Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cotton Plant Prophet

I first noticed it on Sunday – a sycamore leaf, the size of a spread hand and the color of cured tobacco, was stuck in the stems of a cotton plant at the edge of the driveway. Surprisingly, it was still there Wednesday morning, having withstood a couple of days of stiff wind and one day of sustained rain. Obviously, I was meant to take note. I got out of the car and walked to the edge of the field for a closer look.

A picked-over cotton field looks like a phalanx of badly-drawn stick figures. Nearly every stalk has at least one boll left that looks like a head with tufted white hair escaping from its hard brown helmet and the various angles at which the spindly stems pierce the air make it appear as though the infantry is advancing at full speed, spears and pikes flailing at the ends of skinny arms. This one, though, the one cradling the sycamore leaf in its arms like a placard, seemed to be less warrior, more prophet. And the question becomes, I thought to myself, what has it been sent to proclaim?

I got back into the car, squinted my eyes into the rising sun, and headed toward town. As I rounded what we call the bad curve, the bag of Christmas gifts I’d placed in the floorboard fell over and squished, I was sure, their carefully-tied red and white bows. Using one hand to maneuver behind the ditches while I leaned across the front seat trying to reach and right the bag, I muttered to myself, "Why do I always do this? I knew when I put it there it would probably tump over! I knew it and did it anyway! What made me think that the law of centripetal force was going to be suspended just for me?"

It was not the first time I’ve had that conversation with myself. Not even the first time that morning. I regularly try to do too much with too little and move too fast for too little and, as a result, have proven over and over again that Newton’s laws of motion, among other things, are called laws for a reason.
Both hands back on the steering wheel, I took a deep breath, reminded myself that squished ribbon would not make any difference to the children who would be opening those packages later in the day, and watched the still dew-wet landscape slide swiftly past the car windows.

But the cotton plant prophet would not leave me alone. He kept crying out in the wilderness at the edge of my mind as I greeted my co-workers, turned on the computer, read the newspaper. He kept hoisting that sycamore leaf above his head and shouting, "Behold!" He kept staring at me as if at any moment he was going to have to declare me, in all my stubborn ignorance, a viperous Pharisee.

I finally conceded my ground, took my second deep breath of the morning, and leaned back in my chair to stare out the window at the gingko tree, its golden leaves a thousand mirrors of clear winter sunlight. I did not have to close my eyes to reconjure the morning’s encounter: sycamore leaf, dry and brittle, turned on its side and captured in the defoliated stems of a dead and abandoned cotton plant.

Look again, the prophet said. Look more closely at the leaf dry and brittle. It is whole, not one lobe or rib broken. It was lifted by the wind from the ground to which it had fallen, carried gently to this spot, and left to drop again. In its first descent, from the tree where it grew, it was aging, but still supple. It was easy to fall and remain in one piece. The second fall should have broken the leaf, but it didn’t.

The laws of nature being what they are, the leaf should have torn along its veins like perforated paper. Its thin edges should have caught on the sharp bracts and broken into bronze-colored dust. Its smooth blade should have cracked like dried mud. But, miraculously, it did not.

I laughed out loud. Of course. It is Christmas. The season of miracles. The season when virgins have babies and stars become GSP devices, when angels speak English and astronomers outsmart kings, when things fall without breaking.

Finally! said the prophet, stopping just short of calling me rebellious and stiff-necked. But there is one more thing: Christmas is the season of miracles, but it is also the season of prophecy. You need not concern yourself with the nature of the leaf – whether it is prophecy foretold or fulfilled – only with the imperative that in order to see either you must watch.

Copyright 2011

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Holy Awe and Dispan Hands

I am standing at the kitchen window, staring into darkness where only a few minutes before the light had smeared lavender across the horizon like a little girl’s first attempts at makeup. It is the night before Thanksgiving, the dishwasher has died, and one by one each knife, spoon, spatula, pot, plate, bowl, cup, and colander involved in the preparation of my assigned dishes, together with all the dirty glasses and plates and silverware that filled the dishwasher at the time of its demise, must be washed and dried by hand.

The onions and celery and pepper, diced delicately into small green cubes and tossed with the shoe-peg corn and the bright red pimentos, await the marinade that is cooling on the back burner and tomorrow’s verdict of whether Jenn’s morning sickness will subside long enough for her to enjoy it. Aunt Doris’s lime congealed salad, without which no holiday meal is complete, is congealing in the refrigerator, filled with nuts that Mama and Daddy picked up from under the tree in the side yard and shelled while watching Fox News. The nuts have also made their way into half of the fudge, the other half left nut-less for Katherine. The cranberry salad will be finished once it thickens enough for the pineapple and yet more nuts to be stirred in.

The satisfaction of completion makes up for the frustration of the dishwasher’s untimely death and I am unexpectedly content as I lower my hands into the hot sudsy water. Dishcloth in right hand, bowl in left, I swoosh the water around and around, set a rhythm for the task and for my breathing. Cooler water pours out of the long neck of the faucet and washes away the suds, leaves the bowl clean. Its curved glass sides reflect the overhead light in a starburst that causes me to blink. I turn it upside down onto the striped cotton dishtowel that stretches down the counter. Lines of water run down its face like tiny rivers racing to the sea.

I reach carefully to the bottom of the sink, beneath the suds, feel around for the knives, pull one up by its handle, wipe its teeth free of the celery strings. I add more hot water to help melt the tiny shards of chocolate left in the bottom of the pot. Each utensil, each dish requires its own attention, its own particular touch of my hand to be made clean. I am struck at some point how like a baptism this all is – going down dirty, coming up clean.

It doesn’t take much for that train of thought to move right on down the track to see the rest of the Thanksgiving preparation as sacrament as well. Take and eat this bread. Take and eat this marinated vegetable salad, this fudge, this turkey and dressing and pecan pie. And do it in remembrance of me. Do it in remembrance of all that is good in your life, all that has been good in your life, all that will be good in your life.

In the drawer by the sink, there are more striped cotton dishtowels. I get out another one and begin drying the dishes, piled on the counter in a precarious pyramid of glass and plastic and stainless steel. The last traces of water on the bowls, the spoons get absorbed into the towel. The cabinets fill – glasses lined up, plates stacked, silverware sorted.

The darkness outside the window has grown thicker. I can make out no shapes and yet I continue to stare as I drain the sink, spray it with Fantastik, and wipe away the last vestiges of what will be my Thanksgiving offerings. I am not looking at, but toward. Maybe through.

I am wondering if it is all sacrament. Every day, not just holiday. Every meal, not just Thanksgiving. Every breath. Every blink. Every scent and sound. I am wondering if I have approached life, all of it, with the holy awe it deserves. I am wondering if I have any idea of how to be grateful.

Copyright 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Breath and Engineering

November Sunday. Two words that, together, do not ordinarily conjure up images of bare feet and air-kiss breezes. And, yet, on this November Sabbath, the sun which is growing more visibly distant each day seems to have slipped back into the parlor with a wink and a flirtatious smile for one final curtsey to summer.

I am driving Daddy over to the Waters Place to move a tractor – not an ox-in-the-ditch kind of thing. More a good-reason-to-be-out-in-the-sunshine kind of thing. Cotton fields rimmed by maple trees in the height of fall flame remind me of candy canes, the Canadian flag, Santa’s suit. There should be a better word than vivid.

I am tempted to roll down the windows, but, temperature notwithstanding, it is still fall, there is still pollen, and Singulair ain’t cheap.

When we get to the field, Daddy asks me to wait until he gets the tractor cranked. Apparently there is some reason to believe it might not start. He hops into the cab, grabs an unusually long screwdriver and hops back down. The engine cover on the tractor opens like a coffin. The inside is a dark and oily conglomeration of cylinders and coils.

He thrusts the screwdriver into the belly of the beast like a dagger. The target appears to have been a cylinder wrapped in a coil.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

"Bleeding out the air. There’s a teeny little leak somewhere in the line. Haven’t had the time to fix it, so just have to bleed it out to crank it."

The absence of a subjective pronoun doesn’t bother me so much as the idea of bleeding air. It doesn’t sound right. Bleeding involves blood, not air. And bleeding is, as a general rule, involuntary. And not something one does deliberately.

The diesel engine coughs, catches, settles into the syncopated rhythm that is as soothing to me as a lullaby. The engine cover falls with a tinny clank and Daddy lifts his hand to release me from my post. He is back in the cab with one springing step and, by the time I reach the field gate, he’s right behind me headed home.

I watch him in my rear-view mirror for a couple hundred yards then turn onto the paved road, headed toward the recycling center where I will empty the back of the Escape of bins of magazines and newspapers and plastic bottles and aluminum cans in my small attempt at some kind of penance for my consumption. Even when he is out of view I am still thinking about bleeding air.

In the context of mechanical engineering it is, obviously, a positive thing, a remedy for an ill, but I can’t shake the feeling that in the context of living it is anything but.

In the Genesis story of creation it is the breath of God that introduces Adam’s soul into the clay sculpture that is his body and most other cultures and religions also invoke the breath as that which carries life. We acknowledge the power of an experience or the beauty of an object by saying that it takes our breath away. It is with breath, with air that we speak, that we sing, that we kiss. It is how each of us demonstrates our unique humanity. Surely there is no legitimate reason for its being deliberately bled away.

Except, of course, I realize with a suddenness that causes my eyes to widen, when you’ve been holding your breath. When you’ve been living in limbo. When you’ve been sitting on a fence so long that you’ve worn the wood smooth and can’t feel the splinters anymore. Because when that is where you are, it just may take a screwdriver jabbed into the coils of your chest to force out the stale air so the fresh can get in.

