Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Home Is Where

Aden’s mama has become a celebrity. She went to New York City last week to promote her business on the "Elevator Pitch" segment of an MSNBC business show. Folks all over the place had the DVR’s set for 7:30 in the morning on Sunday and a few of us early risers actually saw the piece through bleary eyes as it aired.

She did well. And, if I had $500,000 to invest, Urban Pirates would get it.

But this isn’t about Urban Pirates or venture capital or even the fact that Aden’s mama got to meet Howard Dean and sneaked a peak into the Saturday Night Live studio to see her teenage heartthrob Jon Bon Jovi. It is, like all good stories, about clear vision and absolute truth.

A week or so before the trip to the big city, Aden and his mama were out walking in the snow. It was just the two of them and his mama confided to Aden that she was a little nervous about the whole thing.

"Why?" he asked, those huge brown eyes opened wide like a camera aperture letting in all possible light.

"Because," she told him, "I don’t want to mess up."

And because she is his mama and she knows that, at seven, his heart is still pure and his thoughts are still true, she asked, "What will I do if I mess up?"

Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, "You just come home."

Of course.

We mess up all the time. We make wrong choices. We say things we don’t mean. We get lazy and don’t live up to our potential. We assume, we presume, we pretend.

And when it’s all over, there’s only one thing to do: We go home.

I don’t remember when I first memorized the famous line from Robert Frost’s "The Death of the Hired Man," but I do know that it resonated in me like my own heart beat. "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Home is the place where, after you’ve messed up, they still let you in the door without a word of explanation. Home is the place where, after you’ve made the wrong choice and taken years to figure it out and haven’t a clue as to how to make it up to the ones you hurt or even how to say you’re sorry, they meet you on the porch with tears of relief in their eyes. Home is the place where, after you’ve said words that were never true, words that were born of hurt and anger and frustration and can never ever ever be taken back, they come out into the yard, onto the road to pull you in for a feast of fatted calf.

We are all prodigals. Our riotous living may be nothing more than failing to pay attention, but at some point every one of us has left home without a backward glance, secure in – but oblivious to – the reality of home. And every one of us has found him or herself standing on a street corner in some far country – empty, wrung out, used up – when, suddenly, in a moment of clear vision and absolute truth the solution appears like a billboard in Times Square: Home.

It’s nearly Christmas, the season in which Christians celebrate the arrival into a less-than-perfect world of One who was himself, in a way, a prodigal. He left his home, emptied himself, used himself up for the good of the other prodigals and, after experiencing the suffering of separation, returned home.

It’s the same story. Over and over again. And Aden already understands it. Not bad for a seven-year-old.

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Amen and amen.

Copyright 2009

Monday, December 07, 2009


I was done with court and heading back to the office on a two-lane county road that curves through fields and planted-pine forests, through places that used to be towns and at least one that still is, if only barely. I drove slowly enough to read the signs on the small white churches and nearly slowly enough to count the monster hay bales dotting one side of the road. I felt my shoulders relax and my breath slow.

I passed a pasture, the color of highly-creamed coffee, where a horse stood like a statue staring into the sun. I passed one cotton field foaming with white puffs on skinny brown stalks and then another one, picked over, the stalks looking skinnier in their nakedness. I felt the corners of my mouth ease up into a smile.

Bucolic. Pastoral. Freeze frames of countryside. I’d seen it all before.

But today was different. There was something about the light. Bright, nearly blinding, laser beams from, they tell us, 93 million light years away, it fell at an angle so sharp that the elements in the landscape – wire fences, naked trees, horses – looked like objects in a View-Master, starkly three-dimensional. The blue in the sky was so faded I’d have sworn I could see straight through to the face of God. I was enthralled.

Could this be December? The month whose only redeeming quality was the placement within its days of Christmas? The month that announces cold, wet weather and chills me to the bone with the mere thought of wearing socks to bed, a pointless, but nevertheless irresistible effort at staying warm?

By mid-afternoon it was gone. The luminous, illuminating light was hidden by clouds dense and gray. The view outside my office window was flat like the street facade in the old television westerns and the edges of everything I could see, people and sidewalks and brick corners of buildings, were smudged as though drawn by pencil and unsuccessfully erased.

The rain started within a couple of hours, the clouds wrung out like dirty dish rags, and by the next morning the dirt roads were deep trenches of slick clay. The sky was one endless flannel blanket.

I was, I admit, more than just a bit irritated. I’d been fooled. Made a fool.

That awe-inspiring morning, when the sun spotlighted every tree as though it were the only tree, had been nothing but a tease. That hadn’t been the real December. This – the rain and muck and cold – was the real December.

It’s important to know what is real. To be able to distinguish diamond from cubic zirconium, sincerity from flattery, truth from lies. I know that. And like anyone who came of age in the Watergate era I’ve developed a pretty healthy skepticism when it comes to politicians in particular and authority figures in general.

What I’ve never been able to shake, however, is that hopefulness (Some people would call it naivete.) that always anticipates a 9th-inning rally when the lead-off batter draws a walk, that always expects the lost wallet to be returned with the money and the credit cards still inside, that always assumes people will do what they say. So, of course, I saw the first day of December bright and balmy and got seduced into believing I deserved 31 days just like that one.

When, I asked myself, gripping the steering wheel and feeling the tires slip violently back and forth through the mud, will I ever learn?

Funny thing: A few hours later, about 12 actually, I stood on the front porch and watched the clouds suddenly take off running, chased by something I couldn’t see, and as they ran they left in their wake an unobstructed view of a full moon. Another light. A different kind, but just as enthralling.

When will I ever learn?

Copyright 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Astronomy and the Rolling Stones

I pushed back the covers and put my bare feet on the floor. I pushed my bare arms through the loose sleeves of the bathrobe and, in the familiar darkness of my own house, headed toward the front door. I walked out onto the porch and then onto the brick steps whose coolness pricked the bottoms of my feet.

It was 4 o’clock in the morning. I had awakened without an alarm, something about the excitement notifying my sleeping brain that it was time.

Time for the Leonids meteor shower. Time to watch the light of millions of particles flying off the tail of Comet 55 spray across the sky like paint out of an aerosol can.

I’d gone out earlier to get my bearings according to the sky-map I’d printed out from the BBC webpage. Look east; locate the Big Dipper; look to the right and, there, in the center of the constellation Leo I would see the celestial fireworks. Except that I didn’t.

I didn’t because a froth of fog covered the entire span of sky. I stood there for a moment while it sunk in. It had been 11 years since the comet had been this close to Earth and my chance to bend my neck into an unnatural configuration and be little-kid-amazed was lost. Sigh.

Somewhere people were gasping in wonder and smiling involuntarily at the spectacle. Somewhere people were pointing and grabbing elbows. Somewhere people were watching the night explode. But not here.

The air’s cool dampness wrapped around me like the strips of an old sheet we might have used to turn ourselves into mummies on Halloween. I was paralyzed with the frustration of not getting what I wanted. I felt the dew wetting my feet, but I couldn’t move. I was the petulant child who crosses her arms and stomps her feet and sticks out her lip in the distorted belief that what she wants actually matters.

But no amount of stomping or pouting was going to move the fog and, eventually, I turned around and went back inside.

Disappointment. It is such a palpable emotion.

Near the beginning of the movie "The Big Chill," a group of college friends gathers for the funeral of one of their circle. They walk into the church together while one of them goes to the organ to play. She spreads her fingers to reach the notes of the beginning chords and, while the congregation and the audience anticipates which of the standard funeral hymns she will offer, they hear, instead, the opening measures of The Rolling Stones’s "You Can’t Always Get What You Want."

It is an unexpected moment of comic relief and, simultaneously, a heart-breaking declaration of truth. We are taught early to have desires, to express those desires, to expect the fulfillment of those desires. From a kindergartener’s letter to Santa Claus to the high school senior’s college admissions application to the mission statement of the entrepreneur applying for a loan, we learn that it is important to say what we want and to assume that we will get it.

But Mick and the boys are right: We can’t always get what we want. The video game, the scholarship, the promotion, the house. Sometimes other people get those things instead, leaving us standing in the front yard like mummies trying to understand.

It is good to dream, to desire. It is good to long for and yearn. It is good to reach for that which exceeds one’s grasp and then figure out what movement is required to get close enough to clasp it. What is not good, what will serve only to create frustration and heartache is wasting a single moment staring into the darkness and trying to figure out why the fog rolled in.

The fog hid the meteor shower; it didn’t destroy it. I didn’t get to see it, but I still know it’s there. And tonight, that has to be enough.

Copyright 2009

Monday, November 09, 2009

Counting Down

There is a finite number of full moons in a person’s life.

Fairly obvious and, at the same time, startling, the thought came to me Monday night as the light from the cream-colored poker chip in the sky spilled over my shoulder and into my lap and the miles between me and Sandhill grew fewer.

I caught my breath. Held it for a moment high in my chest. Felt my hands loosen their grip on the steering wheel just slightly as I heard the night whisper, "Pay attention." So I did.

What I noticed first was the color of the light itself. Not white or yellow like the beam of a light bulb, but luminous blue-green, like pool water at night. And not clear and piercing, but diffused as though coming through a scrim. There were no edges to the light, no defined stream; the entire landscape was covered and seemed to shiver under its unmeasurable weight.

