Monday, December 20, 2010

A Man's Reach

The blinds cut the winter sunshine into thick slices and they fall across my shoulder in long broad stripes. The movement of the rocking chair, forward and back, turns them into waves – reaching out and pulling back, a tide of light. Jackson is tilted in the crook of my arm, the rays making a halo of the soft fuzz on the top of his head.

He is, of course, an extraordinary child (as they all are to those to whom they belong). At six months old his coos float from the front of his mouth in long multi-syllabic strings and every so often he expels a deep breath from the top of his throat that sounds exactly like, "Hey!" When he does that while looking at me, I can’t help laughing out loud. Right now, though, he is quiet, mesmerized by the blinking links on the Christmas tree his great-grandmother hasn’t quite finished decorating. He stretches his fleshy pink hands toward them so slowly that the movement itself can’t be detected. What makes him reach? What makes him flex muscles he does not know he has, extend an arm which he can’t possibly understand is himself?

There is so much he has to learn. Walking will not be easy; there’s the whole balance thing to master. Talking, too, despite his adeptness at cooing, will take time; the voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative (the "th" sound) that he will have to master to say his great-aunt’s name is a real booger. Someone will have to teach him the multiplication tables, state capitals and the difference between amphibians and reptiles. Using the toilet, using a straw, using chopsticks. How to drive a tractor, cast a fishing line, throw a change-up.

But, somehow, before he can sit up alone, the child knows how to reach.

It is Christmas and so thoughts of my baby, our baby lead me to thoughts of the other baby, the one we visualize with wisps of straw sprayed around his mostly-naked little body, the one completely nonplussed by the large animal nostrils hovering over his face or the brilliant angel-light shining into his just-opened eyes, the one with the stamp of otherworldliness all over him.
For what did he reach? The flash of the jewels on the robes of the Magi? The softness of his mother’s breast?

The better question, I suspect, the question whose answer could and should make a difference in the way we live our lives is this one: For what did he reach when he grew to be a man? When the reach was no longer instinctual or involuntary, toward what did Jesus stretch out his hands? The leprous, the lame, the blind, the dead. The unloved, the disenfranchised, the condemned. The fearful, the hungry, the tired. He stretched them out as far as they would go and then left us with instructions to follow his example.

Jackson is sitting on his great-grandmother’s knees. She bounces him up and down. They both laugh. He reaches for her glasses.He will not be a baby forever. He will grow up, become a man, redirect his reaching. And in the light of this December afternoon I can only watch him sparkle like the Christmas tree lights and pray that his reaching will not be toward things, but always toward others.

Copyright 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010

Expectations Knotted and Tied

The laid-out field on the other side of the pond dam is unrolled like a bolt of ecru lace, knotted and tied into a landscape of bumps and nubs. That which was left to sprout and grow on its own over the spring and summer has died, stems and leaves that once stretched toward the sky now bent into creamy curves back toward the earth. The whole world is the color of toast.

To the left I can follow the property line toward the creek and then into the woods. To the right I can follow the rear edge of the pond and circle back toward the house. I am suddenly feeling contrary; I don’t want to follow anything. I walk straight into the overgrowth.

It feels as though I am walking on a quilt. The grass and clover and volunteer corn give quietly to my footfall and cushion each step. My shoes disappear and then reappear like a threaded needle. I know exactly where I am, but it feels as though I have discovered some new territory, am standing on some spot of earth where no one has stood for a long, long time.

Tractors pulling harrows and plows, combines churning and chewing stalks and vines, these are the treads to which these acres have grown accustomed, these are the footprints that men leave behind these days. I wonder how long it has been since a human being, even my father, has planted a foot here, exactly here.

I look down and realize that I have come upon a deer trail, a crease in the soil leading up to the rise that separates this field from the adjacent cultivated one. Heart-shaped prints overlap each other and never deviate more than three or four inches from the path. I cannot tell where it started and, following it now, I cannot tell where it leads.

But I follow it anyway. Up the slope toward the field road, up through taller grass that now grasps at my pants legs with burrs. Up and up even after the tracks themselves become hidden in the grass and I move ahead on memory and instinct alone.

Yesterday afternoon Lee Lee arrived for a brief visit. As old friends do, we spent the first of our few hours together catching up – bragging on children who are longer children, wondering whatever had happened to people with whom we had shared our college days. Eventually, though, as the day waned and our voices softened, we spoke of ourselves.

The longevity of our relationship is both a balm and a goad. She knows who I was and who I have become. I know the same of her. In each other’s presence we cannot be anyone other than who we are. With each other we cannot pretend. From each other we cannot hide.

In half-sentences, in phrases that trailed off into the lamp-lit night we wondered and supposed and queried. We solved no problems, we unraveled no mysteries, we reconciled no dilemmas. We asked a lot of questions, told a few stories and came to one single conclusion: This – this world, this life, the circumstances in which we now find ourselves – is not what we had expected.

I think of that now as I walk. The unexpected warmth and golden light of this late November Sunday. The unexpected deer trail. The unexpected softness of the dead foliage under my feet. Is anything ever what we expect?

Not long ago, Lee Lee made some hard decisions and changed the direction of her life. The paint that was always under her fingernails as an artist has been replaced by dirt. The sustainable farming that piqued her interest as a hobby has become her passion and her work. The near-constant sunshine of Florida has given way to the distinct seasons of Appalachia. She seemed to me, as we spoke of the inevitability of change, incredibly brave.

A few years ago I created a guest book for Sandhill. A blank book with a creamy silk cover. A Christmas gift from another friend, one I’ve known even longer than I’ve known Lee Lee. I’ve asked everyone who has spent the night under my quiet country roof to write a few words, just a remembrance for me of the time we spent together in my corner of the world.

Before she left I asked Lee Lee if she had remembered to write in the book. "Just a brief note," she said and smiled impishly, looking for the moment exactly like the innocent and unscarred 18-year-old I first knew.

Later, gathering up the bed linens in the guest room, I saw the book on the night stand and stopped to read what she’d had to say. "Okay, Kathy," she had written at the top of the page. "It's your turn. Make it what you want."

I felt the tears well up in my eyes. That was not what I expected.

Copyright 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Where Is Thy Sting?

One by one – purse, briefcase, gym bag – I toss into the car the tangible burdens with which I begin each day. I pause just long enough to watch wide brown sycamore leaves, curled like arthritic hands, scuttle nervously across the yard in response to an asthmatic breeze. Somewhere down the road a diesel engine grinds up a hill and its sound vibrates over empty fields and against my cheeks. It is dawn. It is autumn. It is still.

I back the car out of the carport and pull into the thin gray fog that has unfurled itself over the field, skimming the tops of big round bales of peanut hay and disappearing into the woods. My hands are cold; my shoulders shiver once and send a jolt down my arms into my fingers. It is daybreak. It is November. It is chill.

I do not turn on the radio. I do not plug my ears with the buds from my iPod. I do not need any additional voices in my head. There are too many already. Too much conversation going on. Too many questions demanding answers that I will never have.

Twice in eleven days I have stood in line to greet a new widow. Twice I have taken hands between my own, pressed them gently and said, "I am so sorry." Twice I have wrapped my arms around shoulders that felt as though they might simply fold in on themselves and disappear into my chest.

One of the widows was old enough to be my mother. One of them was old enough to be me. One had been married over 50 years, the other nearly 30. The younger of the two said, "In a world where marriages don’t seem to last very long any more, I thought we’d been together a long time." Pausing, she looked down at the crumpled Kleenex in her hand and then back at me. "I was wrong."

Minister and chaplain Kate Braestrup wrote about going over vows with a soon-to-be-wed couple. The bride-to-be was a little unsure about "‘til death do us part." The reverend, herself a widow, pointed out the obvious but often overlooked fact that all marriages end, not just the ones that are terminated by the signature of a judge. "Being parted by death is actually your best-case scenario," she wrote. "Being parted by death is what happens if a marriage works."


One of the voices in my head reminds me that both of the women, both of the widows, nursed their husbands through lingering illnesses and that they must be experiencing, along with paralyzing grief, at least some semblance of relief. Another voice, a staunchly Protestant voice, offers that the women would be feeling joy at the knowledge that their husbands had made the journey to "a better place." But there is a third voice, a soft female voice that starts as a tender trembling in the center of my chest, crescendoes into gasping sobs and contorts itself into words: "But I love him!"

The space inside my head gets very quiet. The other voices hush. How does reason or religion respond to that? How does logic counter love?

The sun emerges over the horizon, a dull yellow disk with blurred edges. The fog has risen like candle smoke and dissipated into the almost-blue sky. I park the car, go into the office, turn on the computer. A bell rings and the screen produces a birthday reminder for a friend. A friend who died two (or was it three?) years ago.

I feel the sadness of his death all over again and, then, unexpectedly, the sadness gives way to something stronger, something purer, something indestructible. The sadness gives way to love. As must everything.

Anger is destructive, but it cannot stand before love. Betrayal is painful, but it cannot stand before love. And the widows whose hands I held will tell you that Death is bitter. But even Death cannot stand before love.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

By Water and Words

A few Sundays ago, on a luminous October morning, my great-nephew was baptized. Sunshine slanted through the stained glass windows like a sword’s swath, stippled the curves of the dark wooden pews with shards of golden light and afforded dust motes a spotlight within which to dance.

While his parents met with the minister before the service began, I sat holding him, dressed in crisp white (a tiny shirt and pants, not a gown), and watched his eyelids, thin and blue-veined, slowly close. How lucky I was that he would fall asleep while I held him. No one, not even a grandmother, would disturb a sleeping baby in church.

I willed myself to absorb it all – the warm weight cradled against my chest, the soft fuzz on his head beneath my cheek, the tiny up-and-down breath movements of his back. One never forgets how to hold a baby, how to still all the voices in one’s head and concentrate on what matters.

