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  • 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

  • The Matter of the Christmas Tree

    It is late Christmas afternoon. The rain that came earlier, for most of the day,  has stopped, leaving the road beneath my feet alternately crunchy and smushy. The clouds have not completely disappeared. The sky is a mottled pewter, still and dull. The bird sounds are soft and low to the ground.  I can’t identify any of them. In the distance, over the field and through a large stand of pine trees, I hear gunshots. Muffled by the dense atmosphere and the distance, I can not tell whether they are made by a rifle or shotgun, a Christmas present most likely, being broken in by its proud new owner. It reminds me of all the Thanksgiving mornings and Christmas afternoons of my childhood in which my father, my uncles, and, later, my brother and cousins, clad in various degrees of camouflage, gathered up in a field to hunt.  Their success was never measured by the number of doves or quail they shot, but by the stories they wrote from just being together. It is the kind of memory that would generally evoke other holiday memories, that would send my mind down a trail lined with images of Icebox Fruitcake being pulled from the back of Grannie’s refrigerator, of an Etienne Aigner pocketbook being pulled from under the Christmas tree, of a sticky cedar tree being pulled across a field by my four-year-old nephew. Generally.  But not today. Today there is the matter of the Christmas tree.  Four days before Christmas the top section of lights on my Christmas tree blinked once and died.  Two days later the middle section bid farewell, leaving only the lower third illuminated. Every time I walked through the living room, the crippled state of my tree caught my attention, reminding me that as Steve Walsh and Kansas pointed out in the late 70s, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.  Before I left the house I was looking online at post-holiday sales on Christmas trees because, of course, I have to resolve the issue a full 365 days in advance. Sigh. It occurs to me that while Mary and Elizabeth get all the attention this time of year, Martha (she of the “distracted by many things” fame) is probably more familiar to the women I know.  Trying to feed the big crowd that is due to arrive at any moment, provoked at a sister who doesn’t do nearly enough to help, the work of the holiday has (she thinks) fallen all on her and, to make matters worse, somebody (that would be the Son of God) is saying things like, “Sit down, Martha.  Let’s visit.” Back at home, the first thing I see as I walk in is the tree.  I pause.  I take a breath.  The truth is that no one else noticed its failure.  Not the technician who came to fix the gas logs.  Not the family that came to celebrate the season.  Not even the children who camped under its false branches awaiting the distribution of gifts. For all that I have noticed this Christmas – the distant look in my father’s eyes as he watches his great-grandchildren open gifts, the chrismons fluttering among the branches of the evergreens in the church chancel, Christmas cards growing into a soft mound on the silver tray – I am learning that perhaps there is also value in not noticing.  I don’t have to see or hear or even feel everything.  I can choose what is worth acknowledging and ignore the rest.  What kind of Christmas gift is that? Copyright 2023

  • "How'd You Make That?"

    No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers. Laurie Colwin As I was packing up to go to law school, it occurred to me that I was going to be responsible for my own nutrition for the first time ever. Having lived in the dorm for four years in college and, thus, getting all my meals in the dining hall, the fact that I didn't know how to cook was unimportant. Now, suddenly, it was. It is still a little embarrassing that the one thing for which I requested a recipe from my mother was grits. Grits! I was acutely aware of my insufficiency and thought, from years of observation, that grits would be easy -- and cheap, of course -- to make. And, so, my mother, without once laughing, wrote down the instructions by which she had fed me so successfully on so many winter mornings: 2 Tbsp. quick grits per serving Bring 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil. Add grits; reduce heat to low. Continue cooking about 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Add water as needed. Those simple instructions became the first "recipe" I transcribed into the three-ring Hallmark recipe binder I bought for myself at the Hen House in the Statesboro Mall. In the ensuing years, that binder has grown to include a culinary history of my life. Its pages are appropriately stained and the Scotch tape by which I attached many of its offerings has turned that ugly shade of yellow. Slips of paper and clippings from magazines are stuffed between its pages. I can almost cry when I see the handwriting of friends and family who have shared their favorites. I recently wrote about one of those recipes. Skillet Almond Coffee Cake, and, surprisingly, a number of folks have requested the recipe. I don't think it's because of a broad love of almonds or coffee cakes, but because of something vastly more important. Skillet Almond Coffee Cake doesn't require elaborate ingredients or advanced culinary skill. It doesn't take hours to prepare. It is a simple recipe that becomes extraordinary in the hands of one who cooks with love. Ask anyone who has every been the recipient of an aluminum foil-wrapped offering. So, because it is the season in which nothing is more festive than gift-giving, here you go. Skillet Almond Coffee Cake 3/4 cup room temperature butter 1 1/2 cup sugar 1 1/2 cup flour, sifted 2 eggs 2 tsp. almond extract slivered almonds sugar for sprinkling Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time. Add flour, extract, and a pinch of salt. Pour batter into an iron skillet (9 to 11 inches) lined with heavy duty aluminum foil that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Leave excess foil on side. Sprinkle top with almonds and sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 - 40 minutes. During very last minute, turn on broiler. WATCH CLOSELY! Freezes well. Drizzle with chocolate for dessert. Merry Christmas from Sandhill! Copyright 2023

