Trespass

It was early, that time of day before birds find their voices or vagrant dogs begin their morning rounds, when I rose from my childhood bed. I’d crawled into that bed the evening before, tired and looking forward to a rare sleepover at my parents’ house, but sleep had been elusive.

Being in a place that seemed so familiar, yet so foreign, made the night strange and my slumber restless. The house still smelled like home and it was still furnished with the same books and chairs and most of the same people I’d always called mine. But I’d been gone from there for so many days and nights that it no longer felt like my home.

I felt like an interloper, a feeling made even more uncomfortable because the reason I was there was to ease my worry about my ailing mother. She and my father didn’t really want me there in their business, so I felt like I was in my parents’ space—and also like a turkey buzzard circling and waiting to poach the remains of my past.

I was far too awake to ease back into even a fragment of a dream, so I slipped on my shoes, crept out a side door near my room (the same one I might have used as a teenager to slip away with a boyfriend had I had the courage to do such a thing back then—but I never did because it would have meant crossing boundaries) and set off for a walk down the lengthy dirt road that leads from the main highway to the house our family has inhabited since I was four years old.     

I walked slowly at first, feeling unsure until my eyes had time to adjust to the ashen moonlight. The road seemed unchanged through all the years of my absence, except the azaleas and pine trees on either side of it had grown taller and denser over time. Just as I was feeling more secure in my surroundings and settling into an easy gate, the sound of snorts and cracking branches stopped me in my tracks. My footfalls had flushed several deer from their bed in a privet hedge. 

They were startled. I was too. They dissolved into the predawn dark, fast and jerky as a ragged breath. I stood stock-still, my brief moment of fear fading into a saddening insight: The road belonged not to me, and not even just to my parents, but as much to those deer as any of us. On a road I thought of as my own, I was trespassing.

Trespassing is a sin in the South—a shooting offense if not a hanging one. Ownership of land is a status symbol that surpasses cash wealth, and protecting land lines is an almost religious duty. We are fond of our fences, gates, and “posted” signs, and we are indignant, if not incensed, when people fail to honor them.

For me, a product of the South and the progeny of families that have passed land down for several generations, this attitude not only seems normal, it is ingrained in me. I am protective of any land that belongs to us, and I resent anyone who dares trespasses upon it.  

My upbringing also ingrained in me an almost absurd respect for the territory of others. When I travel, I am often intrigued by odd side roads or striking landscapes just across barbed-wire fences, places that I would love to explore. But I am well brought-up—or perhaps cowardly—so I do not go there. 

Instead, I limit my detours and ramblings (my chances at discovery…) to numbered roads and public spaces, such as the wooded, watery landscapes of the South’s parks and wilderness areas, or the barren, arid landscapes of the American West, where I can gaze upon and wander in acres and acres of open soil and sky owned by no one—or is that by everyone all at once? 

As fiercely protective as I am of “my” land, knowing that someone relinquished ownership of their land to give us those communal spaces makes me feel greedy and guilty, but also thankful. Without their generosity (intentional or coerced) I would never have climbed through a thin mist to reach the top of an immense, ancient Indian mound in west Alabama, or been greeted (from a safe distance) by the dry warning judder of a timber rattler along the Bartram Trail in north Georgia, or glimpsed the sun shining through Delicate Arch in Utah, or become paralyzed with vertigo and awe while scaling Colorado’s Maroon Bells.

As I stood that morning in the half-light of a breaking day on my family’s road, I felt like I might be a sinner, but not so much for that moment’s trespass against the whitetails. The accidental indecency of my intrusion on their sleep was likely no worse than the way blue jays, squirrels, chipmunks, and wrens that flush one another from branches and feeders outside my kitchen window. They briefly claim a territory of comfort or sustenance. They leave. They return. It is a constant ripple of removal and return. Instead, I felt suddenly guilty of the sin of arrogance and the fear of irresponsibility.  