The sanctuary filled. The organist began playing. The round-cheeked acolytes nervously lit the candles. Item by item the order of worship played out. Offertory prayer. Creed. Gloria Patri.

Then we were all standing at the altar, so many of us that the baptismal font was completely hidden from the congregation. Grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. The minister took our baby into his hands, held him out like the sacrament that he is and asked, "What name do you give this child?"

"Jackson Carl," his father offered, in a voice softer than I’ve ever heard him use.

More words, old words, repetitive words. And then the minister poured water on Jackson’s head and welcomed him into the community of faith. It was, of course, simply a ritual. The faith espoused by those who stood at that altar will not be Jackson’s until, unless he chooses to make it so. But, the thing is, ritual matters. Whether it be in church or at table, pre-game or post-election, ritual generates a collective memory which, in turn, produces the "belongingness" that sits smack dab in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Jackson will not remember his baptism day. He will not remember that the congregation sang "Be Thou My Vision," that the Gospel reading was from Luke or that the Epistle was from 2 Timothy. He will not remember that he shrieked (and continued shrieking) loudly in response to the dousing with cold water or that the minister carried him down the aisle of the church laughing and proclaiming that he would, obviously, make a good choir member some day. He will not remember the jockeying of his various relatives for the opportunity to be photographed holding him. He doesn’t have to. That is the job of those of us to whom he belongs.

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert says that we engage in ritual "to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma." She is right, I think. Words are my way of processing emotions, but I had no words to hold the emotions I was experiencing standing at that altar, my parents at my shoulders, loving this child. This child who will delight and disturb, entertain and exasperate, please and perplex me just as his father has done. As he continues to do.

I had no words. Neither did any of the other Bradleys or Bedingfields gathered there. But someone had. So we spoke them. Exactly as they have been spoken by countless others before us. And as we spoke them, they floated up into the sunlight and joined the dust motes in a dance of inimitable joy.

Copyright 2010

Monday, October 25, 2010

How Sweet The Sound

Bobby Cox sits in the home dugout at Turner Field, arms folded across his belly like a slightly discontented Buddha. It is the bottom of the ninth and the good guys, as Skip Caray used to say, are down 3 – 2.

The coach checks his scorecard, looks down the bench and calls for a pinch hitter. It isn’t a surprise call. At least it wouldn’t have been, say, 48 hours before. Brooks Conrad, a 30-year-old career minor leaguer who finally made the big league roster in the spring, a scrapper that team captain Chipper Jones nicknamed Raw Dog, hit two pinch hit grand slam homeruns in the regular season, heroics that made any number of highlight reels. Everybody knows what he can do in a pinch.

But everybody also knows what he did just last night. Pressed into service as a starting infielder near the end of the season after injuries claimed both Chipper and Martin Prado, Conrad has been defensively inconsistent and twenty-four hours earlier he committed three errors at second base, the third a tailor-made double play ball that would have ended the inning and preserved a Braves lead. The ball bounced between his legs into the outfield and thousands of Braves fans, myself included, sprang from their sofas, throwing our arms into the air and screaming, "I could have made that play!"

The Braves lost the game.

The next day, with sports writers from one end of the country to the other comparing Conrad to goats of championship series past, Bobby Cox made the decision to take Conrad out of the lineup for that night’s game. But not as punishment, not as discipline, not as a show of authority.

"I talked to Brooksy at length this morning, and he needs a day off," Cox told reporters. "He needs to get away from it for a day. ... This shouldn't happen to anybody in the game of baseball. But it's happened to [him]. I told him to hold his head high, and maybe pinch-hit and win a game for us." So there we are, all of us, biting our nails, sitting on the edges of our seats, watching Number 26 walk toward the plate, wondering if Number 6 had pulled just one more bit of magic out of his baseball cap.

He didn’t. Instead Conrad hit a fly ball to centerfield. And, two outs later, the season ended for the good guys.

I’ve been a fan for a long time. I remember a lot of big moments. Most of those moments play out in my memory to a soundtrack of loud cheers and enthusiastic broadcast calls. But none of them, not even Sid Bream sliding under the tag at home, will stay with me longer than that one quiet moment in Game 4 of the 2010 National League Division Series, a play that is recorded in the scorebook as simply F8.

It was, it dawned on me as I sat on the sofa and watched Conrad turn and trot slowly back toward the dugout, a moment of pure grace.

We Protestants talk a lot about grace. We’ve talked about it so much that we don’t even have to define it anymore, we just use its tag line: unmerited favor. We’ve requisitioned it for use as a get-out-of-jail-free card. We call ourselves Christians and then sanitize what it means to be one since, as we so kindly explain to those who are less biblically literate, we no longer "live under the law."

I have to wonder, though, how many of us who claim to have experienced that grace are as quick to offer it as the was the man in the dugout? How often have we given an opportunity to someone who didn’t deserve it? How often have we offered a second chance to someone who bungled the first one? How often have we given more than has been asked?

In his post-game, actually post-career, interviews Bobby Cox said he hadn’t really thought about it being his last game. That it wasn’t until the game was over, until the final out was made, until everybody started heading toward the locker room and the cheers of the fans called him out on the field for one final round of applause and a tipping of the hat by the opposing team that he realized he’d put on the uniform for the last time.

Poignant. Bittersweet. And, dusted with grace, amazing.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Friday Night Frights

My godson the football coach isn’t having a very good year. Actually, he personally is having a very good year (He got married in January to a wonderful young woman he takes every opportunity to introduce as "my smokin’ hot wife."); it’s his football team that can’t seem to get it together.

There’s not a lot of depth, regardless of how you define the word, on the team and by last week they had lost so many players to injury that they didn’t practice in pads lest they lose one more person and not have enough healthy bodies to put eleven men on the field. It was so bad that, at one point Friday night, they had to put in the ninth-grade quarterback.

It had all the makings of a great inspirational story – the scrawny inexperienced guy would come in and somehow, inexplicably, miraculously lead the team if not to victory, at least to a touchdown. Except, I’m sorry to say, that’s not what happened:

The freshman goes in, takes the snap, back pedals from the line. The rag-tag, patchwork, supremely cliche’-worthy offensive line somehow holds. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds. The weary fans hold their collective breath waiting for the skinny little kid to throw the ball. But he doesn’t. And eventually a defensive lineman breaks through for a tackle.

Second down. The freshman takes the snap. Moves backward, this time a little quicker. The line, unbelievably, rises above itself again, holding the defenders in their places. Receivers run back and forth across the field waiting, waiting, waiting for the ball to be released. But it isn’t. And eventually, again, the quarterback goes down.

My godson – he whose DNA is made of X’s and O’s, he whose family folklore is rife with tales of last-second victories and come-from-behind charges, he who can offer up halftime inspiration like most good southern boys can say grace, that is, on a moment’s notice and with passion that will bring tears to your eyes – calls the ninth grader to the sidelines. He puts his hands on the boy’s shoulders and gets in his face, eyeball to eyeball. "Son, your receivers are open. The line is holding back the defenders. Why aren’t you throwing the ball?"

In a voice trembling somewhere between a scream and a sob, the boy looks back at his coach and says, "They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!"

He was referring, of course, to the linebackers, the cornerbacks, the safetys. The players who are big and fast and mean, whose only job is to make sure that the thrown football doesn’t reach its intended target and, if it does, that the target is punished so severely that the football cannot possibly be held. They are trained to detect the slightest mistake – a brief delay in the release, a negligible turn in direction – to exploit that mistake and to intercept the football.

They are, as the poor little quarterback said, everywhere.

For most of history, we humans could easily identify the linebackers and cornerbacks and safetys. They were wild animals and disease and despots. Not so now. The 21st century versions of Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor and Charles Woodson are terrorism and recession and environmental collapse. They are invisible, intangible, inscrutable. And they are everywhere.

So what will prevent them from also being paralyzing? What will keep us from becoming like the freshman quarterback, afraid to even try hoisting our dreams into the air?

I talked to my godson the football coach this morning. We chatted about the season in general, how the losses were growing pains and how his job was to invest in his kids and give them somebody to look up to. And we talked about the freshman quarterback, the one who couldn’t let go of the ball. "What did you say to him" I asked, "when he said, ‘They’re everywhere!’?"

"I told him, ‘No, they’re not.’"

No. They’re not.

Sometimes, when every face is the face of a stranger, when every promise lies in pieces at your feet, when the rope that has held the anchor of your faith has frayed in two, it is easy to think they’re everywhere. And that they are going to win.

It is in those moments that each of us is a ninth grade quarterback needing someone look us in the eyes and say, "Things are not as they appear. All hope is not lost. Now, haul back and throw."

Copyright 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Needing Rain

My mother is a seamstress. I grew up sitting on the floor at her feet playing with cards of buttons and seam binding, arranging dozens of spools of thread in prism arcs, studiously examining pictures and descriptions on pattern envelopes. It should come as no surprise, then, that images of the natural world often come to me in dressmaker’s terms.

Barely visible quail tracks across the road look like hem-stitching. Green corn husks feel like dupioni silk. The incessant knocking of a woodpecker way down in the branch clatters just like the zipper foot on a Singer.

This morning I looked out over the deck at the peanut field that pushes up as far as the chinaberry tree at the corner of the yard and I saw a silver-gray cardigan embellished with row upon row of dark green soutache trim. Classic and elegant.

A couple of nights ago I sat outside with Mama and Daddy while they picked off peanuts for boiling and asked him when he would start plowing them up. "I’d be doing it now," he said, "if the ground weren’t so dry. We need rain."

We need rain.

Three words. A simple declarative statement. He didn’t even look up when he said it, just kept plucking the white-skinned eights from their vines and dropping them into a bowl.

We need rain. It is the summer’s chant, cheer, plea and prayer.