  • Skillet Almond Coffee Cake

    I have made it so many times that I could surely do it without consulting the recipe, but I don’t dare.  Reading the words, repeating them out loud, following them with my finger and leaving smudges of egg yolk and butter along the edge of the page – each is as essential as the instructions to “cream butter and sugar” and “add eggs one at a time.” Skillet Almond Coffee Cake is dense and buttery and, when cooked just right, has, like your grandmother’s pound cake, a crack or two in the top.  The scent of almond extract is thick and sweet and hovers in the kitchen like expensive perfume.  And the taste, especially when still warm from the oven, is, well, rapturous. I first tasted Skillet Almond Coffee Cake probably 30 years ago in a mountain cabin in North Carolina.  My friend Mary Catherine generously shared the recipe and in the years since, I (along with Mary Catherine’s many other friends) have made, eaten, and shared its deliciousness more times than I can count.  The parents of new babies, bereaved families, new home owners, and regular folks deserving of a thank you have all been the recipients of Skillet Almond Coffee Cake from the oven at Sandhill. The recipe reached a new level of notoriety when our friend Gena, having been tasked with providing breakfast for a professional chef who was speaking to her women’s club,  made Skillet Almond Coffee Cake and found herself being asked by the chef for the recipe. “It’s not mine.  It’s my friend Mary Catherine’s,” Gena attempted to deflect before, as Southern women are wont to do, relenting and sharing. To the email in which Gena made her confession, Mary Catherine replied, “I actually found that recipe in the Richmond Junior League cookbook abut forty years ago!  So even though it is now considered ‘mine’, it belonged to someone else first!” I smiled as I read.  Respect and generosity.  The very essence of our friendships reflected in that brief exchange. And then I read it again, the last part: “It belonged to someone else first.” Maybe it’s the fact that the tree is up and lit with tasteful tiny white lights and the wreaths are hung on both doors, front and back.   Maybe it’s because the gifts have all been purchased and wrapped in paper that coordinates with the living room furniture.  Maybe it’s because I just can’t help getting soft and sentimental and reflective  when the little garden flag that harkens “Merry Christmas” waves to me every time I walk outside. Whatever the reason, I got a little weepy as I considered what it means that everything, everyone I call mine belonged to someone else first.  This small patch of land that was home to people long before the age of deeds and plats, long before studs and beams came together to make a house.  The soft gold puppy who showed up on the stoop one afternoon and who has stayed long enough for his nose to go gray.  The people who crossed the threshold and sat at the table over and over or just once. They all belonged to someone else first.  And they will belong to someone else when I am gone. Using the first person possessive in referring to anything – objects, money, people – is ignorant at best and selfish at worst. Somewhere in between the two is, I think, the fulcrum upon which one can live a good life.  A spot where gratitude and stewardship meet and Skillet Almond Coffee Cake belongs to us all. Copyright 2023

