You climb and climb, but do you ever get anywhere.
Meet Bob. He's a climber. He's also one of a multitude of cats that confuses Jack, the beast. That's Jack in the background, eating dinner. Everyday when I take my late afternoon walk to feed our multitude of animals, the cats walk with me. They tease the horses, running along the ground, zig-zagging underneath the feet of the 2,000 pound monsters. Would they really do that if they knew the possibilities? But, everyday, they move in the same fashion, hoping for what, I'm not sure. But, I would be willing to bet, it's fun.
I make my rounds, always in the same order. First the horses, mainly because I don't want to be chided by Lolly (Jack's companion) for being late. And yes, she stomps her right foot and screams at me for making her wait. She starts screaming when she hears the back door open. Being scolded by a horse doesn't quite sit well with me. Feed, water and hay, as the routine goes.
Then, the dogs. My twelve-year-old man Silas is turning gray these days, and like me, old age is bringing arthritis, achy joints and deaf ears. Still, he manages to secure the one bright sunny grassy spot in the yard, plops down and rolls with joy. That's my boy. Cody, the younger, is full of energy and runs at Silas when he sees the food coming, almost saying, "You can't have any." They play for about a second and retreat to their own corners to munch on kibble. Both rescues, the boys are always excited to see me, and for that, they deserve gold for dinner.
Cats are last because, well, they just are. "I feel the earth move under my feet" is more than just a song lyric by Carly Simon. They eat, we sit, and then we fellowship. Every night.
Routine is good. Expectations are good. These guys count on me to be there every day at the same time, and they know I'll be there. They climb, bark, snort, stomp, zig-zag and they do it over and over, day after day. And do they get anywhere different? Not really. But it's the showing up, the doing and the contentment from doing their perfect little thing that keeps them moving forward until the next time they climb, bark, snort, and zig-zag.
So although Bob never gets anywhere in his climb, he still climbs, simply for the joy. I write for the joy of recording my life in words. I photograph, not because you pay me, but because I find joy in capturing moments and doing something I thought I could never do. I make dinner, wash clothes and run errands, not for the joy it brings me (newsflash) but for the joy it brings you.
So keep climbing. Keep showing up. Even though it might be a drab routine day after day, try to find the joy and then think on it. Be grateful that there are horses, cats, dogs to feed. Be inspired to see dogs do cartwheels simply because you show up!
Isn't it the way it always happens. You on your way to one place when you find yourself in another. That is me. Today. July 19, 2016. Len and I are heading to Maryville, Tennessee, to report on a Rock City barn being painted. On our way, I see signs. The signs begin to jog my memory. No, it can't be. It is.
Crazy thing is, I never knew where in the world it was until today.
The 10 Commandments scripted on the side of a mountain in mammoth white letters was a yearly visual. Big enough that anyone could see and understand. Of course, we'd have to climb the mountain and read each commandment for the billionth time. I am not one to keep my feelings to myself. I whined and complained just like every other ten year old around me. After all, they hadn't changed since last summer when we visited. I knew what they said and it was hot. The crowds were huge (just like the letters). Finally, we would finish reading and stroll to the gift shop - which is always the last stop for any Southern attraction.
Then, after a day of hopping in and out of the car, we'd find a little motel. By little, I mean one room, two beds. I was the odd man out. I got the sofa, but worse than sleeping on the sofa was sleeping on the sofa while listening to a freight train barreling through the room. That would be my Uncle Ivet. All 250 pounds jiggling to his own beat. It didn't take long to figure out how to fix this. I put my 10-year-old brain to work and solved my problem.
The only place that would separate me from the rattling, the bathroom.After everyone was asleep, I'd grab a pillow, a blanket and hop in the tub. It seemed like the perfect idea except for the half-dozen bathroom visits Ivet made during the night. I kept my eyes closed, but even the pillow couldn't suffocate the sound.
