Random Thoughts in the Midst of a Pandemic

Foggy Sunday, March 15, 2020

I took a walk in the cool fog today.

I like walking the fog. Fog is quiet, coming in “on little cat feet,” as Sandburg wrote. A stroll in fog is conducive to introspection and reflection.

On this day, fog seems to mean more. Walking in the fog, I can only see what is immediately around me. It seems an apt metaphor in these days of self-isolation. But in a good way. The safest place I can be is here, alone. My being here, alone, is the safest thing I can do for the people I love and care about, too.

I can look at the fog and my isolation as annoyances, as gray and depressing, as confining. Or I can look for the opportunities it provides. Time to read, write, catch up on chores. (Closet-cleaning, anyone? That’s what a cousin is doing today.)

Me? I’m about to introduce myself to a new friend over the phone. What better time than this? We found each other on social media when we realized we were each the daughter of our own mother’s best friend. We’re going to gossip about our mothers. Imagine them as teenagers. Invent stories about them. And keep each other company. We’ll laugh. We may even shed some tears.

We will connect. Even in the fog.

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

Tuesday Evening

I’ve had another thought. (Yes, sometimes that’s about how often they come to me.) It’s still foggy outdoors, and I’ve learned something. Fog looks better when I’m in its midst (or should I say mist?) than when I’m indoors looking out at it. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there worth exploring, but that’s not the thought playing in my mind just now.

What I’ve been thinking is that we just might see some real good coming from this coronavirus disaster. Now, I’m not equating potential benefits with actual devastating losses. But I remember once hearing something along the lines of, “There’s almost nothing, no matter how good for one person, that doesn’t have some bad in it for somebody else, and almost nothing, no matter how bad for someone, that doesn’t have some good in it for someone else.” It was an interesting observation and as I conjured up one situation after another, I could see how it works.

Again, I would never attempt to suggest equivalency, but the notion that most good contains bad and most bad contains some degree of good seems to hold true to some degree or other, no matter what scenario I throw at it. So I wonder . . . in this time of social distancing and self-isolation, what changes are we likely to see when we come out on the other side because some unexpected, even tangential, benefit has occurred.

Even in this highly technological and rapidly changing age, we often cling to archaic systems and structures. The coronavirus is changing all that. It’s been truly astonishing—and refreshing—to see how creative and generous individuals, businesses, and organizations have been in the face of this unknown. As stressful and challenging as these times are, people have risen to the occasion and proven their ability to adapt quickly and ingeniously.

I suspect we’re going to see some permanent restructuring after the urgent need for temporary solutions has run its course. Some of it may not be so hot. But . . . who is going to realize that some of the drastic and immediate responses to our current situation actually offer new, improved ways of doing things? How will our work change? How will schools change? How will you and I change?

I don’t know what and I certainly don’t know how, but I have this deep, deep feeling that we’re going to see some new ways of thinking and doing that will bode well for society as a whole.

That thought does me good. And I’m going to hold on to it.

Our Modern Homesteading Journey

I’m not sure how it started, or when. But I do recall that the Gnome and I were early, early disciples of Mother Earth News Magazine. We landed a first edition copy of the Whole Earth Catalog and thumbed its pages until they were ragged and yellowed. We briefly considered looking for an old farmhouse somewhere in eastern Nova Scotia and learning to grub a subsistence living from the land.

We’re still the proud owners of this 1975 Mother Earth News Almanac. It’s where we found the easy, rib-sticking recipe for potato-cheese soup–the perfect way to cap off a cold day working outdoors.

There was a time, prompted by finances as much as a back-to-the-land ethos, when we quite literally stalked wild asparagus (and wild cherries) in Louisville’s magnificent city parks. We dug day lily tubers from our back yard for food. We made jellies from the thousands of purple violets which had overtaken our lawn and from rampant patches of mint. More than once we attempted a vegetarian lifestyle. (In those days, vegetarianism was considered the true sign of a back-to-the-lander in some quarters.) We got into crafting and selling our wares—mostly weaving and macrame—at local and regional street fairs and festivals. My favorite was ‘barefoot’ sandals. Sound a little hippie? You bet!

