Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell



No Room at the “Inn-terstate”: 5 Days of Christmas Blogs

street lamp 2  It was Christmas Eve and our little SUV made its journey home slicing a light in the darkness. This was just before the years of 24 hour Wal-Marts and fast-food restaurants. Possibly just before teenagers began staying up all night texting their friends. It was Christmas Eve and we were somewhere along a faceless highway, in the no man’s land between the small towns and communities of central North Carolina. There was no snow, no reindeer, no Santa Claus, no sign of sleigh or reindeer. It seemed all the world was sound asleep except for three travelers chatting merrily over the hum of Christmas Carols on the FM radio.

My husband Perry cannot see well to drive at night, or so he says, and he often uses this as a license to engage in much merriment and a liberal consumption of libations at Christmas parties and social events. I often find myself, therefore, as the Designated Driver, which isn’t usually a problem since my overconsumption tends to center upon the dessert table and not at the bar. I commuted to my job in the city for many years and I’m nearly as at home driving as I am sitting on my own sofa.

With me at the wheel, Aunt Carole riding shot gun and my husband in the back seat, our little Dodge Caliber purred across the hills and valleys of the NC countryside. We were headed home from a family Christmas Eve dinner at my sister’s.  All was well til Aunt Carole announced she had to go to the bathroom. The black of night engulfed us. We were far from home, miles from any towns; there were no rest stations and everything, if there was anything, was closed. Aunt Carole began to squirm in her seat as I scanned the horizon frantically for signs of life. “I don’t see anywhere to stop Aunt Carole,” I uttered helplessly and drove on for a few miles. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom NOW!” orderd Aunt Carole.

As we topped the next hill, I could see the faint glow of a street lamp, it’s phos-fluorescent glow creating a sort of halo in the moist night air. Aunt Carole began furiously removing her long winter coat and unfastening her britches as I pulled the car off the highway and into a small paved entrance just off the highway. The street lamp marked the entry to a parking lot of a small business with a very large gate. The gate was locked and we could travel no further.

“I’m so sorry Aunt Carole,” I uttered helplessly.

I may not have known what to do at that moment but that didn’t stop Aunt Carole. Nothing had stopped Aunt Carole, for that matter, for most of her eighty odd years of life and she refused to be undone by a bout of IBS, a locked gate and the lack of restroom facilities. She hopped out of the car, shot around to the front side of the passenger door and began to do her business.

I glanced in the rearview mirror at my husband. His face had assumed a familiar position: his mouth beneath the moustache was stretched wide and flat into an uncomfortable fake smile; one eyebrow arched nervously as his eyes darted around everywhere except the front passenger side where poor Aunt Carole was hanging on to the car door for dear life.

Lordy, I felt so bad for Aunt Carole! Of all my aunts, of all the older ladies I knew, Aunt Carole was so elegant and ladylike. That she be forced to such circumstances at the side of the road, no room at the inn-terstate seemed a great travesty. Jingle Bells was playing on the radio and I turned the volume up a bit so I didn’t have to hear anything outside that I didn’t want to hear.

“I think I’m done,” said Aunt Carole finally and I handed her a bunch of napkins from my glove compartment. “Oh no,” she  cried. “It’s all over my slacks! God God, it’s everywhere…”

Perry was squirming in the back seat, audibly, and his restlessness had turned into a twitch.

“Hold on, let me see if I have anything.” I stepped out and made my way to the back of the car, threw open the hatch and scanned the contents of the car. Often, I carry everything but the kitchen sink back there but I had cleaned it out to make room for hauling Christmas items. There were bags of Christmas gifts, left over Sweet potato Casserole and a tray of cookies. No gym clothes or plastic bags or cleaning rags. Aunt Carole had used our complete stash of napkins for the first round of unsuccessful cleaning and the only available item that could help was a tablecloth.

Aunt Carole peered at me helplessly over the top of the passenger door. “I’ve got to take these things off…” she said, matter of fact. “I’ve got to take them ALL off.”

I thought to offer her the tablecloth but I eyed the car’s interior selfishly. “Hold on….” said my husband in the back. I could see him squirming around and in a few seconds he handed me his jeans. I turned around to find him perched in the back seat looking rather sexy with his Christmas sweater, dark socks, loafers and skivvies. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Here you go Aunt Carole,” I said and handed her my husband’s pants. “Oh Perry!” she exclaimed. “Honey you don’t have to do this… oh I am so sorry babies.” Poor sweet Aunt Carole, dirty and half naked, getting dressed by street lamp in the middle of nowhere. Hubby in the backseat was subdued, his nervousness for Aunt Carole now surpassed by his own.