In the spring, when it is time to plant, we watch the skies closely, measure the water that falls from the sky in tenths of inches, count the days between showers like children count M&M’s. In summer, when the seeds have graciously responded to the rain and our entreaties by breaking themselves open and bursting into the air, thin ribbons of stiff green velvet, we watch and measure and count some more and add to those ministrations the magic of irrigation, great arcs of rhinestones glittering in the dazzling sunlight and splashing flatly onto vines that have sprouted hundreds of tiny leaves.

By now, by fall, should not the watching, measuring, counting be done? I know the answer to that question. I don’t ask why – when the peanuts are fully mature, when there is no more growing left to do, when they are ready to be plowed up and left in the sun to dry – we need rain. The answer is release.

There is a reason we call it Mother Earth. She nurtures. She protects. She also clings. She holds tightly. She does not let go without a fight. The rain must come to loosen her grip on that which she believes is hers.

We all, men and women, mothers and non, understand that. Each of us knows what it is to conceive and bear a dream, an idea, a relationship. We tend it (Isn’t it interesting that "tend" and "tender" are almost the same word?) and nourish it, often to our own detriment. We chant and cheer and plead and pray. We coax it out of the ground and delight in its appearance.

But we tend (There’s that word again.) to forget that the cycle of growth is never complete until there is a harvest. Until that which has been grown is picked, plucked, shucked or, sometimes, slaughtered. And because we are not capable of letting go on our own, the rain comes. Gently, softly, tenderly loosening the soil, loosening our grip.

Eventually, within days I hope, the clouds will empty over Adabelle and the peanut plows will roll over my silver-gray cardigan removing its soutache trim. The stitches will unravel smoothly and evenly and the fabric will not be torn.

Copyright 2010 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Summer Evenin'

Henry James wrote that the two most beautiful words in the English language are "summer afternoon." Henry James did not live in south Georgia. If he had, his opinion, in my opinion, would have been somewhat different.

Had Henry known the sensation of spontaneous perspiration, if he had contended with the puddling of said perspiration in the crooks of his arms, the folds of his eyelids, and every stitch of his undergarments, Henry may very well have said that summer evening or, more appropriately, the two-syllabled evenin’ are the two most beautiful words in the English language. And had he done so, I would have heartily agreed.

Once the convection oven sun eases her way past the horizon, leaving behind nothing but soft blue-gray light of summer dusk, it is possible to see and hear the voluptuousness of the season – the color wheel of green that spans every shade from chartreuse to hunter, the soprano crickets and baritone toads. The streaks of color just above the horizon that look like chalk drawings on a sidewalk. The low and steady insect buzz that moves in waves across a newly-mown yard, its smell tart and clean. The chill of new dew on bare feet.

There is a special kind of languidness imposed by summer evening. It is neither lethargy nor laziness, but, rather, a welcome inaction, a permissible stillness in which few over the age of twelve ever indulge. And, so, when the first signs of autumn emerge from the edges of the day – a chill breeze or a singular red leaf – the words "summer evening" change key, move from major to minor chord and make a person wistful for the season that will soon be gone.

It wasn’t a particularly busy summer, this one nearly past. Not like last summer where it seemed there was an out-of-town wedding every other weekend, too many weeds to pull and flowers to dead-head, no opportunity to take well-earned vacation days. No, this summer spent itself in small incalculable increments, like pennies falling from a pocket hole, and as the earth spins us toward fall, I wonder where went all the days.

There is a moment, though, that I will remember for a long long time. One night an old friend and I took some beach chairs down to the very edge of the surf on St. Simons. The waves swept up thick and dark like curls of chocolate just before they flattened out into silver leaf under the light of the full moon. Up the beach the silence and the darkness were broken by a group of rowdy teenagers with flashlights and my friend and I expressed, simultaneously, the wish that they would just go away. Anyone, we agreed, who could not appreciate the serenity, the near-sacredness of such a moment just needed to go inside.

We spoke in low voices, my friend and I, voices just loud enough to be heard over the shoosh shoosh of the waves. We spoke, as people who have known each other a long time do, of the passage of time – its speed and its consequences. We spoke of the people we are and the people we had thought we’d be. Bittersweet is too strong a word to use to describe our words and the tones in which they were delivered. No bitterness for two people whose lives have been relatively easy, no saccharine sweetness for two people whose vision is clear.

Soon the words trailed off into the night and we sat, still and thoughtful and facing the moon.

The summer is done now and the perennial garden is going brittle and brown. The summer is done and the porch light is coming on sooner. The summer is done and there are no photographs of exotic places to post on Facebook, but I will remember it for this: There are worse ways to spend a summer evening than sitting on the beach. There are harder things to do than be silent in the presence of a good friend, one whose history overlaps yours at angles no compass could measure. There are heavier burdens to carry than a beach chair and a pair of shoes.

I know this and I am grateful. And because there are worse and harder and heavier, the gift of that moment under the moon is nothing less than grace.

Copyright 2010

Monday, August 30, 2010

Treasure Mountain

It is about a mile to the top of the mountain. The trail is rocky and narrow, so narrow that two people cannot walk side-by-side. In late summer the thick canopy of trees offers little in the way of shelter from the fleece-like heat, but a few of the trees have already started dropping leaves, most of them red, like paper napkins blown off a picnic table.

I’m climbing this mountain not because it’s beautiful and not because it’s wonderful exercise, though it is both of those things. I’m climbing this mountain because Katherine asked me to climb it with her.

It was 35 years ago this month that Katherine and I met – she a naive freshman, I an experienced sophomore. Only it wasn’t really anything like that. Katherine was then, and still is, the daredevil, the risk-taker. I was, and still am, the planner, the caution light, the holder of the safety net. It was an unlikely friendship, but all these years later very easy to explain – Katherine has always made sure that I didn’t take life too seriously while my job was to make sure that she took it seriously enough. Two sides of the scale perfectly balanced.

Like most people who have maintained a close relationship for that long, we bear scars – some self-inflicted, some inflicted by other people, and, the hardest to admit, some inflicted by each other. Both of us have lines at the corners of our eyes that were not there when we faced off against each other on the soccer field. Both of us have hearts marked by disappointment and discontent. Our stories are, simultaneously, different and the same as the years have overlapped at odd and interesting angles.

Where they have overlapped on this particular Sunday morning is the mountain just down the road from where Katherine has recently moved to take a new job. We’ve undertaken more than one physical adventure together (including the white water rafting trip in which three of us – Katherine, myself and our girlfriend Robbie – navigated an eight-person raft through a hydraulic in Class 3 rapids to our guide’s cries of "Textbook! Simply textbook!"), but it’s been a while. Still, it is easy to fall into a rhythm of walking and talking that I have experienced with few others.

"Keep your eyes on the ground," Katherine warns me as we cross the short bridge that lies near the bottom of the trail. She’s been doing the mountain every day for several weeks now and knows the terrain. "It’s rocky and it will be easy to turn an ankle if you’re not careful." I don’t like this idea; I want to see the trees and whatever birds might be around. And it feels odd to have Katherine be the cautious one – she who climbed the water tower at Wesleyan in the dark, she who stopped her car in the rain and pulled a bleeding truck driver from his vehicle and stayed with him until the ambulance came, she who knows no fear except that of a mother.

At the summit we rest for a few minutes, make friends with the dogs – a boxer and a golden retriever – of a couple of other hikers and then start back down. Katherine reminds me to keep my eyes on my feet and I squelch the protest that rises in my throat. She is, after all, only trying to protect me and it’s not as though I’ve never seen a tree.

About halfway down the mountain Katherine stops to point out something at her feet. A handful of nuts, dark and shaped like tiny figs, lie atop a cushion of fallen leaves. Nearby are a scattering of chartreuse-colored acorns, longer and bigger than any we’ve ever seen. A careful examination of my Audubon book will later reveal that the acorns come from a chinkapin oak and that the nuts are chestnuts. Only when my visit is over, when I am driving myself down the interstate toward home does it occur to me that we never would have found the treasures had we not been looking down. Had we not been moving slowly. Had we not been being careful. What an unexpected lesson for me to learn from Katherine.

Thirty-five years is a long time, but not nearly long enough. I get the distinct feeling that there are more mountains to climb, more treasures to find and more lessons to learn.

Copyright 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

"We'll Cross That Bridge ... "

Start across the Sidney Lanier Bridge from either direction and, just before you reach the crest, you will become convinced that you are going to drive straight into the sky. On a hot July day – when white puffy clouds approach like meringues, seductive with soporific sweetness, clouds that look like the blow-up slides used to rescue passengers from airplanes – that’s exactly what you want to do.

But you don’t. Because at just the moment that you would let go of the steering wheel and be drawn into the ether like the black-and-white in "Car 54, Where Are You?", gravity and engineering overrule the temptation and you are towed back to earth. Saved and safe.

One of the first books I ever bought through the TAB Book Club was "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" by Thornton Wilder. The plot is simple and made perfectly clear by its first sentence: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." Father Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, witnesses the collapse and it becomes his quest to discover why these five people should have been the ones to die, whether their deaths were "God’s will" or just bad luck. Toward that end, he spends six years compiling a book of interviews of everyone who knew the victims. In the end, his quest, as is so often the case, costs him his life.

It is hard not to think of the Marquesa and Esteban and the others as the car I am driving rushes down the incline, hard not to think of them and be grateful that bridge-building is so much better 400 hundred years later. Hard not to lose myself for a moment in wondering, like Father Juniper, how much of what happens to each of us is God’s will or luck or, hardest to accept, the unavoidable result of our own often-poor choices.

At the bottom of the bridge the broad blue vista gives way to rusty metal buildings on one side of the road, mid-summer marsh on the other. I can’t decide if it is the air-conditioning or the thought of driving off into the sky that makes me shiver.

I cross bridges all the time. The Ogeechee River separates Bulloch County from each of the other three counties in this judicial circuit, so at least five or six times a month I find myself balanced for a few seconds on a span of concrete and iron stretching over its dark brown water. There is a short bridge over a creek about four miles from home and I cross that one twice a day.

