“I’ll be going to the poorhouse soon.” I used to hear people say this when some unexpected expense came up. A hardship. An appliance broke, the house needed a new roof, the cost of gas went up. Something they couldn’t readily afford. I even said it myself. When the kids needed braces. When Air Jordan basketball shoes came out. When the baby son wanted guitar lessons and drum lessons at the same time.
If you’re of a certain young age, you may not know about poorhouses. Or what that common expression meant. Counties ran poorhouses, back decades ago, and people down on their luck would have to go and live there and work on the county farm that surrounded the dismal building where they all slept in common quarters. The poor, the old, the young not born normal physically or mentally.
The poorhouse in my county was on Highway 8 going west out of Cleveland toward Rosedale and the Mississippi River. It was set back with cropland around it for the poorhouse folks to work on so they could eat.
The youth group from First Baptist visited the county farm and the poorhouse one Sunday afternoon back in the mid-1960s. We rode out there on our green church bus, in our crisp and clean and neatly ironed cotton dresses and Oxford-cloth shirts and shiny Weejuns and shiny hair. I don’t remember why we went. Maybe it was to see, for educational purposes, how America took care of her poor, as in it was a good thing. We put them away and kept them up on county-run land to live among other hard-pressed souls with nothing and no hope. Or maybe it was to take them an hour of our joy, a smile, and a good word that Jesus loves them, too, and God is good all the time.
I remember two things about that day. One, the common room where these poor folks lived together, families and singles mixed, and the frightful darkness, and all the little beds, and all the blankets turned brown with age or filth. Two, it was not just for old folks left behind, or for middle-aged folks who ran into debt and had no place else to go, but there was a young man not much older than I who lived there. A boy, a kid. Someone’s child. Someone had to put their child there. He didn’t fit in with society. He wasn’t born perfect to the standards of society, mentally or physically. He couldn’t go to school and learn like the other children. His family had to work and couldn’t take care of his needs. Sticking him there was their only choice, where he would live out his days lying in that bed in his own stench with his mouth open, no sunlight, no fresh air to breathe, no one to talk to or care, no future, no hope.
All the years that have gone by since, and I still remember the scene of my young self standing in that dark, dank, dirty, smelly room with low beds and filthy covers, and I can still see that boy lying in bed because he wasn’t like the rest of us and he didn’t fit in. I guess he was considered a burden to society and to his family.
I see commercials on TV now showing dogs neglected and abandoned. They bring tears to our eyes and prompt us to donate for the care of these poor little animals.
I see news on TV now that tells of the coming cuts for services to disabled children, to education and special education, to Special Olympics, Medicaid, and insurance that protects pre-existing conditions. Why does America go after the poor, the ill, the disabled? People, that is. We’ll jump in and take care of dogs. I think of that boy in Bolivar County, Mississippi, and the bleakness and nothingness of his existence back in the time before none of these services were provided in the name of mercy and compassion.
I see a new America now trying hard to be the land for the rich, the healthy, the ones born perfect mentally and physically.
We’re going back to the poorhouse days.
I planted my back yard garden in pots this year. This came out of need—out of frustration and despair over the last two seasons’ results. No yield of tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes. I lost everything I planted to pests, rot, fungus, weeds, and disease. Oftentimes, before those menaces could even get a grip, birds pecked holes and ate the flesh and juice.
I’m a Southern girl. I have to plant things in the dirt and watch them grow. I come from a long line of farmers, from my grandfather back. My father, too, had a garden in his town yard, a yard that was once a fertile Mississippi Delta cotton field before it was a neighborhood. My garden area is small—twelve feet wide and three feet deep, in a corner against the wooden fence.
In the past, come spring, I’d pull weeds, hoe and air the dirt, add some new soil. I’d select my varieties, pick some heirlooms, put in a few cool things like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. I’d water, feed, and wait, and by June, tiny vegetables appeared, and then July brought an onslaught of hundred-degree heat. The plants curled, browned, gave in to it. I gave up, too.
I’ve lived in this house for six gardens. Before I got here, the yard was a pasture, prone to weeds, hard to tame. Beneath the bags of garden soil, conditioner, and humus I’d laid out was clay. There was nothing winning about this combination. The plants growing out of it were small, spindly, and sick.
Pots—my last hope. I bought big plastic terra-cotta-colored ones. Real clay pots were too heavy. I lined them up in my garden space and filled them with new dirt. In the first three, tomatoes. Then cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers. I tend them daily, water them, help their vines trail safely. I’ve been blessed with the fruits of their growth.