The Gnome had always had a hankering to design and build a home with his bare hands. In our first years of marriage, he got a little—and I emphasize little—experience working on home remodeling and repair jobs with a high school shop teacher in summertime and on weekends, which made the itch that much stronger.

Time passed, life intervened, and homesteading on any level seemed an insurmountable pipe dream. But the longing for a more sustainable, self-sufficient way of living never left us. Almost twelve years in, we decided the time had come to take that giant leap. We found a few rocky, sloped acres in the mountains of western North Carolina—way out in the country; sold our Louisville house; packed up children, cats, and our most essential belongings; and headed east.

You can start here to read the nine-part series (it’s long but chock full of fun pictures) about those days living in a tent, clearing land, and self-building our forever home, so I’m going to fast forward—but not before sharing this photo of me putting up corner bracing on our entirely self-built post-and-beam home oh so many years ago.

Too soon,  we found our dream of living an old-fashioned homesteading life a little too big to handle. We both had to find full-time jobs just to pay off the loan on our land, not to mention building materials; the kids were growing up and into extracurricular activities with college in their futures; and more than ever, health insurance was a priority. Jobs turned into careers.

Round and round the circle went. Finally, we were able to retire. Only then were we able to dedicate ourselves to gardening, food preservation, rehabbing our home, drying clothes on the line, cooking and eating at home instead of on the go.

Along the way, the term ‘modern homesteading’ began to surface. As I learned more about it, I realized that’s what we were doing, what we’d been doing all along to one degree or another.

What is modern homesteading? In short, it is a way of finding your own path to a simpler, more self-reliant life. Modern homesteading allows a person to weave old-fashioned skills into modern life. To find what—for you—is the best of both worlds. By this definition, even city-slicker apartment dwellers can be homesteaders. Personal values, life circumstances, and individual demands make both the path and the destination unique for everyone and allow anyone who wants to give it a try.

Our path? We built our own house with our own hands. We’re definitely on the grid, but a chunk of our electricity comes from a community solar garden, and we have lots of south-facing windows for passive solar heat gain.

We compost and recycle. To the extent our skills and tools allow, we do our own maintenance and make our own repairs. We prefer giving and receiving simple gifts, homemade if possible. When the weather cooperates, we line dry our laundry.  For several years, we’ve grown and preserved enough vegetables to pretty much get us through the year. We even continue to forage a little.

Our typical grocery list during gardening season

We support and encourage wildlife. We prefer spending time outdoors to seeing a movie. We support local causes that matter to us personally.
Of course, we’d done some of these things all along, even in the midst of child-rearing and busy careers. Things like recycling, loving the earth, conserving electricity, making do. But now, we have a name for it. And these days we are even more conscious in our earth-friendly decision-making.

We’ve cobbled together a life that teaches us resilience. One that keeps us closer to the land even as we type on our computers, drive our gasoline-powered car, and use electric tools and appliances. We try to live with purpose, asking how little rather than how much is necessary for living the good life. We don’t feel the need for the newest, best, or most. To be sure, it hasn’t always been a smooth journey and we’ve had bouts of backpedaling. But it’s not about perfection. It’s about striving.

Overall, our lifestyle gives us vast satisfaction as well as the confidence that, should circumstances dictate, we might be competent at true self-sufficiency, at least for a while.
We have found our own middle ground. As time and circumstances change, so will our relationship with this lifestyle. Age and illness will have their impact. But we’ll continue to do the best we can to increase our self-reliance and walk gently on this good earth.

That’s what the modern homesteading journey means to us.

The journey is different for everyone, of course.  At its core modern homesteading relies on exercising any or all of what I’ve dubbed The Four Esses: sustainability, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, subsistence.

Do what you can. Do it the best way you can. Do it one baby step at a time. It all matters.

 

Blackberries and Biscuits: A Review

OK, I’m all puffed up with pride and just can’t help it.

I recently received a lovely, validating  note in the mail from someone who had just finished reading Blackberries and Biscuits. She enclosed a review because, as she said, “I truly believe it deserves literary attention and acclaim.” Wow!