My aunt made her way back into the car. I smoothed the tablecloth over the front seat and she sat down gingerly. “Oh my! I am so sorry,” she continued to murmur. “Perry, you didn’t have to do that, honey, but I thank you so much. So very much my darlings…You’re just my angels!”

I pulled the car back onto the highway. We tried to ignore any new scents that permeated the night air, and I cracked the window for myself even as I turned up the heat for my naked husband in the back seat. After a few miles, we began to laugh and joke, even Aunt Carole. “Did I ever tell you about the time this happened to me in Winston Salem?” I asked. “I left my underwear beside a tree in someone’s yard in Sherwood Forest one evening!” Perry recounted his own incidents of not quite making it to the bathroom as well. It was decided that pretty much the whole family was full of shit and we laughed and joked our way across the rest of the county til we reached Aunt  Carole’s home.

“Don’t bother seeing me to the door.. Want me to get you a blanket or something?” she teased Perry.

“That’s ok,” he said. “We’re ’bout home…”

She peered back into the car, shook her head in amusement at my husband, still seated in the backseat and patted me lovingly on the hand before departing.

“Aunt Carole,’ my husband called from the darkness. “I just want you to know you got me out of my pants faster than any woman I’ve ever known!”

Aunt Carole snorted and we all began to laugh hysterically. My precious witty husband. How his quick thinking and humor had saved quite a humiliating evening for one of our favorite people in the world. It would be a secret shared by my husband and Aunt Carole for the rest of her life.

It’s our custom to give presents for those we love at Christmastime and while that’s okay, always remember the best gifts are spontaneously given from our hearts. You don’t always have to give the shirt off your back or the britches off your bottom but sometimes that’s just what is needed.

Merry Christmas and rest in peace my darling, Aunt Carole. You know who you are. Your secret is safe with me.





MIA: 7 Days of Christmas Blogs

viet letr 2 I’ve whispered Merry Christmas to you like a prayer and asked God to bless you and keep you safe wherever you may be. You appear to me often in my dreams like the Ghost of Christmas Past and the memories of so many years gone by still make me smile. But just like the movie, the “you” of the past and the “you” of the present are not the same. I have to wonder, does the person I loved all those years even exist anymore? You’ve lost your way right now and the thought of that makes me very sad.

I found a photo of us the other day. You are 15 and mama and daddy had just brought me home from the hospital. You are in the living room we never used except for company, sitting on our nicest sofa. You are holding me, your brand new baby sister, grinning from ear to ear. If you were hoping for a little brother instead of another sister, I couldn’t tell by the photo. I guess God gave you the next best thing in me, a little girl who played as hard as a boy. Did you have any inkling then that the little bundle you were holding would follow you around like a beagle pup in a few years, running around half naked and barefoot in the summer heat and hanging on to the back of that tractor while you plowed the fields? We sure had some good times then, didn’t we?

I have the letter you sent me shortly after you arrived in Vietnam in 1969. I was 7 years old and I thought it was the best thing ever that my brother had sent me my very own letter from half way around the world. You wrote it on government supplied stationary and used your best handwriting (which is usually lousy by the way) so I could read it myself and show it off. The paper is thin and I can read between the lines now to see what you didn’t say. You were scared and far from the home,  hanging on to the memories, hoping they’d lead you back home one day. You were a good brother to do that, and I want to thank you for remembering me and for reaching out when you were off in the middle of a war.

And then, do you remember when Perry and I got in a fight when our dog died? We woke up to find the dog dead. It was a clear cold Sunday morning just like today. Perry  wanted to have the dog cremated but I was upset, telling him people in my family didn’t do that, we bury our dead. I was mad as a hornet and I wrapped the dog in a towel and brought him with me down to your house. You were going to help me bury him til Perry called later and said he had changed his mind. I got home to find that he had dug a hole in that frozen earth and we buried old Petey in that cold damp earth.

These memories are just a few of the ones I hold, prized possessions that validate the light and the good in you. It nearly ripped my heart out to have to draw that line in the sand with you and say “enough” . As the little sister, it always seemed natural to let you call the shots but I can’t do that anymore. I’ve my own conscious to answer to. I love you so much but there’s nothing I can do to fix this. Your choices are your choices. Still, I’ve lived long enough and lost enough to know that life will simply find a way of going on in that way it does, rolling over those rough patches in life, smoothing them out with time if you give them light and air and don’t let wounds fester.

