Irises, Rainbow Colors, and Courage

Irises have rich historical meanings, and when given as gifts, they convey deep sentiments: hope, faith, wisdom, and courage. The flower takes its name from the Greek word for “rainbow.” Another Greek word, “eiris,” means “messenger.” The Greek Goddess Iris acted as the link between heaven and earth. She delivered messages for the gods and from the Underworld and traveled along rainbows as she moved between heaven and earth. Purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the Goddess to escort the dead on their journey upward into the afterlife.

I like to think this is symbolic and that the flower also inspires us with courage to rise up and reach out above our darkest times into growth and newness of life.

The purple iris also denotes royalty. During the Middle Ages, the purple iris was linked to the French monarchy, and the Fleur-de-lis design, inspired by the flower, eventually became the recognized national symbol of France.

The iris is also the state flower of Tennessee.

Iris spikes and blooms standing tall

Irises from my friend Colleen

I have iris rhizomes from friends in Tennessee, from my grandmother’s farm in Mississippi, from William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, (white cemetery iris) in Oxford, Mississippi. I dug up some irises from my old house in Fieldstone Farms and brought them to this new house on the hill. They fill in my landscape with their showy spikes and their flowing, silky, spring colors. I am surrounded by hope and faith. By wisdom. And courage.

Irises from my grandmother – might be 50-75 years old,
growing on land that has been in our family since 1850

The iris provides the perfect cover image for Editor Susan Cushman’s anthology, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. My essay, “Pushing Up the Sun,” is included in this new book, released in March 2017. The flower is soft, delicate, in a silky, flowing design—feminine. But you better believe she is hardy, and no matter what she faces, whether being pounded by snow, rain, or hail, being slept upon by rabbits or stepped on by children or mowed down by a careless landscaper, she comes back. And she comes back bigger and stronger. Every year, those spikes strengthen and rise up and reach high, producing wrapped blooms that grow tall and open into flowers, repeating in second bloomings, and more.

What a perfect gift of hope and faith and wisdom and courage for Mother’s Day! And a book signing for this anthology will be held at Barnes and Noble Cool Springs in Brentwood, Tennessee, the day before. May 13, 1:00. I welcome you to come! Susan Cushman, editor, will be there. River Jordan, local author and contributor, will join us.

And a big shout out to Barnes and Noble — the best book store a local author could hope for!

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Because I Am

I hiked two miles yesterday on the freshly mulched trails of a Class II Natural Area, saw native wildflowers in white, pink, and purple, saw birds, frogs, turtles lined up on logs in the lake, snakes swimming, and chipmunks jumping around. The color green across the forest floor was new, fresh, and yellowy. The pitch of bird sounds was high and expectant. It is newly spring, when cycles begin again. Life comes around every year.

The last short segment of the hike was on an old road, closed to driving and crumbling at the edges into the lake. The center line spoke to me, and I snapped a picture.

Old road surface, rough, hard, harsh, cracked, hidden under thick trees, away from sun and light, always dark there, always, no light gets through, not ever. Yellow line at the center of the path to follow home. Straight, unlike life. And jagged, winding cracks have opened up all down the line splitting the yellow paint, itself marred and chipped away. Life finds a way up through the openings in the gray. Tender new green, fragile, flowering, pink, finds a place in the hard, cold road. Keeps doing it every year, coming back, coming back, coming back. Even blooming.

Why? What is the purpose? I wonder when it will tire of this.


I Knew War Would Come

I picked out my armageddon hiding place early on. I was a girl of twelve.

On my grandpa’s farm, a gully cut thirty or more feet deep into the red earth of family land. A natural spring bubbled out of the ground there and ran through woods with trees thick as hairs on a dog’s back. Plenty of pines, chinquapin, hickory, hackberry, and oaks, all canopied under a sun that never got through, laying down centuries of seasonal leaves and needles to pad the hard clay.