Mind you, we are friends and writing colleagues, but her note and review were completely unsolicited, so I accept that her words are totally from the heart. They made my heart sing, and I’ve just gotta share them with you!

By the way, if you’ve read Blackberries and Biscuits, maybe you’d like to leave a review on Amazon–I’d sure appreciate it. Reviews are important in helping customers make buying decisions.

Review: Blackberries and Biscuits: Life and Times of a Smoky Mountain Girl 

This is a love story that spans multiple generations. By love I mean love of a family through deep kindred roots as well as love between a man and woman that intertwines those kindred roots into a captivating story that stands the test of time. Carole Coates has woven a work of words into a personal, up-close exploration of her own family tree. The family tree branches she shares with her readers surpass common features such as names, birth places and tidbits of local color. Coates’ words dig much deeper than that into the grit, hardship, hunger and belief in faith that make a person stronger. Makes them more resilient and committed to the tasks they set out to achieve. Not the least of these strengths is a true appreciation of humor. Oh yes … humor that makes you smile, giggle and grin.

Taking place on the fringes of Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, the life story of Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates unfolds through an historical sketch of a Daddy, granddaddies, great granddaddies; Mother, grandmothers, great grandmothers; sisters, brothers, cousins and friends. Photos skillfully arranged throughout this novel strengthen the visual image of this family while also providing a micro-cosmic portrayal of a life growing up in the Appalachian mountains – a life, though often hard, that was also rewarding and beautiful.

Kudos to Coates for taking extensive time to research many aspects of this story. She artfully piques the reader’s interest in a time span of history that so few may have encountered or envisioned. She thoughtfully accomplishes what it appears she has set out to do. To engage the reader in reminiscing about family, close ties, anecdotal happenings and the precious sense of timeless love. Truly, Coates has achieved her goal of writing a beautiful, everlasting love story.

Amy C. Millette
Vilas, NC
January 31, 2020

Thanks, Amy! And, in case that isn’t enough shameless self-promotion for one day, if Amy’s review inspires you to read my book, you can find it here.

 

Finding Moments of Joy

Last spring, I heard a writer friend mention the happiness journal—365 days of happiness. I was taken with the concept, but it didn’t quite fit for me. I landed on something similar, but in some ways dramatically different when I began recording one single event each day that I could claim as a personal Moment of Joy (MoJ). I mentioned my Moment of Joy journal here.

I wasn’t looking for things that simply gave me satisfaction or created an exhale of relief. Instead, I wanted to make note of those unexpected moments that take my breath away, that make me want to say to anyone who can hear, “Hey, look at that!” I vowed to exempt personal relationships and everyday happinesses when I recorded a Moment of Joy. Writing that I was happy to wake up next to the GNOME, for instance, could become a cop out and a crutch. Too easy. I’m always happy to wake up next to him. I wanted to become more aware of the little things that are too easy to miss.

I admit I’ve ended a few days scratching my head as I prepared to document an MoJ. Some days are like that. But I’m happy to report that for the most part, I have trouble narrowing down my MoJ experiences to just one or two to record. I’ve been surprised how easy it is to find them. The Gnome’s gotten in on the act, too. We see a rainbow and he says, “That could be your moment of joy today.”

A few months ago, I thought I’d stop keeping an MoJ list. I was practically stumbling over all the moments of joy around me (not a bad thing); maybe I didn’t need a list. But as fall slowly morphed into winter, I changed my mind. I’ve written before about the emotional challenge that the often overcast, always-short-day season can be for me. Of all times to be on intentional alert for moments of joy, this is it.

I’m glad I kept at it. Being attuned to joyful moments after day upon day of gray fog is so good for the soul. As I write this, I glance up every few moments to watch snowflakes lazily drift through the air. Yesterday, all it took was a look outside to notice the heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery with snow on the ground and hoar frost adding its own touch of brilliance to the mountaintops and the tips of branches. The male cardinal wears an especially bright coat of scarlet on days like that.