Those bridges are different from the 480-foot high "cable-stayed" version that stretches across the South Brunswick River, the one on which the imp of the perverse arrived unbidden to suggest to me that driving off the bridge into the clouds was not only possible, but pleasurable. Crossing those bridges is like playing connect-the-dots: With a distance so short, it is easy to draw a straight line. Crossing the Sidney Lanier Bridge is like learning plane geometry.

It reminds me that the in-between is a place of its own and not to be hurried through. It demonstrates that the longer the distance between two points, the greater the likelihood that something exists between them. It teaches me that connecting two of anything, be it pieces of land or PVC pipe or people, requires great attention to detail.

A couple of days later I am home from my brief trip to the beach. In one of those unexplainable moments of synchronicity, my eyes light on my copy of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," over 40 years old, pages faded to the color of weak tea, the glue in the paperback spine grown brittle as dead leaves. I think that maybe I will read it again. Perhaps Father Juniper’s search for answers might help me with my own.

Days pass. I finish the book I am reading. I pick up another one. Not "The Bridge of San Luis Rey."

More days pass. I am looking at the notes I made about the Sidney Lanier Bridge, thinking about Father Juniper. I start, with the amazing assistance of Google Search, looking things up. I learn that "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" has been made into a movie on three separate occasions and that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928. I also learn that Tony Blair, at a memorial service for the British victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, read the novel’s last sentence: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

I suppose it’s no wonder that both Father Juniper and his book were burned.

Copyright 2010

Monday, August 02, 2010

Continuing Education

The table is large and round. The food is good. The conversation is warm and inclusive. We laugh a lot. Some of the laughter is directed at each other. Some of it is directed toward the unspeakable matters with which we deal every day and which we can’t share with the people we love, the unavoidable dark humor of those who see the worst in humanity and manage, somehow, not to fall into the abyss themselves.

It’s just dinner, but after a long day of cerebral exertion on matters as weighty as the death penalty in Georgia, it is more than that. It is a safety net, a pressure valve, a decompression chamber. It is a couple of hours in which to forget the darkness.

A couple of days later, on the final morning of the conference at which we receive the continuing education training that the State Bar mandates, the speaker concludes his presentation by showing a clip from "To Kill A Mockingbird." It’s not the first time any of us have seen it. It is a staple in such presentations, but it is particularly appropriate this year, the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book by Harper Lee.

The jury comes in and delivers the unavoidable and unexpected verdict. The judge, not quite as stone-faced as he might like, offers not a word of thanks for their service, but simply says, "This jury is dismissed." The defendant is taken off, silent, in handcuffs while his lawyer – Atticus Finch, the only man in town brave enough to take the case – says something to the defendant about talking to his wife, making an appeal, receiving no response save a blank stare.

The courtroom is empty now and Atticus carefully places his papers inside a battered briefcase. Every person in the balcony stands in respect for the man as he walks out without looking at them. And I, of course, cry. It is what I do every time I see Tom Robinson convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Every time I see Atticus Finch walk out of that courtroom alone. Every time I take long enough to reflect on why I, why we do what we do.

Many of the juveniles that I prosecute have mental evaluations performed to ensure that they are legally competent to address the charges against them. The standard form of those evaluations includes inquiry into the role of the various players and I always read these evaluations with some trepidation. The juveniles are generally pretty good at relaying the role of the judge ("Decide if I did it or not.") and their attorneys ("Help me tell my side of the story."), but not one, not one in the ten years I’ve been doing this work, has ever gotten it right when it comes to what I am there to do. They say things like "She there to send me off." Or "She want to make the judge believe I’m lying."

My job and the job of every prosecutor at every level of the judiciary system is the same. We are charged with one thing and one thing only – to find the truth. And if the truth is that the man or woman, boy or girl charged with a violating the law did not, in fact, violate the law, then we are delighted to see that person walk out of that courtroom. If he or she did violate the law, then we are there to make sure that the appropriate consequences are meted out.

I look around the conference room at the hundreds of men and women from across the state who do what I do every day, who read those same evaluations and know that we are often misunderstood and not always appreciated and I see that I am not the only one with tears in my eyes. Despite the evil and violence and destruction to which we bear witness every day, we are still touchable. It makes me sigh with relief.

There are a lot of reasons I became a lawyer. One of them was a real young man named Sam Brannen who came to Career Day at Statesboro High School, leaned against the teacher’s desk and, as he talked, made me think, "I could do that." And one of them was a fictional young man named Atticus Finch who, brought to life by Gregory Peck, made me think, "I have to do that."

So I did. And 29 years later, I am reminded that there are a lot worse ways to spend one’s days than looking for the truth.

Copyright 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

Vantage Point

It was about eight o’clock when I sat down on the front steps, binoculars perched on my nose to study the herd of deer that had crept from the green at the far edge of the field to eat supper. There were about ten of them, including a yearling who, like all toddlers, couldn’t slow down enough to eat.

A large male had heard the front door open and close and had his gaze, steady like that of a sniper, trained in my direction, alert to the slightest movement that might portend danger for his family. In the magnification of the binoculars I could see his broad white chest shaped like a shield. His caramel-colored coat was tight and smooth, stretched over muscles that bulged and curved like waves frozen mid-crest.

Deer are lovely creatures. Delicate lips that part just enough for the tender peanut leaves to be grasped by hidden teeth. Limbs that stretch into a horizontal parenthesis as they spring into the heavy summer air. Eyes that stare with curiosity and suspicion and something akin to humanness.

I sat there for a long time, elbows on my knees, watching the deer, smelling the grass, listening to the insect buzz swelling from the branch.

A few days before I’d bought a couple of gardenia bushes. Grandmama Anderson had gardenias in her yard. Mama has a huge one out back near the grapevines. The scent of gardenias is the essence of deep summer and I wanted that scent within smelling distant of my own back door.

Every afternoon I poured a little water into the black plastic pots, following the very clear instructions to keep them moist "before and after planting." I kept waiting for rain, any rain at all, to soften the dirt enough for a shovel. After a couple of weeks of my daily baptisms, we got an afternoon shower and the gardenias went into the ground.

Drenched in sweat even at dusk, I stood back from the gardenias, gauged how they would look mature and covered in cream-colored flowers and how they would make my bedroom smell when I opened the windows. I was pleased. Hot and dirty, but pleased.

The next day we got another shower so I didn’t have to pull the hose from the other side of the house to water the gardenias and the coreopsis and the Russian sage. On the third day, we didn’t and I did. I rounded the corner of the deck. "Oh, no!" I heard myself gasp.

One of the gardenia plants had been dug out and thrown over on its side, several of its branches eaten down to nubs. The other was still standing, but had been clearly nibbled. Suddenly the loveliness of the deer with whom I share these woods evaporated. They became trespassers, interlopers, unwelcome visitors who’d audaciously come within 15 feet of where I was unsuspectingly sleeping the night away to graze on a buffet to which they’d not been invited. They had broken our usually easy detente and I felt betrayed.

I went to get the shovel and, as I went, I remembered the afternoon on the front steps when I’d been happy to watch the deer munching on Daddy’s peanuts. They didn’t seem so voracious or brazen then. Funny how a change in perspective results in, well, a change in perspective.

I thrust the end of the shovel into the same dirt I’d excavated just a couple of days earlier, tossed it to the side, repeated the motion again and then again. I grasped the gardenia at the base of its thin trunk and dropped it into back into the hole. I replaced the dirt and patted it down with my foot. I backed away to make sure that the plant was standing straight and realized that I’d not removed the tag, the one that instructed me to keep the plant moist before and after planting. The tag, I now noticed, that also proclaimed in big white letters "Deer Resistant."

How could you not laugh at that?

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Eyesight and Vision

I leaned into the last loop of the S-curve on the road that leads me home. On the edge of the road about 25 yards ahead I saw a black squirrel, sitting on his haunches, tiny little rodent hands up to his mouth.

Except that it wasn’t a squirrel.

The eyes and the brain, co-perpetrators of fraud, tend to create objects that aren’t really there. The rods and cones and that magical lens that turns images upside down toss neurological impulses onto the brain which chooses to interpret the impulses as something familiar, something it knows. So a dark object on the side of a dirt road, about 10 inches high and 4 inches wide, exhibiting just the slightest amount of movement would be, in the less-than-a-second processing time of the brain, a squirrel.

Except that, as previously pointed out, it wasn’t.It was a corner of a dark plastic trash bag, one thrown or having flown out of the bed of a pick-up truck and having been buried under the dirt by the tires of a couple of weeks’ worth of cars and trucks and tractors. And since the throwing/flying of such bags has become, unfortunately, an increasingly more frequent event on my road, it took only another half-second for my brain to adjust and send the slightly less familiar, but more accurate message.

It is amazing to me the speed with which we see, interpret and react. In the unmeasurable length of time between seeing the squirrel and seeing the trash bag, I thought, "Gee, a squirrel. He’s black. I haven’t seen a black squirrel in a long time. Aren’t they usually around in winter? How cool is that, a black squirrel in summer! I hope he doesn’t run out in front of me. But it’s really not a squirrel. No, it’s a trash bag. That makes me so mad. Why do people throw trash on the road?" All within the time it took me to blink my eyes once.

One of our Juvenile Court judges is fond of explaining to young speeders that it takes an average of 1.5 seconds for a driver to respond to a visual stimulus by braking. "If you’re driving 70 miles an hour," he tells them, "you will have already traveled 160 feet before you can get your foot on the brake."

I was driving considerably less than 70 miles an hour that afternoon, so I’d probably gone only 50 feet or so when I lifted my foot toward the brake, another 25 when I realized the squirrel was not a squirrel.And – This is where I got really confused. – another 25 when my brain recalibrated again to determine that the squirrel that was a trash bag was, in fact, a squirrel.

A black squirrel sitting on his haunches, tiny little rodent hands up to his mouth.