And today, on my journey to somewhere else, I remembered those trips with the four people I loved most in the world. I climbed up the white wash staircase and thought of mama and daddy. "Don't go too far away," she would say. "Stop whining, Judy. Be respectful." I couldn't believe this is where I stood almost 45 years ago. I cried as I do often these days.
"Look at me, mama. I'm here on my own and I'm not whining one bit."
The case took wings as though it was as light as a feather. Flying through the air, daddy swerved the car to dodge the light blue bullet. It landed with a thump, rolling a couple of times before landing in the grass. "Stop," I screamed at daddy. "Let's get it." Knowing that you never pass by anything of worth, daddy pulled over onto the shoulder as we watched the car that once carried the case snug on its roof disappear into the horizon. It never slowed down; never paused. In my little girl mind, it was fate; the case was meant to be mine.
I bolted from the car as mama and daddy followed. I picked it up as if it were glass, taking care not to disturb what was inside. I held it tightly to my chest. I couldn't wait to open the latches to see what treasure was inside. For a split second, I felt sympathy for the lady who, around sunset, would discover she no longer had a traveling case and what was inside would be forever gone. That second passed, for now, whatever it was, was mine.
Mama grabbed it from me. "Get back in the car," she said.
I was devastated. I not only wanted, but I needed to see what was inside.
I sulked all the way to our cabin in Hiawassee. I pouted the entire night. Not once did mama open the case, or even offer to let me open it. It was a weekend of ignoring the case. I was mortified.
Sunday night, we loaded the car and traveled back home. The little blue case was shoved into the trunk, right beside my suitcase. "Open me. Open me." I couldn't stand it.
Before we went to bed that night, mama called me into her room and there it sat. On her bed. Top open. "Come look."
Inside was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Pastel pink. Chiffon. Ruffles. A long-flowing nightgown which I immediately held to my chest; it even had a little jacket. It whispered of a lady. In a pouch, lipsticks and powder, and even a mirror. I touched everything. I felt the softness between my fingers. All I had ever know was cotton; chiffon only lived in the movies.
That was the last time I saw its contents. The case was emptied and placed in the garage among things that were no longer needed. There it sat - on top of the pile - for the rest of my days.
Today, the case rests on top of other oddly shaped, nostalgic suitcases in my hallway. Every time I pass by, I remember the day it came into my life. The excitement that was born. The beauty and mystery it brought. I keep it as a reminder to keep that same childlike wonder inside me every single day. Granted, that's a stretch some days; but others, just seeing those silver latches makes me smile. I call it my "ten year old Grace Kelly moment." It was then I realized that suitcases + travel = chiffon. Who can deny that rationalization?
Five years ago, I hugged my daughter and said good-bye in the middle of Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta and truly believed that would be the last time I would see her; that is, until I grabbed her in the darkness in the parking area in Donegal Town, Ireland, on a cold and windy night in February.
Years and distance make a difference; they toughen the heart. Never would I recommend it to anyone, but as the young ones tell you, "the world has changed" and living next door to granny just isn't the norm. I think about all the moments she took away from me; not intentionally I'm sure, but simply to follow her dreams and her life's road. That is what me as a mama should want, but that's so damn hard to accept. Mamas and daddy's should want that butterfly effect; grow up, spread your wings, fly away.
Be careful what you wish for. For when they do exactly what you have preached for them to do during those years of childhood and adolescence, don't whimper about the outcome (my loud whimper). Accept that those wings are carrying them exactly where they should be and trust they will carry them back home.
It's easy to say now; a few months ago, not at all. I credit my change of heart to one thing: proximity. I get it why mama and daddy insisted on family reunions, getting together with aunts and uncles Sunday's after church, making a visit during Christmas, even popping up at Uncle Ivet's for no reason at all. Southern family's understand that if you can see faces, hear jokes, eat food, hug necks, distance just evaporates. I got to squeeze cheeks and hug necks; I am renewed and that has made all the difference. All that complaining I did as a child, well, mama, I'm sorry.