Last week, we spotted the brightest, biggest, most distinctly colored rainbow I think I’ve ever seen. And when we looked more closely, we could spot an ever-so-faint second rainbow above it. What a WOW moment!

When the world is as naked as it is in winter, I look for subtleties: the patterns and hues of lichen on trees, the grain of tree bark. Winter is the time for noticing the delicate shades of dried grasses in fields and meadows, ranging from sand to bronze to deep burgundy.

My Moments of Joy have ranged from getting an unexpected phone call to listening to wind gusts, from spotting a dandelion puff in winter to discovering a tidbit of information to make an otherwise mundane essay sing, from a stranger’s kindness to seeing five deer standing just outside the window or catching the scent of winter-blooming narcissus.

Being on the lookout for each day’s Moment of Joy quickly became a habit, an almost unconscious one. And that’s the way it should be—being so in the moment and so intuitively aware of the world around me that I never have to be reminded of the many things to be thankful for, of the beauty and potential for joy that surrounds me. Besides, the very best Moments of Joy are those that come unbidden, catching me off guard, sweeping off my feet.

“Hey, look at that!”

 

Modern Homesteading Update and Recipes

When I started this blog (a little over three years ago!), one of my main goals was to write about modern homesteading. Since then, however, I also  began blogging for Mother Earth News. (You can connect to many of those posts here). Since I couldn’t put the same posts in both blogs, Living on the Diagonal began to focus on personal essays, poetry, a philosophical musings, while modern homesteading got short shrift.

But I miss sharing that topic over here, and it feels a little like I’ve abandoned my original blogging idea. And if that’s what you were looking for, I have some good news. I think I finally figured a way to get back to it without encroaching on my Mother Earth News blog posts. My plan is to share modern homesteading tips, my modern homesteading philosophy, and my own learning experiences on this site, dropping them in every month or so. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to delve into single topics in more depth over at Mother Earth News.

To start (since we’re now officially in the winter season), I am linking you to several of my favorite soup recipes (previously printed here and on the M.E.N. blog) along with this perfect go-with, my prize-winning cornbread recipe. Simple and perfect for chilly winter nights.

We use home-ground Painted Mountain corn for this recipe, but store-bought cornmeal works just (well, almost) as well.

And while you’re heating up those winter delicacies, I’ll start getting my modern homesteading writing act together.

Some of these soups take almost no time to prepare and some require a slightly larger time investment—mostly peeling or chopping, but all are simple, simple, simple.

The Gnome and I came across this favorite soup recipe way back from our earliest interest in twentieth- (now twenty-first-) century homesteading. We found it in the 1973 Mother Earth News Almanac, when it was a brand new publication.  The recipe is so easy that it’s embarrassing, but, boy oh boy, is this Cheesy-Potato Soup, the perfect stick-to-your-ribs meal after a day of chopping firewood or cross-country skiing or whatever your favorite winter outdoor activity is.

This little volume has gotten a real workout over the last forty-five years!

It was during that same era when we discovered this delicious and healthful Lentil Soup. It’s also easy to make, still hearty but lighter than the others I’m posting. Best of all, one brief cooking session provides us with several hearty meals.

More recently, we’ve discovered the joys of soups made with winter squash. Either of the following recipes can be made with your choice of winter squash—butternut, pumpkin, hubbard, whatever. And the chili is equally delicious with sweet potatoes.

The yummy Cream of Pumpkin Soup with Cinnamon Croutons could almost be dessert. You’ll need to cook the squash ahead of time or use purchased canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix).

This Slow-Cooker Winter Squash Chili is another real winner. You can start it mid-morning or after lunch, depending on which temperature setting you choose. Perfect for when  you have a busy afternoon ahead. In this case, you start with raw potatoes or squash, peeled, and chunked.

Let your slow cooker do the work for you.

Happy soup-making—and eating!

Resolutions, Habits, and Intention

I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. Certainly not after young adulthood.

Before that, making a long list of things I would change about myself as each new year rolled in was an act I never questioned. But then it came to me. Resolutions rarely accomplish anything—unless it’s to make you feel bad about yourself. If you were like me, you tended to think of resolutions in terms of negatives, things you’d been doing wrong or at least were not doing right.

