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Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell

Month

June 2015

Treasures in the Attic

old attic

My husband is a treasure hunter. Our home is filled with all sorts of strange and unusual artifacts from his many trips junking. Among his numerous acquisitions include lamps and bottle openers made from the hooves and legs of deer (a little creepy), men’s hat stretchers and bowtie collections (precursors of upcoming fads I am sure) and a tiny scissor collection (certain to be used by our aging arthritic hands). Years ago, he brought home a dusty box filled with old letters and photographs that were pilfered from the remote third floor attic of an old house in Lexington awaiting demolition. “Another box of old stuff to clutter up my house,” I  muttered to myself, rolling my eyes.  “Why are you always bringing that stuff home?” I asked. The dust scattered and floated upward as he lifted off the lid and began to sort through the contents. “I just think it’s sad” he began, “for these things to be left behind. It’s like losing a piece of your soul”.

For years, the box sat all but forgotten in the book shelf in our living room. Occasionally, we would pull a letter or photograph from the box. Faces we didn’t recognize stared out at us across  a span of over 60 years, sepia colored images with withered edges. The folded letters were perfectly creased, with a drift of elegant script across paper as transparent as a butterfly’s wings. Eventually, the box became our little detective project as I began to type the letters and place the information chronologically into a notebook.

As we began to sort the contents of the box, a story began to emerge. It read like a Nicholas Sparks’  novel with most of the pages missing…

Most of the contents were love letters dated from the 1920’s and 30’s. Several photos captured a lively, bright-eyed young woman smiling seductively for the camera. One large 8’ x 10″ photo was labeled simply “The Doctor”. The terse writing from his corresponding letter hinted of a broken heart. Another photograph,  more recent than the others, showed a serious-faced little girl wearing coke bottle glasses. There was also a letter in sprawling childlike script which began, “Dear Daddy, I fell and broke my glasses…” We assumed the child in the letter and the photograph was one and the same.

The bright eyed young woman, Lyndal Denny was pursued by many arduous suitors including the illustrious Doctor but none professed his love more eloquently than the one who signed his letters, simply “Red.” Elmo “red” Leonard had already graduated from college and worked in Lexington North Carolina in the family mercantile business. Passionate and exuberant, his writing spoke of many things, but mostly of his adoration for Lyndal. Some letters began with “Girl of my Dreams.” Then “How good a sweet kiss from you would be!” declared love struck Elmo. The poor guy was passionately, hopelessly  and whole-heartedly in love with Lyndal.

Fast forward nearly ten years after my husband’s discovery of the lost letters to 1992. My husband, Perry and I were ecstatic, expecting our first child, however there was one problem. As a public school art teacher, Perry associated every popular name with an unruly middle school student. We finally settled on two uncommon names: “Brennen Scott” for a boy and “Lyndal Claire” after the young woman in the letters.

As my due date grew near, we decided on a whim to try to locate Lyndal’s former home by the address listed about an hour away in the town of Burlington. We found the street but no corresponding house number. A little ways down the street, an elderly gentleman was mowing his grass and we stopped to ask if he knew of the family. He hadlived in the town most of his life, he said, and while he was unsure of the whereabouts of Lyndal, he remembered her sister who still lived in town.

Imagine our surprise at learning Lyndal was alive and well, living with her daughter in nearby Durham. We were thrilled when months later we would actually meet her and return her letters. We felt like we knew her intimately; we had read so many of her thoughts and knew of her adventures yet we had so many questions. Did she marry Elmo? What was her life like? Was she happy?

We drove to the retirement community near Duke University where Lyndal and her daughter Harriet lived in a small townhouse. At eighty-nine years old, Lyndal was no longer the same beauty in the photographs but she was just as vivacious. The blue chiffon scarf tied neatly around her neck echoed the same azure of her merry eyes. Her silver-white hair and clear mind shined with the brilliant patina of old age. We were welcomed into her little home filled with books and fine antique furniture. She graciously accepted the return of her letters as Perry explained how he found them in the attic.

Then, she began to tell her story…

Lyndal was no child of privilege. Her parents and four siblings moved to Burlington from eastern North Carolina in the early 1900’s and her father died soon thereafter. Although her mother ran a boarding house and worked as a seamstress, she was unable to provide for her two oldest daughters. Ultimately, she had no choice but to send them to an orphanage. Both girls excelled in school. What could have been a horrific experience was made better by the girls having each other. Their mother sewed clothes for them and visited when she could. Lyndal was smart and ambitious. She worked in the school’s administrative offices and eventually earned a scholarship to Chowan College.