And at that point, the best you can do is pray that the farmer with the screwdriver is someone you can trust.
Copyright 2011

Monday, November 07, 2011


Two more ligustrum are gone, the two that guarded either side of the front steps. They were well over six feet tall, too tall for me to trim from the ground, too dangerous to try to trim leaning off the porch, so they constantly sported asymetrical spikes of bright yellow and neon green that made them look like herbaceous rock stars.

I’d struggled with the decision for a long while. These two, unlike the one I’d dispatched back in February, had not come to me from a nursery in a tub of thin black plastic, but from Tattnall County in a fertilizer bucket of thick white plastic. Skinny, but tough little cuttings from Grandmama’s yard, she’d sent them home with Mama one day, ever convinced that anybody, even I, could make things grow.

Other than the two ligustrum, which I did manage to keep alive and see turn into sturdy fat sentries defending the entry to Sandhill, the only thing I have that belonged to Grandmama is the iron bed in the guest room. But Grandmama was a pragmatist and had she known the misery that ligustrum pollen inflicts upon my respiratory system, she would have looked at me, arms folded across her cotton print shirtwaist, and said, with just a bit of incredulity that the thought had not occurred to her educated granddaughter, "Pull ‘em up."

So we did.

Well, actually, Daddy did. But before the extraction, we – like country people do – stood and stared for a few minutes. Stood with our hands on our hips and stared at the bushes, at the steps they’d begun crowding, at the rocking chairs they hid from view. And when we had stared long enough, we bounced our chins in nods of satisfaction and confirmation that, yes, pulling up these bushes was, in fact, a good thing.

"I’ll go get the tractor and the chain," Daddy said and in a few minutes he was back with a tractor three times as big as he needed because it was the only one without a plow or something else hitched to it at the moment and with the chain.

I couldn’t tell you where that chain came from or how long Daddy’s had it. There’s never been but the one, as we say, and, unlike so many things around the farm that tend to get misplaced or broken or used up, it just always is. Ferrol Sams wrote, "In the beginning was the land. Shortly thereafter was the father." And, in my mind, sometime no later than the second or third day was the chain, already rusted to a dark river red.

The chain has pulled fallen pine trees from across the road, vehicles of various sorts from whatever spot they had broken down, and, at least once, a corn combine from a grown-over ditch where Daddy inadvertently drove it while trying to turn for the next pass. Years ago when our horse Sonny suddenly died one day from a congenital heart defect, the chain pulled him to his grave.

On this day, Daddy looped the chain around the trunk of the ligustrum, clicked the hook into one of the links, and jumped back onto the tractor where a quick thrust of diesel power ripped the roots from their place in the soil. Quick. Easy. Satisfying.

The tractor moved away leaving a wide curving wake across the front yard where the branches of the bush scraped across the already browning grass and I saw the landscape open up, the view from the porch that had been obstructed like some of the seats in old Shea Stadium suddenly clear and wide and bright in the autumn sunshine.

I could see sitting down in the rocking chair and see the mailman pull up to my mailbox. I could see all the way across the field to the spot where the deer come out in the late evening to eat. I could see farther than I’d seen in years.

We don’t often think of chains as beneficial. They fasten. They hold down. They rattle loudly while the Jacob Marleys of our pasts haunt our days with endless replays of scenes that didn’t work and scripts that need rewriting. They bind us with the strength of alloy steel to people and places and jobs that restrict movement and leave us atrophied and pale.

But sometimes chains are just what we need. A chain can clear your path or pull you home when you're broken. A chain can turn you around and bury what needs burying. And, when you’re ready to let go, a chain can open up a whole new way of seeing.
Copyright 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Caribou and Coyotes

The fog thins just enough for me to see the sun, a flat white communion wafer floating in a halo of wavy opalescence. The trees and fences and barns beneath it stand unusually straight, as though three dimensions are not enough to spotlight their long lines and sharp angles. My hand on the steering wheel moves left and right, in the easy rhythm of a weaver’s shuttle, following the curves of the road toward that flat white sun onto which it is easy to believe that, if I just keep going, I could slide like a baserunner stealing home.

It is a morning for contemplation. No radio news or iPod music. No telephone calls to return or mental lists to make. Just breathing. And looking around. And wondering.

I was reading the other day about caribou. Most of the world (and North Americans during the month of December) call them reindeer. They have specialized noses that warm cold air before it reaches their lungs and hooves that adapt to the season. They are believed to be the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light.

The caribou are migratory animals and some populations travel up to 3,100 miles a year covering 390,000 square miles, the furthest of any terrestrial mammal. The ones who live near the Arctic Circle follow the same migration path every year, an innate sense of some kind drawing them into the footsteps of their forebears. Also drawn to this same path year after year are the coyotes who feed on the caribou, who patiently and lazily lie in wait for the inevitable buffet.

One would think – if one were, say, driving into town on a foggy autumn morning and being more successful than usual at keeping at bay one’s own mental coyotes – that the caribou would eventually, maybe not this year or next year, but over a few caribou generations, figure out the need to change that path, to shake things up a bit in order to preserve the population. One could imagine, without much effort, the old bulls, slower but wiser, lowering their five-foot wide antlers and nudging the calves toward a detour. One might think that, if they didn’t, being able to preheat their oxygen or see in the dark wouldn’t amount to much more than parlor tricks for some future reindeer diaspora.

There is a legend that says the caribou are what keep the earth turning. That over the millennia their hooves have worn a deep crown into the top of the world. That they run, pounding into the ground at 50 miles per hour, regardless of what stands in their way, including the coyotes, because if they stop so will the planet. There is, says the recounter of the legend, "an inner necessity that outweighs all consequence."

I have had a number of difficult conversations lately with someone who is dear to me, someone who has loved me for a long time. There are things about which we disagree. Not inconsequential things, but important things, heart things. My dear one does not understand some of the choices that I have made, does not understand that, in fact, they were not choices at all, but simply the outward manifestation of that inner necessity.

I have tried to explain. I have not succeeded. All that the dear one sees are the consequences, the coyotes crouched in the shadows by the side of the path I’ve chosen and the scars left by the ones that came along before.

I notice that the fog has cleared a bit. The sun has warmed to margarine yellow and grown larger as it topped the pine trees that trimmed the cotton fields. It is easier to see the other cars and trucks in the herd headed toward town. Fog, it should be noted, disperses more easily than hard feelings.

We are all migratory animals. The food and shelter we seek may not be literal and the seasons we follow may be emotional rather than calendar ones, but every ear has heard a call that will not be silenced. Every heart has sensed a purpose that will not be ignored. I know this because, despite the coyotes, the earth keeps turning.

And I know that, eventually, fog always disappears.
Copyright 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

To Every Thing ...

The sun this morning is a cross-section of pink grapefruit back-lit by a strobe light. It balances on the horizon, pulsing and trembling with the tension of anticipation, as though the day can not begin quickly enough. As the road curves, it moves back and forth like the bouncing ball on the old Mitch Miller television show and I find myself wishing desperately that I knew the song.  I try to identify what I am feeling and I settle on wistfulness. 

The summer has faded too quickly.  The pale pink blooms on the cotton plants outside my back door that just days ago could have passed, at a distance, for tightly closed peonies, have popped like popcorn into thick white bolls. The rabbits have made their seasonal dine-and-dash into the hosta bed leaving behind gnawed stems that splay out like the hair on a cartoon Einstein. The sycamore tree has dropped its first feeble leaves.

In a few days I will have a birthday.  Is it possible that the wistfulness is not for the summer, but for something else?

I hear myself telling people that I will turn 55 and I wonder from where did that particular colloquialism come. The verb turn has so many different meanings – to change direction or allegiance, to rot or become rancid, to injure by twisting, to change color, to move around, to divert or deflect. None of them makes much sense in the context of getting older.

Last year, when I turned 54, I decided that before I gained another year I would do 55 things I’d not done before. There was no check-list; the point was to be open to newness and change and adventure in an intentional way and trust that Life would bring me experiences that would, in the words of Walter Cronkite, alter and illuminate my times.

So, in the last year I have, among other things, given blood, eaten an oyster, served communion, attended a drive-in movie and a Jewish worship service (within twelve hours of each other), run a road race, talked in my sleep, finally climbed the lighthouse on St. Simons, and taken the hunter safety course. I also ate kale, collards, sushi, and a tomato I grew myself. I spent a Saturday night riding in a police cruiser, signed a book contract, and went to Europe.

The point, of course, was not the number itself or even reaching the goal (which I did with one week to spare). The point was to get to that next birthday and not simply be a year older, but a year wiser, wider, deeper, stronger. And I am. I know things, feel things, can do things that I did not know, had not felt, could not do a year ago. I have broadened my perspective and narrowed my focus. I, at long last, have an idea of what I am capable of being.

"Some things just come by birthdays," Daddy says. Including, I can now say, the value of birthdays themselves.

Within minutes the pink grapefruit sun has floated up into the sky like a helium balloon escaped from a toddler’s fist. It is smaller, more yellow. Its light is less shimmery. It is no longer daybreak but early morning. And soon early morning will yield to day which will, in turn, give way to high noon. The round circle in the sky will move, will change size and color, will cast shadows and erase them completely before slinging them in the opposite direction. It will move all the way across the wide and wondrous sky before it silently slips from sight.

Is that, I wonder, what it is to turn 55 or whatever age is the next number up? Is it simply moving from one place to another in a graceful arc? Is it at long last recognizing oneself as a sun, not a moon, a body capable of producing its own heat and light? Is it finally, finally realizing that the changing size, the changing color, the presence or absence of shadows is nothing more than the illusions of those who watch from the ground?

I think I know the song now.  Summer has faded.  But autumn, golden autumn is on its way.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monks and Soldiers

I finally used my passport. It’s been in my safe for eight years, its navy blue cover stiff, the edges of its pages unruffled. It would be difficult to explain why it took so long; the important thing is that now a lovely blue stamp on one of its pages confirms the fact that my feet left the sovereign soil of the United States, landed in Ireland, and returned.

