Adventures With Electricity

The journal entry begins : “Today I am camping in the Adirondacks.  I got to this remote spit of land led by Dick, who grew up exploring these parts.  Jim is here, too, of course, and Gordon, still on honeymoon with his bride, Su.  

We are tenting in the woods along the shore of Lake Lila, beneath a 360 degree sky with no sign of anything manmade.  We started the day paddling into a creek with a lot of beaver activity.  We portaged around a couple of beaver dams to get to the back of the creek. 

The whole experience immediately made me feel like I was looking deeply into a painting by Neil Welliver. His work was a beacon for me when I was very young.  And now that I am often without signal in places without roofs or roads, his work seems even closer to me. This was his landscape.  These were the trees and the colors he saw in the forests of the Northeast.  Not my drowsy southern swamps.   “A hostile environment”, Dick says. As much as I am living Neil Welliver here, I am also witnessing Winslow Homer’s camping watercolors brought to life.  

We paddled into our campsite three days ago and set up tents in a fine forest of pine and birch with a pine needle floor.  There are patches of Indian Pipe everywhere I look, and wild blueberries, ferns and mosses.  

It was windy and cloudy when we set up tents, so three people contributed their backpacker’s tarps to make one large dry spot in the forest, and soon after we finished, it began to rain. 

The wind picked up, got wild, and I wondered aloud if my own tent, in the direct route of the wind, was still standing.  It was its maiden voyage— my new ultralight, and the wind thought it was ultralight too.  Gordon sprang up, and ran out in the rain to right it,  and as he pushed in a stake, lightning struck a pine tree fifteen feet away. We  shouted for him and it felt like I moved in super slow motion, getting up from my chair to find him.  He was thrown to the ground but somehow recovered enough to stumble back to us. One foot and one hand were numb.  One finger was ghostly white.  Su wrapped him in her coat and we suppressed panic, just glad he could walk to us, and talk once he got there.  I can only just bring myself to write about it as record-keeping. I felt every emotion, sane and insane, but over the course of an hour Gordon returned to a shaky normal. The storm dropped back to just a downpour. 

When I headed to my tent a few hours later, the bathtub style base had collected several inches of water, as had my sleeping bag and clothes.  I hauled some things around in a shock-induced state of mind, thinking of sleeping under the rain tarp, but reversed that decision when I realized how cold it would be.  I untethered my tent and poured off the accumulated water, shaking it hard upside down, anchored it and started to refill it with anything I could find that was dry, and remove everything that was soaked.  I remembered that, with only one’s body’s warmth you can dry a set of wet wool socks in your tent, so I decided to build on that principle.  I tucked into the tent, wearing long underwear and sleeping on an air mattress, using a garbage bag as a sheet and my raincoat as a blanket, my whole world some degree of cold or damp, the zipper on the new tent’s rainfly stuck on open.  Sometimes you just have to flow with what there is.  Against a background of famine, war, terror and homelessness, not to mention electrocution, such tiny travails are a cipher.  I kept that in mind.  

But what followed the deadly first day was a deep drop into rock, soil and water.  We all had small backpacking chairs, and we spent a lot of time, sunk in those chairs on a huge stone outcropping watching wildlife and the movement of light.  I sense we all unloaded a world of care. 

We hiked a small mountain,  and canoed into secret wild gardens of aquatic plants buzzing with bees and dragonflies.  We heard the loon many times.  All the primary loon calls.  We saw loons flying.  We watched a mother and tiny loons swimming.  And we were the chosen rock outcropping for a little colony of Canada geese.  In the forest, Dick pointed out to me the call of the wood thrush.  

Dick is teaching us all the biology he can in four days.  I found a rectangle of birch bark on the ground and did a drawing on it with a ballpoint pen.  We all hustle to assemble each night on the giant rocks to watch the sun drop behind the pines and birches across the shore.

Slowly, over long exposure, and many meals, paddles, walks and talks, we have connected or reconnected in more relaxed ways. “   

I wrote this two days ago, and today, in my car,  I sang my way out loud and out of tune, through a whole jubilant playlist, headed south through the Shenandoah Valley, my head still full of gratitude and open sky.  

