Whatever Happened This Morning

The roar outside my study window at 6:50 this morning was loud enough to cause me to stand and move double-time to the window. I saw a small passenger jet cross over the clearing. “Low. Too low,” I thought. Unpleasant prickles tightened my scalp. It seemed to be trying to run under the thick slate clouds. I stood there another 20 seconds, peering through the rain-streaked window, listening. There was no sickening boom, no bloom of jet-fuel smoke. I felt the tension go out of my shoulders, put down my pen, and wandered through the dark house to the kitchen, where I ground coffee beans and stood at the half-glass door that gives onto a small wood porch and stared out into the timeless morning. I noticed the old orange I put out for the fruit-loving resident possum on a stack of old brick under the spreading oak was gone.

We’re in a flight path for passenger planes headed to Pensacola Airport as well as military helicopters, so a certain level of buzz and sonorous drone is normal. Whatever happened this morning felt like a disaster near-miss, a big “Whew, that was close!” from the crew. That’s my imagination, anyway. I thought of how we fly, drive, walk up the road, take showers, play ping-pong, even separate frozen biscuits with a steak knife, all day every day, almost always without incident or accident. It made me remember hearing stories about the awful night in May of 1978 when a National airlines pilot landed a 727 Jet in Escambia Bay, and the heroics of a tug boat pilot and his mate who saved all but three of 58 aboard.

When We Meet Ourselves Coming Back

Beth with Theordore the Cat

Vintage somewhere around 1988. This kitty cat came with the cabin Buck and I rented near the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina.  We were there for whitewater rafting, hiking, and escape from our work responsibilities. He reminded us of someone we knew, so we called him Theodore. This ginger cat was the most efficient con artist I have ever seen. He loved us insistently and unconditionally until check-out morning when he lapped up the last of the milk in its pretty blue bowl, then heartlessly turned his fluffy tail on us and walked to the next cabin to become the most-adored of the new family just checking in. Theodore never looked back.

I went in search of one old photo yesterday, up the stairs, across the bridge that bisects one second story air space from another, and lost myself for several hours in a tumbled down haystack of memories. By the time I came back downstairs, I had forgotten why I went up there in the first place. I went upstairs wearing jogging shorts and a tank top. I came back down wrapped in a cloak of memoir, diaphanous layers on my head, thick woven bits of complex tapestry on my feet. My subconscious is smarter than the conscious me. I should let go of the steering wheel and follow it around more often. Journeys through memory are mysterious, and never straightforward.

At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted, with a question such as: “You advance always with your head turned back?” or “Is what you see always behind you?” or rather, “Does your journey take place only in the past?”

All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past.  Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.

~from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

The Trouble with Trouble

1-The trouble with trouble.

Grace Futch Grider sent me this cocktail napkin. It’s vintage Grace. I ran across it this morning. when I was fetching a writing “vision board” back out of the closet that I had begun some months ago. The last time Buck and I saw Grace was in a hospital bed. She was aggravated because pancreatitis had gotten in the way of her immediate desire to put her nearly eighty-year-old self and a bunch of her fun-lovin’ friends on a train to Las Vegas. Gracie was a tough, self-made business woman. She founded Pensacola Beach Realty at a time when women running a business show here were an oddity. She served on a bank board with Buck. She was a passionate, if not especially skilled, golfer. She was a hell of a woman, a hot mess, and two tons of fearless fun. It’s been eight years, and we miss her like crazy.

The best I can do, Gracie, is enjoy the memories and name a pretty darn good book character after you. You’d like my Grace. She’s giving as good as she gets and more. Sound like anybody you know?

Wild Turkeys by the Swimming Pool

Buck noticed them first. Two wild turkeys swaying, trying to balance themselves on top of the six-foot chain link fence around our back yard. Those two hopped down onto the ground inside the fence. The rest of the flock waddled in through the gate I had left open the other day when I was going to mow one last time for the season but didn’t because some small mow-stopping mechanical thing went wrong with the old John Deere and so I left it sitting where it stopped, outside the gate under an oak tree.

We have been seeing this group two to three times a day for several weeks. They normally circle the clearing between house and woods, darting enthusiastically at seeds and bugs. It’s hilarious to watch them run around on the driveway. I can almost hear the click-click-click of their steps. Yesterday, however, is the first time they’ve come exploring into the fenced area out back. The only reason we have a fence is that county code requires a swimming pool to be enclosed. Seems kind of silly out here on a hundred acres of woods, and looks ugly, too, but in our litigious society, the fence has to stay. Guess I better go close the durn gate, too.

The pool has an automatic vacuum system we call “the blue streak.” It is subject to rear up and spray water in your face or wet your clothes when you’re innocently walking by. Buck and I surmised that big turkey leaning over toward the pool may have seen movement from the blue streak. I’ll bet if it wiggled around and sprayed them, there would have been some kind of squawking, hissing, and flying. Sure would have been fun to watch. Still, we were highly entertained when two hens moved around each other in circular dance steps so lovely and formal I swear I could hear a string quartet accompaniment.