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I hiked into the gully via the stream banks, my shoes sinking into the soft wet sands, stepping over wild ferns and other woodsy plants, climbing over fallen tree trunks, watching out for bad snakes. Country noises sounded all around me: bird alerts, the whippoorwill’s forlorn song, a trembling of leaves in a summer breeze, a cow groan in the distant pasture, a low trickling of water. I stuck my fingernails into the red clay canyon sides for support, dug in with my Keds, balanced, climbed over vertical ruts and rocks, and sat on a hard-dirt outjutting of the earthen gully wall in the cool August ground hole and did some pondering.

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I knew war would come. I had seen TV repeats of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a desktop, screaming that Russia would bury America. I feared the H-bomb and waited for it to be dropped on one of our cities. I read Alas, Babylon, when that really happened. I knew we were preparing weaponry for war. I heard sonic booms of new jets as they flew over my backyard.

Sitting deep at the bottom of that gully the summer before seventh grade, I knew war would come. I looked way up at blue skies filtered through the lace of leaves above, pale green, fluttering peacefully. I was hidden here. I felt safe. No one could find me. After Russia dropped the bomb and then sent their armies marching in through Mexico—that’s how I imagined it happening—I could live here without being exposed to the enemy. There was water to drink. There were nuts and greens in the forest. There were fruit trees nearby. I could live.

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A lot of years have passed. I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. I still worry about armageddon. I still believe war will come.

I own that gully now.


I Lost a Friend

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My friend Neil O. Jones lost his long battle with lung cancer the last day of January 2017. The Roundtable Writers Group, of which he was a member, spoke at his funeral service on his behalf, doing readings by his favorite authors, as well as original works.

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I am honored to have written and read a poem with my friend Susie Dunham. I’m sharing it below in honor of Neil, a fine man who had friends all over the country who came to pay respects. He was blessed to have his writer friends, his “brothers” from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, fellow college professors, the Muletown Hog Chapter of motorcycle friends (a 20-bike tribute! Thanks to Jerry Knox who organized this!), Gerald (T-Bone, childhood friend from Dallas), local friends, children, and grandchildren to gather to celebrate his life.

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January 31, 2017

We Lost a Friend

Susie Dunham and Kathy Rhodes

Susie Dunham

We lost a friend today.
We’ve lost other friends and family to cancer,
but we’ve never lived it so close.
Close enough to see week to week
month to month
year to year.

We saw how it took pieces of you.
Teasing and testing you to
fight harder than you did in the
jungles of Vietnam, to
fight harder to stay alive.

Fifty years ago in that January,
your worst battle of that war,
Operation Junction City,
you fought to keep your brothers safe.

Now in this January,
your worst fight of this war,
you battled with bravery and honor
to stay with the people who
will miss you
now
that the battle is lost.

This ain’t Nam.
But Nam
followed
you
home.

*

From Neil’s book Brothers, All

It was then I knew,” you said. “Nothing would ever change. I would get out of this life whatever I could and think of Vietnam only when it attacked me [whenever] it … chose. It was the ghosts of my brothers … It was Agent Orange. There was no escape,” you said. “The mark of the Beast would keep coming back.”

“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from,” you said.

 “Now there is a new way to fight it—a new drug … approved … twenty days before my cancer in progression receives it.

 Another battle ahead.

Five decades of war, college, love, children, grandchildren, work, teaching American literature in college, now this—more war,” you said. “I am trying desperately to save myself from the enemy, firing with every weapon I’ve got. I face the deep, unfathomable abysm.

 And so it begins.”

*

Kathy Rhodes

And so it ends.
We lost a friend today.

You fought the war back then,
and now near’ four years of battles,
one after the other:
surgeries, chemo rounds, radiation—
new wonder drug!

Battle scarred,
you left this world
fifty years after you left that old war.

You got out of life what you could.
“Half scholar, half rube,” you said.
Renaissance man, country boy.
You taught the classes.
You rode the mules.
You rode the scoot.
You told the stories.
You wrote the book.

You fought the battles. You did your part.