After our visit with Mary, Phelim and our grandchildren, we hope for more visits. We pray for more visits. After all, Caitlin needs a gramps and granny around when mama and daddy just won't give in. Next time, I - or you for that matter - whimper about visiting family, going to that annual family reunion, gathering at the lake in the summer, remember that that family, that reunion, that lake might not always be there. That absence will change you the course of your life. You will miss it.
I love what I do. I travel. I discover stories. I weave tales that allow lives of complete strangers to become an active part of our lives, to change us, to inspire us. Sometimes for the bad, most of the time for the good. Last weekend, we visited the Smoky Mountains. They aren't my North Georgia Mountains, but darn sure close. The temperature drop in the air awakens a dreamer inside me, releasing excitement, evoking memories and charting courses.
We were scheduled to experience a first: synchronous fireflies. After one bump, there came another which shocked me more than the first. Let me set the scene: a curvy, muddy mountain trail after dark when even the sight of your hand is impossible. It's a touch thing. At the beginning, it's a flashlight thing.
We maneuvered our way towards the trailhead, Len with a headlamp and I with a flashlight. We quickly realized the headlamp was a no-no, so dark it went. My flashlight remained on, steadied on my feet, lighting the path until we move some 100 yards further, find a spot, plant our gear, and enjoy the show.
Holding on tightly to Len to avoid a face-plant, my eyes picked up on a woman darting toward me, reaching for my flashlight. "I know you can hear me," she said with such anger. "Turn that thing off." Len quickly pulled me back from her, and without saying what we wanted to say, made our way into the night.
We were excited, and at that moment, I allowed that woman to deflate my experience. Such anger and bossiness from a woman who was the self-appointed firefly queen. We knew the lights had to go off, but let me get to where I'm going without injury. It's not like there's only ONE firefly for ONE moment, and for sure, we're weren't the youngest whipper-snappers on the trail. Did she chastise everyone? Did she grab for other lights? She was rude, disrespectful, and I'm sure the fireflies thought so, too. She was a blemish (on the Park, on the community, on the experience) that needed to be popped!
I thought about her the next day as we toured the historic buildings along the Roaring Fork River Trail in Gatlinburg . . . seeing carvings, permanent marker script shouting "I've been here" . . . all you're leaving behind is proof of your ignorance.
Be polite. Be respectful. Especially when you're not on your home turf. You leave a scar with every word and mark you leave behind. In essence, when your hurt someone else - when you mouth off at someone - when you deface property - you hurt yourself. There doesn't have to be an ugly side. Forget about that . . . I know you heard me, firefly queen.
Happy birthday to me! I realized two things this morning:
Cute is gone, and I feel my mortality.
By that I mean, I understand that the bulk of my life is behind me, and what lies ahead is the icing on the cake, borrowed time to go at Nascar speed in the direction of my dreams. And it's all up to me. A couple of years ago I made a list - a gratitude list - one that bears repeating - or at least its highlights. I discovered that every single item from the original list would make my list again. Now, two years down the road, I add two more blessings . . . here are the highlights and the additions.
1. I get to work at home, at my desk - surrounded by the things I love most - every single day. (Today, it's more decked out than before - complete with an inspiration board, a real desk and twinkle lights.)
2. He's the last sight at night, and my first sight each morning - the glory of second chances. (I watch him drive down the gravel drive way each morning and marvel at how much my love for him grows. 'Bring him home,' I pray.)
6. Bear keeps me company while I sit at my desk. He never complains when I get to sip tea and he doesn't. (As long as I turn on the faucet, he's a happy camper. He still won't turn it off.)
9. I can make as many pots of coffee a day as I like, and every cup is mine. (I've added a Kreurig to the mix. Happy dance - maybe it's the caffeine.)
10. God never left me. (Ditto.)
12. I had the best mama and daddy ever. (Ditto.)
13. My mama taught me how to make homemade applesauce, sauerkraut and cat-head biscuits. (Priorities!)
14. I finally get that doing the right thing is the only option. (Life is easier when this is the decision maker.)
15. God saw something in me worth saving. (Thank you.)
20. I can finally say I'm half-Italian. (Wednesday night is pizza night . . . still. As long as Survivior plays out on Wednesday night, it will be homemade pie and Jeff.)
