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  • People and Paint Chips

    I love paint chips.  I love that their names are so evocative.  Nonchalant White and Jersey Cream.  Flamingo Feather and Equestrian Green.  Borrowed Light and Cabbage White.   I love the ones that have five or six shades of the same hue, dark to light.  Surf Green fading into Composed into Hazel into Waterscape into Dewy.  Down Pour melting into Leisure Blue into Respite into Take Five into  Balmy.  I love the way, when you fan out a manufacturer's deck of chips, you can see all the colors in the world. And, yet, all the walls at Sandhill are white. There is a very good reason for that, of course (There was a very good reason for every design and decorating decision I made while building Sandhill, often to the chagrin of the contractor and subs.).  The fact is that white is never just white.  As we learned sometime in elementary school, white reflects all the colors of the prism, so a white wall changes with the kind and amount of light it reflects --  from the soft pearly light of morning to the bright yellow light of noon to the smoky lavender light of dusk. Sandhill faces south.  The sun rises in the bedroom windows and sets in the living room and kitchen windows, which means that the white walls actually change color throughout the day.  And throughout the year.  By choosing white for the walls I actually chose an entire spectrum of colors. But how to choose which of the hundreds of whites? Despite the fact that I had spent years adding torn-out pages from magazines, I'd never come across any instructions for answering that question.  I was, then, dependent on my own ingenuity, which resulted in attaching to first one Sheetrocked wall and then another the paint company's brochure of all available whites. I don't remember in which room I started, but I took the time visit the house-in-progress at least three times at different hours on a given day to look at all those whites.  One by one I drew a line through the ones I didn't like in that room and in that light before moving on to the next room and repeating the process.  After a couple of rounds I narrowed it down to Pittsburgh Paints Vanilla Milkshake. Fifteen years later when I undertook some repairs as a result of wind damage from three hurricanes in a row -- Charley, Frances, and Ivan -- the winning white was Benjamin Moore Decorators White.  The next time I felt compelled to make changes, it was Sherwin Williams Ice Cube.   The life lesson in all of this -- because a highly verbal, slightly bossy first-born is going to find a life lesson in everything -- is, first, that I clearly prefer cool whites and, second, that different people (or companies) are often going to call the same thing by different names.  And while I think that names, for everything from hair color to fingernail polish, are significant, it's important to remember that a name can't reflect everything there is to know.  About a hair color.  Or fingernail polish.  Or paint. Or, say, about the girl you meet on the first day of college whose parents favored names from 19th century British literature.  You have to get to know her before you can make a real choice as to whether Philippa is someone with whom you want to share a dorm room.  You have to spend time with Philippa in different circumstances and different lights to know if you will share your shampoo or invite her home for the weekend.  You have to, in a way, pin her to the wall and live with her for a while. Because when you do – when you are patient in the picking – it will be a choice you can live with for a very long time. Copyright 2024

  • Heirlooms

    My family doesn't have many heirlooms.  Not in the traditional sense of “objects of value held by a family for several generations.”  We have stories and legends and inside jokes.  We have loud laughs and good hugs and lots of scripture and poetry and axioms memorized and available at a moment's notice.  But when it comes to Great-Grandma's sterling or Sister's breakfront, you will have to look elsewhere. When I moved into Sandhill I didn't have a lot of furniture.  I had been living in a mobile home for six years and the only thing I wanted to take with me from that what was my first grown-up home was a pine end table I'd bought on sale at Macy's. I bought a bed, a nightstand, and a couch from L.A. Waters Furniture and figured I'd fill the rest of the rooms as I found things I liked. About the time I moved in, Mama suggested that I take her cedar chest.   She didn't give it to me, but, rather sheepishly, asked if I'd like to have it.   It had been the object of much covetousness as I grew up and was, on the rare occasion, allowed to go through its contents -- the wedding dress she didn't wear when she and Daddy decided to elope, the tiny yellow housecoat that had been mine as a baby, her high school scrapbook, and the blue satin-covered baby book in which she had written every milestone of the first six years of my life. The story behind the chest was as fascinating to me as its contents.  Mama had purchased it when she was a working girl in Savannah and living at the YWCA.  After graduating from Collins High School, she'd left her tiny little for the big city of Savannah to take a job as a telephone operator with Southern Bell.   My favorite phone call stories were the ones involving lonely soldiers at Hunter Army Air Field who would ring up the operators just to have someone with whom to talk. Once, when I was about 10 or 12, we were in Savannah and, for some bewildering reason, found ourselves walking down Whitaker Street after dark.  Mama pointed out the Y to me and told me how, when she worked the night shift, she had walked home alone, under the Spanish moss-draped trees, down the cracked sidewalks, past a funeral home.  I was amazed at her bravery.  I saw adventure and fearlessness in the woman in whom I'd only ever seen duty and protectiveness.  She had, amazingly, once been young and carefree. She had also been imagining another life –  the life of wife and mother –  and toward that end she saved up enough money to buy a hope chest, a receptacle for her dreams, the very same Lane cedar chest that was such a treasure trove for the daughter she would one day have. So,  of course, I'd like to have it.  And in the back of Daddy's pick-up it made the very short journey from their house to mine, a testament to Mama's youth, a symbol of my adulthood. Today the chest sits at the foot of the bed in Sandhill’s guest room.  It bears the smell of cedar, a stamp listing the patent numbers given to the Lane Company,  and a couple of short red Magic Marker strokes made by one of the many children who have knelt at the chest with paper and pen to draw a picture.  It holds the quilt made for me by Mama and Grannie, a crocheted bedspread that Mama started when I was a small child and finished when I was 35, the American flag jacket given to me when I was chosen to carry the Olympic Torch in 1996, and the quilt I started in college and which was finally completed by my friend Debra during the Covid lockdown. My mama’s chest (because it will never be fully mine) is scratched and faded and watermarked.  The strong cedar scent has faded.  The lid creaks loudly when I open it. Not long after Mama died, I went into the chest looking for something and found the Christmas tree skirt she had made for me my first Christmas in the mobile home.  As I unfolded it I felt a prick on my finger – an overlooked straight pin, Mama’s calling card. For all the months she had been gone, for all the years before that she had been going, she was palpably there.  Deeply present.  With me in a way I had not known before. I laughed out loud.  And then I cried.  For Mama, for myself, and for the real heirlooms, the ones that lie folded in our hearts. Copyright 2024

