Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Spot For Me

It’s very hard not to think spring when temperatures here in Tennessee are averaging ten degrees higher than normal. This is what my Grandmother would call a False Spring. No doubt before the end of March we’ll get whomped with chilly temps and at least one more snow.

Although, I look forward to it, the last few springs have been difficult. This time last year, I never would have imagined that I’d be ensconced in the house of my teen years in Mountain City, Tennessee. In fact, if had asked I’d have told you this would be the last place I’d be. Looks like the last place turns out to have been at the head of the line the whole time.

I’m trying very hard to concentrate on the possibilities this year and not the fear of slipping further behind in life. At this point there’s not a lot further back that I can slip so why not look ahead, find several points of possibilities to focus on and start working those muscles.

My Grandmother hated the fall. She said it reminded her of death, but I always found the fall season stimulating, with winter being the time of relaxing reward. Spring to me is preparation for summer, a time of enthusiasm and work.

So as winter winds down and spring begins to bloom, I plan. Foremost in my head is the focal point most easily attainable. I find myself in the mountains amidst what’s left of the Melungeon farmers, so I plant. Or rather plan to plant.

We no longer have a garden. Growing up, we always had a huge garden, using the fruits of that labor to feed ourselves. This used to be tobacco country, so this time of year we’d begin that laborious grind to pretty much little gain.

I always hated gardening. Much of it I think now stemming from the fruitless acreage of burley. It seemed to me a waste of time and energy. As a project in school one year, I recorded every man hour we spent growing the tobacco and used the crop financial yield to discover we made less than one penny an hour.

Of course, the government pays you not to grow tobacco now, and the years of growing that crop changed the rich hardy soil into mere mediocre dirt. Crops here in Johnson County aren't as hardy and plentiful as they once were and as a family, seemingly world wide, most of our gardens are now the local grocery store.

Dad still grows tomatoes and peppers, the back porch covered with plants. I’ve already taken him to Boone to get his staples. Near the French doors in the dining room he has little seedlings stretching toward the Sun, avoiding the terror of frost until they can be transplanted around the back porch, away from Jackson’s paws and urine.

As for me, I avoided gardening like the plague just as I did Nicholas Cage movies and shoving firecrackers into my eyes. I kept my yards neat, trimmed and green. Unless someone gave me something potted there were no plants. Even the pots would find a spot on the porch until they died from lack of intentional inattention.

It was February of the early ‘90s when I moved into to my wonderful little apartment in Rising Sun, Maryland. It was the bottom half of a two level building literally in downtown. I was across the street from the pharmacy and from my front porch I could see the main red light of old downtown.

The yard was tiny. It actually took me longer to clean up from mowing than mowing. It remained for the first two years plant less, with the exception of a rosebush in the corner Uncle Horace’s son had planted and a few stray tulips my cousin Linda hand planted when she lived there. Those tulips I happily mowed down rather than bother mowing around.

My upstairs neighbor was a wonderful old lady we called Miss Grace. I think she was the first and only tenant in the upstairs apartment since Horace converted what at one time was the family home. I adored her; a character that one day will turn up in something I write that no one will read.

After two years there Miss Grace’s health began to fail her. It became difficult, then impossible for her to maneuver the stairs. At one point I offered to change apartments with her, but she refused. I visited her every day, usually shortly after I got off work.

Sometimes she’d give me a call and ask me to come up and just sit with her. We’d watch TV while she chain smoked and we’d drink hot tea. She got to the point where even maneuvering around the apartment became difficult. She’d managed to sit at her kitchen table and look out the window into our tiny yard and enjoy her days watching the world use the sidewalk.

I asked her that fall if there was anything she wanted or needed that I could do for her. She took a drag off her cigarette and gazed out that window with this hopeful smile and said, “Yes.” She motioned to share her view and pointed. “Could you plant me some flowers out there on our side of the sidewalk? Something pretty with lots of colors that I can enjoy from here.”

How could I say no to that? So I borrowed a few flower cataloges from my cousin Debbie and let Miss Grace choose what she wanted, grumbling the entire time I planted a couple of dozen bulbs. I also gave her a brochure I got in the mail with an offer of six rose bushes, of which I allowed her to choose and grumbled planting the things knowing my back was to her but she could see me put them in the ground.