Having a seasonal garden is like watching before your eyes a sped-up version of life. New tender plants are put in their beds. Watered, fed, watched, fussed over, cared for. Their stalks are straight, leaves green, baby fresh, perfect, no flaws, nothing but potential, a blueprint to fulfill and feel out beyond. Then life comes and brings its good and bad. Plants grow and bloom and produce. Nourished by spring’s sun and rain, they flourish. Then it turns on them and beats them down and rots them out. It’s an all-out attack of the elements and the outside forces that begin to suck the marrow out of life. There’s nothing you can do. You can water with a hose, you can put poison out to kill the bugs, you can cut off the sick and dead parts, but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, and you sit and watch the deterioration, and wait for the decline. Until that once strong and happy life succumbs.
And then in winter you sit on your deck and wonder what else you could have done. Or what you could have done differently to make it work, and last. And the answer is, Nothing. Sometimes things are out of your control.
Last summer my friend Nancy gave me some bean seeds to plant. She’d already planted hers along her white picket fence in downtown Franklin. Before the bean pods came, flowering red blooms would appear against the green bean leaves. We’d watch them grow and have fun comparing our bean blooms during our regular get-togethers at Chop House for lunch and poetry and essay reading. Here’s what she said:
“In South Carolina we always grew Scarlett Runner Beans. They can be put on fences, posts, or anything they can climb on, have beautiful red flowers and tons of runner beans. Lots of foliage also. I went to four places here in the Franklin area and none had ever heard of them, so I ordered packs from Burpees. I planted mine along my picket fence and have a packet left. I want you to have them as I know you love flowers, gardens, and anything that is different. So when we meet I’ll bring your packet. They are so easy. Just drop about eight seeds into about a two-inch hole, cover them, and water. Sprouts start showing in about seven days. When the beans appear in about forty days, if you constantly pick them, they are prolific. I am planning on my little white picket fence having bunches of red flowers this summer!”
The vines grew and trailed. I watered, waited, and we took pictures and compared, and finally I saw maybe a dozen beans. I picked them and steamed them with some carrots. I watched for more. Then I got distracted with work, with writing, and I grew tired of waiting. This spring, a year later, I pulled all the twining vines off the poles and fence and found a hundred or more bean pods. They were hidden inside all the foliage, had ripened, and were waiting attention that never came because I wasn’t patient enough to tend them every day.
* * *
It’s been three weeks since Nancy died. I wish I had another Burpees pack, some red blooms twining up my fence, and some bean pods to look for.
I’m reminded that the season of life may be a season, or it may be years and decades, and it’s never enough, and there’s never enough we can do to sustain it. We just need to remember to always put in all we can, to take hold of all the good we can find, and to get out of life and friendship all we can.
A few years ago, an old-man preacher asked me, “Do you find that men are intimidated by you?” The words slammed against me cold and hard. I started to stammer out an answer. “I mean,” he interrupted, “because you’ve written a book.” I was floored, and that wasn’t a good thing because I was driving at the time.
He’d bought my book after a loss of his own, we’d talked by phone a few times, and he asked me to have dinner with him as he was traveling through my town. So I’d picked him up at his hotel, and we were driving down Murfreesboro Road at the time, the blue lights from my Subaru’s dash filling the front seat.
How do you answer a question like that?
I was just living my life and my calling and passion to put words down on paper, to write things as I see them and feel them, hopefully helping someone sometimes, living in all my own doubts and flaws and imperfections and questions and trying to do it all right for myself. Not for anyone else. I’d had a husband who respected that, supported me, got into deep conversations with me about books, words, and writing before he died. At the time of this incident, I was dating someone, a professor and lover of English, who also respected me for what I did, supported me, read and picked apart essays with me, and shared a critique group with me.
And then, that question. “Do you find that men are intimidated by you?”
It’s not something I would have ever considered. I didn’t even know it was a possibility. I wish I had lived my whole life without hearing that question.
I’ve always thought of myself as . . . an equal.
The implications of that question still haunt me, and it’s unsettling. If I intimidate men because I write, then . . . what am I supposed to be doing? Sitting in my leather recliner all day with a Bible in my lap? Praying for other people, like men, to be achieving things? Cooking a meat and three? Lord help me, if I’m supposed to be cleaning the house.
At my age and in this time, should I even be wrestling with the issue of gender equality?
I don’t know how to answer the question or what to think about one who would ask it.
I guess . . . that’s a Baptist for you.
A walk to the river became a New Year’s Day tradition when I had my golden retriever and lived in Fieldstone Farms in the late 1990s. I continued the tradition with my first cocker spaniel. A branch of the Harpeth River snaked across the northern edge of the street next to mine, and there are walking trails in Fieldstone, so I’d walk the dog first on the trails and then through an open field of dead, brown grass and dried stalks of weeds to the tree-lined rocky river. We’d stand on the hard-mud bank and watch the trickling flow.
Why a walk to the river? I suppose because a river is a good symbol for life—for the journey we take over the years from one point to a far point in the future, from beginning to destination. A river is good inspiration and shows us how to journey on.
