Thursday, June 18, 2015

New and Improved

Back in 2004 three hurricanes brought a LOT of water to southeast Georgia in quick succession and, as a result, Sandhill was left with a very leaky roof.  I took that opportunity to give her a facelift.  Once it was all done, she was still the same girl, just wearing a new dress.  That's what the completely redesigned Kathy A. Bradley is like.  Most of what was on the old website is still there, but the visual presentation is brighter and more interesting.  And there are some new things.

For a number of years I've posted my newspaper columns here at Dispatches From Sandhill.  It finally occurred to me that it made much more sense to combine Dispatches From Sandhill with the website, so that is where you'll find the columns from now on.  Dispatches From Sandhill will still be right here, but there will be no new posts after June 30.  

Please take a look at the Community page on the website and, if you like, subscribe to the new quarterly newsletter, The Museflash.  That's just one more way to keep in touch and share stories.  

The Community page also includes an email link.  Use it to inquire about appearances at your civic group, book club, church, or other event.  And let me know what you're thinking -- about the website or anything else.

I love talking to people about books and writing and finding magic in the world and I want the website to be a place to do that with the people who have embraced me and my words, a place where there is a lot of  "I feel the same way" and "I know exactly what you mean." I hope you'll join the conversation.  

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Worthiness of Rain

The Worthiness of Rain

Across the field I could hear it coming, like the rustling of a thousand pages, the whispers of a thousand lovers, the lifting of a thousand wings.  The rain moved toward me across the broad, flat field, a row at a time.  

I’d been doubtful, when I left the house, based upon the general dryness and the dust that rose when a single car passed me, that any significant moisture would materialize.  Doubtful that the clouds, the color of pewter and thick like cotton batting, held the rain that the rows of short green stems craved.  Doubtful that the sky would yield anything other than disappointment.  So I had headed out.

A drop fell on my bare shoulder, another on my cheek.  I watched as three tiny pools collected on the open magazine I was holding just steady enough to read.  Then three more.  The slick stock puckered and the ink smeared.  I kept walking as I measured the time between plops.  It was, it occurred to me, the exact reverse of staring at the microwave while the popcorn pops, waiting for the rapid-fire explosions to slow.

About halfway up the hill, the pine trees on either side of the road started singing.  The wind was sweeping through them like breaths through an oboe, deep notes that somehow float and circle and find resonance in a heartbeat.  This was no ruse, no prank.  The rain is coming, the trees were telling me.   I kept walking.

Eventually, though, I tired of trying to turn pages that had stuck together and were curling at the edges.  I tired of fighting the wind that snatched at my hair and tried to stuff it in my mouth.  I tired of doubting.  I closed the magazine and stuck it under my arm.  I made sure that my phone was as deep in my pocket as it could be.  I sighed and turned around.

The thing about getting caught in the rain is that once you’re wet, once your clothes are stuck to your skin, once the tread on your shoes has filled with mud so that any one step could be the one that sends you sliding to the ground, there really isn’t much need to hurry.  So I didn’t. I walked slowly, if not carefully, and wondered how I could have so easily presumed that the clouds were empty or, worse, fickle.  How I could have been so willing to assume the sky’s offer of rain was nothing more than a meteorological bait-and-switch.  Why I didn’t trust the sky.  

Somewhere in my brain lies the place where lives the strange notion that if I want anything too much I am certain to not get it, the strange notion that equates desire with presumption and presumption with unworthiness.  It is a notion that resists the words of great teachers and the comfort of great friends.  It is an idea that has no support in science or religion and, yet, it remains, so that on this day, standing on the front porch and considering the sky, I did not dare admit that I wanted very much for the pewter clouds to relieve themselves over the dry and dusty fields.

The deepest truths, however, lie not in the brain, but in the heart.  And the truth is that I do trust the sky.  I trust it far more than I trust myself.  I trust it to know far more than I ever will.  The struggle is to remember.

Back at home, I wipe my feet, I change my clothes, I unroll the magazine so that it can dry.  On the kitchen table, I spread it open.  Open like my hands at communion, open like the leaves on the short green stems trembling beneath the steady fall of rain, open like a heart that can be trusted and is filled with desire.  