The turkeys spent almost an hour in the backyard exploring what was for them virgin territory. They eventually wound up by my motley assortment of bird feeders near the eastern border of the fence. The feeders draw zippy chickadees, angry-eyed fat doves, cardinals, titmice, goldfinch, and all sorts of tweets my brother Wally (see his gorgeous new blog, Our Florida Journal) could identify.

March 2009 at Longleaf Preserve

The March woods are my cathedral choir. Dry blackjack leaves rattle on the tree and fly. Anoles skitter through piles of dead oak leaves, startling me until my memory of this season recalibrates to their sound. Squirrels make a bigger noise, vertically racing and leaping from tree to tree, high in the canopy. The acoustical hop, hop of unseen brown thrashers is bigger than the bird. Everywhere there is sound and echo, call and answer. Full body and soul immersion into morning birdsong is the baptism toward which I run.

January 2009 at Longleaf Preserve

Longleaf in January, an aging beauty queen without her make-up, mercilessly photographed in harsh light. And yet, there is grace here, unadorned without the vining flowers of summer, spare and honest. Taking a back seat to the rutting deer; providing them shelter and sustenance in this chill, sleepy season. Longleaf is the ground of our being; the place where we meet ourselves coming back. Home.


I am a squirrel storing acorns for the winter, collecting books and story ideas for some dark, hungry time.

10:40 a.m. I learned a long time ago to separate myself from people who are actually mentally unbalanced. Crazy people. Or desperately unhappy or soul-suckingly needy ones. Or those who are too sure of themselves. “Never marry anybody crazier than you are,” is good advice. And I never have.

11:40 a.m. It seems stupid to me now, to unearth those big 4×6 inch index cards with lists written on them from Gourmet, Prevention, Fast & Healthy, Vegetarian Times, Bon Appetit & Southern Living that I used to write on so meticulously. Cooking magazines. What a waste of time. Now the lacquered box has been set up with new cards: Bharati Mukherjee, Sandra Cisneros, Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Jack London, Flannery O’Conner, Dick Patteran, Dave Bonta, Stephen Dunn, Peter Walpole and many hours-of-pleasure others. I know how to scramble eggs; it’s my sheep that need feeding.

11:50 a.m. I am driving myself nuts with this; trying to find the door; trying to find the knob; and then putting one foot in front of the other, leading with big left foot through the door into that other room; that room where writing happens; where story occurs; where it lives.

High Noon. I have surrounded myself with a fortress of books, an armamentarium of pens. But I have been wounded, and now is the time to bleed some words.

Gary Mooneyham/HVAC

At 6:15 this morning, slipping out in my nightgown, I figured I would have 45 minutes to write and think all to myself. Ha. At 6:25 I saw headlights in the dark. Mike and his crew, arriving to finish their foundation work. They brought me the newspaper.

They’ve fired up the concrete mixer and are moving around like hooded wraiths, trowelling cement and stacking blocks.

As the foundation work continues, Buck and I have been meeting around the dining room table with window and door suppliers. The materials list includes 26 windows,  six sliding glass doors, and two exterior doors, so our pencils have to be sharp.

We’ve also been making final decisions on aspects of the heating/air conditioning system. The one we’ll be using is called “Evolution” by Bryant.

Gary Mooneyham

Gary Mooneyham, of Mooneyham Heating and Air and Ken Ford, the Bryant representative, review the system with us.

A couple of days ago, several of the guys working on our project were standing under a narrow eave — what’s left after the screened porch was demolished — trying to get out of the rain late in the afternoon, talking about the project, about bowling, and chuckling together. Most of these fellows have been working together for a long time, and it shows. It’s a prettier sound to me than wind chimes.


In Search of Something Green

I had always thought of myself as a flatlander, born in Miami, raised near Tampa and eventually nestled into the piney woods you’ve heard me talk about so often here in the panhandle of Florida.

Truth is, a person doesn’t know squat about flat until they’ve been to Nebraska.

I was there in November of 1999. It was a couple of years after Buck had retired from corporate life and I had sold my business. We were living most of the time in the drop dead gorgeous high altitude Smoky Mountains, near Asheville, North Carolina.

Buck was raised from a child in the crib into the traditions of Southern hunters. No, I don’t hunt. And that’s not what this story is about. But a hunting trip to Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska is the context.

We flew into Rapid City, South Dakota and spent the first night at the venerable Alex Johnson Hotel. They make a mean room service hot fudge sundae. The next day we drove to Newcastle, Wyoming, stopping along the way for a visit to Mt. Rushmore. Shortly before arriving at our destination in Newcastle, I began to feel a strange tingling around my lips. While Buck checked us in, I sat in the rental car and flipped down the mirrored visor.

“Oh, no,” I murmured, one look confirming my suspicion. My right upper lip was puffed out, like some collagen shot had hit wide of the mark. No problem breathing, but the dread thought of anaphylaxis crossed my mind. “What’s going on?” I thought. Our journey had led from nowhere to the back of beyond, it seemed, and when lunchtime had come and gone with no prospects, we had stopped at a gas station convenience store and picked up a prepackaged mystery sandwich, which we shared with a small bag of chips and a Diet Coke. I thought for sure I must be having an allergic reaction to some type of preservative in the sandwich.