It was dark – The sun had been down for an hour at least. – but the outlines of the houses, the barns, the fences, the billboards were all still clean and straight, like portraiture silhouettes.

Turning onto the dirt road, the angle of the light shifted and now came through the back windshield making me feel, more than ever, as though I were being stalked. Erratic breaks in the tree canopy turned the moonlight into a strobe, flashing up and down, side to side, the color now reminding me of the black-light posters Keith used to have on his bedroom walls.

As I pulled into the carport, the moon was straight ahead, no longer stalking, but beckoning. Its light had turned the deck into a castle keep, the stark white deck posts into silver ramparts, the pots of rosemary into miniature turrets.

There were none of the usual nighttime sounds coming from the branch. The chill in the air had silenced the crickets, the frogs, the birds. The light had stilled the deer who would wait until later to forage the now-empty fields for some last vestige of corn hidden in the trampled-over rows. I was as alone as one ever is.

I like to think that I always pay attention. I like to think that my eyes and my mind are always open. I like to think that I always notice things of beauty and matters of import. But none of those things are always true. Sometimes I’m just plain lazy.

Not lazy in the sense of neglecting work or responsibility, but lazy in letting work and responsibility overwhelm the reality that nobody lives forever, beauty is fleeting, relationships need tending.

Sometimes I read three pages of a book and realize I don’t know what I’ve read or catch myself singing along with something on the radio and realize I’ve just said/sung something I don’t believe to be true. Sometimes I put a stamp on a birthday card without remembering the face of the person to whom it is being sent and breathing a prayer of gratitude for that life. Sometimes I look out the window and realize that the season has changed and I didn’t notice. That is no way to live.

There is a finite number of full moons in a person’s life. A finite number of sunsets, of low tides, of tomato sandwiches, of chances to love without condition. I don’t want to miss a single one.

Copyright 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

Uncommon Wisdom

After two days of cold – days that belonged in some other month, some other state – October came home and teased me outside with the still crispness that doesn’t require a jacket, but makes you want to wear one anyway.

There was no wind to carry my scent or the sound of my feet shuffling in the sand, so the dogs didn’t come running from the backyard where they were overseeing Mama picking up pecans until they saw me, just past the mailbox, and walking away from the sunset. Lily simply fell in beside me; Tamar had to lick my hand before trotting ahead. They, like all of us, are creatures of habit.

We didn’t walk very far. The dogs demanded no explanation. They simply turned when I turned.

The sun was still over the treetops, but low enough to make me squint. I looked down at the sudden glint of metal in the middle of the road. Bending over to pick it up, I expected to find only one of those aluminum disks that contractors put under nail heads. It was, however, a quarter. Heads up. George Washington’s profile with the straight nose and wig flipped up on the ends like a 1960's cover girl.

There are two schools of thought about found coins. One is a poem that Katherine taught me at Wesleyan: "Find a penny pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck. Find a penny let it lie, before the day you’ll surely die." The other is less lyrical and less morbid: Picking up a penny that is lying heads up brings good luck; picking up a penny that is lying heads down brings bad luck.

The contradiction between these two points of common wisdom is intriguing. According to the first, picking up a penny that you finding lying heads down will result in good fortune for a day. According to the second, picking up that same penny will kill you. How can both be true? They can’t. Unless the finder is one who is eager to throw off the garment of flesh and exchange it for whatever form awaits in the next life.

Which points out the problem with common wisdom – that, while it may very well be common in a "generally known" sense, it is rarely common in a "shared by all" sense. And, of course, superstition isn’t wisdom at all. Or is it?

I slowed my pace and rubbed the quarter with my thumb, ran it through my fingers like a magician, thought about flipping into the nearly-dusk sky and changed my mind immediately at the panic of trying to find it again if I dropped it. Without a pocket, I had to close my fingers around it if I wanted to keep it.

And I did want to keep it, didn’t I? I’d found it. It was mine now, wasn’t it? I could drop it in the milk bottle where I put all my quarters. And when I had 560 I could buy that turntable at Best Buy. And then I could start over again and when I got 720 more I could buy the new tuner that matched. Back at the house, I dropped the quarter on the kitchen counter and started supper.

Now it’s on my desk and in the lamplight I can see it better. I can see the ribbon at the end of George’s ponytail and I can read "liberty" in all capital letters in the rainbow curve over his head. Suddenly, I have an idea. Excuse me for a minute.


Okay. I’m back. This is what I did: I walked outside and tramped out into the edge of the branch as far as I dared go in the dark and I threw the quarter into that dark. I heard it fall, hit leaves that had themselves fallen. Common wisdom says that a penny or, in this case, a quarter saved is a quarter earned.

Sometimes. But not tonight.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

One True Color Liberally Applied

I saw autumn once. Real autumn. Cloudless sky the color of delphiniums. Trees that moved in the breeze like flamenco dancers, skirts flounced in leaves the red of the ripest plums, the gold of a long-worn wedding band, the orange of new rust. Creek water already so cold it raised the hair on my arms as I dragged my fingers through its ripples.

It was in New England, the first week in October, and I wore turtlenecks and a jacket that was supposed to look like an old Indian blanket. I picked up leaves and pressed them between the pages of the notebook I carried.

I found myself thinking in cliches – describing the air as "brisk," as though it had legs and could move them quickly – and taking far too many photographs of the same colorful trees over and over. I decided I liked apple cider.

And when I got home, walked off the plane taking off my jacket so I could breathe, I was feeling a little – yes, I admit it – a little ashamed of this place where most of the trees stay green and nobody taps maple trees for sugar and my turtlenecks wouldn’t be needed for at least another couple of months.

Pure silliness.

Autumn, of course, comes to south Georgia as surely as it comes to New England; it just looks different. Instead of flushing the landscape with the entire spectrum, it carries a single paintbrush laden with one color, the bright yellow of French’s mustard -- goldenrod at every crossroad, at the base of every light pole, on the line of every fence row. Happy-faced asters and soft-edge primroses, foxglove and buttercups. They do not dance; they just sway to the music of the still-warm breeze through the pine trees like the homely girl in the corner at the Homecoming dance.

And it doesn’t make a whole lot of fuss either. It casually saunters in while everybody’s attention is on getting the corn out of the fields and planning for the first tailgate. One morning you walk outside, feel a little shiver in your shoulders and suddenly have a craving for turnips.
Then it’s time for the fair and cane syrup and while you’re there somebody invites you to a peanut boiling and, before you know it, the newspaper is running that unscramble-the-names-and-win-a-turkey promotion and it’s Thanksgiving.

No, it’s not the autumn of elementary school bulletin boards or Charles Kuralt’s video essays, but it is autumn nonetheless. Our autumn.

Last week, when the moon was nearly full, I lit some citronella candles out on the deck (something no New Englander would ever have to do in October) and stood in the dark staring up at the big white circle. The fields on either side of Sandhill had given up their corn and the empty stalks had been felled by a rotary cutter in preparation for dove season. The frog chorus that had been a loud accompaniment to any kind of outdoor activity all summer was faint and arrhythmic. I realized it had been several days since I’d filled the hummingbird feeders.
The season had, once again without fanfare, stolen in and settled herself.

There is a lot to be said for the absence of fanfare, for subtlety and grace, for one true color liberally applied.
Copyright 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Road More Traveled

It is hard not to think of it as my road or, at the very least, our road, my and my family’s road. No one else was living on that five-mile stretch of sticky clay and powdery dirt when we took up residence there and, to this day, long after other residents have acquired an address on the road Daddy named, I still look up at the sound of a passing vehicle, assuming that it is somehow connected to us.

I have walked hundreds of miles between the ditches that the county drags sometimes, crossing tracks made by deer and turtles and snakes and birds of Lord-knows-how-many species. I have pulled a young Adam and even younger Kate in a little red wagon over the undulating bumps created by farm machinery. I have foolishly punished myself by riding a bicycle through sand that provided no traction.

Sandhill sits about halfway between the two paved roads that are the bookends for our dirt one. When I get into the car and head out I don’t have to pay a whole lot of attention. I’ve driven that two-mile stretch in every kind of weather and I know exactly when to slow down, speed up, move over. My hands and feet respond to memory without any specific direction from my brain which is, then, free to wander. I can go through the day’s to-do list or lose myself in an NPR piece. I can notice the morning sunlight coming through the pine trees like a laser and smile at my good fortune.

And in about four minutes, I can find myself at the stop sign, scanning the county road for pick-up trucks going the back way to the poultry plant before pulling out onto the hardtop. Except that several times lately I’ve been jerked from my revery by something totally unexpected.

Our neighbors up on the highway farm a couple of the fields on either side of our dirt road. And they irrigate those fields regularly. At least five or six times this summer I have come smoothly around the bad curve on dry and dusty road only to find my tires suddenly slipping and sliding into muddy clay. I’ve not ended up in a ditch yet, but it’s been close a time or two and less than charitable words have slipped out of my mouth as I’ve maneuvered the car away from a vertical drop of three feet or more.