The river has movement. Water keeps flowing onward. No matter what, it keeps going. It doesn’t stop—doesn’t get distracted, doesn’t get down and quit, doesn’t lose its focus and purpose. I wish people were made like that. I’d stand on the path at the edge of Lynnwood Branch and watch the water rush westward, and I’d get caught up in the thought that I should keep moving forward, too, and hopefully, with the same momentum, the same compulsion to “get there,” wherever “there” is.
The river finds a way. Slabs of rock sit beneath the flow, and big rocks and boulders stand in the way of the water, but the river peels off around or over the obstacles, driven to move on. The river keeps going around fallen trees and strainers. The river doesn’t stop at the obstacles and give up. I wish people could do that. People tend to look outside themselves, at others, at a higher being for rescue from obstacles, and not to the power within, like the river does. The river has its own energy and draws from it to get around. We have our own power source, too, without and within at the same time. At the river’s edge, I’d stare at frothy-white riffles pouring around rocks and look for meaning for me.
The river has highs and lows. Just like people do, like I do. Sometimes the river is full, deep, and faster moving, and other times it is low and trickling. Either way, it still has a push to get to its destination, to complete its purpose, to be and do. I need the river’s inspiration.
I live in a section of my new neighborhood that is in a U-shape, bordered by Aenon Creek. So today, January 1, I will continue the tradition of going to the river seeking an example for the new year. Even though upon awakening it was one degree outside, with a chill factor of a negative five, I will dare to get out of my Cuddl Duds pajamas, wrap up, and walk to the river with my new cocker spaniel. I need to see the creek moving on and finding its way, even though today it might be at a low.
Happy new year to all, and may you find hope and example at the river.
Twenty Seventeen. You brutal taker. You evil manipulator. You kicked, pushed, and machete-hacked at me. You tried to knock me down and shut me up.
I stood up for Christian values, and you sent a Christian bully attack. I lost maybe a hundred friends because of it. I can’t go home, I couldn’t go to my class reunion, I lost my past. But I am strong, and I know when I am right, and so I keep standing. It’s the way I’m made. Nevertheless, it hurt.
You took Neil. And one by one you gave my friends challenges to deal with.
You broke me, Twenty Seventeen. You broke me.
Instead of sliding away, though, I chose to push back. I made decisions that have changed my life. Good things began to happen. Appropriately, my essay “Pushing Up the Sun” was published in A Second Blooming, and I did a book signing at Barnes and Noble in May with editor Susan Cushman and author River Jordan.
“God uses broken things. Clouds break to give rain, and seeds break to produce new plants that make fruit or flowers. The seed comes from a plant that thrived in a season now gone. It lies dormant, tender parts packed inside a hard shell, all folded up. It needs water to soften it, needs warmth and sunshine, needs time. For the seed to achieve its ultimate purpose and become what it was destined to be, it has to come undone. The shell breaks, and the insides come out, and unfoldment occurs.” . . .
“By nature and need, I pushed the walls until they cracked and broke and fell into destruction, and parts of me began to come out into the new. Unfoldment was what I experienced. Growth didn’t happen in a fast burst of activity. It was a process, and it was ongoing as I walked further into the light to see the person I was becoming.” . . .
“Like the seed parts, I was standing up, reaching out, and growing stronger. And like the plant, I was establishing a leaf system to absorb power and nutrients from the sun and strong roots to draw water from the source and hold me firmly through the winds.” . . .
“I’m not going to sit around in the darkness after sunset, not going to linger in what was. I am going to follow the beam of light home over the smashing water. I am standing under the sun and pushing it up.”
Because of that, I still have me. I have me!
Many people can’t legitimately say that now. But as far as growing-up principles, ground-in values, and a Christian worldview, I think I am still the person I was before Twenty Seventeen. I didn’t let a political representation or party skew my views, alter my right and wrong, and change my spiritual perspective. My beliefs now and all through 2017 are the same as what they were in 2007 and 1997 and 1987 and so on. If anything, I am more open and more accepting and more in search of enlightenment, which is the way it should be. I should still be growing and seeing with more light and love the people and issues of my world. I should be calling out the hard things as right or wrong, good or bad, I should be seeking truth, I should be reflecting my inner light and the person I am instead of falling in line with the masses and excusing the wrongs in the world. It is what I was called to do.
Immanuel Kant said, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” and that immaturity comes from the lack of courage to use his own reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another, such as church and government leaders. I so much desire to use my own mind and voice and not be one in the “great unthinking masses.”