Do I have the right to own land? If I own it, is it moral to hoard it from others? Can I overcome my raising and find a way to possess it, yet still share it? And most important of all, can I protect the landscape of my childhood and all of its inhabitants, now and into the future?  It is not a matter of trespassing upon it. It is making sure I do not trespass against it.

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In Praise of Birds in Barrels

It may not be obvious here since I am such a slacker about posting to this site, but I have been writing…writing furiously in fact. And it is glorious!

The things I am writing? Some are articles–my beloved gardening column in Alabama Living magazine top among them–and some are books (I’ve published two in the last year). But recently the things I have been writing have been much less structured because they have been straight-from-the-soul words spurred to life by writing prompts from Birds in a Barrel.

Birds in a Barrel is a writing program developed and nurtured by Robin Razu, a professional writer and editor who discovered the usefulness of a daily writing prompt and shared it with others.  As her website explains: “BIRDS IN A BARREL IS A PROGRAM FOR RELEASING NONFICTION CREATIVITY INTO THE WILD.”

Some of my writerly friends–a small pack of women who are already accomplished, acclaimed writers but, like me, are always looking for the next inspiration or catalyst–suggested it to me. I am forever indebted to these women for many things, Birds in a Barrel being the most recent and life-changing thing they have given me. It’s all about 40 days and 40 nights of writing, which can lead to 40, 000 words (just kidding, but it does help rack up the word count AND the ideas for future stories).

I write this post to encourage others to sign up for B-n-B. I’ll leave it to you to discover the details of it at http://www.birdsinabarrel.com, but suffice it to say that, if you’re willing to undertake it, it’s amazing.

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit…and a Red Bird

Before my feet hit the floor this morning—the first day of 2019 AND the first day of January—I made sure to speak these three words aloud: “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.”

I heard about this monthly rite from the late Alabama storyteller, Katherine Tucker Windham, a woman who believed in ghosts, in the richness of tradition, and who found fun in life and afterlife. (She kept a handmade pine casket in the shed beside her house for years, using it to store crystal and china until she claimed it for herself in June 2011.) 

Windham often talked about—and I’m pretty sure practiced—the tradition of starting the month with “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” which is purported to ensure good luck for the entire month. There are a number of versions on how to perform this ritual—some say “white rabbit,” others just say “rabbit” once or twice instead of three times; some believe it must be said before rising, others think it should be said just as their feet hit the floor. Whatever the practice (I’m obviously in the three-rabbits-before-rising camp), I like the idea that I can do something to attract good luck rather than simply ward off bad luck, so I adopted the “rabbit” habit a year or more ago.

I come from superstitious folk, which engrained in me a mild obsession to strictly follow any known rituals that may affect luck—good or bad—or cause harm to myself or others. My mother passed away a decade ago, but I still wince every time I step on a crack (though I wonder, is a crack the same as a seam?), and I cringe anytime I accidentally lay shoes on the bed. I also worry that performing these rituals poorly or forgetting them entirely can bring on bad juju, and I’ll be honest, my “rabbit” practice is not perfect…I’ve missed a few months and wondered if missing it will now bring on bad luck? 

Thank goodness for my friend, Leigh, who offered an antidote: If you miss the first morning of a month, just say “tibbar, tibbar, tibbar” (“rabbit” backward) to reverse any bad karma. I’m on the hunt to figure out the exact implementation of that practice before I use it. Should I say it at the end of the first day of the month after I forget to say my morning “rabbits” or at the end of the month? I’m not positive, though this episode of “A Way with Words,” http://www.waywordradio.org/rabbit-rabbit-tibbar-tibbar/,  offered a few ideas, along with a number of other traditions that I may now have to add to my superstition repertoire.

I’ll ignored the temptation of adopting new practices right now, though, because so far I’ve started the new year off well.  Just a while ago, as I walked our dogs in a dripping rain, I spotted my first bird of 2019, a female cardinal.

2019, The Year of the Female Cardinal (though male cardinals are welcome, too.)