24. I have three sisters. (I never forget and I want to understand.)
25. Thoreau got it right: simplicity. (I long for my little cabin in the woods to "live life deliberately" with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Soon . . . )
29. My children transcended what fate threw at them and knocked it out of the park. (I give thanks for this everyday.)
33. Dreams are freakin' amazing, and I will never stop - so there. (Seeing Southern was born during these last two years. This is my dream, our dream, our reality, our vision. Look out!)
35. Mama's words teach me just as daddy's image on the sofa comforts me. (The older I get, the more I return to my years in Clarkesville when the most important thing was listening to the weekly Sunday night countdown of the Top 20 songs in America. I cling to a childhood that almost wasn't. )
45. I let go. (It's hard to hang on, but it's even harder to let go. Peace is a grand thing.)
52. I fell in love for the last time. (My Lenny!)
53. I'm right where I'm supposed to be. (I'm still here!)
Now, for the additions:
54. The dream that I had verbalized to myself and others years ago met paper. I signed my 'first' - yes, 'first' - book contract. And, I made a friend who brightens each step with hand-written cards! Although I'm scared senseless, this is my shot, and if I never get the chance again, I want to knock this one out of the park.
55. I get to tell stories. What an amazing job! Not simply of those who names are recognizable - Luke Bryan, Junior Johnson, Larry Gatlin, Bill Richardson, Tyler Hubbard - but of those whose stories are equally inspirational - Stanley Wood, John Ray Parker, Carlos Lovell, Chaplain Bill Black, Carlene Holder - and me. I get to tell my story. It's not the stuff movies are made of, but it's mine. I learn from it and let it guide me while I pen the sacred material with which others trust in my care.
I feel like I'm in the middle now. This side and that side. Being on 'that' side brings with it some apprehension. So I offer myself this advice for the upcoming year and beyond: get those hormones in check, lose the headaches, keep booking country (or is it really hip-hop in disguise) concerts, stick with the true stories, trust your gut, follow your dream, and hang on to the arm of the man who lights the way. Amen!
"You're a travel writer?" she said with an elevated voice. "What an amazing job."
Yes, Nessa, it is.
When we get really lucky, we get to lay our heads at B & Bs. We dine at the breakfast table with strangers from who knows where and talk about mostly unknown things and more than likely, we'll never ever see them again. We have one moment to uncover a lifetime.
Nessa Pettyjohn and Nihshanka Debroy from Gwinnett County celebrated their one year anniversary, and at breakfast, we celebrated, complete with candle-topped banana bread. After an amazing casserole, intense coffee and our own slice of banana bread later, we discovered they were IT people. I could tell. It was like looking in a three way reflective mirror - Nessa, Nihshanka and Len. Triplets. I, on the other hand, was the elephant in the room, but that's alright. We learned about Nihshanka's love for rare books and Nessa's skill at preparing Indian food; we wanted to go home with them.
Hosts, or innkeepers, are rare breeds we are told. There are ones that are nice and do their job well. Then, there are those who could be your Aunt Sally or Uncle Frankie. Family, in other words. You hear it in their voice, see it in their eyes, in the little touches - like complimentary this-and-that, fresh baked cakes always available tempting and calling your name, exquisite "I never want to get out of bed" sheets, binoculars for bird watching, or smiles no matter the time of day. And if they accidentally lock you out of the Lodge at bedtime, you know deep down they really didn't mean to. And when they say, "Come back," they expect you to.