Copyright 2015

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Water, Water Everywhere

The clouds that teased rain have drifted away to empty themselves elsewhere and I am left to do the watering myself.  I have planted strategically so that the hose does not have to be dragged all over the yard.  I can, for the most part, stand on the deck and reach every thirsty green thing.  
The hydrangeas are thriving in the low, shaded spot between the deck and the carport, pale blue heads pushing their way out through the dark leaves on thick stems.  Down by the steps the coreopsis is fading as the lantana comes to life and the Mexican petunias are just beginning to bud.  The Russian heather is already tall and gangly, moving in the breeze like teen-aged boys shuffling their feet on the edge of the dance floor.  On the other side in the corner, the rosemary has been cut back and hasn’t quite recovered from the shock, but the lemon balm and verbena and mint are happily rushing over and around each other.  I can’t help pinching a leaf and crushing it between my fingers.  The scent is sweet.
The three pots on the deck contain a single bright pink Gerbera daisy, a good crop of basil, and a citronella plant.  Eventually, I tell myself, I will find the time to come outside after dark, sit back in the reclining chair, and test its powers at repelling mosquitoes.  Eventually, but not tonight.  Tonight I’m just watering.
The dial at the end has somehow been moved to a position between two of the settings.  I don’t notice and turn on the water expecting a steady stream in one direction.  What I get is an erratic shooting and significant drip.  It takes only a couple of seconds to adjust the nozzle, but in that time I can’t help noticing how many choices I have.  Jet. Mist. Flat. Cone. Shower. Angle. Center.  Plus something called “½ Vert.”
A true gardener, someone like my Grandmama Anderson, could probably tell me which one is best for each of my green things.  A true gardener, however, I am not.  I settle for center which shoots forth water at a rate slower than jet, but faster than shower.
Watering, I have found, puts me into a rather meditative state.  There’s nothing for me to do except stand there and hold the nozzle steady while water and gravity do the hard work of reaching the invisible and indispensable roots.  So I find myself thinking about those settings – jet and mist and flat, cone and shower and angle – and how, at various times and through various experiences, I’ve been watered by every single one.
Getting fired from my first job as a lawyer was a jet, a hard fast blast that tore at the ground around my trunk and left me standing in a puddle of mud.  The years I spent at Wesleyan were a fine mist, gentle and consistent.  The loss of people I’ve loved were hard angles, leaving me off kilter, and realizing my dream of being an author was a shower, a baptism of satisfaction and joy.  

I push the lever that closes the nozzle.  By the time I get to the spigot to turn it off, the water –  all of it –  has soaked into the ground.   I hope that I have been that receptive.  I hope that I have absorbed the jet and the mist with identical enthusiasm.  I hope that I have allowed the angles and the showers to nourish me equally.  I hope that with each watering, whatever its force, my roots have dug deeper into the soil.

Copyright 2015

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Little Black Dress

It is a fashion rule that has been around so long it is, like a politician, known by its initials: LBD. Little black dress. Every woman has to have one. Young or old or in-between. Southerner or Yankee, debutante or farm wife. You can dress it up or dress it down. A well-made LBD in a classic style will last forever. And you will be prepared to accept any invitation.

At last count, I had nine black dresses. Long sleeves, short sleeves, no sleeves. Cotton and jersey and wool. Sheath and shirtwaist. Tonight I am standing in the closet staring at them, hoping one of them will just jump off the hanger and end my agony of decision because, quite frankly, I’m not up to choosing. I simply can’t make it matter one bit what I will wear day after tomorrow when I get into the car and drive, yet again, to the funeral of somebody I love.

The last time I saw Denise it was the day before Easter and we were in a backyard flush with azaleas and happy children. She held the newborn baby cousin with the ease of the well-practiced, fending off with sweet smiles and gentle coos anyone who ventured close enough to think she might get a turn at snuggling this creature so fresh from heaven. We rolled our eyes in sugar-induced rapture and went back for seconds of the dessert she contributed to the table – a marvelous concoction made of blueberries from the farm she and Dan own just outside town, pineapple from somewhere that didn’t matter, and crunchy pecans that may or may not have fallen from Brantley County trees.

An afternoon cloudburst forced us inside for the Easter bonnet contest and, as the rest of us fools paraded through the house sporting our homemade creations and singing “Easter Parade,” Denise sat at the dining room table, chin propped in one hand, smiling and laughing quietly at us. I remember it because it was such a familiar sight – Denise as grateful audience in a family with more than its share of performers.

I am lucky, I know, that this last memory is such a sweet one. Being sweet does not, however, make it any easier to accept that it is, nevertheless and notwithstanding, the last. And it doesn’t keep me from wishing that somehow I’d known it would be the last because surely, I think, if I had known I would have ... what? Hugged harder at goodbye?

I think, though I can’t be absolutely sure, that the last thing Denise said to me, said as she released me from the hug that neither of us thought to emphasize, was, “Come see us.”

And I intended to. I intended to go to the farm and pick blueberries and walk around and talk to the horses and dogs and guinea hens. I would even let myself be bounced over the rutted edges of the fields in an ATV before sitting down in a chair by the pool and listening to Denise and the rest of the Moodys talk about the neighbors’ new babies and this year’s crop and that last trip down to Steinhatchee, all while the sun melted away behind the pine trees and left our sun-burned faces in shadow.