  • Maples in November

    I stare through the plate glass window, my knees pumping up and down on the pedals of the stationary bike. The scene is gray and wet. The tires of the cars that flash past in both directions make a shushing sound that I can’t hear, but that I know. Across the highway is the cemetery. (For much of my life it was the only cemetery in town and, thus, carries the privilege of the definite article.) It feels appropriate, symbolic, well-timed that I would be here on this cold and rainy Sunday after Thanksgiving, working as hard on my attitude as I am on my cardio. I am approaching the anniversary of my mother’s death. Three years. Even longer when I count the long descent precipitated by Alzheimer’s. The missing, the longing, the sorrow feels as heavy as the sky that hovers over the low tombstones and soaring monuments. The calendar tells me it is almost Advent and my heart tells me it is anything but. I glance down at the digital numbers keeping me apprised of how many calories I have expended, how much time has expired, how far I have gone without moving at all. I can’t help wondering if all these machines were intentionally placed to face the cemetery. Is it on purpose that the patrons are reminded day after day of what all their effort is meant to, if not avoid, then certainly delay as long as possible? Or is it just unavoidable irony? And, then, as if she were standing right behind me, I can hear my mother’s voice. “Stop whining or I’ll give you something to whine about.” She knew well that, despite my generally optimistic attitude, I am capable of melodrama. “Now, hold up your shoulders and finish your exercising so you can get home before the roads get bad.” So I straighten my shoulders and, staring once again toward the cemetery, I notice a maple tree – Surely it was there before! – covered in leaves that look like flames. Orange and red and pomegranate pink. It stands right at the edge of the road by which every hearse, every mourner enters the cemetery. A single swath of color, a welcoming sentry, an invitation to see – even in darkness and sadness – beauty. Staring now at the glimmering shimmering tree, I remember the Thanksgiving afternoons of my childhood. Between the gluttonous meal at lunch and the return for second helpings at supper, Grannie and the aunts and the cousins would squeeze into the largest of the cars parked in the backyard and ride around the county looking for burial places of various kinds. I can see my mother and my aunts, their tiny waists cinched in shirtwaist dresses, leaning over to straighten a crooked wreath or reset a tipped over potted plant. I can hear their whispers as they point out to each other familiar names while we children wandered up and down rows of granite headstones, calculating ages and giggling at the old-fashioned monikers. We knew nothing of mortality, of grief, of the inevitability of both. We also knew nothing of the way in which our hearts were harvesting memories, laying them by in barns from which we would be able to pull them on cold and wet Sundays, on warm and sunny Wednesdays, on special occasions and ordinary days. Snapshots and video reels and audio files that defy death in amazing and mystical ways. The wind picks up a little, tickles the leaves on the maple tree just enough to send them dancing. I slow my pedaling, take a deep breath, and smile. When I was in college and first started keeping a quote book, I came across one from James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. “God gave us memories,” he said, “that we might have roses in December.” Or, I remind myself, in this case, maples in November. Copyright 2023