I went alone. One suitcase, a backpack, and no telephone. I visited six different cities, rode over 800 miles on various buses, and walked about 10 miles a day trying my hardest to impress upon my memory everything I saw and heard, smelled and tasted. I noticed right away that the landscape really is as green as all the PBS documentaries make it look and the patchwork of countryside is stitched together not by fencerows, but by hedges high and low.

It was jolting to see so many flowers blooming in September. All the public parks were flush with roses, hydrangeas, and pansies. At a street flower market in Dublin I found Gerbera daisies the color of strawberry ice cream and I took I don’t know how many photographs of window boxes spilling over with asters, impatiens, and petunias.

I hiked six-and-a-half-miles through the Gap of Dunloe in the Killarney National Park, countryside that made me feel like a character in a 19th century novel. There were huge sheep grazing on the hillsides close enough to touch, waterfalls and brooks, miles and miles of unbroken rolling hills, and wildflowers in colors that came out of a Sharpie pack.

At the Trinity College Library I stood in line to see the Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels written in Latin and created by Celtic monks around 800 A.D.. It is art and inspiration and perseverance made concrete. Staring at the words written in ink made from minerals on vellum made from calfskin, I tried to imagine the men whose life work it was to day after day create this monument to God. Did they ever wonder whether what they were doing was worth the effort?

I carried that question with me as I arrived at Shannon Airport early on Saturday morning, not at all looking forward to the 23 hours of travel time ahead of me, in clothes that you could tell I’d been wearing off and on all week, and just a tad concerned about being in an airplane on the day before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

I had cleared the second level of security and was in the waiting area outside customs, the last gauntlet to run before boarding the airplane. There weren’t many people there at that hour of the morning, a few folks reading newspapers and drinking coffee, a few browsing in the last outpost of the duty-free store. I wandered through the aisles of refrigerator magnets and chocolate bars trying to figure out how to spend my last few Euros, constantly glancing at the plastic watch on my wrist to see how much time had passed.

I moved a little closer to the departure door and noticed that a significant number of American soldiers had begun walking through the terminal. They were all dressed in desert combat fatigues and moved singly and in small groups toward a large set of gray double doors near the exit I would use when I went through customs. A few of them lingered in the hard plastic seats of the waiting area. Some just stood and chatted quietly with each other.

I found myself standing next to three of them. One was tall, square-shouldered. His Army hair cut was salt-and-pepper. I’d guess he was in his early 40's, most-assuredly an officer.

"There are a lot of y’all here today," I offered. "Headed home or going somewhere else?"

"Kuwait," he said. And, after looking over at the other two, "then other places."

I felt something rise in my belly, a knot of emotion that caught me completely off-guard and climbed rapidly up into my chest and then into my throat. My eyes welled up with tears as I heard myself choking out, "Thank you."

He looked me dead in the eye, straightened his shoulders a little straighter, and said in the steadiest voice I have ever heard, "It is an honor to serve."

A few moments later he and the others gathered their things and started toward the double doors. The prayer I whispered was as much for the mothers and wives and daughters as it was for them.

The world is full of monks and soldiers, those who approach their tasks with reverence and awe. Those who gladly accept, but do not need, the affirmation of others in order to march into the fray, face down the foe. Those who know there is no weight in bearing what is right. May we have the vision to recognize them all.
Copyright 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Three Views From An Office

I’ve worked in this building for eleven years. I’m presently in my third office. The first one was directly by the front door and everyone who came in passed by. It had a set a double windows with a sill wide enough that, on afternoons when my brain pulsed like the walls of a disco and distraction was the only antidote for the throbbing, I could sit and watch the traffic – car and foot – move by on Main Street in currents running north and south.

There was a gingko tree right outside the window and it calendared the seasons with a local accuracy that the calendar never could. Sometimes it was the swaying of its branches in a brisk spring breeze that caught my attention and pulled me away from the mayhem documented in the files on my desk, if not so completely as to actually sit in the window, at least to prop my feet and let my face feel the warmth of the sun for a few healing moments.

I got moved from that office to one near the back stairs, an equally busy location. It had one window from which I saw not a gingko tree and Main Street, but an alley, an overgrown courtyard and flat rooftops of varying heights – brick and concrete and tar paper. The air conditioning unit for the building next door sat on a metal platform attached to wall of the second floor. It was rusty. The top collected water when it rained and it rained a lot while I was in that office.

There was a bench in the courtyard. It was rusty, too. It was missing part of its back and all around it weeds were growing up between the bricks. The scene both whispered and screamed loneliness.

That single window was off-kilter in its sash and in the winter months cold air seeped through the cracks overpowering the output of the little ceramic heater I kept under my desk to warm my feet. There was no sitting in the windowsill in this office.

The third office, the one I now occupy, is on the back corner. It is larger than the previous two and is at the end of the hallway, in a sort of interior cul-de-sac shared by only one other office and a tiny kitchen. When I close my door here it is more likely for the purpose of climate than crowd control. The same furniture, the same books, the same certificates identify its occupant.

There are two windows, one overlooking the alley, one Main Street. My office marks the intersection where the noise and constant activity of the street crosses the quiet and emptiness of the alley. The humming of cars and trucks is set off against the non-noise of occasional foot traffic. The wide and open juts up against the narrow and constricted and the contrast is stark.

I’ve been here a while. Long enough to have changed out some of the older photographs for more recent ones. Long enough to have gone through a couple of printers. Long enough to have survived the renovation of the office building across the alley, a renovation that took months and months and involved too many afternoons of a cement mixer underneath my window grinding and grinding at a decibel level that had me teetering on whatever decibel level is my personal pain threshold.

I’ve been here a while and, yet, strangely enough, I’ve only just now come to see this place as an intersection. The single point on a graph where the Y axis, traveling in one direction, and the X axis, traveling in the other, meet. And having seen it, I’m now asking myself what exactly does one do at an intersection?

That depends, of course, on what one sees. A traffic light, a stop sign – those are easy to interpret. But what if there are no traffic signals? What if there are no street signs? What if there is an accident blocking your lane?

The answers are all the same. First, slow down. Then decide. Right, left, or straight ahead. Maybe even a u-turn if it’s clear there’s been a mistake. All viable options.

What is not an option is stopping. In the middle. Of the road. It is there that danger lies.
Copyright 2011

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Rosemary and Time

He was late in arriving. The lunch crowd had dispersed and the restaurant was nearly empty. The blades of the ceiling fans caught the sunlight from the glass panels in the front doors and threw tiny trapezoidal flashes at the corners of my eyes. Tall plastic glasses of tea – his sweetened the right way, mine artificially so – sweated on the table between us.

The dialogue hardly seemed natural. We were talking so quickly, anticipating each abrupt turn of the conversation and segueing from one unrelated subject to another, that an eavesdropper could have mistaken the conversation as having been scripted by one of the Ephron sisters. We laughed out loud at sentences that didn’t need finishing and leaned forward on tented elbows to egg each other on in the telling of one tale after another.

Time passed too quickly and he had to go, head on down the road to the family wedding where he was expected. We walked outside toward our cars.

He stopped. "Ah, rosemary," he sighed, brushing his fingertips across the pointed stems of the plant in a large urn on the sidewalk. James is a landscape architect. He knows a thing or two about plants, including the Latin name for anything about which I’ve ever asked advice, so I was not surprised that he would stop and draw his fingertips up to his nose to breathe in the scent. "Don’t you just love rosemary?"

Yes. Yes, I do.

"Do you grow rosemary at Sandhill?"

"Yes. I have a couple of plants." I didn’t mention that I have struggled the last few years to keep those pitiful plants alive – moved them from one place to another to regulate sunlight, that I have watered more, watered less, watered not at all – all in an effort to make them look like these full and flush specimens that guard the front doors of one of my favorite eating places.

He smiled and said, "You know, rosemary grows where strong women live."

No. No, I didn’t know that.

And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I would, if anyone asked, describe myself as strong. I work hard at anything I attempt. I carry more than my weight. I’ve survived a blow or two. And, yet, my rosemary was spindly and skinny and brown on the tips. It bothered me.

A few days later I was outside playing in the yard, as my Grandmama Anderson called her gardening, contemplating how to fill the blank space at the corner of the house where Daddy had pulled up the ligustrum bush. It occurred to me that I could transplant the rosemary from the big clay pots in which they had been residing into the ground where they could keep company with the verbena and a couple of miniature gardenias.

I lugged the pots from the front porch (I told you I was strong.), emptied them, loosened the roots, and dropped each of the plants into the holes I’d dug. I patted the dark dirt around their trunks and watered them well. And then I kinda sorta said a prayer, a rosemary blessing that would not be found in any missal or lectio divina. A few words along the line of, "Please, rosemary, grow."

Please, rosemary, prove that I am strong.

It’s been almost six months now since I put the rosemary in the ground. It is thriving. It is the color of a spruce tree just-cut in December. It is full and rounded like the skirt of a ball gown. It is growing taller and its scent is deeper. When I brush my fingertips across its stems it yields and springs back without losing any of its needles.

There had been nothing wrong with the rosemary. It hadn’t been diseased. It hadn’t been getting too much or too little light or water. It just needed to be loosed. It needed the freedom to stretch its roots beyond the artificial limits I’d unknowingly put on it.

I stand in the early evening light, leaning over the banister of the deck, staring down at the rosemary. The sounds of late summer pulse around me. I am thriving. I am full. I am growing. I can yield and spring back. I am strong. I am rosemary.
Copyright 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Box Scores and Being

A couple of weeks ago the Braves played an extra-innings game. I was out of town and having my usual trouble falling asleep, so I stayed with them – propped up in the bright white sheets of the Holiday Inn – until after midnight, at which point I decided I should at least try to get some rest. At 2 a.m. I gave up and turned the television back on. They were still at it.