It made her so happy. In the spring and summer she would have “God’s color”, as she called our tiny row of tulips, roses and Canna, to look at from her little space in the window. I just smiled, knowing the work was done, and figuring a 3’ by 6” space of weeds wouldn’t kill me.

Miss Grace never got to look at her flowers. She passed away that winter. To be honest I’d forgotten all about her “God’s Colors” until they sprouted that spring. After I bawled like a baby for a few hours when the first tulip burst up, I decided to take special care of that little bed in her honor, knowing full well she’d being seeing those colors sitting at the window of heaven with God himself.

From there my garden was born. It kept expanding and expanding, until I could practically mow the yard with a pair of scissors. The roses, tulips and Canna became home to a bounty of unique and beautiful lisianthus, dianthus, edelweiss and a host of perennials that were gifts from friends or cuttings literally from friends all over the country, thanks to My Space.

It was my refuge. I was always looking for something new and a new spot to put it in. When I was stressed from work, yanking the weeds and pruning calmed me down. When I was depressed watering and just breathing in the scent lifted me. When I was happy, finding a way to nurse a poorly bloom into health made me joyous. I loved my garden so.

Then things changed. I moved and my garden of Grace and God’s color was quickly yanked up and mowed down. One plant was transplanted into my Aunt Irene’s yard, a cutting from my Aunt Mag’s “snowball bush” which was planted by my great great grandmother. It’s still there, finally blooming again last year for the first time since the transplant.

Now I’m here. My parents have their own flower habitat, which other than watering I have no privy to. I contented myself last year by weed eating and keeping the creek banks trimmed and neat, but there was one bed by the garage that my Mother never could get anything to grow in.

Mom is a Zinnia and Petunia sort of gal, as opposed to my being a Chinese Magnolia and Lantana guy. We both agreed this little bed was an eyesore, but it’s in front of where we park the cars so she was content to let it look bedraggled with a lone scrawny not quite a weed something growing there.

Then I found some dianthus on the cheap and tossed them in there without permission, just to keep from having to look at the dirt. To Mom’s shock, not mine, before long we had this incredible burst of color consuming that ugly space. We kept looking for more unique colors and by fall we had this breathtaking mound where ugly used to be.

Because of its placement in the house we actually had that lovely color up through the second, I repeat the second snow. Those little dianthus just refused to admit that it was winter. Even now, the blooms are all gone, but I’ll be darned if those babies aren’t still a beautiful green and so perky even Jackson can’t smash them down.

To my pleasure, Mom and Dad have consented to letting me have my own little space for Grace and God’s colors. I’m thrilled that after a long dry spell, I’ll have a little “piece of Earth” to quote the musical “The Secret Garden”. I’m even more thrilled at the spot that has been chosen for me.

In the back portion of the yard there are two trees, several hundred years old where the branch splits making a little island at the foot of the trees. Knowing many may not understand the term, a “branch” is what we Southerners refer to when talking about a steady trickle of water that empties into the creek.

This land, our part a little under an acre of what used to be my Grandparents 86 acre farm, is full of natural mountain springs, most beneath the ground. They tend to bubble up and run off creating what we call branches making natural divides in the land. This little spot, an oval shape of maybe fifteen square foot, is made by a hill causing the “branch” of the runoff to split before meeting again two hundred feet before it empties into the creek.

The split begins just before the two old trees, travels on both sides around them and then meets again creating this little mound that hasn’t really been taken care of since I was little. Oh the times my cousins and I had on that little mound. We climbed the trees, fought imaginary Indians, caught lightning bugs and at least one of us broke an arm climbing the trees. To warm my heart even further, it’s a little mound my mother and her seven siblings did the same thing on.

When we built the house on this little tract in 1972, on the exact spot Mom’s Grandparents house stood, my Aunt Faye gave her four Wisteria vines from her garden as a house warming gift. Mom planted them between the two trees. Time past.

Mom and Dad sold the house and moved in with Granddad when my Grandmother died. That didn’t work so well and they ended up at a wonderful spot on top of a mountain. We all loved it, but as they aged they were unable to care for five and a half acres of grass that needed to be mowed and a small orchard. Then the house we built on a little piece of family land came back on the market and we all have returned.

So much had changed. Granddad, too, passed away. The “family home” on top of the hill now belongs to a wonderful “hippie” couple with a three legged boxer and a potbelly pig. The chickens and cattle are gone, but the barn I actually helped build still stands.