  • I Said What I Said

    To be clear, it’s not just the cold. Not just the way it makes my teeth chatter like a jig doll. Not just the way it leaves my cheeks raw and my lips feeling like sandpaper. It’s not just the cold that makes me hate winter. And it’s not just the dark. Not just the way the sun races across the sky like it’s being chased by a rabid dog. Not just the way that every sound in the night mimics danger. It’s not just the dark that makes me hate winter. It’s the cold and the dark and one more thing, the thing I just discovered, the third prong of the trident that spears my heart and makes me weep with the first hard freeze. That thing is the absence of color. The autumn landscape through which I have been walking every day has been drenched in color – lilac and lavender and violet dangling from long narrow stems; buttery yellow dancing in tight bunches of asters and goldenrod; oak trees and palmetto scrubs and beautyberry bushes staining the land with every shade of green. As November fades, though, so does the outdoor palette. The colors leak away and within a few weeks the world becomes one big Sherwin-Williams paint card of various browns. Beige and taupe and chocolate as far as the eye can see. My personal disdain for winter, its cold and dark and colorlessness, was forefront in my mind one afternoon last week as I trudged my way up the hill toward home. The broomsedge along the road had already turned pale like wheat and I could barely see Owen, nose to the ground after a scent of some kind. What had been a watercolor wash of wildflowers just days before was now nothing more than dried weeds. Even the sky, which I had described to someone not long before as cornflower blue, seemed to have fallen into bleach. Getting within sight of Sandhill, I happened to glance over at the equipment shelter that sits just off the edge of the road. I can’t say what drew me away from my determined pace, but I slowed and, as I did, I noticed what looked like a puddle of blue. Bright blue. Starkly blue. Deeply blue against an otherwise brown and gray landscape. Squinting as I approached, I quickly realized the puddle was actually a pile of seeds. I knelt down for a closer look. Like tiny blue coins in a pirate’s chest, they ran through my fingers , a cloud of dust lingering in the air as they fell back to the ground. I was mesmerized. If you spend enough time outdoors, you will eventually learn to laugh at yourself. I felt slightly stupid when Daddy explained that what I’d seen, the object of my fascination, was nothing more than cotton seeds. Ordinary cotton seeds. Ordinary – but beautiful, I felt compelled to add – cotton seeds. I also felt more than slightly chastised. Mother Nature herself, so very much like my own mama, can be quick to discipline, quick to call for repentance, determined to correct unseemly behavior. My petulant attitude toward winter, my untrue assertions and inappropriate attitude needed correcting and, for that purpose, there was deposited in my path a pile of cotton seeds, representative of holly berries and cardinals and poinsettias, tangerines and grapefruits and Christmas lights, luminous full moons and technicolor sunsets. In addition to learning to laugh at yourself, you will, with enough time outdoors, learn to forgive yourself. You will learn that absolution – for presuming and assuming and swiping the world with broad strokes of generalization – is free and that Mother Nature’s grudges are never held against the ignorant, only the deliberately malevolent. And, so, I say the only thing I can: I’m sorry. I get it now. Winter is not colorless. But it is cold and dark. Copyright 2023

  • A Butterfly By Any Other Name

    There is a wistfulness to days like this one – late October days when the sun is bright and the breeze balmy, when a sweater is unnecessary, when my walk is interrupted by hunters slowing their pick-up trucks when they go by so as not to choke me and Owen in the dust. There is wistfulness and almost a melancholy as my mind invariably races ahead to the darker, colder days ahead. I have learned, though, that the antidote to the creeping poignancy is deliberate awareness. An intentional noticing of what is, concentration on that which I can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in this moment keeps me from whining, bemoaning, and lamenting about the moments to come. So, as Owen scampers ahead, darting off into the woods and back again, in search of his own sensory delights, I slow my steps and scan the landscape for wildflowers that have bloomed since I last walked this way. Within moments I identify, with the help of an app on my phone, two species I’ve probably passed hundreds of times over the years, but never taken the time to notice: Painted Spurge (Euphorbia heterophylla) and Wild Marigold (Tagetes minuta). They are both growing close to one of my favorites, Purple False Foxglove (Agalinis purpurea), which blooms in such abundance that from a distance the edges of the road look like they have been painted with watercolor. As I am bent over staring at yet another plant, a butterfly lands gently on one of the stalks, sending it trembling like an eyelash. I don’t remember having seen such a butterfly before and I want to know its name, I want to be able to call it – like the Painted Spurge and Wild Marigold – what it is. I gently pull out my phone and, just as I get the camera zoomed in, the butterfly flits away. I try to follow it and realize that there is a whole swarm of them looping among the marigolds and foxgloves. With long wings striped black and white, they stand out among all the green. I move slowly, trying to make sure that my shadow doesn’t alert them to my presence. I step softly, unsure of how well butterflies hear. I hold my breath. Sometimes one must disguise one’s humanness to get close to the rest of nature. I get the photo and load it into the app which identifies the butterfly as – and I can’t help laughing out loud – a Zebra Longwing. Well, of course, it is. I find out later that the Zebra Longwings aren’t even supposed to be in Georgia. That they are tropical butterflies and that their natural habitat reaches no farther north than Florida. That they are probably here only because a hurricane blew them this way. At this moment, though, in a world in which definitional names and titles can rarely be trusted – in which no one is sure what a person is when he claims to be a conservative or she insists she is a liberal, in which one can never know what to expect from someone who identifies as an environmentalist or an entrepreneur or, God help us, a Christian – , it is reassuring and amazing and downright magical to find out that Nature has given us a butterfly with long black and white wings whose name is Zebra Longwing. I call Owen back to the road, stuff the phone into my back pocket, and head for home. Thoreau may have gone to the woods to live deliberately, but I go to be amazed. And on this day, this late October day when the sun is bright and the breeze balmy, I am more than amazed. I am grateful. Copyright 2023