She’s supposed to be my “theme bird” (www.birdnote.org/show/bird-year-lyanda-haupt) of the year, but she is also a symbol of hope, joy, health, rejuvenation, and celebration (as well as possessing other powers and meanings: https://animals.mom.me/meaning-red-cardinals-native-americans-9087.html). I’ll think of her as my companion for the rest of the year. She and her sister ilk are abundant here, so I’ll never be far from cardinal grace and song.  

And I’ll cap it all off tonight with greens and black-eyed peas. I should have all the bases covered for the start of a successful 2019 before I lay my head down tonight to dream of rabbits and red birds.

Fresh Starts

A new year is approaching–rapidly! As in any day now…how did that happen? It’s true that the older one gets, the faster time seems to pass. And while I wish I could slow it down, I’m looking forward to a fresh start in 2019.

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions years ago–they just seemed so un-doable. Instead, I create biannual “manifestos”–one in January and another during my birthday month of July. I stole the manifesto idea from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, along with her belief that if I write down my desires, they are more likely to be realized. So my manifestoes are actually lists of things I hope to accomplish in the coming year, not things that will make me feel like a failure should I not accomplish them. Truth is, through the years some of them have happened, other’s haven’t; some remain on the list every time I create/recreate it, others I check off as “done” or take off because they no longer matter to me–I have been known to change my mind about things.

Regardless of whether the lists change (they never become shorter, by the way), they become a compass for me–each item a direction that I can take from one day to the next. I tape the lists to my desk top and use them to send myself on to a new adventure or journey, especially when I find myself bogged down in the day-to-day of things. Each item is a reminder that I have bigger, brighter hopes to reach for.

So here’s my list for 2019. It may change between now and New Year’s Day, its official publication date, but it captures the gist of things.

2019 Manifesto

___Start a new book.

___Carve out writing days each week at home.

___Meet deadlines.

___Use time more wisely.

___Work outside more.

___Plant wildflowers & native shrubs.

___Thoroughly clean one room each month.

___Write better.

___Take a solo trip.

___Go on at least two writing retreats.

___Be a better person.

___Ride a horse at least once.

___Have adventures, alone and with friends.

___Take pictures.

___Be honest!

In addition to this personal list, I tacked up the following quote that a writerly friend of mine recently shared–a decades-old New Year’s wish from Neil Gaiman (see more of his journal entries at http://journal.neilgaiman.com):

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself. 

I second his wish for all of us!

Trespass

It was early, that time of day before birds find their voices or vagrant dogs begin their morning rounds, when I rose from my childhood bed. I’d crawled into that bed the evening before, tired and looking forward to a rare sleepover at my parents’ house, but sleep had not come. Being in a place that seemed so familiar, yet so foreign made the night strange and my slumber restless.

The house still smelled like home and it was still furnished with the same books and chairs and most of the same people I’d always called mine. But I’d been gone from there for so many days and nights that it no longer felt like my home.

I was far too awake to ease back into even a fragment of a dream, so I slipped on my shoes, crept out a side door near my room (the same door I might have used as a teenager to slip away with a boyfriend had I had the courage to do such a thing back then—but I never did because it would have meant crossing boundaries), and set off for a walk down the lengthy dirt road that leads from the main highway to the house our family has inhabited since I was four years old.

I walked slowly at first, my steps unsure in the dark. Just as my eyes began to adjust to the ashen moonlight and my steps settled into an easy gate, the sound of snorts and cracking branches stopped me in my tracks. My footfalls had flushed several deer from their bed in a privet hedge.They dissolved into the predawn dark, fast and jerky as a ragged breath. I stood stock-still, my brief moment of fear fading into a sad insight: On a road I thought of as my own, I was trespassing.

