Friday, September 30, 2016

Gemstones in Buckets & Roller Coasters in the Sky Part I

Once a year - sometimes twice - a weekend came when Dad would carry us out to the van at five in the morning and we would head north. He loved leaving for trips before sunrise. We knew when the leaves started to turn, a weekend would be set aside for another trip to North Carolina. Neither Maggie Valley nor Franklin are far enough from metro Atlanta to warrant such an early rise but we didn't care! Gem panning and roller coasters waiting our arrival. The excitement far outweighed our early-rising grumps and we willingly allowed ourselves to be carried away in our pajamas knowing we'd have to dress on the way.

We'd change in the van, eat breakfast at Waffle House and count the miles until we pulled into a gem mine. No, we didn't climb down into caves with pick axes, humming dwarfish folk tunes or anything. The Appalachian Mountains are polka-dotted with family-friendly gem mines: no headlamps or hobbits required. It's called "panning" and we believed we were experts at it. A mine provided buckets of dirt, large framed screens for sifting through said dirt, troughs of running water and the promise you'd walk away with at least a sapphire, garnet or emerald. Salted mines were our choice. "Salted" means that the people who own the mine make sure there are rough gems in every bucket. Hey, call us soft but I've done the other kind, the kind that actually requires luck and trust me: paying for a bucket of dirt and walking away with nothing more than mud in your tennis shoes after three hours of sticking your hands in freezing cold water is NOT my idea of a challenge. It's more like Appalachian water torture. I may not have chiseled my finds from bare rock but the joy of discovery far out weighted any legitimate mining claims. Pioneering be damned!

Settled on the bench, we lifted the screen, propped it on the flume (the trough of running water) and Dad dumped in our dirt. It took a bit of time to get the cumbersome screen into the panning rhythm but soon the gems appeared and our shoes became soaked and covered in mud. We spent hours collecting stones, convinced this time one of us would take home a fortune. We never did. I still have many of those stones. They're in storage tucked into envelopes labeled "emeralds", "moonstones" and "rubies". Maybe one day I'll  have them cut and put into a necklace. I think I'll call it "Franklin Mud Finds".

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Turning of the Mighty Oak

The oak tree towered above the yard long before that little plot of land was a yard. For most of the year it was either swathed in deep green or skeletal and bare - a large arm with hundreds of bony fingers grasping at clouds. But when autumn came it was on fire.

The leaves blazed maroon, orange and yellow and they were set in front of an amazing backdrop of blue. Burn-your-eyes azure framed the oak, a halo to a holy site. A week perhaps, maybe two, was all we had to worship at the trunk. This shrine of nature beckoned for attention, demanded awe and inspired leaf gathering and daydreaming.

Many times I tried to photograph it but majesty refused confinement in film. My feeble attempts at art could not imitate life. The lens dulled the blue and extinguished the leaves.

Autumn is a fleeting season in middle Georgia. We gulp down the cooling days. Yards smell of fleeing summer and the nights of cider and bonfires. Pools are closed, bathing suits hung to dry one last time and out come sweaters, jeans and flannel.

Contrary to popular belief, we do know what snow is and occasionally we must bundle up against it. True, Georgia is spared bitterly cold winters but it does get cold to us. When most of your year's low temperatures are somewhere between 80 and 89 degrees, anything below 50 is freezing!

Fall is a gentle leaning away from torrid summers and into the chill to come. The glory of the oak is summer's fierce farewell and that brilliant, chilling blue reminds us that winter, however fleeting, is soon to come.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Back to School

I was the strange kid who actually liked school. I loved learning, the smell of new crayons and freshly sharpened pencils. Each new school year provided another chance to "get things right". I never consciously set any resolutions but I always wanted to be true to myself, get the best grades and prove to the world that I was SMART! Please bear in mind this was looooong before being a nerd was cool.

In the old days of the mid-80s we started school the first week of September. After Labor Day, not mid-July. Funny, but three months off for summer break never hindered my knowledge retention or continuing academic performance. The week before we started back was spent hunting for school supplies and new clothes. Oh how I loved picking out new skirts, jeans and shoes. My biggest joy was picking out supplies: a shiny new pencil box; fresh, smooth sheets of notebook paper; the smell of a brand new box of crayons.

