Sunday, December 22, 2013

O, Come, All Ye Not Ready

Right about now, “How ya’ doin’?” becomes “You ready for Christmas?” and my voice catches in my throat because, let’s be honest, I never am.
The Christmas letter that has come to be expected could be written, reproduced, and mailed (It has been.).  The tree could be decorated within an inch of its artificial life (It is.).  The gifts could all be bought (Not quite.) and wrapped with tasteful paper and wired ribbon (I can only hope.).  The refrigerator and pantry could be filled to brimming with multiple units of cream cheese and condensed milk and pecans cracked and shelled by the hands of loving parents (Praise the Lord.) and I still would not be ready.
Ready means preparedness and wholeness and availability. Ready implies fitness and qualification like an Army Ranger or a Navy Seal.  Ready infers that I am somehow worthy to enter this holiest of seasons.  No amount of wired ribbon or condensed milk, no number of empty stocking contributions, no measure of time spent reading Guidepost devotions can do that.   I will ever stand at the edge of the stable wondering when one of the wise men is going to turn suddenly from his adoration of the baby and point me out as a fraud.
This is what I am thinking when some unsuspecting soul smiles at me in the Walmart check-out lane and asks, “You ready for Christmas?”
A few days ago, in the corner of a quiet coffee shop, at a table whose wooden top was scratched and watermarked, a friend and I bent our heads together in voices just above a whisper to talk about that, to confess what it feels like to not be ready for Christmas.  “The season got here so quickly,” she said.  “Thanksgiving was hardly over before the first Sunday in Advent appeared.” It has nothing to do with shopping or cooking or decorating, we agreed, but everything to do with stilling one’s brain and filtering out the noise long enough to consider what it is we are supposed to be celebrating.
That is the difficulty.  The stilling, the quieting, the letting go of the ill-considered notion that what I do, accomplish, carry out has some impact upon the coming of Christmas, the coming of the Christ child into the world, the coming of the Christ into me.
I have been watching the moon these last few nights, watching it swell into a consummate curve like a pregnant belly nine-months stretched.  I have watched it, wondering with each rise over the edge of the darkening landscape, when it will be the perfect circle. It is a slow process, this coming of the full moon.  It will not be hurried.  It will not be slowed.  It does not respond to my longing, my urging, my pressing.  
I think of my friends whose first baby, a girl, is due to arrive any day now.  They’d been told by the people who are supposed to know such things that she would be here before Christmas.  Those people had even suggested that they could make her come on a specific day, but consultation with baby Ella set them straight.  She, too, will not be hurried.  Nor will she be slowed.  She is not withholding her arrival while her family gets ready.  She knows that ready is what her family will become at the very moment they see her face, hear her cry, grasp her hand.
That is the answer.  Ready is not something we make ourselves.  Ready is something we become by virtue of that for which we long.  
The moon will wax full, the baby will be born, Christmas will come.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Bringing The Band

On the other side of the state, my mobile phone produced the bell chime that sounds like an elevator reaching its destination.  A friend had sent me a message that read, “Y'all might want to call in reinforcements, there's gonna be some property destroyed in the Boro tonight!”  I knew what it had to mean, but the reality was so improbable as to deserve the descriptions it would get in the coming hours: unprecedented, unbelievable, miraculous.
26 - 20.  Eagles over Gators.  David over Goliath.  The No Smoking sign in heaven turned off just long enough for one victory cigar.
Words began flowing out of The Swamp, words strung together into news stories and columns and blogs from the singular vocabulary and distinctive rhythm of sportswriters, words that, in any other context, would be trite and sentimental.  And I read as many of them as I could find.  After a while, because sportswriters are, first of all, good writers, it didn’t really matter that I had not watched or listened to the game myself.  
But I kept reading.  The Facebook posts and the comments on the Facebook posts and the comments on the comments on the Facebook posts.  It was all so much, I don’t know, fun.
And then sometime around Tuesday afternoon, I think, I came across a blog post on the website Gator Country which identifies itself as “the insider authority on Gator sports.”  Written by Nick de la Torre, the post offered five things that stood out about the football game.  Numbers one through four sounded familiar, simply recaps of all the other analyses I’d read.  Number five, though, caught my attention.  Number five was “Georgia Southern’s joy after winning.”  
De la Torre described how, after the clock expired, the team in blue and white stormed the field.  “A normal reaction,” he wrote, “for a team that just pulled off an upset.  That wasn’t the picture that stood out.  The team circled around their band – yes, Georgia Southern brought their band (something even Vanderbilt didn’t do)  – and they sang their alma mater.”
They brought the band.  A team that most of the world expected to lose, a team that was out-manned and out-moneyed, a team that would be disappointed, but not devastated to get on a bus and ride home having done its best but having lost.  That team brought its band.  They brought the trumpets that heralded them as heroes and the drums that beat out the cadence of history.  They brought music, that strange mixture of sounds that musters and rallies and holds together all manner of disparate souls.  They brought the band because, while winning was what they came to do, it wasn’t the only reason to be there.
That’s where I stopped reading.  That’s when it stopped being about just football and started being about life. About having dreams and pursuing them to the end.  About making commitments and never walking away. About always bringing the band.  No matter what. 
In 1910, after leaving the White House, Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne that contained what has become arguably his most famous words.  “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” he offered.  “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
If Theodore Roosevelt had been a football coach, I think he would have taken the band. To every game.  No matter how far away.  No matter how long the odds.   ‘Cause if you bring the band, there’s always a reason to sing.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Crossing Against The Light