Expectancy trumped by cynicism surprised by reality.

A few months ago I cut a cartoon out of the Sunday paper. A brother is looking for his little sister and finally finds her sitting at the base of a tree in which there is a tiny red door. "What are you doing?" he asks.

"Waiting to see the elf."

"There’s no elf," the exasperated brother explains. "The crazy old cartoonist who used to live here put that fake door on the tree to fool his kids."

Totally nonplused, the little sister insists that she has seen the elf herself. Big brother, obviously worldly wise and impatient, says, "I’ll believe it when I see it," and walks away.

Little sister retakes her seat at the base of the tree, props her elbows on her knees and says, "Sometimes things have to be believed to be seen."

I drove slowly past the black squirrel who, at the last moment, darted into the ditch. It bothered me that my brain had been so quick to adjust its perception, so eager to change delight to disgust, so ready to see what wasn’t really there. When did I start seeing a trash bag in every squirrel? When did it become not just easy, but automatic to choose the ordinary over the magical? When, I want to know, did I become the big brother instead of the little sister?

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Deciding Forever

I am besotted. Absolutely besotted. Just drunk with the delight of holding in my arms this most recent reminder that, even while exploded oil wells destroy ecosystems and we argue about whether the administration has been angry enough about it, there is reason to be optimistic.

A baby will do that to you. He will get you up in the middle of the night so you can go tearing down the interstate to be there when he is rolled out of the delivery room still squinting against the new light. He will make you laugh and cry and tremble with both exhilaration and fear all within his first hour of life. He will open his eyes and stare at you with a look that, the inability to focus notwithstanding, says, "I don’t think we’ve met, but you look very familiar and I feel quite certain that you would move heaven and earth for me. Is that right?"

It’s been nearly 28 years since I sat outside the delivery room at University Hospital in Augusta awaiting the arrival of the first baby that would grip my heart with his tiny fist. I was alone and every so often would calm my thoughts long enough to read a few pages in the paperback book that kept me company. I can still feel the raised letters of the title on its cover. It was cold and I got up every few minutes to jump-start the circulation in my legs.

Just a few minutes after 2:00 a.m., Dr. Natrajan pushed his way through the big double doors. "We have a baby!" And a few minutes later, a nurse pulled a curtain back from the nursery window and pushed a bassinet to the front for me to get my first look at my nephew. I couldn’t see his face very well because his feet were pointed away from the window, but that didn’t interfere with the conversation that I’d been waiting for nine months to have.

I told him how much I loved him already and I told him all the things we were going to do together and I think I might have mentioned that there were other people who loved him, too. And, suddenly, he twisted his head up and to the side as though he had sensed that I was there. He opened his eyes and, for just a second, they met mine.

I’ve revisited that moment over and over as the baby became the towhead toddler became the long-legged kid became the broad-shouldered teenager became the handsome groom. I revisit it again as I stare into the face of my baby’s baby.

Jackson Carl Bradley was, like his daddy, born in the middle of the night, but for him there was not just one royal attendant. There were a lot of people standing in the hallway staring through the nursery window as the nurse bathed and measured and pricked and swaddled, a lot of people – grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and friends – taking pictures and cooing and making ridiculous, but necessary comments about who he resembles.

The writer Elizabeth Stone said, "Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body."

For some of us it is not our decision, but someone else’s, that results in open heart surgery. The first time it happens it is like electric shock, unexpected and startling. The first time it happens there is a great wondering: How did this come about? How do I do this? Am I allowed to do this? The first time it happens it’s a little like falling down a rabbit hole and discovering that nothing, most of all yourself, is the way you thought.

But, then, if you’re fortunate enough to be around when that momentous decision gets made again, you – having learned about the incredible elasticity of the human heart, having learned that a child never has too many people loving him or her, having learned that there is nothing nothing nothing quite so affirming as the tightness of tiny arms twined around your neck – dive right in, steeled for the electric shock and all that goes with it.

When most of the crowd had left to go home and get some sleep, when Jackson and his sweet, brave mama had been given a room of their own and when both grandmothers had had their turns at cuddling and inspecting, I got mine. I touched his cheek with the back of my finger, I nuzzled the top of his downy head, I watched his chest lift and lower in tiny little baby breaths.

I sang a song and said a prayer and made a promise, a promise that is a secret just between Jackson and me.

Copyright 2010

Monday, June 07, 2010

Then and Now

A computer hard drive is a lot like a junk drawer. Every so often you have to go in because there is always the chance that, back in the corner with the pennies sticky with Kool-Aid, under the two-year old church bulletin and in an envelope decorated with Hello Kitty stickers, you may find the key to the safety deposit box or your mother’s engagement ring. Don’t ask me why; that’s just the way it is.

I finally broke down and bought a digital camera just before my vacation last month. I was spending Memorial Day trying to figure out where on the computer hard drive the camera software had "automatically" saved my pictures when I came across something that I’d forgotten was there, something that made me lift my fingers from the mouse and keyboard and just stare.

It was a portrait shot, one of those they make in the church fellowship hall, of me at 19. My hair was short and bore the distinct evidence of having been blown dry in an effort to pull out the curl I tried to pretend wasn’t there. I wore a simple green dress and a scarf tied at my neck in the way we did things in the mid-70s. Despite the obvious fact that the shot was old, something about it felt not just familiar, but current as though I’d been looking at it recently.

Computers are, I used to tell the college students who worked for me and taught me how to use them, magic. With little more than a binary abracadabra, I managed to pull up on the screen beside the 19-year-old face a photograph from my vacation, the 53-year-old face.

The hair, thanks to modern chemistry, was the same color, but the more recent photo evidenced the white flag I had finally raised to its determined curliness. The eyebrows that, it was once pointed out to me, I smooth down with my fingertips when I’m uncertain or avoiding answering, had lightened over the years but both sets still resembled wide strokes of a calligraphy pen. The green eyes looked a little paler, but it could have ben the sunlight.

The smile, though, the smile was exactly the same – a straight line with the slightest upward curve at the ends – and I realized that it was the smile that made the old photo seem so unsurprising.

Mr. McKinney, who taught theater at Wesleyan, explained to us once that no human face is exactly symmetrical. Each one is close enough that our vision compensates for the differences and we think we are seeing in any given face two identical halves. He proved his point by taking a photograph of a student we knew, cutting the negative down the middle and then creating a full-face photograph from each half. One of the created faces looked exactly like the student and the other nothing at all like her. One was beautiful, the other grotesque.

I thought about that as I stared at the two faces. No one had split me, but the two photographs did represent two halves – youth and adulthood. The 19-year-old has freckles. She wears no make-up; life has not yet given her a need for a mask. There are no lines across her forehead or at the corners of her eyes. She looks up and off as though she is watching the future advance toward her.

The 53-year-old still has freckles and they shine through the makeup she wears, as the magazines say, to even out her skin tone. She is squinting just a tad, making visible the shallow furrows between her eyebrows, a sunburst of tiny creases at the outside of each eye.

But there is a difference beyond the wrinkles. The woman, the woman who was once the girl, looks straight ahead. Her eyes are focused on what is here, this moment. Her eyes have seen the future that the girl imagined and have recorded that future in memories both good and bad. Dancing with excitement or crying with despair, her eyes have drawn in the light that makes all things grow.

The girl looked away – toward the future, but also in fear, fear of disappointment and disappointing. The woman, I knew and could see, was no longer afraid.

That, of course, is the beauty of age. The luminosity that comes from experiencing the best and the worst and surviving both. The radiance that arises from a heart that has been broken and healed. The winsomeness that emerges from the accepting the fact that perfection doesn’t always mean flawless; sometimes it means whole.

I glanced from one photograph to the other. Girl to woman. Woman to girl. One I was. One I am. Asymmetrical and lovely nonetheless.

Copyright 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

Minor Adjustments

Like most things of a destructive nature, it arrived with little notice. Sitting on the front porch reading, I sensed a change in the atmosphere, something advancing from the southwest. The hair on the back of my neck didn’t stand up, but it should have.

Lily and Tamar didn’t need to be out in whatever was coming so I drove the hundred yards up the road to Mama and Daddy’s where the two dogs were lounging on the deck. I’d gotten Tamar inside the house and had just gotten Lily into the Escape when the first of the uni-strikes of lightning and thunder lit up the yard.

By the time Lily and I pulled into the carport at Sandhill – two? three minutes? – hail was throwing itself into the back windshield like gravel popcorn and the Escape was rocking jerkily from side to side. It was a good ten minutes before it was safe to get out and, even then, Lily had to be dragged by her collar.

The electricity was off and, in the light of dusk that had reappeared with the rapid passing of the clouds, I walked through the house arranging candles, locating flashlights. The heat of the day was been trapped inside so I opened the front and back doors to get some air circulating and started the long wait that accompanies being located so far off the main grid.

A few minutes later, at Keith’s invitation to check out the condition of the roads, we discovered what the weather had left in its wake – Daddy’s center-pivot irrigation system tossed onto its side, wheels up in the air like a wrecked tricycle and twisted like an aluminum pretzel; Mama’s Bradford pear tree split in two vertically with only a third of its trunk left standing, the rest having crashed to the ground and taken down the fence; and, heartbreakingly, most of the big oak lying in a two-story-high mound of limb and branch and leaf.

The big oak was there when we came to the farm nearly 40 years ago and, according to a neighbor who had grown up in the community and was nearly 80 at the time, it had been there since before he was born. It was probably close to 150 years old. Three generations of my family’s women have shelled peas under that tree; four generations of its men have stood in its shade, leaning against the hoods of various pick-up trucks and talking yield and price and politics. Adam and Kate had a rope swing that hung from one of its bodybuilder biceps branches and Mama had said just the other day how she was looking forward to seeing Adam’s soon-to-be-born son swing there, too.