I was fastidious about my school box. Everything had its own place and always fit perfectly so the lid would firmly close. There was always room for fun extras like fragrant erasers shaped like fruit and those pencils with the lead attached to little plastic nibs you could pull out when used up and slip into the bottom of the pencil, pushing up a sharp one. I still have a tendency to over-sharpen my pencils. I won't allow a dull pencil near my desk. I'm such a sucker for these sharp little writing instruments that I'd prefer a bouquet of them to roses.

Every new pack of paper was filled with unwritten stories just waiting to be found. I would write and rewrite assignments until I felt I got my penmanship just right. Yes, kids, we were taught to write in cursive. True story.

Now days I'm drawn to office supply stores and the Crayola aisle at Target like an ancient Greek sailor to an island of sirens. Thankfully giving into this temptation doesn't result in a ship wreck, just a much lighter wallet.

Monday, September 19, 2016

When the air turns to gold

Trees turn golden and drop their treasures onto lawns and back roads. For a few weeks we played in a technicolor wonderland. Slowly we'd put away the toys of summer; the pool got too cold and covered up, thick plastic stretched tight across the metal rim. Out came rakes and jackets, candles in jars that smelled of baked gingerbread. The leaves became piles became playgrounds and the challenge was to flip and fall until we were covered in moldering yard waste. Our energy was boundless, until the time came to heave the full wheelbarrows down the back hill to the burn pile.

School recommenced and we re-acclimated to having to go to bed before eleven. Long, warm nights gave way to crisp chill breezes and stars that shined like the chips of mica in the asphalt. We told ghost stories and roasted marshmallows in the fireplace. The bus I rode to school was the same color as the leaves, a muted combination of mustard and goldenrod. New shoes, new pencils, new packs of notebook paper – oh how I loved it, right down to the tiny bottles of Elmer's glue.

Mom and Dad found weekends to take us North to Franklin and Maggie Valley, North Carolina. There we panned for gem stones in freezing cold water that mazed out of springs beneath the Great Smoky Mountains. Buckets of dirt promised riches and glory and we chose them based upon some superstitious combination of weight and false predictions. Oh, we mountain Gypsies, scrying in mud, finding tiny emeralds, dreaming of amethysts and luminous moon stones. What a troop we made running wild and free along the mountain streams.

Halloween came quick with corn candy, whispering tales of who we might become. Thanksgiving appeared and school closed for the annual sacrament of turkey and dressing and Mawmaw's giblet gravy. Those four days of delicious chaos capped off four months of heaven.

Autumn still holds a golden sway, beckoning me to the office supply store. Bouquets of freshly sharpened pencils are more appealing in early September than those glorious bunches of rusty mums. I find myself baking zucchini bread and finding anything that tastes of pumpkin and clove. Muscadines and pears ripen and we gather them for a weekend of making jellies and preserves. I get crafty, wandering back to my childhood of chalkboards and school boxes. The temperature's right for comfort food and I've got a recipe box just itching to be opened and splattered with fresh stains.

The door's wide open. It's a nice change from 98 degrees and 100% humidity. The days are still warm, but the evenings are just beginning to turn, just beginning to beckon hoodies out of hiding. Windows are being opened and screen porches and courtyards are finally being put to use once more. The mosquitoes are fading and it's almost time to light the fire pit. Scoop up some cider and pull up a chair. Just make sure you mind the sparks!

Happy Fall, Ya'll! (sorry...I had too.)

Friday, September 16, 2016


Roots are important. Rarely seen, they provide nutrients and grounding; they play second fiddle to the foliage and flowers above. Without roots the plant would die, the flowers wilt. Even the mighty Live Oak cracks and fades. The human plant has roots too: memories and histories that keep us grounded and give us something to draw from, to hold onto. Where we come from shapes us – good or bad. It's up to us to mold that shape into who we want to become.

I was raised to love simple things: vegetable gardens, climbing trees, wood-burning fire places. Gorgeous afternoons found my family and me clambering into the van, off on wild, dirt road adventures. The four of us pit stopped at The Cupboard for Coke, peanuts, and those little chocolate cookies that taste a little like cardboard without the gloppy, white cream in the middle.