December

It is the opening day of December and it feels like I’ve stepped into a distilled version of the world. Nothing is left of the trees in the pasture but their bare bones. The light melts away at the end of the day, closing me in tighter and tighter. The slanting sunlight runs up the bark of the walnut tree in long stripes just before leaving for good.

 

The distilled bony forest is the best for exploring. Hidden treasures appear, mostly in the form of lichens, peculiarly twisted limbs, earthbound leaves that look like wood carvings of themselves. Just before January breaks them down to dust, I gather them up and bring them in to lay on the branches of the Christmas tree.

I’ve brought in the fragrant greens, lit the many lights, brought out the several small blankets— one for each of the places I roost. Last night as I walked around snapping on the lamps I saw the cerulean day sky hiding behind the darkening evening clouds as if to say I’m not ready to go yet. I’m still catching the sun. And as the evening progressed, the nearly full moon moved from one side of the house, until, in the early morning hours, it appeared on the other.

This season sharpens the memory. So many snapshots cluster around this time of year— snapshots especially of my father, whom I only had for 23 of my Decembers before he departed the earth for some other place. He left a letter in his safe that said to tell his best friend Tommy he’d meet him at the Great White Oak Tree. So now, as in those 23 years, I expect he is walking over some leafy path on his way to this tree, where someday I hope he will also meet me.

In those 23 years he would take us to the woods before Christmas to look for the perfect mature, lacy cedar tree. Driving home we would pass the town water tower, with its big blue illuminated star on top. Some town officials had erected it, and couldn’t figure out how to extinguish it. So year round our little town was marked by a star that guided us home.

I read somewhere that children remember best the lessons they are taught by their fathers. I know it is the truth for me. My mother was with me for sixty years and her lessons could fill a library. My father’s instructions were few, but are carved into my bones. Fifty years after he reluctantly taught me to drive, when I run off the road I hear him clear as day telling me to stay off the road and plan my reentry instead of panicking and jerking the car back into its lane. His lessons are his barrel-chested, grumpy, powerful protections following me everywhere I go.

Mama taught us Beauty in a thousand ways. Daddy taught us Nature. They both taught us Reverence. In December we feast in the short dark days on Beauty, Nature and Reverence and I think my parents both come in close and all the Decembers become one December.

Our Angel

 

In my mind, bringing my second baby home from the hospital and meeting Ophelia for the first time have merged into the same event.  Thirty one years ago Mrs. Ophelia Alexander entered my life when I called her about helping me with my children.   But really,  I have the odd sense that she was sent to us by some act of divine intervention.   My son, the baby thirty one years ago, said it was as though “we won some cosmic lottery”.

Ophelia Lytle Alexander died this past week, on the same day that my baby granddaughter took her first step.  I was on vacation with my family on a sun struck beach when I got the message.  I cried from self-pity, knowing we’d shared our last laugh, our last story.  And I’d lost the best source I’d ever known of unconditional, unwavering love.  If Ophelia loved you, there was nothing you could do to make her un-love you. Every time my mind returned to her that day  my heart sank.  The sky was deeply blue and there were enormous white clouds like mountains.  I painted the clouds, telling myself Ophelia was there.

My tears were only for me, because Ophelia was a person of such deep and constant faith that she most likely had no fear or despair over leaving us.  Over the course of thirty one years I had watched her lose her husband, and then her son, and then her young grandson.  She had borne things that would have crushed my spirit to dust.  Through inexpressible grief she had kept her heart busy loving those of us who remained.

Ophelia had grown up in my then rural community.  She had distinguished ancestors who had accomplished much.  She had attended a Rosenwald school less than a mile from my house.  She was keenly intelligent, and graduated from Torrence Lytle High School in 1953.  She had shopped, as a young girl, in my grandpa’s general store, and she knew all the folk of our community, living and dead.  She had an easy way of talking about race, and told me many stories about the way life had been in the 40’s and 50’s.  I got to hear the histories of the African American families from Ophelia, to balance the stories I knew about the white families.  Somehow she was able to cut through the eternal awkwardness of our racial divide.

Because she was so completely disarming and also shrewd, she knew how to corral us into her church upon occasion.  In her mind I think we were always inadequately churched, so to save our souls she would have us join her at her favorite place.   I don’t remember the messages, but the music was always breathtaking.  Because of that, when I attended her funeral, her church was not an  unfamiliar place.

