Sunday, August 31, 2014
What is this? A mimosa tree? Its slender branches are curved in an arc out over the ditch. Its fingerling leaves are dangling over my head. Its barkless trunk is all but hidden among the grapevines and pine trees and scrub oaks. I have walked by this very spot hundreds of times, driven by it thousands of times. How could I have never noticed a mimosa tree?
Memory overcomes curiosity and I can suddenly see the mimosa tree growing in the backyard of the duplex apartment where we lived when I was a little girl. Its branches dip so far down that even my four-year-old arms can reach those tiny little leaves. I love that they fold in on themselves when I touch them, coquettishly resisting my attention and, moments later, reopening invitingly as though to say, “No, really, I was only teasing.”
In the shed there is a pink frying pan on the pink stove I got for Christmas. I break a branch off the mimosa tree, strip the leaves from the stem, wet them in a puddle by the back steps, and then dredge them in sand. I put them in the pink frying pan on the pink stove. I am playing house. I am having a fish fry. I would like to cut some of the flowers, put them in a Coca-Cola bottle as a centerpiece for my table, but I know better. The frothy filaments of mimosa blossoms wilt faster than morning glories.
But they are so beautiful, the color of deep pink associated with Florida and Silver Springs and swimsuits with halter tops and sweetheart necklines, things I have never actually seen, things I can know only from postcards and the labels on the big bags of oranges that the cousins from Florida bring with them when they come to visit. Once, Mama made a dance recital costume for a little girl that was just that color. It was made of satin, smooth and shiny like an evening gown, something else I had never seen. She sewed on every single sequin by hand, attached the ruffle of net onto the little derrière with stitches so tiny and tight no one could see them, and when it was finished she let me try it on and have my picture taken underneath the mimosa tree holding an umbrella made of stiff tissue paper and balsa wood.
Who knew the word glamorous at the age of four, but that’s what I was. I knew it. I tilted my head and cocked my shoulder and smiled shyly at the Brownie camera, completely unaware that mine was not and never would be a dancer’s body, oblivious to the fact that the satin stretched and puckered across my round belly, incapable of comprehending that the world was anything beyond that single moment. Itchy grass. Sunshine. Mimosa tree. Mama.
I realize I have stopped. I am standing in the middle of a dusty dirt road staring at a mimosa tree that is somehow the same mimosa tree that is growing in the backyard of my childhood. I am fifty-seven and I am four. I am wearing shorts and I am wearing a ballerina’s costume that are – Are you kidding me? – exactly the same color. I am here and I am there. It is now and it is then.
Is it possible?
Madeleine L’Engle, she who taught me of time travel and tesseracts, once remarked, “Nothing important is completely explicable.” This simultaneity, it is important. It is inexplicable. It is always and everywhere.
I will walk four miles before I return home. I will pass the mimosa tree on my way back. And in the evening breeze its leaves will quiver and send a wrinkle through time.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Why do we call it nesting? Why not denning or lairing? Why was the home of a bird, as opposed to that of a lion or fox or bear, turned into a verb?
Home from a weekend at the beach I am scurrying to recover the equilibrium of my every day. The washing machine is swooshing with the first of many loads. What is left of snacks and drinks are scattered across the countertop, haphazardly emptied from totebags and coolers, awaiting some decision as to whether they are worth keeping. I am standing on a ladder in the shed hoisting the beach chairs and umbrella up into the rafters. The last remaining grains of sand are a dry baptism on my head.
It rained while I was away, not much, but enough to leave the hydrangea surprisingly perky, the basil sprouting fresh green leaves, and the Russian sage, grown absolutely out of control at the corner of the perennial bed, drooping nearly to the ground. The rain was brought in by an eastern breeze; I can tell from the bits and scraps of botanical detritus littering the yard. Carefully watching my steps to avoid the holes dug by armadilloes, I nearly trip over a nest.
Sitting perfectly upright, as though laid gently on the ground by soft hands, it is still balanced within the arms of a Y-shaped branch. I wish I had been there to see the branch, snapped brusquely from the chinaberry tree in the rain, fall? dive? float? down to the soft bed of grass on which it now rests.
It is hot. The shed has left me damp all over. My hair clings to my neck in wet curls and my shirt is stuck to my sunburned chest. I am honed in on the air-conditioned inside just a few yards away, craving the taste of just-made sweet tea in a glass sweating as much as I am. But I stop. I cannot resist the nest.
I bend down to peer into its perfect cup. Spun round and round each other like skeins of cotton candy, thin pine needles the warm brown color of melted caramel make a perfect inverted dome. Beyond its edge, larger pieces of brown grass, threads the color a tweed jacket I once had, form the exterior wall of the little house. Beyond that, twigs and sticks thicker than spaghetti, not as thick as a pencil, lie across each other at odd angles like a game of pickup sticks.
