The River

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I don’t remember knowing Sherod without hearing about The River. He’s a river-town boy, with endless stories about what happens on the river: learning to ski, boating, swimming, laughing, drinking too much, letting the river carry his life, his loves. There are the harrowing stories, though, fortunately, not many. The worst was the time he, his wife, children and friends had pulled their boats on the sandbar everyone liked to hang out on, when his 4-year old son was pulled under the boat by the current. If not for a friend who saw it happen and was able to pull Charlie out…

It’s the kind of story that makes any parent’s hands go clammy.

I grew up far from the ocean in Colombia, surrounded by the Andes, familiar with rivers that ran fast down mountainsides, occasionally, dropping off for hundreds of feet in cascades and waterfalls. We had some friends whose farm included a waterhole that was deep and cold and exhilarating and I can still see in my mind’s eye, my brother Hans about to leap from a boulder high above me, wondering what gave someone the courage to jump like that, telling myself “it would be bad for my hip to jump” though in truth, it was mainly fear that kept me treading carefully in the water. Though rivers crisscrossed my childhood, they were always destinations—places we’d go to, not part of the warp and woof of life.

I’ve lived in New Orleans, in Nashville and in Memphis, all with rivers, two of them with The river, the Mississippi—but they were not my rivers. All those years in Fort Lauderdale, we lived on the water, but a tamed and imprisoned river, bent and straightened to the will of folks with a definite vision of what the swamps of Florida could be forced into becoming. I rode my paddleboard, helped steer two motor boats and a sailboat down those waters, got so I knew every curve and sinew of the waterway that took us out to the really big water, the Atlantic, and somehow, it was a place I lived in but it was not mine nor did it claim me as its own.

About 5 years ago, things had gotten bad. Sherod was in constant pain that had been diagnosed as back problems but would eventually turn out to be two terribly arthritic hips that needed to be replaced. I kept taking him to a pain management clinic where he’d be given shots in his spinal column that were supposed to be magical and never were. The conflict in the ministry we were both working in was growing and getting ugly, Maria was struggling, so much was unraveling, even before we could see it clearly. The last thing on our mind was going out on the boat—no time, no energy, no desire.

When we bought this, the fourth boat we owned as a couple, we named it One More Chance—the names of our boats tracing the passage of time in our marriage: Los Locos, Promise, No Name, and finally, One More Chance. One more chance for what? Happiness? Adventure? Playfulness? It was never clear to me and in those last 3 years we spent in Fort Lauderdale, the boat sat out on its davit, from time to time, a source of irritation for me: why have it if we weren’t going to use it.

These last two years have been busy ones. Busy in the best sense possible. Sherod’s retirement. I rebuilding my life and sense of vocation. Allowing roots to go deep into this land we love, loving in new ways—both each other, and the many creatures and people who now inhabit our life.

Then, on Tuesday, one more chance. A new beginning that was a return. After tinkering with the motor, lots of time carefully cleaning and preparing and restoring, Sherod hitched the trailer of One More Chance to his new truck; he, Maria and I piled into the truck cabin and carefully drove to a boat ramp nearby. When One More Chance was tied up at the small dock by the ramp, we got in, each took the seats we’ve always claimed, and headed out on the river. The river. The Alabama River. Isn’t it funny how one more chance sometimes means coming right back to where you started from, allowing who you are to reclaim you, and discovering that the happiness is both the same and brand new. The boy is back on his river.

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Jonathan Daniels & the Alabama Martyrs

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East to West, Highway 80 connects me with Montgomery and Selma. In either direction, each time I drive down the highway, I see several “Historical Site” markers and when I am headed Selma way, I drive past a couple of roadside memorials, one of them for Viola Liuzzo who was killed less than 6 miles from my house. Unless I take the bypass, I come into Selma crossing over the Edmund Pettus bridge. All of them are reminders of the Civil Rights era and how it played out right here.