While she dated and undoubtably flirted with many young men, Lyndal was eventually wooed by Red, a man with bright auburn hair and a grand sense of humor. She was the love of his life and they were happily married until his passing some twenty years prior. Their only daughter Harriet was indeed the little girl in our photos. She eventually became the head reference librarian for the Duke Divinity School. Still wearing thick coke bottle glasses and a wan smile, Harriet sat quietly beside her mother. She had not changed much either over her sixty years.

I asked Lyndal about her unusual name and confided that if we had a baby girl, we planned to name her “Lyndal”. She clapped her hands in delight then inquired whether “Elmo” or “Red” was on our short list of boys’ names. “No,” I confessed and she chuckled at my reply. “My mother found the name Lyndal in a book she read before I was born but she could never remember the title. Elmo was named after the character in St. Elmo’s Fire. So you see…” her voice trailed off as her eyes twinkled with memories. “It was ALL very romantic!”

Weeks after we met her, I gave birth, not to a little Lyndal, but to a healthy baby boy. Our son, Brennen Scott turned twenty three last April. We formed a friendship with Harriet and Lyndal, sending cards at holidays and making the Sunday afternoon drive to the beautiful Duke campus, going out to eat and sharing stories. Lyndal Denny Leonard passed away just four years after we met face-to-face. She was just shy of celebrating her 100th birthday. Harriet followed her mother unexpectedly the following year.

It’s been over twenty years since we returned those letters to Lyndal. Except when there are old dusty boxes cluttering my living room , I am thankful for my husband’s penchant for rescuing lost antiquities. He reunited three souls that day in returning the letters and photographs to their rightful owner and gave us the gift of friendship of two wonderful ladies we would have likely never known. I am thankful “time” speaks to my husband in the way it does. I joke that he’s never met an antique he didn’t like.

Hopefully, he’ll still like me when I’m a hundred years old, too.

PS My husband Perry makes collages from old photographs and ephemera. His work can be seen at http://www.perryboswell.com.

I’ve Lost It

Groucho Mark At mid-life, it is generally accepted that for a woman to age gracefully, she must become accustomed to losing certain things. I realize I am not twenty any more. Loss is something for the most part I can deal with…

I have acknowledged the permanent loss of my waistline. This is karma paying me  back for making fun of my mother’s elastic waist polyester slacks she wore during most of her adult life. Now, it is I who look for pants with a bit of stretch and if they must have zippers, they must hit me above the muffin top in order to contain it. Perhaps I delude myself but these are not, I repeat NOT mom jeans.

I have lost my breasts. Well, they are still there for the most part and I am grateful for that but they have morphed into undistinguishable flesh which melts into stomach, back and underarms. Unfortunately, my bra only accommodates the breasts so this presents me with a problem of what to shove into the bra and what not to…

I have lost the ability to wear cute little high-heeled shoes. I am afraid I will break a leg and despite the drama of my life I am not an actress.

I have lost the ability to run. I entered a 10K a few weeks ago and my poor ankles are still aching. In the future, if you see me running, you’d better run too because you can be certain something is chasing me and it’s probably really big!

I have lost my vision, as testified by my 2.5 readers. Even my sister, 11 years my senior (sorry sis for pointing that out sis) can see better than I can.

Most likely, I have lost my mind but a have yet to realize it.

One of the most humiliating  things I have lost is my eyebrows. For years now, my eyebrows have been silently walking off the job even as they seemingly reattach themselves to other parts of my face like invited guests. There is the layer of peach fuzz that surfaces on my chin and sideburns like my Sheltie’s winter undercoat. There are strange, singularly long hairs that sprout from my jaw like Cousin Fester. There’s a long thin blonde one that morphs out of my forehead until one day I discover it lying sweetly in a 2” curl. I’m sure they will be moving to my ears and nose soon.

It looks like out of sheer loneliness all these little strange sproutings  could initiate a little social gathering and begin to congregate in the vicinity of my former brows!

For years, I have used a secret regimen of dark powder and a coat of clear liquid gel. Until recently, I thought I was doing a great job concealing “my condition.”  A few weeks ago, my husband burst my bubble. He happened to meet up with a friend whom we haven’t seen in years. Afterwards, I inquired innocently, “’How’d she look?”

“Oh, my,” he confessed. ”She looks JUST like her mother.”

This elicited a naturally sympathetic reaction from me…

“But the worst of it is… She has lost her eyebrows!”

“Oh NO!”, I exclaimed, my mind racing from my friend’s predicament to secretly count the number of individual hairs left hovering above my own eyes. I secretly smiled and thought somewhat smugly to myself that at least he hadn’t noticed MY problem…”

Then, he says, “Yes, honey…Hers are even thinner than yours!”