The last time it happened I felt the tightening of my muscles and the flood of adrenalin and, then, equally as unexpected as the slipping and sliding, came the flash of insight. It is, as I thought, my road. But it is subject to the conditions all around it. And those conditions aren’t always created by rain or wind or other acts of God. Sometimes they are created by other people.

It is a metaphor so often-used as to become predictable and trite, but it is used so often because it so applicable: Life is a road. We can plan the trip, unfold the old gas station map or print out something from Google to plot the course. We can fill the tank, check the oil and the tire pressure, clean the windshield of squashed bugs. We can get a good night’s rest and pack some snacks. With the help of the Weather Channel, we can even accelerate or postpone the journey to take advantage of optimum atmospheric conditions.

What we cannot do is predict the behavior of other people. Drivers, passengers, pedestrians. DOT engineers waving flags, farmers irrigating fields. The homeless woman pushing the grocery cart, the biker in the funny-looking helmet and Spandex shorts. They slow us down, create road hazards, force us onto detours and – Let’s face it. – very seldom know or care that their actions effect our journeys.

So it’s up to me and me alone to make sure I don’t go crashing through a barricade or running over a two-by-four. It’s up to me to pay close enough attention to the changes around me that I don’t end up in the ditch. It’s my road, but there are other people on it. And, if I want to get home, I have to share.

Copyright 2009

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Choice and Chance and What Is Meant To Be

It still surprises me that people who have known me for, let’s say, less than 30 years, all seem to assume that I grew up on the farm, that my ability to identify coffee weed appeared along with my baby teeth, that the first motorized vehicle I drove was a tractor and that I know how to birth baby pigs. The truth is that I was a reluctant transplant to Adabelle, 17 years old and counting down the days before I left for college.

In those eight months and in the holidays over the next seven years, however, I managed to obtain an accelerated education. I learned to chase runaway cows and move pigs from one pen to another. I learned what a soybean was and made a reasonable effort to understand something called soybean futures. I climbed grain bins, rode tractors, experienced something akin to quicksand by playing in a trailer of just-combined corn. I watched the skies and prayed for rain.

None of those things are remarkable anymore. They are a part of the rhythm of my days.

The other day I was in the backyard making a new flower bed, pulling out long white fingers of grass roots from the dry gray dirt, and looked up toward the road at an unusually loud truck rattle. Daddy was pulling the corn auger from the shed up to the grain bin.The auger is tall and skinny and looks like a praying mantis made of sheet metal. One end goes into the grain bin and another into the truck holding shelled corn. In one of those amazing feats of mechanical engineering that I don’t understand, the auger twirls ‘round and ‘round and draws the corn up its narrow neck and into the bin. Sure beats shoveling.

I stopped my digging long enough to watch the slow procession – Daddy with his elbow hanging out the open truck window getting him closer to the rear-view mirror to make sure that the auger did not veer off into the adjacent fields – and remembered hearing for the first time, during that first overwhelming summer, somebody mention an auger.

My thoughts – the thoughts of the bookish literary-minded girl I was – had gone immediately to "Julius Caesar" and the warning of the priests whose auguring ( "Plucking the entrails of an offering forth, They could not find a heart within the beast.") convinced them that Caesar should avoid the Senate on that day. Different word, different spelling, but my only frame of reference.

Thirty-five years later, my own hands plunged deep into dirt, not animal entrails, I found myself laughing at possible confusion between the two words, the idea that an auger could foretell the future, that the waterfall of bright gold kernels splashing into a grain bin could divine tomorrow, that the cloud of corn pollen that rises and falls in a fine layer on grass and sleeves and eyelashes is some sort of pixie dust.

But, of course, it can. Of course, it is. Just as an auger curls its way up into the sky, so Daddy’s choice to bring us all here, to the dirt road and the scrub oaks and the wide open sky, curled its way into our thinking, bore into our definition of what is good and right, twirled itself so tightly into our vision of how things should be that it – after a while – seemed no longer a choice, but destiny.

We like choice. We like to think that we have control. We like moving down the line at the sandwich shop and telling the disinterested young man in the corporate-logo’ed shirt that we’d like lettuce, tomato, no onions, just a few cucumbers and light mayo on one of 50-something possible combinations of meat and bread.

And that is a comfort. But it is also a comfort to sit in the sun on a clear September day and hear the wind chimes sing in the breeze through the chinaberry tree and be glad, be oh so very glad, that some things are just meant to be.

Copyright 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

Laughing Into The Wind

I was standing in chest-high water, the waves slapping at my back like love-licks. Behind me was the wide wide ocean; in front of me was a water-colored beach – white sand, red lifeguard chair, scattered people in various shades of pink and brown stretched out under the sun that came down in wavy yellow beams.

My friend had left me to become one of those toasting people and so I was alone at the moment, a tiny island just off-shore.

It had been a busy weekend – another wedding! –and I was hungry for space. The sand slid and shifted under my toes which I had curled tightly in an effort to keep my balance. Hands on my hips, chin tilted toward the sky, I took a deep breath.

At just that moment, a pair of pelicans entered the frame of my vision, flying so low I could make out the line where their dark cartilaginous beaks meshed with their jiggly white pouches. I had never been that close to pelicans, never seen them flying so near people. I was startled, but not frightened. They were neither. And with a couple of flaps of long brown wings they were gone.

There are some things that evoke praise, some things that draw forth an eruption of amazement, some things that – rather than take your breath – give you an explosion of breath that pours out in a rolling swell of words. There are some moments when silence is blasphemy.

This was one of those moments.

And so it was that I stood there in the shallows of the endless sea and heard a voice that was clearly mine making exclamations of how very glad I was to be alive, how very grateful I was for the serendipity of pelicans flying low, how very much I wanted to make sure that I squeezed out of that day and every day all that was meant to be mine.

It is, I think, pretty much irrelevant to whom I was speaking – to myself or to the pelicans or to God. What matters is that the words came of their own accord, without hesitation and without editing. What matters is that those small puffs of wind were expelled into and absorbed by the larger wind that makes the waves that make the tides that make the sand into which my toes kept uselessly digging.

I opened my eyes, which I had closed momentarily, to see a boy, 11 or 12 years old, standing about 25 feet away, between me and the beach. He was looking at me. He was looking at me quizzically. He was looking at me as though he wasn’t sure whether to pretend he didn’t see me or to turn and run as fast as he could.

I realized, too late, of course, that the wind – the one that makes the waves and tides – was blowing in. In toward the beach. In toward where he was standing. And, yes, the poor child had heard my spontaneous invocation. I can only imagine what he was thinking.

I gave up the bad habit of allowing myself to be embarrassed a long time ago. There is absolutely no value to it and it takes far too much time and energy. I didn’t, then, feel my face turn red nor did I have an urge to look around as though I, too, had heard something strange and did not know from whence it came. I just looked at him, made as much eye contact as one can from that distance and watched him, in his pre-adolescent suspicion, scope out his mother a little farther down the beach and begin moving in her direction.

It was funny. Really. I am laughing still. Laughing at how silly I must have looked (I think I probably raised my hands at some point.) and sounded. Laughing at how astonished the boy was, his eyes and mouth frozen into three big circles. Laughing at how foolish we are to think that we odd creatures are ever anything but funny.

I waited a few minutes and then slogged my way through the water up onto the beach where I shook out a towel, stretched out and joined the rest of the pink and brown people, all of us different, all of us funny, all of us laughing in short sweet breaths of wind.

Copyright 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

AKC Registered -- Or Not

Lily is a good dog. She loves to go with me when I walk or run down the long dusty roads at Sandhill. She growls alertly at anything or anyone she deems suspicious and she generally comes when she is called.

She lets you know that she wants to be petted by lifting her left front paw and patting whatever part of your body is within reach. She likes to have her belly scratched, but is willing to settle for a quick pass with the bottom of my shoe. She has the square jaw of at least one boxer relative somewhere in her genetic past and when she smiles the lower cuspid on one side of her mouth sticks out over her upper lip making her looking a little like Popeye.

Lily is a good dog. And I love her.

But I have not forgotten Ginny. And sometimes, when I see the long face and sunshine-colored hair of someone else’s golden retriever, my heart clutches just slightly and for a moment I am sitting on the laundry room floor, holding Ginny in my lap, crying over some heartbreak and wiping my eyes with her silky ears.You never get over your first dog.

Which is why, this morning, already running a little bit late, I had no choice but to pick him up. I’d come to the stop sign at 301 and, looking to the left for oncoming traffic, saw this glorious golden retriever loping along the side of the too-busy highway. He walked straight up to the car (Goldens are like that. They trust everyone and believe with all their hearts that everyone loves them.) as though he’d been expecting me.

I got out and reached for his collar, one of those flourescent orange ones with the brass nameplates, the kind that hunters use. This was seen as an invitation to frolic and he began licking my hands and dancing around my legs, wiping me with the dirt and dew that his fur had collected in his wanderings.

Realizing that I’d never be able to read a name or telephone number off his collar unless he was confined, I opened the back door of the car and he jumped right in. I called the number, left a message and turned around to take him back to the farm where he could safely await his master. It took less than 10 minutes and, while I drove, I thought about Ginny.

This dog was lighter in color, bigger in size, a male. Not really much in common with Ginny, except the breed. And that was enough. Enough to let me know that I didn’t need to be afraid of him and that he would gladly accept my kindness.