I made resolutions the wrong way, too: broad generalizations which couldn’t be quantified and which, even if they could, were usually impossible to live up to. New Year’s resolutions were downright disheartening. They emanated from guilt and were generally doomed to create even more.

So, no New Year’s resolutions for me.

But as we rang in 2020, I realized that 2019 had taught me something immensely important. Not about resolutions, but habits. Resolutions are so often built around breaking bad ones. Hard to do. What about building good habits instead? Practically by accident, I developed several new habits—all good—in 2019. Along the way, I discovered good habits are as easy to form as bad ones.

I feel like a genius!

A couple of my habits have taken the form of lists. I began 2019 by listing EACH BOOK I COMPLETED, mostly out of curiosity. How much was I actually reading?. Before I knew it, recording my reading became second nature. Keeping a log of one’s reading material may be kind of neutral as habits go, but I count this list-keeping as a positive, if only because I stuck to it. But there is more to it. My list gives me information to feed on. It helps me remember what I’ve read and reminds me what I want to follow up on. It helps me clarify what I like and why I like it so I can make more informed reading choices in the future. It’s a reference point for issues to develop in my writing, philosophy, and more.

About midway through the year, I began a Moment of Joy (MOJ) journal. I’ll write more about that in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that what began as a whim became a habit, almost overnight—to someone who with a lifelong ineptitude when it comes to keeping any sort of diary or journal. My MOJ journal became something bigger. Unintentionally, it became a practice in intention.

I formed another intentional habit quite unintentionally when I read Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North. She wrote about a spiritual retreat where participants were instructed to chew each bite of food, even their breakfast porridge, thirty times. Was that even possible? I had to give it a try.

It felt a little silly at first, counting every time my teeth met. But as I learned it was possible to chew one type of food thirty times, I wanted to test another. And again, without realizing it, I had developed a new habit. I began to catch myself, just below my consciousness, counting. My mind was at work building an intention, slowly ticking off the chews: twenty-seven . . . twenty-eight . . . twenty-nine . . . thirty. And sometimes up to forty or more. I was no longer chewing for the counting. Counting became a means—a pleasant way to be more intentional about the process of eating.

Not only can thirty chews per bite be done (usually); it has tremendous emotional and physical benefits. I stopped choking on food, something that happens far too often, usually because I’m in a hurry or talking or trying to multitask as I eat. Other digestive problems began to lessen or disappear altogether. I found myself more tranquil, more aware of my surroundings. It turns out that chewing each bite thirty or so times is intensely calming and refreshing. What I took on as a one-time challenge became another intention, one with far-reaching results.

Well, the new year is here and I’ve begun yet another project. This gal never before succeeded in developing a journaling habit just gave herself a five-year, line-a-day journal. It’s really more like four or five lines a day. Three hundred and sixty-seven pages, each with space for five years’ worth of notes for every date on the calendar. I’m hopeful that the constraints of this journal will help me stay on track, especially since I’m incorporating my MOJs into each day’s notekeeping. In 2025 I can, at a mere glance, look back on five years’ worth of entries for any given date for the last half decade. I think the comparison will be fascinating.

Now that I think about it, it’s a huge statement of optimism for a septuagenarian to purchase a blank book in anticipation of adding to it for 1800 days. That’s a pretty hopeful intention itself.

I’ve even started a weather diary–another five-year project.

What I learned during the past year has changed me. I’m learning to think more intentionally about lots of things—to BE more intentional. That will surely lead to more good habits, easy to keep.

Who needs resolutions?

Fifty-Two Books in Fifty-Two Weeks

That’s right. I wanted to see if I could read as fast as my mom seems to, so as we rang in 2019, I began keeping a list. And I just counted them up. Fifty-two. I don’t mind telling you, I was a little impressed with myself (especially considering I was consumed with writing my own book throughout the entire year). Admittedly, some were children’s books—quick, easy reads. But I made up for that with some massive, heavy-duty tomes.