But before I could accept that invitation, I got another one.

So, now I am staring at a row of black dresses, clothes that are supposed to outfit me for anything, and realizing that there isn’t a little black dress in the world that can prepare a girl for this.

Copyright 2015

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Cutting Down The Bushes

Sixteen years ago the house looked like a woman without makeup, a Christmas tree without ornaments, a painting without a frame – lovely, but plain.  So I planted.  Loropetlum and Indian hawthorne and ligustrum and holly.  Lots of holly.  Compacta holly.  Nellie R. holly.  Yopon holly.  And, along the eastern wall with four windows that framed the morning sun every day and the rising full moon twelve times a year, burfordi holly.  Eighteen burfordi holly.
They arrived in black plastic containers the size of sand buckets and, thrust into holes carefully computed to be exactly the same distance apart, they looked awfully puny.  As though plants could have rickets.  How they would ever turn into anything that resembled a hedge was beyond me.
As Nature does, though, she stayed on those little holly bushes like a Parris Island drill sergeant and before I knew it they had grown together in a long spiky row, a line of fatigue-clad Marines standing at attention and armed with bayonets.  And by the next time I took a good look tiny red berries were poking through the spaces between the stiff curved leaves.  That Christmas I clipped enough to circle some candles and spread down the mantle.  
The bushes kept growing, oblivious to waves of drought and over-wet winters.  They grew as tall as the brick foundation, as tall as the porch.  They made a little house around the heat pump.  They stayed green all year long reminding me that some things do last.  I had them trimmed a couple of times, the rogue sprouts and renegade branches surrendering easily to a few quick slices of the chain saw.  Beyond that, though, they did their job in the face of benign neglect. 
Neglect, however, is never really benign.  Plants and places and people need attention and, eventually the failure to notice, to tend, to make a priority will result in wild overgrowth. 
I was sitting in my study the other day, doing my best to pull words from the outer space that is my imagination.  I lifted my fingers from the keyboard and pushed my chair away from the desk, turned my head to look out the window.  It is what I always do to catch my mental breath, to dust the furniture and sweep the floor of all the thought dust that has collected in my mind.
The flat fields, the open road, the far line of pine trees.  The loop of the power line cutting across the clouds.  Sometimes a wavy V of geese or a there-and-gone-again streak of hawk.  I can see through those panes of glass enough of the world to remind me of how small I am, how small my problems are.  I can see enough of life to make me want to fling open my arms, dropping all the valueless trinkets and embracing the magic and mystery of all that is.
Only this time I couldn’t see anything but shiny green leaves and a thin sliver of sky.
While I’d been otherwise occupied, while I’d been encumbered with much doing, while I’d been benignly neglecting the holly, it had grown so high that it blocked the light.  I looked around the room.  I hadn’t even noticed how dark it was.  Hadn’t noticed that I’d had to turn on the overhead light in the middle of the day. 
I went outside to take a look.  All the way down the side of the house the holly bushes had grown into trees.  All four windows were covered with only the head jambs and parts of the very top panes visible.  Every single day I had seen that side of the house.  Driving home from work, ending a long walk.  And I’d never noticed that the light was being driven out.  I had adapted to the darkness without even knowing it.
It didn’t take long to make the larger application, to realize that I’d probably done the same thing with figurative darkness.  Check.  Got it.  Now on to getting those bushes trimmed.
Except that it wasn’t so easy.  I started looking for someone to trim, prune, cut back, – shoot! – cut down if necessary.  I made phone calls, sent emails, asked for referrals.  Nobody wanted the job.  And that’s when that larger application became more real.  
Recognizing the darkness isn’t the real problem.  It doesn’t take a lot to realize that you’re spending too much, eating too much, drinking too much.  Most of us know ourselves well enough to see when our anger is out of control or our laziness is interfering with our work.  The hard part is finding the person inside who is willing to stop the spending, the eating, the drinking, who is willing to take control of the anger and put aside the laziness.  The hard part is finding somebody to cut down the bushes.
I think I’ve found somebody.  He’s coming in a couple of weeks.  I hope I can stand it that long.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Counting The Ways

Just past the shed, along what would be a fencerow if there was a fence, the field lies flat and even.  Not like a pane of glass, but like a table covered in a cloth smoothed by hands smelling of dish soap and lotion, with vague and uneven undulations that beg to be smoothed. Cut over and harrowed, it holds no sign of what grew there last year or the year before or the decades of years before.  

From the front porch the readied field stretches to the stand of pines that borders Jackson Branch Swamp.  From the back deck the land rises and falls toward the big pond.  From the kitchen window I can see clear to the property line.  An unobstructed view in every direction.  The landscape is beautifully empty.

