The Front

Tattered clouds scattered east across what had an hour before been a cloudless cold-blue sky. The first arctic air mass of the season was on its way, predicted to arrive by late afternoon. Already the air had taken on a solemn and heavy feel. There was no cheer in the wind.

We are woefully behind on dry firewood for the coming winter. The woodsman has taken more to the pen than the chain saw of late, and words won’t keep him warm in February. So across the county I headed for some easy wood on a friend’s place, after stopping for a while in town for coffee with Dennis.

The old Dakota truck, abandoned since the new (used) Subaru replaced in August, lurched sideways on its shocks when a gust of wind tried to push it into the oncoming lane of traffic. But there was no traffic. Stonewall road was empty and quiet but for one man in one old truck, and someone’s kite in the near distance, tumbling, falling, rising; for an instant it righted itself–stabilized briefly as if it regained a tail of torn fabric that gave it enough drag to balance left, right, front and back, and soar. Then it pitched and crumpled, barely airborne, moving my way. A great blue heron battered by the polar gale wished he had gone south after all, to visit relatives on the Gulf Coast.

After a short round of discussion at the local cafe, I wanted to show my friend a special place. It was the land that had been the love of another friend who never knew this weblog. She died about the time it was born. But that gal loved those woods. She’d be heartsick to see it has been logged–in a kind way, compared to most–but happy, I think, to know that I could still feel her presence there. And more than the firewood I wanted to show Dennis a special plant in this special place: pennyroyal in winter.

I can’t find on the web any suitable pictures of it in winter. It is decidedly not much to look at. But I think next time I run across it, I’ll hope to have my camera, so I can show you first, how to find it. Then, encourage you to smell it. More about that later.

By the time I turned and headed for home, the front loomed like an arching flint-gray wave overhead. The temperature had fallen ten degrees since the heron struggled to find refuge from the storm. The first flakes blew sideways, first a few, then a white blur, then patches of clear sky and nothing. Turning off 221 into the countryside was like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Here, flakes at first blew like smoke, undulated like a dry-ice-vapor across the road. A mile further down into the hills, it began to stick on the northy patches that never see the sun. I put the truck into 4WD as I turned down into Goose Creek, descending into winter. I carried an armload of wood in with me for the stove.

Let the game begin. Another winter has officially arrived.

A Separate Reality: High School Reunions

It was too long a trip from Floyd to Mobile to be comfortable with her going alone, though for me, everyone there would be a stranger. Maybe I shouldn’t go at all. It was her home town where we were headed for Thanksgiving weekend, her friends gathered there, their memories to be celebrated. I was just along to see that she got back safely to a time and place beyond the realm of our long relationship. And home again.

I knew it would not rest easy with me to stand outside the windows of her life, looking in on an era I did not share with her, a time when she was becoming who she would be when we met at Auburn our sophomore year and fell into something like love at twenty.

She spoke fondly and often over this past summer and fall of people who had been her friends, found all across the country, now friends again, brought together by email and conference calls. Their histories had become forever intertwined by the accidental thread of shared classrooms and stadium bleachers so long ago, and she would soon see them again after all these years.

It meant nothing to me except that it meant so much to her, and I would go and support her as best I could. Besides, I had to admit–I was curious to see what it would be like to be with a hundred or more people who were my age, who had lived through my times. There would at least be that sixties connection between us, and maybe something from that to say to them.

It didn’t make matters any easier that Ann was one a few who had initiated, organized and would be in charge of events over Friday and Saturday. For months, she had referred to the desktop computer’s email as her email and I was banished to the laptop in the next room. For months, I went to sleep at the usual time while she stayed up clicking the keys furiously, helping coordinate the music that the DJ would play, the name badges with pictures, the tour of the high school on Saturday afternoon.

For six months before the reunion, her present was immersed in the past, submerged in tiny black and white yearbook images of hairstyles from the a lost time, symbols that spoke through rose-colored memory of simpler, more hopeful, mostly-happy days of youth growing up in the Deep South.

Friday’s Meet and Greet under the vaulted atrium of the hotel lobby was an informal gathering. I consented to go down briefly to be introduced to a few of her most cherished friends. It wasn’t long before I found myself standing among the Ficus trees along the margins. I swirled the ice in my cup, conspicuously disengaged as gray-haired folk passed by for a quick look at my nametag. Was I another of their classmates grown unrecognizable over the decades?