For the record, I don’t waste my time with bad writing. But my reading habits are a little out of the ordinary, so who knows if anyone else shares my eclectic reading preferences. I rarely read a best-seller, nor do I read hot-off-the-presses books. Those two facts alone mean I’m not your typical reader.

At bedtime, I read for fun—light stuff so I can sleep. I often read books recommended by writer friends whose tastes I trust. And I’ve read quite a few books as research for my writing—or others that the research led me to as I became obsessed with a particular area. This year I’ve also read several deeper books, volumes by wise women and men who write words that inspire and push me.

Here are my favorites of the year—the best of the best.

FICTION

Don’t you just love this cover?

My favorite fiction book of the year, for all kinds of reasons, was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.: iI’s about Kentucky, a state I think of as my second home; it’s about the magic of books; it’s a history and civics lesson about pack horse librarians, the Great Depression, and the blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Kim Michele Richardson, whose own story is compelling, dug deep in penning this book. She moves from fiction to fact and back again with such deftness you never notice the switch. And her love for her subject shines through every word. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Hint: check out the pictures and information at the end of the book before you dig in to the story. I think it makes a difference to know a little about the actual history of the pack horse librarians. Rather than ruining the story for the reader, I believe this foreknowledge can only enhance your reading. Buy it or check it out from your local library—and if they don’t have it, ask them to order it. In spite of some hard truths, the story and Richardson’s telling of it are simply beautiful.

Two other favorite fiction reads of the year were Sonja Yoerg’s True Places and Bren McClain’s One Good Mama Bone (That one was a recommendation from Richardson—an excellent recommendation.) What I liked about both of these books is that the characters are believable and the reader learns from them. Yoerg’s career as a biological psychologist definitely influences her insight into the human condition. Like Richardson, she researched the Blue Ridge flora and fauna and incorporated facts with such skill you don’t notice it. While McClain’s protagonist is human, you will become deeply attached to the cow, Mama Red. In the end, McClain has written a love story to Mama Red. It’s well worth the read.

I couldn’t make myself read Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s breakout debut novel. But I was drawn to Thirteen Moons when I read that it was a fictional account of William Holland Thomas’s life. Thomas plays a minor role in my family’s genealogy. For reasons unknown, my great-grandfather was named for him And I recently discovered that Thomas married a distant relative—my second cousin three times removed. Those two facts were all it took to hook me. This book is decidedly not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was captivated. The story is episodic, almost diary-like. And there’s a reason for that. Frazier wrote that his protagonist, Will Cooper, is not Thomas, but that they share the same DNA. I’ll say. Frazier clearly read his way through Thomas’s prolific papers. There is definitely fiction here, but underlying it is far more biography and history. If you contemplate reading this book, be sure you read about the real Will first—his fascinating story as an orphan, lawyer, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and colonel in the Civil War is larger than life, both heroic and tragic. Knowing it will deepen your appreciation for Frazier’s story.

FOOD

I read three books on the subject of food, though they come from distinctly different points of view. I would never had given Tommy Tomlinson’s The Elephant in the Room a thought except that I saw and heard the author on two occasions. I could tell his writing would be superb and bewitching, regardless of the subject per the subtitle: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. With that bit of knowledge, you may have deduced the double meaning in the title. This book is brutally honest, funny, painful, and masterfully written. It’s worth the reader’s time regardless of your relationship to food, but especially worthwhile for anyone struggling with any kind of addiction or anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of that struggle. You might recognize Tomlinson’s name from ESPN, The Charlotte Observer, or WFAE Radio. No wonder he’s such a good writer.

Shawna Coronado’s Stacked With Flavor is both a cookbook and a guide to wellness, full of gleanings from her own experience and personal growth living with severe food allergies and osteoporosis. The recipes, though, are not just anti-inflammatory, dairy-free, grain-free and low-sugar, though they are all of these things. Her method—using herbs and spices to stack flavors—makes every dish endlessly versatile and delicious. That’s what caught my attention, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Coronado did her own photography and it’s delicious, too.