  • Bookends

    Minute. It is a minefield of a word for people whose first language is not English.  Like a nine-year-old girl in south Georgia in 1964.  A girl whose vocabulary, when she started first grade, included words like chimley, but not chimney; winder, but not window.  Who didn't yet have the ability to understand that when her grandmother said she was going to "hope" someone she meant she was going to offer assistance, but also -- in a deep spiritual sense -- also meant that she was sharing her own expectation of better things to come. It is a word that, to this day, conjures up a specific memory of utter humiliation. We'd been assigned a report, to be presented orally, on aquatic life.  Like every other assignment, I approached it with curiosity and zeal.  There was nothing in the world I liked better than learning unless it was pleasing the adults in my life. We did not have a set of encyclopedias in our home and in fourth grade I'd not yet been exposed to library research.  I would later learn to love the card catalog and the Reader's Guide To Periodical Literature, but those delights still awaited.  The single resource available to me was a large dictionary purchased by my parents from a door-to-door salesman -- Webster's New World Dictionary:  The Everyday Encyclopedic Edition. The volume contained far more than a dictionary, however.  There were sections on scientific terms, business correspondence, civics (This was back when people still knew what that was.), principles of grammar, geography (including, before GPS and Google, the distances between principal cities of the United States and of the world), history, home economics, literature (including a section on the world's great books and synopses of all of Shakespeare's plays), mathematics, medicine, music, and space. And then there were the illustrations, beautiful hand-colored plates that opened the book --  "Rare Birds of Brilliant Plumage," "Plants of Great Commercial Value," "Principal Edible Grains," precious stones, building stones, Yellowstone.  Of greatest interest to me at that moment were "Living Corals," "Fish of Unusual Interest," "Game Fish Caught with the Fly," and, what was to be my downfall, "Minute Life in Ponds and Streams." Several of my classmates were, I knew, going to report on the ocean and saltwater life.  I'd never seen the ocean and, even at that young age, understood the writer's adage of "write what you know."  I knew ponds.  There was one right outside my back door.  It was the water into which we threw stale bread to feed the fish.  It was the water in which we swam in the summer.  It was where Daddy taught me to bait my own hook, where he and I floated trying to catch supper. I worked so hard on that report.  And on the day that I was scheduled to do my oral presentation, I took to school with me Webster's New World Dictionary:  The Everyday Encyclopedic Edition.  I had practiced holding it open so as to share the beautiful plates at appropriate moments.  I was sure that my classmates would be impressed. And perhaps they were. But what I remember about that oral presentation, all I remember, is that when I opened the book and held up "Minute Life in Ponds and Streams" I pronounced the first word as though it was the one meaning 60 seconds of time.  I had no idea that, in that context, the word was pronounced differently.  That it meant something other than time.  My assumption during preparation was that calling something "min-it" life simply meant it didn't live very long. Immediately, before I could close the book and bring it down to my side, my teacher -- standing at the back of the room with her arms crossed over her chest -- shouted:  "My-newt.  It's pronounced my-newt." Never had I been so ashamed. Things that happen to us as children, we all know, linger.  Long after the moment.  Long after the day.  Long, long after they should linger.  And that correction, that harsh, public correction in fourth grade is a big part of why for many years I struggled so mightily against being wrong.  The burden was so great that often if something I said received a response of "Really?" or "I can't believe it!", I would backtrack. "Maybe I misunderstood," I'd say.  Or, "I could be mistaken."  Or, "I think so," even when I was absolutely positive. A few years ago, I wrote a column about trees and I wrote, "I remember something about a tree growing from its center."  A few days later, my friend Missy -- who is a real botanist, one with letters after her name -- called me.  She began by telling me how much she had loved the column, how much she appreciated my drawing attention to things like trees.  And, then, very gently, she said, "I did want to tell you, though, that trees don't grow from the center.  Do you remember learning about xylem and phloem?  The area between them is called the cambium and it's in the outer layer of the tree.  That's where it grows." I was tickled to death, first of all, that I did, in fact, remember xylem and phloem and, secondly, that my friend of nearly 60 years loved me enough to both correct me and to do it privately. Not long after that, I posted on Instagram a photo of some tiny purple blooms I'd found in the yard.  I captioned it "First bloom, verbena."  To be honest, I hardly looked at it.  I was so glad to see some color in the yard I just assumed it was verbena that hadn't quite opened its little faces yet.  A day or so later, my friend Annie, who I call "The Wildflower Whisperer," shared on her Facebook page a post from the truly-learned people at Southern Piedmont Natural History a photo identifying my little bloom as henbit.  Not unopened verbena.  A subtle -- and loving -- correction. Missy and Annie are generous and kind.  And because they are, I am smarter than I was before they corrected me. I am also stronger than I was in fourth grade.  Since that moment of humiliation, I've been wrong so many times and about so many things that being wrong is no longer the indictment of character I used to think it was.   I've let go of the compulsion to be right.  Being wrong is no longer a reason to blush and hide, but an opportunity to admit to my humanity, to take a load off, to laugh. I often think of life events as bookends.  When something unpleasant, difficult, or hurtful happens, something else will come along -- a week, a year, a lifetime -- later to close it off, to bookend it.  Something that will give meaning to the hurt, make a story out of the pain.  That may not always be true, but it is helpful to think so in the middle time. An oral report in fourth grade and the sweet gestures of dear friends 55 years later.  Bookends between which have been the volumes of a lifetime. Copyright 2024