  • Shabbat Shalom

    It is Sunday afternoon. There is a slight breeze – cool and gentle. Long sleeves are welcome. The sky is cornflower blue with clouds that look like dollops of sour cream plopped across its wide expanse. My steps make a crunching sound. That, along with the occasional avian tweet and the brushing of pine needles against each other high in the sky, is the only noise. I am struck by how peaceful it all is. It was Friday night. The pew on which I sat was straight and hard. The sanctuary was built of dark wood and stone. The stained glass windows shimmered with the last of the day’s sunlight and, as it faded completely, the service began. Though Saint Mark’s is an Episcopal church, this was not an Episcopal service. Not even a Christian one. Temple Beth Tefilloh is a tiny Jewish shul which shares a backyard with the imposing St. Mark’s. For this shabbat service, the first since the attack by Hamas on Israel, they have borrowed their neighbor’s facilities. They expected a crowd. And they got one. Going to church had not been the way I had expected to begin my weekend at the beach, a couple of days in which to celebrate my birthday with laughter and conversation and the scent of marsh and salt water mingled into the perfect sensory cocktail. I expected sunshine and frivolity. Expectations, of course, can be dangerous things. The friend who was hosting me, who has only recently made this town her new home, heard about the service and suggested we go, that we lend ourselves to this opportunity to pray for peace in Israel. The day’s gray clouds still hovered as we made our way up the wide concrete steps. I didn’t notice the police officer on the sidewalk. As we waited for sundown, I looked around the sanctuary at the men and women filling the pews. But for the vestments worn by some of the Christian clergy and the yarmulkes worn by the Jewish men, one could never have determined from which branches of God’s family each of us came. “A Call to Rest, a Call to Peace,” the first page of the program read and over the next hour and a half I did my best to follow the prayers and laments, Hebrew interspersed with English, led by the young woman at the front of the church. There were songs, all sung in minor keys. There was the blessing of the wine and, later, the blessing of the bread that, amazingly, resembled more than a little the service of communion in my own church. It was all meant to lead us into reflection on what was going on, is going on halfway around the world where it is not peaceful. It is Sunday afternoon again. On this long dirt road, alone but for my dog, I am safe, but I cannot stop thinking about those who are not. Friday night did something to me. I was reminded – not in a banal, cliche way, but in a powerful, tangible, feel it in my bones way – that what we share is what makes us human. Our differences – skin color, religion, ideas about how to repair the world so in need of repair – may give some of us the excuse to separate, ostracize, or even harm, but they will never change the fact that there is common ground, ground which lies within our hearts. Near the end of her sermon, Rabbi Bregman offered that, “Peace will come only when the hatred we feel for our enemies is less than the love we feel for our children.” I looked around me at the congregation, filled undoubtedly with parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, people whose thoughts, like mine, immediately filled with images of the children who are the objects of their love. There is nothing, I could safely assume, that they would not do to protect those toddlers, teenagers, grown men and women who will always be children in their eyes. What if, I wondered, moving through the dappled shadows of my dirt road, my safe dirt road, the best thing we can do for our children is love our enemies? What would that mean? What would that take? The sun is almost directly overhead now and the shadows are short. The road rises gently and one foot follows the other. I will cover three miles this way – one step at a time. It is the only way to do anything. Copyright 2023

