Moving

Painting bookshelves

In July, this perpetual pilgrim was once again on the road for the first time in a year and a half. Oh, there were a couple of short driving trips but nothing that required more than a duffle bag.  So, I brushed the dust off of my carry-on and tried to remember how to pack again.  My exciting destination—Alexandra’s new apartment in California. My first trip was a working trip to get her settled after living on the farm for fifteen months. I can’t say that it was the most thrilling and inspirational destination but there was a purpose and a goal and that was to make Alexandra’s first real home her own. Since I’m really a homebody myself, I wanted her to have the space she needed to feel nurtured and supported after a busy day of work.

Alexandra found a new apartment when she went back to California in May.  Her old micro apartment was way too small and the neighborhood was no longer safe. She was relieved to move right away and make plans for a home big enough for a table and chairs and, more importantly, a cat.  She came back to Tennessee long enough to gather the new-to-her furniture she needed, some beloved family heirlooms and get it all loaded on a truck heading to LA.

I flew out just in time to meet the movers and start the challenging but satisfying task of unpacking and making a home.  First there was a lot of painting—yes I painted all the walls with the help of a good audiobook.  Then I painted two big bookshelves since she has inherited her parents’ obsession with reading and needed lots of space to put her beloved collection.  Meanwhile, her newly adopted cat, Rufus, was settling into his forever home.

Each day I worked and gradually got things in their place and boxes out the door.  Everyday there was a bit more space to move about.  I finally finished all the painting and had a couple of days to relax and enjoy the beautiful summer weather.  There were long walks along flower-lined streets, a trip to the beach, a massage and a visit to The Getty Art Museum to see the gardens and illuminated manuscripts.  I read a lot and played with my grandcat Rufus.   I entertained myself while Alexandra had to work overtime on a big project.  Each day she came home to see the progress and talk about changes in her job and life in general.  I cherished those moments at her new dining table to talk and plan.

It was a lot of work and I really don’t love painting but I wanted Alexandra to have the home of her dreams that would bring her comfort and joy.  The ultimate goal of a pilgrimage is to come home and integrate the experience into your everyday life. Home nurtures our soul and supports our journey to the next adventure into the world.  

The Getty, Los Angeles

Fireflies

Great Smoky Mountain fiireflies photo- recreation.gov

We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale and the exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.

—-Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Summer is a magical time here in East Tennessee. The giant magnolia trees are full of waxy white flowers that smell like lemons. The mama turkeys parade around the yard with their babies. Occasionally we get to see fawns who are more curious about us than the mama deer think is prudent. But the real magic happens in the evening around dusk when the fireflies start to come out and the meadows and trees around the house light up with these amazing and gentle bugs. Fireflies are easy to catch and every child in these parts delights in running after the sparkling bugs to capture and put them in a mason jar with air holes punched in the lid. It is an annual right and part of the long lazy evenings of summer. These are bugs everyone can love.

About an hour away in the Great Smoky Mountains, there is a one area that has a special type of fireflies that don’t just flash randomly like in my woods but instead has a way of synchronizing their display to attract potential mates.  These enclaves of fireflies have been a big attraction the last decade or so and definitely a bucket list experience.  I was always very happy with the fireflies around my house so I never felt the need to venture to the mountains. But this year, my friend Lynn managed to get a coveted parking slot in the lottery and invited several of us hiking friends to join her.  We packed a picnic supper for the long wait until dark and headed on the curvy roads to the Elkmont campground not far from the main visitor’s center.

Elkmont was once an enclave of summer homes before the national park was formed.  The tenants retained lifetime rights to the cottages but the last few decades the empty cottages fell in disrepair. Currently, a few are being restored as part of the history of the park.  We picnicked on one of the front porches before heading down the trail with our chairs to wait for it to be pitch-dark. There were several hundred people along the near-by trails eagerly awaiting the bugs to show up.  I personally found it wonderful and remarkable to see so many people so excited about bugs—it warmed my heart. I loved the chance to be in the deep dark woods, wandering around like nature’s Halloween party collecting bugs rather than candy. There was an air of happy anticipation for the show.