It occurs to me people are like dogs in that way: We each have our breed. Some of us are chihuahuas, in constant motion, nipping at the heels of anything that moves, yapping constantly. Some of us are poodles, delicate and high-strung. Some of us are boxers with imposing physical presences and Forrest Gump personalities. And, just like dogs, while we’ll travel in a pack of pretty much any combination, but we’d really rather be with some of our own.

Just as I was getting my new friend into the dog pen, his master returned my call, got directions and started our way. I backed the car up and started for the office for the second time this morning.

I didn’t realize until later that I’d not noticed his name. It was on the collar, along with his master’s name and telephone number, but I hadn’t noticed it. It didn’t matter. I knew his breed and that was enough.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Wind and Sand and Sky

Late afternoon. Sun low in the sky, kissing the tops of buildings in the distance. Tide going out in choppy waves.

Daphne and I are sitting on the beach, arms and shoulders and legs exposed to the still-warm air, eyes shielded by dark glasses. We have been inside all day listening to serious and dedicated people talk about the hard things our job forces us to see and hear and try to understand. We have been inundated with images of pain and evil. We have been reminded of the existence of worlds we will never know.

But now, outside, absorbing the sunlight, we are simply admiring each other’s swimsuits, making plans for dinner and talking about life. Talking about it as though we can actually make sense of it, as though we can actually anticipate the future with enough accuracy to be prepared for it, as though we can actually shield ourselves from the possibilities of pain and evil.

To one side of us is a young couple taking down a beach tent, obviously well-practiced as they position themselves at opposite corners and release the latches in unison. On the hard-packed sand near the edge of the water are a handful of young boys, long-legged and skinny, trying to tame the wind and fly kites. Behind us is an elaborate sand castle molded, not from small hands, but turret-shaped plastic buckets.

I absorb it all without being distracted from the conversation, keep my attention on the story Daphne is telling me, offer sensitive and cogent interjections at just the right moments. And, then, I realize that I have turned my head toward the water, that I am watching something other than my friend’s expressive face.

Just off the beach is a windsurfer struggling with his sail. A little farther downwind is another having no better luck. Neither one is particularly skilled. Both are managing to remain upright, but there is no fluidity in their movements, no grace in their maneuvers. They are so close to the shore than I cannot imagine that they are experiencing much in the way of transcendence. I feel sorry for them.

I don’t windsurf. But I have spent hours watching it. I can recognize the pure pleasure that comes from skimming the waves, leaning into the wind and letting it carry board and body and sail through air that smells of sun and salt. These two, the strugglers, are not experiencing that pleasure.

The next night I am talking to my friend the windsurfer, the one from whom I learned what I know, and I tell him about it. "Why," I ask him, "would they be staying so close to shore? That can’t be much fun."

"What was the direction of the wind?" he asks.

I try to remember, tell him where I’d been sitting, figure out that the wind was blowing in.

"That’s it," he says. "To get farther out they would have had to fight the wind. Not everyone wants to work that hard."

Instant gratification. Quick fix. It is what, unfortunately, most of us prefer.

"You put in the effort first," he goes on. "Tack, then sail."

Of course. That is the secret. Put all your energy – ALL your energy – into the climb, then trust gravity to bring you safely down. Put all your effort into the living, then trust life to bring you what you want. Tack, then sail.

The late summer light fades while we talk and I sit in near-darkness. I can close my eyes and I still see the two figures, tense and stiff, knees and elbows locked. I can almost hear the release of tightly-held breaths as their boards strike sand.

And I think about sitting on the beach with Daphne, working on our tans and our lives. I know what I will tell her when I see her again, the next time we find ourselves asking questions and wondering what is ahead.

"It’s all pretty simple," I will say. "Tack, then sail."

Copyright 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Not In The Whirlwind

The early evening breeze, making its way through the cornfield whose stalks are now fading from bright green to dull gold, sounds like an advancing rain shower and I have to look up from my book to figure out which it is. No water, just wind.

Soft and easy it comes across the yard, so gently that the wind chimes hanging from the eaves over my head do not move, so gently that the thin leaves on the chinaberry tree vibrate no more than a blinking eyelash, so gently that the single hummingbird can float before the feeder, hesitate a moment as though she’s never seen such a thing before and then tilt her head slightly to plunge her beak into the fake flower like a needle into silk.

It has been a busy summer. A summer of weddings and parties and warm times with people I love. All good things. But there have been few moments of inactivity, few moments to sit on the deck and watch the hummingbirds. The feeders emptied last week without my noticing and I refilled them this morning with more than a dash of guilt and a whispered prayer for absolution. The birds, at least this one, seem to have forgiven me.

The larger question is whether I’ve forgiven myself.

Nothing has been neglected really. Nothing except the hummingbirds and the hanging baskets of petunias that, let’s face it, never really stood a chance in the constant heat. I’ve managed to make the telephone calls to keep the grass cut. I’ve sent all the birthday and anniversary cards for June and July. I picked enough blackberries to make a few pints of jam.

And, yet, in this moment, with my legs stretched out on the lawn chair, my hand curved around a glass of tea, and my breath easier than it’s been in weeks, I understand that what I’ve snubbed with my busyness, what I’ve slighted in my constant movement, what I’ve disregarded in my attention to the details of my to-do lists, is myself.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with someone who knows me well. We were speaking of esoteric things, peculiar ideas and polarizing opinions, unanswerable questions and undoubtable truths. I think – no, I’m sure – I was being deliberately obtuse. I wanted to talk, but my brain was too tired. I wanted to engage, but I was physically and mentally incapable of doing so. At some point, frustrated like an infant needing a nap, I replied to a particular question with a harsh, "I don’t know!"

I expected a reprimand. Or something along the lines of, "Sure you do." Or something that would allow me to rev up the tension, complain about the busyness of my life and elicit some sympathy.

What I got instead was, "Be still and know. You have to be still to know."


So now it’s Saturday. The perennials I spent the morning planting smile at me from the flower bed at the bottom of the deck steps. The sycamore tree whose bottom limbs, puddling on the grass, I’d trimmed away with Mama’s hacksaw sighs deeply with the extra breathing room. The hummingbird hums, sucking at the Kool-Aid in the hourglass-shaped feeder.

And I am being still.

Still and noticing that the sun is setting in a slightly different place than the last time I watched. Noticing that the kudzu on the trees in the branch between the house and the pond has completely obscured the view of the water. Noticing that my skin is browner, that there are no mosquitoes, that the humidity isn’t so bad.

I am being still and I can feel myself contracting and expanding, contracting to expel the waste of used-up energy, expanding to take in the pulse-beat of everything around me. Breathing out the hurry, breathing in the calm.

I am being still and, in the stillness, I know everything I need to know.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, July 05, 2009

From This Day Forward

In June, even the lowest tide is still high, making the beach a narrow ribbon of eggshell-colored sand. And so it was that there was just enough room, on this dazzlingly brilliant Saturday afternoon, for a few rows of white folding chairs, a line of serious men in black tuxedos, a loop of pretty girls in diaphanous pink dresses and, of course, the bride.

The walk down to the beach from the hotel, in high-heeled mules that click-clacked on the asphalt like miniature jack-hammers, had not taken long. There had been no breeze on the street and moving through the two o’clock, 105-degree heat had been like pushing through an endless succession of heavy curtains. But here at the edge of the water, where the waves spread out in thin pancakes, and the rocks over to the side caught the sound of rushing water and rolled it back out in a sustained whisper, it was almost possible – almost – to forget the trickle of sweat that rolled down my sternum.

I waited, there on the second row with the grandmother, for the guitar music to start and people I love so much it makes me ache to walk down the narrow aisle of sand. I tried to concentrate on the present moment, not the nearly 27 years of moments that had brought my Adam to his wedding day.

The old, old ritual moved through its steps. The words were repeated. The hands were joined. The flower girls dropped petals from their chubby hands and watched the sea breeze waft them away. At one point the minister stepped forward as the ocean slid under his shoes and, following his lead, the black tuxedos and pink dresses did the same. And then it was over.

Jenn and Adam, sporting new jewelry and smiles that came from somewhere deep inside, walked out together, hand-in-hand. What followed – the posing for photographs, the hugging of the same people over and over again, the repetitive but completely sincere declarations of how beautiful the bride, how handsome the groom, how hot the weather – left us tired and sated with happiness.

A week later, the photographer (a good friend of mine) sent me a few sneak peeks of the photos while the newlyweds were still in the Bahamas. I teared up over the one of Daddy helping Adam with his cuff links. I lost my breath over the one of me and beautiful, grown-up Kate. I giggled at the one of Adam skipping down the street, dragging Jenn along, bubbles floating in the air around them.

But there was one – a black and white – that told the story, that preached the sermon, that spoke all the unspeakable words. Adam and Jenn, hands clasped, are looking not at each other but over the shoulder of the minister at the advancing tide. Their faces show no worry, no discomfort, no concern that the rented tux or the ethereal white dress might get stained or damaged. There is no question about whether they should move to avoid the watery licks at their feet. There is no panic, just interest.