Georgann Eubanks may be best known for her North Carolina Literary Trails series, but she’s branched out. The Month of Their Ripening takes the reader through a calendar year of foods that, while not necessarily unique to North Carolina, are among the state’s heritage foods. She features foods whose seasons are short and which are best eaten at the height of their season. Your mouth will water at Eubanks’s delicious writing as she travels through the state’s nooks and crannies in search of Tar Heel foodways via interviews with farmers, cooks, historians, and—best of all—taste tests.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

I came to That Book Woman after reading Richardson’s tale. Both it and Ernestine’s Milky Way tell stories of rural life with stunning illustrations. I had to have them both to share with the grandkids. Both books are magical. With Ernestine, you’ll even learn how to make butter.

Rabbit Hill is an oldie, written in 1944. It’s worth reading just to see how children’s books have evolved. This one, full of sophisticated grown-up words, was clearly meant as a book to be read to children by adults who would use the story to teach vocabulary. It’s a lovely story that any animal lover has to appreciate.

Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum was not written by the famous author, but uses a newly discovered manuscript and sketches by Seuss to create a playful art book for children and features a few classic Seuss characters to help tell the story. If you love Dr. Seuss, horses, or art, you’ll fall for this unique book. A terrific way to help children learn about great art.

POETRY

I’m not even going to try. Native Kentuckian Frank X. Walker’s small volume, Affrilachia, must be read and savored, one morsel at a time. Even if you’re not big into poetry, you can appreciate this one. Walker says he coined the word Affrilachia to make visible the black experience in the Appalachian South. And he succeeded

MEMOIR

If you value excellent writing, I believe you’ll love anything you read by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg. I happened upon him quite by accident and have now read three of his books. I found Ava’s Man particularly compelling. He writes as only a Southern writer can and your jaw will drop at the sheer poetry of it. His books will make you laugh as hard as they will make you cry. And you’ll learn a few heart-breaking truths along the way.

Also see Leigh Ann Henion and Kate Bowler in the following category.

PERSONAL AND SPIRITUAL GROWTH/AGING

Not necessarily religious, these books are intellectually spiritual, some of them particularly relevant for those of us who now qualify as elders. Each one is intimate, honest, thought-provoking, vulnerable, and filled with deeply perceptive perspectives.

I’m way over my self-imposed word limit, so I’m just going to list them here with links. Sorry to give them short shrift, but perhaps it is enough to say I found each one enlightening. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say they were all seriously life-changing for me.

Leigh Ann Henion, Phenomenal (beguiling imagery; hauntingly beautiful)

Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything

Mary Pipher, Women Rowing North

Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved

Happy Reading in 2020! (And I’d love to hear about some of your favorite books.)

Note: For simplicity and universality, I’ve linked to online sources. But may I gently encourage you to seek out your local independent bookseller (if you should be so lucky as to have one) or your public library if you’re interested in reading any of these books.

P.S.: I’m laughing at myself right now. Just counted up and realize I’ve included a whopping 30% (almost) of my year’s reading list as the best. I’d never succeed as judge of a writing contest. Told you I read nothing but the best!

 

The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(Originally published 12/21/2017)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.

Looking for Gift Ideas?

Have you heard about my newest book, Blackberries and Biscuits? It’s all about my mom’s life and times growing up in the Smokies of western North Carolina during the years of the Great Depression–and afterwards, too.  Here’s the opening scene:

Not again!” she snapped. Until this moment, it had been a perfect morning. But when she turned on the tap to fill the coffee pot, nothing. Dadgum it! Preparing a hearty breakfast before seeing Braxton off to work was one of the many ways she strove to be the best wife she could possibly be. This thing with the water was getting to be a nuisance. All she asked of the Harwell boy was that he wait a measly half-hour to divert the water supply from the house to the cattle trough so Brack could get a pre-workday shower and she could fix his breakfast.

Today was one time too many. In a flash of huff, she trounced across the kitchen, slammed the screen door behind her, stomped across the sandy back yard in her pink and blue flowered pajamas, climbed over the barbed wire fence into the neighbors’ pasture, and turned off the cattle trough faucet with a sharp wrist twist.

She marched triumphantly back to the kitchen, still mad, but smug. Today there would be coffee.