Well, the show was not its best that night.  The weather had just been a bit too cool for the fireflies liking. We did see a few.  Blink, Blink, Blink—-dark.  Blink, Blink, Blink—dark. All the male fireflies went dark at the same time.  But I was there, I got to see some of it and I was in the ancient woods loving nature with other wonderful nature-loving people.  Maybe next year I can see the full display but meanwhile I had a delightful evening. I’ve been enjoying my fireflies even more and I even have a bat the comes around to enjoy the fading light.

The Brood X cicadas have faded now and the land is quiet again.  Caroline spent all of June enjoying these very sassy bugs.  As I would walk along the road by the meadow, cicadas would fly in front of me, buzzing and letting me know I was disturbing them. Their gossamer wings made it feel like little fairies flying up around, very ethereal and surreal. 

Caroline collected their beautiful golden wings and laminated thousands of them—preserving them for art projects. She is sad she has to wait another 17 years for Brood X to come back.  Her friend Maddie has turned these wings in earrings; art and nature, nature and art—they can’t be separated.  

Usually, bugs are seen as pests and we have many of those here on the farm—ticks, flies, mosquitos, stinkbugs, invasive aphids. But sometimes bugs can be friends. Now if I could just feel the same way about the rat snake who came into the basement and has taken up residence in the bushes.

Spring on the Farm

Mama Turkey

We save the world by being alive ourselves—-Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I took a screen shot of this quote a couple of years ago and found it again the other day when I was going through some old pictures. It felt like those words were meant for me to find at this time, in the springtime when the world is coming back to life again.  For it is nature that makes me feel alive, breathing, joyful and ensouled. The author, James Hillman wrote that soul was not a thing or a place but a perspective— a way of seeing, experiencing and participating in the world.  Nature flourishes in the spring and it is easy to feel alive and refreshed with the green trees, soft breezes and bird songs. Here are somethings in my world that make my soul sing with life and joy.

Mama turkey is nesting just at the edge of the lawn. It was by sheer accident that I found her nest so well hidden in the undergrowth.  For 28 days the hens sit quietly on their nest, moving just enough to gently turn the eggs about every hour or so.  I sneak down every day to check on her and see her beautiful brown eyes and body so perfectly camouflaged. It is a joy to be up close to such a miracle of life and instinct.  I highly recommend the award-winning documentary My Life as a Turkey, a charming story of a naturalist who became a turkey mama for a year. 

The Brood X cicadas have come to life again after their 17-year wait.  They are a pest and a miracle all in one.  Since we live in the woods, their numbers are vast here and their sounds have become very loud from dawn to dusk—something like a car alarm going off all the time.  I think it sounds like alien ships landing—and they do look like aliens. Caroline is fascinated by their long breeding cycle and sheer numbers—billions of them over several states.  She has been eagerly awaiting their arrival and is now gathering their gossamer wings. The structure and golden color are works of art.  You can see her life as an amateur naturalist on her Instagram @eigenstuff. But fair warning, she has a unique and lively mind and her perspective can be very funny.  

My peacocks! Have I told you how much I love my peacocks?  Mimi, Brunehilde and Figaro are a year old and have lots of personality—OK they are opera stars and use their beautiful voices to honk when stressed.  They are growing up and are learning to do their peacock jobs, mainly eat bugs and make me happy.  We built a large outdoor run so they can bond with the land and eventually learn to roam the property and look beautiful doing so.  Every evening I go down with a couple of pieces a bread, their favorite treat, and talk with them and just take in the evening light.  It is a beautiful flourish to the end of the day.  I get them back in their roost and lock them safely away for the night, a perfect evening ritual to take me one last time into nature now bathed in moonlight and the haunting call of the wippoorhorwill.  

A few weeks ago Hamilton and I planted 20 small trees.  We needed a privacy screen and some fast-growing Thuja Green Giants seemed to be the right choice for our land.  Although very small now, they will grow to be very tall. But to give them a good and healthy start I have a summer of watering. Most of them I can reach with a long hose but eight of them require hauling buckets of water, not an easy job for me.  Every week I get to talk to the saplings and now I’m seeing tiny bits of bright green on the tips of the branches.  I love nurturing these small plants now so they can fulfill their destiny as mighty trees.