I am more perplexed, impatient, and angered than ever at those who have acquiesced, condoned, and normalized wrong beliefs and behaviors—in other words, given up their spiritual values. I don’t understand those who follow blindly; those who pick up any extreme statement or belief because it falls in with what they want to believe, even if that belief is not consistent with what they proclaim; those who try to make a visibly and obviously bad political representation into something good. I still need to work hard at understanding and loving those who do this, those who are unable to discern right from wrong and who readily reach out and reel in the bad words, actions, and behaviors, those who can’t speak in their own voices and are part of the unthinking masses. I admit I have not been good at understanding and accepting those people. I am a failure at it. I don’t cut people much slack. You either are or aren’t a Christian. And if you are, you should act like it. You can believe the Bible all day long, you can be a “prayer warrior,” you can sit on a pew every Sunday, and that’s all good, but if you proclaim it, then your beliefs and behavior should reflect it. Twenty Seventeen took that away from many and rendered them incapable of seeing it.
On Christmas Eve at my son’s in Asheville, I took my dog for a walk and saw an image of light that stays with me:
At the top of Maney and Fenner I
Stand at eye level with mountain peaks off in the distance,
Pisgah, Cold Mountain.
Above blue tops the sun
An aberrant glow ball behind a film of clouds,
It’s not a star that shines this eve
But a sun, with filtered light, giving
Hope that the world will clear and the
Sun will shine true and new on all.
Now, on this last day of the year, I’m ready to step into the next the happiest I think I’ve ever been in my life. So thank you, Twenty Seventeen, for not only were you a brutal taker, but a blessed giver. You gave me some goodness and some light, and you gave me me. And I want more of it all in the next to come.
I want enlightenment. I want to keep standing up for good, truth, and the right values. I am committed to keep calling wrongs out. Maybe I can be softer about it. I don’t know how to be hard and soft at the same time in a hard world.
Maybe I can find a velvet hammer to use in my efforts.
Are you a Know Nothing? I’ve been called a Know-It-All, but this is different. It was a political party a hundred sixty years ago. Ever heard of it? Read on.
“Its origins lay in a succession of anti-foreigner and anti-Catholic secret societies, culminating in the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, and finally in the Know-Nothing, or American, Party.” (John D. Hicks, A Short History of American Democracy, 1946)
The effects of that party are still felt today.
The “Know Nothing” movement was a nativist political party that operated nationally in the mid-1850s. Nativism is a policy that favors native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants. It was a secret society, and there were rules about joining—initiation rites, hand signs, and passwords. Members had a pureblooded pedigree of Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock, and they vowed to reject all Catholics. They weren’t supposed to talk to outsiders about the secret society. If asked, they responded with, “I know nothing.”
This secret society rose to prominence in 1853 and included more than one hundred elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half a dozen state legislatures, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported:
- Deportation of foreign beggars and criminals
- A 21-year naturalization period for immigrants
- Elimination of all Catholics from public office
- Mandatory Bible reading in schools
Their aim was to restore their vision of what America should look like with Protestantism, temperance, self-reliance, and American nationality and work ethic enshrined as the nation’s highest values.
In the early 1800s, immigrants trickled into the country, but in the decade following 1845, 2.9 million immigrants poured into the United States, and many of them were of the Catholic faith. All of a sudden, more than half the residents of New York City were foreign-born, and Irish immigrants made up 70 percent of charity recipients.
The cultures clashed, fear spread like fallout riding a wind current, and conspiracies abounded. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are . . . vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.” One author claimed to have gone undercover in a convent and published a book spewing conspiracies, such as priests were raping nuns and strangling any resulting babies. She was proved to be a fraud, yet her book sold hundreds of thousands of copies. People want to believe conspiracies. As a result, churches were burned, and Know Nothing gangs spread to cities around the country, from New York to Cincinnati to Louisville to New Orleans to San Francisco.
“The Know Nothings came out of what seemed to be a vacuum,” according to Christopher Phillips, professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. “It’s the failing Whig party and the faltering Democratic party and their inability to articulate . . . answers to the problems that were associated with everyday life.” (Does this sound like today, or what?)
The Know Nothings, according to Phillips, displayed three patterns common to nativist movements:
- The embrace of nationalism (exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture: PUT AMERICA FIRST)
- Religious discrimination (Protestants against Catholics, instead of current-day Christians against Muslims or Jews)
- Working class identity exerting itself in conjunction with the rhetoric of upper-class political leaders (LOCK HER UP, PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE, BUILD THAT WALL, BOMB THE SHIT OUT OF THEM, GET THAT SON OF A BITCH OFF THE FIELD, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN)
I’m not going to apologize for the use of bad language because these are words used by the President of the United States, and they should be good enough for all and appropriate for use at political rallies, in the media, and in our schools and churches.
“One can’t possibly make sense of [current events] unless you know something about nativism,” Christopher Phillips concludes. “That requires you to go back in time to the Know Nothings. You have to realize the context is different, but the themes are consistent.”
It’s interesting what you can find in your mama’s college history book from 1946 if you go looking.