There is so much joy to be had during this season of love and family and I cannot allow my sadness to overcome my joy. I will bake cookies like I do every year. I’ll keep all the traditions, wrap presents, decorate, spend time with loved ones and friends. I will treasure time spent with your children and your grandchildren and will wish that you, the “old” you that is, could be there to share in that joy. My heart will jump when I see their eyes sparkle at the gifts beneath the tree and I’ll remember how you teased me for being that way too, since I was the baby in the family.

Christmas is a blessed reminder of how we’ll all be reunited again one day when there’s nothing left to forgive about each other.

One of the most painful things about growing up is that you learn some things are just too important to leave it at “agree to disagree”. You reach a place in life you have to take a stand, even when it causes pain. I wish you hadn’t burned so many bridges, but you’d probably say the same about me. Still I wonder, how it is that you came back from the war but over fifty years later you are MIA?


Shine…: 9 Days of Christmas Blogs

Hill Street Christmas  I live in one of those neighborhoods where almost everyone decorates the outside of their home for Christmas. From late November to January, the tiny 1100 block of Hill Street in Greensboro puts on a resplendent show of Christmas festivity. Cars inch down the road gawking at the unique and colorful displays.

Last year I wrapped the big cherry tree in my front yard with several thousand twinkling white lights. Large old-fashioned red bulbs spill over the azaleas by the wrought iron railing while oversized Christmas balls float on fishing line above the canopy over my entryway.

The house across the street could rival the Griswold’s. With the help of a professional decorator and a newly added electrical circuit, Christmas lights transform this brick bungalow into an enchanted English cottage. The sloped roof hangs heavy with glistening icicles. Lights strewn on the ground create the illusion of a meandering stream. Dazzling illuminated spheres made from chicken wire are suspended from tree branches like rainbow colored fruit.

Another neighbor’s home resembles something out of Whoville. Trees are wrapped and their branches punctuated with illuminated exclamation marks of color. Columns are striped like crisp red and white peppermint sticks, which melt into pink as their tops spread wide like outstretched fingers over the front porch.

Two houses down, some fifty feet above the ground, a huge star is cradled like a heavenly body between the limbs of an old oak tree. The family who lives here tragically lost their teenage son several years ago. At random times throughout the year, the star is exchanged for a giant red heart. The light serves as a reminder to all of us of loss and love.

I was recently talking with a nurse in the Oncology unit of Cone Hospital. She said her patients often drive down our street following their chemo and radiation treatments. I imagine the sight of the brightly lit decorations lifts their spirits and for a moment, helps them to forget the seriousness of their condition.

On winter evenings, I walk my dogs down the street, pausing to admire decorations that are as colorful and diverse as the personalities who live in each home. I am thankful for the time and effort put forth by my neighbors in a gift that so many of us can enjoy.

From the ancient winter solstice festivals of the Druids to our modern day Christmas, celebrations of light have been observed for centuries by nearly every culture around the world. While many of us are familiar with Hanukkah and Ramadan festivals in the US, less familiar is the Japanese festival of Obon Matsuri. I’ve seen spectacular photographs of hundreds of floating lantern “boats” as they were released onto rivers where it is believed they float downstream to the spirits of their ancestors.

As human beings, I believe we are also meant to shine. By honoring others through acts of service and kindness, we are like candles whose flames are touched end-to-end. We share and amplify the glow of our individual lights, without our own light being diminished. We claim power over the darkness and cast warmth into an otherwise cold world. We shine to let others know they are not alone. We shine to bring comfort and to ease one another’s suffering. We shine in honor of the sacrifice that was paid to give spiritual meaning to our physical lives on earth. Through shining our light, we make manifest the glory of the divine spirit that is present in all living things.

From Hill Street to your street, may you all have a bright and shiny Christmas and a dazzling New Year!

This is a repost of a 2014 Christmas Blog. I liked it so much I wanted to share it again.

The Love of Thousands: 10 Days of Christmas Blogs

angels1 As an avid traveler, interior designer and writer, I spent most of my life feeling like an anomaly. My family consisted mainly of mill workers, farmers and educators who rarely felt called to leave the county they were born in. While researching my ancestry back several hundreds of years, I’ve discovered artists and adventurers with whom I feel a shared and kindred spirit. I have traced my Swicegood lineage back to Lorantz Schweisguth who immigrated from Germany/ Austria into the US by way of Lancaster Pennsylvania. His son John would later change the spelling of his name to “Swisegood” before coming south to literally make a name for himself in my hometown of Davidson County, North Carolina. John was a skilled furniture-maker and carved elaborate pierced tombstones of soapstone in the old Germanic tradition, many of which are still in good condition today. He established the reknowned Swisegood School for Cabinetmaking, creating museum-quality furnishings that are sought by collectors and museums today. No doubt he was part of the movement that helped central North Carolina become in its heyday the “furniture capital of the world”. I  can only guess that John must have shared my love of good craftsmanship and the discriminating eye of an artist. His families’ sense of adventure pushed them onto a boat, into unsafe waters and into a foreign country. It propelled John to the North Carolina backwoods to seek a new life.