Our world is so precious and vibrantly alive, inviting us to be alive too. The animals, insects, birds and trees know their purpose and place in the world and they go about doing their part. That doesn’t mean life is without problems. The peacocks pick on each other and I have to clean their roost. The turkey chicks are in grave danger from owls and hawks. The little trees are vulnerable in the dry summer. The cicadas have a short life and are all over my front porch. Thoughtless people throw garbage on the roadsides and my sweet friend Lynn helped me clean it up.  But imperfection doesn’t mean that life isn’t beautiful. Wabi Sabi, a Japanese idea, holds that beauty is in the imperfection.

Nature just is and welcomes you, just as you are.  — Beth Kempton, Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life.

Mount LeConte

It seems that 2021 is about getting to do the things that we canceled in 2020.  One of the delayed trips was a long-coveted trip to Mount LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve hiked to the top of Mount LeConte several times before as a day trip.  It is a big hike on Alum Cave trail, 10 miles round trip, an altitude gain of 3000 feet, but with a wonderful reward of a view at the top and great accomplishment at the end. I used this trail to get ready for my Peru hike in 2016 and it really helped get me in shape. Since the 1930’s, there has been a lodge at the top of the mountain with a dozen or so cabins plus dining hall and office/store. It is a throwback to a bygone era of old mountaineers and charming rocking chairs to “sit a spell” and enjoy the view.  The lodge is off-grid and only accessible by foot.  The cabins are equipped with propane heaters and kerosene lamps and are resupplied three times a week by llamas carrying food and clean linen.  Reservations are made by a lottery system the year before, so I was disappointed when my reservation for last April was cancel but was glad to rebook for this year and include Alexandra in the trip as she loves a good hiking adventure. Hamilton and Caroline also enjoy hiking and nature, so we were all happy with the plan.

I watched the weather forecast closely the week before and was pleased that the day would be sunny but, alas, we were going to have a cold snap. We packed long johns, hats, gloves and wool socks for the adventure, knowing we would be adding layers the higher we climbed and it was going to be a very cold night.  We set out mid-morning for the hour and half drive with a sense of adventure and plenty of snacks and water.  Our first ‘trail miracle’ was a small black bear just off the park road. It is rare to see a bear and there were quite a few cars stopped to see the little fella wandering in the woods.   We made it to our destination just in time for our second ‘trail miracle’. The very crowded parking lot had just the perfect spot for us to park overnight as I really didn’t want to leave the car by the side of the road for that long.   We ate our picnic lunch and put on our backpacks to head up the trail.  The first couple of miles are flat and along a magnificent rocky stream.  There are several log footbridges to cross and I always like to take a moment to breath the fresh mountain air and enjoy the rushing water.  Further along are stairs that go through an open cave.  There I saw my first hiker with ice cleats on her boots—yikes, I was a little worried about the rest of the trail.  As the trail went up, it got colder and icier.  There were overhangs with giant icicles randomly crashing to the ground or dripping to form thick flows of ice on the trail.  Much of the upper part of the trail is carved out of stone with metal cables to hold onto—very helpful when the rocks are covered with solid ice.

We took our time and enjoyed the view but by the time we got to the lodge it was getting dark and very cold and I was hungry. The cabin was tiny and cold except the top bunk which was very hot as all the heat rose to the top and a continuous stream of frigid air seeped under the door.  We snuggled into the beds until supper was delivered, hot and delicious after a long hike. Because of Covid, the dining hall was closed and it was well below freezing so outdoor dining was not a good option.  I read on my Kindle and we all went to sleep early. I did keep waking up in the night to worry about getting back down the mountain in the morning after the trail refroze overnight. 

The next morning it was 4 degrees and we were happy for hot coffee and breakfast of pancakes, eggs, biscuits, and grits to fortify us for the trek down.  The morning was beautiful with every tree covered with a dense hoar frost all glowing with the pink light of morning. I went to the store to check out and had my third ‘trail miracle’, they sold ice cleats for our hiking shoes, we were saved!  I would happily give them all the money in the world so that we wouldn’t break an arm or leg on the way back down.  With the our more grippy shoes we could take our time and see the amazing frost covered world around us. We still were careful on the trail but enjoyed the treat of the crisp white world just as spring was around the corner.  It was a glorious hike down the mountain.