Anyone who has ever watched a beloved child grow up and choose a partner has done it with a catch in the throat, a breath held just slightly, wondering if what that child has learned about life and love and commitment will be enough to carry him or her through the days to come. Anyone who has ever made the promises knows how hard they are to keep. Anyone who has ever prayed prays on that day that the inevitable difficulties will be just hard enough to build strength, not so hard as to scar.

This is what I am thinking as I stare at the photograph – the one of my Adam and, now, my Jenn – over and over again. And in the staring I see them not just standing on the beach, but standing on the threshold of their life together – without fear, holding on to each other and looking in the same direction. It is, I think, a very good way to start.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Eve and the Serpent: One More Time

I opened the car door and turned to get out. My breath hit the still, hot air like an egg hits simmering water and hovered there – poached oxygen. My arms were instantly damp and sticky and my clothes, light and comfortable that morning when I put them on, suddenly collapsed onto my skin like Saran Wrap. I forced my bare feet onto the concrete of the carport and felt a brief moment of relief.

June in south Georgia. Ah, yes.

I gathered up the mail and my briefcase and my gym bag and the shoes I’d kicked off the moment I’d left the office. Arms full, brain distracted, I started toward the back steps.
Something moved. Just a little something, but enough. I stopped. Squinted my eyes. A snake. Stretched out his full length along one of the steps, his pointy little head raised up toward the clapboards, reconnoitering a possible breach whereby he might invade my sanctuary.

My heart clutched just a second. I quietly set down my burdens, forgetting for a moment that the audacious reptile couldn’t hear, and backed away toward the only weapon anywhere close.

I pulled the hose pipe from its wheel, turned on the faucet and began an aqueous assault that would have made any seaman proud. Water firing toward his head in a violent stream, the snake turned slowly away from the wall and inched bit by bit down the steps. It took at least five minutes to herd him off the carport, through the hostas and under the deck.

Only then, less than three feet from the deck, did I see the two additional snakes, twined together around the deck post just outside the bedroom door, a live caduceus. I turned the spray toward them. This time it took longer.

When the immediate crisis was past and they were dangling from the other side of the deck, twisting and turning like exotic dancers, I did what I always do: I went for Daddy.

Within 10 minutes, the two deck snakes had been sent to their reward by deadly-accurate shotgun blasts. (The first, I truly believe, was prayed away by my friend Mandy who had called in the midst of the initial assault.)

The friend I call Mr. Green Jeans has reprimanded me for my malevolent reaction, reminded me that those snakes feed on the mice that I hate even more and accused me of disturbing the delicate ecosystem around Sandhill.

Sorry. It’s just that, well, I don’t like interlopers. I don’t like my security being breached. I don’t like being reminded of my vulnerability.

None of us do. We pretend to embrace our humanness with its inherent fragility. We pose as sensitive creatures who are moved to tears by sunsets and big-eyed puppies and giggling toddlers, but it’s all a sham. And it lasts only until the snake crawls out of the branch and stretches out across the path blocking the way. At that moment, whether the snake is a reptile or another human being posing as one, what every one of us wants to be is bullet-proof and Teflon-coated, an unshakeable monolith inspiring the awe and respect of weaker souls.

Good luck.

Because what we all have to ultimately admit is that there are no bullet-proof, Teflon-coated people. And there are no impenetrable walls. The best for which any of us can hope is to have within reaching distance another soul with a shotgun or, better yet, an available prayer.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Stitching and the Art of Love

The dressing rooms on the second floor of Minkovitz Department Store were poorly lit and small, just big enough for a narrow stool and the floor space for one person to dress and undress. To get a full view of whatever it was that one was trying on, one had to leave the dressing room and walk out onto the sales floor where God and the sales ladies and, worst of all, possibly somebody popular who was also shopping could see how tight the skirt was through the hips or how inadequately the bodice was filled.

I was subjected to this torture only a few times as, for all the hours I spent in a Minkovitz dressing room, we – Mama and I – never had any serious intention of actually buying anything.I take that back: Mama never had any intention; I was always hopeful.

From the day Mama and Daddy brought me home from the old red brick hospital on Grady Street, whatever I wore was homemade, floating forth from under the presser foot of Mama’s Singer sewing machine in a froth of soft cotton batiste, crisp gingham and velvety corduroy. The Peter Pan collars on my church dresses were finished in double-stitched scallops and the tiniest of pin tucks framed rows of shiny pearl buttons down the fronts.

Somewhere around second grade I figured out that not everyone dressed the way that I did. Some of them had skirts that looked exactly alike. They had small satin tags sewn into their necklines and, occasionally, some writing or an animal on the outside. And, because the need to be "like" and "liked" arises early in girls, it was somewhere around second grade that I began to resent the fact that none of my clothes came from Minkovitz or Belk or – Be still, my heart. – The Children’s Shop.

By the time I got to junior high, Mama, who just couldn’t justify spending money on clothes that were not as well-made as the ones she sewed, and I had reached a compromise: We went shopping, just like all my friends, dragging an armload of skirts and blouses and dresses into the dressing room, plastic hangers clicking and getting tangled together. I tried each outfit on and stood very still while Mama, pulling out her little Blue Horse top-bound spiral notebook, drew detailed pictures of what I was wearing.

She made notes like "grosgrain ribbon trim" and drew arrows to the place on the dress where said trim would be placed. She rubbed the fabric between her knowledgeable hands and then wrote, "polyester and cotton" or "100% wool." She drew every detail – square pockets and notched collars and 2" cuffs.

After closing the notebook, dropping it back down into her patent leather purse that closed with a loud click and gathering up all the clearly not-up-to-snuff garments, Mama would walk out to meet the sales ladies while I dressed. Through the heavy fabric curtain at the dressing room door I could hear her say, "No, we didn’t find anything today."

An hour later we would be leaving the fabric store weighted down with a Simplicity or Butterick pattern, a couple of yards of fabric folded into a nice square with a paper tag pinned to the top, thread, zipper, buttons, sometimes elastic, all of which would go into the magician’s hat that was Mama’s creativity and be transformed into an infinitely better version of what I had been craving since the moment I saw it on the rack at the department store.

I was not so wise at 13 to recognize the gift of a mother who could work this magic. I did not always have the most pleasant attitude as I sat on the stool at the counter flipping through the pages of the pattern books to find the one that most closely resembled what I’d just tried on.

I did not, as I recall, one single time ever tell Mama that I appreciated what she did. I didn’t because I didn’t. I didn’t tell her because I didn’t appreciate it. I had not the capacity yet to understand love in its tangible forms. I have it now. Because she taught me.

So, in case I haven’t said it in a while, thank you, Mama.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Squirrels and Board Games

The woods that trimmed the edges of the two-line highway were veiled in the dull light of an overcast sky. The grass and the leaves were still in the heaviness of a threatened rainstorm. Mine was the only car on the road that rolled ahead in easy waves.

While I thought about people and places far away, two squirrels came darting out of the ditch directly in front of the car. How odd, I thought in the split second it took them to cross into my lane, that two would have started across together, one leading, the other following.

The first one scurried (Scurrying being the only mode of perambulation a squirrel has in his repertoire.) straight across the road and disappeared into the high grass on the other side. The second squirrel, the follower, got almost all the way across, stopped, stood up on his back legs and unexplainably, yet not surprisingly, turned to go back the other way.

I couldn’t stop. Had not enough time to slow down or even swerve to miss him. It took less than 3 seconds. I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw only a small dark spot near the white center-line.

Then I heard myself talking to the squirrel. "Why did you do that? Why didn’t you just keep going? You started across; you would have made it! Crazy squirrel!"

And another voice, my same voice, but the one that knows things, said, "It’s all about risk."

The stack of board games in our house growing up included Monopoly and Clue and Scrabble. We had a Parchesi at one point and Checkers, both regular and Chinese. And after three Christmases of asking, I finally got a Barbie - Queen of the Prom game. What we didn’t have, never had was Risk.

In its red box on the shelf at McConnell’s Dime Store, it never became the object of my interest or desire. Even then, at 8 and 10 and 12, I wanted a sure thing. I wanted guarantees, promises, absolute assurances.

For a long time it worked. I played only those games I knew I could win, spent my time on things I knew I could do well, set my sights on goals that were easily within my grasp. But somewhere along the way I realized that something was missing. I realized that I wasn’t growing and I wasn’t having any fun.

What I also realized was that the only way to do either of those things was to stop hoarding my Monopoly money, stop solving make-believe murders and stop dressing for a pretend prom. It was time to take a few chances.

Since then I’ve been each of the squirrels at various times. I’ve been the first squirrel and made it across the highway, heart racing, limbs trembling and grinning from ear to ear. And I’ve been the second squirrel, the one who froze in fear and tried to return to the old place, only to be crushed by something big and loud.

I have been exhilarated and deliriously happy. I have been despondent and desperately disappointed. I have been warmly content and I have been coldly morose. And every moment of every emotion has been infinitely better than the lethargy of being a little metal thimble making its way around a cardboard square over and over and over again.

Each morning we wake up on one side of the highway. Some days it’s good to just roll over and stare up at the flotilla of gauzy white clouds. On other days, though, the breeze and the sunlight and the smell of something pleasant that we can’t quite identify lure us to the edge of the asphalt. And on those days, there is simply nothing left to do except run headlong into the open.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

One Big Story

It’s all one big story.