Soon, very soon, those wisteria vines my mother planted between the trees forty years ago will bloom, always the first blossoms of the year. They are one of the few things untouched in all this time. They have grown and twisted and become part of every branch of those two century old trees. Before they bud out and give us our first taste of leaves, they will first explode in purple blue blossoms engulfing the majesty of those two maples.

And this year, at their feet I will have my own little spot. Oh there will be a number of things, but I will be placing my own little mark there. Some things that can just be left there for as long as some one can sit at the window and enjoy them. It will be my own little spin on Grace and God’s colors in a spot that will catch the corner of your eye as you drive the highway until it curves around the mountain and out of sight.

With strength, purpose and happy tears, I have been sent home to be given control over the tiny little spot where my imagination was born, my mother played and somewhere along the way a legacy of spectacular visual candy is born annually.

I hope, no, I know that not only my ancestors will be pleased, but Miss Grace will be looking out her window with God at my shoulders as I work the soil, and tend the blooms with a smile of contentment on her face. As will I.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Road That Used To Be

Sometimes in darkness it only takes a small ray of light to fill up the room. I awoke before the family and sat on the front porch, watching the squirrels play in the snow, and the birds torture the squirrels playing in the snow. The world was still and serene, beautiful in its plainness.

It struck me like a Mac Davis song. Remember him? He had this art of taking the average and painting it, as it is, magically ordinary. The songs weren’t hard for the simple Joe to sing, any one could and the listener couldn’t help but hum along. They were all memorably spectacular, but complexly simple.

Maybe I’m just finally getting the reins on things, but like listening to “I Believe In Music”, “Forever Lovers” or “A Little Less Conversation” I find myself sighing in contentment, dazzled with the ordinary routine of life. I’m finding basic comfort in basic comfort, sometimes to the point of getting annoyed when the slightest hair is out of place.

Hopefully the scope of my vision is widening. I don’t find myself dwelling in the anger and pain of the past. I’m not quite focused yet, but I don’t seem to be spinning my wheels as much in the snow banks. It’s melting away in the middling 48 degree sunshine.

I took a brief drive this morning, as I oft do on a Saturday, veering off my usual path down a portion of a road I used to be forced to travel. There was a time when Old Forge Creek Road was the only one leading to town. It was treacherously curvy and dangerously narrow, following babble by babble the creek that leads to somewhere I’ve never really known.

There’s not a lot left of that old road that used to be. Now only two small sections exist, the smaller one I live on, used only by the five families that live on either end, and the bigger section still heavily traveled and still following every pebble of the creek. That old portion hasn’t changed much but now leads to nowhere.

I recall the bike wrecks, the spills in the creek and the dogs chasing the old Ford Granddad used to drive, nipping stupidly at the tires. I used to think it was so beautiful, but that beauty is now gone. The older folks and the poor folk that still live there haven’t taken care of it. It’s weedy, neglected and stereotypical Appalachian.

Many years ago, I remember trying to cross the creek in a spot other than the bridge, as children will typically find a way to do. I remember slipping off one of the jagged stones and landing painfully on several others.

In tears, cut, bloody and wet, I remember bawling, literally bawling, to my Aunt Mag who was dabbing my scrapes and asking “Why God puts such odd rocks across the river”, as I thought it was.

In wonderful Southern drawl my Aunt Mag smiled as she rubbed Rosebud Salve into my little wounds. “Danny, God has to put odd rocks in the river.” When I cried more and told her it wasn’t fair to make people slip and fall, she of course had the perfect answer.

“There’s odd rocks across the river so the next time you step you know you’re footing is sure.” That answer has rung through my head the rest of my life.

As I find myself at a resting spot, please God let it be just a resting spot, I am learning the joys of the magically ordinary. I work when they allow me. I clean house and make dinner for Mom and Dad. I get a kick out of Dad getting a kick out of me being able to walk in the room look at the TV and immediately know what movie he’s watching.

I’ve found quiet joy in the one day this week Mom slept late, not getting out of her robe and nightgown, just sitting by the fireplace and working on a crossword puzzle well into the night. I find peace in the hyperkinetics of my dog, Jackson, as he sniffs out and digs to China looking for a mole. I get a belly laugh spying the neighbors feeding their pet pig the junk mail, Roscoe snacking away dressed in a bright green sweater she made for him.