In the navy blue of just dark, the headlights illuminate only a few feet in front of the car. The high beams give shadows to the rocks on the road directly in front of the tires in outlandish proportion to their size, but the hundred-foot pines on the other side of the ditch remain invisible.  Behind me the full moon is but a promise, not even a tease of her liquid silver light yet spilling over the horizon.
Just as I feel myself begin to lean into the bad curve, the arc of road where the beavers dam the creek every winter and the big aluminum culvert may or may not forestall the washing out of the road, a pair of yellow eyes appear at the lip where hard-packed dirt falls away to soft ditch.  The eyes are too low to be deer, too high to be possum or armadillo.  They have to be raccoon or fox and it is too late, too dark for a fox to be out.  Raccoon it must be.
I take my foot off the accelerator and feel the car slow as the lights pans the bend.  The raccoon is standing on his haunches, tiny paws drawn up to his chest as though in supplication.  He is young.   I can tell by his leanness and the fact that his mask isn’t very dark.  
The number of  raccoons, deer, possums, armadillos, foxes, and bobcats I have encountered on this dark stretch of road over the years is not one I can begin to compute, but I do know that every single one of them has behaved in exactly the same way: They have darted into the light.  This one will, too.
So I wait.
He twitches.  He jerks his head back and forth a couple of times.  He makes a quarter-turn toward the ditch and, just as I am about to believe that this raccoon, this one creature out of all the creatures, will behave in a manner contrary to instinct and move back into the darkness, he bolts out into the center of the road where the two yellow cones of light coming from the front of the car frame him like an escaping prisoner caught against the razor wire.  
Another infinitesimal hesitation and he is gone.  Into the blackness that is the ditch on the other side of the road, into the night where just moments before he had been moving safely and leisurely.
The idea that light is safety is a generally accepted axiom of life.   Most of what we fear is that which we cannot see.  With light comes vision, with light comes a banishing of fear.  And, yet, at least sometimes, as with the raccoon, the urge to rush into light – to know everything, to be blind to nothing – does little more than invite danger and expose vulnerability.
This is what I am thinking as I accelerate once more and head toward home.  It makes me shudder.  I am a light-seeker.  I navigate by looking for the sun to rise in the east and set in the west, by watching the stars.  Feeling my way in the dark is not my way.   
And now the raccoon is making me wonder: Is this the choice we must make?  Do we choose to remain safe and in the dark, stumbling around over roots and rocks, chairs and coffee tables, ill-fitting jobs and passionless relationships?  Or do we choose to become vulnerable and step in the light, exposed for all the world to see as small and fragile creatures, willing to challenge large and frightening beasts because life in the dark is not enough?
As I near home I notice that I can now make out the road yards and yards ahead, far beyond the reach of the headlights.  The moon, round and ripe, is clearing the horizon.  Through the brushy limbs of distant pines I see her clear face and feel her long slender fingers stroke my shoulder.  Perhaps the choice is not what I had thought.  Perhaps it is not light or dark.  Perhaps it is not a choice at all, but simply a learning that there is light within the darkness, a place where courage is respected, where fearlessness can be safe, where vulnerability is protected.
I go inside to bed and leave the blinds open.  The moonlight puddles on the floor.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What Be Here

Not long ago I was driving down a long flat stretch of highway listening on my iPod to an interview of Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, he of such soul-ripping lines as “You will always be the bread and the knife, not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.” In the interview he kept saying things I wanted to remember, bits and pieces of sentences that I wanted to scratch out on tiny slips of paper and stuff into a phylactery and feel bouncing on my forehead as I walked through the day, phrases I wanted to tattoo on the underside of my eyelids so that I might fall asleep staring into their mystery and contemplating their magic.  Single words I wanted to turn into tropical fruit Life-Savers and dissolve on my tongue in all their artificial color sweetness.

I’ve been trying to cut down on writing while I drive, though, so instead of reaching for the pen and pad I keep in the console, I opened this relatively new app on my phone.  It’s called Evernote.  I heard about it from my preacher in a sermon he delivered back in the spring.  (My church is cool like that.  We talk about apps and stuff.)  With Evernote I can speak what I want to remember into the telephone and its amazing technology translates my voice into words and saves them in a computer file.   
So Billy Collins was saying that most writers talk about “writing what you know,” but that poets are different.  “We write what we hear,” he said.  It was a succinctly beautiful line.  I did not want to lose it.  I picked up the phone, tapped the icon to begin recording, and spoke slowly and loud enough to overcome the road noise.  “We write what we hear.”
I discovered later, when I got the opportunity to go back and review my dictation, that Evernote had some difficulty in understanding my South Georgia drawl.  “We write what we hear” had morphed into “we write what be here.”  I started laughing and then realized that, improper grammatical structure aside, there was equal truth in the scrambled version of the poet’s declaration.
The breath of a buck blowing hard in the blackness at the edge of the deck.  My own heart beating in rhythm to the pulse of one small star penetrating that same blackness.  A voice, long silenced, reciting words long remembered.  The breath, the heartbeat, the voice overlaid like tracks of music - brass over percussion over strings.  Those sounds, those distinct vibrations moving through the air as waves that get caught by the curve of my ear and pushed through narrow fissures of tissue to a brain that then declares, “Remember that other night when ...?” We write what we hear. 
But at the same time, in the same words, writing acknowledges the existence of “what be here” and, in so doing, makes it real to both writer and reader.  When words are stitched, strung, woven, or pasted together the invisible becomes visible, the intangible concrete, the ephemeral lasting.  It is why we excavate ruins for clay tablets and papyrus scrolls, present diplomas and proclamations, issue marriage licenses and birth certificates.   We need to make a record to make our existence real.
Billy Collins wasn’t speaking just for poets and Evernote wasn’t mistranscribing just for me.  With each thought and smile and sigh offered up into the world we are writing what we hear.  And writing what be here in this challenging, astonishing, mysterious world.

Copyright 2013

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Micro, Macro and Penne Pasta

The usually mindless twenty–five minute commute to the office has required a little more attention the past few mornings.  Crews of men in hard hats and florescent-trimmed vests have been supervising the cutting down of some rather large pine trees along the apron of 301 South and a little farther down another group has been digging troughs for, I assume, the long line of pale aqua pipe pieces that have been littering the ditch like massive tubes of penne.   I suspect all of this is in preparation for the extension of utilities to property that borders the interstate. 
           
It’s probably about nine miles from the city limits of Statesboro to the interstate.  Nine miles is a long way to send water or electricity or the digital signals that enable us to buy merchandise with the swipe of a plastic card.  So now I’m thinking about how far we are willing to go for something we want, how far I’m willing to go for something I want.  How far is too far.
           