AAAARRRRRRGHHHHHHHH!

While commiserating with my friend Kim, she told me about her mother, Miss Edith, whose beauty regimen is eternally trapped in the 1950’s. Miss Edith uses a shiny brown Maybelline pencil to draw an exaggerated arch on her completely missing brows. One day, in the midst of “putting on her face”, the doorbell rang unexpectedly. Forgetting that she had one eyebrow on and one eyebrow off, she opened the door to greet her guest. Imagine the postman’s reaction when a one eye-browed ghoul welcomed him with a demure smile.

My girlfriends (most of whom are younger and have the brows of Brooke Shields) have given me lots of suggestions. There are products, not unlike Rogaine, that you can brush on; but I find myself doubting that if it hasn’t worked for Matt Lauer’s whole head, it’s probably NOT going to work for me. I’ve dismissed having them “permanently” tattooed. The thought of “getting inked” is more than this Southern Bell can stand. If I am going to get tattooed, I want something fun. Something that’s going to make me smile. A happy face on my buttock, perhaps? But then again, it could end up below my knees in a few years…

Perhaps the best advice is the lesson I’ve learned from Miss Edith. Simply slow down and avoid opening the door until I have them both (safely and securely) drawn on and in place!

 

 

$100 Dollar Hairspray

big-sexy-hair

Recent unanticipated expenditures in the Boswell household including the purchase of a new car have caused my husband and I to take a closer look at our monthly budget. We’ve cut back on eating out and begun shopping the discount bread store. I’ve value-engineered our cable and cell phone packages including a (rather ingenious) intervention on my part which involves simply cutting off my son’s data and texting privileges when he somehow exceeds the “unlimited” plan I spend too much money on anyway.

One of the areas I am most reluctant to cut is the one marked  “Health and Beauty”. A recent review of my monthly expenditures confirm the “natural” look I have boasted for so many years is costing me an unnatural amount of cash. Hair color, styling products and make-up are expensive!

Having grown up in the shadows of  Farrah Fawcett, Cindy Lauper, and the Breakfast Club, I have never relinquished my love for big hair. As a Southern woman of a “certain age” I have lived years under the honor code of “the higher the hair, the closer to God”. It’s an expression nearly every woman in the South between the ages of 50 and 60 not only believes but  lives. Therefore when I recently ran out of my favorite salon style hairspray, I was thrilled to find a huge $9.99 can of something called “Big Sexy Hair” at my local TJ Maxx. With visions of St. Peter and ’80’s angelic icons dancing in my head, I knew this was the right hairspray for me! While I was at it, I also splurged for the $6.98 “Sexy Light” shampoo, which promised manageability and control, without weighing me down, attributes that would surely help my hair, if not my social life.

The next morning as I got dressed for work, my hair was initially light, manageable and gloriously big! I congratulated myself on my purchases and began to spray “Big Sexy” on my newly styled “do”. The first spray from the aerosol can sputtered out in a glob. Giving it a good shake, the second attempt came out in a fierce narrow stream.  Undaunted, I closed my eyes tightly and began to spray, my arm doing a series of rapid and elaborate figure eight’s as I tried to dispel the stream into a spray. I opened my eyes to find disaster!

I had been “flocked”!

Dear God, I looked like a cheap Big Lots Christmas tree, my uppermost branches adorned with heavy mounds of fake snow. I slipped on my reading glasses and squinted at the fine print. “Big Sexy” was not hairspray at all, but some sort of styling mousse. I tried to brush the snow from my hair but it was useless. My “Big Sexy” hair had taken a definite turn for the worse!

Later in the day, as I was recanting my “disast-hair”, one of my friend’s who I can always count on for sound advice suggested I visit Sally’s Beauty Supply where I could purchase professional products at a discounted price. After perusing their shelves over my lunch hour, I determined their hairspray was such a bargain, I would purchase 2 cans. The sales clerk at the checkout told me that for an additional $15.00, I could save 10% on all purchases for the next year. Since I use a lot of hairspray, this seemed a no- brainer.

The next few days did not go so well. The rain and humidity that saturated Greensboro over the next few days were not my fine hair’s best friend. The hair that held such heavenly promise had taken a harrowing turn, if not towards hell, certainly the flatlands.

“What happened to you?”, asked another friend noting my sagging locks. Realizing that my newest “bargain” hairspray offered no resistance to humidity, I conceded my latest purchase was no bargain at all!