Who is this woman?

Her name is Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates, and I know this true-life episode because the four-year-old version of me was in the kitchen when it happened. Surely, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper was so unlike the quiet, gentle woman I knew as my mother.

That woman would never snap, never slam, and never, ever leave the house in her pajamas.

At the time, our young family of four was living in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, about eight miles east of Florence where Daddy worked. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in “one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina.”

Built in 1857, the plantation house had been in the possession of Mrs. Harwell’s mother since 1902 and remains in the family today. Even I knew it was pretty impressive, encircled as it was with twenty-two Doric columns. Not that I knew to call them that.

By contrast, our small, wood frame house stood atop brick pillars, the open space under the house intended to keep things cooler in hot southern summers. A wide screened porch ran all the way across the front. In my recollection, a hall sliced the house’s length from front door to back with a living room, bedroom, tiny den (most of which was filled with an oil heater), and a kitchen on the left side and a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom along the right. The cavernous bathroom had a floor of hardwood, dark and shiny. Surely it was originally another bedroom, repurposed when indoor plumbing came along.

Perhaps the nearby presence of The Columns, as the Harwell home was known, made our house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to Florence’s First Baptist Church. Mother did not like the overwhelming sense that this matron “felt sorry for us,” maybe even looked down on us. It was a slight she found hard to forget, though they worked side by side at church functions for decades.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pathetic as the unpainted two-room shanty occupied by a sharecropping couple. On occasion, I walked across the farm fields to visit them. It was a tiny space, even by a four-year-old’s standards. To enter, I walked into a small area designated as the kitchen. There was room for a rough-sawn countertop on one side of the ill-fitting door and a wood-fired cookstove and old-fashioned icebox—I’d never seen one of those before—on the other. An open doorway led into their combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had once been slave quarters.

At least our house had electricity. And running water—sometimes.

There are plenty of old photos in Blackberries and Biscuits–more than 100! This one shows Mom with me and my brother Alan on Easter Sunday when our family lived in Mars Bluff.

It’s not too late to order a copy of Blackberries and Biscuits for someone on your holiday gift list–or even as a treat for yourself. You can find it here. (Tip: If you’re local, I’ve got a deal for you—just give me a buzz or pm me on FB.)

Thanks Giving

“What is the best moment of your day?” she asked.

That turned out to be a question I couldn’t answer directly. Let me put it this way.

The best moment of my day is . . .

when a sun’s ray beams onto my face, wakes me, and bird songs welcome the day;

when I eat a breakfast of eggs from the happy chickens who live just down the road;

when the cacophonous chatter of crows having their morning “coffee klatch” interrupts the still of my morning;

when I sip a cup of honeyed herbal tea as my mind loosely organizes my day;

when I check on the latest thing to pop up in the vegetable garden on a sunny summer morning—or later in the season, when I harvest what I’ll eat that day and preserve more for chilly winter nights;

when the comfort of a snuggle under the covers overtakes me upon waking in the morning and again as I fall asleep each night;

when a few hours of dedicated writing time come my way;

The best part of my day is . . .

when the all-day antics of squirrels and chipmunks capture my attention as they battle each other’s wits over food intended for birds;

when I take a twilight summer stroll listening to the quiet, watching the synchronicity of fireflies light up our woods, and catching whiffs of honeysuckle;

when I gaze at the star-studded sky on a clear, crisp wintry night and maybe catch a meteor streaking through the atmosphere;

when I spy mountaintops peeking through a sea of clouds;

when the nighttime call of an owl seeps into my consciousness;

when the early springtime sounds of wood frogs and peepers shatter the otherwise quiet of my bedroom—all night long;

when I’m graced with the giggles and confidences of grandchildren;

when the season’s first wild daisy shows itself in our meadow.

The best—and sweetest—moment of my day is a spontaneous embrace anywhere, anytime as my sweetheart and I sway ever so slightly—the way young lovers move to a slow dance at the prom—for no particular reason and for minutes on end.

With all these best moments, I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn: “How can I keep from singing?”

And I give thanks.