  • Morning Song. Evening Song. My Song.

    It is morning. I slip outside, barefoot and still drowsy. To the east the sun is butter, melting slowly, defying gravity to lift itself from the horizon into the sky. Dew puddles on the deck railing, drips slowly from the thin edge of the metal roof. The branch, deeply green with the sudden flush of summer, vibrates with the calling, the chattering, the singing of multiple birds – mockingbirds and cardinals, wrens and crows, sparrows and doves. I hesitate to call what I hear a choir. It is more like an orchestra warming up – the strings squeaky, the woodwinds breathy, the brass pompous and proud, all jealously playing over each other until the conductor appears and gently taps the music stand. The longer, the stiller I sit the less raucous are the chirps and screeches, the closer become the notes to a melody. I have been paying attention, deliberate attention, to the birds at Sandhill for less than two years. With the assistance of an app on my phone I have to date identified the songs and whistles and cheeps of 72 of my avian neighbors – American Crow to Yellow-Rumped Warbler. Not quite A to Z, but close enough to keep me amazed. I have made a few observations. First, birds don’t wait for other birds to begin singing; they sing when and for as long as they want. And second, some birds sing from perches out in the open – power lines, rooftops, while others make their offerings from the cover of high branches and deep foliage. It is impossible, of course, not to see the similarities to human behavior. I look at my phone – no new songs recorded today. The list stays at 72. Now it is evening. The heat of the day that has been sits lightly on my bare arms. Above the tree line, there is the faintest smudge of lavender, deepening by the moment. Within minutes – no more than ten – it will be completely dark. The road is empty but for me and Owen, who runs back and forth, into and back out of the neatly planted rows of pine trees, sniffing the ground for signs of something he can chase. It is so quiet that I can hear my shoes make prints in the sand. In the distance a Chuck-will’s-widow offers his plaintive cry. I stop to listen for a response, a call back from another Chuck-will’s-widow. Nothing. He calls again. Silence. I wonder if he knows that he and his kind are on the Common Birds in Steep Decline List. Is that why his song is so mournful? The darkness is falling rapidly now. I turn for home. I think about lists. Birds In My Backyard. Common Birds In Steep Decline. Birds That Sing Together. Birds That Sing Alone. Why the urge to quantify, to measure, to count? With every step the porch light grows brighter and the lament of the Chuck-will’s-widow grows fainter. The night grows deeper and the morning – the morning in which the mockingbirds and cardinals, the wrens and crows, the sparrows and doves will chorus again – grows closer. I answer my own question: I count the birds to remind me to count the other things – the days lived, the breaths taken, the people loved – and in the counting to find my own song. Copyright 2024

  • A Perfectly Ordinary Subdivision

    It was a perfectly ordinary subdivision of perfectly ordinary houses built in the 1950s and 60s, brick houses with low roofs and deep front yards, three bedrooms and two ceramic-tiled bathrooms, appliances that were avocado or harvest gold.  The people that lived in those houses were ordinary people – teachers and insurance agents, nurses and car salesmen, children who took piano lessons and spent their summers playing baseball on Jaycee Field. It is still a perfectly ordinary subdivision, but the people I knew who lived there – the Kaneys, the Millers, the Murrays, the Grays – are long gone.  The station wagons and tank-like sedans that ferried my friends to Girl Scouts and football practice and band practice and  MYF have been replaced by Priuses and pick-up trucks with fraternity bumper stickers. There are fewer children playing in the front yards.  Most of the carports have been closed in to make room for more renters and most of the azaleas need pruning.  Most of the shutters could use a new coat of paint and at least a couple of the mailboxes could use straightening. On occasion, I still go there, this place that holds so many memories.  I walk along the sidewalk-less roads and  remind myself who lived where, how many siblings they had, their parents’ names.  Nearly always I will pass a landscaping company’s trailer and see a zero turn mower driven by a man wearing earphones.  Never do I pass someone’s father or teen-aged brother pushing a Briggs and Stratton.  It makes me wonder why I keep going back. There is, though, the pond.  Even with the new benches and walking path and charming arched bridge, it is still familiar.  I can easily see me and my friends  standing under a tree within sight of the camellias getting yearbook photos made.  I can still see the guys playing Frisbee.  I can still see us girls, sleeping bags dangling over our shoulders, piling into one of the houses where we will spend the night laughing at everything and without a reason in the world to do anything else. Not long ago, I was walking around the pond and came up on a young man fishing.  He paused in his casting and turned to smile and say hello. “Caught anything?” I asked in accordance with standard southern protocol. “Not yet.” “Good luck,” I offered, walking on into the flock of Canada geese who are always patrolling. The fisherman was still there when I came back around.  “You just missed it!” he called out joyously as I approached.  “I got one!” As dear as memories are, too much remembering leaves one at the risk of wistfulness and, in the flash of the fisherman’s smile, my wistfulness fell away.  My pop-your-wrist Polaroid image faded and was replaced with a PNG digital, what was superseded by what is. That is, of course, the way of life, of time. “Congratulations!” I called out and meant it. We had our 50th high school reunion not long ago and I pleased myself to no end by recognizing  nearly everyone without reading their nametags.  We pooled our collective memories to tell stories.  We looked at photos of grandchildren who, if we squinted our eyes, looked a little like the people we used to be.  We told stories and relived moments and – Lord, help us! – sang the alma mater. This is what I knew at the end of the night: I like these people, the ones with slower steps and thicker middles and less hair, more than I liked the people they used to be.  And what I was thinking as I left the fisherman at the pond is that it is possible that I may just learn to like this neighborhood, with its own version of slower steps, thicker middle, and less hair, more than the neighborhood it used to be. Not likely, but possible.  And that is enough to keep me going back. Copyright 2024

