Honeysuckles

Last Wednesday on my walk, the heady smell of honeysuckles perfumed the evening air. I found a vine, blossoming with delicate yellow and white flowers and snapped a small offshoot in half. I brought the fragrant and wild bouquet back to house.

I showed the honeysuckles to my son. He held one—a curling trumpet—in his small hand as I held one in mine.  

“First, you snip this end very gently.” I plucked the green cap at the bottom. “And you pull carefully.” I demonstrated pulling the long stamen out of the flower. “There’s a magic drip at the end that is sweet like honey,” I said. As I pulled, a tiny clear globe of nectar swelled. Before I pulled the stamen out completely, I placed the nectar drop on my tongue let the sweetness soak in.

My son, wide-eyed and enthusiastic, followed my instructions. “It’s delicious!” he confirmed and we went through each honeysuckle, finding the nectar.

One of my main objectives as a parent: I’m trying to show my son all the magic of the world with each natural discovery. A few weeks back, we had a butterfly kit, gifted by a neighbor. We observed as the larvae grew to caterpillars. The caterpillars spun cocoons. We watched and waited. Each morning for a week, my son would come downstairs first thing and check out the mesh cage. One morning, I heard him yell from the kitchen “Mom, there’s a butterfly!”

Sometimes I yearn to go back to childhood when each new discovery was magical—and I mean unicorn type of magical. Though I still stop for honeysuckles and delight in butterflies, they’re old news to me now. I’ve been here a long time. I’ve snipped honeysuckles for almost four decades. I’ve seen butterflies flit in the sky and often, I take it all for granted. The magic all around.

But now, as I write, a line from the Nicene Creed floats into my thoughts: Of all that is seen and unseen. From our butterfly kit, five emerged and we took the mesh cage outside and let them go. And when we picked honeysuckles, we made sure to leave some for the butterflies.

I think about writing. How sometimes ideas and thoughts float in from somewhere, I don’t know where. Creativity. The unseen. The grown-up version of unicorn magic. How I began this story as a journal entry about walking and collecting honeysuckles. How I had no idea what more I was going to write or where it would go. I gently pulled at the story line, carefully and followed the thread, much like the stamen from the flower. The magic drop appears, the story, the nectar. The butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, the new discovery, again and again. 

IMG_9789.JPG

Time is a River

The new photo album came in the mail. It’s pictures from the fall, all capped off with a glossy photo on the front. It’s my son on the cover, 7-yrs-old, holding a rainbow trout in his hands. He’s grinning at the camera.

This picture, taken by me, lived on my phone for months before I had it printed. It’s a “live” photo, meaning that when I touch it with my finger, the moment moves just as it did when it occurred. The water swirls around Kyle, his grin stretches, the fish flops lightly as he grasps it. Only a second long, the moment is a fish plucked from the river of time.

With technology, it’s easy to recall the past as we have documented it. But the things that I didn’t photograph, I still remember about that day fishing. The dead snake I found by the river. The patience of the instructor with my son. The calm feeling of repetition – cast upriver, let the lure drift downward, pull back, do it again. The water moved coolly around my legs; the sun warmed on my shoulders. We threw the fish back and watched it swim away.

Just yesterday, I was on a plane back from a long weekend in New York. As we flew down the eastern seaboard, we descended below the clouds. As we got closer to the lowcountry, I peeked out the window and could see the rivers and tidal creeks of the lowcountry snake through the marsh grasslands. The hairpin curls of streams—I remembered something from my college geography class taken twenty years earlier. Water always takes the path of least resistance. Floods into the weak points, moves around obstacles. A river’s geography is ever changing, due to water’s path. The river winds back and forth.

I think about time now in this way. If time is a river; the memories are water. Moving around obstacles, flooding in at weak points. 

Tom Petty

I named this blog after a Tom Petty song.

In 2010, my son was born. Amongst many changes, having a child dramatically changed my perspective of time. Where I had always felt time as a languid record turning on the player, it suddenly felt like one that was at hyper speed. It moved too quickly.

My dreams, my dreams. There wasn’t much time.  I had to go after them. I had always played around with writing. I’d always try here and there to write something…  

Now though, I understood that my dreams would not happen for themselves. If I wanted to make a meaningful contribution to the world with writing, I needed to write. Really write.