We arrived back to our car, tired but warm from our adventure. We drove to the local tourist town, Pigeon Forge, to eat our first restaurant meal together in over a year.  Pizza never tasted to good. We made our way home through the valley with a quick stop for coffee.  I was so happy for a hot shower as it was so cold overnight, we slept in our hiking clothes. We all hobbled around the next couple of days with sore muscles and I had some tendentious but it was all worth it. I want to make the trek again in warmer weather and when the dining hall is open so we can visit with our fellow hikers and enjoy the view.  I wouldn’t say our adventure was “fun” in the traditional sense but we all loved the thrill of the challenge, the amazing beauty and the time spent together. Success all around.  

Emerging

Cherry trees in March

March always brings in the new, the subtle tiny blossoms and delicate green leaves of spring, renewal after the long winter. This March holds the first anniversary of a year-long forced hibernation.  We all remember that fateful week in March 2020 as the new realities of a pandemic changed our ways of being in the world in one quick stroke.  I also feel myself emerging from the difficult years of elder care and the structures of academia and academic writing. I’m starting to imagine what I want to see bud and emerge in my life. 

Thanks to the miracles of modern science, bit by bit, we are starting to emerge from our cloistered lives. What will that look like? What are you longing to do? For me, I find that I still want to hold on to some of the things I’ve been doing the last few months.  I love cooking more and being more adventurous with food.  I love “time spaciousness” where the day expands and I don’t have to go anywhere.  But I do miss small groups of friends and going to live concerts.

What else is emerging is a desire to get going on new projects, new routines, new experiences. Spring is the time for sowing the seeds you want to grow and cultivate in your life. So I’m committing to growing ideas that have laid dormant until the right season, the right conditions. I think that is one of the best ways to let life flow—don’t force the things that are not quite ready to emerge– like planting flowers before the first frost. But when the time is right, the project will let you know it is time.

I often find that a synchronicity (meaningful coincidence) lets me know that the time is right.  The last few weeks, I’ve been listening to The Dutch House by Anne Patchett, this month’s selection for my neighborhood book club.  Read by Tom Hanks, the beautiful prose has washed over me like a warm wave. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a novel more. Rather than constant tragedy forcing an overwhelming story line, an old house is the container for lives, loves and sadness. There is a gentleness to the stability of the constant presence of place and history.  In the story, a large home with lots of history, is the catalyst for the lives of the individuals that live and work in the house, the Dutch house. Some people thrive, others struggle under its roof, but all are changed by the physical structure that holds their daily lives.

All of our lives have been shaped by place and its climate, culture, history and geography. We are also constantly influenced by the daily surroundings, big, small, extravagant, humble and everything in between.  I’m fascinated by how our place in the world reflects in our psychology and how we also influence place with our desires, interests and even neglect.  It is easy to see how friends, family and even enemies can influence us. But more than ever before we can see how our place influences our health and wellbeing.  For several years, I’ve been thinking about the influence of home on our psychology, our unique consciousness, and how our psychology forms the home around us. It is a special and important relationship. 

The Dutch House certainly reminds me to sow the seeds that I’ve been collecting and get to writing my ideas and experiences on “home”.  No more excuses or I will have nothing to harvest in the future.  What can you sow during this glorious springtime? What pieces have you been gathering in your heart and mind that you need to set into action?

Pandemic Winter

The morning sun on a winter Amaryllis.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey than the work of the stars—Walt Whitman.

It has been a long winter and I struggled to find inspiration for a blog post for February.  But, this morning I saw this lovely quote by Walt Whitman and it seemed to reflect the winter. Currently life is not about the big things but the small world I currently inhabit during the pandemic. I’m starting to dream of travel and lunch out with friends but it still isn’t yet time. So, I will continue to focus on the leaves of grass, wild birds and dreams of coming wildflowers for my inspiration during this quiet and dark time of the year. 

