I am from sharp pencils from Ivory soap and Duke’s mayonnaise I am from the secret vault under the concrete back steps (cool, cobwebby, smelling of ghosts) I am from gardenias from towering Eastern pines heavy boughs whispering waving to me like a vertical green sea I’m from storytelling and dogs from Columbus and Ruby I’m from Reader’s Digest and gospel music From “You’re the oldest, set the example” and “take care of your precious self” I’m from Jesus Loves Me, red-letter Bibles, put your offering in the plate I’m from the riverside and the shipyard from collards with hot pepper vinegar and carrot cake from scratch From my father’s crew-cut ever since his head was pierced by a friend’s cleats in a childhood game of deer and dog, from three translucent pink moles on Grandma’s chin. In trunks and in closeted boxes my grandmother’s painstaking albums rest atop layers of loose photos, paper strata of many eras. I am etched deep in this phosphorite, the living reliquary of all the stories.
My love for the sound of cicadas is a recurring motif in my writing.
It stems from childhood summers spent with my grandparents in the country, the most idyllic days of my existence.
In thinking of Earth Day, my first inclination is to write on In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
That verse, Genesis 3:19 in the King James, conjures images from At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Here’s Bill Bryson’s observations of country churchyards in England where churches seem to be sinking into the ground: Think about it. A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adults deaths per century, plus a few thousand more poor souls who didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been here and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand … that’s a lot of mass, needless to say. It’s why the ground has risen three feet.
In other words … we are the earth.
Times being the pandemic they are, death surrounds us. April 22 also marks the anniversary of the sudden passing of my husband’s father at the age of fifty-four. My husband was just twelve.
But I do not wish to turn Earth Day into a death knell.
I write about cicadas today because they lie in the earth and emerge—some after seventeen years—to sing their song of life.
In the thick woods and byways of North Carolina, from May through September, it’s a deafening cacophony; but as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so there is beauty in the ear of the listener.
In honor of Earth Day, a “found poem,” of sorts, from a former blog post I wrote, entitled Cicada Rhythms:
The song of cicadas calls to me from long ago from sultry summers in the country where narrow dirt roads keep an ominous forest from encroaching on rustic homeplaces from tiny cemeteries where baby after baby is buried under white monuments adorned with lambs at the old church just around the bend. The song is of the ages of the rising and falling of generations all of us coming and going in our time a song reverberating from oaks, pines, cypresses across canals teeming with frogs and turtles to white-tailed deer standing along the fields at dusk. It is the bright song of the sun of hope of continuity. It is the dark song of the night oddly comforting— something out in the blackness is vibrant, alive maybe keeping watch while children drift off to sleep. It is the sound of safety of stability of belonging. Calling, calling the crescendo mirrors the rhythm of life brimming with promise echoing eternity. When I hear it I am a child again no matter how many summers have come and gone. Every spring as I mark another year of existence I listen for the first rattle. You’re back! my heart sings. Ah, but we were here all along they might say if cicadas had words. There’s a lot of living and loving yet to do. You have today. Carry on.
The cicada isn’t exactly a beetle, but a “true bug.” They symbolize renewal, rebirth, transformation, change. They can disappear for many years to return en masse. Their buzzing call is made by the males, who begin singing soon after emergence.
A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.
She is making them.
She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.
Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.
When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?
When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.
These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.
As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:
You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …
Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.
A death year. 1917.
That was before the Spanish flu.
Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …
She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.
Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.
My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …
Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …
I look at these masks and that is what I see.
The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.
I love the stillness of the morning, before the dawn, which is presently hours away. I love the silence, the holy hush preceding the coming of the sun. My family, even the new puppy, slumbers on. If I have a word for these moments, it’s expectancy. If I were to step outside now I might hear footsteps in the pine straw beneath trees that border my back fence; I will not yet be able to see which creature is moving there in the dark. A white-tailed deer, perhaps, or a squirrel, which makes an astonishing amount of noise in the straw, much more more than larger creatures. Two mornings ago, in the first light, I glimpsed a huge gray rabbit running to and fro just beyond the fence. And if I wait long enough, I’ll hear my neighbor’s rooster crow. Any time now. He doesn’t wait for actual light that I can see. He’ll proclaim the new day, the continuum of daily living, before it’s set in motion. He’ll stir the goats in various pens throughout the neighborhood (not to be expected in a little subdivision—whatever happened to restrictive covenants?) and their loud chorus of wild baas will back up the rooster’s solo.