The game lasted 19 innings, longer than two regulation games, and after a jolt of Diet Coke the next morning I started wondering: If, as I’ve long believed, baseball is the perfect metaphor for life, what does a 19-inning game that ends on a controversial call at home have to say?

You never know how long a baseball game is going to last. There is no clock as there is in football or basketball; the rules give each team nine opportunities to score and when those opportunities have been used up, whoever has the most runs wins. Occasionally things get a little complicated in the later innings – a pitcher falls apart and allows the other team to catch up, a hitter comes off the bench and makes a great hit – and the game gets extended, but only for a few brief moments. Sort of like open-heart surgery or a liver transplant.

But 19 innings? Really?

The first three innings, what poet E. Ethelbert Miller who wrote about mid-life in his memoir "The Fifth Inning" would consider youth and young adulthood, were exciting. Pittsburgh took a 3 - 0 lead and Atlanta came back to tie it. But nothing happened after that and by inning 15 everybody was exhausted and their uniforms were filthy and shredded at the knees and starting pitchers were asking for directions to the outfield because they knew that the next substitution was probably going to be sending them there.

And those of us crazy enough to still be watching were saying prayers that sounded way too much like Ricky Bobby: "Dear Lord, Baby Jesus, would you please let Martin Prado hit this next pitch over the centerfield wall, Lord, Baby Jesus? I need to turn off this light and go to sleep, but I just have this feeling that if I don’t watch this game to the very end that somehow I’m going to be responsible if the Braves don’t win and then lose the National League East Championship by one game to those obnoxious Phillies. And, Baby Jesus, what if they somehow don’t even win the Wild Card and don’t get to play in October and I have to carry that guilt for the rest of my life? Dear Lord, Baby Jesus, would you please let Martin Prado at least get a double?"

According to my calculations, based on an average life expectancy in the United States of 78.7 years, playing a 19-inning game is like living to 166. There can’t possibly be any metaphorical application of that.

Except, of course, that the beauty of metaphor is its malleability. No one lives to 166, but some people do live a very long time and some people who live not long at all manage to fit a lot of adventure and learning and love into just a few years. And as I contemplated the statistics – life expectancy and box score – it came to me: The point of the 19-inning game was to impress upon me something I’d heard my favorite Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson say over and over, "Every game is different."

Every life is different. Some lives are one-run no-hitters. Some are slug fests. In one at bat you can strike out swinging, the next get hit by a pitch, and the next hit a grand slam. In one inning you can turn an unassisted triple play and in the next make a throwing error that costs your team the lead. Sometimes the weather forces the umpire to call the game in the fifth inning and sometimes it goes nineteen. You just never know.

What you always have to keep in mind, of course, is that when the game is close and the night is long, you have to find the courage to risk being thrown out at the plate because the only way to score, the only way to win is to be called safe at home.
Copyright 2011

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Time and Tone and Depth of Field

Time and Tone and Depth of Field

The morning sunlight falls through the wooden blinds in long white rectangles onto the floor beside us. We sit at a table littered with three or four cardboard boxes of chalk. She would call them pastels, I think. The edges of the boxes are frayed and the pastels are worn down to various lengths, some of them no longer than a match.

We are speaking in low tones. Not everyone is awake yet.

She reaches for one of the pastels and holds it between her thumb and first two fingers. It is the color of the first blush of sunrise or an unshelled shrimp. She turns it sideways and swipes it deftly in two short strokes across the curve of the ripening peach she has drawn on the heavy paper.

The movement of her wrist, the swivel from left to right, the rotation of ball within socket is so slight, so finessed, that under other circumstances it would hardly be noticeable, but I can’t help but notice it. I cannot see the mark of the pastel itself, but I can suddenly see peach fuzz, stubby and shimmering.

She lifts her hand, leans back in her chair, tilts her head to one side. I can tell she is pleased. I am amazed.

We have been friends for a very long time, the artist and I. We were Brownies together in second grade, beanie caps and Bridge Ceremonies, and stayed in the same Scout troop all the way through elementary school and junior high. We went to birthday parties and sleep-overs and Youth Week activities. We built floats and put together yearbooks. She was with me the first time I saw the ocean, the same ocean and the same beach that lie not too far outside the window where we now sit.

She was always the artistic one. Those floats needed posters and those yearbooks needed illustrations and she provided them in large flourescent graphics that matched our clothes. But it wasn’t until later, long after the insatiable adolescent need for group identification began to wane, that the talent coerced its way into the light. Now she paints landscapes and still lifes in colors deep and intense and nuanced. One of them hangs at Sandhill.

She holds the drawing at arms’ length, lowers it, and picks up another pastel, this one darker. She makes a few strokes on the background, picks up a paper towel and buffs. The depth deepens. The two-dimensional drawing is becoming a three-dimensional image.

We talk about how she came to acknowledge her gift, the people who encouraged her. Tears fill her eyes. We talk about how hard it is for children who are different, even if it is a good different – artistically different, intellectually different. We talk about how lucky we were to have parents who loved us and loved each other. Tears fill both our eyes. We talk about how easy it is for a child, anyone’s child, to lose her way and how important it is to remember that they always come back to what they know. We wipe our eyes. With our hands, not with the pastel-streaked paper towel.

The drawing is done. It will be a gift for the folks who have given us this time away at their beautiful home at the beach.

"I will have to spray it with hair spray," she says. "I didn’t bring any fixative."

"So I don’t get to smell banana popsicle?" I ask.

My friend – my good friend, my old friend – throws back her head and laughs. Loudly. Forgetting for just a moment that not everyone is awake yet. I smile back at her thinking that a little color and a deft touch is all it takes to turn a two-dimensional moment into a three-dimensional memory.

Laughter and tears in the early morning light of the ocean. This is the day that the Lord hath made. I will rejoice and be glad.
Copyright 2011

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sharing the Landscape

Droughts have personalities. The late-blooming adolescent who appears only after hope is high and the corn is tall and then proceeds to turn the green satin fronds into cardboard tubes. The chronic melancholy who arrives on the train that picks up winter and hangs around so long that, by the Fourth of July, she’s just another face in the crowd at the parade. The manic-depressive that explodes the afternoon in a twenty-minute three-inch downpour and then slinks away to pout for two weeks without so much as a cool breeze. This drought, the one that presently bears down on the asphalt and the tomato plants like a panini press, the one that seems almost impossible in light of the flooding in other parts of the country, well, still I’m trying to figure her out.

She is, like all the others, selfish and megalomaniacal, but I have observed one distinctive trait: This drought has had a very strange effect on the various species of wildlife around Sandhill. I saw it first in the mockingbirds, noting an exhibition of both good sense and manners as they – contrary to past behavior – didn’t seem to be relentlessly ramming their heads into the windows or relieving themselves on the front porch.

Then I noticed the squirrels, dark ones, sitting on their haunches in the middle of the fields first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon. They were big enough to be prairie dogs and looked a lot like them with their tiny hands folded across their chests as though in prayer. Squirrels are not usually still, certainly not in such an exposed position, flat open acreage spread out around them on every side. And, yet, these seemed to be not bothered at all by the noise or movement of people or vehicles.

Even the deer, normally almost invisible during the summer, especially during a very dry summer, started galloping across the fields at unexpected moments. Just the other morning a doe and twin fawns stood in the road in front of my car, nonplused at my appearance and convinced to move out of the way only after an assertive pressing of the accelerator.

The oddest occurrence of all has been the nesting of a pair of quail under the boxwoods right outside Mama and Daddy’s front door. They coo almost constantly and scurry out whenever somebody approaches the front door, their fat little bottoms swaying. One afternoon I watched Daddy sitting on the deck, cracking peanuts and tossing them over the rail toward an open spot in the hedge from which the two of them would rush out to grab the shelled nuts and then dash back into the cool cover.


If climate change is, in fact, happening – And I really don’t see any reason not to believe that it is. – , it occurs to me that this could be just the beginning. That everything we think we know about the critters that share our living space could turn out to be as useless as the 1973 Edition of the World Book Encyclopedia. That the whole "they are more afraid of you than you are of them" philosophy of dealing with snakes and raccoons and assorted other varmints may need to be seriously reconsidered. That I may soon be sitting on the front porch in the rocking chair with rabbits at my feet and cardinals in my hair.

Eventually the drought will end. What should be green will be green. What has been brittle will be soft and flexible. And the animals will, most likely, revert to their ordinary personalities. They will move back into the periphery. They will stop looking me in the eye. We will startle each other again with unexpected appearances and sudden movements.

I will miss them.
Copyright 2011

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Exit, Laughing

The little town where Mama grew up was so small that, whenever there was a funeral, any child who wanted could leave school to attend. The church bell would ring and teachers would announce, "If you are attending the funeral today, you may leave now." Mama, whose career goal at age 10 or 12, was to be a "funeral home lady," never missed an opportunity to show respect, express condolences and observe the tricks of the trade.

On one particular day she happened to have garnered an aisle seat at the little country church where the deceased was being remembered. At the close of the sermon, the minister invited the congregation to come forward and take one last look at the dearly departed. One of Mama’s classmates was coming back down the aisle and caught Mama’s eye. Mama smiled.

The next day at school everyone was talking about the fact that, God help us all, Frances Anderson smiles at funerals.

It was hard not to remember that story earlier this week as I sat in a small country church, beside two of my girlfriends and along with many others, to remember the life of another friend’s mother. She was one of those women that women of my generation know we will never be. She had a strength and a resilience that manifested itself in quiet devotion to her family and her church. Her response to any accolade was, "I’ve just been so blessed." It would have been easy to turn her into a caricature.

Except for one thing. You see, she reared two very human children, one of whom was a daughter who ended up, through a series of not-so-unusual circumstances, becoming a friend of mine. And then my friends and her friends started overlapping until they became our friends and on this particular June morning there we all were – most of us sitting in the pews, but one of us standing in the pulpit.