I am a grudging church goer.  Impatient, uneasy, going in and out of consciousness during the service.  But I went to Ophelia’s funeral as though I were climbing onto a life raft.  I didn’t want the service to end.  After a lifetime of avoiding open caskets I truly wanted to look at her face one more time.  I wanted to know how this saint’s passage would be acknowledged by her community, her family, her church.  I wanted to be in the company of others who loved her.  I felt orphaned and that sanctuary felt like a sanctuary.

The music was inspired.  There was piano and a subtle trumpet.  A  powerful singer sang a solo.  People moved in time with the music and I was so glad I could too.  The message was not about humanity, but about Ophelia’s communion with divinity.  The final song was “I’ll fly away” delivered with the power of a rock anthem.  I entered the church crying.  I left the church smiling, my heart having flown away with her.

A man sitting on the end of a pew reached out to me and handed me this picture he had made of Ophelia.  It was so perfect.  Ophelia and her strong mind, her huge heart, and her sassy ways, with the pair of wings that had always been invisible, suddenly visible.  And behind her those clouds– just like I figured.

 

Lost

What I remember most is the simple act of staring always at the rushing water.  This week we hiked the long tough hike to Lost Cove Creek.  That name describes it perfectly– it’s lost.  Lost from the clatter of now– where we all live. Lost in time.  So lost there are no other humans.  Lost to signal.  Tuned instead  into the frequencies of  the arteries and veins of creeks and the sons and daughters of creeks, the mothers and fathers of rivers.  I love how water seeks its own level.  Such an odd way to put into words the punch and recoil of water moving at last to  an uneasy equilibrium.

I pitched my tent on the same mossy spot overhanging the river where I’d camped before.  The sound, the buzz, that lives always in my ears grew quiet next to the loud thousand part water music all around me.

It was like being washed by way of  the eyes and washed by way of the ears right down to the bottom of the soul. How is that received in the soul?  Like being stunned, silenced, adored, suspended.

 

We tried to keep up with the Hear and See by tasting things–spinach and nuts and packaged stews, intense dried cantaloupe, freshly caught and grilled trout washed down with bourbon or creek water, or both.

We used any excuse to bathe in the river to drop into the Touch part of being there.   Smell was clean dirt and rain.

My firsts:   crudely casting a fly fishing line and feeling in my arm the connection to the line’s motion;  the almost invisible blossoms on a ginger root; learning the habits of the three kinds of trout in those waters.  I saw my first ever wild lady slipper.  And without really wanting to at all, we packed ourselves up and hiked away.

 

Mining in France

 

 

Staring at a stucco wall struck by sunlight, covered in vines, I find myself beside a river, beneath a hill, in the agricultural belly of France. It’s a rare opportunity to briefly live and work in this warm light, surrounded by a thousand kinds of patina. For a month I have a residency at Moulin à Nef in Auvillar. It is the French outpost of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. VCCA is one of the midwives who delivered me into my current state as an artist. The opportunity to live and work in their community for the first time was a watershed. I am hoping that Moulin à Nef rolls over me in as powerful a way.

 

My studio is tall and wide with 6 foot windows and mottled walls stained a pale jade. I have suffered all the vagaries of travel in the last five days with canceled flights, lost luggage and bad rental car contracts. The first thing I plugged into an outlet blew a fuse and then I turned around and slipped on a throw rug. Five days after leaving home, I’m still wearing the same outfit, and trying to figure out how to be an artist in the absence of my materials. Somewhere in Boston, or maybe Madrid, there is a hard shell golf case filled with stretcher bars and canvas, and every color of the rainbow. And I am here, disjointed as though missing my beloved. Aimless and lost.

 

My son challenged me, upon saying goodbye, to pretend I was on Mars— to loose all the familiar bonds, including, he said, the bond to the self I know. I’m beginning to think that there is some divine plan at work to divorce me from my supplies and plunge me into some deeper mining. Yesterday I prowled the Super Marché for kids’ art supplies and came out with some too pale, too tiny markers and pencils. I spent the afternoon by the river making marks, pushing the inadequate materials to speak. It was a challenging and stimulating exercise with a kind of odd, fresh success.