  • In Remembrance Of Trees

    For years, two dead pine trees have stood sentinel over the pond behind my house. The foliage long gone, all of the branches broken off, they have been simply two charred poles silhouetted against the blue sky. I don't know exactly when they were killed, but killed is what they were. Struck by lightning, they gave up all greenness, but not their spot in the soil. I've used the trees to navigate my way back to the house after wandering in the woods. I've used them to navigate my faults while wandering around trying to figure out a complicated answer to a complicated question. They simply stood there, still and stalwart, as though working to remind me of something I couldn't remember. A week or so ago, on one of the first afternoons that held a hint of fall, lured outside by a slightly cooler breeze and the angled light of late afternoon, I took a walk and, before realizing what I was seeing, came up on one of the dead trees, now fallen, shattered into pieces of various sizes and scattered across the path, soft and porous, spongy like Styrofoam. I stopped short and stared at the flattened skeleton, already dissolving into the earth. My best guess is that the tree fell in the hurricane a few weeks ago. The wind was certainly stiff enough to have leveled my old friend. But it is also possible that a breeze far less significant forced the topple. There is no way to know. I resumed my walk, moving slower than before, shuffling my feet just a little through the pusley and clover and nettle growing along the edge of the field, my mood suddenly sour. It took me a minute to realize why I had moved from lighthearted to sullen, why stumbling across the remains of the tree had left me pouty and vexed. It is my nature to notice, to observe with curiosity, to watch attentively and, in the watching, attribute meaning. The beauty, the tenderness, the fragility of life demands – in my personal ethos – that we bear witness, that we remember, that we not forget. As the poet Maxine Kumin said, “It is important to act as is bearing witness matters.” The sight of the fallen tree was, then, an accusation, an undeniable charge that I had not paid attention. It had fallen without witness and it was grief that halted my steps, that forced a gasp from my chest. I turned around and headed back, forced to pass again the fallen tree. “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” I considered the well-worn koan as I trudged ahead and found myself gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes at the revelation of the narcissism that made me think, if only for a moment, that I was the only worthy observer of these acres. Just because I didn’t see or hear the tree’s fall does not mean it was unwitnessed. The gopher tortoise whose wide undulating tracks cross my own, the white-tailed deer whose tip-toes flit through the underbrush, the crow and the robin and the sparrow that balance themselves in the tall branches of the sycamore, they all are witnesses to the ecology of this place. They are all, in their own ways, rememberers. Stepping carefully around the tree’s resting place, I can see that it has fallen toward the east, almost as though it knows something of human ways. Perhaps it does. Or, perhaps, they are the ways not just of humans, but of all who live and die and bear witness to the same. Copyright 2023

  • Filling Shelves

    I unrolled the blueprints and pointed to one of the living room walls, the one directly opposite the front door. “Here,” I told the contractor, “I want a wall of bookcases.” It would be one of the few extravagances in my little house. It was a fleece of sorts, a way of manifesting my long held desire to live a life surrounded by books. In the months to come, the walls and floors and windows and roof would come together to create a house, but it was only when the bookshelves were installed that I could see a home. The shelves were painted bright white and there were tiny brass brackets that made it possible to accommodate books of any height. I carefully chose a place for each of my treasures – the Narnia books, Gone With The Wind, an entire shelf of Agatha Christie – and then stood back to gaze with reverent wonder. That was 31 years ago. The shelves would eventually hold a large collection of novels and memoirs, thin volumes of poetry and chunky reference books, hardbacks with glossy dust covers and paperbacks with splayed spines and frayed corners. Some of them bore signatures from authors who were my heroes. Sometimes visitors to Sandhill stood in front of the bookshelves and stared, absorbing (I choose to believe) the magic and wonder of all the words waiting to be read. Eventually the shelves were full. Not one more volume could be forced into the rows. The shelves were so crowded that I started stacking new acquisitions horizontally into the skinny spaces at the top of the books. Instead of inviting and generous, the shelves looked burdened and unkempt. Instead of tempting me to stop and peruse their offerings, they spurred me to look away, to ignore the dust and the fading spines. My extravagance had become an albatross. One Sunday afternoon not long ago, the late summer sun came angling through the windows like a spotlight. It made a grid on the floor in front of the bookcase, the grain of the wood stretched out like waves. I don’t know what prompted me to stop, to stare. I tilted my head to read the titles and, like dominoes, they fell from my vision as my eyes moved from shelf to shelf. The realization that came in that moment was stark and raw and surprising: Most of these books I would never read again. Many of them I hadn’t liked all that much when I read them the first time. It was time to make space for what is next. I started with the ones about which I had only a vague recollection of subject, moved to the ones that no longer spoke to the person I have become, and after several hours ended up with a stack of 98 books – 39 hardcovers and 59 paperbacks. I placed them in boxes and put the boxes in the car for delivery to the Friends of the Library. The empty space around the books that were left made it possible to actually see the ones I loved, the ones that had inspired me and illuminated my mind. And there was room for other things I loved – the pottery bowl I had bought on a trip with some friends and the little Lane cedar chest I had gotten as a senior in high school now filled with tiny bits of paper and trinkets that memorialize my life. The whole process was, of course, a metaphor. It came to me as I emptied and dusted and rearranged. Without realizing it, I, too, had reached my capacity. Like my books, I need space, margin, edges into which I can bleed a little. I can’t, if I want to be respectful and reverent of this life I have been gifted, stuff my days, my head, my heart with every offering that comes my way. And, sometimes, I need to empty them of what is already there. Copyright 2023