The Alabama River is beautiful; wide and deep and green, with wooded banks and old railway bridges. When you cross it headed into Selma, you see the bluffs and river homes that are so reminiscent of houses all along the rivers of this part of the south— the wrought iron and the columns, the graciousness of high ceilings and commodious porches.

This is my third summer of comings and goings on Highway 80 and I often tell people I am still smitten with the gently rolling hills along the way, the sign announcing the Prayer Mile right outside Benton—I end up praying for far longer than just a mile. Cows and chickens and sheep and deer and foxes and squirrels and armadillos and coyotes and hawks have all shared this road with me and as I drive, I am aware how I have knowingly and consciously bound myself to this land.

The second axis of my comings and goings runs South to North, along Highway 97, some 30 miles of road that crosses through Letohatchee and Hayneville and then becomes Highway 29, or Broad Street, at the intersection with Highway 80; it is Broad Street/29 that carries me home to Brown Hill Road. This is the road I was on as I listened to the end of The Fault in Our Stars and finally came to journey’s end, having left Ft Lauderdale behind to start a new life. For official business—driver’s licenses, permits, all that kind of business, I go back to Hayneville and with my friend Pat, occasionally go down to a wonderful little shop in Letohatchee. This too is a beautiful road, with woods and cotton fields and collard green patches along the way.

Today, I made the trip down to Hayneville for the pilgrimage and remembrance of Jonathan Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama. There were probably close to a couple of hundred people, mostly Episcopalians from Alabama and some points beyond; many gather each year to remember. VMI had a table and so did the Episcopal Church Peace Fellowship. There were TV crews and lots of clergy types.

In 1965, Daniels, a seminarian from New Hampshire came to help with voter registration and was arrested with about 25 other people in Fort Deposit; they were all transported to the county jail in Hayneville. A few days later the group was released and while most of the rest of the people stayed close to the jail, waiting for transportation, Daniels, a young African American woman named Ruby Sales, and an RC priest, James Morrisroe, walked toward a cash store that allowed African American people to do business—buy a Co’cola or a pack of cigarettes. As they got ready to enter, a white, part-time deputy pointed his shotgun at Sales and before he could fire, Daniels pushed her to the ground and took the full force of the shot in his chest; he died instantly.

Each year, the pilgrimage starts in the square in front of the court where the person who shot Daniels was found not guilty of manslaughter by a jury of 12 white men. Though this happened 51 years ago, there are still people who, I am sure, remember, who in one way or another were protagonists that hot day in August. This morning, we had funeral home fans with the words of several songs printed on them and a CME pastor leading us in song. A group of young people walked towards the front of the procession, carrying placards with pictures of Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama, some 15 people we know of who lost their lives in Alabama during the Civil Rights era and are especially remembered by the Episcopal Church. The first one, Elmer Bolling, was killed right here in Lowndesboro, in 1947. As near as anyone can tell, he was too successful, too wealthy, too empowered for his own good and the good of the community as it understood itself. Pictures of each of the three little girls who were killed in the bombing of the Birmingham Church were held high as well.

The procession stopped at the county jail, a grim place with razor wire wrapped around it. Then we marched to a house that was built very recently, after the cash shop where the shooting occurred was torn down. Again, we stopped to pray, then we marched on singing, to the sign on the green that was put up by VMI, Daniels’ alma mater, in honor of him, and then finally, into the court itself, where the judge’s bench had been converted to an altar and folks crowded in for a Eucharist. As part of the service, the name of each of the people remembered on this day was read out loud and the person who was carrying their picture  stood up and answered “Present” before going to the front of the courtroom. By the end of the litany, the whole front was nothing but beautiful, mute faces that looked out on those of us who had gathered— white and African American, young and old, beautiful, homely, holy faces. God, it was hard to look at them.

It is complicated and layered in these parts of the world. The same roads I love and have claimed as my home served as paths of suffering and despair, racial hatred and fear transfigured into violence. The beauty and the brokenness of this place are layered, one on top of the other. All the rains and the oppressive heat of the Alabama sun that melts even the asphalt, have pressed down with such intensity on those layers that they have become a single ribbon and scar through the land that accepts such a tormented history and still refuses to surrender its beauty.