This time of year, these days of eager patience, is the target toward which I aim in the darkness and wetness and coldness of winter. This time of year, this trembling interlude, is what holds my feet to this patch of dirt through breathtaking heat.  I want to pause the earth in its orbit.  Stay, I would command.  Remain in this moment, this balmy and pleasant and hopeful moment.

Within days, though, tractors pulling planters will be interrupting the silence, rattling across the flatness creating furrows, inserting seeds.  The interlude will be over and the counting will begin.  Ten to twelve days for corn to break the surface, for the green spikes to pierce the crusty topsoil like a knife through pound cake.  Then ninety to a hundred days to maturity, to fat yellow kernels that push up against each other in long rows.  And then fourteen more days before the combine will roll down rows of stalks gone brown and papery to rip the cobs from the stalks to toss and shuck and shell in an amazing show of mechanization.   

Counting.  Always counting.

It is one of the first things we are taught.  “One, two, three,” we recite to our babies and urge them to repeat, applauding madly when they do.  We learn new languages and begin with the numbers. Uno, dos, tres.  Un, deux, trois.   Eins, zwei, drei.  And as soon as we learn the cardinals it is but a short leap to the ordinals – first and second and third – because we must be able to not only enumerate and quantify, but also rank.  First.  Biggest.  Longest.  Fastest.  Best. 

There is, though, another side to counting.  We proclaim, “That counts.” when we wish to convey significance or “That doesn’t count.” when we wish to deny legitimacy.  Neither has anything at all to do with numbers, ordinal or cardinal, but rather with meaning and value.  It transforms the objective and impersonal to the subjective and oh so personal.  It moves the process of evaluation from the head to the heart. 

I have watched forty years of green sprouts twist and turn their way up into daylight and heard forty years of wind whistle through dry stalks.  I have smelled forty years of diesel fuel puff black into the blue sky and felt forty years of damp earth on my bare feet after a prayed-for rain.  And, though I have never crossed off the boxes on a John Deere calendar tacked to the wall or made a notation in a fat yellow notebook I keep in my shirt pocket, I have counted.  

I have counted because I chose to make this place my home.  I chose to plant my feet and my heart in this place from which I can see farther than just the pines and the pond and the land line.  From this place, I can see the cardinal and the ordinal, the sun and the moon, the past and the future, everything there is to see.

Copyright 2015

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Open The Book

Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, his shoulder fits into the hollow of my side and the loop of my arm conforms to the back of his neck.  Exactly.  Perfectly.  I have to tilt my chin only slightly to rest it on the blonde head, to draw in the scent of little boy.  One chair, the two of us. 

He has brought me a stack of books, books carefully chosen from the shelves in the guest room.  Others were pulled out, opened, and pushed back in with a peremptory, “Too much words.”  These, the ones about the wombat, the caterpillar, and the goose, apparently have just the right ratio of words to pictures.  Who knew?

The first one we will read is Petunia, the one about the goose.  The plot goes something like this:  Petunia finds a book in the meadow and because she has seen the little boy who lives on the farm taking a book to school and has heard his father say, “He who owns Books and loves them is wise,” Petunia anoints herself the barnyard sage and sets about addressing all the other animals’ problems.  Addressing them, not solving them, for whatever Petunia suggests only makes the situations worse.  Eventually Petunia figures out that it takes more than owning a book or carrying it around to make a person, or a goose, wise.

Jackson likes Petunia especially, I think, not because at four years old he understands the message, but because of the voices.  I make Petunia sound like a Southern grandma.  The horse sounds like Mr. Ed and the cow sounds like Elsie.  The dog barks out his every word and the rooster cocka-doodle-do’s his.   I love that I can make him laugh.  I love that he balls his little hands into fists and draws them up to his face and hunches his shoulders as though trying to contain something combustible.

So here we are, settled in and ready.  Jackson lifts the cover and folds it back.  I wait for him to turn the first page, but he stops.  He is looking at the inscription written on the frontispiece, the inscription written by the mother of the little girl, now a teenager, who gave me Petunia. “To the one who has taught me that opening the books is what is most important.”

Opening the book.  Not owning the book.  Not carrying it around.  It is the lesson that Petunia ultimately learns, but only after spreading misinformation and bad advice all over the barnyard and, in the end, nearly blowing up all her friends by mistaking dynamite for candy.

I start reading.  I do all the voices.  I keep my arm tucked close around this little person who carries some of my very DNA.  But I am simultaneously wondering about that inscription.  I am asking myself a question.  Have I really done that for which my friend gave me credit?  Have I really demonstrated to the people I love, all of them, that what we own, what we carry can never be the measure of what we know?  That it is only by letting ourselves be opened, only by allowing our spines to be cracked, our pages turned down, our margins scribbled upon that we become wise?  That we learn to distinguish dynamite from candy?