By Sunday, I didn’t care what it cost. Desperately tired of looking like an abandoned pound pup, I was willing to pay anything. I drove thirty minutes to the mall to purchase my original hairspray from the expensive salon. Perusing the shelves, I was suddenly confused. My old trusty brand now came in two selections, both offering maximum control. I asked the young sales clerk to explain the difference.

She peered out at me dramatically from dark, side-swept bangs. “Uh, this one says “Platinum”” the eye said while the mouth smacked loudly on a wad of gum.

“Yes, I can read that”, I said testily, “but is one of these better for humidity?”

“Ummm, I guess I need to familiarize myself with this product”, the eye confessed. “I don’t really use hairspray.”

Obviously…

I roll my eyes , a gesture the clerk fails to notice. This person cannot help me.

At this point, only God and Farrah Fawcett can help me. “Give me one of each,” I say, handing the eye the last of my $100 bill.

“And a bottle of Elmer’s Glue, while you are at it!”

Yellow Taxi

cornfield2

As a gift to me for my sixteenth birthday, my parents bequeathed me their old 1968 Ford Fairlane 500. My friends immediately dubbed it “The Yellow Banana”. It was built like a tank, four doors, of course and completely uncool, but it got me where I needed to go. One summer afternoon, I was driving The Banana down the country roads of Davidson County to my part-time job in downtown (or as it is more recently known “uptown”) Lexington. There on a long and desolate stretch of two lane road , my car began to choke and spasm. It occurred to me that I had failed to notice the gas gauge registering near empty. As we came to an undignified stop, I pondered my predicament.  I looked around me  Although I was in central North Carolina, the landscape which rolled before me seemed more like the endless sea of cornfields and pasturelands that you might see in Nebraska or Kansas. Undeterred, I set out in the direction from where I had come.

I had not walked far, when from out of nowhere came a bright yellow taxi.

For those of us who live in the city, there is absolutely nothing unusual about a passing taxi cab, but in 1978 rural North Carolina, at the edge of a cornfield in the middle of nowhere, it was a strange sight, indeed. In fact, having never traveled to a big city, I had never even ridden in a taxi before. Somehow, perhaps from watching too many television sitcoms, I knew what to do. I held up my arm to catch the driver’s attention…

As an adult, I now realize that if you are a cute little 16 year old girl, standing in the middle of nowhere, all dressed up in a breezy summer skirt and Candies, the “hailing” part was completely unnecessary.

The taxi came to an abrupt stop. The driver was dark-skinned, not of any particular nationality I could recognize. I quickly explained my predicament and  he was kind enough to drive me back the few miles to a service station where I called my daddy to bring the gas can. I thanked the cab driver profusely, but he wouldn’t take any money.

Despite the vast numbers of memories I have forgotten over the course of my lifetime- people and years of my life on end- I can recall that day like it was yesterday. The feel of my skirt blowing along my bare legs; the July heat rising up off the pavement; the endless sea of corn blurring a smudge into the horizon; the black and dusty interior of the taxi cab; the dark hairs rising stubby and crisscrossed on the back of the neck of the mysterious driver. This memory reminds me of the many times in my life that have I been the recipient of so much undeserved grace, that I feel almost ashamed.

And yet for reasons we cannot understand, there are other times in our lives when we go through long periods of equally undeserved hardship and struggle. Every day, I hear about good people who suffer multiple and simultaneous difficulties. Perhaps they have lost their job, are facing bankruptcy or the loss of their home or their family or are coping with illness or addiction.  It seems so unfair. It  IS unfair.

The Old Testament story of Job tells of an honorable, exemplary man who faced insurmountable and catastrophic loss. Job lost almost everything: his children, his home, his wealth and his health. It is a powerful story, yet one I have never particularly liked. It makes me feel so small and unable to influence even the smallest aspect of my own destiny.How often it is that our lives feel out of control. We are like the specks of dust being blown around at the mercy of a great wind.

Yet, I also believe, mainly because I have witnessed this in my own life, that there are times in our lives when we are the beneficiaries of a comprehensively undeserved grace. Times when for reasons unknown to us, a Higher Power goes before us, spreading the cornfields like He parted the Sea, and calls forth a yellow taxi, just when we need a ride.

 

 

Hitting the Mark

bullseye 3

A few summers back, my sister and I ventured to the eastern part of the state where our brother had taken up residence in an old and crumbling Southern mansion in an equally old and crumbling Southern town. Our brother Tony seemed oblivious to the home’s flaking paint and rotten floorboards. Cobwebs hung in place of draperies from lifeless windows. So much plaster and lathe were missing from some sections of the home’s interior walls, we could simply walk through them instead of using a door. I marveled as I wandered from room to room, if the home was mid- construction or mid-demolition. My brother had recently fallen into “bad times”, the result of a bitter divorce, financial woes, run-ins with the law, alliances with various unsavory  and unscrupulous characters, the culmination of years of alcohol and substance abuse, latent PTSD and some undiagnosed form of mental illness which manifested itself as a predisposition for shooting guns within his homes rapidly diminishing number of upright walls.