My first night here, we residents and the directors enjoyed a two hour dinner talking about our lives as artists. I said something about how handy it can be to be creative, and how, as a teacher in secondary school, I discovered there was no budget for supplies so I taught my students to paint using discarded house paint donated by Lowes, on pieces of packing cardboard. The directors were in the midst of installing Ikea cabinets in a pantry, and set the packing cardboard aside to be recycled. I asked if I might have it to work with.

In the early hours of the morning I had a vivid dream. Long and elaborate, and completely remembered, it bore powerful images of home. Someone from my past came for a visit and spent the night, sleeping bolt upright in an armchair. In the studio that dream is feeling very close to the bone, and is being expressed in cardboard.

 

My favorite line, in all the poetry I have ever read, may be the line from Mary Oliver, “You do not have to be good.” Oh, really? What a relief. Words to live by.

As the first born southern daughter of a first born southern daughter going back seven generations of first born daughters, I have some deeply embedded notions about how good I must always be. So today, I revolt and cut cardboard at random, allow that it does not have to be good. If I am lucky I can reach inside and pull forward the mysteries of that dream.

The Big Barn

It is time to turn my attention to my 1949 barn or watch it crumble to dust. I’m starting with a new roof. The last one was installed 67 years ago. It doesn’t leak yet, but, it soon will, and I have an itch to set things right.

The barn has called me down into the pasture many times in the last few weeks. There was junk to be discarded and damage to be assessed. I drove five truckloads to the recycling center, and uncovered some buried treasure… well, my idea of buried treasure: a door to replace an ill-fitting one in my house, rescued by my dad in the 60’s from a home being torn down in Myers Park. I tried to move it. It must weigh 100 pounds. Above it, in the loft, are the parts of a grand staircase he also retrieved, its ornate bits and pieces curled up in a corner. Someday I’m certain I will find the perfect place to use it.

There’s my great-grandfather’s farm wagon to dodge. Lumber rescued from around the farm lies racked up on the sides of the barn, some of the boards very old, from trees cut manually with a two man cross cut saw and then milled here on the farm. The loose knit loft floor is pine boards, most of them over a foot in width. Old handmade ladder back chairs hang from ledges, and bits of straw and dust get stirred up with every step. There’s an octagonal oak hardware bin in the loft that used to be a working member of the general store. It held thousands of bolts and screws so nearby farmers could find that odd bit they needed. All that mingles and communes with saddles, a watering trough and other reminders that animals once lived here.

Charles is a builder of barns and everything else besides. We are old friends and while he is still in the barn business I want his to be the hands that set my barn right. Charles knows barns. He spent all his younger years being a champion bronc rider, and now, in his middle years he looks unchanged and moves around the roof like a young man, tirelessly, day after day, with relentless energy. Charles could convince me that some things don’t change.

I paint in the studio at the top of the hill while the men remove the rusted tin from the barn roof and store it for another project. A brilliant shiny new shell takes its place. The barn sits deep in the bowl of the pasture. When I step down to speak to the men, I feel the change in altitude in the air and the sounds shift from highway noise to thousands of frogs croaking in the little wetland below. The March light is bright without leaves on the trees to soften it, and it’s immersive— the light, the frog calls, the damper, cooler air. The late afternoon light comes through the stripped rafters and casts a mesh of shadow pattern.

Any day that sets something right in a sacred place is a good day. Any day that ends in the pasture with the sun raking through the trees ends right. I add this day to my large and growing collection of very fine days.

The Bradford Store

For ten years I have lived my idea of a fairy tale existence. It ignored the obvious— the world spinning by at 60 miles an hour, and focused instead on life turned inward on our family farm. The Farm is a term that can refer to my old homestead, or to the working farm and home that belongs to my brother and sister-in-law, Grier and Kim, or to the historic totality.

Our little compound is bisected by a busy highway that was a dirt road before the Depression. As most of the farmland around us has been ceded to other uses, The Farm has become, every year, a greater anomaly. I loved, always, that we ignored the obvious.

Ten years ago, Kim and Grier had the Bradford Store moved off its original foundation, back onto higher ground in the middle of a field and turned their hobby of growing massive vegetable gardens into a business.

The old counters were freshly painted, the ancient floor cleaned and polished, the wood stove put back into commission and the Bradford Store started the business of dispensing love and good food, in that order.