No one, gratefully, was hurt. None of our houses – including the pond house, sheltered as it were by towering pines and oaks that simply fell to their sides, hoisting their entire root systems into the spring night like strange bouquets – were damaged. Along with good neighbors from down the road, we spent the next couple of hours of falling darkness working our way steadily toward the highway, chain-sawing fallen trees and pulling them to the ditches in the arc of headlights, the neighbor’s diesel drowning out the crickets and frogs who were nonplused by the chaos.

It was an amazing night of one amazing thing, thought, sight after another. I’ve not processed it all, not pulled in all the edges of the cloth to tuck under my feet and around my shoulders to create any kind of comfort. But there is one image that keeps floating back to the surface of my consciousness.

About a year ago I bought a glass ball, about as big as a grapefruit, painted pale aqua to mimic mercury glass. There was a hanger on its top, like a Christmas tree ornament, and I decided to hang it on the eave outside the bay window of the kitchen at Sandhill. A screw was drilled into the masonry eave and a long strand of 20-pound test weight fishing wire looped through the hanger to leave it dangling from the screw, swaying in the breeze, reflecting the light.

Sunday night, in the wind that we know was a tornado whether called as much by the National Weather Service or not, the screw came out and the ball became airborne. I didn’t notice at first. The big things – butchered trees and contorted metal – had my attention. But later, in the quiet and stillness that inevitably follows wreckage, I found it, all of it – screw and fishing line and glass ball – lying in the tall grass, unbroken and attached.

Someone, having read my Facebook post about the storm, sent me an e-mail asking about the farm. I replied: "Farm is wet. Landscape has changed. We will, as always, make adjustments."

Today I’m thinking that I should have added, "And as soon as I can get a ladder, the glass ball is going back where it belongs."

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Perennial Favorite

I planted hostas last spring. They were, according to the little plastic-coasted stakes in the pots, well-suited to the shaded spot right outside the back door at Sandhill. I planted four, realized that I had greatly underestimated the number needed and planted eight more. They were green, so very green, and about half of them were a variety that had a thin yellow trim along the leaves.

To have been planted by someone who really doesn’t know a lot about gardening, the hostas did pretty well. Toward the end of the summer, though, a couple browned-up and died. Just died. I was disappointed. I’d been prepared by Martha Stewart, who turned the lowly hosta into the rock star of yard plantings, to expect hardiness. I’d convinced myself that out of the reach of the scorching sun and with water dripping off the roof directly onto their heads after every rain shower the hostas would survive.

It was difficult not to see it as some kind of sign.

The year turned and as spring made her leisurely way back to south Georgia, I became acutely aware of how ugly was the empty bed where the hostas had lived. I started wondering if maybe I should just load up on some pea gravel and spread it out like one big hosta headstone.

And, then, a couple of Sunday afternoons ago, home from a weekend trip out of town and headed outside to refill the hummingbird feeders, something caught my eye. Something green. And pointy. Looking closer I could tell it was one of my heretofore-assumed-dead hostas pushing up through the dirt.

Glory be!

I looked closer. There was another one. And another one. Six in all! I sat down on the edge of the carport and cried. It was a week after Easter, but I was witness to a resurrection! By the next morning, a total of 10 plants had, in varying heights, stood up from their slumber, stretched their arms and yawned into the sunlight.

Enthusiasm seized me. I rushed to town to buy four more to fill in the gaps in the bed. It was beautiful. I counted them twice like a child with her Easter eggs.

The next morning I hurried out the door, briefcase and pocketbook and gym bag dangling in a tangle from my arms, and, once again, something caught my eye. This time, though, it wasn’t a hosta in broad-leafed glory, but a hosta in gnawed-off ruin. I couldn’t be sure which of my neighbors had made a salad bar of my perennials, but thought it might be the armadillos who had already, in the side yard, produced more holes than the sales staff at Claire’s.

Upon consultation with Daddy, however, it appeared that the uninvited dinner guests were more likely to be rabbits than armadillos. After discussion with my friend David who, for reasons that cannot be explained, knows about such things, I found myself on Sunday afternoon sprinkling cayenne and black peppers over the flat green leaves, preparatorily dampened so that the spices might stick.

It was hard to tell the next morning whether the garnish had deterred any munching. What was easier to tell, though, was the fact that the first-chewed plants were already re-emerging. Once again the rolled up leaves were thrusting themselves into the open air. Once again they were reminding me that apparent death is often just that – apparent, not actual. They had survived the natural cycle of the seasons and now they were surviving predation.

People are a lot like plants. Some are annuals – showy and fragrant, but needy. They throw themselves profligately into the landscape and, with the fading of their season, gently die. And some are perennials – unobtrusive and subtle and sturdy. They soften the edges and thrive in the shade and, with the fading of their season, they die back, but they don’t die.

Annuals. Perennials. Neither a garden nor a life is complete without both.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TIll We Have Faces

I have this friend. We’ve known each other for over thirty years. We don’t see each other often, but when we do we don’t have to reacquaint or search for topics of conversation. We tease and laugh and remember easily.

At least we used to. About five or six years ago my friend made some changes in her life, changes that she assumed I would find difficult to accept. I found out about those changes from someone else and so our encounters, always brief, became stiff and contrived.

A few days ago we ran into each other at one of those events where every moment is meant to be celebratory and no one is allowed discomfort of any kind. One of those events where putting on a happy face is practically the cost of admission.

Looking at her face across the room, seeing a teenager and not a middle-aged woman, I made a decision. The two of us would not go home pretending.

She was surprised, a few hours later, when I took her by the arm and pulled her away from the group with whom we’d been chatting. In the quiet of an empty hallway, having decided that subtlety would be irresponsible, I looked her in the eye and said, "Love is unconditional or it is nothing at all."

My friend, once an awkward girl and, at this moment, an equally awkward woman, blinked her eyes and asked, "Does this mean I can stop hiding from you?"

Ah, yes. Hiding. It is what we do when fear besieges the fortresses of our hearts. It is what we do when the facade of competence and self-sufficiency begins to crumble. It is what we do when doubting truth seems easier than facing it.

In the trek from forest to farm to city, we humans never lost the instinct for camouflage. We are born with a bent toward blending in. We wear uniforms and make-up. We join clubs and wave flags. And we do it because the world is a dangerous place.

Or so we pretend.

The reality is that that from which we are hiding is rarely evil or life-threatening. The reality is that that from which we are hiding is nothing more than the conviction that we are not worthy, that our value is insignificant, that we can not measure up. And whether the disguise is a fig leaf or a forced smile, it is never enough to hide our nakedness.

C. S. Lewis’s last published book, Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, is the story of two sisters – one beautiful, one hideously ugly. Living behind a veil so that her ugliness cannot be seen by the people she rules, Orual must eventually face the gods and their charges against her. And she must do it without the veil.

Orual says, "When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years ... you’ll not talk about the joy of words. ... Till that word can be dug out of us, why should [the gods] hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"

And, so, finally mustering the courage to reveal herself, what the gods see is the beautiful face of her sister."Does this mean I can stop hiding from you?"I wish I’d had time to prepare an answer. I wish I’d had some instant flash of insight. I wish I’d been quick enough, then, to say something about camouflage and fig leaves.

Instead, I looked my friend straight in the eyes and said only, "I love you."

We embraced and she walked away."

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds," William Shakespeare wrote. Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.

Copyright 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010

Anything But Over Easy

They were just eggs. Ordinary eggs. Scrambled for breakfast, fried hard and slapped between two pieces of white bread with mayonnaise, broken into pound cake batter in fat gold globes.

But once a year they were anything but ordinary.Lowered gently into coffee cups with the thin wire egg holder that came in the Paas box with six colored disks that could have easily been mistaken for SweetTarts, they magically turned yellow like dandelions in morning dew and purple like verbena scattered across the churchyard. They became pale pink like dogwoods, brighter pink like azaleas and deep rose like camellias, the hues varying according to how long we could stand the smell of vinegar.

There were no adhesive stickers, no peel-off graphics, no stand-up cardboard caricatures. There was no glitter, no puff paint. We created Easter eggs with nothing but color.

But then we had to give them up, had to relinquish our beautiful treasures, into the hands of the those who would hide them before giving us the chance to reclaim them by demonstrating our skill and patience and cunning. We were, without knowing it, being introduced to the concept of quest – desire and pursuit.

Except for one thing, one thing that had never occurred to me until Easter Sunday afternoon when I drove past a yard where a single child was weaving slowly through the grass, basket in hand, eyes down.

Every Easter egg hunt in which I ever participated was started by an announcement, usually by the thick-chested Sunday School Superintendent standing on the steps of the social hall, as to the boundaries of the hunt. "Go back as far as the fence and over on that side as far as the ditch and on the other side up to the dogwood tree. Don’t go past the cars. No eggs over there." He told us, in essence, where to find the treasure.

And in a real quest, the kind that requires single-mindedness and the forsaking of all else, it’s never that easy. In a real quest, the object of longing having been identified and the heart having been given over to the consuming desire to have it for one’s own, one can’t know ahead of time the limits of the search. In a real quest, the kind that can take a lifetime to accomplish, the hero, the heroine has to ignore the fences and ditches and head straight toward the horizon.

A few weeks ago "Man of La Mancha" arrived at Sandhill in a red Netflix envelope. I’d never seen the movie, though I knew something of the story of the crazy old man who saw a giant in a windmill and a noble lady in a prostitute. Ridiculed and taunted by most and simply tolerated by his only friend, Don Quixote neared the end of his life tired and weak, but never wavering in the pursuit of his desire.

"This is my quest," he sang, "to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far. To fight for the right without question or pause, to be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause."

Hell, I think, is probably way past the fence, way past the ditch.

I understand the need for boundaries and for consequences for violating those boundaries. I understand the need for limits, in society and in an individual life. What I also understand, though, is the need to stretch those limits in pursuit of one’s own heavenly cause.