Tom Petty’s song, Running Down a Dream played over and over in my head, as I got to work. On the days I dropped my son off at preschool, I went to the library and set up my computer. Running Down a Dream was my mantra. Its swift pace carried me through my work and through the hard parts.  I wrote my first novel—an impossible draft—with that song charging through me. It doesn’t matter that I never published that draft. Because, I wrote. And better yet, I learned. I became a better writer by writing.

Yeah runnin' down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads
Runnin' down a dream

In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro reminds us that “the practice is the art.” This is what I understand now. And this blog is my practice space. I named it Writing Down a Dream as an homage to that Tom Petty song that first gave me the swift kick to get started. My aim is the same as when I began—to make a meaningful contribution with my writing. Because I believe now more than ever that the inspiration that we give each other is the kind that the world needs most. 

So thank you Tom Petty for your songs and your music and for the inspiration you gave. Thank you for rallying me to run down my dream and live it. 

Fleas

Lately, I haven’t had much time to write.

Sometimes, it’s like this. My head is a mumble jumble of to do lists, relentless and never-ending. Every day, I fold laundry and empty the dishwasher and every day there is more laundry to fold and a dishwasher full of clean plates, ready to be emptied. Who can write when there’s so much to do? The dog needs to be let outside, there’s a birthday party to plan. Oh crap, I forgot about my dentist appointment tomorrow. Mom, can you find a pair of socks for me? I need help with my homework. Honey, did you put that check in the mail? We’re out of toilet paper.

It’s never ending. In a blog post, Dani Shapiro, one of my favorite writers, nods to an interview with writer William Styron in which he calls such chores the “fleas of life.” Shapiro quotes Styron’s interview with the Paris Review:

“Every writer, since the beginning of time, just like other people, has been afflicted by what a friend of mine calls ‘the fleas of life’ – you know colds, hangovers, bills, sprained ankles, and little nuisances of one sort or another.”

I know about fleas. Real ones. Our cat, last summer, had a terrible bout and we could never quite rid her of them. I switched treatments twice, vacuumed daily, bought her a flea collar. We finally shook the fleas in October; I suspect they’ll be back with full vengeance come summer. 

Back to writing—I’m scribbling away now while waiting in the car rider line to pick my son up from school. Because if my “fleas of life” keep me from writing, then here I am winning the battle, little by little. In a few minutes, my son will walk out to my car with his big book bag bouncing on his small first grade shoulders. He’ll open the door and plop inside and I’ll shut my notebook. He’ll smile and tell me about his day at school while I drive the long stretch of highway home.

My cat’s fleas were non-redeemable little bloodsuckers. The flip side of most of my “fleas” is sustenance.  A long car ride home yields a lovely story from a child. Dirty dishes pile up from a well-enjoyed family meal. A laundry basket full of clothes dirtied on a weekend outside together. Bills to pay for the home that gives us shelter.  I’ll continue to scribble away in my car just as I’m doing now because if these are the “fleas of life” allotted to me, I will take them. And I will write about them.

I'm a lucky girl. 

Letter

Grandma Arlene was an ardent letter writer. She started writing to me when I could write back. She was widowed by this time—years before, my grandfather went out for a walk and never came back, falling to a heart attack on the sidewalk. Grandma lived in Daytona Beach, Florida in a white, stucco corner condo that had burglar bars over the windows. Her condo was blocks from the beach in a stretch of Florida that was all pavement and sunshine.

Faithfully, I received a letter from my grandmother at least once a month. As a child, I wrote to her about school, my cat, my Christmas wish list. Later, in high school, college and beyond, I wrote about boyfriends, concerts, my friends and work. Grandma wrote to me about life in Florida and her weekly bingo outings. Our common ground was books. She liked to read as much as I did.

She wrote mostly by hand, sometimes on an old typewriter. Grandma’s letters got shorter and her handwriting shakier as she got older. Intervals between letters grew longer. When she made the big final move of her life—giving up her condo in Florida to an assisted living home near my parents’ home in South Carolina—she gave me all the letters I had ever written her. She’d saved them all, every single one of them.