I can't know.  Not for sure. 

“The end,” I say, closing the back cover on Petunia and her new-found wisdom.    

“Now this one.”  Jackson pulls the caterpillar book from the stack and hands it over to me.  I can't know, but he does.  He trusts me to know what to do with a book. 

Copyright 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Crush Object

The color of this early morning in not-quite spring is liquid lavender, is pearly pink, is slightly silver in the way it glints  and glows. The sky and the fields and everything in them are shaded as though tinted by a crayon unwrapped and swiped across the countryside with its long barrel, the sharp tip forgotten. Outlines and details are unimportant to the day as it languorously wakens.

I must be such an irritation, I with my door closing and opening. I with my heels clicking against the cement carport. I with my agitation born of hurry. Morning was not meant to be wasted on such as this, I think as I drive away from the shimmering landscape .

Five minutes, two miles of dirt road, and I see the first headlights. With every mile they increase in number, pinpricks puncturing the softness of morning. I remember the packages of needles my mother used to buy, a sheet of crisp red aluminum foil pierced by 12 needles all placed carefully into their slots. Over time, as Mama used the needles and replaced them, not so precisely, in the foil, it became soft and wrinkled, new holes appearing, connecting to each other, making bigger holes, holes that became slits, then slashes, until it, the red foil card, was something else entirely.  That is what the morning sky looks like as car after car after car crests the rise in front of me.

I pay a lot of attention to the night sky. I have wished upon many a star, talked to many a moon. I have tilted my neck and stretched out my arms from roofs and beaches and yards and stared into blue blackness so deep that it swallowed me up completely.  I have gasped and sighed and wept and wondered why I can not simply reach out and grasp the sterling stillness, clutch it in my fist and hold it close. 

I have not had such a love affair with morning.  I have watched the sun rise over water and fencerows and blinked my eyes at the brilliance, but ours has been a platonic relationship.  We are so much alike, morning and I.  Busy and eager and ... productive.  No mystery.  No seduction.  No allure of the unknown.  

Until now.  Until this morning.  This particular morning with its whisper of breeze that tugs at my hair and tickles my cheek and turns me, for just a moment, into an ingenue.  That makes me want to sit on the steps and stare into the blush that hovers over the treetops, hugging my knees to my chest so that my heart doesn’t fall out.  That makes me want to drive and drive and drive toward the warm bubble on the horizon, pulled like a magnet toward the one thing I can never reach.

So now the light is overhead.  The colors are distinct.  Edges have appeared.  Day is upon me and I am mooning over morning. 

It is reassuring to realize that one can still learn, can still grown, can still change.  That after all the living that tends to dull the senses, all the experience that tends to create cynicism, all the birthdays that tend to chronicle fewer and fewer moments of amazement, one can still be caught unawares.

Tonight I’ll be staring at that splinter of moon dangling over Sandhill, still enamored of its magic and infatuated by its beauty, but tomorrow morning, without a tad of guilt or a smidgen or remorse, I’ll be flirting with the sunrise.  When it comes to this astonishing world, I can be gladly polyamorous.

Copyright 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Me and Gloria Gaynor

This is what I heard.  This is what I heard this morning. This is what I heard this morning when I walked outside into sunshine. When I walked outside into air that was warm and slightly cloying. This is what I heard: the songs of at least six different birds rising up gently from the branch like the voice of a mother awakening her sleeping child.  This is what I heard: the drip drip drip of water off the roof onto the curved mouth of the gutter, a message delivered by tom-tom.

This is what I saw.  This is what I saw this morning.  This is what I saw this morning when I stepped out onto the grass and crossed the yard.  When I tilted my head and stared up at the tip top of the sycamore tree where a few scattered seed pods still clung to the branches. This is what I saw: drops of dew clinging to tiny buds as though impervious to the pull of gravity, drops of dew shaped like tears and clear as a prism.  This is what I saw: dandelions, flat and green, leaves splayed out like a first grader’s drawing of the sun, and spindly stems of wild verbena sprouting fingers of purple, rolled tight still, but aching to unfurl.

Every year, it seems, I find myself struggling toward spring, weary and weakened by the short days, the cold nights.  Every year I fall toward some invisible finish line, like Philippides bearing the news of the victory at Marathon, not dead, but nearly so.  This year, especially, I have been worn down by sympathetic misery for the people in Boston and Buffalo and Syracuse.  Watching the videos of cars careening over iced highways and snow plows creating mountains along residential streets, I whisper a prayer of supplication for anyone who is cold and a prayer of thanksgiving that my weather extremes involve gnats and humidity.  

