepted my real sheepskin diploma and carefully moved the purple and white tassel to the other side of my mortar board. Thirty years since I said goodbye to this place, but, being a good daughter, I have punctuated that thirty years with frequent visits and careful attention. I look around and it is as if I never left.
Soon I am roused from my reverie by the screeching and hugging and touching of arriving classmates. I am so glad to be the first one here. So glad to do the welcoming.
There are huge smiles that look absolutely no different from the ones I remember except for the tiny lines that form at the corners of their eyes, lines that look nothing like crows' feet and everything like sunbursts.
Each of these women has moved her own personal heaven and earth to be here, to be in what is – to us at least – a sacred place, a cathedral of red brick and arched doorways and marble columns. A place where we sang the hymns and recited the creeds and fulfilled the prophecies that said, "This is who you will be."
On Saturday night, after all the formal events – the board elections and award presentations and campus tours – we gather at the home of one of our classmates. The backyard is lit with candlelight that softens the edges of everything, including our aging faces. A handful of us gather around a table to catch up, to exchange stories.
One of the Janets tells us how she made her way back to the love of her life 30 years after meeting him for the first time, how she inherited his daughter as her own and how, yes, she did think she would burst with pride as, just that morning, she had helped induct that daughter into the Wesleyan Alumnae Association. We are all beaming. Starbursts are at the corners of our eyes again.
And it is at that moment that I understand. Understand that we come back home for the stories. We come back to tell our own and to hear those of our sisters. Because it is in the telling and in the hearing that each of us learns this great truth: There is only one story – the story of birth and growth, of struggle and loss, of transformation and redemption.
In a few hours I, we will be headed to our other homes. I, we will pick up where we left off, open the book at the bookmark and begin again. I take one last look at the sweet sweet faces of the girls I have watched become women and this is what I think: They knew me at 17 and now, at three times that, it becomes clear that they still do.
It is a rare comfort in a world we treat as though it were disposable to come across something that remains, that persists, that stays. Within the arms of my alma mater, my "nourishing mother," I have found such a thing. It is the truth of story and the authentic life that results from its telling.
Monday, April 14, 2008
The sound that drowned them all out, the sound that with its nearness and potential for danger demanded attention was the drone of a single bumblebee. I had hardly settled back on the chaise when the little demon appeared out of the waxy green branches of the lygustrum bush at the corner of the house and came to hover about six inches from the tip of my nose.
Making the quick decision that immobility might translate into invisibility, I held my breath and stared at the fat little insect whose wings were nothing more than a silver blur against the blue sky. Fortunately for me, I was soon determined to be a non-pollen-producing organism and the bee buzzed away.
There were a couple more fly-by's, but for the most part we ignored each other, each of us intent on gathering its own form of nectar.
I don't have any specific memory of learning the childhood rules of insects, but at some point someone must have told me that, first, if you don't bother the bee, the bee won't bother you and, second, if the bee does sting you he will immediately die. I accepted as truth those statements as every child accepts as truth the pronouncements of bigger people.
It was quite a coincidence – if there is such a thing – that, just a few days after my nod-and-bob cocktail party encounter with the bee, I had my folkloric knowledge both confirmed and refuted as good science. The regular old south Georgia bumblebee is, as I had learned, an exclusively defensive stinger, but the "one sting and then death" proposition applies only to its cousin the honeybee.
"They attack when threatened, but only as a last defense," the author of my book wrote. "With the injection, their stinger and venom sac are ripped from their body and they die."
Given my propensity for seeing everything as metaphor, I was immediately struck by the "only as a last defense" part and felt my heart swelling for the little critters, both the honeybees and we people who behave in the very same way.
Except that – Let's be honest here. –, we people tend to leave off that last subordinate clause. We just attack when threatened. Your ability to make it to the meeting in time is jeopardized by the car merging into traffic, so you blow your horn, maybe even give your middle finger a little exercise. The customer service representative on the other end of the telephone line doesn't seem to want to help me, so I start using what I hope are intimidating lawyer words. The first grader's Crayon pack is missing the yellow one she wants, so she breaks the red one in two.
It's sad. There is really very little that threatens the 21st century American. Nearly all of us have plenty of food. There are no bands of guerrillas haunting our subdivisions. Most of the diseases that killed our great-grandparents have been eradicated or held in check by medicine. Yet we behave as though we are hapless honeybees.
Sadder still is all that is ripped from our souls when we recklessly respond. Dignity, peace of mind, clarity of conscience – attributes that require patient cultivation, character traits that take years to develop and only seconds to destroy. Virtues without which the nobility of the human spirit will die.