Dad poured his peanuts into his Coke. Mom lazily sipped Dr. Pepper from a glass bottle. My sister and I licked clean the cream from their chocolate hulls and sent the cookies flying out open windows, turning to watch them skip the asphalt behind us. We were on a mission: Mom needed more rocks to line her garden wall. What better way to get these additions than to adopt them from abandoned Georgia clay? We made up songs about boiled peanuts and groaned when the parents popped in cassettes of “that mountain music”.

Gardens and swimming pools were our daily backdrop, hammered dulcimers and wind chimes our soundtrack. School breaks alternated between mountain tops and seashores. Pigeon Forge provided us with stuffed black bears, toy drums and erasers that smelled like school boxes. Holidays came with a script: where, what time, food brought and brought by whom. Grilled cheese sandwiches at Cracker Barrel, off the beaten path herb gardens, old quilts, crab shacks, hurricane lamps, and dried flowers smuggled in from Canada under dirty clothes. These things and more – rocking chairs, inflatable pool toys, moon pies, afternoons crafting, the wooden biscuit bowl – pull me back to the past and root me back home.

Tell me: What ROOTS you? What GROUNDS you?

Monday, September 12, 2016

What is this "Southern" of which you speak?

The South brings to mind many things and a lot of them aren't good. We've got history here, from cobblestones and live oaks to the horrors of slavery and bloodshed. Once upon a time I was ashamed of being Southern. Everyone thinks we're backward, right? We're the ones they find to describe the tornado on the news, you know, the person who insists it sounded like hell opened up and “flung ol' Jimmy's prized cow through the back winder”. God, it embarrassed me. And then I read something that opened my eyes, a glimmer of a hint as to what it meant to be Southern. In “Writing Down the Bones”, author Natalie Goldberg tells of how in all her classes, her southern students shine. How some of them would hide their “Southerness” but it would ooze out as they stood to read their work. If you want to read Ms. Goldberg's thoughts on Southern writing, check out the sidebar. I've included a lovely, long excerpt.

That Southerness wasn't an accent. It wasn't a perceived ignorance or backward manner. No. To Ms. Goldberg, it was a poetry, a pain and joy that must, she insisted, bubble up from the dirt and the asphalt and, yes, the blood and the horror. That perspective made me rethink where I'm from and what I should do with that. What does “being Southern” mean? Does it mean I eat deep fried everything and drown my kidneys in sweet tea? Well, sure, but not all the time. Does it mean I cling to ethnocentric notions, refusing to grow, expand, and embrace? No. But it does mean I have to guard against falling into those prisons, those perceived bunkers of power.

We are a people strongly steeped in the past yet yearning for a future that is bright. Just like everyone else. We are every color, every race, and every nationality. The South isn't just the back roads and the cracked pavements of hit country songs. It's also thriving cities of immigrants and booming towns within towns that reflect the cultures of the people who have settled here. Those who have chosen the South as their home. It's red clay and Spanish moss. It's where the glimmering grace of the present is ever aware of the ghosts of the past. And trust me when I say we love our ghosts.

Understanding what it means to be Southern has been my focus this past summer. I didn't write much. I didn't do much. I simply re-calibrated my writing and my wondering brought me here. Life is a journey, so the cliché goes. But as we travel we aren't merely to assimilate property and trophies. Life is as much about looking behind as it is looking forward. Our identity isn't a destination. It's a pilgrimage of place, a constant awareness of who we are, where we came from, and where we're going. My hope is that my mining of memories and my venturing out of my comfort zone and expanding my experience will urge you to do the same. I want to learn, to grow, and, hopefully, to carry you along with me.

And if at some point you laugh or smile or nod in agreement; if you shake your head, scream “NO!”; if you try a new recipe, cook up a dinner, start a new tradition; if you can get a glimmer of your own history, and become inspired to find out what carries you along your own pilgrimage, then I guess I can say I've done my job.

Friday, September 9, 2016

On returning and celebrating

This afternoon, my husband and I will load up the car with a bag and a casserole and head up I-16 to the metro-Atlanta area where we're from. My grandmother turns 95 tomorrow and we're going to help celebrate.

This is my darling.

Ninety-five. That's almost a century of wandering this earth and gathering the dust and wonders it affords. I hope and pray that I can be healthy and happy for some 95 years. I'm aiming for 123 but the key words in this paragraph are HEALTHY and HAPPY.