My winter has been filled with housework, paperwork and care for my elderly mother.  Not the things that feel inspiring or exciting but what needs to be done as part of life.  Winter is that hunkering-down time.  Every morning I would start “my assisted living job” and help my mother with breakfast and medicine, dressing and bathing. Throughout the day, I would tend more meals and turn on Mom’s favorite YouTube channel, a Russian piano prodigy Alexander Malofeev.  She would watch Alexander play Rachmaninoff and Bach on an endless loop.  Mom is very deaf now and any kind of narrative or conversation is difficult, but the repeated melodies of her favorite music lull her into an afternoon nap and I could go about my errands or day’s work.  This became the rhythm of the day and somehow we made it work.  By the end of February, it was time to move Mom to the assisted living building in the same complex as her independent living apartment. I packed up all her cherished memories and favorite furniture for the move to a smaller place with more care.  It was a challenge for her emotionally and a challenge for me physically and psychologically.  I am not sorry to see dreary February go and be replaced by the winds of March blowing in the spring.

We did take time for a few adventures in February when weather allowed.  Valentine’s Day always encircles Caroline’s birthday, the next day, and we celebrated with fondue and a homemade funfetti cake, because sprinkles make everything more fun.  Hamilton’s birthday the next week arrived with bright blue skies so he and I took our annual pilgrimage to Hot Springs, nearby on the border of North Carolina, to soak in the mineral water.  Individual hot tubs are filled with the naturally warm water in private outdoor enclosures with a lovely view of a little river. This day I enjoyed the cloudless sky and the waving bamboo trees along the river’s edge.  I always sleep well the night after a soak in the mineral water—a way to help release the burdens of the world.

One more small adventure in February brought back happy childhood memories for the family.  Alexandra wanted to go to the local zoo as a way to safely be out of the house and enjoy the animals. She loves animals.  It had been well over a decade since I had been to the zoo so there were new things to see and old memories to enjoy.  We loved the lions but also the less exotic armadillo and bat-eared fox. Hamilton and Caroline loved the owls. I enjoyed being with my family and seeing all the young families with excited children.  The girls recreated a photo on a bronze turtle when they were just toddlers at the same zoo—it seems like yesterday.

February 1992
February 2021

Here in Tennessee, when you get to the first day of March, winter starts to lose its grip and beautiful days start to outnumber the cold and dreary ones.  The dark days of the winter begin to recede and the spring frogs and willow leaves foretell the next season’s arrival.  Our world is a beautiful combination of life in the small, insular worlds of our pandemic pods and microscopic virus but also reaching for the stars as we see the dramatic, red world of Mars for the first time.  Our lives are enriched by holding the paradox of the opposites, large and small, joyful and hard, soft and harsh, earth and universe. 

Books of 2020

My one craft project–made from a flower fairy book.

Never has there been a better year for reading. Without travel, parties, outings, etc., there was a vast expanse of time to fill that didn’t involve human contact.  I don’t play games, I’m not crafty, I’m not much on movies, which leaves me my two favorite past times, walking and reading.  2020 not only had lots of time to read, it was the first year in two years that I chose my reading agenda instead of my professors.  Before I went to graduate school in 2017, I had become a rather lazy reader. Internet distractions took my time and my concentration and I am determined not to give these precious gifts away again.  I decided to keep up the reading pace I established during school, 50 pages a day. You get through books at 50 pages a day.  I didn’t always make my goal and gave myself grace to roll with the tidal waves of the year.

My reading generally falls into three categories and I like to read at least three books at a time. I usually start my day with something spiritual, inspiring and gentle. These books usually have short chapters to savor.  I allow the words to flow over me, I start my early morning hours with a cup of coffee in my current favorite mug, Timmy on my lap for a bit of a snuggle and sometimes a candle for atmosphere.  The Way of the Rose, by Clark Strand and Perdita Finn, was a gift from heaven. I read it slowly, a few pages at a time. This deeply loving book explores the feminine wisdom of the Rosary. I was raised a Fundamentalist so I come to this Catholic tradition with an open mind and heart. Other favorite books in this category: Alone Time by Stephanie Rosenbloom, The Tao of Ordinariness by Robert Wicks, and Pathways to Bliss by Joseph Campbell. 