It’s that, sometimes, in life, what’s supposed to save you does not.
The beast, it turns on you.

Many battles won, but the war rages on.
Maybe you, first in that new cancer treatment,
can help those who come behind.

For in life, what matters most is doing for others, all brothers, and
you
did
much.

*

Susie Dunham

You won before you lost.

*

Kathy Rhodes

You won before you lost.

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Nashville Women’s March: Peace, Unity, Love

I held one end of an American flag banner against the rail of a viewing porch on the Pedestrian Bridge high above the Cumberland River. That’s how I met Alma Sanford. She and her daughter brought the banner with them and displayed it throughout the Women’s March at Cumberland Park, the walk downtown on Second Avenue, and in Public Square Park. I passed the flag corner to my friend Susie to hold as we both shared in this historic event. Twenty thousand people gathered in Nashville to stand for “right” in America.

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Alma Sanford is a retired attorney and political consultant. After she stopped practicing Law, she has worked in the areas of government service, political campaign management, event planning, and member of many boards, such as the Nashville State Community College Foundation to raise funds for student scholarships. I got this information from LinkedIn; she told us to look her up. She worked on current Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s campaign. She told me this.

Alma is also a founding board member of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument, Inc. According to LinkedIn, she:

“Prepared all initial legal documents for incorporation, application for non-profit status and planned first fundraiser. Participated in the selection of the sculptor Alan LeQuire, who was commissioned to create the monument to the Tennessee women suffragists who successfully gained the state of Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment. The monument includes 5 women that are 9 feet tall that will stand on a base of 3 feet…in Centennial Park in Nashville…”

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The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920, the year before my mother was born. In other words, my grandmothers in their early years did not have the right to vote in the United States of America. Thank God for strong, bold women who stood up and spoke out! After 1920 white women could vote. In the late 1940s when my mother, a white woman, moved to Mississippi, she had to take a civics test and pay a poll tax to vote.

That was to keep black people from voting. Thank God for bold and strong African-Americans who stood up and spoke out for their rights in the 1960s! I lived it and watched it in the Mississippi Delta in my young years. My public school was segregated until 1965. In the 1970s I watched – yes, saw with my own eyes – black people getting off the sidewalk of an old Mississippi town when white people approached, lower their heads, and shuffle. It was a way of life there. My God! In the 1980s I sat in the public library of a small Mississippi Delta town looking at books with my children and watched the librarian refuse a book to a little girl of color and tell her, “You know you can’t check out a book here. Go’on now.” My God! My first act of activism was calling the main library director and reporting that incident. It was handled appropriately. Silence would have done nothing. We’ve always needed protestors in this country.

Sometimes it takes a strong, loud, collective voice to make the government more responsible and responsive to its citizens.

As reported, the “Women’s March Is The Biggest Protest In US History As An Estimated 2.9 Million March.”

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In Nashville, twenty thousand marched. There were almost as many men as women. There were babies and children and dogs, and I heard there was one goat. I came to tears when I saw walking in front of me a woman who had to be in her 80s. Another touching moment was seeing a little girl all dressed in pink, sitting and resting on a pink poster. Another touching moment was seeing three Mexican workers, maybe facing deportation, in a downtown building stop their construction activity and stand in windows videoing the marchers. There was one woman in a wheelchair, worried about pre-existing conditions removed from health care.

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We didn’t all agree on the same issues. We marched for our own reasons. Why did I march?