It is suggested that we reach for the stars and that a man’s – or a woman’s – reach should exceed his grasp.  The motto for the Olympic Games is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger," a declaration that the athlete and, therefore, mankind for whom the athlete is the idealized symbol, must be incessantly stretching and straining the limits of what is possible, never content with what is.
           
At the same time, though, we are admonished to live simply and modestly.  There is a pair of ruby slippers in the Smithsonian, our national repository of culture, that reminds us that the means to obtaining our hearts’ desires lie, not in some far away land, but within ourselves and that there is no place like home. 
           
Can the dichotomy of the two positions be reconciled?  Can both be true?
           
I confess to not remembering much from the two semesters of economics I took in college.  Adam Smith.  Opportunity cost.  Guns and butter.   What I do remember clearly, probably because it had immediate applicability to my life in answering the question of whether I should keep studying or get some sleep, is the concept of the point of diminishing return, the idea that at some specific moment, location, or cost the benefit of continuing in the same direction will be reduced.   The problem back then, with the study or sleep conundrum, and now is always determining where, exactly, is that point?
           
I suspect that the men in the suits who hired the men in the hard hats have reams of data, stacks of printouts with colorful pie charts and lots of decimal points, confirming that their point is somewhere beyond nine miles, that the cost of installing all that giant pasta under the edge of a four-lane highway will be less than the eventual benefit of having jobs and a tax base that far from town. 
           
I’m not that lucky.  I don’t have models and projections and pie charts available each time I’m trying to decide whether nine miles is the point at which I stop reaching and start grasping.  There is no way to label the pros and cons of the various choices as constants, coefficients, and variables and then solve for x
           
Most of the big decisions of my life have already been made.  Some of them turned out to be excellent choices, some not so good.   What they all have in common is this: Each one involved both reaching and grasping, not one or the other.  Using my eyes to look as far ahead as I possibly could and using my heart to hold on to everything I knew to be good and true.  Having vision and trusting experience.  Not exactly a reconciliation of the dichotomy.  Maybe something more like detente – an acceptance of difference and an easing of tensions followed by an acknowledgment of the equal possibility of both contentment and regret.
           
Perhaps that is the best one can hope for, along with the worst that one should expect, which is the reality that, continuing to reach or pausing to grasp, one can never ever ever be absolutely sure.

Copyright 2013



Monday, October 14, 2013

"A Route of Evanescence"

I crossed the room to say my goodbyes.  The eulogies had been poignant and funny. The burial site, under a moss-covered live oak, was beautiful.  The visit with the family was warm and uplifting.  It was time for me to leave them in a tight knot of each other.

“Don’t get up,” I offered as I reached down to take his hand.
“No, no,” he said, releasing me from a grip still strong.  With one hand on the edge of the table and the other on the back of his chair, he began pushing himself up.  “I want to tell you a story.”

A story.  

I had just been looking at a photo on the mantel, a black and white wedding portrait of him and his bride, handsome boy and beautiful girl.  They were together for sixty-three years.  Five children and fourteen grandchildren crowded the photo albums.  There were lots of stories, but he wanted to tell me only one.

He turned from the table, curved his arm around my back and moved the two of us away from the voices that rose from the table, overlapped each other, and drifted out the doors toward the ocean.  Propping his elbows on a high counter, he leaned forward and I leaned in, not wanting to miss a single word.

“Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about a hummingbird,” he began.  I nodded, more out of respect and encouragement than actual knowledge.  “It goes: ‘A route of evanescence/With a revolving wheel;/A resonance of emerald,/A rush of cochineal;/And every blossom on the bush/Adjusts its tumbled head, –/The mail from Tunis, probably,/An easy morning's ride.”

The words rolled out with the ease of the oft-recited.  I could imagine him standing in front of his classroom of undergraduates, Philistines all, incapable of grasping the power in the spare words.  He took a shallow breath.
“I put a hummingbird feeder outside Mary’s window and one day while the young woman who came in to help us,” he paused and raised his eyebrows questioningly.  I nodded, this time with actual knowledge, to let him know I was aware of the role the young woman.  He offered parenthetically, “She was a life-saver.  We couldn’t have done it without her,” before continuing, “one day while she was there I looked out the window and saw a hummingbird at the feeder.  I watched it for a moment and then said, ‘The mail from Tunis, probably, an easy morning’s ride.” He was staring into the distance now.  Watching his profile I could see the tears begin to rise in his eyes, hovering just behind the lashes, not falling.

He turned then and looked at me straight on.  Wherever he had been just a second before, he had returned to the present.  “The young woman, the one that helped us, she heard me and said, ‘What’d you say?’”  His cheeks rose up to meet his eyes and he chuckled.

I laughed.  I could just see the quizzical look on the nurse’s aide’s face, the lack of comprehension, the wondering of what a hummingbird had to do with the mail.  And I could also feel his sadness that, by then, the Mary who had understood his fondness for Emily Dickinson and who would have enjoyed the moment was lost, vanished somewhere inside the body that still required the care of this kind and tender woman.

I have seen love before.  Never before have I seen it more quietly, yet eloquently expressed.  

The leaves are turning and the days are getting shorter.  It will be months before the hummingbirds return, but I am certain that the first one I see will be bringing the mail from Tunis, a love letter from Mary to Hollis, sealed with a kiss.