The second category of books is usually something mentally challenging.  I have a book that I turn to after my first cup of coffee but before the house wakes up.  These books require my attention and usually get lots of highlighting and notes scrawled in the margins. I decided not to continue on to the PhD program but I did want the knowledge of the third year classes so I printed the syllabi and started to read through the list along with my classmates.  Technically, I wasn’t choosing the books but it certainly wasn’t required and I was happy to continue my studies–all the fun of school without research papers and tuition payments. It was a good compromise for me. Some of my favorites in this category: Synchronicity: Through the Eyes of Science, Myth and the Trickster by Allan Combs and Mark Holland, Psyche and the Sacred: Spirituality beyond Religion by Lionel Corbett, Ego and Archetype by Edward Edinger. 

2020 seemed to bring out reading challenges for many people.  Alexandra conquered all five of the massive books by Robert Caro.  Hamilton worked his way through several classic economic/political texts.  I took up the challenge of Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism by an anonymous writer. This 665-page book has been languishing on my shelf for several years, awaiting my attention. This was finally the time and I’m glad it waited for me.  Only now do I have the background to understand most of the book. I read it a half a chapter at a time and found it rewarding- a personal triumph. 

My third type of book tends to read faster and more just for pleasure.  I can read these books anytime of the day and any place.  Normally, I like travel books but with travel off the schedule for the foreseeable future, my desire to read travel went away too.  Instead, I’ve been reading about home.  I want to write about “home” the next couple of years so I started reading on that subject and taking notes in a special journal.  Some of my favorites: The Making of Home by Judith Flanders, Geography of Home by Akiko Busch, The Most beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski, and my absolute favorite, On Moving by Louise DeSalvo.  I love everything I’ve read by Louise and was so disappointed that she had passed away and I would not be able to thank her personally for her lovely writing.  I also enjoyed Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May.  

I also joined a book club this last summer in the neighborhood where I walk.  I love having friends nearby and being part of the community. This book club reads novels, a genre I almost never read.  I didn’t read novels as a child and read them only in my twenties. I find it hard to keep characters straight, my mind tends to wander off the plot and I find the plot tragedies hard on my emotions. But it is good to stretch myself and I’ve enjoyed several of the books and the socially distanced meetings.  As you can tell my reading time is pretty full so I listen to the novels on my drive to town or while I’m working on a house project. For me, stories tell well in the spoken word and bring back happy memories of my father reading to me and my little brother.  Some of the books I’ve enjoyed:  What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon, The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes and Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance.

What reading challenge did you finish last year?  What is on your book list for 2021? 

Time

For the last few Decembers, I’ve written about the gifts of this season of giving and light.   Music, books, people, fire, joy and silence are the wonderful experiences we associate with this magical time of year. But there is no debate that this year is different and although these gifts are still precious, wonderful and part of my holiday, this year has a different perspective and brings a very different gift.  This year has brought the gift of time. The dictionary defines ‘time’ as the “indefinite continued progress of existence” that certainly brings a heaviness to time and our experience.  Time is measured in rather abstract ways with calendars and clocks.  I’m amazed that I can look at a grid of numbers and orient myself in time and space by those numbers.  There may be scientific time that marches on steadily and orders the cosmos but what we really experience is psychological and physiological time which expands and contracts, ebbs and flows.

2020 certainly has been a profound marker in time. It has been time out of time when the world stopped, was reordered and we are waiting for it to start again.  This year has been indelibly marked into the psyche of generations of people, each experiencing life as it relates to their time of life.

For my daughter Alexandra it has been a time of displacement as she is still away from her California home.  Her job goes on but she is a bit of a refuge, arriving with just a carry-on suitcase in March for a week or so that has become at least a year.  For me it has been time out of time as I never expected my empty nest to be full again. I’m savoring every moment having my babies back home to nurture and love but also to grow deep and lasting adult relationships.  For Caroline and Hamilton not much has changed.  They already worked from home and the rhythm of their lives hasn’t been much different.

Time at home has expanded. Time for long walks, house projects, peacocks, books, etc.  I’ve expanded my cooking skills with the daily needs of the family. I’ve done sewing projects (and I hate sewing).  I’ve also wasted more time than I care to admit on YouTube and the internet—but we can’t be productive all the time, I justify.