It’s life waking up again, claiming the day for its own.
On this new day, of this new year, this new decade, I think about life. The trouble with life, I once read, is that it’s so daily. Not merely being alive but trying to accomplish all that must be (or that we think must be) accomplished in this day, this week, this month … last year I learned a lesson about life on hiatus. When the life of someone you love hangs in the balance, all your best-laid plans disintegrate. Poof.
Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.
Whether life is suspended, or stagnant, or spinning out of control, we still have choices. Maybe it’s resting more. Writing more. Reading more, singing more. Praying more. Maybe it’s seeking help. Maybe it’s restoring relationships, or releasing them. Or creating something beautiful, meaningful. What we want to do and what we’re actually able to do in a day, a week, a month, a year, may be vastly different, but reclamation doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in determined, consistent bits by bits. It is deliberate and intentional.
Once I wished for something like parallel lives, a cloning of sorts, with one of me staying home to write all day, one of me getting everything done in the house the way I want it, and another me going to work. I am exacting of myself; I do a thing, I want to do it well, and so I am easily paralyzed by my own standards.
I think of the sea, rolling on and on, its billows and rhythms, its continuity, its fluidity. I contemplate its healing properties, how it is designed to cleanse itself. I look at the photo I included at the top of this post, how, writes the photographer, the cemetery “is being reclaimed by the forest as alders, birch, spruce, fir and a couple apple trees crowd out the dozen or so headstones that stand here.” It’s in Newfoundland and that symbolism strikes right at my writer-heart, new found land.
That’s what reclamation is. Taking back solid ground, or creating new land, from what would submerge it, overtake it. Inch by precious inch, bit by bit. Yesterday I heard a sportscaster speak of Ron Rivera’s move from the Carolina Panthers to the Washington Redskins: “Coach Rivera has been part of a reclamation project before.” It took him four years to take the failing Panthers to the Super Bowl. He’s already begun the work for the Redskins, before he ever gets there … like my rooster here, calling to the dawn before it appears.
It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time.
But I’ve started.
I pulled the weeds out of the planters on my back deck and planted pansies, a bright bit of welcome on these cold mornings when I take the new puppy out. The puppy is himself an act of reclamation, an affirmation of love my family has always had for dogs (which, I’ve said before, have souls; purer than my own, there in those eyes). He marks a moving forward.
One step at a time, I’ll reclaim the house by many little needed repairs and coats of paint. Patience, endurance …
My writing, my writing. How many stories lay unfinished? Not begun? If I can learn to live nonlinear, to live as fluid as the sea, then anywhere is an entry point. Whenever, wherever, just plunge. The time necessary for writing will come if I just begin the reclamation.
Work. I write this paragraph not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories. Write together, all of you; in this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more in such settings? We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.
—It is light now. A new day is here; I hear life stirring all around. Forget those restrictive covenants.
I love the two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.
They do not know this, of course. They don’t know me at all.
They do not know how they stir my soul when I drive by their pasture, or how the sight of them makes me feel like I just might be, for a few seconds, back in time. They are a brief glimpse of rural life as it was in the 1930s. Or 1920s. Or even long before. They are remnants of a time when man lived closer to the earth and life was hard but somehow better. The mules are reminders of my grandfather; I’ve rhapsodized about that before, having been a little girl who grew up in the city longing for the countryside that my grandfather loved and the past that he lived. All because of the stories. Granddaddy said, “Nobody had any money but everybody looked after each other and we were happy.”
So, I see these old mules several times a week and they never fail to lift my spirits. They fill me with an inexplicable sense of peace and well-being.
One day in the last few weeks when I drove by the pasture, anticipating this little stab of joy that the mules always impart, one of them was lying down on its side.
In all the years I’ve lived here, I have never seen one of the mules lying down.
The next time I drove by, the mule was still lying there in the same place. Completely on its side, motionless, while the other mule grazed close by.
I didn’t like it. Something was wrong.
On the third day when I passed by, that mule was in the very same spot and position.
I started to cry.
It had to be dead. What other reason could there be?
And where was the farmer? Didn’t he KNOW his mule was lying out there? Why would he leave it to die like this?
I came home and told my husband, sniffling: “I think one of those old mules is dead.”