Copyright 2013

Monday, September 30, 2013

Blazing Star and Baseball

It is still September.  Still September and I am startled on my Sunday afternoon walk by the tall skinny stalks of blazing star that have already appeared at the edges of the road.  Florescent purple spikes, they sway in the breeze over the round faces of asters, yellow as grocery store lemons.  It is not time for blazing star and, yet, here it is.
I wonder if it’s because of all the rain, all the daily, drenching rain that made the summer feel so unfamiliar.  I wonder if the tiny calendars inside the wildflowers have all been thrown off by the fact that they didn’t have to struggle for water, that their roots didn’t have to stretch very far, that it was all so easy.   
What I don’t have to wonder, what I know is that the blazing star, my favorite among the autumn wildflowers, will not last into late October this year.  I will not be cutting armloads of the stuff at Halloween and filling my ceramic pitcher with the spiky stems to sit on the kitchen table next to a pumpkin. 
We are a culture that reveres early.  We extol the early bird who gets the worm and the early riser who is healthier, wealthier, and wiser than ordinary folks.  We make ourselves feel more secure with early warning systems.  We convince ourselves that with early detection we can outsmart disease.  We have come to the belief, acknowledged or not, that we can supersede whatever other forces exist in the world – nature, divinity, time, other people – if only we get a big enough head start. 
If we idolize early, we despise late.  We almost always attach to it the modifier, “too,” as though the very idea of late is excessive and distasteful.   And, of course, we use it as a synonym for dead.  So, when the language relegates that which occurs after the expected or usual time (the definition of late) to the category of undesirable, impermissible, or impossible, what happens to those things which take their time, that meander, that do not hurry?  How do we honor virtues like patience, persistence, and endurance if getting the worm is all that matters?
It is still September.  But come October – October 1, to be exact – the Major League Baseball playoffs will start and Evan Gattis will be playing.  So will 249 other players, but Gattis is different.  He started the season as a non-roster invitee to the Atlanta Braves spring training and his story has become well-known since then:   25-years-old and out of baseball for four years.   In the eight years since high school graduation, while other young power hitters made their way through the college and/or the minor leagues, Gattis had spent 30 days in drug rehab and three months in a halfway house, and two years working as a ski-life operator, a janitor, and a golf-cart boy, among other things.  After making his way back to college, he played one full season and was drafted by the Braves.  
There were most assuredly people who knew Evan Gattis in the drug rehab or janitor days bemoaning the fact that he had lost his chance, squandered his talent, missed the worm.  Those people were not in the stands at Turner Field on April 3, when Gattis homered off Roy Halladay, one of the best pitchers in the league, in his Major League debut.  
The mother of one of my childhood friends once referred to her as a late bloomer.  I’d not heard the phrase before and didn’t understand at first what it meant, but there was something about it that resonated, something that I recognized in my eleven-year-old self.  
I graduated from high school at 17, was practicing law by the time I was 24, but it took until I was 55 to become an author, my version of making it to the big leagues.  There were plenty of times when I wondered if I’d missed the worm, but the roots kept stretching through dry soil and hard earth and eventually a blade of green broke the surface and finally a leaf appeared and then one day there was a flower.  
The blazing star bloomed early this year and it has already begun to fade, but yet to come is the gerardia and the beautyberry and the ironweed.  I can wait.  

Copyright 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Time Spirals On

The anniversary has come and gone again.  The anniversary of the day that became a hinge, when time bent into before and after.  The anniversary of another day about which the sentence always starts, “I remember exactly where I was.”  And I do.  We all do.
What I remember is being in Sky Valley with my mother, aunts, and cousins on a long-awaited girls’ trip.  What I remember is getting up and breathing cool mountain air, sitting on a second-floor porch with a view that rolled out in waves of all the different Crayola greens until it met the sky.  What I remember is all of us laughing and talking over each other as we piled into the mini-van to drive to Highlands and stopping at the pro shop for JJ to buy Gregg a shirt.  What I remember is JJ walking out with a bag in her hand and an inscrutable look on her face and words tumbling out so fast that it took all of us a couple of minutes to understand what she’d just seen on the television.
There are other hinges.  The day in November, 1963, when our second grade classroom work was interrupted by a sudden squawk from the brown intercom box at the corner of the blackboard and the crackly voice of an AM radio announcer said simply, “The President has been shot.”  The night in September, 1972, when my exuberant monopolization of the family television for the purpose of not missing one single stroke of Mark Spitz’s run at seven gold medals turned into a hollow-eyed vigil as Jim McKay, growing older by the moment in his yellow blazer, tolled the growing number of deaths in the massacre of athletes at the Munich Olympics.  The morning in January, 1986, when I drove into the carpool line at First Methodist Preschool to pick up Adam and his teacher could tell, because I was smiling and chattering away, that I’d not heard about the Challenger, how it had exploded into the bright blue Florida sky, how all those smiling, waving astronauts, including the teacher, were simply gone.
And other hinges.  The non-historical ones.  The ones that won’t be found on a Wikipedia timeline.  The ones that bent and crimped and creased time for no one but me.  The days that started out like every other day and took detours I would never have expected or imagined.
We learn about time in units and, therefore, tend to see it as linear.  One day follows another, one year comes after another.  We say things like, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” and “You can’t unring the bell.” 
Hinges and our remembrances of them teach us that we aren’t just marching forward in a straight line.  We, as a species and as individuals, are actually spiraling, coming back again and again to the same points – the same people, places, and experiences, over and over, just on higher or lower levels – because there is still knowledge there to be gained. 

 It is why, despite the universal desire for peace, there is still war.  It is why, despite all we know about the things that cause illness and disease, there are still people bringing about their deaths by their own behavior.   But it is also why Diana Nyad kept trying until, at age 64 and after failing four times, she swam from Cuba to Key West. 
“We will never forget.”  The unofficial slogan of 9-11 remembrances.  There is, though, a belligerence, a harshness, a quarrelsomeness to the statement that makes me recoil.  I’d rather that we always remember.  I’d rather that we lean into the bends in time, the creases in our days, that we absorb them all so that, the next time around, we are full and strong and maybe, just maybe ready to learn.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Beauty and the Reach

One of them looked like the Jacob’s Ladder I used to make with a long loop of string laced in and out of the fingers of my two outstretched hands.  One of them could have been a hammock tatted for a hummingbird.  One, draped over the deck railing and onto the bannisters, was a net for flying fish and all of them, all of the dozens of spiderwebs that dangled and hung and cascaded from every corner and edge of the landscape, were constellations, thousands of clear water stars the size of pinheads drawing archers and hunters, dogs and bears, crowns and serpents across the morning sky.