In November, my time shifted once more as my 86-year-old mother came to live with me.  She needed more care and a bit of rehabilitation after an ER visit.  With Covid, more care at an assisted living facility means that she would be isolated during the holidays.  So I brought her home and set up a small bedroom on the main floor of the house and slowed my time to the speed of my elderly mother.  I’m giving us both the gift of time; to be together, to heal, to enjoy the holidays.  This is not a permanent solution, but we are making it work for now and this is a gift I can give my mother.

Time has been swinging back and forth to the extreme ends of the pendulum.  Too little time with loved ones. Too much time on our own.  Too much togetherness with our household.  Not enough time for essential workers.  Too much time for the unemployed. Not enough time with those who passed away.  As we think about our life on this earth, we need to give thanks for the time we have and realize that it expands and contracts, moves forward and stands still but it is ever with us, giving us the gift of life and the experience of this world. 

Whitwell, Tennessee

A few weeks after our biking adventure, Alexandra and I headed south to explore a few notable places in rural Tennessee.  It was a beautiful fall day, with bright blue sky and just a hint of “crisp” in the air.  We had a few goals and fortified ourselves with a latte and chicken biscuit for the road, we let life manage the timing.  About an hour later, we headed off the interstate, west to the Sequatchie valley, driving down the side of the mountain into a narrow idyllic valley that runs north and south through east Tennessee. On this day, it was picture perfect. 

Our first stop of the day was a bit of a whim, Dayton, Tennessee.  We had been there many years before so I knew the history of the town, most famously, the old brick courthouse of Rhea county.  This was the site of the big trial of the 1920’s, often called “Scopes Monkey Trial” that was the inspiration for Inherit the Wind staring Spencer Tracy, one of Alexandra’s favorite movies.  During the trial, William Jennings Bryan, a former presidential candidate, and Clarence Darrow argued for the right to teach evolution in school. Religion versus science was on trial. Two of the most famous lawyers of the day battled out the concept of free speech during the hot Tennessee summer where the proceedings had to be taken outside under a shade tree.  Today the courthouse has a little museum and statues of Bryan and Darrow to commemorate the great trial that brought the theories of evolution to a national debate and put this tiny town on the world stage. 

After our walk around the courthouse, we headed south and made a stop at a local fruit and vegetable market that was piled high with pumpkins and other joys of the fall season.  I ordered a fried green tomato BLT and we shared it on some haybales that were turned into a makeshift couch, everything you would want in an autumn adventure, beautiful scenery, local food and good company.

Our next stop was the even tinier town of Whitwell (whit-whul), Tennessee, population 1700.  This was the main reason for our adventure and a true pilgrimage to honor victims of the Holocaust and the young students who wanted to honor their tragic stories.  The middle school teachers wanted to do a project to teach their students in this isolated community the concept of tolerance and the tragedies of the Holocaust.  Over the course of the multi-year project the students decide to collect paperclips to represent each person who died in the Holocaust, a daunting project as they needed six million paperclips, an incomprehensible number.  The teachers were able to get national publicity and the support of Holocaust survivors to build a small memorial behind the school to remember the terrible consequences of intolerance. This story is told in the moving documentary Paperclips which can be rented on Amazon.  

Alexandra and I found our way to the outdoor memorial in the back of the tidy school complex. There was no one else there and the memorial was closed because of Covid but we wandered around an old railroad box car that originally took people to the death camps but now holds the millions of paperclips gathered by the students.  A memorial is inscribed with the names of children who died in the camps and a bittersweet poem by one of these lost children.  This rural town, many years and miles from the tragedy of the Holocaust, seems an unlikely place for such a powerful memorial, but inhumanity and intolerance are universal problems that can only be solved by changing society one person at a time, one school at a time, one town at a time.

We finished our tour with lunch at an outdoor restaurant, a real treat these days, and a visit to our favorite used bookstore as well as some coffee at a cat café with 36 adorable cats.  We headed home, back north towards the sunset and dusk with our own bittersweet memories of the day. We humans have so much work to do to fight our lower natures and find openness and tolerance of others. This year has reminded us that we are globally connected and what we do as individuals effects those around us. We need to find our own place, rural or urban, in the world to bring tolerance and open-mindedness to the experience of being human.