Of all the places he could have taken up residence, I couldn’t help but think how he’s landed in this God- forsaken place with the same random outcome one might experience when throwing a dart. If he had been aiming for the bull’s eye, he had certainly hit the outer rim. One day, he was driving through this old town, plunked down some of the money from his Home Equity Line and bought himself a house. A House, in his mind, a fine old house with a capital “H”, in a place far away enough that he knew no one and more  importantly where no one knew him.

Still, my brother loved his ruins with the same affection a king might regard his palace. Like a king surveying his kingdom, he put his portable hot tub smack dab in the middle of the homes formerly grand wrap – around front porch. From this vantage point, he could observe the comings but mostly the goings of the town’s Main Street. Unfortunately, the sheriff asked him a few weeks later to please not sit out there naked with the lights on.

It was in this same grandiose spirit that on that hot August afternoon when my sister and I arrived to help him settle in, he brought out an old tarnished candelabra, elaborately placing it square in the middle of the dining room table. He beckoned me, his baby sister, to “run to the kitchen” where he had left a bouquet of summer flowers wilting in the heat on the Formica countertop. No artwork adorned the tops of the old quartersawn oak wainscoting nor chandelier glistened across the room’s plaster relief ceiling. Instead, tiny dust particles floating heavenward as the sunlight tried to stream in through the window panes now covered with a dense layer of weather-resistant plastic.

My brother had cooked “dinner” as a true backwood’s Southerner calls the noon day meal; “supper” is the name reserved for the meal of the evening. I could never get over the fact that my brother, my big ole redneck, tractor-driving, hunting and fishing and cussing kind of brother had taken to watching cooking shows in his spare time. In recent years, before he had flown the proverbial coop, we’d actually had conversations over the Christmas Dinner table about reduction cooking and parboiling and all kind of things more akin to Chef Gordon Ramsey than a Chevy kind of man. On this day, however, he had brushed most of his newly acquired cooking skills aside, settling on a traditional working class menu of roast beef, boiled potatoes, canned biscuits and pinto beans cooked with fatback.

After dinner, my sister and I took to the kitchen for what his generation still deems “woman’s work“- the clean up as our brother stepped out for a smoke. As my ever efficient sister began to wash dishes, I began gathering up the array of pans and dishes strewn across the countertop. My brother had used a decade’s old  cast iron frying pan to brown the roast and the bottom was thick with grease. “What you want me to do with the grease in the fryin’ pan?”, I called out to him. “Oh, just set it down on the floor,” he called through the screen door. “The dog’ll eat it.”

My sister, who is I might add, a bonified Junior Leaguer (a proud accomplishment if there ever was one in my redneck family) eyed the pan dubiously as I sat it on the floor of the dilapidated linoleum. My brother’s big old hound lumbered into the middle of the kitchen and began to lap up the grease. “Ick” I muttered under my breath as I continued to gather up dishes and carry them across the room for my sister to wash. The dog finally raised his head and with a lick of his chops began to turn away from the pan. As I reached down to pick up the handle, the dog quickly raised his hind leg and began to pee into the pan.

“Oh! My! Gawd!” I gasped.Behind the black dog whose awkward stance seemed to indicate it was making a left hand hand turn, my sister’s mouth and eyes were frozen into big “O”’s. That dog continued to pee such a long steady stream of piss that I swear I saw it steam up like rain on a hot summer street.

“Oh- my- Gawd- that- dawg- just- peed- in- that-frickin’- fryin’-pan!” I hollered, jumping up and down in disbelief.

“To-neeeeeeeey!!!”, I hollered “Get in here!” Menopause had left me bossy and emboldened in my later years.

My brother finally stuck his head in the back door to see what was all the commotion. In one sweep his eyes took in the dog, the steamy frying pan and his two hysterical sisters- one in shock and one shrieking. For the first time in recent months, he seemed to put two and two together and actually get four.

There has not been many times in my life I could properly use the word “guffaw”, but that’s exactly what he did. My brother uttered a guffaw for a moment then disappeared back outside to continue his smoke.