So it was that I opened the back door this morning and realized that I did not need a coat – not even a sweater.  Opened the back door and felt my eyes narrow against brightness both so foreign I hardly recognized it and so familiar I wanted to rush into its arms.  Opened the back door and breathed in air that did not burn my throat.

And this is what I knew. This is what I knew standing in the light, standing in the breeze, standing in the music of the morning:  The earth has survived another winter.  By doing nothing more than resting and remaining it has defeated the darkness.  No orbit was changed.  No axis adjusted.  No atmosphere altered. 

As the realization rolled over me I walked around the yard to take its pulse.  Weeds already sprouting in the herb garden; mint escaping its borders; dead leaves from the oak and sycamore trees choking the iris and day lily stalks.  Winter always leaves a trail.  

Stopping myself just before I bent down to pull a handful of trespassing green, I realized that there was something else I knew: I knew that I, too, have survived another winter.  Somehow.  Someway.  Through no effort and despite all the complaining.  

It is amazing what happens when one does nothing but wait.

I doubt that I will ever be a lover of the dim season.  I suspect that I will always face down the cold and dark with belligerence and anger and the smallest amount of whining.  But,  like Philippides, I will finish.  I will see the winter through and I will welcome each spring as though it is the first that has ever been, echoing his final words, "Joy to you, we've won!  Joy to you!"

Copyright 2015

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Pocketful of Pennies

It has become an annual trip.  A pilgrimage.  And though we don’t remove our shoes or crawl on our knees or touch our foreheads to the ground, we probably should.  The spot is that sacred.
There is a tree nearby and an obelisk which serves as a landmark, a way to find that particular spot among the 54 acres of granite slabs thrust into the earth like candles on a birthday cake.  We park the car and unfold ourselves out, pulling our coats tight and tucking our chins into our chests.  It seems not the least bit odd to say, “Good morning, Margaret,” as we approach the gray monument, polished to a mirror shine on the side into which letters and numbers have been carved, sharply and deeply, like her impact on each of us.

Someone points out a woodpecker on a bare branch above our heads and a discussion ensues as to what kind.  Despite the fact that Margaret would not have known the difference (She was more of an inside girl, preferring her nature in the form of botanical prints and pink and yellow chintz.), we take his appearance as an omen.  In a cemetery you can’t help but look for omens. 

In a cemetery you also can’t help repeating yourself.  You comment on the convenience of the stone bench as though you have not seen it every other time you have been there.  You note the names on the nearest stones and recite the connections as though they are your own.  You read aloud the epitaph and, every single time, murmur, “Just perfect.”

Repetition creates ritual and ritual is really nothing more than remembering. Remembering with the deliberate purpose of not forgetting.
It is time to go.  One of us reaches into her pocket and pulls out a penny, places it tenderly on the ledge at the bottom of the stone.  She covers it briefly with her gloved hand.
“Why the penny?” someone asks.
It is a story, surprisingly, that the rest of us have not heard: When Margaret was in her 70s she volunteered at her church by driving “old people” to doctors’ appointments.  Some of the old people were grateful and gracious, some not so much.  One day she was driving one of the sweet ones and the woman, upon being delivered back home, reached for Margaret’s hand and slipped her a penny.  “Thank you,” she said, “for being my friend.”
“Every now and then,” the penny-placer tells us as we stand with hunched shoulders in the bright winter sunlight, “Margaret and I would send each other pennies.”  Her voice breaks just a bit as we all look back down at the little circle of copper, the warmth from the hand that placed it there already gone. 
We begin to move away.  We fold ourselves back into the car and wave as we drive away.  We pass two people walking dogs.
I am old enough now to miss a lot of people.  Some of them are absent from my life by reason of death, some by geography, some by strange combinations of choice and unavoidable consequence.  Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a song or see a street sign or get ambushed by an unexpected thought that brings to mind and to heart a voice, a face, a touch of someone gone. Sometimes there are tears.  Sometimes there is a soft sigh or a sharp gasp. Often there is a smile.  But always, always there is the longing.

I want a pocketful of pennies.  I want to hand them out to all the ones who are gone.  I want to say, “Thank you for being my friend.”

Copyright 2015

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Sting and Punxsutawney Phil

I want to believe the groundhog. 

I am lying on my back, struggling to breathe.  The pounding in my head is like that of the pistons in a John Deere 4430, the incessant rhythm interrupted only by spasmodic coughs that sound like a dog with distemper. Blinds pulled low, covers pulled high, I can hear the wind keening across the open fields like the proverbial freight train. From the front porch I hear the sound of two rocking chairs crashing forward in quick succession and I am startled into wondering whether they have managed to remain on the porch or have been thrown into the overgrown shrubbery.