Virginia Creeper Trail

Several years back, I decided that I wanted to travel outside the US at least once a year. But in 2015, my life was overtaken by the needs of my elderly parents and I needed to stay close to home. Those next 18 months I blogged about the wonderful rural sacred sites of America, places that my life serendipitously lead me to.  Five years later, life once again has me visiting the world close to home and I’m enjoying delightful places that I would not have prioritized in the past. Just like hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, I want to take you along with me on a few of my local adventures.  Here is a chance for me to share some of the wonderful and charming parts of Appalachia so that you might also enjoy a land that is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. I want to paint you a beautiful new picture of this remarkable region full of beauty and culture.

Alexandra’s birthday is early in October, so we planned an overnight trip to celebrate. I suggested the Virginia Creeper Trail just a few hours’ drive across the border in Virginia. This trail is an old railroad right-of-way from the 1880’s that runs through the rolling hills and low mountains of southern Virginia and is bisected by the Appalachian Trail which runs north and south.  The trains stopped running in the 1970’s and the Forest Service secured the land for a recreation trail.  It is now a 34-mile hiking, horse and bike trail from Whitetop Mountain to Abingdon, Virginia. But it is mostly used as a biking trail with outfitters who rent bikes and take riders to the end of the trail for a mostly down-hill ride back to the town and car. I’m not much of a biker so this was perfect for me.

The adventure started the night before when all four of us drove to the little town of Mountain City, Tennessee, to an Airbnb, stopping in Johnson City for some gourmet pizza for dinner. The next morning, we had a picnic breakfast and Alexandra opened some birthday gifts. We headed toward our next destination along a winding road beside a creek. The trees were just beginning to change colors and a few leaves were accumulating on the road. The narrow gorge is dotted with tidy farms highlighted with crisp white farmhouses and weathered barns. This was just the beginning of the perfectly picturesque “hills and hollers” of the gently rolling Appalachia.  We wandered a bit around the tiny trail town of Damascus. There are outfitters and hostels to meet the needs of the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. We had coffee and loaded our backpacks with water and snacks, got our rented bikes loaded on the outfitter’s trailer and climbed in the van for the 30 minute drive to the top of Whitetop Mountain.  As the van climbed the narrow curvy road, the terrain transformed to steeper hillsides with perfect rows of tiny Christmas tress beginning a decade of growth before harvesting for their intended Christmas home.

The first few miles on the trail were a bit wobbly for me—it had been awhile since I was on a bike. The trail was wide and slightly down-hill through a rich canopy of yellowing leaves. The air was crisp and the smell of the dry fall air that is such a relief after the humid hot summer.  It was a little too crisp for Alexandra’s hands and she fashioned mittens out of shirtsleeves and socks and I gave her my jacket. We crossed tall trestles and stopped to look down the rocky gorges.  There are well over a dozen trestle/bridges to cross on the trail. We took a short break where one side of the trail had several men in a field loading pumpkins on a truck and the other side was a steep incline of Christmas trees—it was like being on a movie set of idealized American holidays.  The next short rest was by a hillside full of goats protected by a Great Pyrenees dog. It was my childhood dream of being Heidi in Switzerland.  Fortunately, a bit later there was a sign for coffee and gloves—Alexandra was saved. The sock fix wasn’t quite good enough and we quickly purchased gloves and hats from the small outfitter across a little bridge.  Warmed by coffee and a wood stove inside the old hut gave a renewed spirit of pleasure for the amazing scenery. 

We pedaled/coasted on for awhile until we came upon a little café with picnic tables for the tired and hungry bikers. A delightful menu of hot dogs, grill cheese and tater tots was perfect to feed us body and soul for the last third of the trail.  Over more bridges until the trail flattened out just before Damascus and our car, 17 miles from the mountain top and the half-way point of the trail.  We loved every minute but the last bit found us saddle-sore and rubber-legged. It was good to turn in our bikes and climb into the car for the ride home.  There was a quick stop for chicken sandwiches and iced tea in Abingdon and then just a few more hours home to hot showers and comfy beds.  I wanted to bottle up that day and save every breath, leaf and tree to store away for hard times. I wondered at the land, my family and the simple joys of fresh air and knew I had a moment of rest to enjoy life even if it was just for a day.