“Oh my Gawd! That DAWG, he just peed in that fryin’ pan!” I hollered again. “To-neeeey! Get in here and take that pan OUTSIDE right now!” I ordered. I could hear my brother continue to snigger sheepishly outside the door. I looked around the floor; there was not a single drop of dog pee on the floor. It was obviously not the first time that dog had peed in the pan. With the utmost precision, it seemed both my brother and his dog had hit the mark!

Churchland Baptist

Churchland Baptist Church
Churchland Baptist Church

From the polished oak pews of Churchland Baptist Church, I slump against the side of my mother, scribbling cartoon drawings on the back of the church bulletin. Despite my low vantage point, on any given Sunday there is much to inspire me. Sunlight filters through stained glass as fragments of light flutter around the sanctuary. Jesus as a baby. Jesus holding a little lamb. Jesus suspended from a wooden cross.

In front of me, the choir sits behind the pulpit on an elevated platform. When it is time for a hymn, everyone stands at attention while the choir director Russ Griggs moves his outstretched arms in rhythmn. In matching satin robes, the choir looks like rows of yellow goldfinches perched along the top of a fence. Russ flaps his wings preparing to fly while the others stand and chirp like obedient nestlings.

In between songs, the choir just sits there looking bored as if they aren’t really listening to Preacher Martin at all. I know how they feel; I dont like listening to him either. Every Sunday, he starts his talk all nice, like he wants to be your friend. He usually begins by telling a funny story that has supposedly happened to him during the week, but I really don’t think it’s true. By the end of his talk, he has become all worked up. He is wiping his brow with his sleeve and his face is red.I  am not sure what it is , but I am certain we have all done something terribly wrong.

I don’t think Preacher Martin likes me very much anyway. When I ask mama and daddy questions they didn’t know the answers to, like what happened to those poor little babies that didn’t get saved before they died or about the starving children in Africa, my parents invited him to the house for supper so I could ask him directly.  Although Preacher Martin sounded like he knew what he was talking about, his answers didn’t make any sense. His God seemed to have a lot of rules and regulations and mine just wanted us to try to love each other. I remember how  we sing “Jesus loves the little children…” Even then, I didn’t think it sounded right that God would send you to hell on a technicality.

The baptismal pool is recessed like a large picture window above the heads of the choir. Most Sundays, it is hidden behind a dark red velvet curtain. During special holidays or if someone is getting baptized, the curtains are drawn open to reveal a beautiful scene. Imagine this: the river Jordan winds its way serpentine into the distant horizon, which I now know is just a painting. The front part of the river looks like it is edged in grass, only Mama told me these were called bulrushes, like the reeds that grew in the river where Moses’ mama hid him in a basket. I have never seen a bulrush, but I imagine if I ever have a baby to hide, that would be as good a place as any.

In front of the river Jordan a low glass wall keeps the water (which is real) from spilling out onto the choir’s heads. Sometimes I think how funny it would be if that water would just pour out of there and mess up all those ladies fancy hairdos and wake up that old man sleeping on the back row.

I’ll tell you a secret. During the  baptismal, when Preacher Martin steps into the water, his preacher’s robe billows up. I looked real hard and I could see that underneath, he has on plain clothes like everybody else.

Ahead of me sits Patty Wafford. She was at least a head taller than me, even in pre-school. A goody two shoes, she sits up front with the preacher’s daughter Darlene. It nearly burns me up,  both of them sharing chewing gum and pretending to listen to every word he says. Patty is awfully smart but everybody knows she is a crybaby. Once, our Sunday School Class had a contest to see how many different names we could find in the Bible for Jesus. I worked really hard to come up with ten or twenty names, even the hard ones like “Prince of Peace” .

Let me tell you, Patty’’s list contained over a hundred. I know she cheated. On the back of my church bulletin, I draw a pair of horns on top of Patty’s head.

As the choir sings, I swing my black patent leathers in midair to the gentle tempo of the music …

“Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love.”

I guess everyone is tied to something.

Quicksand

Tarzan   As a kid I remember watching the old Tarzan television show. Every Sunday night, the five or six year old me sat on the floor in front of my family’s black and white television set (complete with “rabbit ears” of course) eating a big bowl of popcorn entranced by each episode. Muscles bulging, the broad chested Tarzan would swing through the canopy of the jungle shouting his signature “AH-aha-ha-AH-ahaaa…” It reveals much about the real me to say I could have cared less about is muscles and loin cloth, but I was enamored with the exotic setting, the wildlife and the possibility of swinging on a vine.