Some businesses really do run on love. It could be a hot dog stand or a repair shop or, in this case, a local foods store, with the common thread that all decisions flow through a filter of love. The driving force is not profit—instead everything every day is done in the name of love of one’s fellow man. And that’s how it was with the Bradford Store.

My witty former husband coined a southern phrase we all use with regularity about all enterprises— “can’t nuthin be easy”. It’s not a question. It’s a statement. Even if it looks as easy as falling off a log, it will not be. And the Bradford Store, standing tall in a vast garden of flowers, pouring love into every transaction, selling the very best food the earth has to offer was, behind the scenes, a tough job. Kim worked six days a week for ten years, and often checked in on the seventh day. Every year nature provided a new pestilence to make harvesting crops difficult to impossible. It could be hail, a late frost, or a deadening drought that lasted the whole summer. They endured them all.

Meanwhile I was one of the many beneficiaries. Kim and Grier’s love and hard work showed up on my table day after day. I could step across the road and find food that had been growing 15 minutes earlier, take it home and shock myself with the intensity of my own dinner. Kim, the brilliant cook and food curator, taught me more about food in ten years than I had learned in the previous fifty. The milk she drove four hours a week to bring to the store literally had the flavor of sweet pasture grass. The eggs came in a dozen colors and have spoiled me for anything less.

Kelly, Kim’s right hand, brought in fresh made breads daily from her farm. The corn meal came from a historic grist mill. And when combined—these ingredients from other businesses that were also run on love— the result was food nirvana.

Kim surrounded the store with acres of flowers, the soil so rich some grew as tall as me. My mama, in the early years, living at The Pines retirement community, would come out, sit on the store’s front porch and create unique fresh flower arrangements, sold in Mason jars. She loved working with flowers, and the store and Kim and Grier, were her lifeline to the larger community, to family, to companionship. My son Stewart had the privilege of working at the store as a teenager and came away with many important life lessons in horticulture, customer service, salesmanship and hard work as did many other local teenagers.

When I was a little girl, my grandfather operated the Bradford Store. It ran on love when he was alive too. It served as a kind of community center for neighboring farmers.

The store was home to one of the few telephones in the community. A family friend told us how she would come to the store to talk to her fiancé who was off serving in WWII. Papa had a roll top desk full of receipts and ledgers listing items sold on credit. He also had a “pet” blacksnake that lived under the store to keep it pest-free. When holes in the old floors appeared he would patch them with a piece of advertising tin.

On the front of the building my dad, as a boy, painted the words “Free Air” beside the pump for filling tires. When I was young that always cracked me up, because, back then, air was always free. The ground outside the store was literally paved with multicolored bottle caps from sodas, and a life-size cardboard Santa drinking a Coke was the primary Christmas decoration. There was a bench out front where Papa would sit at day’s end, the sun setting behind the store.  And on one afternoon, back in the 30’s, my great-grandfather Will, the store’s founder, died peacefully inside its walls while reading Zane Grey.

Kim and Grier, from love, knowledge, courage, imagination and boundless enthusiasm, have built something that will always live in memory for hundreds if not thousands of people. I think of all the little children I have seen come in the store, or sit on the porch with an ice cream, and wonder if their memories will be as sweet as mine are— if 50 years from now they’ll talk about what it was like.

Seeing this era come to a close makes me so glad for my tired family who have given so much to so many. And glad for the thousand images in my head of bounty and beauty, kindness and community that came from running on love.

 

 

The Mattress

 

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Four months ago I set out to clear my house of clutter. For forty years I have lived in the same place, with barns and chicken coops and rooms aplenty for collecting stuff, so this is no mean task. My sage son Gordon suggested I start with duplicates.

As I gathered up my duplicates/triplicates/quadruplicates I began to see myself and my fears and sadness, cloaked in crazy, from some distance. I had three garlic presses, two blenders, three rasps, four sewing machines, two coffee grinders, four curling irons, five wire whisks, seven t-squares, and three rabbit puppets for starters. Against some projected future shortage I was holding onto dozens of sheets and blankets. I had an addiction to containers for storing things. Lots of them were empty and taking up space in the dusty and cluttered attic. Every time I opened the broom closet two or three of my six yardsticks would tumble out onto the floor.