And, maybe, if we started with an Easter egg hunt, some child somewhere would grow into a man or woman who – like Don Quixote scorned and covered with scars – teaches us all something about reaching for the unreachable star.

Copyright 2010

Monday, March 29, 2010

Teeter Totter

At 1:32 p.m. last Saturday, after a winter that was long and hard and heavy, spring arrived. At that moment, known as the vernal equinox, the center of the sun was on the same plane as the equator of the earth and there was a perfect balance of light and dark.

Or so they say.

Balance is a tenuous, ephemeral thing. It is achieved when my checkbook and the bank’s records agree. It is executed when an elfin woman-child throws her body into the air in some stupefying combination of twists and turns and flips and lands steadily on a 4-inch piece of wood. It is attained when, the life coaches and self-help gurus tell us, one’s physical, relational, professional and spiritual lives are seamlessly integrated into a whole.

I repeat: Balance is a tenuous, ephemeral thing.

My friend Margaret is 81. A few years ago her doctor, explaining that as people age their ability to balance wanes and that it is this declination that most frequently results in bone fractures, gave her an exercise to do every day. For two minutes she was to stand on one foot and, at the conclusion of the two minutes, switch to the other foot for the same length of time.

Margaret shared this with several of us not just to receive kudos on the ease with which she accomplished this (She did, in fact, get a enthusiastic round of applause.), but to encourage us to do the same. And I have. Not every day, not even once a week, but often enough.

This is what I have learned: It is more difficult to balance in bare feet than in shoes. It helps, starting off, to use your arms as ballast. And it, that is, perfect balance doesn’t last for long.

Which brings me back to the vernal equinox. One moment it was winter; the next spring. One moment the earth was tilted; the next it wasn’t. One moment everything was the way it had been; the next it was, suddenly, the way it is.

I saw, the other day, a clock face with no numbers, only a minute hand. On the left-hand edge of the hand were block letters spelling out "the past." On the right-hand edge of the hand were block letters spelling out "the future." The fairly obvious point of the artist who designed it was that everything except this moment is either the past or the future. All the time that ever was and ever will be is balanced on either side of the moment we call the present.

So, in a way, every moment is the vernal equinox. Every moment is perfectly balanced between light and dark, good and bad, what was and what will be.

I spent most of the winter complaining about the weather. Complaining and wishing for temperatures and conditions more to my liking. Complaining and using the weather as an excuse for my general malaise. Complaining and walking through most days oblivious to the fact that I was – in my cold, bare feet and, at times, with my arms waving wildly to avoid falling – exactly where I was supposed to be.

I can say with some assurance that the checkbook kind of balance isn’t ever going to be a problem for me. I can say with greater assurance that I will never perform a successful "flight element" on the balance beam. What I can say with no assurance, but with a great deal of faith, is that, with the spring sunshine on my shoulders and the spring breeze in my hair, I’m going to try really hard for that seamless integration kind of balance. And, with any luck, it will last for more than just two minutes.

Copyright 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pants On Fire

Spring is always a flirt. Occasionally a tease. But this year, ah, this year Spring has been nothing short of ... well, a liar.She pranced into town with a two hundred-dollar haircut wearing 4-inch Jimmy Choos and trailing Chanel No. 5 just as the puddles of melted snow dried up. All of us, every last one of us, ran outside stripping off coats and gloves, tilting our chins into her scent and holding out our bare arms to the laser-beam sun that streamed in her wake.

We woke up the next morning to clouds as thick as meringue, rain as heavy as a fallen pound cake and our girl having vanished sometime in the night.

Another week of morning frost and evening chill, another week of resigned bundling up, another week of landscape colored in every shade of gray and she appeared again – strutted down the sidewalk with nary an excuse or apology for her bad manners. And we, fools that we are, took our lunches outside, went running in shorts, tried to cajole her into staying by calling out to each other, "Isn’t it a beautiful day?" and "I’m so glad that spring is finally here."

But she would not be charmed, would not be swayed by compliments. One warm and sunny afternoon was all to which she was willing to commit.

When I was a little girl I was pretty sure that the worst thing a person could be was a liar. I didn’t know about murderers and rapists and terrorists. I was not, thank God, conversant with infidelity or abandonment. I lived in a world not unlike that of Beaver Cleaver and, in that world, speaking an untruth would have resulted in the immediate infliction of corporal punishment and, worse, the proclamation that my parents, indeed, the entire world was "disappointed."

Which is why I never lied. Never. I would, in fact, go to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of lying. Once, I came home from school and told Mama that a friend’s mother was going to have a baby. Surprised at the announcement, Mama asked, "Are you sure?"

Confronted suddenly with the possibility that I might have misunderstood and determined not to be that most horrible of miscreants, a liar, I responded, "Uh, I don’t know. Maybe I made it up." Even now, forty-something years later, Mama laughs when she tells the story. There is probably a mental health professional somewhere who thinks I need therapy.

I don’t live in Beaver Cleaver world anymore. I live in a world where elected officials lie about everything from campaign contributions to paternity. I live in a world where professional athletes lie about performance-enhancing drugs, where celebrities lie about domestic violence, where religious leaders lie about everything that everybody else lies about. I make my living in a profession where my job some days is doing nothing more than trying to convince people to admit that they are lying.

You would forgive me, then, if I confessed that I don’t believe much of anything anybody says anymore.

But I won’t say that. Because it’s not true.

I believe people when they say they are going to call me back. I believe people when they say they would like me to come visit. I believe people when they tell me they are sorry.

That is not to say, however, that my belief is always well-placed. Some people never call me back. Some people find reasons to rescind their invitations. And some people aren’t really sorry. But the burden of the lie – And it is a heavy heavy burden. – is always on the liar, not the believer.

All that to say that the minute Spring comes back for good, the very second she crosses the county line carrying the azaleas and the fireflies and the baseball games in her Louis Vuitton bag, I’m going to be waiting for her with open arms. All will be forgiven and all will be well.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

You Must Remember This

Maybe in Reykjavik people can render an image of snow in cliche-less terms. Maybe in International Falls they can avoid words like pristine in describing the scenes outside their living room windows. Maybe in Kiev, where my Kate has been for five months, one can be so accustomed to it that it hardly merits mentioning.

But this isn’t Reykjavik or International Falls or Kiev. So if we Zone 9 dwellers acted the fool a little with our once-in-a-generation snowfall we should be forgiven. That our dogs didn’t know what to do with the crunchy white stuff beneath their feet, that there were far too many photos of dwarf snowmen posted on Facebook and that the people in those photos had on far too much clothing are things that should be overlooked.

The last time there was that much snow was Christmas Eve of 1989; Adam was 7 and Kate was 5. There was reason to stay outside until fingers and toes began stinging with, strangely enough, heat not cold. There were snowballs to mound and throw and the smallest of hills to slide down. There was magic in the dinosaur-tooth icicles that trimmed the eaves of the houses.

This time, on almost Valentine’s Day, I sat at my desk as the flakes began coming down, fluttering against the just-dark sky. They fell hard and fast like tiny swords slashing through the air and then settled quickly into glistening puffs of icy quilting on the leaves of the holly bushes.

Within a couple of hours the fields on either side of Sandhill, bumpy and lumpy with tractor ruts earlier in the day, were flat and even like the ocean on a windless day. Even in the darkness I could see the white shimmering under the navy blue sky.

I walked out on the deck to take a few photographs – the furniture, all its hard edges buffed away with a thick layer of snow; the limp brown stems of the Gerbera daisies that had lived all the way through December and finally succumbed to the January freeze; the spindles and railings and steps.

At first I didn’t notice the rosemary. Three large pots of tiny tiny leaves frosted like cupcakes.

Rosemary likes it hot and dry. I should have brought the pots indoors before the first freeze and I most certainly should have done something to protect them from the inordinate amount of rain we’d been getting. But I hadn’t.

And I felt bad. I suspected that the rosemary would succumb just as the plumbago and lantana had succumbed. I suspected that I’d walk outside in a day or two, after the snow had melted and the ground had dried out, and find wilted stems and brown-tipped leaves.

I took a photo anyway, knowing that once I got it developed I would feel even more guilty for my neglect.

What a surprise, then, this morning as I was leaving for the office in bright sunshine and without an overcoat to see the new leaves sprouting from the top of the rosemary plants – bright green and pointed straight up into the sky. Barely a week later and the hot-and-dry herb had shaken off the cold and wet and gotten on with the business of growing.

It’s easy, but not a good idea, to neglect something just because it is particularly well-suited to its surroundings. While low maintenance is preferable, in plants and people, you get better results when you pay attention. Better results when you remember.

"There's rosemary; that's for remembrance. Pray, love, remember."

Copyright 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Winter's Tale

Sometime around Thanksgiving I heard a radio broadcaster announce that the meteorologists for the state were predicting a colder and wetter winter than usual. I say give those boys and girls a gold star. Winter won’t be officially over for another six weeks or so, but their prophesies have been fulfilled.

About this time every year I get my fill of the season, but this year the sensation is less wistfulness and more ache. I’m not just tired of the cold and wet; I’m exhausted by it. I’m not just shivering when I walk outside; I’m scowling. I find myself growling at other cars, which are always going either too fast or too slow, and rolling my eyes, figuratively if not literally, at the minor dramas of everyday life (the woman in the express lane who can’t find her debit card in a purse the size of a small suitcase, the puncture wound in the Styrofoam cup that leaves a puddle of Diet Coke in my cup holder, the annoying phone call from the telemarketer) that usually make me laugh at our commonality and fragility.

I think I reached my limit the other day. I was walking across the yard at Mama and Daddy’s and felt my feet sink into the saturated soil, heard a discernible squish as I lifted one shoe, then the other to slowly make my way to the front door. It was as though there was something under the ground that might suck me under at any moment. It reminded me of the scene from "The Return of the King" where Frodo, Samwise and Gollum are making their way across that interminable swamp.