“It’s been lying on its side in the very same spot for three days. It hasn’t moved at all.”
“Hmmm,” my husband mulled. “Did you see any buzzards?”
“Uh, no . . . .”
“All right then. The mule’s not dead.”
His nonchalance irritated me.
And the next day when I drove by the pasture — lo and behold! — the mule was standing!
I drove by several times, rejoicing.
—It is possible that the mules now know my car, even if they don’t know me.
And it occurred to me that I might be developing an obsession so I ceased mule-stalking for a couple of days.
But I asked a friend: “You know those mules who live just up from you? What’s wrong with one of them? I’ve seen it lying down so much I thought it had died. Except that there were no buzzards.”
Yes, my friend knows the mules and the farmer. Yes, that mule is not well and the farmer is quite aware. He’s had these mules for thirty years, since they were three years old. They are sisters, named Penny and Annie. The farmer knows Annie is suffering; she’s old and she now has sores from lying on her side so much. The farmer told my friend that he ought to put her down . . . except that when he does, her sister Penny will grieve herself to death. They have never been apart.
And my soul is stirred, my heart wrenches anew at this love story within a love story within a love story.
I brace myself every time I drive around the familiar bend, as the fencing and the red roof of the dilapidated barn come into view, not knowing what I’ll see. Maybe on a day when the sky is its bluest blue and the grass is its greenest green, Annie will go peacefully. It’s autumn now; as I draw near I see the shadows of the trees dappling the grass, waving to and fro, and little yellow leaves wafting through the air, catching the sunlight like glittering specks of gold. Maybe it will be a day like today. I suddenly worry about the coming frosts and Annie lying out there in the open instead of being warm and safe in the barn with Penny.
I reach the pasture. I slow down.
Annie’s lying on her side.
I come to a stop.
Penny quits grazing, lifts her head, looks at me.
Then Annie raises up to sit and look at me.
We watch each other for a minute.
I wonder what they think.
I can’t stay here in the road, so I drive on.
That was yesterday.
Today, today . . . when I rounded the bend early in the morning . . . they were both lying down.
Sisters to the end.
I will not want to drive this way anymore when the pasture stands empty, but for this moment, the mules live, they love, and their little pasture is a hallowed place.
More so than ever.
I think again of my favorite Shakespearean sonnet, about autumn, about dying, about the coming of night and being consumed by that which once nourished, about loving well that which you must leave . . . if mules had funeral services and if I officiated, that would be my eulogy.
Ah, Penny and Annie, you can’t know that when you go, you’ll take a little part of me with you.
Maybe it’s illogical.
I only know it’s true.
For I love you two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.
A hymn, of sorts, on hearing one of my favorite sounds for the last time this year—it echoes from idyllic childhood summers and the country roads of my ancestral homeplace. A strangely sacred sound, it always lifts my spirits and aches in my soul at the same time.
The dogs raced along the backyard fence, barking and growling like fiends at something on the other side. My husband, upon going out to investigate, hollered with equal parts glee and shock: “Come see this! You won’t believe it!”
All I could think was It had better not be a snake.
No, but close.
The dinosaur turtle.
Okay, not really dinosaur, just the biggest snapping turtle I’ve ever seen. In my yard, in the clover. With algae growing on her shell.
And her head.
I am really at a loss for words to describe her. Monumental. In size, and in her likeness to stone.
And tell me this tail does not scream dinosaur to you:
My family gawked, marveled, shuddered until we could gawk, marvel, and shudder no more. We let our visitor be. I went inside the house and watched from the kitchen window. After a few short minutes, she began zipping—okay, not really zipping, but crawling a whole lot faster than I imagined a turtle could—along the outside of our backyard fence. Periodically she stopped, leaned up, put her front feet on the fence, and stretched her neck impossibly long (think brontosaurus). Down she dropped again to resume her steady clip.
She’s trying to get to the woods behind our backyard, I thought. The fence is blocking her.
Yet when I turned away from the window for a moment, she vanished without a trace.
I felt oddly bereft.
I mean, it’s not like she’s a snuggly sort of creature.
Several days later I read in a local news article that a record number of snapping turtles appeared in our area en masse,looking for places to lay their eggs.
Nesting, they were.
Old Serpentina—I don’t even know how old she is, she just looks like the ages, a fossil from the dawn of time—her sense of urgency was real.