 

 

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A lover of history, I’d become the repository for lots of artifacts from our family’s past. There was a totally unorthodox baroque clock in the attic that my father, the GI, had “liberated” from a bombed-out German apartment building at the end of WWII. In my father’s eyes, the clock was magnificent, but it was actually a crazy pastiche of little portraits painted on porcelain sandwiched between furbelows of brass. It was an object that was hard to love. But it spoke of a moment in time— the end of a horrible war and my dad as a very young man. It conjured up the image of a devastated country. It no longer works as a clock. But it serves as a link to 1945 and my father, and his quirky idea of what was desirable.

 

 

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There was an afghan in the attic made by my maternal great-grandmother, Granny Gordon. She knitted and crocheted miles and miles of yarn and thread into useful household objects, but this afghan is probably the ugliest thing she ever made. Chocolate brown, grass green and pale yellow, no one has ever used it or displayed it, but I have stored it since I first became its guardian. It has lived in a cedar chest in the attic where it has not seen the light of day for 40 years.

 

 

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I rediscovered a box of textbooks and notebooks owned by my great uncles and my grandfather, from the early 20th century. They grew up in this house sharing the upstairs bedrooms. Two of them went off to medical school and the attic holds their chemistry notes and their drawings of microorganisms. Two of them studied agriculture and I have their drawings of plants. One studied business, and the only daughter studied to be a teacher.  I’ve come to know them by examining their notes, their handwriting, the things they studied. My grandpa, Hurd Bradford, Sr. served in the Navy in WWI and there were homesick letters to his mother in a tin box. There was a naval uniform that belonged to my father-in-law, an intrepid submariner in WWII, and a painting by a great aunt who studied art in New York around the turn of the century, technically proficient but lacking any sense of the life she lived, and riddled with holes.

 

 

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My mother, always a respecter of history and the bearer of many family tales, years ago handed off a goose feather mattress made by my paternal great-grandmother, Mattie Dora Worsley Staton. Grandmother Staton, as we called her, had raised the geese, killed the geese, plucked the geese and sewn this mattress. And it lay in my attic for 40 years. Mama and I both respected the hard work it had taken to make this mattress. Among my papers there is the last will and testament of another ancestor who bequeathed her feather mattress to one of her children as if it might have been a house or a car. It was, in its time, an object of great value. I asked my son, my clearing mentor, what to do with this mattress. His response was “let me think about that one”.

I told the story of the mattress to my dear friend Suzy, who also loves history and collecting, and she set me free, assuring me that the mattress was by now alive with mites and other invisible creepy things. That was all I needed to bag it up and haul it away. She suggested that I take a scrap of the ticking that contained it, and save it as a memento. I decided instead to remember Grandmother Staton by saving the mattress in prose—in digital format.

The attic holds so many stories I will never have time enough to tell them all to my sons. On some day in the future I imagine them up there, sneezing, cursing and tossing. They are, to a man, minimalists. I am, as they say, a maximalist. Never have I felt my role so powerfully as connector between the world as it has been for generations and the world as it now suddenly is. I write to lock some of it down.

Slowly, open spaces are appearing. I have driven truckloads to the dump, and station wagon loads to the Habitat store. Every week on pick-up day, my trash can is full. Freeing myself from attending hundreds of objects is a thrill. I revisit each thing. I decide what will happen to it in the Digital Age and if it’s worthy I find it a new and awkward home, or I write to lock it down.

A Bear Island Anniversary

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I was standing at a counter filling out paperwork to camp on one of North Carolina’s barrier islands when the ranger reminded me what day it was— May 15, my 40th wedding anniversary. In 40 years I’d managed to reconfigure myself from the wearer of the long white gown to the bearer of the backpack full of gear.

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Nothing beats an island for turning inward. I found my campsite behind a twenty foot dune. Everywhere blackberry bushes grew absolutely flat against the ground, the white sand reflecting heat and light to ripen the thousand shining berries. It was a milk-and-honey moment. Scattered among the blackberries were blooming yellow cacti. Beyond that, live oaks and scrub sculpted by wind and weather— beach bonsai.