There’s also this odd peaceful addiction to Twitter. I truly enjoy reading the Tweets, and unlike most, I read them all. I follow over a hundred people. Like most of America I have this creepy fetish of wondering what ‘celebrities’ are up to. I prefer to follow the ones who Tweet realism, rather than networking.

Kurt Warner tweets about his kids. Yesterday stating where each one was, the seven year old being “in Tupperware”. That cracked me up, having visions of a tot in time out in a big plastic microwave safe container. I realize he didn’t mean in that way, but I went there. But that’s the sort of thing I enjoy reading, the normality of those whose choice of paths have made them anything but.

I like knowing that Kristin Chenoweth is a chronic insomniac, one more thing we have in common…hint hint. I like the fact that Allison Sweeney’s young son last week “was hungrier than a two tummied giant”. I like it that Russell Tovey makes fun of his own ears and James Cameron thinks Kim Kardasian is already in “3D”.

And I’ve been writing. Sometimes its good, sometimes its bad, but I’ve gotten myself back in the routine of writing a minimum of an hour a day, that doesn’t include blogging, another story totally. I’m still not convinced that anything will ever come of my writing. It’s just something I just do, like breathing.

To be honest, I really wouldn’t know how to go about doing something with my writing. That’s why I blog, tri-blog actually. Just to put it out there past my own nose. It’s a long shot, but I know that once a bolt of lightning hit Ben Franklin’s key.

Over hearing a bit of silly conversation a few weeks ago during the snow storm at work lead me to writing a piece I ended up titling “The Hapka of Our Lives” concerning the brouhaha surrounding the departure of an actor from “Days of Our Lives”. It was a good piece; funny, tight and structured to perfectly fit the framework I set up for that blog.

On a silly lark, I tweeted a link to it to the actor himself. Untypically he apparently actually read it and retweeted it to a couple of other actors from the show, saying, “I almost died laughing”. I was very shocked and pleasantly surprised. That led to my little blog going bonkers for a few days.

It was a nice little kick to the ego. I didn’t get any new ‘followers’ from it and numbers dropped down to normal for the next two episodes I posted, which is fine. Sometimes you have to use your increments of “Fifteen Minutes” in small chunks to really be able to savor it. I have to admit, I don’t think the two posts after the “big” blog were very good.

In hindsight, I think I tried to imitate the “Hapka” blog getting silly and not really carrying the story along. That’s important in my writing, as a matter of fact, in my life. It’s fine to veer off in several directions as long as when they pull together they stay focused on the task at hand.

But all of this has led my to be more comfortable with my “average-ness”. Sometimes, I think we get so caught up in being better, in being excellent, in not settling for anything as long as its more than everyone else, we forget that in order to be the best there have to be a lot of people that are not.

That’s okay. A squirrel never wants to be anything more than a squirrel. Dreaming of something other than what we are is the one trait that makes us human. Our biggest problem only rears it’s ugliness when we only dream of something more and not set about any form of action to achieve it.

This is where I have spun my wheels lately. There’s not a whole lot left on my bucket list. I have been so, so lucky ticking them off one by one. Had a play produced. Check. Performed to a standing ovation. Check. Met a childhood hero. Check (Uhm…I recommend not doing that one, better to let them remain a hero than become human.) Been to Africa. Check. Check. Check.

Now I’ve never had that one great love, but I’ve loved and been loved. I’ve never had wealth, but I’ve taken care of myself and given back as much as I could when I could. I’ve never been blessed and cursed with children, but God knows what he’s doing. And I don’t feel I’ve fulfilled my purpose, but I’ve had a blast spending 52 two years fingering all around it knowing someday I’ll hit the right spot.

I’d still like to be on a game show. I’d still like to write for a soap opera (better hurry on that one, unfortunately the dinosaurs seem to be smoking their last cigarettes.) and I’d like to be published. I don’t really know how to go about achieving those, but I’ll figure it out.

And even at my age, I hold out hope for that one great love. An early mentor of mine, Owen Phillips, a man whom I also came to know as a dear friend, didn’t find that one great love until he was well past retirement age. He and his sweet wife married for the first time in their late sixties, spending their last years being able to do nothing but be in love.

That’s my image of true love. Thank you Owen for being the example of that possibility, and bless both you and your wife’s souls. The image of you both holding hands, walking down the sidewalks at dusk is an image that always brings a sigh to my heart. I miss you both every day.