My grandmother, Mawmaw, has dementia. It's a terrible, rotten thing to happen to a woman who has always been a pillar of wit, strength, grace, and beauty. Mawmaw is a writer, a poet, and I blame her for my needing to pick up pens and clack away on keyboards. Story oozed out of her. She would tell us tales of what it was like growing up in the backwoods of middle Georgia. I ate them with a spoon, sopped them up with a child's memory and, thank GOD, can still recall most of them.

Like the time her younger sister was born and her older siblings took her to play by the creek while the doctor came to "bring her a baby sister". Or when her and my Aunt Mary were asleep in their old, wood-framed house and something sifted through the window, materialized at the foot of the bed and caused my Aunt to cry out for their Mother. Mawmaw believes it was an angel. Who am I to disagree?

Mawmaw has faith like a mountain. No mustard seeds for her. She was coordinated and classy, always wearing heels until after her 4th back surgery. When she had to start wearing a back brace, Mawmaw cut blocks of fabric from her inexhaustible stash of quilting supplies to coordinate the front panel of the brace with her outfit. She's still just as beautiful to me now as she was then. Maybe even more. She's a testimony to life and family.

God, I hope I can be even half the woman she is.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Past merges with Present mingles with Future

When I was a kid, my sister and I played outside long after the street lights came on. We careened down the hill in the back yard on our bicycles – without helmets!! - just to slam on the brakes and see how far we could skid. Skinned knees and elbows were rinsed off with the water hose or dunked into the swimming pool. Chlorine and Neosporin healed everything and we wore our scabs like the war wounds of veteran heroes. Band-aids were meant to be seen and the more you brandished, the better.

I grew up in a Georgia suburb, thirty miles southeast of Atlanta. Our backyard was a haven and a stage which played host to all our imaginings. Supper was around 6pm and Braves baseball was on TV all summer long. I didn't know how lucky I was. I just assumed everyone had a swimming pool, an herb garden, and a pomegranate tree in their backyard.

Now I realize my childhood was magic. Not perfect. Magic. I stayed a kid much longer than most of my friends. Honestly, I may have never grown up. Memories of growing up Southern colors every season, every holiday, every meal. We still swim as often as we can and baseball is still the sport of summer. Even now I get excited when the first marshmallow chicks appear at Easter and I keep the candy jar filled with an ever changing gallery of colored confections, just because my mother does and grandmother did the same. And my husband, bless him, makes sure that every Christmas our tree has a strong colony of candy canes settled in its branches.

I needed a place not just for these memories but for the stories I gather now. Summer is a wonderful time to re-evaluate where you're headed in life. Even with work, I was able to take a good, long look at my writing and figure out what I wanted out of it. Fiction is my first love. I haven't given that up. But as I went through my old files, I rediscovered a lot of half told stories and half expressed memories. There were desires that cropped up and I knew I couldn't just file them away again for another 10 years without dusting them off and giving them a go.

Past merging with Present mingling into the Future. Yeah. That sounds just perfect to me. I needed an excuse to DO something with these ideas, not just peek at them every so often when I organize and say, “Oh yeah! That's where that went,” just to file it away for another indeterminate amount of time. I won't apologize for the nostalgia. I won't apologize for the frustrations. I definitely won't apologize for the content. Or the calories. This is who I am. A bit scary to put yourself out there. Scary to hang out your laundry, all wrinkles and stains and all. Oh, well. As they say: that's life. And this, well, this is mine.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The September Edition of the IWSG

Hi there! Welcome to the September gathering of the Insecure Writer's Support Group. We gather the first Wednesday of every month to air our insecurities to our community of writers and readers and offer up support for those who need a bit of encouragement and cheering. If you'd like to learn more about the IWSG or our fearless leader Captain Alex, just click on the links. Oh, and if you STILL haven't joined us, what are you waiting for? And don't forget to visit out co-hosts. You can find that list on either of those sites linked above.


Summer heat is still camped over South Georgia and will stay here for at least another month. There are hints of fall in the evening, when the cicadas start to fade and the breeze carries a bit of a chill from the ocean. The nearby high school keeps us entertained by their loud football games which, thanks to them being a block away, we can hear the announcer's play by play, the cheerleaders, the band, and the ROAR of the crowd during Soon we'll be able to sit out in the courtyard with tea and enjoy the drum line without being carried away by mosquitoes. 