Life, that is.

In rare transcendent moments of immense joy or pain, we know it. But in the ordinary moments – when the babysitter is late or the tire blows out on the interstate or the line at the grocery store is held up because the woman with three children can’t find her debit card in the duffel bag she calls a purse – we tend to lose sight of that truth.

Which is why this story, the one I am about to tell you, needs telling.

In January, I drove to Savannah with Daddy to keep an appointment I’d made with the StoryCorps bus. He wasn’t all that keen on the idea of sitting inside an Airstream trailer for 45 minutes while I asked him questions about his childhood, but I reminded him that his is the last generation who grew up as the children of sharecroppers and that that way of life needed to be remembered and appreciated. It didn’t hurt that I am his only daughter and, except for mouse-trap emptying, I generally don’t ask for much.

Last Thursday each of us got a call from a nice young lady at StoryCorps in New York City. She called to tell us that a portion of the interview as going to be broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition on Friday morning. I don’t know how Daddy reacted, but when I hung up the phone I went running up and down the halls of the office in my high heels screaming, "My daddy is going to be on NPR!!! Oh, my gosh, my daddy is going to be on NPR!!!"

It is unfortunate, but not necessarily germane to the story, that Georgia Public Broadcasting pre-empted Friday’s StoryCorps segment for a fund-raising plea, a programming faux pas which meant that friends and family who had turned their dials to 91.1 FM (a station that at least some of them, prior to Friday, didn’t know existed) heard only two men engaged in a slightly goofy conversation about pledges and thank-you gifts. However, those in Atlanta, South Carolina and Maryland all heard the segment and were as delighted as I with the result. And all day on Friday I got phone calls and e-mails from people who had managed to find the web link and listen on their computers. It was a glorious day.

Five days later I got an e-mail from my high school friend Francie. We don’t see each other much. Francie is a professor at a university in Virginia and her parents don’t live in Statesboro anymore so her visits here are rare. E-mail is our way of remaining a part of each other’s lives.

It happened that Francie was in New York City on Friday to deliver a lecture and was staying with a friend who has a 30th-floor apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center. She wrote: As I was blow-drying my hair the bathroom door was cracked so I could hear the radio which had NPR on, and so when I heard the strong southern accent (which I never hear anywhere, but certainly not in New York) I, as always, tried to place from which state the speaker must be. THEN I heard the female interviewer and thought, ‘That sure sounds like Kathy Bradley.’ When they reintroduced the speakers at the end of the piece, I came shooting out of that bathroom screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Tony, I know those people! They’re from home!’

I cried, of course. Cried because after all this time and in such odd circumstances she recognized our voices. Cried because for Francie this will always be home and because she still understands what it means to be ‘from’ somewhere. Cried because, as I said, it’s all one story.

Once, when I was at Wesleyan, Mama and Daddy came up to hear some speaker and at the end of the program, which must not have impressed him much, Daddy said to me, "I wish somebody would give me that opportunity. If they would let me, I’d stand on the White House steps and speak to the entire nation. And I’d tell them the truth."

Well, Daddy, it wasn’t the White House steps and it took about 30 years, but the entire nation did hear you. Not bad for a country boy.

Copyright 2009

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Fall To Rise

I opened my eyes to the first blush of sunrise backlighting the tippy tops of the pines on the point. The lake water, tufted like a chenille bedspread, was brown-gray, the color of the rabbit my friend’s dog had chased in the woods behind Sandhill just a few days before. Outside the French doors that opened onto the lanai, Sunday morning was waking up too, stretching and sighing and blinking her eyes.

I had not been to the lake in a long time. I had never been in this house, built on the ashes and memories of the first one. Lying on my back, I stared out at the view, but saw only an endless film-strip reel of images of days and nights spent in this place – a circle of chairs around a chiminea and its corkscrew curl of smoke wending into the blue night, an old woman in a hat casting her fishing line toward the water like a spider’s spinneret, a boat bumping against the dock in stormy weather.

When my friends built the first house, I gave them an angel to watch over the place when they weren’t there. She was about 18 inches high and made of terra cotta. In her outstretched hands she held a book. We hung her on the second floor screened porch and, in a little indentation on the back, my friends left the extra key.

The fire that would eventually reduce the house to ashes left nothing – no dark skeletons of appliances, no loose coins, nothing charred but still recognizable. It was as though the entire structure has simply melted down like the Wicked Witch.

When the ground was cool enough to walk on, my friend shuffled through the ashes with a stick, stirring and poking, hoping to find something that could be saved. When the stick struck something solid, she barely dared to believe.

Reaching down into the soft blackness, covering her hands in the powdery soot, she pulled out the angel. One piece of her skirt had broken off but was lying in place. "I couldn’t believe it," she told me, her voice quavering, when I finally reached her on the phone. "Nothing else was saved. Nothing. She fell two stories and was lying there face up."

Life isn’t always easy. It gets busy and complicated despite good intentions. It takes its toll on our bodies and our dreams. It never ever turns out the way we imagine.

Because of that, it took me a long time to get to the new house, to open myself to the idea that different walls could hold the same hospitality, to believe that something equally good – maybe even better? – could rise from the ashes. It took a long time, but here I was watching the same sun rise in the same spot over the same trees.

Before I left to come home, there was one thing, my friend said, that had to be done. The angel, her skirt repaired with a double portion of hot-glue gun, had to be re-hung. We debated on placement, measured and drilled and gently hoisted her up onto the nail. Just right.

We backed away for a wider perspective. The book in the angel’s hands looked like an offering. "Here," she seemed to be saying. "Take what I give you." And I wondered what that might be.

"She needs a new name, I think," my friend said. "Don’t you agree?"

"Absolutely," I said and stared at her for a moment before turning to say, "Her new name is Phoenix."


At the very bottom, at the edge of Phoenix’s hem, there was missing a small triangular piece, so small that it had most likely been crushed by her fall. "I wish so much I’d been able to find that little piece," my friend sighed.

"I don’t," I told her. "None of us goes through a fire completely unchanged. That is a reminder."

It took me a long time to get to the new house and, like Phoenix, I am not unchanged. I am, I think, better. And for that I can thank the fire.

Copyright 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

Words Well Spoken

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

Oh, yes, George Frideric Handel, you got it exactly right.

After days of sopping rain. After the tease of an early spring. After the feeling that Lent would go on forever. Hallelujah!

For the azaleas that trim Savannah Avenue with hot pink pom-pom fringe. For the breeze that sets the branches of Mama’s Bradford pear trembling like a candle flame. For the sunrise that reflects off the surface of the pond like a silver dollar. Hallelujah!

Sometimes one word is all it takes to express the deepest emotion. Especially when it is a word like hallelujah, a word that begins and ends with breath itself.

Spring of my freshman year at Wesleyan I had Speech with Mrs. Hatfield. It was from her clearly articulated, but still solidly southern, mouth that I learned articulatory phonetics – bilabial, labiodental, bidental and glottal sounds. She taught us to say words slowly, to notice the position of tongue and teeth, to feel the rise and fall of air with each syllable. Mrs. Hatfield had a demonstrably proprietary interest in what linguists call Southern American English and her own use of it included a traditionally non-rhotic twist: The word ‘speaker’ came out sounding like ‘speakuh’ and Milledgeville’s most famous literary figure was ‘Flannery O’Connuh." She took a very personal offense at the impression of people in other parts of the country that all southerners elongated the long ‘I’ sound and was visibly horrified that there was someone (That would be me.) in her classroom at her fine women’s college who did just that.

It was, I admit, with a great deal of pride in my south Georgia forbears that I repeated after her, "It’s a nice night out tonight." She did not, as I recall, ask me anything about white rice.

Despite that, I was enraptured by the process of creating the spoken word and walked around campus, intoxicated by the scent of Japanese magnolias, saying words out loud, noticing that my lips pressed together to say purple, that my tongue curled to the roof of my mouth to say light and lavender and love and that my upper teeth tapped my lower lip to make the ‘v’ sound in the latter two.

It was love that I came to feel for the spoken word, as much as I had always loved its written equivalent. I learned to listen to the stories my grandfather told around the Thanksgiving table, the memories shared by the aunts shelling peas and shucking corn, the prayers my father offered in colloquial exchange with God. I heard the life force that flowed out of their mouths like a fountain. I recognized the power.

According to Genesis, God spoke the world into existence. "Let there be light," He said, curling His own tongue against the roof of His own mouth to utter four alliterative words that changed everything. The poetry of the creative proclamation echoed over the void to send water and earth and sky settling into their places. And when that single breath enlivened the human race I can’t help believing that it was more than just a puff of air, that it was a word, an invitation to join the conversation.

So now, at Easter, at the end of winter and in the brightness of spring, I can very well believe that the response to that offer, the acceptance of that invitation was probably just that one word: Hallelujah!

Copyright 2009

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Contradiction of Nature

The infant spring was two days old, the back stoop was littered with the transparent pink wings of pine tree seeds and the cars looked as though they’d been dusted with saffron. I had absolutely no business going outside and coating my lungs with what amounts to south Georgia snow, but I could stand it no longer.