Honeybees don't know that something dies when they try to defend themselves. But we're smarter. Shouldn't we?
Monday, March 31, 2008
What she did teach me was to stitch a hem so delicate as to be invisible and so strong as to be unravelable, to set in a sleeve with no puckers and lay out a pattern with no waste of fabric. She taught me how to figure yardage, how to match thread, how to make a dart, a pleat and a tuck and how to put on a waistband.
By the time I took home ec in the eighth grade I was earning spending money by helping Mama who, as we used to say, took in sewing. I steam-pressed the seams and put in the hems of the dresses and coats and blouses she made for the ladies who, for some reason I could not fathom at the time, preferred homemade clothes to the ones hanging in the windows at Henry's and Tilli's and Belk.
I was, then, most resentful of Miss Williams's requirement that I use tracing paper to mark seam lines. Any idiot, it seemed to me, ought to be able to hold the fabric against the seam guide and stitch a straight line. I also couldn't understand why she would want me to make an apron when, heaven's to Betsy, I'd mastered that three years before in fifth grade 4-H.
I eventually won that battle and while everyone else was trying to figure out how to make their apron gathers uniform, I was obnoxiously trimming the facing on the neck of my dress and imagining how cool it was that my project was actually going to see use whereas my classmates' would most likely end up stuffed into their bottom dresser drawers.
Infinitely more satisfying, however, than being able to say, "I made it myself," is being able – as result of what my mother taught me – to recognize quality workmanship, an ability that transfers far beyond the walls of a clothing store and into more intangible endeavors. Unrolling a piece of fabric from a bolt and crushing a corner of it to test its hand is a good metaphor for determining the sincerity of a relationship. Matching plaids is akin to finding the right job or neighborhood or mate.
Even the terminology of sewing teaches lessons: Selvage and bias conjure up vivid images of the contrast between flexibility and rigidity. Seam allowance and presser foot and tension knob speak to the necessity, not just the unavoidability, of structure and rules.
All of which may be why no one learns to sew anymore. It requires time. It requires discipline. It requires stillness, quietness and concentration, all of which are commodities in short supply in a world where we drink instant coffee, send instant messages and long to be instant winners.
It's been a long time since I laid out my last pattern, pinned my last seam or threaded my last bobbin, but sometimes when I need to be reminded of the all I learned watching Mama hunched over a Singer sewing machine, its own peculiar song caught by the breeze through the open window and suffused into the summer night, I find my way to a store that still has an aisle marked notions. I take a deep breath and run my fingers over the rainbow of Coats and Clark spools, spin the button rack, flip through a few pages of the Simplicity pattern book and, in no longer than it takes to thread a needle, I am myself again.
Mama didn't teach me to cook, but what she did teach me was so much more important than that.
Monday, March 17, 2008
This past Sunday I was walking with a friend down the long wide beach on Jekyll Island. There were few others out in the breezy afternoon – a handful of birdwatchers who, when asked what they were hoping to see, replied, "Anything that flies," and a middle-aged couple walking five lean and leggy greyhounds.
The sky was flat and the palest of blues. The tide had ebbed leaving an unusual number of horseshoe crab shells and the usual surfeit of trembling jellyfish scattered across the sand. Cumberland Island, just a few miles south, seemed almost touchable in the clear spring light.
We headed south intending to meet up with Judy, my friend's friend, a transplanted Californian with a specific passion for horses and a general appreciation of all things outdoors. As we walked, we talked of ordinary things – her cats, my dog, road trips we might take one day, the fact that I'd forgotten to put on sunscreen.
We caught up with Judy at the southernmost part of the island where a school of dolphins was churning up the water like an old-fashioned egg beater. Diving and rolling and circling each other like children playing chase, the dolphins moved as a group, with the current, oblivious to their role as entertainers to the people on shore.
"I found something for you," Judy told me and strode up the dunes where she had left the treasure. She came back with a perfect conch shell. Complete. Unbroken. I'd never seen one so unblemished, so whole. At least not outside a shell shop.
Sand clung to the winding spires of the ocean-scarred outside. Inside, the shell was glassy smooth and pink like lip gloss. It filled my hand exactly.
Judy explained that she'd seen just a little of it sticking out of the sand and that, when she started digging and realized how deeply it was buried, she suspected it might be whole. "The further down in the sand it's buried," she told us, "the better chance there is that it's unbroken."
When I got home I put my shell up on the mantel at the foot of some candlesticks. There was a handful of other shells already there – a couple of palm-sized scallops, another conch, all of them half- or quarter-shells only, all of them missing parts of themselves. And I remembered what Judy had said about being buried.