Deborah is a gifted minister and, with a close relationship of over 30 years upon which to draw, the portrait she painted of my friend’s mother was respectful and realistic. She shared stories that highlighted the talents of cooking and sewing. She emphasized faith and generosity. She mentioned the profound effect on her own life that had been made.

Then, right in the middle of an absolutely lovely eulogy, she glanced over where I and the other two were sitting, and spoke a single sentence that elicited a most unfunereal response: we laughed. Out loud. Surrounded by church members in dark suits and sensible shoes. Sitting on the second row right behind the pallbearers. Lord, help us.

Later, standing outside under the noon sun, sand from the churchyard cemetery scooting its way into our high-heeled sandals, we all talked about it. Deborah had been totally nonplused by the outburst. She shared with us that she’d suspected there might be such a reaction and that the looks on our faces had confirmed she’d done the right thing by including the slightly-comic relief. That was a comfort.

And, to tell the truth, I suspect that the laughter itself was something of a comfort, a gentle reminder in the midst of unbearable sadness that the heart can still recognize and yield to humor. A call from whatever lies beyond this life to acknowledge the grief and endure the sorrow with grace. A souvenir for the pockets of those lining the creaky wooden pews, a talisman to clutch in the days to come when absence threatens to overpower sweet memory.

We sang "A Mighty Fortress" at the funeral, all four verses. The third verse goes, "The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him." And if that one little word is said with a smile or, better yet, while laughing, well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all the better. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.
Copyright 2011

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

This Thing About Words

I really can’t help it, this thing I have about words. This fascination with their power, this wonder at their flexibility, this compulsion to string them together into necklaces of sound and rhythm that sway around my neck as I walk. The way they feel spilling out of my mouth, puffs and bursts of air shaped by throat and teeth and tongue. The way they look on a page, black lines and squiggles that stand at attention, but only barely so. There is nothing quite so magical as the read, the written, the spoken word.

I am not, of course, alone in my enchantment. Not long ago Kate and I were having an internet chat when the topic of words came up.

"I was thinking on the way to work this morning," she told me, "about the word ‘sneak.’ Why is it that we always want to make the past tense ‘snuck’? It’s not even a word."

I thought about it a minute. "You’re right," I told her. "The past tense of leak isn’t luck. The past tense of speak isn’t spuck. Why would it seem so natural to say ‘snuck’?"

We did not, I should point out, come up with an answer. There may be one. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, the one they’ve decided not to publish in book form anymore, may have some lengthy etymological history digitalized somewhere citing the use of "snuch" by Samuel Pepys in an obscure diary entry, but for my and Kate’s purposes it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that in the dissection and parsing a little more of the power had been released, a little like nuclear fission.

My friend Mary Catherine understands, too. Not long ago she sent me a novel about a girl whose name was Ella Minnow Pea. How incredibly clever! Mary Catherine is also the friend who gave me The Professor and the Madman. It’s about the editor of the aforementioned Oxford English Dictionary and one of its main contributors, a patient in the infamous Broadmoor Insane Asylum. A book about writing a dictionary – and I found it nearly impossible to put down.

Of course, not everyone feels this way about words. This is why so many people think that correct spelling isn’t important. This is why so many people use bad grammar. And profanity. These are generally the same people who are satisfied with calling a bird a bird, a tree a tree and never wonder what kind. How can they not understand that it makes a difference?

I wish, sometimes, that I could have a conversation with someone and not diagram our sentences in my head. That I could read a magazine article without circling with a red pen phrases that sound particularly musical. That I could leave a bookstore empty-handed. I wish, sometimes, but only sometimes, that I could treat words like tools, like utilitarian items, objects that are useful but without loveliness. It would make many things so much easier if I could.

Alas (Now that’s a word that has fallen on hard times and really is one of my favorites.), some things cannot be changed.

And while it is easy to be discouraged at the dearth of apparent word lovers in our video-gaming, iPhone carrying, library-closing society, there was this one moment last weekend.

I got to the wedding a little later than I had planned and most of the guests had been seated. The polite young usher asked where I would like to sit and, at just that moment, my sweet little friend Katie Anne turned from her spot on the end of one of the aisles and vigorously waved in my direction. "Right there will be just fine," I told him.

I settled into the pew with Katie Anne, her mom and her older sister Madeline as the remaining guests were seated. I opened my program just as the mom gently nudged me in the ribs with her elbow and nodded toward Madeline. I leaned forward to get a look; she was hunched forward, her attention on the book in her lap. She was oblivious to everything else.

Ah. The barbarians are not yet at the gate.

Copyright 2011


Sunday, June 05, 2011

Paying Attention and Watching Our Steps

I went out early to go running. The grass was still damp with dew that did nothing to disguise the drought. Even at 7:30, the sun was already high enough to bounce off my bare shoulders with warmth like a toaster oven. I twisted the ear buds to my iPod into my ears; maybe the sound of someone else’s voice, instead of my thoughts, would induce some sort of runner’s zen state.

It is never easy to run on the dirt roads at Sandhill – they are uneven and rocky in spots, irritatingly sandy in others. When it’s this dry, though, and the passage of tractor and large truck tires have created the state that gives rise to the term washboard roads, it’s worse. Maintaining a rhythm is next to impossible. Zig-zagging from one side of the road to the other trying to find the spot least deep in sand takes concentration away from regular breathing. Tiny rust-colored pebbles skid dangerously under the treads of your shoes, leaving you constantly one stride away from a twisted ankle.

I knew all that before I started. And still I went.

The advantage of being out that early, other than the pretty much useless attempt to beat the heat, was getting to see all the animal tracks from the evening and night before. The thin delicate Y’s of bird feet had left angled seams all up and down the road, field to field, ditch to ditch. As I came across the first one, not far from the front door, I adjusted my stride to step over it, leaving the line unraveled.

The deer tracks, edges of the heart-shaped depressions indistinct in the fine sand, were thicker and wider. Their depths indicated how fast the animals had been moving and whether they had leapt over the ditch into the road or simply walked out of the field or firebreak. Deer are timid creatures and startle easily; their tracks don’t always show up in a straight line. It was harder to make sure I didn’t land a foot in a spot that obscured one of their steps.

At a low spot in the road I make a quick adjustment to avoid mussing a snake line even as I wondered why a snake would have been moving that early in the day.

I was nearly a mile down the road, tasting salt on my lips and wiping my forehead with the tail of my shirt, before I realized what I was doing – taking great care, at the risk of slipping on a rock or sliding in the sand, to avoid running over the footprints of the animals that had been out before me. It seemed a little silly. But only for a moment.

Animals don’t write memoirs or create time capsules. They don’t keep journals or make scrapbooks, but they do leave records of their days. Abandoned exoskeletons, shed antlers, empty cocoons. A buck scrape on a pine tree, a dropped feather, a dried nest. Hoof prints, paw prints, claw prints across a sandy road. Each is a story of a life that shared this small piece of earth with me, with us. Is it so much to imagine what that story might be?

At the bad curve I turned around. Paused. Caught my breath. Started home.

I’d been passed by several vehicles – Keith in his truck on the way to PoJo’s, a couple of four-wheelers with enough courtesy to slow down and minimize the amount of their dust I would have to breathe, a commercial pick-up – and I realized as I headed back toward Sandhill that all of them had driven over the tracks. The birds’. The deer’s. The snake’s. Mine.

The stories had been wiped away. The history of our presence in that place on that day was lost. Whatever message might have been written in the road had been erased. There had been no intent, no malice aforethought, not even an awareness of the consequences. And, yet, the result was the same as if there had been.

This earth, these days, these hearts that beat within us are tender. They bear the imprint of the slightest touch. We have no choice but to watch our steps.
Copyright 2001

Monday, May 23, 2011

Spring Fever, Acute and Severe

Spring in south Georgia, I usually explain to people who are not from around here, generally lasts about three days and those three days are not always consecutive.

The pattern goes something like this: Chill and rain set in for a week followed by one gloriously sunny day during which the azaleas on Savannah Avenue burst forth like showgirls on the Las Vegas strip. The next morning, in a fit of ill-advised optimism, I wear something with short sleeves and spend the entire day shivering under a sky gray as General Lee’s Traveller. The morning after brings with it hard wind and more rain that scatters and then flattens the azalea blossoms into microscope slides.

Day three dawns with a chorus of avian courtship tunes and sunlight lasering through the cracks in the window blinds. The dogwood blooms demurely lift their faces to be kissed by a breeze that smells just slightly of grass and I stand on the sidewalk coveting the convertibles that appear about every fifth car. Days four through seven are sunny, but cold and the only thing that makes me smile is the fact that I haven’t moved my winter clothes to the guest room closet yet.

The eighth day is balmy and I decide where to eat lunch by locating a place with an open outside table. The ninth day the temperature is 85 degrees – summer has arrived, spring is gone for good.

But this year, oh, this year, we’ve had a real spring. One day after another of cool mornings ripening into warm afternoons and fading into pleasant evenings. One day after another of dawns that flood the fields with light like melted butter and sunsets that bleed away like old bruises. I stand outside as the air moves in gentle currents around my face, my arms, my legs and I understand for the first time why the vocabulary of the weatherman includes the word mild.

As much as I have enjoyed the days of repetitive atmospheric conditions, however, I’m not so certain that the animals around Sandhill have; they’ve been taken off guard and their behavior shows it. For example, on the way to work the other day I saw an opossum waddling along the edge of the newly-plowed field just outside the front door. His fur was exactly the color of the dirt and, at first glance, all I saw was the black paws and little black nose as though he were materializing bit by bit from the early morning ether. What he was doing wandering around during what should have been his sleeping hours I can’t imagine.