  • From Day to Day and Term to Term

    The mantle over the fireplace at my parents’ house is a gallery of candid photos and formal portraits spanning nearly 70 years.  On either end are my and my brother’s bronzed baby shoes. I take down each item and remove the dust that has collected since the last time I performed the ritual, paying special attention to the expressions on each face and contemplating the story that each tells.  It is easy to get lost in the memories. Dusting finished, I sweep. The broom makes a swooshing sound as it glides over the wooden floor creating a pile of sand that has hitchhiked in in the thick tread of work boots, half of a straw wrapper, and something else that I don't immediately recognize.  It is a piece of paper, rectangular, slightly larger than a dollar bill, the color of weak tea. I pause my sweeping to pick it up. It is a witness summons for Bulloch County Superior Court.   It is dated August 29, 1961.  The blank for the witness’s name is filled in with a perfect cursive hand to read, “ Mrs. Willie Bradley.”   My grandmother.  Written in pencil at the top is “Mikell Street,” Daddy is close by. “What is this?” I ask him, holding it out to him.  “Have you seen this before?” “It must have fallen out of my Bible” he offers.  I smile, understanding immediately that this piece of paper is important because, when one is Johnny Bradley, the Bible is the place where one puts important things. Reading the summons through, I have so many questions: What had Grannie see or heard that made her a witness in a criminal case?  Who was Marion Bennett?  Why would she get just one day’s notice of the trial? Before I can ask Daddy those questions, along with how it came to be in his possession, this piece of paper that is over 60 years old and that, in the strangest of ways, presaged the profession to which I would give so many years of my life, he says, “I remember Mama showing me that. She was crying.” Crying is a part of nearly every story that we tell about Grannie.   She cried when someone arrived, when someone left, when gifts were exchanged.  She cried when pound cakes fell, when the sound of an ambulance’s siren wafted through her back door from the highway, when her little dog Missy went missing.  She cried more than anyone I have ever known, her tender heart simply incapable of holding the wells and waves of emotion she was constantly experiencing. Knowing all that, still I ask, “Why was she crying?” “She said, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’” Grannie grew up hard, surrounded by poverty and violence.  She was born before the words “world” and “war” became capitalized and before women could vote.  She was a sharecropper’s daughter who became, at 16, a sharecropper’s wife.  She picked cotton in the south Georgia summer when she was eight months pregnant. She knew self-reliance and physical labor.  She knew to be careful of those in authority, including men in uniform appearing at her front door commanding her to lay all other business aside and threatening a $300 penalty for failure to appear.  She knew to be afraid, afraid of so many things, including perhaps whatever it was she meant by the “this” she didn’t know how to do. So this is why she cried.  And, now, from a place of privilege I rarely remember, so do I. Copyright 2024