Although these people never knew me, I’ve no doubt they passed on some traits to me. Most of all, they loved their families and wanted a better life. They had children who loved their children and so forth until centuries later a child was born that was me. It occurs to me that I am no doubt the result of the love of thousands.

In my travels, I often collect rocks to bring back as souvenirs because they tell the unique story of singular place. I have a beautiful piece of jagged blue slate that I found walking in a meadow in the Swiss Alps that was scattered from the continent of Africa when it drifted across the ocean and collided into Europe millions of years ago. I have pebbles from a beach in Santorini where volcanoes exploded hundreds of thousands of years ago. Marble-like stones were formed when the molten lava mixed with the aggregate seashells, sand and limestone.

It is amazing to realize the immense power of these forces and how although they are invisible, they are actually stronger than what they created and left behind. A human beings’ most primitive sensations are activated through the senses of sound, sight or touch, yet the greatest forces in the world cannot be seen with our own eyes and are only perceived by their effects on other objects. “Reality” as we know it would not exist were it not for the the invisible forces that breathed life into them in the first place. 

Whether you call these forces God or fate or evolution or the luck of the draw makes no difference. Naming it one thing or another does not diminish its power. We must believe that the same process that shapes the earth shapes us as well. Love is the greatest force to leave its mark on human beings and it calls us to procreation and the continuation of life. A forest that has been burned will not stay charred for long before new growth sprouts out of the ashes. I believe the essence of love and God are one and the same. Love is omnipotent, love always trumps hate and love is constantly at work beneath the surface of our world healing hearts and smoothing out the kinks in our spirits.

Christmas exists solely because of this love. It’s why we celebrate the type of deep and selfless love that looks so far into the future, both into us and past us that there is no end.

This world would deny us the reality of this divine connection but try looking across the landscape beyond the surface and for the invisible forces that shape our physical world. Who has not marveled at a cross section of a tree, counting and examining the rings for clues to its past. Lean years, years of abundant rain and nutrition, disease… the story of the tree’s life is told in its inner rings. Gullies and ditches form as water meanders across the landscape; rivers slice deep channels in the earth on their path to the ocean. Our world is a hard and difficult place, especially these days with the 24/ 7 bombardment of depressing news, rampant consumerism and reality television that touts pathetic, offensive behavior as if it is really news-worthy. Turn off your television and cell phone. Have a cup of tea. Have a real conversation with someone and while you’re at it, listen and don’t talk so much. Look outside. Take a walk. Connect to the source. Find some quiet moments in the midst of these busy holidays and be cognizent of the “reason for the season” because I promise you, there really is one.

X-treme Santa: 11 Days of Christmas Blogs

Despite the fact that I am now an eligible member of AARP (I thought the application I received in the mail was a joke) anyone who knows me will attest that I’ve remained a child at heart. Even when I became a mother at age 30, there were not many things I enjoyed more than playing Santa Claus. What I believed to be innocent, spontaneous acts of joy and seasonal celebration caused numerous problems in my household. One issue was that since my husband never enjoyed the shopping and wrapping parts of Christmas as much as I did, he was rarely around to reign me in as he has most of our married life when I’d go overboard. Christmas morning often dawned to reveal surprises for everyone beneath the tree. The other and more serious problem was that while our son liked receiving presents, he was terrified of Santa Claus.

Oh yes, instead of the free-spirited  innocent mini-me I expected to raise, God had other ideas. He planted the soul of a suspicious, anxious old man inside our little boy’s body. Our son didn’t trust Santa Claus or anyone else for that matter prowling about our house at night.  Ever since a workman putting down a plywood subfloor in the attic had fallen through his ceiling, the idea of a huge sleigh and a team of hairy reindeer prancing atop the steep roof just above his second floor bedroom made him uncomfortable. When in late November we began reading “The Night Before Christmas” , Brennen would eye the visible patch in his sheetrock ceiling nervously.