In the moments when the wind dies down, the sound of wind chimes – normally melodiously soothing – is irritatingly cacophonous and with this wonder I question whether I have enough strength to open the door, climb up on something, anything and take them down from their perch so they will just ... shut ... up.

It is at this moment that the news at the top of the hour includes the announcement that General Beauregard Lee did not see his shadow and we, or at least those of us in Georgia, can expect an early spring.  It is a measure of how badly I feel that I am willing to place my hope for the future in a rodent dressed like a Civil War general.

Having determined, in fact, that I do not have the strength to disarm the wind chimes, I am left with nothing to do but contemplate the silliness, the irrationality, and the ultimate irresponsibility of not just my, but everyone else's, need for a tangible sign that the end of darkness and coldness and isolation is within sight.  We are enlightened people. We no longer panic when the sun slides dramatically behind the western horizon.  We know it will show up again on the other horizon in just a few hours.  And, yet, before dawn on Monday morning, there were 11,000 people in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the home of the original prognosticating woodchuck, awaiting the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil.  This has been going on since 1887.

I think I make my point.  And, if not, consider that at least six other communities across the country (including the Yellow River Game Ranch where Gen. Lee lives) produce their own versions of the big reveal on February 2.  And at each of these productions there are not just observers, but sponsors and journalists and, in some cases, politicians.  Last year Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City went to the Staten Island Zoo for their ceremony involving Staten Island Chuck.  The rodent of the hour slipped from His Honor’s grasp and fell to the ground. It died weeks later of internal injuries, a fact which zoo officials did not make public for months.

What it means is that regardless of how well one knows the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the evidence of things not seen sometimes needs to be punctuated by a thing seen, the absence of a shadow made obvious by the presence of an eight-pound rodent, with or without historical costume.

Three days later, having responded to antibiotics and the house call of my friend the doctor and his wife the angel, I am once again among the living.  I am, to coin a phrase, breathing and walking around.  And longing, yearning, aching for spring, encouraged the slightest bit by the fact that the General came outside his burrow just long enough to see absolutely nothing.

Copyright 2015

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Off-Road and Cross Country

From inside the house I can hear both sets of wind chimes clanging, harmonizing from opposite eaves, dancing madly like Russian Cossacks.  The sun is high and the light is white.  There is no good reason, no reason to stay inside.
The ruts in the road have dried into peaks, crunchy beneath the footfalls that I am trying unsuccessfully to slow to a stroll. I am wondering: Is this sky really the bluest sky I’ve ever seen?  Or am I just so glad, so astonished, so grateful that the clouds have been driven away and the gray swept aside that anything close to blue would seem bluest?
To the crossroads and back is 1.8 miles. To the highway and back is 3.9.   There is easily enough daylight left for the longer trek.  My legs need stretching.  My mind needs clearing.  I will take the long way.  
And then, just as I get to the grain bins, just as the road begins to fall down the hill toward the red clay alley of pine trees, I change my mind.  I leave the road and step over the shallow ditch into the field, littered with cotton stalks matted by days of rain.  The fencerow that marks its boundary is not even a fencerow anymore, the wire and posts long gone, but it is along the fencerow that I walk, on a bed on autumn’s pine needles that my feet finally lose their rush.
I didn’t bring a clip for my hair and the wind that is whipping across the field, that has gained speed and force over the flatness of nearly a hundred acres, has me tasting and brushing away curls with great flurry until I realize that all I have to do is turn my face into it.  I can walk that way for a while, head turned to the side like a soldier passing a reviewing stand.
The field begins to fall away, down toward the pond, and the wind softens.  I can watch where I am going now.  I can look to the side into the woods where we used to keep the horses, in the shade of the pine trees in the heat of the summer.  I can find the place where the fence is still in place, bent into deep curves between splintered gray posts that lean at odd angles.  I can see my tree, the one whose trunk makes me sit up very straight even as I lower myself to the ground for a good cry.
I have not been here, on this fencerow, in a long time.  Nothing and everything has kept me away.  Nothing has prevented me from coming.  No signs saying, “Keep out!”  No washed out lanes or fallen trees or overgrown crops to block the way.  Everything has prevented me from coming.  People and places calling out, “Me!  Me!”  My own inertia.
But I am here now.  And it feels, of course, as though I always have been.
I am at the corner.  I turn from the fencerow toward the pond.  This is the lowest spot of the field.  There are still a few stalks of cotton stabbing the sky, end stalks rooted in land too wet for the cotton picker.  I break off a stem.  Three bolls, white as a Clorox’ed dress shirt, dangle from the sharp brown burs.  They are the remains.  They are what is left.  I walk on.
At the edge of the pond a strip of green sprouts up.  Grass.  The promise of spring.  I look down at my hand where the stem of cotton hangs upside down.  
Remember the grade school puzzles: Which is these is not like the others?  I always figured them out.  Always.  I have always been good at categorization, at locating differences, at putting things into their places.
This time I am not sure.  Is the grass out of place?  Or is the cotton?  On this balmy January Sunday am I to be amazed that grass has already sprouted or that cotton has managed to survive?  Is one braver or stronger than the other?  Is it a greater miracle to arrive ahead of schedule or to persevere long after others have given in?
Up the hill now.  I can see the top of the sycamore tree in Mama and Daddy’s backyard.  The equipment shelter comes into view.  The grain bins are in sight again.  I turn back onto the road and head home.
I remember now why I have to forsake the road sometimes.  I can’t say how many miles I have walked, but I know exactly how far I have gone.  Far enough to remember that coming and going are equally worthy of celebration, that running ahead and lagging behind are both respectful ways of getting somewhere, and that the path you take can always be the one that leads you where you need to go.