Is it possible that the only way to stay whole is to stay buried? And is staying buried any way to live? The truth is that my conch shell – without any cracks, without any holes, without any absent pieces – was empty. The snail that had lived there had been washed out by the ocean's waves or eaten in somebody's fritter. The container was still beautiful, but the life was gone.
Last week the news was full of the senseless, heartbreaking deaths of two young women – popular college students, good citizens, well-loved daughters. In each case there was a question about what she was doing in a particular place at a particular time. A reasonable question. An unavoidable question. And, ultimately, probably an unanswerable question.
I have another question: Had either of the beautiful co-ed's been somewhere else, would she have been guaranteed another day? Had either spent all her days on a security-camera'ed, razor-wired, soldier-guarded campus would she have been protected from all the evil that resides in the world? Had either stayed buried in the sand she would have been just like my conch shell – beautiful, unbroken and empty.
Life is about opportunity and risk. Life is about the willingness to open the mind and the heart. Life is about being filled with generosity and curiosity and love. Life is not an empty shell.
Thursday, March 06, 2008
He is an attractive bird, but he seems to have frightened away all the wrens, the sparrows, the cardinals and the jays that normally flit and flutter from one bare branch to another, cheeping and chirping and singing the sun up.
Leaning against the sill, staring at the proud bird in his stillness and solitude, it is inevitable that I remember Harper Lee’s Scout Finch and her lawyer daddy whose plain goodness was one of the things that led me to my profession. When Atticus gives Scout an air-rifle it is with the admonition that "it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." Scout takes her confusion about her father’s words to an older neighbor who explains: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Scout Finch lives in a world stained with hypocrisy and cruelty and selfishness. But she doesn’t know that. Not yet. Not until she sits in a courtroom balcony and watches her father confront, unsuccessfully it turns out, those marauders.
Wandering off into the woods of thought, I pick up the well-worn trail that leads me to my own courtroom balcony, the place where I first found myself wrestling with the intrusion of pain and disillusionment into a previously halcyon world. Things – I learned, we all learn eventually – are not as they should be.
Volcanos and wars erupt. Poverty and rumors spread. Children and dreams die. The best that even the wisest among us can offer is platitude, not explanation. Is it any wonder that a malignant heart so rarely raises us to righteous indignation anymore?
It is still a sin to kill a mockingbird, to harm the harmless, but unless it is our mockingbird in our backyard most of us are too jaded and resigned to care.
But back in the balcony in the Maycomb, Alabama, courthouse, as a defeated Atticus slowly gathers his things and turns to leave the courtroom, Rev. Sykes touches Scout’s shoulder and whispers, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’."
In that moment, Scout begins to see that the world in which she lives, the one stained with hypocrisy and cruelty and selfishness, is also colored with generosity and loyalty and love. She begins to understand that even as she must shield herself against evil, she must open herself to good.
I’ve noticed that my mockingbird doesn’t sing. He doesn’t chirp and cheep. He doesn’t imitate the songs of his cousins, loudly and repetitively. Not once has he parted his beak, puffed up his throat, expelled his breath and offered a song.
If I measured his worth on Miss Maudie’s scale, I guess I’d be justified in at least shooing, if not shooting, him.
I watch him a while longer, notice the way his wings unfold like a lady’s fan when he loops over to the lowest limb of the chinaberry tree, how the white tips reflect the sunlight like snow, and it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, the greater sin, the transgression worse than killing a mockingbird, might be trying to make him something he isn’t, not loving him for what he is.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
It was hard not to make a comparison between the water bears and people. They have eight legs, but move slowly. We have two legs and, most of the time, move too swiftly for our spirits to keep up. We generally live longer, but our range of liveable temperatures is so small that we find it necessary to destroy much of the natural environment to produce fuel for the heating and
cooling of our buildings.
The only thing, it appeared from my reading, that we large mammals with the abilities to reason and elaborately verbally communicate have in common with the invisible water bears is that hidden life.
Call it hibernation or cryptobiosis or privacy, the reality is that when our water dries up, when the environment in which we have thrived is suddenly and irrevocably changed, it is the nature of men and women to shut down, close up shop, board up the windows and make sure that those around us see the sign on the door that says, in big block letters, "Do not disturb!"
When I was in Girl Scouts part of what we had to learn to earn the First Aid badge was how to treat shock. To be honest, I don't remember much beyond the elevated feet and warm blanket parts. Gratefully, I never had to use that knowledge, but it bothers me a little that the instruction was limited to responding to physical shock.