Bare-legged and bare-armed I slipped out the back door and headed across the field toward the woods. Be quiet, I reprimanded myself in anticipation of the thoughts – unchangeable facts, unnecessary reminders, unimportant questions – that would, without the intervention of my mental customs agents, assail me within moments. Be quiet and listen. Listen.

Along the edge of the field road hundreds of four-petaled white flowers hugging the ground promised blackberries in the days to come. A closer look gave me a peek at the nascent berries themselves, tight pink buds no bigger than the top of a dressmaker’s pin.

Just beyond them were three dead oak trees, trunks grown together, bark fallen off in sheets, 10 or 12 holes of various depths bored out by some destructive insect. How long, I wondered, did that take? And all I heard in response was that other voice reminding me to hush, to listen.

Across the pond dam I saw more blackberry blossoms, stepped over Daddy’s john boat, heard birds fluttering in the underbrush like the pages of a book under a thumb. Under the arc of pine trees and scrub oaks I felt goosebumps spring up on my arms and shook my shoulders with the chill.

I’d just come down the dam and made the turn toward the low place where the creek runs along the property line when I heard a scurry that was too heavy for a bird or a field mouse. I looked off to the side and there, not more than 20 feet away, was a raccoon. He was standing up on his hind legs and holding his graceful little front paws together almost as though folded in prayer.

We exchanged a glance of intimate familiarity, like two old acquaintances, and then that voice – the one I’d done a fairly good job of silencing for the last few minutes – shrilly reminded me that if the raccoon, who shouldn’t even be awake in the middle of the afternoon, had not run away immediately at the sight of me he might be rabid. So I moved on, made it in just a few more minutes to the fallen barbed wire fence I have to climb over to get into the woods proper.

I wandered around back there, crunching last winter’s acorns beneath my feet and trying to keep the still-bare branches of the smaller trees from hooking themselves into my hair, for a long time. I climbed over another fence to get to a rise where I could see an adjoining piece of land planted in CRP pines and watched a loud obnoxious crow dive and loop as though believing he could convince someone he was a really a red-tailed hawk.

And I kept thinking about the raccoon. Kept seeing the eyes within the bandit’s mask that reflected just enough light into their blackness for me to know he was looking at me. Kept wondering if maybe, just maybe, he had contradicted his nature and come out in the daylight because, like me, he’d been simply unable to resist the almost-gravitational pull of the change of seasons.

I walked home another way, cut through the field and came up behind the house from the other side of the pond where frogs or turtles or fish kept making shallow splashes around the submerged trunks of fallen trees. There was no need to return to the hollowed out place in the bushes where my friend – for he was certainly by now my friend – the raccoon had taken a moment to acknowledge me. With some things, once is enough.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Morning Moons and Early Tomatoes

Like the first page of a toddler’s sticker book – "This is a circle. This is yellow." – the moon is pasted dead center on a purple-black sky. Just the faintest trace of blue cheese veins creep across its face and the lemon light that spreads past its clean edge is pale and luminous, the only thing that suggests the circle might be three-dimensional.

A morning moon. Infinitesimally close to full. Teasing me into wishing the day away so that I can sit on the deck, the work day satisfactorily over, and breath in the scent of almost-spring, marvel that the earth’s personal satellite has made it all the way around one more time.

Morning moons, early tomatoes, three-year-olds who read. Not aberrations exactly, but phenomena just different enough to be phenomena, to elicit surprise and, then, wonder.

Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and writer who is credited with drawing the first serious attention to the environmental movement in the 1960's, said, "If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life."

I have my doubts as to whether the good fairy was present to bestow that particular gift on me, but I do know that sense of wonder – the one that makes me pull over to the side of the road to watch a hawk try over and over to lift a rabbit from the apron of the highway, the one that lures me to lie on my back on one of the mounds at Ocmulgee and feel the rhythm of a passing train in my bones, the one that calls me out in the middle of the night to bath my feet in the salt water of the sea – is mine and it has lasted. Lasted longer than childhood, longer than the years of trying too hard at everything, longer than my fruitless efforts at finding a cause for every effect.

That sense of wonder has had me dancing barefoot in the front yard under a chuppah of stars, burying my face in a slice of watermelon too big to hold, staring down a sunset that sets a lake on fire. It has made me braver and stronger and more content than anyone has a right to be.

I’ve been asked quite often of late from whence come the images that end up as words for other people to read and each time I am embarrassed that I cannot explain. I want to explain, but there is no explanation. Who would believe me if I told the truth, if I said, "It’s magic."?

The best I can offer is to say that it’s something like alchemy, the transformation of common metals into precious ones. That one must watch carefully, constantly and indiscriminately and, in the watching, become a part of what is being watched. That one must see not just with sight, but taste and smell and hearing and touch. And that in the watching and becoming, words will appear and take on a life of their own.

I could offer that as an explanation, but, then, who really believes that copper can be turned into gold?

Not long ago someone who knows me well laughed at some silliness that erupted quite unbidden from my mouth and said, "You really are still twelve years old."

Why, thank you. Thank you very much. It is, in fact, my goal in life to remain twelve (or younger) until I’m at least 80. It would appear that I’ve done a pretty good job so far. And for that I credit morning moons, early tomatoes and the good fairy.

Copyright 2009

Monday, March 02, 2009

What's Good For The Goose

The honking startled me as I started out the back door. Over the field just east of the house, two Canada geese were gliding just a few feet above the ground. They were so close I could see the white chinstraps that made them look as though they were recovering from cosmetic surgery.

It was about 7:30, bright and chilly, and the geese were the only noise in the early morning landscape. They had risen from the pond and, in just a few moments, would head back that way, would settle down in the water side by side. For the moment, though, they were dancing – swooping and diving and curving in identical patterns, the kind I used to make in grade school by holding two pencils in one hand.

And they were singing to each other. Loud and nasal, the male's deep notes were instantly repeated by the female's slightly higher ones. Their voices were the only sound in the early morning landscape and the carport created an echo chamber that turned their song into a repeating refrain. I stood there for a long time, unconcerned about the cold that was making my fingers stiff and mesmerized by their nearness, their naturalness, their nonchalance. All of it – the flying, the honking, the staying together – seemed so easy.

The next week I read that Geoffrey Chaucer, master of Middle English storytelling, but not one generally known for his knowledge of ornithology, wrote that birds choose their mates on February 14. My geese had been frolicking just a couple days before Valentine's Day and I decided they must have been engaging in an early anniversary celebration.

I am accustomed to seeing flocks of geese slicing through the sky over Sandhill during the winter. At least once every year I find myself standing in the front yard with my neck bent back, hoping to see one of them break formation, leave a gap in the vee and veer off to find a life of nonconformity.

That, of course, is not going to happen. Canada geese, like most animals, are predictable, their habits certain, their conduct sure. They fly south in winter, back north in spring. They travel in groups. They mate for life.

Our culture doesn't value predictability and conformity very much. Entertainers, politicians, artists, all those in the public forum proclaim the value of being a maverick. Even athletes, whose very notoriety arises from an activity that requires a concerted effort by a number of people (something called a team), get more attention for individual behavior that is outrageous and shocking.

Having watched my geese for those few moments that morning, though, I figured out that it is the predictability, the certainty, the unvarying nature of their lives that draws our attention, that creates the beauty for those of us who watch. I realized that I don't really want one of them to break the symmetry of the vee.

It is comforting, when the stock market falls 600 points in one day, to know that the cardinals will still be hopping around the edges of the fields picking up seeds with their yellow beaks. It is reassuring, when the unemployment statistics are at their highest level in 20 years, to know that the daffodils will soon be breaking the skin of the earth and waving in the breeze. It is soothing, when the newspaper prints six pages of foreclosure notices, to watch two geese, sweethearts through and through, dance like nobody's watching.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Running Water

When the county road crew drags the ditches of my dirt road, the two-mile drive from the paved road to Sandhill becomes an obstacle course. Roots and rocks make the surface of the road, usually relatively smooth and flat, look something like the pictures of the moon that the Apollo astronauts sent back to those of us staring up at the sky ooh-ing and ah-ing.

The result of this change in landscape, for the driving public, is that the shocks on whatever vehicle one is operating get a work-out normally seen only in commercials shot in the Baja Peninsula. Tires bounce, steering wheels jerk, anything hanging from the rear-view mirror sways like a pendulum on speed and one cannot avoid thoughts of the yolks of a dozen eggs staining the carpet in the cargo area.

Last week was our week. Whatever rotation it is that the county maintains for ditch-dragging, a rotation that has to take into consideration weather conditions and the availability of correctional institute labor, resulted in our road getting itself torn up on Friday.

Driving home, happy for the weekend and thinking about my Saturday plans, I nonchalantly made the turn from pavement to red clay and suddenly felt my shoulders jolting against the seatbelt, my head making contact with the roof of the car. Ba-bump.

You can't drive fast on a road whose ditches have just been emptied of months of debris. You drive slowly and carefully, maneuvering left and right with the finesse of an ice sculptor, and you pay close attention to that around which you are maneuvering. Rocks and roots won't blow a tire, but a lost plow point will.

Most of the time I am slightly irritated by the care I have to exert on such days. Most of the time I mutter uncharitable things about the mounds of dirt and the people who left them there. Most of the time I am not the least bit interested in why this inconvenience is regularly inflicted upon us dirt-road dwellers.