benedrylAs Christmas Eve rolled around and our son was all worked up into a holiday fervor, even drugging him with Benadryl could hardly make him fall asleep. Like most parents my husband and I simply gave up on getting him to sleep in his own bed and allowed him to snuggle with us downstairs where he felt more secure. Once his breaths were deep and regular, I’d roll quietly out of bed and grope my way into the dark living room. As quietly as a mouse, I would pull bags and boxes out of closets and the trunk of the car, arranging the loot around the tree while my husband stayed in our warm and cozy bed on “lookout”. Since hubby was oblivious to most of the gifts being given, he was frequently as surprised as our son on Christmas morning. He was especially taken aback the year Santa brought a live bird. It was after midnight on Christmas Eve when I sneaked into my neighbor’s basement to retrieve the beautiful white cockatiel parrot I’d purchased the day prior. I slipped the birdcage under the tree and covered him with a tablecloth,  praying that he would not burst into song until he was revealed the next morning.

That was the year we learned that gifts from Santa are non-returnable, even with a father’s protest.

Like all parents we forced our son to get his picture made with Santa. We were only able to do this for one year because in subsequent years, he keenly remembered the event as traumatic and wouldn’t get within fifty feet of a man in a red suit.  There is a photograph of our son, arms outstretched, eyes terrified and shrieking “Mama-hold-you!” Long before Elf on the Shelf, the Santa of my generation was like a perverted Peeping Tom who gazed in the windows at night and lurked behind the trees by day. I frequently sang about it, “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake…” I’d murmur. Like our own parents had done to us, we tried to bribe our children into being good by explaining that Santa was always watching and would bring a lump of coal if he misbehaved. Of course, the simple fact of having gas logs and a heat pump in our 2 level suburban tract home did little to enhance any positive or negative attributes of coal. Also, I staged phone calls with relatives and we wrote letters to Santa addressed to the North Pole. Without fail, we left cookies and milk on the side table near the Christmas tree and scattered reindeer food on the sidewalk on Christmas Eve. One year I tracked talcum powder all over our dark hardwoods so realistically that my husband awoke convinced that Santa himself had been stomping around the living room spreading someone else’ ashes.

In hindsight, I admit I went overboard. I’d like to think rather than being a horrible mother I may have simply done the wrong thing for the right reason? (I’m not sure if that’s any better than doing the right thing for the wrong reason but it sounds good…)We were so fortunate and it was easy to be carried away by it all. We had a beautiful healthy and slightly neurotic son. We had a warm home with dirty hardwood floors to call our own. We had good neighbors who left their basement door unlocked, plenty of food to share and enough money to buy Christmas presents. We had the hole in the ceiling patched. Most importantly, we had our family.

While those days when our son was young were precious, Christmas today in our near-empty nest has become more simple. As I debate the benefits of my submitting that AARP application, I have started to accept that simple is best. They say that when our Christmas list is short it is because the things we want cannot be bought. I’d have to agree.  A sound and discriminating mind, good health, freedom, the continued presence of those we love, safety and world peace… these are things which all human beings long for and cannot be bought at any price.

Today, our formerly terrified toddler is a grown man, working and in college and newly engaged to be married in September. I am so happy that he has chosen the best gift of all this year: a sassy, intelligent, compassionate woman just quirky enough to blend into our weird little family. A young lady who will hopefully be a mother to his children and a partner for life! While my husband and I hope they spend much of their early years simply loving and focusing on their marriage, I must admit I look forward to having grandchildren in and out of the house one day. There’s just something magical about children and Christmas. I need to start reading up about this Elf on the Shelf thing. I’ve got some ideas… 

The Piano Bench: 12 Days of Christmas Blogs

As a child, I grew up in the country just down the road from my Grandma Young on a small plot of land she carved off her 100 acre farm for my mama and daddy. After losing her husband to lung cancer near the end of the Great Depression, grandma’s only son moved his new wife from the city into his mama’s farmhouse where they worked and lived out the rest of their lives together. Although I didn’t know it at the time, we had a lively and eccentric family (even by Davidson County standards) and there was always an abundance of family members nearby, cousins, aunts and uncles.

Ironically Grandma Young never seemed “young”. For the nearly twenty years I knew her, she was ancient. She never learned to drive a car and walked nearly everywhere she went. When she left her house, she carried a black pocketbook over her arm. She wore a drab shapeless dresses with thick “stockings” rolled down to her ankles and ugly lace-up black leather shoes. If it was summer or if she was working in the fields, she donned an old-fashioned calico sun bonnet (as she had done since she was a girl) covering her head and her long narrow face. In my memories, I do not see grandma in color, rather she exists like a still-shot black and white photograph, sitting in an old straight-back wooden chair with her clouded bad eye staring out at the fields absent-mindedly.