  • Possession Is Nine-Tenths Of Nothing

    Acorns and seashells and nests.  Pebbles and starfish and seeds.  Antlers and feathers and twigs.  Scattered over bookshelves and mantles and tabletops, they are the harvest of hundreds of hours spent wandering. I run my fingers across the downy feathers and through the silky seeds.  I clack the antlers against each other, conjuring a scene of young bucks jousting in the moonlight.  I hold the shells to my nose and somehow breathe in the ocean. I was never someone who picked up moss and bits of fur.  I was not a child who came inside at the end of a summer day sweaty and dirty, her pockets full of bark and discarded exoskeletons.  I was a girl who spent her afternoons, her Saturdays stretched across the bed in her green and blue bedroom, the one with shag carpet, reading Heidi and Little Women. But at some point, well into adulthood, I started picking up snake skins and abandoned nests.   I began filling vases with broom sedge and honeysuckle.  I began littering the coffee table with maple leaves that eventually dried out and crumbled into dust.  It was as though observing, experiencing, enjoying nature was not enough.  I wanted to possess it. Over the last couple of years, confronted with the reality that nobody is going to want any of my material possessions, my collected tangible property, my  stuff when I have been, as we say, gathered to my people, I have begun divesting myself of said stuff.  Large numbers of books, entire sets of dishes, an inordinate number of blankets and throws have found their way to shelters and thrift stores and recycling bins. What has not been thrown away, however, is anything I picked up from a road, a beach, or a fence row. Sunday was a perfect spring day made more perfect by the absence of caravans of ATVs chugging up and down my road.  After the Braves secured a come-from-behind victory with a three-run homer and just before the back nine at the Masters, I decided to take a walk.  It was a dawdle, really.  An amble.  A purposeless perambulation.  If I expected to find anything it would have been a feather fallen loose from a turkey vulture or a cluster of tracks where a herd of deer had danced their Saturday night away.  I did not expect to find a quarter. It was lying nestled in the soft treads of a recently passed tire, heads up, George Washington looking not the least surprised to have been dropped from a pocket so far from civilization.  I vacillated a moment on whether to pick it up, not so far removed from my former profession that I didn’t remember tales of coins being laced with fentanyl.  Convincing myself of the unlikelihood of such a scenario, I picked it up and dropped it into my pocket, fiddling with it all the way home. It was a couple of days later that I figured out what George, the father of our country and he who could not tell a lie, was telling me:  Picking up that quarter made it mine, but picking up an acorn, a pine cone, a ladybug never will.  The sand dollars and sweet gum balls, the holly sprigs and dried hydrangeas, the turkey egg and wasp nest will never be mine.  They can only loved with the tenderness reserved for that which can not be possessed. Copyright 2024

  • Backroads Liturgy

    It is Maundy Thursday.  Instead of heading to church for the commemoration of what Christians call the Last Supper and –  less considered and even a little uncomfortable –  the washing of the apostles’ feet by Jesus, I am heading to the grocery store because I forgot to get cheese and noodles for Sunday’s mac and cheese and because the cheese grater that I have had for my entire adult life has given up the ghost.  I am more than a little perturbed, irritated, put out. That said, it is a lovely afternoon.  After a couple of days of heavy clouds and heavier rain, the sun is bright, but soft.  It sifts through the back windshield to land on my shoulders like a fleece blanket, like Grannie’s veined hands stroking me gently as she shushed my little girl tears.  The fields that stretch out on either side of the road are practically grinning, so ready to feel the tremble of new growth pushing up through the soil.  Perhaps, I think, this – this gentle hum of spring that I can feel recalibrating my mood – is communion in a different form. Rounding a curve, I feel gravity pull against the cruise control, and see, a couple of hundred yards ahead, a shiny black pick-up truck stopped in the road.  I slow as I approach.  A man steps out, leaves the driver’s door open, and begins moving toward something lying in the left-hand lane.  It could be a baseball cap.  It could be anything, really, but I think it is a baseball cap. He pauses as I get close enough to make out his features.  His hair and moustache are the color of his truck.  He is no older than forty.  He is muscled, not like a man who works out, but like a man who works outside.   He is also, I can tell from the shine on his truck, a man who is particular, a man who pays attention. I am only a couple of car lengths away now.  He lifts his arms and I assume he is going to wave me around, the way we say in the country, “Never mind me sitting here in the road.”  He does not.  Instead, he frantically waves his arms over his head and then points to the baseball cap, which – I suddenly realize – is not a baseball cap, but a turtle. I smile, lift my hands from the steering wheel to make sure he knows I understand, and watch him bend down and gently nudge the turtle toward the newly-green grass on the edge of the road.  He is grinning as he hurries back toward the truck. “Thank you!” I yell.   He doesn’t hear what I’ve said.  He trots toward me.  “Thank you,” I repeat. He smiles and shrugs.  “I had to help the little fellow.” He returns to his truck, lets me go first.  He follows me all the way to the stop sign at the four-lane highway where we turn to go in different directions. I blink my eyes to hold back tears. All the irritation and disappointment of a few moments before dissolve in the kindness, the tenderness, the humility of one man’s lowering himself to serve another. That is, I realize, as the Easter weekend traffic rushes past, what this day, this week is about.  That is what the liturgy means when it urges us to “Do this in remembrance of me.” Not every church service takes place in a church.  Not every worshipful offering is made in the reflection of stained glass.  Not every prayer is uttered from a pew.  Sometimes, like today, the service is held, the offering made, the prayer whispered between strangers on an asphalt road. Copyright 2024