As for the now, I walk a little more confident, a little less battered and a little more hopeful. Not that I still don’t get smacked constantly by the Blue Wham, but every moment I realize it’s okay to be content with normal, as long as I don’t stop focusing on just a little more, it doesn’t seem to be able to take hold.

I just can’t get bogged down on the old road that used to be. It’s fine to drive down it and remember occasionally, as tomorrow is guided by today’s worth of yesterday. I just can’t idle there, fretting over the odd rock in the river and never getting to the other side.

I understand I am an average, ordinary guy with a bucket still full of dreams. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Maybe I’m just your average dreamer and just maybe I’m taking a few scoots toward remembering who am I and finding out who I want to be.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Blue Wham

Wham! It just gets you right between the eyes. Everything is fine. You inhale but somehow before you exhale the blue just seeps over everything and makes the last half of that breath so heavy you can’t do it.

I’ve been doing so well, or at least faking it well. Then today that heavy blue, like wet corduroy making every nuance a task, is all over everything. I don’t seem to be able to control it. I don’t seem to be able to recognize the switch that sets it off. All I can do is struggle under the soggy pressure and act like it neither effects or affects me.

The holidays are blessedly over. I knew they would be painful. Ironically the new job working from 8 PM to 4:30 AM helped. I spent most of the time just trying to figure out what day it was, making the depression seem palatable. It was there, but it was like a pained animal lurking in the bushes of my life, regaining its energy to strike.

It doesn’t make sense, the uncontrollable surge. It has no place in my life. Yet there it is constantly feeding me despair and hopelessness like Twinkies and Hot Tea. I try to resist, but when I least expect it, it is the temptation I cannot resist.

Things were going so well. I alluded myself into thinking I had it under control. I know it’s a problem that is going to be there for a while longer, but I think I’ve worked it out so no one knows it’s a part of every breath I take.

I’m usually only on the floor when the store is open for less than an hour, which has been good. Faking being normal in public is so exhausting. Most of the time, I work in one aisle by myself, so I don’t have to invent being inventive at conversation. I’ll be there chugging right along and suddenly find myself staring at a jar of Ragu and wondering what the point is.

The times I’ve desperately wanted to smash one of those jars with all the anger of my existence I’ve lost count. The energy it has taken to resist slicing open so much more than the box cartons would power Epcot Center. The imagined kicks to my own skull after a brief conversation with a coworker screaming “You’re letting them get too close” are more consistent than the snow here.

But I’ve been good. I’ve fought it. I haven’t curled up in a little ball like a hamster too sick to find its wheel as much and every time I’ve managed to stave it off from anyone who would notice or care.

I’ve smiled. I’ve laughed. I’ve been thoroughly human when that is actually the very last possible emotion I could really feel. I’ve resigned to it. This is how it is and it’s the best thing.

I can’t let it just take over. I cannot let the blue be the only stimulation of my world. It’s an acting chore, like the wonderful Swoosie Kurtz once said, “You just imagine it in your head and do it, eventually it will become real”.

That’s what I’m doing. Imagining being a human, hoping eventually it will become real. I was once. I will be again. I have to be again. I refuse to become a casualty in my own war.

Yesterday was such a great day. I slept late, wasn’t groggy or cranky getting up. Went to work, in public and enjoyed the craziness that is “there is snow on the ground so we’ll never ever be able to buy food again”. I laughed and smiled and was helpful.

I came home, ate a snack and played on the Internet until the Tylenol PM finally engulfed me. I even got a compliment via Twitter from a writer. It was a good day. I went to sleep faking happy so well it was almost real.

Then today, the wham of blue attacked from the corner it was hiding in. There is no pill, no counseling, no emotion, no action that can shake it. For lack of a better image, it’s a debilitating chigger always there until it finally dies and falls off.

Maybe there is something to cover the effects, but there’s nothing to make it go away and never ever come back. Yes, yes there is. There is something inside me that does this. There is something triggering this off, stronger each time but thankfully with longer periods of being able to fake it not being there in between.

All I have to do is find it. All I have to do is stop the trigger or recognize it enough to switch it back off. All I have to do is trust that some how, some way, some day this will all be in the past, carcass in the little box with all the other nightmares I’ve slain.

I’d ask for help. I get on my knees scratching my bloody eyes screaming for help if there was anything anyone could do. This is something only I can do.

I’ll be fine. I promise. I’ll get past all this. I will be human again, as normal as it can be in the eye of the beholder. But I’ll never ever love the blue.