Long before I came along as the baby in the family, our families had a tradition of getting together on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we’d gather in the basement of mom and dad’s brick ranch and sometimes in the small cramped living room of grandma’s farmhouse. It seems like we rotated houses depending on which family finished eating dinner first. Because my mama burned everything from cakes to iced tea, I preferred eating supper early and going to grandma’s house where my Aunt Johnnie was the hands down winner in the family dessert competition. She made all sorts of amazing cakes and pies, including her famous homemade Persimmon Pudding and fresh Coconut Cake.

aunt J   One of my favorite memories as a child is of sitting on the piano bench beside Aunt Johnnie singing Christmas Carols. Now if you made a list and told Santa all the characteristics that were needed to make the perfect aunt, they would have manifested themselves right there in that single stout and faithful woman. Aunt Johnnie was kind, patient, humble and generous of spirit. She was sweet and soft enough that I could nestle close beside her on the end of the piano bench without falling off. She never seemed in a hurry to go talk with the other adults or fix herself a piece of pie. I remember her swaying to the tempo of the music. Her fingers moved stealthily over the keyboard, her eyes focused on the pages of some old hymnal as her feet pumped the foot pedals.

My favorite pedal, even after I learned to play the piano myself, was the one on the right called the damper pedal. It makes the piano sound both loud and soft at the same time, allowing each note to remain suspended in the air a few seconds longer to meld with the others before falling silent.

I have often wondered if it was the fact that Aunt Johnnie lived out most of her adult life in her mother-in-law’s home that gave her an extra special dose of patience. It might have given her a special sensitivity for those of us that felt alone and needed some extra love at times. I always remember Aunt Johnnie fondly during the holiday season, but it is with a special tenderness this year. She passed away in February after a stroke and long illness and a mere five weeks after losing her grown son Bobby to cancer in the middle of January. I hold her and the family she loved so dearly in my thoughts and prayers on this first difficult Christmas with her gone.

Today I continue to feel Aunt Johnnie’s gentle loving spirit. In the bustle of the holidays, she reminds me not to hurry so. She says not to worry about the shopping and the decorating. I hear her voice in the old hymns like Silent Night and Joy to the World. Her single greatest gift to me was the gift of her just being there.

At the time, I doubt Aunt Johnnie felt she was doing anything special for me; she was just being herself and sharing her love with me. In the act of making enough room for me to sit beside her on that bench, it allowed me to feel truly special.

Susan dedicates this piece to the memory of her beloved aunt, Johnnie Mae Wallace Young (1933-2015). May you all feel the love and peace of the holiday season.

Post Thanksgiving 2015

atumn leaf

The remains of Thanksgiving dinner are still in the fridge. I cannot will myself to throw away the pumpkins on the front porch and replace them with Christmas garlands and lights. On my walk through the neighborhood yesterday, a balmy golden autumn afternoon that didn’t even require a jacket, car after car passed by me with their Christmas trees tied to the top.

Sure, I know Thanksgiving came late this year and there is already less than four weeks til Christmas but at the risk of sounding like Scrooge, I must  ask myself if that really matters. Do we really need to rush from one holiday to the next?

You couldn’t have paid me to fight the crowds at the Black Friday sales events, which of course begins on Thursday these days. “Consumer spending is down,” I hear on the news. Come on people, our cheeks are still salty from the tears spent mourning the lives lost in recent terrorist attacks in France, the downing of the Russian airliner by ISIS and the refugee crisis in Syria. I am distraught that my fellow Americans might actually elect such a pompous fool as Donald Trump to the White House in the most hostile and politically charged time in the history of the world since World War 2. So, tell me again how is it that we are supposed to give a rat’s ass about US consumer spending statistics?

If living well is the best revenge, the point can be argued whether or not we, as a nation, are indeed living well. According to my financial statements and my employer’s CEO, my little corner of the world in Greensboro North Carolina has yet to fully recover from the 2008 recession. And yet, I treat myself to a $5 Iced Chai Latte at Starbucks and fritter away $200 bucks on a single trip to Costco. By world standards the NY Times reports that the bottom 5% of the US inhabitants are still better off than 68% of the world’s population. Despite the heated discussions in our governmental chambers on our acceptance of Syrian refugees, no one can dispute that life here or practically anywhere would be a great deal better from whence they came. ironically while these people clamor for our shores, more Mexicans are migrating out of our country rather than into it. You wouldn’t know that by listening to discussions on “deporting twenty million illegal immigrants”. Why spend so much energy talking about deporting them when things are so bad here they are now practically deporting themselves?