I am often caught up short as I walk outside first thing in the morning.  While I have been encapsulated and cocooned inside my climate-controlled house, the world has been playing.  Animals have danced in the darkness and left behind a wild confusion of footprints.  Hard buds have softened and swollen and opened into flowers.  The sun has silently bleached away the darkness and twisted itself into a tie-dye scarf whipped loose and left to float over the clouds.
But I had never been witness to such a display as this one.  The entire backyard shimmered as the webs swayed almost imperceptibly.  Dew drops, strung like glass beads on filament, trembled in succession, the impish breeze turning them into dominoes.  I pulled my camera put of my pocketbook and began snapping photographs, the rhombuses and trapezoids and wildly scalene triangles in the web designs made obvious by the zoom lens.
Each time I lowered the camera from my face I saw another, more elaborate web beckoning me to come, come see.  And it is only because I heeded the beckoning that I walked up on the most exquisite, the most ethereal, the most splendid web of all.  It stretched all the way across the double French doors that lead on to the deck. It attached to the overhead door frame and the base of a chair sitting nearby.  My arms, curved out and up and over my head, could not contain it.  Unlike many of the others, it was round – not a compass-drawn circle, more like a hand-rolled pie crust – and its sections spread from the center like the spokes on a bicycle tire, delicate and shiny.  Sheltered by the eaves of the house, it was covered in a lighter coat of dew, making its beading sparkle more like opals than diamonds.
After recording its beauty as best I could with the camera, I stood in the quiet dampness for a few more moments, breathed deeply, and wondered what might have become of the creature that had spun such a web. Then I went to work.
That night, I watched the full moon rise from the study window.  The sky was less than clear, but I thought I could still get a good picture.  I could sit outside and wait for the clouds to drift off. 
The night noise was sucked into a cone of sound surrounding my ears as I opened the door.  The warm moist air fell on my arms like a towel and I stepped out on the deck. Only one step and I remembered the spider web. The exquisite, ethereal, splendid spider web whose delicate strands were now caught in my hair and my eyelashes, stuck to my cheeks and my chest, hanging in sticky strings from my arms and legs.
For a moment I forgot the moon.  I turned to face what was left of the transparent tapestry that had so enthralled me just a few hours earlier.  The tender tension was gone; long loops of gossamer hung limp in the darkness. The symmetry was destroyed, the delicate balance gone. “I’m so sorry,” I said over and over.  “I’m just so sorry.” I can’t be sure whether I was apologizing to the long-gone spider or to myself.
I brushed the silky threads from my face and, in my repentance, felt the truth of the moment settle over my head: That which is beautiful, which took such effort and love to produce, is easy to forget if one becomes preoccupied with searching for the next beautiful thing.  And perhaps it is in abandoning the exhausting search that beauty in all its forms finds its way to one’s door.
Patience with each.  Each in its own time.  Time for all.

Copyright 2013

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Road With No Name

The road did not always have a name.  It was just a road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass in some places, dusty in dry times, slippery in wet.  It connected two county-maintained highways, both of which had names but no road signs.  People didn’t often need directions out that way, but when they did they were given and received by landmark.
When we moved there in January, 1974, becoming the only human residents on that three-mile stretch, Daddy went to see Mr. Fred Darley about buying insurance for the house.  The insurance company wanted an address, a real address, something other than Route 1, Register.  “We need a name for that road,” Mr. Fred told Daddy.  “How about Bradley Road?”  
Daddy wasn’t about to be that presumptuous and quickly demurred.  He didn’t need a road named after himself.  “So let’s call it Settlement Road then,” Mr. Fred suggested and Settlement Road it became.
Our first mailbox was up at the paved road, two miles from the house.  Something about the postal service not extending its route for an initial period.  Eventually it got moved to the crossroads, only a mile away.  At some point the USPS decided we were there to stay and let us dig a hole and plant a box at the edge of the road right outside the front door.  The mailman leaned out his window, stuffed the bills and magazines and sale papers inside the mailbox, and then turned around in our driveway to head back to civilization.  It was a big day.
Our cars and trucks and tractors were pretty much the only traffic, except for the mailman, and the sound of an approaching vehicle always prompted Keith to the living room window to see who it was.  Mama complained that her drapes got dirty from all the pulling back and peaking.
That was a really long time ago.  The road is still dirt, dusty when dry and slippery when wet, but no one flinches at the sound of a pick-up or a four-wheeler.  We don’t recognize every vehicle and, sadly enough, the drivers of some of them don’t even wave when they pass by.  Just the other morning I had to wait at the end of my driveway (Wait at the end of my driveway?  What’s with that?) for two cars to pass, neither of which was driven by someone related to me, before I could pull out into the road.
Along with my surprise came another feeling, one that lasted less than a moment, but which I could describe only in ridiculously inappropriate terms: I felt trespassed, violated, even victimized.  When had this road, this path for vehicular traffic, become so, well, public? When had my little piece of creation become so open to the rest of the world?  How could I have missed it?
I did not pay a lot of attention to the surveyors who plotted out the tracts where other people now live.  I did not really notice the distant sounds of the well-drilling equipment or the backhoes.  I never really looked all that far past the bend where the palmetto scrubs begin growing.   

Change is never sudden, there is no single second in which the metamorphosis takes place, no twitching of Samantha Stephens’s nose to blame.  Not really.  It is just the realization of change that is sudden. And sudden is painful.
To avoid that pain, one must pay attention.  Be it weight gain or sunburn or the disintegration of a relationship, it is neglect and distraction and failure of concentration that are at fault.  To ward off the extra ten pounds, the burning red skin, the visceral ache of a broken heart, one must watch and listen, one must choose deliberately, one must do nothing by rote.  That, if we want to eliminate the regret and sadness and panic that accompany every occurrence of sudden, is the challenge.
I am more careful now at the end of my driveway.  I take my time in looking both ways up and down the road that did not always have a name.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Snow Ropes and Heroines