I saved many letters she wrote to me as well. I asked her once to write to me about her family and her childhood memories. She wrote a succession of typed-up pages about her seven siblings, most of whom had passed on by that time. Grandma Arlene also wrote to me about her mother and the few memories she still had. Her mother died of pneumonia when my grandmother was just fourteen.

“I’m going to do just as you said, just write things as they come to me,” Grandma wrote in one letter. “James Barrie wrote, ‘God gave us memories so that we have roses in the December of our lives.’ 

"However," she continued, "he didn’t mention that rose stems have thorns and some memories may be painful.”

Home is Where the Heart Is

I’m sitting at home on the back porch and it’s a gorgeous day in Charleston, not a cloud in the sky. From here the river looks the color of sapphires, though I know that if I walk out on the dock, I’ll see that the water is muddy from the hurricane rains that blew through four days ago. Chainsaws are going off in the background. Our neighborhood is almost cleaned up, and our house and city are remarkably undamaged for the most part, unlike Hilton Head Island, my parents’ town two hours south. As I write this, they’ve not been allowed to return to their home yet and have no idea if their house weathered the storm undamaged.*

Home. It feels good to be home. It feels good to be here in my house, to have slept in my bed last night and cooked breakfast this morning in my kitchen. But home is more than a physical place.

When the evacuation notice hit, my husband, son and I packed the car and fled to my sister-in-law, Christine’s house, five hours away and north of Atlanta. My parents went south to Valdosta, Georgia, where they waited for the storm to pass at my aunt’s house.

I talked with my mom today: “Your Aunt Beck’s been a trooper, letting us stay in her house for a week.” I know my parents have been worried about their house, especially since news has come out that their town was one of the hardest hit. But mom also added, “We’ve had a great time visiting with Beck. It’s been nice.”

Yes, the silver lining of our storm evacuation was the unexpected quality time with family. My sister-in-law turned our evacuation into a vacation, complete with fair rides, food trucks and football. Our stay with Christine and her family was so lively that we seldom worried about our house, our business, our city. And that was a gracious gift.

Family. They pick you up and take you in, no questions asked. They let you pack up your cat, your freezer items and come to their house late at night. They let you interrupt their work and school schedules and let you sleep until nine when everyone else is up at six. They feed you barbequed meat and wine all week while you’re displaced and stock clean towels for your family.

We've been back in Charleston for a day now. Hopefully my parents will be able to return to their house tomorrow, as soon as they receive the green light from Hilton Head officials to get back onto the island. I pray their house is undamaged, but that old saying, "home is where the heart is," keeps playing over and over in my mind. 

It’s the truest statement I know. Because we may have been away from our house, but we never left home. To be in the company of those I love and those who love me is the home I’ll never want to leave.

 

*Save for a few trees down and debris everywhere, my parent's house was undamaged.

 

The Sandbar

Upriver, just before historic Charleston plantation homes, there is a sliver of sandbar revealed at dead low tide. The sandbar is located on the Ashley River, a tidal river that begins at the mouth of the Charleston Harbor and ends inland in a brackish trickle. You wouldn’t even know the sandbar existed—it’s just a tiny crescent of tea-colored sand—but it’s a popular resting spot for shore birds. At dead low tide, you can see the resting flock from our dock where, incidentally, my kayak is stowed. My kayak is nothing fancy, just an old hand-me-down from my father, but it’s stable and safe, which I appreciate since my kayaking buddy is my four-year-old son.

For two years now, ever since he knew enough to follow important instructions (stay still so the kayak doesn’t tip over), Kyle has sat with me in my kayak as I paddle. It’s a sit-on-top kayak, easy to get in and out of, comfortable to paddle even with a small child sitting in the middle. We paddle close to the docks of our neighborhood and don’t stray too far from our own house.

But today I look upriver, hand over my eyes, shielding the sun. I look towards the sandbar. The river is wide in this part of the Ashley. Wide and deep. Kyle stands with me on the dock. He has grown inches this summer, sprouting into a leggy boy. It’s the last day of his summer vacation before he starts preschool. Next year he’ll be off to kindergarten, middle school, high school, college. Just yesterday, it seemed, he was a baby and I was a new mother.