There is no sign of its former occupants and, having lost its place in the tree, the nest is not fit for avian habitation any longer. I can, without guilt, requisition it for myself – a found treasure, a serendipitous gift. I stoop to gather it carefully into my open palms.
Why do we call it nesting, the instinctual need to adapt an ample and appropriate living space into a unique expression of self? What is it about the delicate configuration of stems and string and stray slips of paper, where eggs are laid and hatched, where raucous wars are fought to protect the hatched, where fledglings are set forth, that makes it a better metaphor for creating a home than the warren of the rabbit or the lodge of the beaver or the sett of the badger?
I carry the nest inside and place it on the kitchen counter. There is a basket of pears grown on Mama’s tree and a hand-painted ceramic bowl I bought at the Club Mud sale at Georgia Southern. On an opposite wall is the framed blue ribbon Grannie won at the fair and a cross-stitched map of Georgia on which I added an extra X for Register. On every wall, on every tabletop, on every bookcase there is a bit or scrap of my life and those scraps have been spun and threaded together into a home. Into a nest. And it is mine.
The lair, the lodge, the sett. The burrow, the den, the warren. Each is a digging out, an excavation, an emptying. Only the nest is a building up, a construction, a filling. Only the nest takes bits and scraps, pieces and flecks, leftovers and remainders and turns them into a seamless whole. That is why we call it nesting.
Sunday, August 03, 2014
I cannot say for certain what it was about the milk bottle that convinced me that it was mine. It could have been the textured glass that felt like sandpaper. Or the way the sharp light from the windows at the storefront spread into a soft pool of translucence around its edges. Or the cool curves that conjured up memories of the mornings when my father left home early early early to make deliveries to the front porches of people I didn’t know. Whatever it was, it took only moments for me to pay the exorbitant ransom and hurry away down King Street.
For the last fifteen years or so, the milk bottle has sat quietly on a shelf at Sandhill, the receptacle for quarters I will not spend, a conservatory for the flat silver discs that clink their way into a mound of delayed gratification. When the bottle is full, I treat myself to something frivolous or, if not frivolous, at least a bit more extravagant than I would usually allow. Sitting on the floor, tilting the bottle just so, watching the quarters tumble through the mouth of the bottle, feeling it grow lighter and lighter as it empties, I remember the little girl thrill of emptying a piggy bank. Stacking the quarters in towers of four, counting out the dollars, I am taken back to childhood Saturdays and McConnell’s Dime Store and the Whitman Books display – a spinning rack where the Timber Trail Riders and Donna Parker and Trixie Belden waited for me and my insatiable appetite for words.
One morning while mindlessly brushing my teeth, I saw the bottle from the corner of my eye. And for the first time in ages noticed the word etched in thick block letters up one side: WORTHWHILE.
It was, as I recalled, the name of the store from which I’d purchased the bottle, but in all this time I’d never really thought about it as being anything other than that – the name of the store. In a single glimpse, a sideways glance, though, I now saw with the clarity of a stare, a glare, a studied focus that it was more than a label.
Worthwhile, worth the while, worthy of the wait. It was a question. From its perch on the shelf next to the crystal clock and the ceramic angel, the bottle was asking me, “Is the container into which you are dropping your currency worthwhile? Are the things and people in which you are investing worth the while? Are the dreams you are dreaming worthy of the wait?”
I finished getting ready and headed out into the morning. The questions stayed with me like chaperones.
Sometime around lunch I heard another question join them when the voice of the poet Mary Oliver whispered in my ear: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Wild? Not an adjective generally associated with me. Precious? I’ll accept it, but point out its substantial subjectivity. One? Ah, there’s the rub. No argument available against it, no plausible dispute possible. One life. One milk bottle into which the coins of minutes and hours, days and weeks, months and years go dropping one by one. And as I tilt the bottle, as I watch the days and years tumble out at what feels like equal speed, on what will I spend them?
I spent the weekend on Signal Mountain with some friends. On Saturday afternoon we found ourselves in a shop with a spinning rack that held greeting cards, not books. The five of us stood shoulder to shoulder reaching in and pulling out, reading to ourselves and each other the poignant, the clever, the down-right funny sentiments.
I already had my hands full of selections to purchase when one of my friends said, “Here. This is you.” She handed me a card on which I read another quote from Mary Oliver: “Instructions for life: Pay attention. Be amazed. Tell about it.”
What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? I plan to pay attention and be amazed. And with every moment that tumbles out of the bottle and into my hand, I plan to tell about it.