As a child regularly nourished by television Westerns, I did not realize that I was absorbing centuries-old literary motifs and archetypes.  I did not yet have the vocabulary to recognize the heroic quest in the wanderings of various cowboys, but, like every human that ever sat around a fire inside a cave or a hearth inside a hut, I came to find comfort in the repetitive story lines and stock characters.  That sooner or later one of the main characters would find him or herself delivering a baby with no prior experience or being the vehicle of redemption for some rotten scoundrel exhibited not a lack of creativity on the part of the Westerns’ writers, but, rather, an understanding of the need to be reminded that no problem exists that has not been faced and solved before.
The other day I came across a contemporary poem, brief and pointed like a quick refusal, centered around the image of a snow rope.  Reading the words – snow rope – sent my mind careening away from the poem to a montage of remembered images from all those Westerns I’d watched as a child.   All of them, as I think of it now, whether set in Nebraska or Wyoming or Texas, eventually included an episode involving a horrible blizzard, an isolated homestead, and a snow rope, a rope whose one end was tied to a post on the cabin and whose other end was tied to the barn, a way to reach the animals without getting lost in the blizzard.
Inevitably, of course, the homesteader’s hands get pulled away from the rope by the fierceness of the blizzard or a child, wanting to be helpful, decides to go to the barn and can’t reach the rope.  Someone always gets lost in the blizzard.  
At eight or ten my only concern was what providential occurrence would save the hapless homesteader, the foolish child.  Would Rowdy Yates and his horse stumble into the corral, drawn through the blizzard by the dim light in the window of the cabin, just in time to calm the hysterical wife and mother and charge back out into the snow, one rugged hand on the rope, the other reaching down to pull the frost-bitten and nearly dead loved one from snow?  Of course he would.
It had never occurred to me, before reading that poem, that we all have snow ropes. We all have practices, philosophies, people that we trust to keep us alive as we venture out into the inevitable blizzards of life.  The rope is sound, the knots are tight. We test them in the sunshine and we go on about our business.
And then it snows.  Heavily.  Unrelentingly.  And, after a while, sitting inside around the fire becomes untenable, so we open the door and face the stinging cold and slapping wind, putting all our confidence in the snow rope. What we forget is that the snow rope is only as good as the grip on the hand that holds it.
I have survived blizzards, my faith and my family and my friends braided into a cord not quickly broken, plaited into a snow rope stretched taut across an impenetrable landscape, but, in the end, I was the one who reached out, who grasped, who gripped with strength I didn’t know I had and moved step by tenuous step through the blinding white.  It was my choice to hold on.
Some stories end with the calvary appearing on the horizon, with the cowboy showing up in the nick of time, with the marshal out-drawing the bad guy.  But most of them end much less dramatically.  Most of them end with the hero, or the heroine, realizing for the very first time that that is exactly what he or she is.

Copyright 2013

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Human Dilemma

In the prideful insecurity and ignorance of my youth, I registered, in my very first semester of college, for an upper-level history course.  An honors upper level history course.  I was not alone in this risky venture, but was accompanied by my friend-since-sixth-grade, Lucy Lee.  For the next four months, the two of us spent our Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 8:15 to 9:30 under the tutelage of Marcile Taylor, whose lectures we wrote down word for word and took turns transcribing so that they might be memorized in hopes of passing the final exam.
Two totally unrelated facts learned from that semester burrowed so far into my brain that 39 years later they float to the surface on a regular basis at unexpected moments and, often, a propos of absolutely nothing.  First:  The single event that drove the settlement of the American West was the invention of barbed wire.  And second: The single question around which the colonization of New England by religious refugees was conceived and carried out was the issue of how to live in the world without being of the world. 
The invention of barbed wire tidbit has rarely been of any practical use, not even in any of the trivia competitions in which I have distinguished myself over the years.  On the other hand, the Puritan dilemma, as it came to be called, remains an unresolved quandary, an ever-present irritant, a never-to-be-lined-through item on the to-do list.  And, to be honest, after all this time it nags at me not with regard to religious affiliation or practice, but rather as a question of how one manages to approach the world with an attitude of appreciation rather than consumption, how to experience intimacy with creation without experiencing the need to own it, how to inhabit a specific set of geographic coordinates at a specific moment in time in such a way as to know both without being changed by either.
Some days I am more barbed wire than thoughtful Puritan.  Some days I show up at the office locked and loaded with a tale about the ineptitude of the food service folks at my drive-through of choice or the cluelessness of other drivers in the line.   Some days I bounce hard across the washed-out places on Settlement Road and wonder why I’m not a priority for the road crew.  Some nights I stand on the deck staring at stars that look like the cheapest of rhinestones and want to throw what is left of my patience and my heart into the darkness that I am quite convinced is a bottomless pit.
But there are other days.  Days on which I find myself mesmerized by the sight of a two-year-old in a seersucker bubble suit patting her fat hands together and bobbing her head so fast that her blonde curls can hardly keep up. Days on which I notice that the dress I am wearing is the exact color of the cornfield reflecting the early morning sun and I wonder if Sherwin-Williams has a shade called June Corn and declare out loud that, if it doesn’t, it most certainly should.  Nights on which I stand at the edge of the ocean, feel the waves carve away the sand beneath my feet, and hear my brain, my pulse, my heartbeat respond to their shush-shush-shush’ing like voices to a tuning fork.
Not long ago I got to watch Jackson as he got his first look at the ocean.  Prepared to cajole and comfort, his mother and I stood on either side as I set his bare feet on the sand.  He opened his mouth in a smile and ran toward the water, arms spread wide.  The waves slapped at his ankles and he skittered away laughing.  As they receded, he ran back out to meet them, to replay the slapping and skittering and laughing over and over again, all the while with his arms held out as far as they would go.
 
The Puritan dilemma was not resolved by the Puritans.  It will not be resolved by the Methodists or the Presbyterians or the Druids or the atheists.  Perhaps it is not even a dilemma.  Perhaps it is the exact opposite.  Perhaps it is a miracle – an amazing, astonishing, unexplainable condition that is still identifiably human, like bipedalism and the capacity for language, a condition that defies all known physical laws by demonstrating that everything that is can be held with arms that are open.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Typographical Truth

The room was at the end of the hall.  Its large windows looked out over an empty field where, during fire drills, we stood at bored attention in long lines awaiting the all clear. Its rows of desks were topped with heavy black Royal and Olivetti manual typewriters and worn copies of the Gregg Typing Manual that opened from the bottom rather than the side like ordinary books.  The object, Mrs. Reba Clements explained to us on the first day of seventh grade, was not just speed, but speed along with accuracy.

