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.
AUGUST 1944 – 73 YEARS AGO – ANNE FRANK WAS FOUND BY NAZIS IN SECRET HIDING PLACE IN AMSTERDAM, SENT TO A DEATH CAMP
“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” ~ Anne Frank
The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it every year as a teen. I was a post-war child, born of a father who fought against the atrocities of Adolph Hitler in Europe, ended up at the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and spent a year in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, two hours from Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps.
I was fascinated by the genre, by the first-person voice of a girl my age recording real-life experiences. As a college student, I went to Amsterdam and took a tour of Anne Frank’s house with its secret annex and hidden staircase. I remember the swinging bookcase and the stairs up to the secret room—narrow, steep, and dark. I remember walking around in the large room that hid Anne and her family. It was filled with windows letting in sunlight when I was there. It was hard to picture that once, the windows were blacked out for secrecy and protection. I stood at one window and looked out at the city teeming with people and life. The most meaningful image was that of a church steeple.
If Anne could’ve looked out that window, she would’ve seen hope and help.
The steeple image has stuck in my mind for almost five decades. I’m now trying to make meaning of it.
It’s the Westerkerk, the West Church. Rembrandt was buried there in 1669. It’s old. It’s a church with a steeple that towers above the city, marking its location so people can find it, pointing upward, and portraying its purpose as a place of God, of believers, of love, of hope and help.
The steeple serves as a visual testimony to all who walk in its shadow.
What happened in the shadow of the steeple seven decades ago when Anne Frank was a twelve-year-old?
There were surely good and God-loving people in the church. As they sat under their steeple, surely, they sang, prayed, took of the Body and the Blood. And then what? When they walked out the front doors, on the sidewalks by the canals, to their homes in the shadow of the steeple, did they live out the church’s mission, their mission?
When I read Anne’s diary as a young girl, my underlying thought was of the people, the good people, who let this happen to her. I mean, how could they? Why didn’t they do something? I realize some did help—provided protection and a path to fleeing the insanity that was. But many did nothing.
Were they unaware? Were they afraid? Of taking a stand? Of carrying out the church’s mission? Did they hide in the shadows?
Ultimately, young strong men—soldiers, like my dad—from other countries were called in to save them from the madness they’d allowed.
Life experience has taught me that good people are mostly silent. It’s easy, better that way, more acceptable to stay quiet in the darkness, to align with similar others, to hold inward vigils, and to excise those who stand out of the shadows.
Anne’s is a tragic story, because hope and help never came.
This is the first summer I really don’t care about growing things.
I’m tired of growing things. Tired of trying to keep the weeds out, worrying about pests and infestations, Japanese beetles, poor soil, mockingbirds and towhees that fight over the blackberries, and possums that come to watch the ripening of the muscadines. Do you know that I have old pantyhose hanging outside on the blackberry vines next to my fence? Yes. I do. To scare away the birds. I didn’t pick enough berries this summer to make a cobbler. The birds got them all. And last night when I took Heidi out before bedtime, there was the possum sitting on the second shelf of the baker’s stand on my deck, as he did last year, come July. He tried to hide his head behind the church birdhouse he was kneeling beside.
I’m tired of fighting nature. You can’t win. Things are going to grow where they are not supposed to. And things that are supposed to grow, don’t. I look at the six tomato plants I set out in April. There’s not one single yellow bloom. The pole beans are running amuck and flowered out in red and I’ve harvested one bean. I’m too old for this. And too tired.
I clear the weeds out of the beds, and they’re back in a week. I can’t get a grip on this. And the Bermuda grass—that awful spreading stuff—will eventually cover the whole house. I just know it. I can’t tame my yard. I just can’t. Not anymore.
This is the first summer that in June, I’m ready for winter. I look out at my yard and think only of preparing it for cold. Defining the flowerbeds in a downtime when things don’t grow and take over. Fresh mulch to sit under snow. No vegetables to wrinkle up and host bugs and mold and leaf rot.
I’m ready to ditch it all.
Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.
I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.
This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.
I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.
“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.
I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”
Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.
After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”
Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”
And it was.
Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.
It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.
This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.
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.
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.
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!