Where does time go?

It’s a dead low tide and the sandbar beckons. I ask the question every little boy longs to hear:

“Want to go on an adventure?”

“Oh yes! Yes mama! Yes!”

We load up and set out. Barely containing his excitement—stay still so the kayak doesn’t tip over—Kyle sits in the middle as I paddle away from the dock, against the outgoing tide. There’s a strong headwind as well, coming downriver, hindering my efforts. But soon we make it upriver, past the last dock of our neighborhood. We begin to cross the wide-open water towards the sandbar. Kyle huddles close.

“When are we going to get there?”  He asks.

“Soon, baby, soon.”

We hunch down in our lifejackets. I grit my teeth and push harder.

There is only a short window between the tides before the sandbar disappears. At low tide, the pluff mud banks and cordgrass alongside the river swell above us. It’s a long paddle, an exhausting effort. A fresh blister festers on my left thumb where my paddle rubs. But finally, finally, I feel the bottom of the kayak scrape on the sand. We arrive, Kyle hops off and the shore birds fly away in a flapping display of white wings. My son is a happy package of kinetic kid energy. He runs the length of the sandbar, his feet slapping in the wet sand.  He is tan and tow-headed from the summer sun.

We build a sandcastle. We wade out in the water and swim. We enjoy a sandy picnic of sandwiches and apples and talk and laugh. Kyle throws our apple cores into the water. “For the fish,” he tells me, squinting in the sun. We hunt minnows and crabs in the shallows.

And quickly enough, the tide shifts. The water comes swiftly and encroaches our little beach. It’s time to leave. We push the kayak off, hop in and cross the deep channel of water, fighting yet another current on the way home.

The wind is on my back now, helping to push our little boat past the docks of our neighborhood. I’m worn out in a good way and so is Kyle. He rests his head against my chest and stretches his long stork legs out in front.

“I think I’m getting a little big for this kayak, Mama,” he sighs. 

“Yes. You are. You’re growing up.” It’s difficult for me to maneuver the paddle around him and I know our days together in this little floating watercraft are numbered.

We pull up to the dock and unload. I pull the kayak out of the water. Kyle and I start down the weathered dock back towards the house. But first, I turn and look back for the sandbar. It’s not there anymore. It’s completely immersed underwater. Gone.

I hold my son’s hand a little tighter.

It was only there for a fleeting moment. 

 

Azalea Land

Our yard was not perfect but it was beautiful. My childhood home in middle Georgia sat on a woodsy lot of pine trees and brambles with a gravel driveway that ran up a hill from the street. Under the pine trees, everywhere, there were azaleas.

My mother loved azaleas. My parents, together, worked tirelessly in the yard most weekends. My dad mowed the lawn and helped my mother with whatever gardening plans she schemed:

 Let’s move the small trees on the side of the house to a new spot.

Let’s pull up all the monkey grass in the front.

Let’s plant more azaleas.

More azaleas. One friend of my mother’s good-naturedly dubbed our plot “Azalea Land.” And yes, maybe a landscape architect would have pulled back on the azaleas and come armed with a set of carefully drawn-out plans. But ours was not a meticulously-manicured lawn. No, this was my mother’s soul symphony—whimsical and woody, with firecracker blossoms, leggy vines and rare, native plants. No clean symmetrical lines in our yard. Mom’s gardening practices taught me an important lesson about the creative life—it’s in the practice and not the perfect. Mom wasn’t afraid to dig in, get dirty and revel in the process. When spring came, ours was the yard that dazzled with azalea blossoms. 

My parents moved away from my childhood home almost two decades ago. Mom’s garden is a coastal one now, with oak trees and Spanish moss. Camellias. Still, there are azaleas. Recently, I asked her about the azaleas at our childhood home.

“Do you think they are still there?”

“No,” Mom said, “they’ve probably cut them down and replaced them with grass.”

“Hopefully not,” I countered but realized that mom was probably right. Things change.

But the place exists in my mind the way it did then. Every year, I see azaleas in full glory around town and memories bloom in my heart. I’m reminded of mom’s lesson, taught through her gardening practices.

Live out the art in your life. Let it be messy, imperfect and beautiful.