At the end of the timed tests that eventually became as competitive as the sprints and free throws in P.E., we were required to proofread what we’d typed and count the errors, circle each one so that it stood out like one of the blemishes that had started to appear on our adolescent faces.  Five or more errors and the words-per-minute was simply irrelevant.  
The English language, the placement of the letters of the alphabet on the QWERTY keyboard, and the unpredictability of the human mind inevitably and frequently create situations in which it is not only easy, but probable, that the rapidly twitching muscles in a typist’s fingers will turn was into saw and heart into heard.  Or sacred into scared.
Last year, within the twelve weeks that span my birthday and Christmas, three friends, all unbeknownst to each other, gave me the same gift: an hourglass.  They are each about eight inches tall and contain sand that is the pale aqua color that I prefer over all others.  I tried placing them together at first, but the concentrated reminder of life’s ephemeral nature (“Like sands through the hourglass ...”) was too much for me, so, like misbehaving children, I separated them.  One is now in town at the office as a reminder that what I do there is not who I am.  One is in the study at Sandhill, a functional prod to commit measurable time to the words that keep me alive.  The third is on a chest in my bedroom next to a jar of seashells and a candle, a focal point where, at the end of the day or first thing in the morning, all the rays of thought and sensation and emotion can converge in a place of calm .
Last night, as I walked into the bedroom (Was it to empty my gym bag or put up linens or take out my contacts?), my peripheral vision registered something out of place.  I stopped.  Lamplight left the corners dull, but I could see that no photograph had been knocked over on its table, the door to the deck had not been blown open.  All appeared to be in order.
I turned back to what I’d been doing and that’s when I saw it: the hourglass, about a quarter of its sand still in the upper chamber and not falling.  Time had, literally, stopped.
In the one to two milliseconds it took my brain to register the image and to relay back to my conscious self that, clearly, some object or force, most probably humidity, had acted upon the sand to impede its flow, my unconscious self, the one that is contained within, but not defined by that brain and 5'9" of bone and muscle and flesh, the one that sees things that cannot be imaged and knows things that cannot be articulated, had already experienced the startle and fear of the possibility that time really had stopped and processed that fear into the marvel of expectation of the what-next.  
What if there is only now now?  What if I am no longer moving inevitably away from what I have known and inescapably toward what I cannot know?  What if this – lamplight and the shimmer of new polish on my fingernails and the sounds of a baseball game on the television in the living room – is all there is?   I am, for a moment, allowed a glimpse of what it could be like if I did not live caught between the magnetic poles of yesterday and tomorrow, feeling the equally violent pull of both.  
I reach for the hourglass to dislodge the sand and am stopped.  Leave it there, I am told.  Leave it there and know what is possible.
I was always one of Mrs. Clement’s students who aimed for speed.  I pay more attention to accuracy now.  It takes more than a couple of errant key strokes to turn scared into sacred.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Wounds and Water Slides

A couple of Saturdays ago I was at Jackson’s third birthday party.  More unbelievable than the fact that he is already three years old is the fact that I am the great-aunt of a three-year-old.  I had a lot of great-aunts growing up and my memories of them are consistent: they all had gray or white hair and they all wore plain cotton shirtwaist dresses during the week and lace-collared shirtwaist dresses on Sunday and to funerals.  Not one of them would have been found going down an inflatable slide on my third birthday.  Which is what I was doing shortly after Jackson blew out his candles and opened his presents.

Later in the afternoon, after a number of slippery descents punctuated by splashes and squeals and the realization that I really should have taken the time to put on some sunscreen, I noticed a slight burning sensation on my left elbow.  I had, in all the flinging and flailing, managed to get the water slide equivalent of a rug burn, not a big one, just a small scrape.  The next morning, though, I had the beginning of a scab.  And by Monday, it was a genuine, irritatingly noticeable scab.

I am a careful person, some might say cautious.  A few might even say overly cautious.  The last time I had a scab was probably 14 years ago when Ginny, unaccustomed to the leash I had to put on her to walk her into the vet’s office, jerked hard and sent me tumbling over a wheel stop at the end of a parking space.  For a couple of weeks my knee looked like I’d made a hard slide into home.  I was particularly conscious of that scab, like the new, much smaller one on my elbow, because it was located on a joint and every time I moved it I was reminded of the pain.

About a week after the birthday party, when the edges of the scab had started to peel up a little and get caught on the bath sponge in the shower, I started thinking about the other kind of scab, the kind that forms on the wounds that nobody sees.  Those hurts, the emotional ones, are so much worse and the amount of flesh torn off so much greater.  The “wound healing reconstruction process” requires more than just time and the replication of cells when what is damaged is a heart and the painful reminder comes with every beat.
Yet, so often we are encouraged to treat the disappointment, the disillusionment, the loss of the dream, as just another rug burn.  “Give it time,” we are told.  “You’ll get over it,” we are assured.  “It’ll scab over,” we hear and are meant to understand that the scab, hard and brittle, will miraculously numb the pain.  Anyone who has ever felt the emptiness of disappointment or the loneliness of disillusionment, anyone who has ever watched a dream evaporate like a shallow puddle on a hot day knows that platitudes are worse than useless.  They are infuriating.  
They are also ignorant.  Because platitudes ignore the last step: When the scab is gone, what is left is the scar.
Interesting thing about scars: They are made of the same protein as normal skin, but the composition is different.  Instead of collagen fibers woven together in a random basket-weave formation, the fibers in scar tissue show an articulated alignment in a single direction.  Scar tissue doesn’t forget.
Which some of those platitude-people might see as a negative thing.  The reason it’s not is this: Scar tissue, that which doesn’t forget, tells stories.  The scar that runs up the back of my leg tells the story of the afternoon I led my brother and my cousins on a tromp through the woods and fell on the barbed wire fence.  The tiny scar on my knee tells the story of the four-year-old Kathy that daringly (and uncharacteristically) jumped off the front porch imitating some cartoon character.  And the scars on my heart tell me the story every single day that I am braver and stronger for having survived the disappointments and disillusionments and dream-deaths.  
The scars are prima facie evidence that what I am is alive.  And waiting for the next chance to go down the water slide.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, June 09, 2013

After The Rain Has Fallen

The morning after a rain, no matter how sparse, is always startling.   It isn’t just that every sprout and blade and leaf of green is greener.    It isn’t just that the vista has been swiped by a giant squeegee and everything is in clearer focus.  And it’s not even that the birdsong is deeper, as though the entire genus has overnight become a choir of contraltos.  It’s that some of the pall of dust that the rain has washed away wasn’t that clinging to the landscape, but to you.
               