Of Tarzan’s many adventures, I was fascinated by the ones involving quicksand. To my knowledge, there was nothing like that surrounding the red clay dirt of our family home on Goat Pasture Road. Since I watched every episode, I felt a bit like an expert on the subject of quicksand. I knew that the more you struggled in the quicksand, the faster it pulled you under. Quicksand could devour a grown man in seconds or a grown woman more slowly, particularly if she were beautiful and helpless, screaming at the top of her lungs to be rescued moments before her head went under.

I have learned through my post-travel research that quicksand  does indeed exist in certain parts of Africa near wetlands where the upper surface dries out and the lower ones become water-logged and unstable. I was reminded of quicksand in central Tanzania. Our group was staying in a beautiful tented camp across from the Tarangire National Park, perched on a knoll overlooking Lake Barunga. This picturesque round lake sits like a shining jewel mocking the poverty and dust of Africa; it’s saline waters are too harsh to sustain much life except for flamingos and an assortment seabirds.

One hot afternoon, our group hiked from our campsite through the scrubby undergrowth, down the hillside and onto the wide sandy beach. Silhouetted against the distant hills, we could see several young Masaii natives herding a large flock of goats. The goats jostled about noisily. We met them a short ways up the beach juxtaposing ourselves in their midst for photographs, the goats  scattering around us like water pouring through a sieve.

Masaii shepherds with their flocks along the shore of Lake Barunga.
Masaii shepherds with their flocks along the shore of Lake Barunga.

Flamingos and seabirds at the water's edge.
Flamingos and seabirds at the water’s edge.

As usual, I was traipsing around on the periphery of the group, doing my own thing exploring every piece of driftwood and inching closer to the seabirds for photo ops. While everyone else was diligently listening to the guide give his nature talk, I stepped onto an unstable area of the beach and immediately found myself up to my calf in wet sand. I was afraid to go closer to the water to wash it off. While it was more of an embarrassment and not a real threat to my safety, I scurried back to the group sheepishly who couldn’t help but notice my mucky shoe and leg. I was often getting into some kind of “trouble” and a few members began to tease me about my near immersion.

Ugh oh...
Ugh oh…

I was recalling that experience the other day and it triggered my thoughts about how easy it is to look out over the landscape of our lives, oblivious to the perils that lie just beneath the placid surface. We live so much of our lives in blissful denial until loss or sickness or tragedy strikes us, yanks us beneath the surface and we find ourselves fighting our way back up for light and air.

In times like this, I am reminded to simply be calm and present. The scripture says “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. I find a lot of power in those words. I know God but it is the “being still” that I have problems  with. Worry is like quicksand and our frenetic actions only serve to take us under deeper.I try to be conscious of my circle of influence, which is really very small. My ability to differentiate  between what is within the realms of my control and what is not helps me feel more at peace.

How about you? What helps you when you feel life is dragging you under?

Allegorie de Soie

Located at the base of the mountain, Aguas  Calienetes is the
Located at the base of the mountain, Aguas Calientes is the “jumping off point” for visitors to Machu Picchu.

I rise before dawn and dress in the near dark. I grope the walls for the light switch above the sink basin. The bare bulb flickers awake and I quickly brush my teeth with bottled water. The bus is waiting.

The air outside is heavy and damp. Except for a handful of local outfitters and tourists who stumble towards the bus clutching coffee and backpacks, the outpost is still asleep. Seedy bars and overpriced restaurants sit idle and dark; souvenir stands cower under blankets of plastic. Wedged on a sliver of land between the roaring Urubamba River and the longest mountain range in the world, Aguas Calientes seems less like a town than a few forgotten crumbs lining the pocket of the giant Andes.

The movement of the bus jolts me awake. I am one week and three thousand miles from home in the jungle of Machu Picchu. My husband was so furious about my leaving that he barely spoke to me in the days leading up to my departure. He gave a lame excuse for not driving me to the airport to which I countered that since I could get myself to South America, I most assuredly could get myself to a plane. My departure was icy. Was it too much to ask him to understand that I was drawn to this place like water to a divining rod? There is risk in all travel but I was well-prepared for the trip. I was troubled and disappointed that after nearly thirty years of marriage, my husband and I were unable to simply agree to disagree.

After our plane landed in Lima, it took nearly a week to acclimate to the altitude and travel by bus and train to reach the jumping off point at the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. We spent the afternoon exploring and hiking the ruins. The beauty was breath-taking. I snapped hundreds of photos but none captured the spiritual essence that draws over three millions visitors to this remote area of Peru.

Today’s outing, however, seems not so promising. The sky is a low grey ceiling; driblets of water trace the window glass. High above the main site, two massive stones mark the Inti Punku or Sun Gate. Researchers believe it to be the original main entry to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail. On rare mornings when the mountain is not shrouded in cloud cover, the sun rises directly between them.