  • Freesia and the Long Haul

    It was over 25 years ago that I had the mistaken idea that I could be a gardener. I had yet to learn that the piece of land upon which I had planted myself belonged not to me but to itself and that it would grow what it wanted and only that. I had yet to learn that being a gardener requires not just intention and resources, but at least a little talent.  I had yet to learn that, contrary to what my elementary school teachers proclaimed, I can not be anything I want to be. I have now learned all those things (along with plenty more) and, as a result, I carry around a little more cynicism, a little more suspicion, and a little more distrust than I did on the day I ordered the “perennial wildflower mix” from some catalog that had made its way into my mailbox. The seeds came in a container that looked like a slightly obese Pringles can.   The photo on the outside was of a wide expanse of lavender and pink and yellow wildflowers, glowing in the light of a springtime sun.  The planting instructions were rolled up inside the can like a scroll of ancient wisdom, the type so tiny that I had to squint to read them. It was some time, several months actually, before the enthusiasm that prompted my purchase returned and I made my way outside to put the seeds in the ground.   I chose the location upon which to scatter the Lilliputian seeds (The instructions were clear that there was no planting involved.), started hacking away at the grass-mostly-weeds with the tool, a cultivator, I had purchased specifically for the occasion, and discovered quickly that my knees were probably not up to much gardening. Still, I am nothing if not determined, so the dirt got turned up and the seeds scattered and watered and I rose from the posture of prayer with the idea that all my labor would be rewarded. It was not. Not that year.  Not the next year.  Or the next.  Or any of the following twenty years. It is important to know when to give up and, eventually, I did. But I never forgot. One day about two weeks ago as Owen and I approached home from our walk down the river road, I got a glimpse of something yellow near the ground under the kitchen window.  It could have been anything – a Dollar General plastic bag from the bed of somebody’s pick-up truck was most likely – , but it wasn’t.  It was, in fact, a flower. I was not shocked or startled.  I wasn’t even mildly surprised.  I was, as a Victorian novelist might say, bemused, that is, “slightly confused; not knowing what to do or how to understand something.” But it was not the flower (which I subsequently identified as freesia) about which I did not know what to do.  It was me. Twenty years is a long time.  A person can let go of a lot of things in twenty years, can turn a lot of corners, can pack up and put away a lot of dreams. I knelt down in front of the flower, its little face bobbing in the breeze like a cork on a pond.  I felt the corners of my mouth turn up into a smile and I felt something slowly dissolve in my chest.  Apparently, I had not given up, let go, put away.  Not completely.  Apparently, somewhere in the deepest part of me, as in Pandora’s box, there remained hope. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman says that hope is often grounded in memory.  In this case, I think, that grounding may be literal.  I may have given up my expectation, my anticipation, my longing, but my hope was just buried – along with the seeds –  surviving somehow for twenty years.  And coming back to life in accordance with its season. I have kept tabs on the freesia, checked on it every day.  It has opened wider, grown taller, been joined by another long stem of sunshine-banana-lemon yellow loveliness.  And it is reminding me to hope. “Hope,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers.”  It is also, I am learning, the thing with petals and pistils and stamens and stigmas. Copyright 2024

  • Blossoms and Bargains

    Overnight the yellow jessamine blooms. Floating in the topmost branches of the scrub oaks along the river road, the flowers look like a cloud of fairies. They also look like an entire orchestra of trumpets, the outer lips curling back into snarky smiles. And, then, over the next night, the wild plum trees bloom. Their bright gold stamens wiggling back and forth in the slightest breeze look like the jacks I used to toss into the air and watch fall on the breezeway at Mattie Lively during recess, scraping my knuckles on the concrete as I rushed to pick them up before the red rubber ball bounced. And, then, crossing the yard, I see that the blue toadflax has sprouted up around the holes that the armadillos have dug.  The stems are tall and thinner than a spaghetti noodle.  A circle of asymmetrical petals that dangle like dog tongues makes the tiny flowers. It is – obviously and with disregard to the official date on the calendar still three weeks away – spring. Or so it seems.  I am not completely sure. Despite the chartreuse buds on the hydrangea and the olive green catkins dangling from the oak trees, despite the balmy breeze and the early light coming through my bedroom windows, despite the near-constant birdsong I can not bring myself to take my coats to the dry cleaners. Spring is a flirt.  A coquette.  A tease.  She can not be trusted. One February I found a beautiful dress on the clearance rack at Dillard’s in Atlanta.  My friend Lynn was with me and we agreed that it would make a wonderful Easter dress.  It was navy blue with large white polka dots.  It had a fitted waist and a full skirt.  It was also sleeveless.  The fact that it cost $15 was the piece de resistance.  A bargain for sure.  I could hardly wait for Easter. On Palm Sunday the temperature crashed.  The forecast was definitive: Easter would not just be chilly, but downright cold.  I spent the entire week looking for a sweater to go with my $15 dress.  I found one – it cost $70. That sweater – which I remember with bitterness – is, of course, but a symbol for every disappointment, rejection, and betrayal that I have ever experienced.  A metaphor for every failure, loss, and defeat I have ever suffered.  A reminder of every false step, wrong decision, and poor choice I have ever made.  That sweater is a monument to Nature’s unpredictability and my own humanity. And, yet, even as I stare at my coat hanging over the chair in the living room ready for what I am sure is going to be another day of stiff wind and brrr-ish temperature, I can not help imagining the first barefoot day, the first whiff of honeysuckle, the first taste of blackberries.  Even as I recognize Spring for the heartbreaker she is and always will be, I admit that I am besotted and always will be. Spring, I have learned, like friendship and love, is never a bargain.  You will never get it for less than full price. Copyright 2024

  • Sad Story. True Story.