No one, not the Girl Scouts or my Sunday School teachers or youth group leaders or, later, my psychology professors offered any instruction at all on how to address emotional shock, the feeling of numbness that engulfs you when the world cracks and dissolves into a million tiny shards of glass. The petrification of all thought, the inability to make even the smallest decision.
The truth is that there is no stop-drop-and-roll prescription for that kind of catastrophe. No acronym to remind you of the steps to take to make everything right again. No instructions that, if followed, guarantee a return to normalcy.
Like the water bears, we humans react without thought, with only instinct: We draw ourselves in and wait.
When the water bears are in the dormant state, they are as light as dust particles and a breeze can pick them up, toss them around and deposit them somewhere else. No resistance, no questioning. Yielded to the wind, sailing through the sky, eventually landing in a new place, a place where the water puddles or streams or falls from the clouds in syrupy drops. A place where the hidden life ends and the real life resumes.
Last week as I stood at the altar and received the ashes on my forehead, I was struck, as always, by the fragility of life. We are so vulnerable. Naked we come into the world, naked we leave and, in between, if we are to experience anything of love or joy or contentment, we must remain naked, exposed to the elements, exposed to each other.
There is always the chance that the water will dry up. Drought. Evaporation. The thirst of a passing dog. But when it does, when the unbidden and unwanted change occurs, it is good to remember the water bear who allows himself to become still and quiet and light as air.
It is good to remember that a breath of wind is coming. It will lift you off the dry and empty ground and drop you gently in a pool of water where the hidden life will thaw, where the boards will come off the windows and where the sunshine can trickle in.
Monday, February 04, 2008
Yesterday afternoon I got home a little early. After reading the mail and starting a load of laundry, I took my book out to the front porch to absorb the tender luminance of sunset. I read the words, turned the pages, but my thoughts were divided – half of them inside the story, half of them dwelling on the telephone call that had come, a few hours earlier, so unexpectedly.
"Are you by yourself?" Mama had asked in a voice that was clearly struggling against the rise of tears in her throat.
From down the hall came the voices of my co-workers and the high-pitched drone of machines. Telephones were ringing, printers were humming like helicopters about to take off. The sounds of busyness. The sounds of distraction. The sounds of an ordinary day.
Sounds that, with the question mark in my mother's voice, went silent. It was as though the mute button on some previously unknown remote control had been pressed by the finger of God.
The news, of course, was not good. Our dear family friend, a man who grew up with Daddy and whose children grew up with me and Keith, had died. Suddenly. He and his wife had been trying for years to get Mama and Daddy to visit them in Florida. Had teased, cajoled, bribed. Had even pulled me into the fray by getting me to promise to drive them.
But it hadn't happened. The last time we'd tried was in October, but corn had to be cut and a weather change was on the way and when the time came to go, I went by myself.
"Why," Mama had whimpered, "do we put things off?"
I watched the angle of the sun's light change, the shadows across the porch grow sharper. The rocking chair, arcing back in response to my push, forward in response to my letting go, eased my anxious heart into a gentle rhythm. The rush of feelings that had pounded me like the rising tide died down as the flow began its unavoidable and imperceptible turn.
Why do we put things off? Why do we, as Stephen Covey puts it, elevate the urgent over the important?
Regret may well be the most painful of emotions because it is self-inflicted. Grief and anger, joy and excitement, they all spring from points outside the self; regret has only one source. And because we expect more from ourselves than we would ever expect from anyone else, we refuse the only cure, medicine that we easily spoon out to others – a teaspoon of forgiveness, a dose of second chance.
This is what I remember about Mr. John – that he always called Daddy "Cuz," that he never seemed to mind when we played touch football in the front yard and he got all the girls on his team and that he loved to tell stories, a characteristic that on its own was enough to make me love him.
And I remember that the last time I was with him he told me how proud he was of me, something you never get too old to hear.
I have tried to live my life without regret. I've not been completely successful. Fortunately, the people I have failed still love me and because of that I get the opportunity every day to show them how grateful I am for the second chance.
That, as much as the love itself, may well be the greatest gift of all.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
For years now Daddy has struggled to keep unobstructed the spring that feeds the pond from which he pumps irrigation water. In the course of one night, beavers can build – and have built on several occasions – a formidable dam that nothing will bust loose save several hours of ax-wielding. Every winter he spends an afternoon or two, hunched against the wind, freeing the spring of its obstruction.
Just the other day Mama was relating to some visiting friends this less than bucolic aspect of country living. While listening to the story of how Jake the Wonder Dog swam to the middle of the pond, subdued one of the interloping varmints and then amazingly made the necessary mathematical calculation to determine the shortest route back to land, one of the friends noticed an incredible example of the beavers' handiwork.