Trespassing is a sin in the South—a shooting offense if not a hanging one. Ownership of land is a status symbol that surpasses cash wealth, and protecting land lines is an almost religious duty. We are fond of our fences, gates, and “posted” signs, and we are indignant, if not incensed, when people fail to honor them. For me, a product of the South and the progeny of families that have passed land down for several generations, this attitude is ingrained in me. I am protective of any land that belongs to us, and I resent anyone who dares trespasses upon it.

My upbringing also ingrained in me an almost absurd respect for the territory of others. When I travel, I am often intrigued by odd side roads or striking landscapes just across barbed-wire fences, places that I would love to explore. But I am well brought-up—or perhaps cowardly—so I don’t go there.

Instead, I limit my detours and ramblings (my chances at discovery…) to numbered roads and public spaces, such as the wooded, watery landscapes of the South’s parks and wilderness areas, or the barren, arid landscapes of the American West, where I can gaze upon and wander in acres and acres of open soil and sky owned by no one—or is that by everyone all at once?

As fiercely protective as I am of “my” land, knowing that someone relinquished ownership of their land to give us those communal spaces makes me feel greedy and guilty, but also thankful. Without their generosity (intentional or coerced) I would never have climbed through a thin mist to reach the top of an immense, ancient Indian mound in west Alabama, or been greeted (from a safe distance) by the dry warning judder of a timber rattler along the Bartram Trail in north Georgia, or glimpsed the sun shining through Delicate Arch in Utah, or become paralyzed with vertigo and awe while scaling Colorado’s Maroon Bells.

As I stood that night in the half-light on my family’s road, I realized what bothered me about that moment’s trespass against the whitetails. It was not the accidental indecency of my intrusion on their sleep. That was no worse than the way blue jays, squirrels, chipmunks, and wrens flush one another from branches and feeders outside my kitchen window. They briefly claim a territory of comfort or sustenance. They leave. They return. That constant ripple of removal and return is natural.

Wha bothered me was not that I trespassed upon the space of those deer — or my parents for that matter. It was how in the world can I avoid trespassing against them…

Eavesdropping on the Rain

I went out to my front porch last night just three minutes before midnight to listen to a rain storm move in.

I had the house all to myself (if you don’t count the two dogs sleeping on the sofas inside) and, as always, that aloneness was freeing. There was no one here to care if I was up well at such an hour.

It began slowly at first…just a patter here and there as the raindrops walked through the woods. But it soon grew into a stampede, the drumming of thousands of droplets falling from the sky onto the world.

Somewhere above the rain clouds was a full moon. But it shed little light on the night. All I could see was a pale line of light from the streetlight as its glow bounced off the wet pavement that runs past our house and outlined of overgrown crape myrtles planted along our driveway. They were drooping under the wetness, their white flowers scattering on the driveway I am sure. I could not see the flowers, though. Just the arch of those elegant limbs.

I heard voices through the rain. I thought they were human voices but then I realized it was the voice of the rain in conversation with all the things it touched. And when it finally ebbed away, moved on to some other place, I heard the voices of cicadas and crickets, and the fading complaint of thunder as it traveled on elsewhere taking the lightning along with it.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

 

Lessons in the Blues…and Listening

    

Back in June 2016 when my husband and I were making plans for a long weekend trip to the Mississippi Delta, we were trying to figure out just what to see and do on such a short visit. While it’s easy to find Delta tourist advice, we wanted authentic intelligence from someone who knew the area intimately, so I sought help from Rheta Grimsley Johnson.

Rheta is an author and syndicated newspaper columnist who is a fellow Alabamian, but she’s lived in and written about Mississippi for so long now that she qualifies as a “local,” and she generously offered us sage advice on the best food, drink, cultural and musical stops of the Delta. But her finest and most important advice was this:

“The thing to do in the Delta is talk to people…there’s music in their voices.”

She was so right, and we heard that music over and over again from people like farmer Tim “Moose” Miller, who stopped to chat with us near his field in Friar’s Point, Mississippi, and just a crow’s fly from the Big Muddy. Sitting at the wheel of his pickup truck, Moose told us about his children—a daughter who was making herself a lawyer and a son who was not making much of himself at the moment—and about a snake that ate a radio-tagged bird, and how it could be dangerous in those parts of Mississippi what with the rampant rural crime, but how you’d also never find a friendlier place.