The activity that really had me flummoxed, however, was that around the hummingbird feeder one afternoon. I had my legs stretched out and a magazine balanced in my lap when the familiar droning started. Within seconds, not one or even two, but three hummingbirds were dive bombing the feeder at the corner of the deck. There were other feeders in the yard, all of them full, but the trio was determined to drink from a single spout on that particular one.

With a great flapping of wings and crashing of bodies they began rolling in spirals like barnstorming biplanes. One of the three flew away rather quickly toward the feeder hanging from the chinaberry tree as the remaining two continued to poke at each others’ heads with their narrow beaks. The pearly greens and blues of their bodies smeared the air in wide swaths as the pitch of their hums grew higher and higher. I’d never seen anything like it.

Eventually they separated and one, the vanquished I gathered, flitted away. The victor pitched himself down toward the feeder and lowered his head to the fake plastic blossom. Getting what he wanted, he began to move away across the yard, but just as one of the other birds re-approached he abruptly altered his direction and attacked. The same sequence of events took place at least four times, enough for me to dub him The Bully and start talking to him, first trying to convince him to play nice and, finally, letting him know in no uncertain terms that his behavior was unappreciated at Sandhill and that he’d best straighten up.

I don’t think he cared.

I’ve always thought of spring fever as a pleasant, fanciful, slightly capricious state of mind brought about by a general feeling of gratitude that yet another dark and cold winter had been survived. Apparently that was the disease in its incubation stage. Apparently the presenting symptoms of the malady are insomnia and extreme aggression. And, as humans, apparently we should be glad that spring in south Georgia usually lasts only three days.
Copyright 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cicada Song

A tractor, a big tractor, its diesel motor droning from across a distant field. That’s what it sounded like. Or a box fan, turned on high, held in place by a window sash pulled down tight on its metal frame and blowing out into the hot summer night to create a draft for the rest of the open windows in the house. That’s what it sounded like. Or the jet engine of a DC-10 making its final approach to Hartsfield, its shadow an immense gray bird falling over the cars on I-75. That, too, is what it sounded like.

But it was none of those things. None of those mechanical, manufactured, man-marked sounds. The hum that swelled into the air and surged through the trees and surrounded me like a tight sweater was thousands – tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands? – of cicadas serenading themselves and anything within at least half a mile with the song they get to sing only once every thirteen years.

The friend I was visiting had warned me, but I was not prepared for the depth of the rumbling that greeted me when I walked outside into sunshine that had warmed the cicadas up enough to begin the performance. The sound vibrations were coming at me from every direction and I could almost feel myself pulsing in time with the buzz. It was confusing and calming, discordant and melodic, repulsive and enticing, all at the same time.

Given the fact that they appear so seldom and not at all in south Georgia, chances were that this would be my only chance to see one, so I set off into the woods at the each of the yard, scanning the landscape, certain I would be able to find one fairly easily. I did not. I scoped out the pine trees I’d been told they preferred, alert for the bulbous red eyes that distinguish them from their cousins who show up every summer. Nothing. I surveyed the undergrowth, stirring it up a little with my shoes. Still nothing.

"Oh, well," I sighed to my friend who was graciously helping me search, "at least I got to hear them." And at just that moment, that exact moment, I looked down and there, on the arm of a teak garden bench, was a cicada. A thirteen-year cicada. A cicada with eyes that looked like clown noses. A cicada with diaphanous wings that shimmered as though dusted with gold.

I picked it up. Its thin legs clamped onto my finger, I twisted and turned it in the morning sunshine and watched the light reflect off the veins in its wings. It made not a sound while all around us the cacophony played on. A moment later it surprised me how hard it was to loosen its grip from my knuckle.

My friend and I had things to do and, to be honest, it seemed almost rude to just stand there and gawk, just stand there with my head tilted first one way and then the other, just stand there like an eavesdropper. So we left.

Later, of course, I had to do a little research, had to add a few facts to the anecdotal evidence I’d collected on my own, had to legitimize my experience with that of scientists. I found out that the thirteen-year- and seventeen-year-cicadas are called periodical cicadas, as distinguished from the ordinary annual cicadas, and that only the males sing, producing "acoustic signals" from a structure called a tymbal which is located on the little fellows’ abdomens. All very interesting.

But the best part, the piece of information that made me tremble again, just as if I’d been surrounded by a whole room full of cicadas, was this: "Periodical cicadas ... belong to the genus Magicicada." Magicicada? Magic cicada? Really?

It’s easy – when tornadoes are erasing entire towns, when gas is nearly $4.00 a gallon, when memories of 9/11 are newly-stirred – to see the darkness that frames every vision, to feel the heaviness that weighs every offering, to smell the decay that accompanies every blossom, to believe that magic has died. Easy to draw the curtains, slam the doors, seal the borders of our hearts and close down our minds. The other option – to stay open to possibility, to hang on to hope, to believe that truth will ultimately win – that’s hard.

I imagine, though, that it’s hard to stay underground for thirteen years, to rein in anticipation for thirteen years, to hold back a song for thirteen years. Somehow, though, the cicadas – magic cicadas – do that hard thing. And there is something in their song that makes me think we can, too.
Copyright 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A New Constellation

The sky last night was a bolt of dark wash denim, the selvage hugging one horizon, the fold the other. And the stars, oh, so many stars, did not twinkle so much as glow, did not shine so much as radiate, radiate like ice crystals with a kind of negative energy. I lay on my back on the deck, the boards like extra ribs pushing into me at regular intervals, and stared up into the darkness interrupted only occasionally by airplanes so small they could have been fireflies.

The Big Dipper was upside down, emptied of whatever it had held, and I felt the same way. The past few days had moved too fast, required too much, offered too little. The sounds of strident voices ricocheted through my head and the weight of impatience, uncertainty and misunderstanding shortened my breath. My eyes were constantly darting, never lighting, avoiding concentration. My heart had been rubbed sandpaper raw.

I know what to do when that happens – Get very still and listen. – and that’s what I was doing. At least trying.

In the branch the frogs’ voices sounded like an old screen door incessantly opening and closing, the rusty springs stretching and contracting in uneven cadence. Somewhere nearby a small animal moved in the brittle brush left where Daddy burned off the edges of the field. The petunias hanging from the shepherd’s crooks swayed pendulously in the breeze, their flimsy petals fluttering in the moonlight like a coquette’s eyelashes.

I forced my breaths to grown longer, deeper. I stared at the sky trying to make out constellations, wondered about the people who first saw the pictures, named them, made up their stories. And as I wondered my thoughts wandered back a few days to a scene I’d meant to remember and had almost forgotten.

I’d been to town to pick up a few things for the yard – something to fill in the hole in the perennial bed, a basil plant (in anticipation of tomatoes), three azaleas for the spot in front of the chimney. The garden center was a busy place that afternoon, the parking lot crowded with SUV’s, all being loaded with bags of mulch, stacks of landscape stones, and pots of ornamental grasses.

Heading for the exit I found myself behind an older model pick-up truck – no extra doors or wide tires or pin-stripes. The driver appeared to be in his late 60's. He leaned out of the window to glance at the cargo and I could see that his hair, though stippled with some gray, was still as dark as his skin. There was a woman in the truck with him and I safely assumed, I think, that she was his wife. The cargo bed was empty save for one item – a yellow rose bush. Pushed up against the cab for stability, its long canes danced with the movement of the truck over the asphalt.

I couldn’t help thinking of them in comparison to the other people I’d encountered in the store, the ones who live in subdivisions with restrictive covenants, the ones who read Martha Stewart Living and sketch out garden plans on graph paper, the ones – like me – who use weed fabric and landscape pins.

Traffic on the highway was heavy, all four lanes pulsing with vehicles moving east and west. He would be careful, I knew. Careful because he remembered when this was a two-lane highway and wished it still was. Careful because he was transporting things of importance. Careful because he had reached an age at which he knew that care must be taken with everything.

When a break opened, the truck slowly moved forward over three lanes to turn left and, as it did, both of them – husband and wife – looked back to check on the rose. It was a moment of such tenderness I thought I would cry.

Stretched out on the deck in the darkness, I can see his strong hands dig the hole for the rose bush and gently place it in the ground and I can see her standing behind him, arms crossed and head tilted in a satisfied pose. I can hear him grunt as he rises and brushes the dirt from his hands on the legs of the pants she will wash and dry and fold. I can see them walk inside together as the sun dissolves into the selvage of the day.

And I look up and see two stars, equally bright and so close together it seems as though the Big Dipper must have emptied them into the sky in the same scoop.
Copyright 2011

Monday, April 11, 2011

Senses and Sensibility

The wildfire had been burning for over a week. I expected to see evidence of it as I passed the green metal road sign that marked the Long County line and drove on down the highway lined with pine trees and wiregrass, but I didn’t.

There were no fields black with soot and stubbled with brittle stems and shoots. There were no rapidly-dug trenches across the dirt roads that splayed out from the highway like arteries. There were no collapsed barns or tenant houses, defenseless tinder for unhindered flames. The bright white clapboard of Jones Creek Church still reflected the late afternoon sunlight directly into my eyes as I came around the curve and the marquee at the elementary school announced that spring break would be next week. There was absolutely nothing to indicate that over 4,000 acres had burned.

Nothing except the smell.

And I didn’t notice that at first. The windows were up and it seeped in slowly, a smell something like fresh creamed corn left on the stove unattended and scorched, stuck to the bottom of your best pot in a thick layer of crud that will have to soak overnight before it even thinks of coming loose. Or like your daddy’s white dress shirt pressed by a too-hot iron and tattooed with a caramel-colored arrowhead the size of a fist smack-dab on the front pocket. Like that – bitter and sweet at the same time.

I was on my way to the beach – that place of endless sky, endless water, endless sight – , so the land’s trauma did not stay with me long. I can’t help it; it is as though the core of my heart is made of iron and the closer I get the stronger is the pull so that by the time I reach the highest point on the causeway bridge I am falling like a ball bearing.