    This is a sad story. If you do not like sad stories, you should probably stop reading now.  I will offer, though, that, in one way or another, they are all sad stories.  You know what I mean. I was coming home from church on Sunday. It was cold. It was gray. It was one of those days in which the atmosphere seems to have paused itself. No wind, no sound.  Just cold. I had pulled off the highway, was edging toward the bad curve, following the shallow ruts that had been made after the minimal rainfall of the day before when something caught my eye. In the shallow edge of the road that passes for a ditch was a baby deer. He couldn't have been more than a few days old. He was lying down, but with his head and shoulders raised, his dark eyes alert. I thought at first that he had somehow gotten stuck in the mud, but realized quickly that he was not struggling and, besides, there wasn't enough mud for that. The only other option was that he had been hit by a car or a truck and that his hips had been broken. I looked away as I drove past him. Not because I am insensitive.  Quite the opposite.  I internalize this kind of situation.  For every bird with a broken wing, every squirrel that darts into the road at exactly the wrong moment, every raccoon or possum that freezes in the beam of headlights, I am overcome with  undeserved guilt and unreasonable regret despite the fact that I am not responsible and there is absolutely nothing I can do. As for the fawn, even if I tried to approach him, to bundle him up in some way so as to get him to a wildlife veterinarian somewhere who would most likely not be able to save him anyway, his mother – who had to be somewhere close by, probably staring at me from the edge of the woods – would chase me away. Nor could I, as we say, put him out of his misery because I did not have a gun with me.  (I say that like I could have done it.  I could not.) I unsuccessfully fought back tears. I bit my lip.  I muttered all sorts of angry and uncharitable and disrespectful words toward the truck driver and nature and God.   And then I grit my teeth, pressed the accelerator and I reminded myself that animals die. That we all do. Last week, on Ash Wednesday, I stood in front of a man holding a bowl of ashes and looked him straight in the eyes as his thumb smudged a cross on my forehead.  “From dust you have come.  To dust you will return.”  He says it matter-of-factly and, yet, in his soft, deep voice there is  such compassion. It is a strictly Christian thing, this placing of the ashes, but it occured to me as tears rolled down my cheeks that it would not be a bad idea for all of us – Christians and Jews and Muslims, Republicans and Democrats and those who don’t even vote, vegans and vegetarians and keto people – to stop once a year to stare death in the face. To acknowledge the temporary nature of our lives, the frailty of our bodies, the impotence of our intentions.  To allow another temporary, frail, impotent human to gently touch our foreheads and remind us of how precious it all is. The next day buzzards were hovering over the body of the deer.  They scattered as my car approached and I watched their wings spread like giant brackets on a page of sky. Copyright 2024

  • Nighttime and Neighbors

    At this time of year, at this time of night, with only the single yard light as illumination, my backyard looks like a painting, maybe something from the Hudson River School – all blurred edges and smudged lines and muted greens.  Mist hovers, hangs, trembles and, if it had a sound, it would be the softest possible hum. Returning home late at night, I am likely to encounter, within that painting, one of my neighbors – an armadillo, a raccoon, an owl, but usually a deer.  Experience has taught me to approach with caution. On this particular evening that caution is rewarded.  My headlights, arcing into the branch,  spotlight two deer, yearlings from the size of them, standing just at the edge.  They are thin and sinewy and, in the dimness, make me think of the enchanted creatures that populated the books I read as a child. I brake gently as they still themselves and raise their elfin heads in my direction. They have no more than a couple of seconds to decide what to do. The one slightly closer to the front end of my car, a weapon against which they have no defense, turns and moves into the woods, stepping gently like a ballerina en pointe, and disappears.  The second turns and runs.  I can see him in the glow of the headlights for probably 40 yards, his white tail gleaming, until his round rump dissolves into the darkness. I never make assumptions about the behavior of deer.  They are much like humans in that they may reverse direction at any moment and, thus, I have learned from experience to wait.  To make sure.  When it becomes clear that both are gone, that neither is coming back, I ease my foot off the brake and roll slowly into the carport. While I wait, though, I can’t help wondering:    Why did the two deer behave so differently?  Why did the first deer simply move out of the way of the danger while the second one ran?  Is one the older sibling, always following the rules?  Is the other the younger, prone toward recklessness and adventure? A few nights ago, around the full moon, I got an urge, as I sometimes do, to go outside and walk around in the dark.  As I opened the front door and before I could step out onto the porch, I saw a herd of deer not more than 30 feet away.  They did not freeze; they simply stood there, a couple of them glancing in my direction.  They looked for all the world like a crowd at a tailgate or a barbecue.  Catching up on the week. I thought they would eventually bolt, that if I took a couple of steps in their direction the entire group would dash into the nearby field. They did not.  My feet grew cold waiting. I went back inside, shaking my head wondering whether my front yard was really mine. Tonight, as I pull my coat tight against the wind and hurry inside, I wonder if either or both of the deer I just encountered were a part of that herd.  Is one of them a young buck feeling the first itch of antler buds on the top of his head?  Is there a doe somewhere deep in the woods snorting and blowing to call them back to safety? Will they find their way back to the bed of soft grass that is somewhere nearby? After so many years of living among wild things, I no longer chastise myself for anthropomorphizing.  I am absolutely convinced that the wrinkled face of the tortoise slowly making his way across the yard reflects wisdom.  I am sure that the chatter of the mockingbird indicates frustration.  And I have no doubt that somewhere in the woods outside my door there is a doe licking the faces of her children, so very glad that they have made it home. Copyright 2024

