Sunday, November 23, 2008

Taking Root

Grandmama was a gardener. The kind that wandered around in the woods digging up anything that looked interesting and taking it home to root. The kind that sent people away clutching damp paper towels wrapped around something spindly with the promise that it would most definitely absolutely grow. The kind that thought the house could take care of itself and that the best place to be, regardless of how hot or cold, was outside.

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.

Copyright 2008

Sunday, November 09, 2008


The autumn dusk was just beginning to fall. There was the slightest suggestion of a chill in the air. The campus of the big city church was, for the most part, still and quiet.

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.

Copyright 2008