At the edge of the pond was an oak tree, as big around as a grown man's thigh, that had been completely eaten through by the resident rodents. What was so remarkable was that the tree had not fallen. It stood suspended in mid-air, levitating directly above the stump from which it had been amputated.
A quick glance confirmed that the law of gravity had not been repealed and that, in fact, the branches of the tree were entwined with those of another tree. The embrace of its neighbor kept it standing.
The reason those friends were visiting was to attend a wedding – their own. In a few short days, they and those who love them had put together the arrangements for a ceremony to be held on the front porch of Sandhill and on Sunday afternoon, as the wind chimes sang and the breeze licked at loose tendrils of hair and the hems of flirty dresses, they held hands and exchanged rings and promised to stay together forever.
"What greater joy," the judge asked the two of them and all of us who listened, " is there for two human souls than to join together to strengthen each other in all their endeavors, to support each other through all sorrow, and to share with each other in all gladness?
"Love is stronger than your conflicts, bigger than life's changes. Love is the miracle always inviting you to learn, to blossom, to expand. It is to love that you must always return.
"You are about to make vows and promises to each other. Today, these vows are beautiful words representing even more beautiful intentions. My prayer for you is that as you live these vows over the years, the meaning of these words will deepen, and the happy times of your life will be twice as joyous, because you'll be sharing them with someone you love. And when life gets tough, it will only be half as hard because there is someone by your side to help carry the burden."
Watching their faces, I couldn't help thinking about that tree, the one the beavers had chewed and gnawed and torn asunder. It had done nothing to invite the attack, nothing to encourage the assault, nothing to threaten its assailant and, yet, it very nearly found itself felled.
Most of the troubles that come our way are not the result of anything wrong we have done, anything important we have failed to do. They are simply the result of living in what the theologians call a fallen world. Bad things happen to good people, beavers cut down trees. What keeps them standing, the people and the trees, is being close enough to allow those nearby to bear some of the load.
I think, maybe, that that is as good definition of marriage as anything I've ever heard: two people standing close enough to each other to share the load.
Monday, January 07, 2008
And when I finally release it, a tiny puff of silver floats away from my open mouth into the chilly darkness and dissolves like cotton candy.
New Year's Eve is generally pretty quiet in the country. More than once the clock has ticked (or, more accurately, the LED display has changed) moving Sandhill and the world into a new year without any notice at all. Not by me, not by the dogs, certainly not by the owl who lives in the branch behind the house or the deer whose Valentine-shaped hoofprints edge the dirt road like lace. We country creatures tend to have ended our days long before the countdown begins in Times Square.
This year, though, I have made it a point to stay awake, to be conscious and thinking upon the arrival of the leap year, election year, Olympic year. I have lit lots of candles, understanding something of the uncertainty of the ancient peoples who kept a fire burning through the darkest night of the year, and have given myself over to the kind of rambling contemplation that generally leads me to the surprising conclusion that I've not been paying nearly enough attention to my life.
I try to focus on this moment. I feel the dryer-warmth pass from the towels I am folding into the palms of my hands. I breathe in the scent of almond as I rub lotion into those same hands, dry and red from all the sink-washing of the "good dishes." I stop and stare at the Christmas tree, the ornaments round and reflective, the lights a stark contrast to the darkness that has quickly covered the day.
In Wales, the winter solstice is called "the point of roughness," an idea that brings to mind the fingertips of a safe-cracker or a reader of Braille. Inflicted tenderness.
Not a particularly attractive idea in a society where easy and painless are what people want in everything from plastic surgery to divorce. To intentionally court sensitivity seems to be the height of ingratitude for the various products and mechanisms and therapies we have devised to make life easier. Which leads one to the question, "Is that what life is supposed to be? Easy?"
I am sitting at my desk now. On the edge is a wicker tray I've filled with totems, objects that remind me of where I've been, who was there with me, what I learned. A piece of red coral, a seashell, a cast iron acorn that holds a key, a framed notecard that reads, "It will all be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end."
Right outside the window, the owl swoops close enough to rustle the too-long branches on the shrubbery and opens his mouth to the long mournful cry I have grown to love.
Time passes. Two hours until midnight. One hour until midnight. Thirty minutes. Five minutes. Ten seconds.
"Five ... four ... three ..." the voice on the radio whispers into the microphone on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. "Two ... one ... Happy New Year."
It is midnight. I walk outside onto the deck and lift my chin toward the sky full of stars. I hold myself tightly against the chill. A new year. I take a deep breath and raise a glass to whatever is out there. Easy or not.