  • Of Words and Meanings

    Kenan’s was not a bookstore.  It was an office supply store, the place where the lawyers in town got their yellow legal pads and had their business cards printed, the place where the accountants got their rolls of adding machine tapes and long green spreadsheets, the place where everybody who had an office got carbon paper and ballpoint pens and staples. Kenan’s was not a bookstore, but it had a little room off to the side where students could find paperback copies of the books assigned to them by the doyennes of Statesboro High School, Fronita Roach and Dorothy Brannen.  One could also find those books’ Cliff Notes, the purchase of which, I imagine, was accomplished with the same furtiveness and stealth utilized, in those early years of the 1970s, to purchase what the cool kids called weed and what the rest of us called, in careful whispers, marijuana. The first time I went into Kenan’s was to purchase a dictionary, a 4" by 7" paperback with a cover price of 75 cents, at the instruction of my ninth grade English teacher.  Marcia Lanier was young and enthusiastic and funny and, ever determined to ingratiate myself to my teachers, it never occurred to me, as it had to some of my classmates, to ignore her instructions and depend upon the dictionary we had at home. I wrote my name on the title page and probably –  though I have no specific recollection of the act, only of who I was and still am – read the foreword, the “guide to the use of the dictionary,” and the key to pronunciation.  I took it to school, carried it around in the stack of textbooks on my hip, and then did it again every day for the next nine months. I still have that dictionary, the one I bought at Kenan’s.  The glue on its spine dried out long ago and entire sections (from “dangerous” to “projectile,” for example) lie loose between the covers.  Its pages are the color of weak tea and the font is so small that I have to squint to read most of the definitions.  Stuck between two of the pages is an index card on which Miss Brannen wrote, “Jonathan Swift,” the author assigned to me as the subject of one of many required book reports, and on which I wrote in handwriting that no longer looks like mine, a brief biography of Swift, including, “received payment for only 1 work: 'Gullliver’s Travels'.” I no longer need my copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.  I can, with a few keystrokes on my laptop, call up not only the definition of any word in the American language, but its synonyms and antonyms.  I can hear someone pronounce it and I can find all the famous quotes in which it was used. I no longer need my ragged, outdated dictionary, but it remains within my reach, in a basket on a table beside my reading chair.  I don’t remember the last time I used it to look up a definition, but just today I reached for it, held it in my hands, fluttered the pages with my thumb, and remembered for just a moment the girl who handed Mr. Kenan a single dollar bill in exchange for all the words in the world. I worry sometimes, when the conversation veers toward the banning of books or the inevitability of artificial intelligence becoming the coin of the realm of writing, that we have forgotten, through neglect or intent, the sacred nature of words.  That we have lost our understanding of the power of words to create and connect.  That with our submission to the perversion of language (including and, perhaps, especially profanity), we have lost the ability to articulate the deepest human emotions and the most generative ideas. It might do us well to return to the dictionary, one sure thing in the stack of uncertainties we carry on our hips, a reminder of the weight of our words. Copyright 2024

  • Raking Leaves

    I do not rake leaves. I have leaves.  Lots of leaves.  An entire backyard full of leaves.  I have one of those wide rakes with splayed tines.  But I do not rake. Because I am a firstborn, a former Girl Scout, and still a licensed member of the Georgia Bar, however, I feel compelled to defend my actions.  I, in deliberately choosing to leave the leaves untouched, am not being lazy,  an act of moral turpitude for which I could easily be disinherited.  Nor does my choice arise from the desire to see my leaves slowly dissolve and re-nourish the soil, though being a good steward of the earth is something to which I aspire. I do not rake leaves because I like the sound of them shooshing, shuffling, crackling. I like to feel them gathering around my ankles like waves at the beach or suds in the bathtub, disappearing my feet and creating a mystery as to how I can possibly be standing.  To move through mounded piles of sycamore leaves broader than my out-stretched hands or heaps of oak leaves curling tightly in on themselves like cigars creates a sound that startles me into consciousness on days when too many layers of clothes and too much time huddled inside have left me lethargic and disinterested. It would be easy to say that rushing through dead leaves makes me feel like a child again, but that would not be true.  It makes me feel very much like an adult who can not rake her leaves if she doesn’t want to. A few days ago, I went outside to refill the bird feeders and noticed that the previous night’s stiff wind had amputated from the trees a number of branches –  most of them thin and delicate, bending back and forth at angles so slight that they could pass for straight – , tossing them about the yard in a meteorological game of pick-up sticks. I filled the feeders and, since I was already cold, set about picking up the branches, tossing them into a pile at the edge of the yard that always reminds me of my preparedness in the event that I should need to start a fire for some reason.  Back and forth I went, loading my arms, emptying my arms, listening to and being comforted by the crunch beneath my feet. Suddenly I stumbled, caught myself, and knew without looking down what had interrupted my stride.  A sycamore root, one over which I have probably stepped a thousand times,  hidden beneath the leaves. If there's anything I like better than dead leaves, it is the thick, winding, surface-breaking roots of a sycamore tree. They defy just about everything I ever learned about roots in third grade science. They do not stretch deep into the earth, searching for water and nutrients. They run shallow and stretch out around the trunk like uneven spokes on a wheel.  They scar easily from things like riding lawn mowers because of their nearness to the surface and, in the way of scars, create a strange kind of beauty. The stumble stopped me.  I stood under the wide naked branches, clutching the twigs to my chest, feeling the wind on my cheeks, and – in this week of Epiphany – had one: It is the sycamore roots over which we have stepped a thousand times that will most likely trip us up. That is, it is the long-held and rarely re-considered opinions that so often leave us faithless, the once-made and never-questioned allegiances that so often lead to betrayal, the legitimate but dangerous desires for permanence and stability that so often result in stagnation. I took a breath.  Deep and chill.  I dropped my load and turned to go, the sound of crunching leaves both witness and judge. Copyright 2024

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