DSC_4246

Tim “Moose” Miller

We also heard it in the voice of Barbara Pope, sister of the late Joe Pope who founded the famous White Front Café (AKA Joe’s Hot Tamale Shop) in Rosedale, Mississippi. Ms. Pope’s quiet, composed voice rose above—or maybe somehow below—the sounds of a television in one corner of the café and a window air conditioning unit struggling loudly against the indoor and outdoor heat in another corner. We hung on every word as she talked about how she came home to Mississippi from Chicago in 1990 to take care of her ailing mother and never left, and how tamales had brought the world to her door, but bringing prosperity to Rosedale was a work in progress.

We also heard it late one afternoon as we wandered around the grounds of Dockery Farms—the “birthplace of the blues”—near Cleveland, Mississippi, and met Julius Voss, a retired plumber who grew up working on a nearby farm. He began to tell us stories about his childhood there—about watering their farm horses at Dockery’s place—and I think he would have talked on for hours, but the sun was melting off the edge of a hot June sky and our hotel was miles away in Clarksdale, so we reluctantly said goodbye without fully tapping into the music of his voice.

That night we did what tourists do in Clarksdale—listened to the music of the Delta at Ground Zero then later at Red’s Lounge where Terry “Harmonica” Bean was evangelizing the blues to a largely white congregation of us tourists (some hailing from as far away as Australia). As Terry played, sang and told stories to the crowd, a woman sitting alone at a little bar table strewn with empty tall-boy beer cans and half-pint whiskey bottles—Miss Mae they called her, and we decided she must be a local—would occasionally rouse from a nap and make her own music by offering a barfly’s “amen.”

We also heard it from Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry, the proprietor of Po’ Monkey’s Social Club, one of the last honest-to-God juke joints in the area, maybe in the world.

It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, so Po’ Monkeys was deserted—the singing and dancing occurs mostly on Thursday nights—but we took photos of the establishment’s ramshackle building and its trademark, hand-painted signs disallowing droopy pants, cockeyed baseball caps and outside beer and drugs.

We happily slipped the obligatory $5 (each) requested for outside photos in a padlocked box then stood on the dirt-gravel road that ran beside this sharecropper’s-shack-turned-cultural-icon and toasted the Delta with a couple of fingers of Woodford Reserve whiskey poured into plastic travel cups. Just as we were about to leave, a white van pulled up and out stepped a tall black man wearing a rhinestone belt buckle shaped like a dollar sign. It was Po’ Monkey himself and he invited us in to see the place he had run without major incident for more than 50 years.

For about an hour, we wandered around in the shabby-garish gloom that settles over any jumping joint during the quiet daylight hours and Mr. Seaberry answered our questions and told us stories. He even gave us a peek into his sleeping quarters, a tiny room in a back corner of the shack that was “wallpapered” with Mr. Seaberry’s many famous flamboyant suits, hats and assorted party outfits.

I think Mr. Seaberry would have kept talking with us for hours more—he was polite that way—but we had places to go and we figured he had things to do, so we drove away waving at Mr. Seaberry and thanking him profusely for his hospitality.

There are so many more people and places we encountered on that too-short trip, all worth recognizing, but that would take pages, and the real point of this is that we got the best advice for the Delta—for anywhere, actually—from Rheta. Stop and listen when people want to talk.

The importance of doing that was brought poignantly home to we four travelers when, less than a month after we returned home from that trip, we heard that Willie Seaberry was gone…found dead in his tiny bedroom on July 14th.

I wish we had lingered longer with Mr. Seaberry—and with Moose, Barbara, Julius, Miss Mae and all the other people we encountered in the Delta—and listened harder to the music in their voices. We might not get another chance.