I had no plans other than to talk to, spend time with, be with my friends, but Providence had an invitation and a perfect wind and, before I knew it, the next day I was on a sailboat slicing through the sound like a knife through butter. To the north we could just make out a handful of people riding horses on Jekyll and just off the port side was the lighthouse at St. Simons and a nearly empty beach. The sails snapped like laundry hung out to dry and the conversation wound in and out of the rigging like children around a Maypole. You could not have asked for a more idyllic setting.

Driving back home later, I didn’t notice, didn’t notice not noticing the smell of burned landscape. Only later did I realize it. It had been 24 hours, of course, and perhaps there had been a rain shower to settle the scent or maybe it was just the normal dissipation of chemicals, but that’s not what I think.

What I think is that the smell of scorched corn and burned fabric was still wafting over Long County in long waves like the ones that follow Pepe’ LePew in the Looney Tunes cartoons and I – or, rather, my brain’s limbic system – had chosen not to smell it, had chosen rather to concentrate on the scent of ocean and sunscreen and that peculiar combination of pimento cheese grits and pork barbecue that had been the lunch special at Southern Soul.

Our brains create such interesting scrapbooks. They clip and save the oddest things – one line from the lyrics of a song heard on the radio driving down the highway during a rainstorm, the color of a shirt hanging over the railing on a hotel balcony, the satin smoothness of a scar, the smell of 4,000 acres charred to jagged nothingness. And they organize those things no better than we organize the photographs and programs and movie ticket stubs we are so intent on saving. Some get attached to archival pages with archival glue, labeled with archival ink, but most of them get thrown into a shoebox or shopping bag with a half-hearted promise of return. Someday.

I hold in my hands the reflection of sunlight on water, the laughter of children, the saltiness of my own lips. They are piled in a generous heap and beneath them lies the scent of ash.

Copyright 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

We Who Stand As Trees

Two weeks ago one of the young sawtooth oaks in the backyard was still clinging to its winter leaves – tight little wrapping paper tubes of brittle brown. The bigger leaves were long gone; these were the recalcitrant ones, the obstreperous children determined to have their own way.

The air was warm that morning. The sun was bright. The verbena I’d planted last summer at the corner of the deck was already blooming purple and spilling over the concrete edgers I’d put in place to keep it contained. What was the oak tree still doing holding on to winter?

I started wondering how, exactly, the tree’s new buds might force the leaves to fall, how the sap might begin pumping in a rhythm akin to a heartbeat, each pump jarring the leaf a little looser until eventually, like the criminal hanging by his fingertips from the 30-story ledge, there was nothing to do but drop. I could almost see the sticky life-juice pushing through the thin bark, could almost hear it screeching with false bravado, "Hey, you! Yeh, you, yesterday’s news, outta here!"

A couple of days later I pulled into the driveway (in daylight, thanks to the time change) and saw the oak tree covered, ballooned in Coke-bottle green buds and matching leaves. The armature of branches was all but completely hidden by the froth. Not a single brown cylinder remained. Not even on the ground.

I’ve grown accustomed to the natural world’s prestidigitation. It cannot be watched closely enough to observe the change as it happens. It performs its magic in secret, under cover of darkness or solitude. Overnight the grass needs cutting. In the afternoon you water a rosebud; in the morning it is in full flower; by evening it is fading.

But this was different. Not the ordinary wizardry of spring. That many leaves do not drop and disappear that quickly.

Still studying the suddenly voluptuous tree over my shoulder, I started toward the back steps and noticed the pine cone seeds. They fanned out over the carport floor like fairy dust, salmon pink translucent wings weighted down by seeds the color of doe eyes. They’d been lifted from their trees of origin, carried across the landscape between earth and sky, and deposited at my doorstep by invisible gusts of warm spring wind.

And, of course, that is how the oak tree got naked so quickly, too. The wind. Warm spring wind.

The new buds chafed for the dead leaves to fall of their own accord and the dead leaves held to the branch with righteous anger. The new buds, full of new life, impatient to see sunlight, feel raindrops, convert carbon dioxide into oxygen trembled with anticipation while the dead leaves trembled with fear. Neither could do anything but wait.

Wait for the wind. Wait for the outside force. Wait for the shaking that would strip to naked the strong skeleton and re-dress it in newer, better attire.

We all like to think that we are the managers of our lives, that we make the choices and create the timelines, that the decisions of when or if to hang on or let go are ours and ours alone. To take that approach occasionally may be appropriate, but to live one’s entire life that way is to live in denial.

The truth is that we are all trees. We sprout leaves. We produce fruit. We offer shade. In season. But seasons change. And so we must stand in the wind, roots holding us up straight and tall, and watch as it blows and gusts and tears away all that is dead in order that we may see all that is alive.
Copyright 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

Age to Age

It is grainy and gray, faded and fragile to the touch, a newspaper clipping from 1966. I am bent over it with a combination of amusement and incredulity. The caption says that it is a photograph of Girl Scout Troop 370 on a field trip to the Statesboro Herald. It identifies the twenty or so girls, row by row. There in the middle is my name.

I don’t remember the visit to the newspaper. I don’t remember Mr. Coleman showing us the printing press. I recognize very view of the faces in the photo. That is the incredulity. The amusement arises from the smile – the goofy, tight-lipped grin – on the face of the little girl that was Kathy Bradley. I can’t help laughing out loud.

And I can’t help staring.

Ten years old. That would be fifth grade. Mrs. Trapnell’s class at Mattie Lively. That was the year my friend Gail got rheumatic fever, the year I got so good playing marbles with the boys at recess, the year I got my long ponytail cut. It was the year I went to Mrs. Russell’s classroom for reading, was the narrator of the end-of-school program and spent a week in June at Camp Safety Patrol.

I remember all that, but I don’t remember this imp, this scamp, this child who might just burst at any moment from the sheer volume of joy that has risen up through her chest and into her face. What has made her so cheerful? Is it the jaunty green felt beret? Is it the excitement of the field trip? Or is it just being ten years old?

"The great thing about getting older," Madeleine L’Engle, the writer best known for her children’s fantasy books, once told the New York Times, "is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been." The quote comes to mind later as I find myself contemplating the little girl with the silly smile. If I have not lost her, where is she?

Certainly she remains in my still-strong penchant for the cookies she sold, but I am not certain that I can detect her features in the face I see in the mirror each morning. I cannot swear that her curiosity or self-confidence or insouciance lingers in the posture I feel compelled to maintain most days. And I am absolutely sure she is not racing me to bed on the nights when life’s inevitable blows leave me spent in body and spirit.

It wasn’t so many days later that I saw a couple of Girl Scouts camped out at a grocery store entrance, card table covered in cookie pyramids of Thin Mints, Trefoils, Tagalongs and Samoas. I watched from a distance, listened to their sing-song voices call out, "Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?" I was stopped cold.

The words, the timbre, the chill in the air became the shaped notes of a song I knew by heart, its sheet music locked in a bottom drawer of my memory. Right then, right there, the ten-year-old me showed up from wherever she’d been hiding, vacationing, held ransom.

She dropped a cool, slick marble in my hand and my thumb bent to shoot it. She handed me a Blue Horse notebook and I spread the pages open across its spiral wire to see fat, loopy cursive vocabulary words. She offered me a pair of stark white Keds with a blue rubber label on the heel and I tightened the laces to go outside to play dodge ball.

I looked down to straighten my badge sash and when I looked back up she was gone. Except, of course, she wasn’t. She was exactly where she’d always been. With me. Inside me. Me.

I will always be ten years old. And fifteen. And thirty. And forty. I just may need to be reminded

Copyright 2011

Monday, February 28, 2011

Yard Work

It is not spring. One look at the calendar confirms it, but on this Saturday morning you could fool anybody. The branch is ringing with overlapping bird calls and the sky is baby blanket blue. The breeze is so slight as to not seem a breeze at all, but something like the close breath of a lover. There is no resisting the pull.

In shorts and a t-shirt I take a book outside to the deck and start to read. And in less than ten minutes I start to wheeze.

I am allergic to the ligustrum bush that grows at the corner of the house just off the edge of the deck. Eight or nine feet tall, its thick leaves stay beautifully green all year and it requires no attention except the occasional pruning to keep it from completely obscuring the bedroom window nearby. Said beauty and self-sufficiency are what have kept it alive for the ever-how-many years it’s been since I discovered that its pollen, inhaled into my respiratory system, result in a significant decrease in breathing function.

What I always do, in response to the ligustrum’s attack, is to sigh, gather my things and go inside. Without thinking. But today – What is it about today? – I don’t. Today I sigh, gather my things, go inside and make a decision. Today is the last day that I will be hindered, hampered, prevented, precluded. Today is the day I act.

Mama and Daddy are outside, too, duct-taping hose pipes together to irrigate some newly planted grape vines. I cross the yard and make my request: I ask Daddy, sometime when he has time, not necessarily today, just sometime, to take his chain saw (It’s a big bush.) down to my house and cut down the ligustrum bush.

"What about now?" he asks, just as I knew he would. "But I’ll tell you this. If you just cut it down, come spring it’s going to sprout back up. Why don’t we just pull it up with the tractor?"

And so it is that the John Deere 7810, with the harrow still attached and a chain with links as big as ham hocks attached to that, rumbles into the yard at Sandhill to pull up a bush. It takes less than three minutes. Total. And how many years have I wheezed and sighed?

Later, when the blue in the sky has faded to chambray and the shadows are falling from the west, I go back outside with my book and start to read. And continue reading. No wheezing.