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The wind was constant and it was hard to light my stove and keep it burning, but I nestled between two dunes and cooked supper while watching dolphins breach close to shore. For dessert — foraged blackberries.
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There was the outbreath of sound coming from the ocean, but muted by dunes and in the thickets many birds calling to one another.  Colors shifted in the shadows cast by the dunes.  Backlit by a softspoken sunset the dunes turned lavender, and the grasses jade green.  As soon as the sun slipped away I sank into my sleeping bag. Not long after, a group of coyotes began to sing together close by. It was a sound-surprise– mournful, sustained, intoned by several voices.  I wondered if they would sing all night, but it was just one brief incantation, a couple of bars, and I never heard from them again.

 

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Numb from driving, from noise and the world, I settled into a kind of deep inertia. I spent the next day sitting on the beach and staring out to sea. Instinct told me to make this trek, and which book to grab on my way out the door–an amazing choice, as if it had been curated just for this moment.  Not a novel, but a book about reverence, nature, and living a spiritual life in a human body. I liked that part best— how walking, cleaning, loving, driving, cooking –the everyday things we do with our human bodies, are how our spirits are accessed.

 

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At the end of  the day I felt a little more alive and took a beach walk, discovering shells and seaweed like Medusa’s hair. A formation of 25 pelicans flew overhead, and a shorebird went plunge fishing nearby.

I began to notice there seemed to be a noise louder than the sea, but the murky sky hid the source from view. Later I found out that arms and bombs are tested at Camp Lejeune nearby. A fisherman told me that a bear had swum over to live on the island and changed his mind when the bombs started.

Camping is a lot of fun if you like puzzles and solving problems. There is always some hurdle you have to overcome using whatever odd bit of stuff you happen to have with you. Cooking in the wind became a little easier as I began to figure things out. My son Gordon taught me to carry a 3-M tape that can be anything from a bandage that will not come off in water, to the hinges that hold a windscreen made out of art panels together. My windscreen did the trick and I was able to make noodles with Alfredo sauce, and marinated steak, one at a time on my tiny stove.

Then there was chocolate and moonlight and a few bright planets. I had fun sending a group text to my sons, with a little video of my surroundings.  We talked about gear and what was working in that environment and what wasn’t. They gave advice. They made me laugh.

My backpacking mentors, Dick and Jim, had taught me well and my first solo trek was almost flawless. I had everything I needed except binoculars and a windscreen, and brought very little that I didn’t need. That’s what my mentors call good planning… nothing extra. I was lucky to have such excellent teachers. They gave me the gift of confidence.

On my third day I painted the dunes and the sky on the panels that had been the windscreen. I experimented with a big brush and speedy application. It was challenging as the paint dried as soon as it touched the surface .  If I slowed the drying  sand would blow into it. One piece picked up so much sand I had to wash the image away. As it is, they all feel like  sandpaper to the touch. The more I painted the more I wanted to paint.

bear island - 1 (11)

The last afternoon it began to rain. I sat under my sun shelter and worked on capturing the soft grays during the long afternoon.

Back in an actual house the next evening, I found the television grating and the road traffic too loud. I didn’t want to connect to the computer and the urgent emails related to business.  I saw how badly I had needed that return to self. The contrast was stark. Just sitting and watching the sea. Reading. Painting.  All five senses firing. I felt some mysterious opening in the vicinity of my chest.

 

For BJ

BJ portrait

What follows is a eulogy written for my college roommate, BJ Brantley Cooper, who left us far too soon, in late November, a victim of early-onset Alzheimers.  We were acquaintances, first, at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and later roommates at Carolina.  BJ met and married one of my best friends at Carolina, and 43 years later he asked me to write her eulogy.  At first I thought I couldn’t put her into words, but the more I thought about it the more I had to say.   She was always, as we had been at 18, dutiful, appropriate, and attendant to the manners we were brought up to practice.  But underneath there was a woman with a hidden spark of wildness, cloaked in a good looking outfit.  When I finished writing I realized I’d used some version of the word “love” ten times.  This is about a person whose heart was truly full of love. I expect that as long as I inhabit this sphere I will always miss her. 

 

BJ Brantley Cooper was born into distinguished old North Carolina and Virginia families. She was raised in the flat tobacco country east of Raleigh by two loving and charming parents. Her early life was full of the grace notes of peaceful and prosperous times. There was contrast in her life, as well. She always had beautiful clothes and her mama took her on the Queen Mary to tour all of Europe when she was very young, but she also experienced summer work in the tobacco fields. She knew how both halves lived, and she had tremendous compassion for people less fortunate, and not a whit of snobbery.