All these things really tell me is that depending on your vantage point, there are mass discrepancies in people’s perception of reality. The world at large seems to be suffering from a mass lunacy. Things are really great or they are really horrible… I’m just not sure which.

It’s been simultaneously a very difficult and very wonderful year for myself and my family, I hardly know whether to laugh or cry. Our family has lost three pets and two close family members even as we are blessed to gain a daughter-in-law this coming September. On the same day recently I received great news from my friend Cindy that she will be a grandma this spring while another friend called to confide that she’s received a bad mammogram and will be undergoing further tests in the next few weeks. My husband woke me up at 4:30 AM this morning to let me know there is a roof leak in our kitchen.

It’s a hard thing for me to do-  to let things just roll off my shoulder like the water  pouring through my kitchen chandelier. It’s human nature, I believe, in difficult times for us to hold on to life even more tightly. It’s hard to put a lot of trust in the world, I think, even in my husband who has begun practicing navigating me backwards in the “fox trot” . We have begun taking ballroom dance lessons at the local Fred Astair Studios. As we move in a counterclockwise motion around the room, he attempts to dodge a deaf sleeping dog and a stray pair of slippers while according to our instructor, I am not supposed to “look down.”  When Perry fumbles, I take control and he says through clenched teeth (because he’s trying not to lose the beat) “Let ME lead”. I wonder if this re balancing marks a new point in our relationship.

We practice at night in our empty living room that is awaiting new furniture because the cat peed on our furniture. Repeadedly. At the end of my rope, I finally booted her outside several weeks ago. It is still painful to think that we lost her this weekend, not only to a viscous dog attack but even more to my own bad judgement. I just want to say again how sorry I am Nala. Other than peeing and scratching my furniture you were a really good kitty and I never meant you any harm. I think about this, talking to this dead cat, as I spin around my living room.

This is a lie; we are not spinning. It is only the leaves outside that spin and dance, along with the world. You can barely even call what we are doing dancing. Still, I hold my husbands hands lightly, look him straight in the eye  and wait for the count to begin.

Dust to Dust

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????? My older dogs, ages eleven and eighteen, have begun waking me up in the wee hours of the morning to go outside. It is only with this new and recent habit of finding myself awake and already called out from my warm bed so much earlier than I would have preferred that I realize the ideas swirling from my dream state, itching my finger tips. Although I love writing in the evenings, I am beginning to think I should write in the mornings when I’ve only to put it all on paper.  How grateful I am that most nights I go to bed feeling frazzled and during my dreams I am somehow, miraculously knit back together.

It’s the second day after the New Year. Following a respiratory infection a month ago, I went to the Urgent Care Center yesterday for my wheezy and persistent cough; I was diagnosed with something akin to asthma, an overly reactive inflammation of my bronchial tubes. “Do you have allergies?” the doctor asked.

So perhaps that is why I woke up this morning thinking about dust. My visit to the Serengeti a few months ago was remarkable in many ways, not the least of which was the amount and consistency of dust. It was dry season; the dust was light as a feather. It coated the surface of my photographic lens and sifted into the corners of my camera bag. As our Land Cruiser flew over the rough terrain of the Serengeti, we were masked men with mouths and noses covered by scarves and bandanas. After days spent exploring the savannahs, in the evenings kind black men hauled buckets of steaming water to the back of our tents, raised the bucket overhead by pulley to create a small degree of water pressure onto the water hose and shower head. This was the best and shortest shower in the world. With the grit rinsed from my body, I felt renewed and excited, ready to go back, back into the dust.

This same dust still coats the tennis shoes and sandals I brought home and am hesitant to wash them. Just the other day, I pushed them again to the back of the laundry. It is irrational, I know, but I find myself thinking, “If I wash the shoes, might I wash away Africa?”

Until this morning as I plodded to the back door in my dream state, I had also not made the mental connection with the dust I remember from my childhood home on Goat Pasture Road. Our road was unpaved; its gravel and red clay soil provided a surface better than Africa but  far worse that I am accustomed to travelling today. For most of my childhood, we did not have air conditioning so that in the summer’s, we left the windows open, often with a fan inserted into the open window to circulate the air. On Saturday’s, along with cleaning the bathrooms, my other job was to dust the furniture. I could never get rid of that dust. It resettled immediately on the surfaces seconds after I wiped it away.