I’d gone to bed with my head spinning.  Not like Linda Blair’s, but it might as well have been.  And the spinning had no center.  Like a lump of clay misplaced on a potter’s wheel, snatches of conversation flew off in small clumps and landed on the floor.  Unexpected memories sprang up and splattered my face.    Futile attempts to separate lies from truth left my hands covered in slick mud.   And my foot just kept pumping and pumping and pumping the pedal of the wheel.
              
As exhausted people do, I eventually fell asleep, though the spinning continued in my dreams.  When the radio alarm went off at 6 a.m. with NPR alerting me to the fact that the NSA is collecting Verizon phone records of private citizens, it seemed obvious that neither my subconscious nor my unconscious nor any fairy sprinkling magic dust had intervened overnight to bring about anything like d├ętente between the warring factions of my overloaded brain.
              
I showered, dressed in lawyer clothes, gathered up briefcase and purse, and headed out.  Halfway down the back steps I stopped.  Startled into stillness.
              
Every spring I am a little anxious as I wait to see if the hostas show back up, a little excited when they do.  I watch their knife-blade buds slice up out of the ground, all tight and hard, and over the following days unfold into varied patterns of green and yellow and white banded leaves.  I stop and look at them every morning to remind myself that resurrection is always a possibility.
              
What stunned me so this time was one hosta in particular, one of the smaller ones.  I could see that in its thick spade-shaped leaves it was still holding some of the night’s raindrops, big and bulbous.  They glittered in the morning light, looked like diamonds, polished and ready to be set into rings.  In their smallness they reflected the light of the entire universe.
              
I could feel the spinning in my brain beginning to slow.  I could feel the center beginning to take hold.
              
Last week the sweet and talented woman who wrangles my hair had a little extra time between appointments and suggested that we (meaning she wielding the flat iron and I doing my best to sit patiently for an extra 40 minutes) straighten my mane.  For the next few days I got a lot of attention for not looking like myself.   No one said anything negative, but only Kate, like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” was brave enough to state the truth:  “You don't look like Kap...not okay.”

The most frequently asked question by those who recognized me was, “How long will it last?”  And the answer was, “Until it gets wet.” 

That’s what I thought of as I looked at the hosta, its leaves trembling just slightly under the weight of their precious stones.  How long does dullness hide brilliance?  How long can selfishness masquerade as need?  How long does deception prevail over truth? 
               
The ground stays parched and barren until it gets wet.    Clay is hard and useless until it gets wet.  People can pretend to be something they aren’t until they get wet.    It is only after the rain has fallen, only after the tears have been shed, only after the tide has washed the shore that the sun has something in which to reflect its light.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Make Way For Ducklings and Fawns

Adabelle Road was a little like Beacon Street this morning, only without Fenway Park and Boston Common. It was a pair of Canada geese, not Mallard ducks, trying to cross the road with their offspring and, of course, there was no Michael the policeman stopping traffic. Still, the scene felt familiar as I was forced to a complete stop as an inter-gender discussion of which way to go took place on the white line running down the middle of the pavement.

After much flapping of the wings and shimmying of the hindquarters and moving onto opposite sides of the tight rope, the youngster whose safety was the original focus of all the discussion before it disintegrated into what was clearly a domestic power struggle fluffed up his own downy wings in a rapid flutter and startled his parents into making a decision and waddling out of harm’s way.

One afternoon a couple of weeks ago I drove through the dirt crossroads, less than a mile from home, and saw a young deer standing in the middle of the road about a hundred yards away, tire tracks banding her delicate feet planted in the sandy earth. Something small, probably a squirrel based upon size and speed, ran into the road and stopped directly in front of the deer. It seemed odd that a squirrel, or any other animal, unless it was rabid, would have done such a thing. And deer are skittish. They do not pause in the middle of the road to investigate other animals. They are not curious about those with whom they share the neighborhood. It was odd.

I drove on toward the deer expecting her to dart quickly into the forest. She didn’t move. I got closer, within 50 yards. Still she didn’t move. I was no more than 25 yards away when she finally trotted unusually slowly into the woods.

What I’d thought was a squirrel didn’t move. I decided it must be a box turtle and that the movement I’d associated with it had just been a flash of sunlight through the canopy of pine trees. But when I got about half a car length away, I realized that the mound was a tiny tiny tiny fawn curled in on itself like a crescent moon. It was clearly newly born.

I stopped the car, opened the door, and started making shooing sounds. The little face stared up at me and the huge ears twitched just the slightest bit, but he didn’t move. “Please, little deer,” I urged him, “get up! Get up!” He finally scrambled uncertainly to his legs. He was no more than two feet tall. After a wobbly start he ran ahead of me for about 30 yards, finally veering off to the edge of the road so I could get past and allow his mother, who’d done her best to divert my attention, to return.

It was a magical moment and the images have flickered around the edges of my consciousness ever since I drove away. Encountering the bickering Mallard ducks this morning brought the images back into focus and caused me to see what I had not before.

Making a crossing is fraught with danger. That which connects two parts of something is often where one is most vulnerable. A seam. An intersection. A joint. That is why there are reinforced stitches. That is why there are flashing lights and warning signs. That is why there are instruction manuals and trained technicians.

And, as in the cases of the fawn and the gosling, that is why there are those who have crossed before: because they know the way. More importantly, though, is that they know the risk. They know the risk and they go anyway, on guard not just for themselves but for the ones entrusted to their care.

Copyright 2013