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