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