Copyright 2015

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Camellias and Cold

It may have been the trees, soaring and spreading and stretching up into the sky and down into  the earth.  It may have been the words, carved into stone in letters thick and straight, their assertion of permanence both ironic and inspiring.   It may have been the silence or the stillness or the statuary that captivated me, that made the cemetery at Christ Church on Saint Simons one of my favorite places.  I don’t remember and I can’t say that I ever knew for certain, but on that day the thing that grabbed me and held me was the camellias.
On that day, five days after Christmas, with the tree still up and a handful of presents still to be delivered, I had driven the back roads – Sandhill to Claxton to Glennville to Ludowici to Townsend to Darien to Saint Simons – to catch my breath and refocus my gaze.  And I’d brought a friend along, someone who’d heard me talk about this spit of land that holds so much of me and my heart and wanted firsthand knowledge.  We had gone in search of Tree Spirits.  We had breathed in salt air and strolled past sand dunes and tidal pools from the Coast Guard Station to Gould’s Inlet and back to Massengale Park.  And now we had come to Christ Church.
On a brick path worn smooth by two hundred years of footsteps, we circled the church to enter the cemetery.  No gates or fences.  No separation of the dead from the living.  We wandered slowly among the graves – old, extremely old, and new, elaborate and humble.  I pointed out to my friend a broken column, monument to a life cut short, the one piece of funerary art I knew.  
I made the comment that wandering through graveyards had been a regular pastime in my childhood, something that the aunts and cousins always did on Thanksgiving afternoon while the men played pitch penny in the backyard or drove out to somebody’s pond to throw a line.  My friend didn’t say anything, but the expression I got in response made me think that people in Ohio didn’t do that kind of thing.
At the corner of one plot, there was a large camellia bush.  It had grown tall, like a tree, and its branches dangled over the path.  The pink flowers and dark green leaves stood out against the gray day, the gray stones.  My friend pointed and said, “Rose?”
“Camellia,” I corrected, not realizing right away how odd it must be for someone from Ohio to see such a profusion of blooms in the dead of winter, not realizing right away, even, how odd it was for me to respond so quickly.  I am not known for my horticultural expertise.
I plucked one blossom from the bush and held it in my upturned palm.  Chamois soft and the color of a teenager’s first crush blush, petals falling away from the center like the skirt of a ballgown.   Both shy and brave, tender and strong.  Alive and vibrant and animated in this place that bears witness to death.
The sign at the gate read “Open until sunset” and the sun had already fallen behind the trees that separated the church from the Frederica River and the marsh.  It was time to go.  I walked toward the car with my hand up like Mr. Carson in “Downton Abbey,” cradling the camellia and thoughts I had not yet begun to process.
There was just enough light to walk to the Wesley Cross before heading back to the village for dinner before driving home, this time the back roads in reverse – Saint Simons to Darien to Townsend to Ludowici to Glennville to Claxton to Sandhill.    The car was dark and the talk serious.  The camellia lay in the cupholder between us.
It is cold outside tonight.  Jaw-locking, teeth-clinching, head-bowing cold. The forecast is for temperatures as low as 19 degrees. I am worried for the camellias.  All over town they have been bursting forth and showing off.  Pink and red and coral.  Stripes and solids.  Ruffles and flounces.  In the morning, they will be stiff and brittle and dead.  I am imagining the ones at Christ Church Cemetery falling from their stems to the brick paths below.
Everything dies.  In winter it is just more difficult to deny.  This winter I am thinking that before my turn comes I want to be like the camellias, blooming with a flagrancy that would embarrass my younger self, blooming in places flush with darkness and death, blooming to bear witness to all I have been, all I have known, all I have loved.

Copyright 2015