Janet and Ric came to Blue Ridge by way of Key Largo and Colorado. "This [Aska] makes us happy," Janet says with a visible sense of contentment radiating from her face. Calling them adventurists would be an understatement - climbing Mount Rainier and Mt. Hood, caving, scuba diving - and this little piece of heaven, satisfies their longing to be close to nature. They have even changed roles; Janet who once handled all the cooking now serves as sous chef for Ric and his morning masterpieces.
i've been immersed in baseball lately due to an article, and now, i find myself with a curve ball propelling in my direction. full force. will i duck? how do you dodge something with such force? and if you can't, how do you reassemble the pieces once contact has chipped away at your very being?
such a metaphor for forgetting that curve balls are inevitable and how you react, consequential. i didn't duck yesterday, and as a result, i did something really stupid. we've all been there. and then one day later, you smack yourself. good and hard. where did all my common sense go? what happened to all that motherly advice you impart to your children, and then when push-comes-to-shove, you fall apart and do exactly the opposite of what you tell them to do in order to rise above? ah, the humanity of it all.
i hate it when human nature takes over. i'm really better than all that 'meanness' that pours from my mouth. my mama made sure i had all the rules and instructions i needed to get through just about anything. and inevitably , i fail to listen - to remember - i get bogged down in garbage and forget what is really important. who is really important.
no matter what we choose to be at any particular moment, we have to remember, it's a choice. i made it. i pay for it. i'm not the only one in the game. others are depending on me to rise above petty rubbish and do the right thing.
it's monday. i plan on getting back in the game today; however, today's game will follow the play book, the play book that ends with a shot at the title.
I have this daily ritual. not because I particularly like doing it (especially in 5 or 95 degree weather), but because Lolly is pacing. Our Appaloosa has this internal time clock (or growling stomach), and every afternoon about 4:30 p.m., she begins her pounding of earth at the the fence. Back and forth. back and forth. She's nailed the dirt down for years, and the others thank her for issuing my call every day. It's feeding time on Mayne Mill.
she is first at the fence. first to be tied. first with the bucket. it's the royal pecking order and i never deviate. all the others understand. and as speedy as she is, woody [pictured above right] is that slow. he towers above the others and takes twice as long to eat [well, ok, he does get twice the feed]. but i must wait, so the witchy [b] one [cheyenne] doesn't steal his food - which woody would give up in an instant because he's a hulking chicken. so i wait. and wait.
waiting allows me my time, the first of the day without pressures and deadlines. my alone time. and this waiting time begins my evening conversation with mama.
i'll usually tell her things she already knows, explain events she already understands, and finally, i'll inquire as to "what are you doing up there." i'll hear her move through the trees, see her in the animal's eyes, or just hear nothing, which mama would agree, is the best melody at the end of a long day. it must be amazing, i ponder, to live in the night sky surrounded by twinkle lights and the heavenly father, knowing all the why's and why not's. there are times i'm jealous of that. not that i want to leave earth, but i'm envious of the "no-pain, streets of gold, great companionship and all the answers" kind of existence. i think if we're all honest, we all would like that life - down here. but, as i've always heard, you can't have your cake and eat it, too.
my rambling continues, and i explain it's a new year, and we're knee deep in obamacare. "too much to explain now," i offer. "just know it's a bunch of hooey." i can't help but think if i'd only taken care of myself a little better, this wouldn't be as important an issue. having hundreds of dollars in prescription drugs wouldn't be a reality. or how I wouldn't have my own neurologist or cardiologist or gastroenterologist - more gist than i knew existed. who would have thought 54 would be this old?
"what's that, mom?" i ask.
"remember what i said?" she repeats.
i just look at lolly - all content with her bucket of sweet feed and heaping pile of hay - and realize mama, as usual, is pointing out the true horse's ass.
if i heard it once, i heard it a million times . . .
1. sitting that close to the tv will make you blind. or at the very least, a requirement of reader glasses in every room of the house, including all bathrooms.
2. eating too much creamed corn will make you fat - why do you think they feed hogs corn? yes, mama, i enjoyed every creamy bite, and you were right. it did make me fat.
3. go play outside and don't come home until it's dark. she should have thrown me out of the house more often, not just to go fetch a hickory.
4. you can eat at home. my incessant pleas to stop at the mcdonalds in commerce on the way to my uncle's house were annoying, and always, fell on deaf ears. you go, mom.
