My goal every year is to have the grass manicured, the flowers in the yard beds and pots on the deck blooming, the little garden in and growing, and the weeds OUT by Memorial Day so I can sit outside and admire it all. It hasn’t happened in the last ten or twelve years, but this year it will be a reality. And it’s going to happen even though I hurt myself and am on full-time Ibuprofen. (I tripped over a puppy gate. I lifted my foot, but the Chaco didn’t lift or clear, and caught the top bar and I went splattering down the hall, slung my glass of water, which broke and cut me, and possibly broke something inside the very top of my leg.)
Yesterday, to finish off my garden, I planted five heirloom tomato plants a neighbor gave me. She was raised on a farm in McNairy County of West Tennessee, lived in Ohio for her professional career, and moved back to Tennessee to be near her grandchildren. She knows how to harvest seeds and plant them the next year. I want to learn. I told her this will be very helpful when the coming financial crisis happens or when our country declares financial martial law, as Ron Paul speaks of with surety. I thought of buying the book he promotes on this subject, but it costs $75, and I’m not paying that much for any book unless it’s about the Mississippi Delta. (I bought David Cohn’s book for $120.)
I’m writing about the Mississippi Delta — a little fictional town near Cleveland, on the river, with five women who are main characters. It will explore race, religion, family, and land — all good Southern topics for novels. I am taking my time on this book. Trying to say what I want to say and get it right.
And now, of all things, Cleveland, my hometown, and Cleveland High School, my alma mater, are in the news. The Cleveland school district has been given a federal court order to desegregate. People all over the country are making disparaging remarks because they are picturing an all-white school. No. CHS began integration in 1965. My class of ’67 might have been the last all-white graduating class. The one student who joined my class during our junior year in 1965-66 did not come back the following year to graduate. But others came, and the ratio grew over the years to almost equal in that one particular school. Here are the cheerleaders for the mighty CHS Wildcats this year! Yay, Black and Gold — conquer and prevail! Cleveland High, all hail!
I’m not sure what the world is coming to, or if in future months we will falter into financial martial law or if we will make a return to the 1960s, or just how much the federal government is going to stick its neck into our lives, but all I want to do is sit in my own back yard and look at all the handiwork and grow muscadines, blackberries, and heirloom tomatoes.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” ~ Emily Dickinson
Tell it slant. Find a way to tell the story in an effective, interesting way. Reach into the mass of it and pull out the nugget and go with it.
A few weeks ago when I came across the legend of the pelican, it pierced my heart, soul, and mind, and I knew I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say or how to say it. I held off, days went by, and I kept feeling that the story was far more beautiful than waiting to find a slant or waiting to glean all the truths from it. Or any truth at all.
Here’s the story: Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.
Truth is, I cannot write a story or essay without seeing some particle in it that becomes my focus or truth, something different, something that really speaks to me, something I can manipulate and mold into something meaningful. It gives me my approach. I don’t need to tell the same old story that everybody else does or see the truth that is evident to all or brush along the edges, wading in the shallow end, and not go deep. I need to see it in my own way.
Here’s the truth I came to as I wrote to discovery: “It’s an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us. Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.”
Afterward, I was talking to my friend, fellow writer, and English professor, Neil, about it. I told him I couldn’t write the story at first. I didn’t know how to approach it. I couldn’t figure out what exactly I could learn from it and what deeper meaning it had. And then it came as I voiced the situation out loud.
I started my February 7 blog post with: “I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles. I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.”
And so could it be that we are so busy with the itinerary of our lives—going to work, going to church, going to committee meetings, going to speaking engagements, taking care of family, begging God to show us how we’re needed—that we miss the one little thing that’s there in plain view? The one grain of sand on the beach where we could have made a difference. The one little need. The one.
I play bubbles with my four-month-old puppy. I blow and fill the back yard with soap bubbles, and she chases them. Inevitably, one bubble strays off, and she goes after it, leaving ninety-nine other floating bubbles moving in the sky above. “Look at all these!” I say, trying to call her back to see the possibilities in the group as a whole. She keeps up after the one.
In that majestic marvel of a cathedral, Notre Dame, there’s one pelican that looks down on the city and its population and its tourists. Yet how many don’t see it? How many miss the story? How many are so focused on the cathedral as a whole, and how many are focused on the architectural details and notes of historical truth pointed out by tour guides? How many miss the truth, evident, yet way above their heads?
In your quest to go and do and tell to the thousands, did you miss the one who had a real need that day? Are you more about fulfilling obligation than touching a heart? I think sometimes we are so much about chasing the ninety-nine that we miss entirely the one.
I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles.
I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.
I came across the legend of the life-rendering pelican earlier this week, and it has continued to scroll through my mind.
Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.
The Life-rendering Pelican
One of the oldest symbols in the Christian tradition is that of the pelican feeding her young. She is not as well known in Christianity today, but she still exists in places. Many cathedrals use this imagery in statues, stained windows, and at the altar. The pelican’s pose is almost always the same: she stands upright with her wings outstretched and her beak pointed down into her chest, her children flocking around her, looking up at her expectantly.
The legend actually precedes Christianity. Fossil evidence of pelicans dates back at least thirty million years to the remains of a beak similar to that of the modern species, found in France.
The legend of the pelican had a few variations. It was adopted into Christianity by the 2nd century, when it appeared in the Physiologus, a Christian adaptation of popular animal legends and symbols.
“The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revived and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me’ (Isaiah 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life.”
The legend became popular in Christian art and was taken up by many later writers, including Shakespeare, referred to by Laertes in Hamlet: “To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms; and like the kind life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood.” (Act IV, Scene 5, Line 46)
I pulled out my college Shakespeare book—I took two semesters of Shakespeare. The passage was highlighted with a green magic marker, but there were no notes in the margin, meaning my professor did not expound on the meaning and implications of the life-rendering pelican. Surprising, because Dr. Mariah Butler took every opportunity to relate literature to the Bible or Christianity.
The legend has stayed with me all week. It is an allegorical depiction of Christ taking his own blood and securing eternal redemption. It shows sacrificial love.
It’s also an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us.
Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.
As the morning sky grows pink and pale cerulean, rose red at the line of horizon, I can see from my window the snow from three days ago. It has melted a bit. It has been trampled on. It is pocked with footprints. Temps will climb to 50 today. This evening it will be gone. Most of it.
But not on my deck. The packed-hard ice and snow will stay with me all week, I suspect. The deck faces north and in the winter gets no sun. The snow piled up to four and a half inches at one point, and then it snowed all night after I measured. Winter is harsh.
It makes me think of warm days and sitting outside. Eight months out of the year, I can enjoy my deck. I often take work or writing out there. I eat three meals a day out there. I sit and think and watch birds, butterflies, and dragonflies. I look over my yard and try to figure out something else to plant or how many more stones I can add or what specialty item I can build. Last year it was a fairy garden. What will it be this year?
It will be something. I am filled with a desire to get out there and do something. Anything. Dig, plant, create. I love growth.
This is true on a personal level, too. If there is not an attitude of constant assessment and awareness and attempts to grow, to reach higher, to be more, then what is there?
In everyone’s heart and soul, there is always something to chisel out, to mold, to make better. If I am a living part of the vine, my leaves will be coming again in season, and I will bear fruit. Until then, I will bear.
To the Year that just eased out:
2015—You sneaked in, first with a colonoscopy I’d put off, then
Ice and snow—seven days trapped inside my house, all meetings and events canceled, then
Cleveland—lifetime home and lunch with the girls of my high school class…old friends!
You sent art crawls, festivals, authors circles, writing groups, workshops, opportunities to speak and share my book, and . . .
Cracker Barrel, Chop House, Merridees, Amerigos, Circa, Homestead with old and new friends, and then, whew . . .
The Rolling Stones,
A drive down the Natchez Trace, the grandchildren, a trip to Asheville, dinner at the Grove Park Inn, then
Chaeli. You took her away from me.
Big Magic, Liz Gilbert, with Ann Padgett.
Then Heidi Deering. You gave her to me.
It’s a Wonderful Life, Studio Tenn at The Factory.
Writing opportunity—essay turned in to editor, to be published in an anthology of 22 women writers next year.
The ring and the engagement, Corey and Leah.
2015—You took harshly and you gave sweetly. You made me cry, and you gave me squeals of joy.
My dear friend Chance Chambers says it best:
“2015—you burned in the best and worst ways,
raised and silenced voices with equal voracity,
gifted me beautiful friends and intoxicating opportunity . . . ”
Welcome, now, 2016—you clean slate, tabula rasa, you second chance, you great big gift of freshness!
May we all keep up the journey, walk across the upcoming 366 stepping stones, one foot forward at a time, head high, eyes on the sky, eyes on the Light. We’re all in this. Pushing forward. Stumbling. Falling. Skipping and skating smoothly. Let’s do this. Let’s make it a good one.
Peace. Joy. Love. To all!
“Incoming.” I sat on the couch cradling my thirteen-week-old puppy.
BOOM, crackle, fizzle.
Neil and I were going out to New Year’s Eve dinner in Brentwood, and I’d be leaving puppy Heidi for a while.
