Friday, April 25, 2008


I am standing on the loggia, two stories tall with a domed stone roof. The wide marble steps lead down to a fountain that sprays millions of water-drop mirrors into the warm spring afternoon. Black wrought-iron street lights and gnarly gray oaks, a hundred years old at least, line the driveway and beds of just-bloomed pansies splotch the wide green lawn.

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.

Copyright 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008


One day last week, during one of the more temperate – though brief – moments in what has been a rather schizophrenic weather pattern, I went out on the deck to read. There were probably ten or twelve different bird calls echoing in the branch and the wind chimes were tink-tink-tinking from the lowest limb of the chinaberry tree.

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?

Copyright 2008