  • The Tending Of What Remains

    This was not our first rodeo. Or first hurricane. And enough has already been said about Idalia by people who understand barometric pressure and millibars and the Saffir-Simpson Scale. I am still thinking about it, though, or – more particularly – what happens now. We call it the aftermath. The roads surrounding us were nearly all washed out and blocked with fallen trees. The ditches were flooded and the water in the pond down the way reached the top of its dam, quivering like a too-full cup. There was a dead frog lying in the middle of the road, away from all the tire marks, and I’m still not sure he didn’t drown. But we had it relatively easy. The power went out for only a few minutes. The turned-down rocking chairs didn’t get blown off the porch. I managed to staunch the leak that appears in the living room ceiling every time we get heavy rains. And the next morning dawned with bright sunshine and a cool breeze. Staring into the pale blue sky it occurred to me that the use of the word aftermath is always in the context of an especially unpleasant event or the time following something destructive. Aftermaths appear in the wake of financial collapse and mass shootings and natural disasters like, of course, hurricanes. Aftermaths exist in the space occupied by dreaded diagnoses and relationship rupture, as a result of loss and disappointment and death. And we are now, under this cloudless sky, in the aftermath. Which makes the etymology of aftermath, which I couldn’t resist researching, all the more interesting: The word was first used in the late 1400s and was originally an agricultural term from the ancient word “math,” which meant “a mowing.” The after-math was a mowing that took place after the first crop from a particular field was harvested. It involved the cutting, plowing, or, sometimes, grazing of whatever was left, a stewardship practice that kept anything from going to waste. I can stare out the window and remember the aftermath of Hurricane David in 1979 which involved hand-harvesting an entire crop of corn that had been laid flat by the Category 2 storm as it licked the coast at Savannah. Is stewarding what we were doing, I wondered, as we trudged through the fields lifting the slain stalks and breaking off the ears one by one, making sure that none went to waste? Is stewarding what we were doing as we waited in the dark and the heat for five days after Matthew in 2016, grieving all that had been lost, including two lives? I think so. Aftermath is not just what happens, but what we do with it. Aftermath is not just the recovery, but the learning from it. And there is much to learn from living in a place where hurricanes appear on a regular basis – the prudence of keeping batteries and candles and drinking water on hand, for certain, but, also and especially, the lesson of eventually. Eventually the wind moves on, the rain stops, the water recedes. Eventually the power comes back on. Eventually the traffic starts up again and Walmart reopens. Eventually we move forward, but – we can only hope – not unchanged. The limbs have all been picked up now. The carport has been swept clean of the litter of fading leaves. The county came out on Saturday to move the trees and scrape the road. Things are almost back to something like normal. Except – excuse the repetition – this isn’t our first rodeo. Anyone who has watched for, prepared for, lived through a hurricane (or a wildfire, a divorce, or a cancer diagnosis) knows that normal is a temporary condition. And all we can do is embrace the aftermath, the second mowing, the tending of what is left. Copyright 2023

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