BJ always connected to the genuineness and goodness of people, so her friends were from every kind of background. The common thread was that genuineness. She kept a group of close friends all her life, who remained connected to her by the heartstrings, if not by geography.

One of BJ’s most endearing characteristics was her mischievousness. While at college, she and a couple of girlfriends were given use of a decommissioned sorority house to entertain their dates. BJ was involved in starting a fire in the fireplace which subsequently burned the sorority house to the ground. It was a scandal on the campus of Randolph Macon Woman’s College. I remember that clearly. If you wanted to see her giggle, all you had to do was bring that up. She liked thinking she was the kind of woman who could burn a house down. Rod used to say that if he died a fiery death we should all suspect foul play.

My favorite memories of BJ are in our tiny dorm room at Carolina. Our twin beds were set up so when we sat on them we faced one another. There was nowhere else to sit. We would sit on those beds and BJ would usually be busy writing someone a note. All her life, on monogrammed stationery, she wrote to everyone she loved… a proper lady’s note, spiced with news, a little gossip, perhaps a quip or two in her large rhythmic script. Sitting on our beds we would tell each other funny stories about our eccentric southern families, gossip about the boys we knew, and plan our futures.

A survivor of a heartbreaking miscarriage, ovarian cancer and breast cancer, BJ’s greatest joy was the arrival of her daughter, Brantley. Her desire to love and care for her daughter defined BJ’s adult life. She did every thing she could think of to create a loving and happy environment for Brantley, relishing those years as the happiest of times. She was overwhelmingly proud of Brantley’s beauty, her athleticism, and in the end, of her adult strength and accomplishments in the business world, and as mother to Peyton. And Peyton became the new light of BJ’s life. She invested her sweetness and loving concern in Peyton

BJ’s greatest passions were always directed outward— they were always about loving someone or something else, never about herself. Anyone who knew her well knew her deep love for her pets, which carried over to a love for all creatures. She would be enchanted if she saw a deer, and talk about it long afterward. She would be enraged if she thought anyone was mistreating a horse or dog. She fed the birds. She was completely tuned in to the world of mute living creatures.

Loving Rod, for BJ, was seldom serious. They met casually, introduced by me, and Rod immediately produced his white horse— a red MG convertible,and suggested we all go for barbecue. My memory of it is that he swept her off her feet by carving their initials into a picnic table. Although now, doubting my own memory, I’m trying to imagine Rod carrying a pocket knife.

I think I rode in the trunk that day. There wasn’t much room in that MG for a third wheel. They shared a thousand private jokes. There are few couples with such a strong and abiding friendship as BJ and Rod, or with as much built-in humor. They teased one another, and tolerated one another’s differences. They raised their daughter with the understanding that BJ took care of daily home life and Rod provided the means. Together they made a home of great warmth, beauty and generosity.

They loved to dance and watch movies or Carolina basketball together. Though quiet and even a bit shy, BJ could, if the music was right, become the Ginger Rogers of any evening. The crowd would part when she started dancing. She had a wonderful sense of style, and was always a stand-out at any gathering. She had kind of creativity that bloomed in the way she dressed, the things she curated to be her wardrobe. That was the way she made art.

Rod took care of her, always, with perfect faithfulness and thoughtfulness, especially during her final cruel affliction. He gave large amounts of time and effort to being sure she was comfortable, cared for, and understood by all the people in her sphere. He was her advocate. He fought her decline tooth and nail. And he managed to fill the last few years with as many happy occasions as possible, while also slowly adapting their lives to fit the circumstances.

BJ’s heart was so huge she had to sometimes hide it to keep everyone from knowing how deeply she felt. We will miss that big heart, those wicked quips she could deliver with lightning speed, and the warm glow of her friendship. But she leaves a trail of a million — no exaggeration—laughs, countless days enjoyed in her company, many times when we were in her thoughts and she reached out to us, usually through one of those beautifully written notes. She was the kind of woman who could burn a house down.

Be free now, our thousand-fold courageous, loving friend. Here’s hoping that where you are there are some dogs and cats in need of love. For all the fine things you have left with us, we thank you. Greensboro feels a little less enfolding to me now that you have moved on.