Maybe that’s what sort of spoke to me, without words. Mother to mother. Living being to living being. In my recoiling was a stab of appreciation; my sense of wonder overruled my impression of fearsome. And somehow, in all of it, lurked a twinge of sadness for which I have no explanation whatsoever.
When Carol Varsalona extended a recent invitation and challenge to create digital inspirations for her #SpringSplendor gallery, I thought of Serpentina. She came along in spring, all right. She’s not what I had in mind at all. I had a beach sunrise in mind. A sprig of wisteria. Beautiful things.
But Serpentina has, you must admit, a splendor all her own.
So, my tribute:
in algae carapace
seeking with care
to lay new life.
—My best to you and your splendid babies, Serpentina.
During recent professional development sessions on “Coaching the Coach” at Ocracoke Island, the facilitator charged participants with finding a metaphor for coaching.
We were to take a photo. We would write to it.
There were no other parameters.
Ocracoke is a tiny place full of narrow, twisting roads, quaintness, legend, and mystery. It has around a thousand inhabitants. In tourist season one has to drive with extreme care as the streets become clogged with pedestrians, horses, bicyclists, golf carts, and cats (the island has a rampant feral cat population). The word island might as well be a synonym for enchantment or mystical; a sense of these hang in the air along with the salt. Sort of like expectancy.
When I first saw the grove of trees—predominantly live oaks—on the corner lot of a house converted to a bookstore, I thought: What a restful place. It has its own particular allure. While there are larger live oaks, individual, ancient giants, elsewhere on the island, these smaller trees grow together, toward one another. I read somewhere that live oaks focus their energy on growing out, not up; perhaps this is especially important in a place where ocean winds continually carve the landscape. These trees survive hurricanes. They flourish in salty places.
The early May afternoon was hot; the sun blazed overhead. I noted the profuse shade under the trees. They stand leaning inward, reaching to one another, as if intentionally collaborating to benefit all who enter their realm of existence. No one tree stands out. It’s a joint effort. I walked into their proffered coolness, this respite, this shelter, envisioning how their roots are deeply intertwined, that they draw collective strength in their mutuality. They are anchored together. That’s part of how they endure. A foundation from which to grow, branch out, and sustain their own lives and others’.
There is more, there is always more, to a metaphor, for it knows no parameters, either. It can keep on going and going, changing shape, developing new layers in new light. It’s supposed to, just like learning. Like life. I just choose to stop here.
I was the child of streets, sidewalks, bridges, overpasses, a city that set its watch by military bases and the shipyard.
I am now the sound of roosters crowing before daybreak, geese honking and flying in their “V” against an egg-colored sky, glassy ponds with their rising morning mist, cotton fields, tobacco barns, donkeys, goats, horses, and the occasional peacock.
To be precise: I live on a tiny neighborhood cul-de-sac, not a farm, although fields and rural life surround me.
Just beyond the woods in front of my home is a pasture, and in that pasture live two mules.
The first time I drove down that road and saw them, I nearly wept.
I halfway expected my grandfather as a young man to walk out of the weathered, tin-roofed barn and hitch them to a plow.
See, I am also the child of stories about the old days and the old ways. In the summers I left the bustling city behind for a few weeks to stay with my grandparents in their rural community, where generations of my ancestors lived and died. Every word that Granddaddy and Grandma spoke, every memory they relived in response to my thousand questions, still lives in my soul.
Because of the stories I sometimes recognize a thing as familiar when I haven’t it seen before.
So it was that my first sight of these mules took me to a time long before my own. For just a minute, I felt like I was there.
And, in a way, I was.
He was up with the dawn, at the back of the field plowing with those mules. I stood on the porch and waved my apron at him, but he wasn’t looking.
I was alone in the house—a two-story house painted white, we didn’t own it, we were tenant farmers—because his mama had gotten mad with us and moved out. My sisters and my own mama thought there’d be plenty of time before the baby came. I guess I thought so, too.
I shivered in the chilly morning, the beginning of October, but the days still got pretty warm. Such a beautiful time of year, everything so crisp and bright, the sky so blue. We’d only been married for ten months. I had a lot to learn, being just twenty-one, but I was proud of what we had and I kept everything looking so nice. I didn’t think of what we didn’t have because no one had much of anything . . . .