  1. For my granddaughter. I have twin grandchildren—a girl and a boy. I want her to grow up with the same rights and standing and pay as he will have. We’ve come a long way there, but we’ve still got a way to go. I know. My husband died. I am single. I try to live in this world, where many men still look down on women, and where many women still believe their place is in the home cooking for their men and look down on other women who work and who are dealt a different hand in life.
  2. Against bullying. I don’t want my granddaughter bullied by little boys on the playground, who may think they have a right to now, because our new president does this on a daily basis. I refuse to ever be bullied by a man again. Yes, it happened, and apparently they figured I was a strong woman because seven of them came to take me down. I was right, and they knew it, but they also knew they could bully me into shutting up.
  3. Against sexual assault. Our current president has a history of sexual assault, which he has bragged about. He believes he has the right to do what he wants to women because he has power and wealth.
  4. For facts over fiction. Because this is my writing life: seeing truth, dealing with the facts, not making anything up, speaking in my voice. I know Fake News when I see it.
  5. For education and the arts and humanities. Because this is my life. I’m a teacher by degree and experience. I’m a writer and editor and exist in the literary community. We stand to lose a lot here with the incoming administration.
  6. For health care and a women’s choice for her own body. I am against abortion. But I am for birth control, for a hysterectomy if a woman needs one, and for abortion in the case of rape, incest, and the life of the mother, which I might add that my Baptist denomination was always for, too. We have some nutcases in the incoming administration, and I don’t trust giving them the rights to make these decisions, as we in Tennessee did with our lawmakers.
  7. For the environment. We have scientific documentation, and we know the chemicals that harm us. We need to be careful here. We stand to go back fifty years.

I stood up yesterday for and against these things. It was a wonderful, inspirational, peaceful, happy, accepting, unified, respectful gathering. As Susie said, we stood for peace, fairness, and respect for every human.

And today, hate came. Someone told me, “You are very sadly misrepresented by the celebrities you allow to speak for you…There are unspeakable injustices in this world and millions and millions of women would take our injustices in a heartbeat. The celebrities who were speaking to this movement were hate-filled and vulgar. You are lumped under that umbrella in the media…” This came out of the clear blue. It was fabricated, made up, a misrepresentation of me and my mission. I heard no celebrities talking about this. I think for myself.

And so what is that. Bullying. It’s a form of bullying. It’s what I marched against.

We need more Almas in our America. We need people in cities all over the world standing up for our now backward-and-downward-sliding America. We need yesterday’s good, strong, peaceful, determined, bold, collective voice continuing to speak out against the wrongs America is sliding into.

We don’t need the hate and division caused by fear of something outside the box or fake and negative-slanted news or radical misguided religion. I am so saddened and hurt to see it come to this.

But I will rise up, shake it off, and continue to stand for what I marched for.


Hidden Figures, 1962

I slipped away from work in the middle of the day and went to see the movie Hidden Figures. I splurged—got popcorn, diet cherry Coke, and peanut M&Ms. After all, it was lunch, too. I found an aisle seat and settled in. I kind of knew what to expect from the movie, but it was way more than what I expected. It was set in my time of growing up in the South. My children have no idea what it was like, and my grandchildren certainly have no clue.

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It was 1961-62. I was a girl, in junior high, trying to step up from girl to teen. It was the year of the black leather jacket—if you didn’t have one, you were out. It was the year I had a royal blue knit outfit—tight skirt and matching top. I wore it with royal blue Piccolinos. Piccolinos were like little fairy shoes—flats with severely pointed toes and a whole lot of toe cleavage, and this was so long ago, you can’t google and find a picture of them, but all the girls had Piccolinos in every bright color. It was also the year that girls teased their hair. Even Barbie had a bouffant.

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It was before Kennedy got shot, before the Beatles came, before Vietnam was a living-room word; it was the year James Meredith integrated Ole Miss with the help of the National Guard. It was on the cusp of outward racial turbulence and the fight for civil rights, because in this free county, black people had no rights. They had separate public bathrooms and water fountains, separate schools, separate beauty shops and funeral homes. They could not use public libraries, and they did not vote. People had to pass a test and pay a poll tax to vote back then.