There is a reason the earth needs winter. To rest, to slow down, to re-energize for the growth seasons ahead. But there is also a reason why winter doesn’t last forever. With too much water, roots will eventually mold. With too much cold, branches will eventually break. And, quite frankly, my roots are getting slimy and my branches are getting brittle.

So what’s a girl to do?

She could indulge in a little denial. Turn on every lamp in the house and burn every candle and turn up the heat. But that lasts only until morning when the necessity of making a living forces her outside.

She could whine. But, as I used to tell my little girl softball players, whining is neither attractive nor productive. And it would garner absolutely no sympathy from the friends who live in Maryland and Virginia, Illinois and Indiana, the ones who are laughing and asking, "Cold? Wet? You think you know cold and wet?"

Or she could just put on her heaviest coat, a pair of gloves and a little Chap Stick and ride it out.

Her choice. That is, my choice.

Choice is a funny thing. We demand it, then are too lazy to exercise it. We use it poorly, then deny we used it at all. We would rather, it seems, be marionettes with thin little wires connected to each of our joints, including the crooks and curves of our brains, responsive only to the deliberate but awkward jerking of unseen hands with only our strangely autonomous mouths refusing to yield.

A couple of summers ago I was at the beach and bought a painted sign made from a piece of reclaimed tin. It read, "Life Is Good." A piece of rusty wire was twisted into two holes at the top and, when I got home, I hung it on the one of the deck railings.

I walked outside last Saturday morning. The rain had stopped temporarily the night before and a fierce wind had come in on its heels. Trash cans were turned over and, up at the big curve, a tree had fallen across the road. And the rusty wire on the "Life Is Good" sign had broken leaving it dangling, banging on the deck railings, twisting in the wind.

I took it down and laid it to the side. Eventually I’ll find another piece of wire and I’ll hang it up again because, despite the cold and the wet, I choose to believe that life IS good and winter won’t last forever.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Someone Like Lucy

My friend Lucy is eight years old. She’s about as big as a minute and has huge round eyes that are green as a gourd. And she has a head full of tight curls that, without anything else, would have endeared her to me. Lucy loves her dog Frannie, "High School Musical" and beating the grown-ups playing Wii. It is one of the great joys of my life that I got to stand with her and her parents as a judge signed the papers that confirmed what we’d known from the beginning – Lucy belongs to us.

Lucy’s mother is a high school basketball coach. One of the girls playing for her this year is my namesake Graham and her parents, who I introduced to each other our first week in law school, are dear friends, so I had lots of reasons for going to the game last week.

I normally sit directly behind the bench. I’m closer to the game there and the inevitable berating of the referees by spectators who know less about basketball than I do about brain surgery is easier to ignore. One this night, however, I took a seat far up in the bleachers with Graham’s mother, brother and grandparents.

Lucy was wandering around the gym like she owned the place and, about halfway through the first quarter, she climbed up to where I was and asked, "Can I have a dollar?"

I opened my wallet and counted out the coins. "There you go."

"Thanks," and she went skipping down the bleachers like a goat over rocks.

A moment or two later Graham’s grandmother tapped me on the shoulder. "Is there some reason," she asked tentatively, "that that little girl picked you out to ask for money?"

I, along with Graham’s mother, who knows Lucy and my connection to her, burst out laughing at the same time. It took only a minute to explain, but a week later I’m still pondering the whole thing.

First of all, there’s the question of whether I really am the kind of person of whom a child, any child, would ask for help. If Lucy hadn’t known me, if she hadn’t known anybody in that gym, is there anything about me – the way I looked or walked or talked to other people – that would make her think that I could be trusted to help?

But Lucy did know me and, because of that, she did not think twice about finding me and asking for money. She did not hesitate, once she’d made up her mind that a pack of gum was what she wanted, to go straight to someone who could help her get it. And, best of all, she didn’t feel the need to wheedle or manipulate or even convince me that her request was a legitimate one. "Can I have a dollar?" Direct and candid.

Which raises the next question: Why is that so hard for us adults? Why do we so often feel that, even with those with whom we are most intimate, we have to preface our requests with evidence of, first, our general worthiness and, second, our specific need? Why can’t we just ask, secure in knowing that where the ability to fulfill the request exists it will be granted?

The last few years have presented me with plenty of opportunities to revisit and reexamine my personal theology, the concept of a God who is big enough and powerful enough and attentive enough to be concerned with the welfare of each individual human being. There have been moments when the flannelgraph image of a smiling Jesus in blue and white robes seated on a rock and surrounded by a passel of smiling children has seemed anything but believable and that business about becoming like a little child has seemed more saccharine than sacred, more condescending than convincing, more witless than workable.

And those moments, coming one after another, can leave a person with the idea that it is better to go lacking than to ask and be refused.

Until someone like Lucy comes along. Something who doesn’t know any better. Someone who isn’t afraid to ask and, consequently, is always ready to receive.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some Conversations

Some conversations you never forget.

"You’re fired." "We’re pregnant!" "It’s cancer." The smell of the carpet, the color of the curtains, the sound of a passing train become Pavlov’s bell and, thereafter, never just a smell or color or sound, but the conversation itself.

Earlier this week I had one of those conversations and Huddle House waffles will never taste the same.

It happened like this: It has become a tradition for Aden, the 7-year-old philosopher, and me to have breakfast at the Huddle House when he comes to Georgia to visit. On Monday morning we were sitting across the booth from each other, our waffles puddled with maple syrup, when I noticed him staring at his chocolate milk carton.

"What’s so interesting?" I asked.

"I’m checking the calories and stuff," he said without looking up.

OK. Was I reading milk cartons in first grade?

"What are you liking best about school?"

He stared off into the distance for a moment, his eyes squinted and his chin stuck out. "Math. I like all the math. I like all the stuff I’m learning."

I reached over the table to cut up the big slice of country ham he’d ordered.

"So, what do you think is the most important thing for a kid to learn?" I asked, sensing that I was about to hear something consequential.

"Reading. That’s the most important. But," and he paused, fork stuck in the air like a conductor’s baton, "I don’t like fairy tales."

I didn’t interrupt to ask him why. This is a boy who brandishes light sabers. This is a boy who thinks it’s funny that I am afraid of tiny little mice. This is a boy.

"I don’t like fairy tales because they always have a happy ending. It’s not like that." I felt my shoulders sink and curl forward. I stared into the guileless and unscarred face staring back at me and waiting to see if I would speak truth.

I took a deep breath. "You’re right. It’s not always like that."

He propped one elbow on the table and leaned his head against his hand. "Did you know Grandma?"

Yes. I knew his great-grandmother. "

It was a very sad day when she died."

A simple declarative sentence. A seven-year-old’s version of reality. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

There is a reason we cling to our children. They are our connection to what is real. They love without sorrow or guilt or regret. They remind us of who we wanted to be before we learned better.

My waffles had pecans in them. The sausage patties were too salty. The chocolate milk carton was brown and white. And the sage across the table from me wore a camouflage jacket and slip-on sneakers. I will never forget.

Copyright 2010

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Noticing Naked and Asking What If

A couple of years ago I came home one afternoon to find a sycamore tree, a skinny little, smooth-barked sapling, planted in my back yard. I'm not exactly sure where on the farm Daddy found it, but he and Mama knew in that strange way that parents know their children that I would want it.

It was about four feet tall at the time; it is now probably up to eight orn ine. (Sycamores, like children and credit card balances, grow quickly.) It is mature enough to have had, in the summer, leaves as big as the spread hand of a lumberjack, each one covered in tiny little bristles that made it feel like the velveteen collar on the pink corduroy coat I had as a child.

In November, when the color started draining out of the landscape, the leaves turned tea-brown and dropped languidly to the ground, curled at the edges, the lumberjack closing his hand into a fist -- whether in an attempt to hold on to the summer or to fight off the winter I can't say.

I also can't say when I first noticed that the tree was naked. I see it every time I walk out the back door to get in the car or take out the trash, but, like most people, I see without seeing sometimes. And, to be honest, I probably wouldn't have noticed its nudity on that particular day had not one leaf, just as I walked outside, lost its grip on the branch to which it had been clinging and gone floating down a river of wind across the yard.

There were still three or four tiny leaves left on the topmost branches, but the sycamore was otherwise bare. Its slender branches -- angled, not curved, toward the pale gray sky -- made it look exactly like the trees I had painted in my fourth grade snowscape, the one for which we used dark blue construction paper and white paint (as if we south Georgia children knew anything at all about snowscapes).

My chin rose as my gaze moved higher and higher up the trunk of the tree and, about halfway to the sky, I saw it: a next, a matted bowl-shaped nest, balanced in the cleft of two branches. I was tempted, but only for a moment, to try to get it down. Whatever birds had built it back in the spring or summer were long gone, their babies out on their own. They weren't coming back. It would have been no crime to take the next and put it inside with my other treasures.

But what if they did come back? What if they came looking for their home and it wasn't there? What if they were the last pair of whatever-birds left at Sandhill and without that nest they died?

What if? The curse of the evolved brain.

One of my colleagues asked me yesterday if I was making any New Year's resolutions. The answer was no. I'm hard enough on myself as it is.

What I am doing instead is trying to articulate what I've learned in the year about to end and what I hope to learn in the year to come. I haven't quite managed the former, but the latter came to me -- in that magical way that Truth appears in the guise of poetry -- as I was writing this column, came in the form of an e-mail New Year's wish from someone I know only slightly, in one line of a poem: "I want the labyrinth of what ifs narrowed/to a single, poignant sentence."

Yes. That's it. I want to finally locate, in my wanderings, the way to the center. I want to release, like the sycamore tree did its leaves, anything clinging to me that is no longer alive. I want to focus my attention and affection and appreciation on that which responds to my efforts. I want to be a single, poignant sentence.

And, on December 31, 2010, I want to speak that sentence and know that it has been heard.

Copyright 2010