The bus drops us off near the gate and we begin winding ourselves up and around the side of the mountain. A few hikers turn back, uncomfortable with the narrowness of the trail. Alone and unafraid, I move steadily in silence, holding close to the mountainside. The clouds occasionally thin into wisps of cotton candy. I glimpse the sky; we have missed the sunrise.

At the summit, our guide Fernando sits perched like a spider across a boulder. He is mysteriously suspended in mid-air, supported by clouds. Lanky and handsome, he looks more Spanish than Kechuan. He has a surprising mouthful of silver braces and habitually lowers his head self-consciously. Chuckling to myself, I greet him by name. As a child of the ‘80’s, “Fernando” reminds me of the Abba song. I mentally hum a few bars but I can only recall the words to the chorus. I pull my water bottle and some nuts from my backpack and sit down beside him.

“You speak English very well” I say. His shy smile says he is pleased by my compliment. He tells me how he grew up about fifty miles away in the original Incan capitol of Cuzco. A few summers back, he travelled to New York. He loved the US and hopes to return when he has saved enough money.

At the mention of home, I feel myself tense.

Like a door that has been left open, I am suddenly aware of a hollow, nearly imperceptible hole in myself. I am chilled; the wind seems to blow right through me. Fernando thanks me, straightens his limbs and with a word of caution, disappears back down the trail. What had happened? Had Fernando sensed it too? Breathing in the vapors, I stare into the milky abyss, willing myself to remember this place, this moment.

I discover along my descent that the jungle has come alive in my absence. Slithering vines snake upwards while orchids languish like jewels on emerald silk, glistening from the previous night’s rain. Trills from tropical birds pierce the space high above my head and a glint of color flashes in my peripheral vision. I stop, peer up and then down the side of the mountain, yet see nothing but clouds. Further down the trail, the apparition reappears, hovering like an orb. Small and transparent as cellophane, its color shifts from yellow to pink to lavender. I try to photograph it but the camera lens moves in and out as if there is nothing there. I rub my eyes and look again, but it is gone.

Am I imagining things?

Suddenly, there is a break in the clouds. For a few moments, the magnificence of Machu Picchu spreads like a postcard below me. Mountains guard the site like moss covered sentries. Clouds swirl and dance, snagging themselves on distant peaks and wrestling the sunlight in a war of dark blue and purple. Stone walls and terraces lay cast upon the earth like a toddler’s forgotten puzzles. I am utterly spellbound.

I greet Fernando at the trail’s end and recount to him my experience. His face lights up as he explains “There are many butterflies in the Amazon called Morpho Butterflies. They seem to change colors when they fly!”

A week later I have returned back home. Like the maps and souvenir rocks and coins I brought home, my recollection of the mysterious butterfly becomes lost among the numerous memories of my journey. I sleep in my comfortable bed and drink fresh water, yet I am filled with discontent. Everything is moving too fast. On nights I cannot sleep, I walk into my backyard. I am transported back to my time in Peru. I gaze up to see the same sky that had held me pinned to those mountaintops. Now I feel weighted down by earth.

Years later, I begin searching for the creature I saw fluttering in and out of those clouds. While there are hundreds of species of butterflies in the Amazon, none seemed to look like the image I remembered. Only recently, I discovered what I believe I saw: The Mother of Pearl Morpho Butterfly. It is described as “the most iridescent of all butterflies.”

I was surprised to find this butterfly prominently featured in the Salvador Dali painting, Allegorie de Soie or Allegory of Silk. This work features disjointed images of an egg, a woman clad in elegant silk attire and several butterflies including the Pearl Morpho. The images are superimposed on a background whose shadows and lines give the feeling of time passing.  I interpret the piece as a  statement of transformation: the cocoon into the butterfly, the butterfly into the woman and then the woman back into the butterfly. Not shown, is the cracking of that egg, the unrest, the messy, chipping away of the old which is the untidy forebearer of all transformation.

“Change” is not particularly pretty nor is it easy.

Pearl Morpho Butterfly
Pearl Morpho Butterfly

It is disconcerting when we realize we are living a life that no longer fits. I believe it is human nature to want to keep that which we hold dear in those safe familiar places and yet, it is a manifestation of the spiritual and our trust in the divine that gives courage and leads us down unforged roads into unfamiliar territory. We are not born to be stagnant. It was in the unfamiliar that I began my own transformation. In middle age, I am attuned to the sound of my own heartbeat and in the listening, I become alive.

Salvador Dali's painting, Allegorie de Soie.
Salvador Dali’s painting, Allegorie de Soie.

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