Because of allergies to certain types of grass and trees in North Carolina, at the time I carried an Epi Pen, designed to deliver a life saving dose of epinephrine in an emergency. I’ll never forget my Pensacola allergist, Dr. Stephen Kimura, telling me earnestly, that if I was having any trouble breathing and felt “a sense of doom” — to uncap the pen and stab myself in the thigh without hesitation. Oh, great.

Well, in addition to the Epi Pen, I always carried a packet of Benadryl around, clearly a less drastic measure. Once we got into the motel room, I popped a Benadryl, found a phone book and dialed the local hospital emergency room. Luckily enough, I spoke to a responsive young doctor who suggested a regimen for the Benadryl, along with an ice pack on my face, and that if it got worse or I had even a suggestion of breathing difficulty, to use the Epi Pen and get to the hospital immediately. He pointed out that the Epi Pen would buy me a few minutes, but was not an ultimate solution.

The Benadryl and ice worked, and the crisis passed. A few days later, we drove to Miles City, Montana. It was unseasonably warm, with seventy degree temperatures in the great grasslands. Usually by November there would already be snow. I remember seeing great threshing machines, the air clogged with grass clouds. By the time we reached the Best Western Inn, my lips were swelling again, this time accompanied by itching eyes and throat. Great.

I spent part of our time there doped up with Benadryl and the rest visiting the good folks at the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart Medical Clinic. Turns out the great grasslands in warm weather is not a safe place to be for someone with grass allergies.

We drove back to Rapid City and spent another night at the Alex Johnson Hotel, then drove into Nebraska for a stay on a ranch near Chadron. The road was long, absolutely straight, flat and monochromatic. Buck has some sort of inner global positioning capability that led us to the ranch turnoff. Once on the property, the ranch house where we would be staying with a group of about six other hunters was five miles inside the property. The owners, a family with several children, raised cattle there, too.

There was no phone at the ranch, so no email capability. I had packed along my Yamaha electric keyboard, so at each stop along the way I could find a corner someplace, plug in, put on the headset and make music. A lifesaver.

The ranch house was kind of cramped for space, and the “private” bath we had been promised turned out to be what you might call “semi-private” — just me and seven male hunters. A woman and her husband lived there. She handled the cooking and cleaning, and he handled details for the hunters. Breakfasts were heavy. Lunches were heavy. Suppers were extremely heavy. What they called “salad” was boiled macaroni with Blue Plate salad dressing. Pork was served at every meal, and I’m not talking about the newfangled “lean” pork. This was old-style, swimming in hog fat pork. After a day and half, I felt starved for any kind of  vegetable morsel with some freshness to it, and went in search of something green.

As I was leaving, one of the guys cautioned me about getting too far away with bad weather coming in. He said it was turning, and snow was forecast. That seemed absurd, given the temperature, and besides, I was in full escape mode, ready to blast out of there in that little white rental car. My one concession to caution was to throw a jacket in the back seat.

Turning off the ranch property on the main highway, just in time I remembered to check the odometer reading and mark it so I could find my way back through the monotonous terrain. Then I hit the accelerator like a bat out of hell, freed from the cloistered ranch house. By the time I had driven 10 of the 22 miles into Chadron, it was clear the weather was turning fast. Wind, drizzling rain, temperature dropping, and the horizon disappearing into a solid gray wall.

But headstrong and hard-headed, I was determined to make my rounds: first by stopping at the tiny local storefront library to use their computer and check my email and the news headlines, and then to the corner IGA grocery store. Victory! I came away with two bags of salad greens, a couple of small tomatoes,  and a bag of carrots, plus two oatmeal cookies and a cup of hot coffee to sustain me for the drive back in what had become a driving snow.

Darkness was coming on, and I drove as fast as I safely could, caffeine and fear attenuating the rapid beat of my heart. I did make the proper turn onto the ranch property, but by this time it was fully dark, contrasting dramatically with the white blanket of snow, obliterating the two-track road to the house. Suddenly I heard a loud noise, almost like a train, and then realized in shock that the sound I was hearing was the feet of running cattle. They were all around me and my compact car, snorting and stomping black figures in the whiteness of the snow storm. Where was the road?

An impossibly bright light blinded me. It was a huge snow plow, manned by the ranch owner. A four-wheel drive truck pulled up behind me, filled with four of the visiting hunters, the ones I had dubbed “the Georgia boys.” They were thin, very pale and white, all with dirty -blond hair, cliché drawls, and the deceptively gentle manner of stone killers. Like proper boy scouts, however, one took the wheel, calling me “ma’am” — while the others freed the tires from the rut where the car was stuck — and somehow, all together, got me back to the ranch safely.

At suppertime that night, I made a big salad for everyone. We said grace over the bit of something green, a shared moment of camaraderie on that snowy night in Nebraska.