I had just taken her out to potty, when I heard a thunk, and a mortar went off, spearing high into the sky over Wades Grove, with beautiful colors sparkling and cascading down, all accompanied by a boom loud enough to rock the earth I stood on.
Too big for a neighborhood, I thought. Houses too close to each other for this.
The puppy writhed and wiggled and screamed. I put her down, and she ran to a corner between the fireplace and back wall and tried to burrow herself into the ground.
“She was digging a foxhole,” Neil said. He’s a Vietnam veteran who spent a lot of time in foxholes yelling, “Incoming!” I edited his book last summer about the war and remembered some of the lines:
“Then I heard the whump. Then another and another. Mortars firing. Incoming. Be on our heads in seconds. I yelled . . . ‘Incoming! Getcher ass in the hole!’ Others in my platoon were now yelling . . . A mortar round exploded behind me . . . More mortar rounds exploding, more whumps of incoming. Big explosions . . . Tracer bullets spearing red lines through the blackness both directions from M16s and AK-47s. Flashes of explosions.”
It was like we were at war in Wades Grove.
The puppy refused to go outside the rest of the evening. I tried to take her a few times, and when I neared the back door, she screamed and writhed in my arms. She kept looking up at the ceiling, like something was going to fall and harm her. Neil, a teddy bear of an old veteran, watched and understood how she felt. We were both saddened because a tiny, happy, well-adjusted puppy will carry some PTSD with her for hopefully not too long.
I’ve heard others talk about how their dogs were deathly afraid of fireworks, but I’ve never seen anything like what I experienced the last day of 2015. My previous cocker spaniel was sixteen and deaf for three years, so she slept right through every fiery-celebrated holiday.
Fireworks are legal in my town. It doesn’t matter that some of the houses in neighborhoods are ten or fifteen feet apart. Your neighbor is allowed to shoot mortars and rockets that land in your yard or on your roof. Some of the warnings on those rockets even talk about re-ignition.
I love fireworks. I go to planned celebrations, and I’m there on the sidelines if and when neighbors are shooting off fireworks safely. But I’ve been a little nervous since in my previous neighborhood, where fireworks were not legal, several years ago someone a distance away shot off a big, fat rocket that stuck five inches deep in my front yard only five feet away from my porch and roof. I tried to pull the stick up and could not. “I’m calling the police,” I told my husband. “If this had landed a few feet shorter, we’d have the hose out trying to extinguish a fire right now, and we’d have roof damage that somebody would have to pay for. This is too much.” He agreed, and he never agreed to anything that was over the top. The policeman struggled a bit to pull the rocket stick up, then drove in the direction of the shooters. Not sure who they were or if he ever found them.
This morning, I found a Fire Dragon 8-oz. rocket in my driveway. Nobody on my street was shooting fireworks. It came from afar.
No wonder my puppy was afraid. It was in her yard! On her property!
There are some fireworks appropriate for neighborhoods and some that are not. The problem is that sometimes people don’t know the difference. Laws happen because people aren’t smart enough to determine which is which or responsible enough to make good decisions.
And they put their neighbors at risk.
I wonder who is going to clean all this up and return the sidewalk to normal.
I hope one day soon our mayor and aldermen will get up with the times. It’s no longer the day of firecrackers and those little fizzly, sprinkly sticks of fire sparks. It’s war, with mortars and rockets and big stuff.
I’m for pretty, but I’m also for safety.
Where am I now and where am I going in the next twelve months? I’m spending some days now looking at the real me, the one that was knitted together and protected and sheltered. The one carved out of hard wood, a sharp knife going around each curve and protrusion, even around the big veins on my hands.
There are things I like about myself. Things I love about myself. And of course, things I don’t. In the coming months, I hope to work on those.
There are things I wonder about. Are they flaws? Are they issues I need to work on? Or are they characteristics burned out of the fire and chiseled by the knife that others don’t like simply because they consider them out of their worldview of what a person, well, a woman should be?
I find that some of these characteristics are what I like best about myself.
Yet I find that one of my biggest flaws is knowing what some believe I should be and disliking myself because I am not that and can’t be that. This comes from my background in the church. I know I don’t have to answer to any person—only to my God. And who is it who carved those hands and around those veins and knuckles so intricately and around the wrist bone that sticks up a bit and the elbow that was once broken and around the calves on my legs, so shaped and defined and exactly like my grandmother’s and my father’s, but meant to hold my feet to the journey? I shouldn’t apologize for the person I was made to be.
Maybe in 2016 I can work on those hard, rough places I am aware of—those inner places that need more chiseling and chipping away and could stand to be smoothed out. I know where those places are. Am I resolving to walk the path alongside them and keep my eye on the goal and be the knife-edge and lay the blade down to do the work?