I think of this new day. This new year. Begin again. Funny how our journeys in life take us forward but they also take us back. A new year inspires resolutions, the naming of behaviors we hope to improve upon and to influence our year. these are often based on our bad behaviors the previous year. A trip may start with packing a suitcase or getting on a plane. All of these are journeys of one sort or another; journeys start in our head with a story. I am not sure if journeys ever really end. Journeys change us, less into something new but more into better versions of what we already are.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” These words with which we will leave this world are not from the Bible but rather from the 1500’s Book of Common Prayer. Still, who can doubt it is not biblically inspired? I wonder where does the dust come from? Are we not all the same? Are all places not the same?

I imagine during the rainy season, another remarkable thing in Africa might be the mud. The say the roads completely wash away. But the Africa of mud is not the Africa I know. That must be someone else’s story; I only know it through the dust.

5 Days of Christmas: Letter From Santa


Dear Brennen,

I’ve been watching you since you were born, waiting for you to come along and take your  place in the world. You were always a funny kid; an old precocious soul housed in a young body. Although you liked the gifts you found on Christmas morning, you never really liked the idea of me coming down the chimney and prowling through your house late at night, eating your mom’s cookies and tracking snow and reindeer dust over the dark wood floors. There were many Christmas Eves when I thought you would never fall sleep. Your parents would lay in bed with you or make you a pallet on the floor in their room til you finally fell nodded off.

I remember the years when you were young. Remember the Brio train sets that your family lost a few years ago when they moved to Greensboro? Your mom tried her best to get them back from the Goodwill trailer in Midway. It almost broke her heart to have lost those but I made sure another little kid had a blast with Thomas the Tank Engine and the little wooden pieces that made up the track and village.

Growing up, you were fascinated by dinosaurs and airplanes, Lego’s, Star Wars and Pokemon. Every year, I loved thinking how your face was going to light up Christmas morning at all the toys beneath the tree.

My favorite year was when you were twelve and your family woke up to find a live bird beneath the tree. Boy was your dad surprised! I covered her cage with a cloth when I left it beneath the tree and told her, “Shh-hh-hh, don’t make a sound.” She was perfectly quiet til morning then she began to sing so prettily. She was beautiful, a pure white Cockatiel. You named her Cloud.
Unfortunately, she died a week later on New Years Eve. Your mom was never sure if she killed her or not. She’d never had a bird before and the books emphasized how you should supplement their diet with fresh fruit and veggies. It might have been the celery. Who knew birds could eat a million fruits and veggies in the wild, but one bite of celery and kapoosh, it shuts down a bird’s digestive system. Rest in peace, Cloud. (Brennen, remember this when you are older- how your mom always screwed things up going overboard to do the right thing.)
But things got better, didn’t they, a few days later when you and your mom went to get another bird at the Flea Market off ’85 in Salisbury. Remember the magic as my owl came to escort you to the right place. That owl flew beside the car for nearly a mile along the side road and you watched out the car window in wonder, amazed. After that, you always felt owls were looking out for you. When you were a teenager at the old house in Welcome, your mom would hear them calling late at night. They told her you were going to be okay, that you were just going through the pains of growing up. The owls were right.

Then, you got Zeke bird and you had him about ten years til he passed away last year while you were away at college. He was such a great part of your family. he could bark like a dog and call the kitties. Your dad took care of him in the end, cleaning out his cage and saying goodbye.
Just to be safe, I am not bringing your mom any more birds.

You were smart enough to never have “The Christmas Talk” with your parents straight out. You asked a few aimless questions when you were young but you didn’t want to pry too much, less the magic stop.

And it never did.

Now, so many Christmases have passed and you are an adult. You no longer live with your parents and you’re not quite sure where you belong .That’s ok; it’s normal to feel that way. If each phase of our lives were so comfortable, we’d never want to leave it. You’re just in transition and dealing with change is never easy. There comes a time when you realize you will never spend another Christmas morning under your parent’s roof. Oh, they’d like for you too! They’d cook a big breakfast and invite over Grandmommy and Pops, Aunt Kim and Uncle Mike, just like they did when you were little. But it’s kinda weird now; the house your parents live in now is not the house you grew up in. Your dad keeps his clothes in the closet and his keys and wallet on the bureau. It probably feels more like their house than yours.

Just remember, that your parents love you very much. Even though you’re a man now with college, a job and responsibilities of your own, you need to let yourself still be a kid sometimes. There’s a part in all of us, even me, that never grows up. It’s ok to want to go home, even though you’re not sure where it is anymore.

Merry Christmas, Brennen.

Love, Santa

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