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It was also the time of an intense race for space—outer space, that is. President Kennedy wanted a man on the moon during the decade of the 60s, and we couldn’t seem to get a man off the ground and into orbit. But the Russians could. Their 1957 Sputnik 1 was the world’s first satellite to orbit the earth. They were far ahead of us in science and technology. With their early Sputnik launches, they proved 1) they were winning the Space Race, and 2) they had rockets capable of launching nuclear weapons right on top of us.  So the next year, 1958, NASA was formed, and the US committed men, money, and technology to competing and winning the Space Race. And IBM developed a mainframe computer that NASA installed right at the time of our first manned flight into orbit to compute the needed mathematical data. All these issues collide and overlap in the movie.

sputnik

Before IBM’s involvement, all the math by NASA to figure launches, trajectories, and splashdown coordinates was done by human “computers,” or mathematicians. The movie is about a group of female Colored Computers, and it focuses on the stories of three African-American women. Hidden Figures is a true story about 1) women, 2) black women, and 3) black women in a world of white men / engineers only, giving viewers complex and complicated layers of issues to understand and follow. These three women cross all gender, race, and professional barriers as they dream big and push forward to go where no one else has ever gone.

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Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson step up to the task, each in their own way, but all beginning as Colored Computers at the space flight center who commuted to work together. At the leading edge of the feminist movement and the civil rights movement, they rise in the ranks of NASA along with the country’s greatest minds, tasked to calculate the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and guarantee his safe return. [Spoiler Alert] Katherine was assigned to the room of flight engineers who did the launches of Atlas Friendship 7, the moon launch, and the later space shuttles. It was her calculations that got Glenn safely into orbit and safely home. Dorothy realized her job was going to be taken over by a computer, so when she wasn’t allowed to check out a library book on computer programming, she stole it (she paid taxes!) and became the expert and trainer on NASA mainframes. Mary became the first African-American woman engineer by going to court and getting permission to attend classes at an all-white school.

These women are real American heroes and an inspiration to all, regardless of gender, race, or profession. It takes a special kind of person to stand up, step up, speak up, trust herself to go into the unknown, and push herself to make history.


Simple Goals for 2017

I haven’t heard much about new year’s resolutions this year. I haven’t made any. Has anyone? I think I’m still reeling from 2016. But hey, here we are, and life goes forward spinning round and round as the world turns. Perhaps, I should just think about what I want to accomplish in 2017 in terms of goals.

Goal. A desired result or possible outcome that one envisions, plans, and commits to achieve.

At the top of my list should be to bring kindness to my world. Not only to bring it, but to look for it in others.

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I feel a need for my own sanity to avoid toxic people who continue the trend of 2016 to spread political untruths, to engage in name-calling, to manipulate others into seeing things their way. I’m a writer. I will continue to write and read and explore for understanding. That is how growth comes. Growth comes from way down deep, from thinking, from questioning, from soul searching, from seeing things the way that only I do. I’m a writer. I see differently. I don’t bury my head in the sand and ignore. I work it out. I write to know.

Some other things I would like to achieve:

  1. Finish the novel I’ve had in the back of my mind for maybe 15 years. I’ve made three attempts to start it. I remember sitting in downtown Nashville at a restaurant around the new millennium and talking to Charlie about it. Maybe I let all the steam out. Write a chapter a week.
  2. Write an essay every month. The new month starts today. I should get busy.
  3. Plant garden foods I will eat. Take time to work in the gardens and flower beds. Tame my yard. Maintain it better.
  4. Live with less. Get of rid of old things I don’t need. Pack things to save in bins and label.
  5. Go to a movie once a month.
  6. Spend time with Puppy Heidi on Franklin trails.
  7. Reach out and make a friend in the neighborhood.
  8. Go to the beach—with or without the new little camper I want.
  9. Blog more. Ten years ago when I started blogging, I committed to two or three times a week. When Charlie died, that went out the door. I had to go to work full time and support myself. Maybe now, two or three blogs a month. At least.
  10. Rethink social media. Remember why I got on Facebook ten years ago. Get back to that. I didn’t want any old friends or family. Just the writing community. Facebook for marketing and keeping up with other writers and new books and writing support. I need to tighten my boundaries. Say what I want to say and leave the room.

Okay, that’ll do it. I’m in. Foot down. New year. Go!