Sherod and I moved here knowing this complicated history. Until recently, I always had an easier time judging, sorting the wheat from the chaff, and coming up with fast and certain solutions to all manner of problems. Now, my effort is to see, to not look away. I continue to listen to the stories, and, as happened today, at once rage and grieve. When the litanist read Jonathan Daniels’ name and described his death, we heard that he was shot at point blank range, that all that buckshot left a gaping hole in his chest. It was a gory description to listen to in the middle of a church service. But then, it seemed to me that it is the soul  itself of this place I call home that still bears that very wound, and I realized we were there because, like Thomas, we had to touch the wound and believe.

Mothering

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The Girl Will Sleep In Her Bed Tonight

Before—in fact, way before— dawn, I woke up as Sherod leaned over me, gave me a quick kiss goodbye and headed out the door. He was going to drive to Atlanta to catch a mid-morning flight to Fort Lauderdale. He’d do a hand-off with BARC staff, receiving María, her duffel bag packed to bursting, and her meds, would then go back through TSA security; this time, she’d be with him. An hour later, the two would board a flight headed back to Atlanta. As I write this, he is driving home with María. I have not seen my girl in almost 6 months and I get to mother her again for a few days.

Last night, Sherod pulled up a video clip of the day María was entrusted to us at Hoger y Futuro, the orphanage in México where she lived during the time we were working on her adoption. I could barely stand to watch it, overwhelmed by the beauty of our daughter, but especially, the bravery of a little kid who knew how to survive in the middle of such desolation with more desolation to come. Once again, she was about to be plucked out of the world she knew, a world composed of exposed brick and cement and about 80 other children who competed with her for adult attention, who sometimes beat her up, who, like she, were often sick and almost always cold in the cold months of the year in México City. I know for a fact, that there were times, especially in the early years, when María would gladly have walked back into all that rather than keep fighting against who and what I thought a child of mine should be.

The video reminds me of what I looked like when I walked with a limp, how in those days my hair was auburn with fake blond highlights, instead of the gray streaked hair of my middle years. I like my hair a lot better now. What a miracle to no longer limp. My ambitions as a mama are also far more modest. I travelled to México to receive María convinced that love would conquer all. What I had read about post-institutionalization and reactive attachment disorder, the knowledge I had of what could be done about developmental delays would be stronger than any obstacles that might get in the way of raising a daughter who would be smart, beautiful, charming and a delight to be around.

The work had to begin immediately. My love would start transforming her with the dress I had brought in my carry-on, the prettiest yellow dress imaginable. I wanted her to wear that dress because my mom had given it to me to give to her and somehow, María wearing it would link the three of us. It would be a transfusion of the determination and strength of the Elliot women who go through life with resolve as strong as Swedish steel.

I wish now, I hadn’t been so keen to change her out of the little outfit she was already wearing, wearing with great pride. I wish I had been able to see her like I could see her in the video last night, rather than as the projection of an idealized motherhood and daughterhood that drove my love for her that day.

Time has stripped me of much of that foolishness, though I am glad I still have both little outfits, can still pull them out from time to time, to touch them, feel both fabrics, one flannel one lawn, each comforting in their own way. I am glad as well that when my girl comes in through the door tonight (ETA is 8:15 so that’s just 2 hours from now), there will not be nostalgia, nor any reason to dwell on what the future holds. With María, the sweetest times do not require a lot more than the feel of her hand in mine, that beautiful  black hair and her big brown eyes, how we laugh together.

Many, many years ago, when I read my way through The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, I found myself returning often to a poem she wrote in what I like to imagine was a moment of stillness, when the demons that would ultimately have her die of suicide, had not silenced her love for her daughters. The name of the poem is The Fortress: while taking a nap with Linda. It is a conversation with a very young child, while the two are lying in bed, looking out window.