I take a deep breath. Another one. How lovely to sit in the sunlight, feel the live stillness of the afternoon, absorb the silent tension of the earth about to be awakened. I close my book and consider the lesson of the ligustrum. Are there others that need to be pulled up? Not pruned, not trimmed back, not cut down to sprout again, but pulled completely out of the ground and dragged away to die. I wonder what attitudes or expectations have been cutting off my breath for years, what postures I’ve taken or defenses I’ve maintained in fruitless attempts to catch my breath, what fears have made me hold my breath.

I am reminded that the Hebrew Bible uses the same word ("ruach") for both breath and spirit. What have the ligustrums of doubt and anxiety done to my spirit? What have I missed? What have I lost? Why was it so easy to just get up and go inside?

For a moment I feel smothered with regret, suffocated by anger at myself and my failure. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.

Something draws my attention to the spot where the ligustrum used to be. Its roots were wide, but not deep. The ground is barely disturbed, turned up just enough to welcome my trowel and some new growing thing. I raise my gaze from the hole and realize how different now is the view. The horizon has opened. I can see the road. I close my eyes, lift my chest, expand my lungs. And, in the calm, I feel my breath, my spirit rise.

Copyright 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Making Soup, Making Life

Making soup is therapeutic.

First, you gather the vegetables, potatoes dense and slightly rough, carrots gnarled and wrinkled, celery stringy and still carrying dirt in its pockets and onion slick beneath its papery skin. You peel the potatoes and carrots watching brown and orange curls of skin fall into the sink beneath the long strokes of the vegetable peeler. They pile onto each other like children wallowing in autumn leaves.

Then you chop. Cubes of potato and onion, discs of carrots, demi-lunes of celery. The solid sound of metal moving through organic matter. Chop. Chop. Chop. The knife gets stuck in the potato every now and then, its starch making glue on the blade. You stop, wipe it off and begin again. It moves through the celery with the rapidity of a sewing machine making a long seam. Little mountains grow on the cutting board, little mountains of effort.

Next you take a heavy pot, one it takes two hands to lift, one that reminds you how strong you are. You fill it about a third of the way full, maybe with water, maybe with broth or stock. It depends on what you want to have when you are done. You scoop the vegetables up with your hands and drop them into the pot smiling with each satisfying splash. They slide into the liquid and into each other. They look like jewels.

You might add some salt and pepper at this point. Maybe some bay leaves. It’s your soup. Season to taste.

You turn on the heat – medium low at this point –, cover the pot and leave it for a while. Fifteen minutes. Maybe twenty. Maybe thirty. Just depends on how long it takes for the vegetables to become tender but still crisp. While you wait you clean up the mess.

Once the vegetables are ready you decide what kind of soup it will be. Does this soup want tomatoes? Does it want chicken and noodles? Does it want beans? Does it want the leftover corn and green beans in the Tupperware container that falls out of the refrigerator every time you open it?

Put it in, turn up the heat, cook a little longer. However long it takes. This is soup. It isn’t souffle.

When it’s ready, you get a bowl, a big bowl and fill it up. You watch the steam rise in silver wisps. You resist the almost irresistible urge to taste it right away. You will burn your tongue. You know you will. You lean down to smell it, to feel the steam hit your cheeks. You put your hands around the bowl. It is too hot to hold. You remember reading that the reason Japanese tea cups have no handles is that the Japanese know that if the cup is too hot to hold the tea is too hot to drink.

You distract yourself by finding a spoon, a napkin, maybe some crackers or a corn muffin, something to soak up what will be left at the bottom and unreachable by the spoon. Finally, just at the moment when you are sure you are going to die from anticipation, you venture a tiny sip from the edge of the spoon and, yes, yes, the soup is cool enough to eat. To eat, to slurp (if you are alone), to be drawn not just into your mouth and belly, but into your very veins, easing away not just hunger, but anger and loneliness and frustration and fatigue. Ah, soup.

Making soup is therapeutic. Because it’s a lot like making life. You gather the makings and trim them to fit your pot. You turn up the heat. You throw in a few surprises at the last minute. You wait while all the flavors meld. And then you fill yourself with it, with all of it.

And you remember – Please, please remember. – that it’s your soup, your life. There is no recipe. Only a matter of figuring out what it craves.

Copyright 2011

Monday, January 31, 2011

Cold Comfort

Ice hung off the eaves of the carport like jagged dragon teeth in a pre-schooler’s drawing of scary. Stiff and unresponsive to the wind that came rushing across the field and crying like a banshee, the ice-covered limbs of the sycamore tree could have been the dragon’s claws, sharp and pointed and crooked at awkward angles. Standing in the doorway, huddled inside my overcoat, I would have welcomed a quick puff of the dragon’s fire breath – just enough to break the chill until I could get into the car.

I nearly slipped going down the steps, muttered something unintelligible even to myself. I cranked the car, turned on the wipers, discovered that what I thought was water on the windshield was, in fact, ice. I turned on the defroster and waited. The glass got warmer; I didn’t. I tucked my gloved hands into my armpits. It didn’t help.

Once on the road, the tires crunched the ice and the frozen ground. The car seemed to move forward without traction, like a train skidding smoothly down a rail. The scenery was all white. I was in a lace bubble.

That was two weeks ago.

The deck was still wet with two days’ rain and the ground was soggy and slick. The wind was whipping around like a lariat in the hands of a rodeo cowboy and the sycamore tree limbs jerked back and forth in a St. Vitas dance of erratic jolts and twitches. Strands of my hair got caught in the free-for-all, snagged in my eyelashes, nearly inhaled as I gasped at the gust that rushed under the carport just as I opened the door.

When I turned on the windshield wipers they swiped easily across the cellophane-thin layer of water, leaving the glass completely clear, but for the thin squiggles sliding down the far sides like red wigglers out of a bait bucket. The road was muddy; the tires sank in the ooze of ruts already eight or ten inches deep. It made me think of the valley a four-year-old’s finger makes in still-warm cake icing.

That was this morning.

Winter. Not my favorite season. It is cold and dark. It is claustrophobic. It is too long. But it has its moments.

Like last Sunday afternoon. I could stand the incarceration no longer and went to get the dogs. They were as eager to get outside as was I and the three of us set out like kids at recess, eager and breathless. The breeze was a tad cool, but gentle, licking at my face and their fur. The few bird calls we heard came darting through the crisp air in irregular rhythms and the winter light, that angled laser that can transform frost directly into mist without becoming water, was so sharp that it made everything in the landscape look as though it were drawn by a pin-prick sharp No. 2 pencil.

I found a dead bird in the middle of the road and stopped to be amazed at the infinitesimal number of feathers, each one shaded in three different colors, that came together to make three broad horizontal bands. I found a scrub oak, no more than three feet high, growing in the sandy ditch and sprouting tiny acorns the size of a thimble. The dogs found an armadillo to chase into the branch, only to lose as it burrowed into perfectly round hole, and still came away with their tongues wagging in that gleeful, generous dog way.

It is four miles to the highway and back. (The dogs don’t go quite that far; they stop when they get in sight of the asphalt – something telling them that they don’t belong there – and wait for me to circle around.) It is a good distance for walking and, on this day, for finding things. I found beauty in death and promise in smallness. The dogs found joy in the unattainable. And we all found a vision of winter that was something more than cold.

Winter. Not my favorite season. But, like everything, it has its moments.

Copyright 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Around and Around

There’s a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that used to be a shopping mall. I’ve never seen it, but I can imagine that its architecture isn’t exactly what one would call traditional. I understand, in fact, that the sanctuary – which they may not even call the sanctuary – is sort of, well, round. Not semi-circular with two or three aisles leading up to the pulpit like sun rays on an elementary school bulletin board, but round with chairs or pews placed all the way around the platform where the pastor stands. Interesting.

As I said, I’ve never seen this church, but I know a good bit about it because I subscribe to its podcast and listen to its pastors’ sermons on my iPod while running on the treadmill. I was listening just last week, in fact, when I realized that I’d downloaded not just an ordinary Sunday morning sermon, but the Christmas Eve sermon. I knew this because the pastor started by addressing the parents in the congregation who were obviously a little concerned about having their little ones in "big church."

"Don’t worry," he told them in his soothing voice, "if they’ve run off. We built this place in a circle for just that reason: eventually they will make it back around."

There was laughter, some of it forced, some of it relieved.

"And when they do make it back around," he continued, "they will be tired."

I cannot say that I remember anything he said for the next couple of minutes. I cannot say that I remember picking up my feet and running, though I am sure that I did because I did not fall. All I can remember is the feeling of being hit in the chest by a wave I didn’t see coming, the realization of just having heard something of the most profound importance.

I could see those children – dressed in warm Christmas outfits mailed to Michigan by their grandparents, cheeks the color of camellias, smiles open and breathy. They were laughing at the sheer joy of movement, pumping their chubby arms and looking around to make sure that everyone else was running, too.

Running is such a natural thing. We learn to crawl. We learn to walk. We learn to run. We learn that running is faster than walking. We learn that the best method for getting away from something we want to avoid is running.

What too many of us don’t learn is that life, like the church in Michigan, is built in a circle. We can run – from decision, from responsibility, from fear or pain –, but eventually we will make it back around. No matter how many times we make the loop, no matter how fast or slow we run, no matter how many water stops we make along the way, eventually (Two days? A month? A year? Ten years?) we will be back where we started and we’re going to come face to face with that from which we ran.

And we are going to be tired.

Which could be a bit disconcerting given the fact that the decision/responsibility/fear has just been sitting there waiting all this time.

Except for one thing: We’re all children. Every last one of us. And we know what to do when we’re tired. We know where to go when every last dream has died and every last ounce of hope has leached away. We know where to find arms big enough to hold us and all our fatigue and failures. And we know that it is in quietness and trust that we will regain our strength, the strength to stop running.

Sometime into the Christmas Eve sermon, sometime into my run I noticed that the background rumble had hushed and I could see the children again, this time curled into the laps of their parents, eyelids flickering, chests rising and falling, each and every one of them having made it back around.

Copyright 2011