But Friday was different. Maybe just because I was happy for the weekend and thinking about my Saturday plans, I paid attention – to the extent that I could without driving straight into one of them – to the raw cuts in the walls of the ditches, the way the different colors of clay looked like a cutaway of the layers of the earth in my elementary school science book. I noticed how deep the ditches were, now emptied of branches and dead leaves. And I realized how easily would now flow the rain waters that were sure to come with what General Beauregard Lee had just told us would be an early spring.

That's the thing about water: To be of any benefit, it has to flow. It can't be allowed to sit, to stay, to stagnate. And if its conduit – a ditch, an irrigation pipe, the spout of a watering can – is clogged with waste, that is exactly what happens.So we drag the ditches, bore out the pipe, flush the spout, give water a channel through which it can run, through which it spreads out to nourish and clean.

I'm not always as prompt to do that as I should be. I get distracted, I let the dead leaves of unfinished tasks settle in the channel of my heart, I ignore the sludge of negative emotions that slows the stream of kindness. And, before I know it, the channel overflows and the road is washed out.

Stranded. Two miles from home.The choice, then, isn't so hard. Drive carefully. Avoid the roots and rocks and, when the weather turns, let it rain.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Cold Winter Mornings

On cold winter mornings, when the windows were etched with ice doilies, I got to lie in bed five more minutes as Daddy spun the thermostat and the deep-bellied sigh of the floor furnace came up through the floor.

On cold winter mornings, when the light outside was the clear navy blue of just-dawn, I left the bed and let the warm air of the furnace billow up my pajama legs and arms before I jumped into my Buster Brown turtleneck and plaid pleated skirt and knee socks.

On cold winter mornings, when the wind whistled around the corners of the house like a freight train, I got a grilled cheese sandwich for breakfast -- thick slices of bright orange hoop cheese melted onto soft white Sunbeam bread -- while Mama warmed my shoes on the open door of the oven.

On cold winter mornings, when the ground was hard and the ruts from the latest rain had stiffened into the fluted edge of a pie crust, Daddy went outside to warm up the car and came back in rubbing his ungloved hands together to stand patiently while we gathered our books and put on our coats.

On cold winter mornings, I first became conscious of the small, tender acts of love that parents perform for their children.

Children, of course, are oblivious. They have no awareness of the inequity of the relationship. And they should be. They have no means to do anything of significance for those who feed and clothe and house them. They are without any capacity for reciprocity. Except, of course, that what is true in the literal food-clothing-shelter sense, is completely false in all the ways that matter. Children, anyone who has ever kissed the back of one's neck knows, offer back to the adults in their lives magic and wonder and laughter.

Children give us an excuse to read aloud and say words like, "Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You" and "He brought everything back, all the food for the feast. And he, he himself, the Grinch, carved the roast beast." They give us an excuse to do the Hokey-Pokey and ride the carousel and make construction paper turkeys out of hand-prints.

Just after Christmas I took Aden, who is now six and in kindergarten, to see "The Tale of Despereaux." Aden's sister Azlan and five other adults went with us, but it was really just about the two of us. Aden knows about my fear of mice and all the stories of my encounters with the rodents (He has heard them so many times that he could probably tell them himself.), so he understood what it took for me to voluntarily agree to sit and watch Despereaux (admittedly cute, admittedly animated, but still a mouse) and all his friends and family cavort on the big screen for an hour and a half. As we got out of the cars and headed to the ticket office, Aden took my hand and said, "Aunt Kap, I think you are very brave."

Ah, yes. That is why we – the grown-ups, the authorities, the ones who convince ourselves that we are in control – do what we do. Get up early to turn up the heat, make grilled cheese sandwiches, read the same book over and over and over, watch movies about mice who talk. Work hard and sleep less than we should. Because if we are lucky, a very wise towhead with chocolate eyes will one day look up at us and say, "I think you are very brave."

Copyright 2009

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Listening for the Bell

Aunt Rozzie died. Mama told me this morning. The visitation is tonight.

I will drive to Cobbtown and I will see lots of relatives. I will see some people I don't know. I will some people who are in both groups.We will stand around and talk. We will fill the funeral home air with reminiscences and stories and exclamations on how much or how little we have all changed since the last time we saw each other.

Some of us, Mama included, will make a point of surveilling the flowers and potted plants, reading the cards pinned to wide pastel ribbons and cooing blessings over the kind souls who sent them.Back at my cousin Vera's house there will be Pyrex dishes of squash casserole and macaroni and cheese. There will be cakes, most of them these days, sadly enough, bought at the WalMart deli instead of baked in somebody's oven. The fried chicken will have, most likely, come from the same place, but the sweet tea will be home-brewed.

I know all these things because one does not grow up southern without learning them, without absorbing and being branded by them.

I can remember sitting in the car as a young child outside Barnes Mortuary in the late evening of a sultry summer, watching men and women move in quiet waves up the steps and across the porch into rooms lit with yellow light. There was a small group of men on the lawn smoking, the tips of their cigarettes hovering like lightning bugs in front of their faces. They all wore suits and white shirts and lace-up shoes.

The car windows were rolled down and I could hear crickets and night birds and the whooshing of other cars going by on Savannah Avenue. Keith and I played silly games, made up songs, tried to recognize the faces moving up the dark sidewalk.

Sometime later, Mama, wearing one of her Sunday dresses, and Daddy, dressed just like the men on the lawn, would reappear, pause on the steps to speak to one or two people, and return to us, exactly the same as when they had left. Looking at death, speaking of death had not changed them.

I would understand later, much later, how wrong I was.

I don't get to sit in the car these days. I'm grown – or as grown as I'll every be – and I am a part of the quiet wave that moves in and out. I take the pen chained to the lectern and sign my own name to the book. I stand in line to shake the hands or hug the necks of the family and stumble over such simple words: I'm sorry.

Last week I took a field trip to the bookstore. I wandered around a while and found myself in the poetry section where I saw, front facing out, Selected Poems by John Donne. A friend had mentioned Donne in conversation the week before and so I took it as a sign that I needed to revisit the poet I'd not read in probably 30 years.

The last selection in the book is Donne's famous "Meditation XVII," best known as the source of the title of a Hemingway novel and which includes these lines: "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all ... No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Whether one believes in an afterlife of eternal youthfulness and an absence of pain or whether one believes that the last breath is simply the last breath, we engage in the ritual, we perform the rites as a reminder to listen for the bell.

Copyright 2009

Monday, January 05, 2009

61 Seconds

It was quite by accident that I discovered that an extra second was going to be added to 2008. A "leap second" it was called, an addition to atomic clocks that meant that the very last minute of 2008 actually contained 61 seconds.

First they tell me Pluto isn't really a planet and now I have to get my arms around a 61-second minute?

According to the folks at CNN, the world's official clock (the Coordinated Universal Time), which is used for broadcasting time signals and is essential for running GPS and the internet, is "extremely accurate." "By comparison," they go on to say, "the Earth is far less reliable."

There's something about that statement that raises my cockles. Who is CNN, or anyone else for that matter, to call the Earth unreliable? Doesn't the sun come up every morning? Don't the seasons move in and out of the world's revolving door in a relatively orderly fashion? Doesn't the tide push and pull dependably enough that sailors managed to circumnavigate the globe long before GPS?

I am not a Luddite. I write this column on a computer. I lock and unlock my car by remote access, as they say. I have grown increasingly attached to my cracker-sized iPod. But it bothers me that we, all of us, have become so dependent upon precision.

Airlines schedule flights to leave at 10:43 and passengers start hyperventilating when, at 10:45, the plane is still awaiting clearance to take off.

At the Beijing Olympics, Usain Bolt won the gold medal and set the world record in the men's 100-meter dash, finishing in 9.69 seconds. The silver medalist finished two-tenths of a second slower and no one outside the track and field community remembers his name.

A couple of nights ago, when the moon was the thinnest sliver of silver light dangling over the flat and empty acres of the farm, I stopped what I was doing to stare at the stars. They looked like a handful of diamonds strewn carelessly across a black velvet scarf. There was just enough chill in the air to make me pull my arms tight to my chest as I stretched my neck to take it all in.

I don't know how long I stood there. The clarity I breathed in, the hope that settled on my shoulders, the smile that raised itself like a flag cannot be measured in time.

A new year is always an unsettling combination of anticipation and anxiety, this one, perhaps, more than any in my recent memory. In the world delineated by political boundaries and in the one delineated by my random thoughts, there are questions whose answers exist but are not yet visible. There are choices whose consequences are not yet manifest. There are opportunities whose rewards are not yet imagined. And neither the questions nor the choices nor the opportunities will be resolved in one extra second.

The people at CNN say that the unreliability of the Earth is based upon its inability to rotate at a constant speed, its tendency to wobble as a result of volcanoes and earthquakes and such. That makes our planet sound a lot like each of us, subject to our own volcanoes and earthquakes.

What doesn't sound like us, with our calendar-turning uncertainties, is the idea that, by adding a leap second every now and then, we can make sure that "the Sun remains overhead at noon."
I'm not ready for that responsibility. Any extra seconds that I am offered will be spent watching the stars and wishing on any that happen to fall.

Copyright 2009