I hope summer treated you well. I hope you were able to be inspired, soak up some rest and relaxation and figure out those plot problems that may have been plaguing you at the end of May. I spent the summer on hiatus from writing and learned more about myself as a writer than I ever have while actually writing. As a tropical storm creeps up on the Georgia coast and the wind shakes the pines out my window, I have one piece of encouragement to offer on this IWSG day:


YOUR voice. Not that of your favorite author, not that of the most recent pop-fiction novel that will be displaced in three months or so after the film's fizzled. Listen to the deep places of your soul, that place where you walk barefoot and leave imprints in the mud. Get quite. Take the time to be silent with yourself and your writing and listen. Read it out loud. Does it sound like you? Does it sound familiar? If not, consider rewriting until it does. 

I'm not talking dialect. Dialect writing is hard to master and hard to make come across on the page as authentic. I'm talking about the way you speak to yourself, the way those around you express themselves. Who we are and what we do bleeds into our writing and, if we're lucky, comes out on the page. Maybe like me you've spent a lifetime avoiding your authentic voice but TRUST ME: you will not write one piece of truth if you don't first write from your own, unique voice. And I don't care if you don't like it. It's taken me 39 years to make peace with my Southern heritage, my Southern voice. Thirty-nine years of trying to write like the great classicists, the modern heroes and heroines of literature and genre. It took three months of not writing to have it come in, sit down, fix me a cup of tea and look me deep, deep in the eyes.

And you know what? I like what I see and I intend to let it out and share it. LET YOUR VOICE OUT, dear Friend. Come on. Let's see what you've got!


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Coffee sipping and courtyard cleaning

Yesterday I sipped coffee and flipped through a magazine until I just had to go outside. After our brush with Hurricane Hermine – OK, OK, Tropical Storm Hermine – the weather has been fall-like. Shh, don't tell the weather gods. It's not kosher to let Georgia get below 90* until October.

The breeze didn't come from the river. Trust me, you can tell when it does. A mix between factories and those close to the surface sewers. It wasn't coming from the Atlantic either. No salty mix of freedom and mystery. No, this was just one of those lovely breezes that stems from nowhere but blow the beards of the live oaks and make you put on a pair of shorts and running shoes and go strolling down a few blocks to the park.

Chronic pain made it a one-loop-around-the-park morning and that was just fine: I had to get back and re-pot my coffee plant. Yes. I have a coffee plant. His name is Walter and he is quite splendid. In fact, the card with growing instructions said that in 3-5 years he just may bloom and give me some beans. Probably no more than a feeble cup of espresso but still. Coffee!!

Walter, the splendid coffee plant

Anyway, before I could re-pot dear Walter, I had to clean up the mimosa strewn courtyard. Don't get excited. I'm talking about the trees. Although it would have been some kind of party to wake up to bottles of orange juice and champagne planted next to the wishbone flowers. Hermine blew around the already messy, beautiful foliage and those nasty seed pods that look like zombie Lima beans. Of course, thanks to the clouds of mosquitoes breeding in the moist courtyard undergrowth, I haven't been outside to do any cleaning since May. I guess I can't blame everything on Hermine but I'll try. I took a rake to the downed leaves, zombie beans and sticks. All the empty pots got stacked on the potting table and I even scared an adorable gecko who thought very little of my friendly advances. I swept off the small concrete slab and then had to dig around the bugs that had made homes in the last of my potting soil. Walter had better give me more than just a few, measly beans for that. There were *shudder* spiders.

It's times like these when I know I've turned into my mother. Mom is still up and out in the garden on nice mornings, coffee in hand. She starts out on the porch, sipping and bird watching. Inevitably, a weed or rose in need of a prune will lure her from the porch and there she goes, pulling and tugging, re-potting plants and re-graveling paths. In her pajamas and bare feet.

Jon laughs at my refusal to wear shoes, even to wander down the gravel and mud and broken shell lane to meet visitors who get confused by our lack of location on modern GPS. We live between two well marked, paved streets in Mid-town Savannah and yet lanes seem to be these alien lands, alternate dimensions filled with trash cans, recycle bins, and everyone's cast offs. The courtyard is usually damp and the moss is squishy. My toes like that much more than those nasty broken shells. I just smile at him and his ever present shoes, shift another pot and tell him it's in my DNA.