Darling, life is not in my hands…
I cannot promise very much.
I give you the images I know.
Lie still with me and watch.
A pheasant moves
By like a seal, pulled through the mulch
By his thick white collar. He’s on show
Like a clown. He drags a beige feather that he removed
One time, from an old lady’s hat.
We laugh and we touch.
I promise you love. Time will not take that away.

My love for my daughter carries much less than I had thought it would, is far less capable, powerful, transformative or competent. It is, though, what I have to give her.

Butterfly Days

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A lot is still in bloom in my yard, though all of us are feeling more than a little jangly and frayed, in that moment in summer when heat seems to stretch as far back as memory serves and there is still endless time for scorcher days with temperatures in the high 90’s and weather advisories, because the heat index pushes them into 103, 107, 110. I put mint leaves and ice cubes in the chicken girls’ water, and I chill down corn on the cob as a treat, trying to manage the misery. Dot has a cool place in the hay room and Spot has given up on the outdoors except very late in the evening and very early mornings.

It won’t be until mid to late October that real relief will come blowing in with the first north winds.

This year, Sherod scattered wildflower seed that have turned out to be especially attractive to butterflies. The wildflowers have grown and bloomed and gone to seed, many of them, and their leaves are spotted and spent now, so by mid afternoon as they droop against the stems, there is no doubt the end of this season is on its way though we cannot yet see its shadow. Amidst all that exhaustion, all that having spent and been spent, the butterflies come.

I noticed today how quickly they flit from flower to flower, how they spend less than a split second on any one flower, hovering, chasing, stopping briefly, on the move again, like they’re restless of spirit, anxious to get as much as possible now. I stood in the garden, camera in hand, determined to snap pictures of them and instead, recognized myself in their hovering, and moving first there, then here. I am restless inside as the summer ends. I went off to Collegeville and came back with my mind buzzing. I go from one task to another, make myself pay attention, make myself finish up, make myself go back and forth between all those things on the list of tasks, some of which matter and some which don’t. I’m back, but unsettled.

I’m reading more. On the way into work, on the way back home, when I iron, I am listening to an audiobook: The Life You Save Could Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which braids together the stories of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, with their deep faith and bold religious imagination. That’s when my mind slows down and I pay attention as I haven’t before, to structure, conceits, literary devices that make a book a good read. I’ve read and re-read the feedback I got, and the daily notes we took, the articles our leader recommended. Along the way, I’ve become uncomfortably self-conscious about my writing though I’ve put a few things down, more fragment than whole. Fragile and paper thin, butterfly wings that don’t yet fly.

The Chaos of Serious Writing

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Where We’ve Worked

The group I have worked with for the past 8 days includes several university professors, PhD’s and people engaged in more intentional writing than I’ve ever been able to practice. I have entered the whirling chaos of serious writing. I use the word “chaos” advisedly. I have a new appreciation for the fact that this is about walking in the dark with enormous possibilities pressing before and beneath and above and beside me. Just with the piece I brought with me to workshop: I’ve figured out there are about 8 different directions I could take it that I would not have even envisioned and each of them could be a book.

The feedback I got was unsparing and direct and it wasn’t about getting out and leaving this work to those with the gift, who know what they are doing. The word is, get serious. That means reading more. Writing more and in different ways. Getting my work ready for publication.

The encouragement of tough feedback is why I came, so this time has been wonderful in a painful sort of way. The piece I brought was an extended reflection on the days leading to, and immediately after, my mother’s death. The larger project explores the way in which life unraveled for me between June of 2011 and June of 2014, when Daisy, my dog, Spot, my cat, and I, folded ourselves into my car and drove to Lowndesboro to build a new life. Grief, loss and failure are hard to talk about and one of my great fears was that my writing was too sentimental and overwrought. In fact, my readers said it was the opposite—I went into analysis too quickly, didn’t take the evocative writing far enough, left them wanting more. Those are things I can work on.