All I could think about in that moment on that morning is that I suddenly needed help and no one knew.
“Lump!” I yelled, as hard as I could, to get his attention.
He was fighting those mules—I don’t know how he always managed to find the orneriest mules on Earth!—and he couldn’t hear me.
Right about then is when my water broke. The warm fluid ran down my legs, past the hem of my dress, into my shoes. I’ve never been so frightened; I sat down on the porch steps and started to pray:
Help me, God. I don’t know what to do! Please send help, somehow.
That’s when Belle, our little bluetick hound, came out from under the porch and sat beside me. She started licking the fluid off my legs like she knew what was happening and I am sure she did. Animals know things. I put my arms around her and cried and cried.
“Bless you, old Belle, for trying to help me,” I told her.
Of course my grandfather looked up from the mules to see her there. He went for the doctor, who arrived in plenty of time.
That is how my father came into the world.
Grandma said Granddaddy was so, so proud of his boy: “Never saw his face shine quite like that before, when the doctor called him in from the front room and put his son in his arms. Your newborn Daddy looked exactly like him.”
Made up for those ornery mules, I suppose. I don’t know of any other part they played in this story, but it is enough. For me, mules are forever icons of my young grandfather and his farmer-sharecropper life.
Standing like silent sentinels in the background as one generation passes to another.
Oh yes, I’ve loved the country all my life, and maybe even before.
Living here means that long ago is never far away.
Note: Everyone “down home” called my grandfather by his nickname, Lump, short for Columbus. When my father saw me for the first time, he said, with more than a little concern: “My land—she looks just like Daddy.”
After a recent outpatient procedure, as I secretly celebrated waking up from anesthesia and not dying, my husband drove me home down the back country roads. Through the passenger window I idly watched winter-brown grass, trees, and old gray outbuildings zipping by, noted a small clearing with a tiny pond nestled in wood-strewn ground, an eagle sitting by the wayside—
We said it simultaneously, my husband and I: “THAT’S AN EAGLE!”
Just a quick impression, sitting majestically, facing us, huge, white head gleaming atop the dark body, not ten feet away . . . .
We were past it as soon as the sight registered on our brains.
“Go back! Go back!” I pleaded, grabbing my phone, opening the camera.
A sssskkkkrrrrttt! of a turn-around at a dirt driveway, and we were back in a flash.
It watched us, unmoving, as we neared, but when we slowed, the eagle grew suspicious. It took off. Within a millisecond, into the bare, gnarled oaks.
“No! Wait! Wait!” I cried, snapping as fast as I could.
We rolled a little farther, but the only good shot I got was of its back, soaring away.
Gone. I missed the moment. Failed to capture my encounter with the wondrous. I have never been that close to an eagle in the wild. I’ve hardly seen any free ones at all, in fact. I’ve heard them calling in their high, haunting, piercing voices, have seen one perched on top of a streetlamp, but never anything like this.
I grieved my loss: It would have made such a great blog post, too.
I got home, got into bed.
The image of the eagle wouldn’t leave my thoughts. It stayed, motionless, watching me. Cocked its head, affixed me with its eye, its penetrating gaze.
—Why wouldn’t you stay so still just a little while ago?
It ruffled its feathers. Kept right on staring at me.
So I looked it up.
There are few things I love better than symbolism, and few are better-known than the eagle: The national bird, on the Great Seal of the United States. Revered icon of ancient times, civilizations, people. Mascot to numerous sports teams—even that of the school where I work.
But this is what got me about the eagle:
It is a symbol of healing.
It is a symbol of transition, some element of life or creative endeavor, about to take flight.
—Dare I see it as a sign that all shall be well, that some new venture, personal or professional, lies just ahead?
It was just an eagle sitting by the wayside, as eagles surely do, somewhere, every day.
Only this time I happened to see it. In the blinking of an eye.
I blinked back at it.
So, I told it, you wouldn’t stay put for a real picture, but now you linger as a mental one. If you’re going to hang around portending something, then let it be my creativity and insight taking flight. Let it be about thing I love to do most—let my writing be courageous and free, with clarity of vision. Let it fly, let it fly, on and on, higher and higher.
Only then did the image fade; only then did I rest.
I fell asleep.
And woke in the morning, renewed, resolute.
No more missed moments. There aren’t moments to lose.
—I’m ready for whatever lies ahead. Lead on, eagle.