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