Cameras flashed. Hands were shaken and held. Hugs lingered, but the crowd milled about as if they had all just woken from a long, long sleep, only to find themselves surrounded by half-familiar faces.

When we’ve known someone for decades, somehow we never let go seeing them the way they were back then. And for her eyes, this crowd of late fifty-somethings were still the people of their pictures in the yearbook. Their high school faces and youthful, pre-adult personalities were that night who they had been to her then.

But I could not see through to the young people at their core. For me the encounter was unsetting–to be standing in the midst of so many iterations of just how old my body really is, even while the boy in me lived on, looking out through my eyes at these old strangers.

Soon, I slipped away to our room upstairs; she didn’t even notice. I stood there in the dark quiet and watched the crowd -and my wife of thirty-six years, one of a hundred strangers mingling in the lobby four floors below. Hugs, back slaps, handshakes-like so many ants touching antennae and moving on. We’ve come so far together to be so far apart for these two days, I thought. But such is the stuff of high school reunions, of separate realities that have made us who we are, for better or for worse.

And through all this, we’ve gone back in our conversations to the pre-history of our relationship, and have had our own private reunion over Thanksgiving. We’ve found a common ground of understanding. In spite of the fact that we lived separate stories the first two decades of our lives and yes, that has made us see the world forever through different eyes, she and I can keep growing together, keep falling into something like love until we get it right.

We’ve hung wall paper together and we are still married. Now, we’ve survived her high school reunion. I think maybe we’re going to make it, after all.

Who Will Watch The Home Place

image copyright Fred First

I used this image on our Christmas Gathering invitations this year (and last, and the one before that, I think) because first of all, it is a winter scene. But then in any season, it speaks to me of refuge, of serenity, of the blessed silence and solitude of our homeplace we enjoy sharing with friends this time of year.

I pulled the image up on the screen yesterday morning and looked at it for a long while, a December meditation. Just then, from the kitchen radio, the words from Who Will Watch the Homeplace seemed aimed for the gut, and hit their mark.

Now I wander around touching each blessed thing
The chimney the tables the trees
And my memories swirl ’round me like birds on the wing
When I leave here oh who will I be

Who will watch the home place
Who will tend my hearts dear space
Who will fill my empty place
When I am gone from here

Abscission Layer

image copyright Fred First

An oak leaf will refuse to let go until December, clacking and waggling brown and brittle in the cold breeze. The serrated leaves of a smooth-boled American Beech turn almost white and become so thin and light they hang like feathers and seem to move on their own, even on a still January day. This year’s beech leaf may stay on the twig until next spring’s tiny new leaf evicts it, finally, pushing it out and away, off into space, down to the black soil among the first of the spring mustards and violets. from “A Time to Fall” in Slow Road Home.

And now, I’ve discovered there’s a word for this phenomenon: marcescence. Oooh, I like the sound of it. Here‘s what it means, and here’s how it describes the reason for what I observed and about which I waxed prosaic:

Marcescence is the retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed. It is most obvious in deciduous trees that retain leaves through the winter. Several trees normally have marcescent leaves such as oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus) and hornbeam (Carpinus). Marcescent leaves of pin oak (Quercus palustris) complete development of their abscission layer in the spring. The base of the petiole remains alive over the winter.

Retention of dead parts normally shed. I think there are some human behavior-relational metaphors hidden in this word, and I may just hold on (heh heh) to marcescence and pull it out when the time has come. Could come in handy, describing for instance, the baggage we carry with us from youth to adulthood, that hang brown and brittle well into the next year, and the next, and …

Fragments Gift Pack

Image copyright Fred First Thanks to kind reader Missy for jogging my “remembery” (as the one of our kids used to say) that I had mentioned offering a Christmas Package Deal from Goose Creek Press. And I’m prepared to do just that. So listen and listen tight, pilgrim. (Who used to say that? Hmmm?)

Usual arrangement: book $16, notecards pack of five $10 and shipping $3.

For you, a special deal (but no Ginsu knives, no matter when you order)…

One copy of Slow Road Home (first edition signed by author and inscribed upon request) plus one pack of Fragments notecards (more or less as seen in the sidebar of the blog) for only $25 delivered. What a great gift idea!

Sorry, not available by PayPal, only by check per instructions here. (Note one image in packet is different from original five images seen in sidebar.)