5. if you cross your eyes, they will stick. i think i win this one.
and these little gems went far past the health of it all, straight into living life . . .
6. if you swallow a watermelon seed, you'll grow a watermelon in your stomach. by mama's account, i should never go hungry again.
7. if a you hear a hoot owl cry three times, someone will die. i hear owls and i still wonder who will die during the night. my northern husband laughs at me.
8. if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. i should have listened to this one a little more closely.
9. you're going to grow up and have a daughter just like you. curse you, mama.
10. never wear dirty underwear. and i never will.
11. there's only one right way. and it was mama's way. who could have imagined the word right and mama could be interchangeable?
12. you'll always catch more flies with honey than vinegar. every single time.
13. i'm not going to tell you again. . . and she didn't. i knew the second time meant a visit to the front yard for that hickory switch.
14. life isn't fair. how did you know?
and probably my favorite of all . . .
15. you'll see. she was right. she was always right. god has a delightful sense of humor.
it's funny as you get older you remember all those things your mama told you when you pretended not to hear. and now, you'd give your right arm just to be able to listen to the cadence of her voice once more. even if she had to end the conversation with "you'll see", that would be fine and dandy.
and when you find yourself alone with just yourself, the horses and the sky, those long-ago words will return and keep you company. you'll see.
the sound jarred me. heavy metal combining with concrete. i expected horns and tires screeching in downtown snellville, georgia, but not a sound so out of place.
i stopped at a red light on a hectic street, taking a look at my phone for anything urgent, when a sound startled me. i looked in my rear view mirror thinking initially someone had rear-ended me. nothing there except a car at its proper distance. but out of the corner of my eye - two lanes over, i noticed a man and woman on the sidewalk, just a few inches from the path of cars. in their fifties or so, dressed in jeans, not looking out of place. for a brief moment, his hand reached around her waist, pulling her closer, protecting her from the dangers of traffic. she looked up at him, thanking him with her eyes. tucked safely under her right arm, the woman held a rolled up blanket. odd, for sure, i thought. he let go, bent down, and she watched as he began his work. hoovering over a manhole, he picked up the heavy cover that lay askew. he heaved with all his might, and he shoved it to the side, crashing against the concrete. this time, it had fallen far enough away to expose the entire cavern.
and then my mouth dropped, and i forgot about the traffic.
as the man watched protectively, the woman slipped into the darkness, deep inside the ground. once she was inside, he followed. the heavy cover moved, swallowing the couple.
i sat in my car. in my warm car, sipping on my starbuck's latte and feeling ashamed. a horn from the impatient driver behind me urged me to move along. i wondered if they had witnessed the two people? did anyone else see? they had to have seen. most were lots closer than i, but as if it had been an illusion, traffic picked up and life carried on.
i've been back to that intersection a couple of times, hoping to see them again. i haven't. i still wonder who they were and why they were there. i remember their faces. not a sign of despair, only concern and worry for the one beside. i still feel ashamed of my unfettered whimpers.
so this thanksgiving, i will remember the out-of-place sound of metal. i hope that if ever i get to the place in my life where blankets and beds are luxuries rather than necessities, i will approach each day with gratitude - no matter what the situation might be. if god forbid, a hole in the earth becomes my sleeping quarters, i will be strong and hold on to my partner for strength. i will not care what others say or see, but will keep my eyes fixed on the one who loves me, for therein lies my hope. i will not be ashamed by what i must do for love or for survival.
my heart tells me its time to take another trip to snellville, just on the off-chance they are there. i hope they aren't. i hope they are inside four walls this thanksgiving, enjoying each other without the trappings of metal.
Whether it is exploring this amazing world or being content on my own piece of real estate near Athens, Georgia, I'm spinning stories and fashioning tales from a Southern perspective. As an editor and writer, I get to meet incredible people and share their stories. As a photographer, I get to cement these moments in time. As a wife and mother, I'm always excited to see what's around the next corner, For it's anything but ordinary.