There’s another reason this is such a meaningful moment. My grandmother was a trained journalist who ended up writing very little and instead, spent far more time caring for an alcoholic husband. My mother spoke yearningly of writing and her life was filled to the brim taking care of lots of people, including, and in some ways, especially me, because of my hip problems. By the time the space had opened when she could write, I don’t think she had the energy and she did not trust her voice enough to speak the truths she’d tried to learn. When I write, I write for her and for Vera, my grandmother and namesake. This is only the beginning and I hope I can make them proud.

Some Pictures and Half-Baked Thoughts

The Bachelor Farmer Café

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East of the Mississippi

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Mills Ruins Museum

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The Mississippi River

Minneapolis is a really cool city. I saw only a small slice: an absolutely charming restaurant called “The Bachelor Farmer Café” with yummy and healthy food, and even more, style to delight the spirit. I would not trade my life in Alabama for anything and I am also grateful to be in a space where I hear many different languages at once, where faces are amazingly different with skin colors of all kinds and features that are compelling in so many different ways. I sat at a table next to a young person I was pretty sure was transgender and I was so glad for a safe space for this beloved child of God to be true to herself.

Because the day was stormy, we only had time to walk for a bit through a park called the Mills Ruins Park, on the banks of the Mississippi which is nothing like what I have experienced of it in other times of my life. I’ve lived in Memphis and I’ve lived in New Orleans where it is so wide and deep and muddy and somehow, more slithery and ominous, certainly so omnipresent that it is like having a giant in one’s midst. In Minneapolis it is younger looking and less intimidating, more fun and at least seemingly manageable—after all you can walk across a bridge here in about 5 minutes. My new friend Hannah and I ended our visit at the home of some friends of hers who live in a suburb between Minneapolis and St Paul. That’s where I got a glimpse of yet another truth about Minnesota, in the form of a back yard that had cherry trees and apple trees, pear trees and a hedgerow of raspberries and a mom from where the women are strong, a dad from where the men are good looking, and three cherubic little tow headed boys who were obviously above average and could have come straight out of a Prairie Home Companion.

I have spent today not in church, but writing. There is so much you can figure out with the kinds of blocks of time I’ve had this week. It turns out the project I’m at work on had been writing itself for years now—bits and pieces reflect in many of my blog posts, in many of the stories I’ve heard myself tell. Any number of times now, I’ve started out to write something I thought I had very clear in my mind only to figure out that, though the starting place was precisely right, there was something totally different to consider and explore instead. The hard part now is realizing how much I want to have time just to see, take in all the colors and shapes and absurdities of my life, and how that can make it so easy to sidestep life as well. I only have two more days after this one before the journey home and I have a feeling I have still only received a tiny piece of everything this workshop has to offer.

Collegeville Institute

We’re at the half-way mark of the workshop and tomorrow we will not have any group time. My plan is to work until 11 and then head into Minneapolis-St.Paul with another member of the group.

It’s been an intense, productive, illuminating time. Our workshop leader is remarkable. Each day, I leave our group time with new ideas, new resources, especially new inspiration. I write about 4-5 hours a day and by the end of the day, my brain feels like it trembles like a worn out muscle, though it feels like I’m building some endurance along the way. Most important, I’m making headway on my writing project.

The little bit of Minnesota I’ve seen is beautiful. I almost feel guilty about how well we are being cared for—my apartment is comfortable, there’s healthy food and some treats always available, beautiful spaces to work in, and kind people who are committed to helping us do our best writing while we’re here. I miss the Spouseman and critters, and that’s OK too.

Here are a few pictures of where I’ve been. It is on this campus where the first Minnesota Public Radio broadcast took place and St. John’s University was the site of the first MPR station. This is where Garrison Keillor also got his start with Prairie Home Companion  and there’s a lake nearby that is the inspiration of Lake Wobegon.  There’s a lot else, lots of rich and interesting history. But mainly, there is spaciousness and hospitality.

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View From My Deck Early in the Morning

The last two pictures are of an art installation located in the forest close to where I’m staying on campus.  Very viking-y which fits with a landscape that is remarkably like the landscapes of Sweden.