28 November 2011

out of a front

Mmm, been thinking of clouds lately. Yesterday, we zipped home from Cumberland Island in a Cessna 206 and flew out of a front. When we looked back behind us, a sheet of white cloud on an otherwise gray day was floating along behind us. Someone said "A Morning Glory!" and for a moment I was back in Burketown in that blue and white Grob. But this one had no lift. We were jostled and jerked, like we were inside a coke bottle being shaken up.

Now, home. It's home to the rain, the leaky roof, the busy present-preparing workshop in my square yellow room, on my square yellow table. And lots of friends to make me merry and celebrate this wonderful time of year.

p.s. - This photo was originally posted here, from a walk in Lost Cove.  No connection, just a pretty thought.

09 November 2011

Mumsy's swamp

Mumsy wears white every day. Her lips are the same shade of pink as they were forty-five years ago. Once, they discontinued her lipstick color and her grand-daughter made her a new tube by melting down the stubs of her old lipsticks in the microwave and pouring them into a new lipstick mold. She eventually found another color that was similar.

Mumsy has lived by the swamp for about thirty-five years. When one of her sons was in high school he built an 800-foot boardwalk that leads straight into it and almost to the other side. It took him four years.  Her husband drew with colorful pastels. He built her house. His name was Neil Nehrbass. Hers is Janet. Everybody calls her Mumsy.

05 October 2011

where clouds begin

To get there, we had to paddle through a cloud. When we reached the far side, the cloud had moved on.

Williams Island Farm is located dead smack in the center of the Tennessee River just after it swerves around Moccasin Bend. The River begins near Knoxville where the Holston meets the French Broad (hidy, Suttree would say), and ends on the Kentucky line where it is swallowed by the Ohio.  A couple miles from my house, she shears downtown Chattanooga in two. 

Chattanooga itself is a city of conjunctions - three mountains, three valleys, a snaky gorge, a river cutting through the center, and railroad tracks and interstates playing tic tac toe all over it.  So what do its residents do? They build bridges over the river. They cut railroads into the mountains. They hanglide out over the valleys.  And the oldest practice: they farm the island in the middle of the Tennessee River. 

A thousand years ago, people did the same thing.  And they've been doing it on and off ever since.  Today, it's cultivated by my brother and a couple other farmhands who grow vegetables there. Beets, turnips, radishes, eggplant, chard, kale, collards, peppers, squash, carrots, okra, arugula, herbs, shiitakes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, cabbage to name a few. I go there every other week to hoe my fair share, but really it's the island feeling that I savor. Paddling across the river. Gazing south to Lookout and north into the Gorge. The clouds never lie the same way twice.

15 September 2011

Off, and back on again

 For a while, it seemed too big.

There was too much.
Too much to sift through.
Too much to think about.

It was a denial - was it a denial? Whether my return from the Watson year was an eager casting off of the title "foreigner" or a wholehearted embrace of familiar language, culture, and community, I'm not sure.

 Please don't misinterpret that. I believe with my whole soul in the value of seeing and experiencing and learning from other cultures. I don't for a millisecond write off the year's experience as anything but the transformative and mind-blowing year that it was. 

 Yet life-changing is not easy. Life-changing means subjecting yourself to experience. It means putting yourself out there. It means not being invisible. It means...difficulties. Joys, hard work, laughter, failure, success, rejection, confusion (lots of confusion), frustration...is there any way to describe a year of traveling alone?  I don't think it can be rattled off in a list.

After that year - 365 days of constant exploration and discovery, of entirely new places and faces, languages and music, clouds and landscapes - I was worn out. I was craving a familiar face, a familiar place, the everyday intimacies that we take for granted: the chipped red paint on the front door, the smile of a neighbor, the familiar pothole on the road (I'm imagining that scene from the film "It's a Wonderful Life" where George Bailey, upon returning from the haunting dream world to his real life again, desperately searches for a scrap of familiarity and, finding his daughter's flower petals in his pocket shouts "Zuzu's petals...Zuzu...THERE THEY ARE!")  Okay, it wasn't that dramatic. But wow, it felt good to be home!

The return was fantastic.  Overwhelming. Stupefying. I have so much stuff. Clothes. Books. Possessions. For one year, I had a backpack. The next day I had a room full of things in a house on some land.  But the biggest shock was family. Friends. They were all there. Doing their thing, being their wonderful selves. And I was a part of it.

(That's probably the most meaningful gift anyone could ask for. I felt so grateful. I still do. I swore not to take that for granted anymore, not to take any detail for granted. I was a part of a community of people who appreciated me and loved me and occasionaly let me know it, although most of the time it was through subtle signs like saying "good morning" or asking me if I would please cut the grass or sharing a meal. )

So why all this writing? Why now?

This blog is a story. It began as my cloud story. It began before I received the Watson Fellowship, when I was formulating ideas about how I see the world, wanting a place to express those ideas and wondering if there would be an audience interested in listening. This blog is that vessel. That medium. The ideas continue, but for a while I had to not think about it. I felt pressure. I had returned with a load of wonderful experiences, experiences that still come out in stories here and there and that I often surprise myself with by remembering. I have over a dozen journals from that year and thousands and thousands of images.

They are valuable. There is a lot to be learned from them, a lot to be shared, but it must be done thoughtfully and relevantly. I want these ideas to live, and I want to continue to share my thoughts on the clouds, to move forward with a grateful nod to the past and a passionate eye for the capacity to change the way we think in the future. This is a place that lives. Thanks for listening.  The clouds today are beautiful.

08 September 2011

hop, skip, and a jump

the adventures continue. I started a photo blog here:


04 March 2011

late evening amble

I love the long walk home through the short houses.  The dirty muddled road chipped like an old ax handle, washed out and worn in low places, puddling and glinting in late daylight.   It’s peaceful there.   It’s straight, but you can’t feel it because of the hill, the hill that doesn’t appear like a hill.  It’s long and curved, subtly, unnoticeably, like the surface of an eggplant or the contour of a smooth forearm.  Unnoticeably, because there is so much else to notice.  The trees – the entire street length – shade the road in scraggly patches pieced together like stacked webs of twig and bough, no pattern, plenty of empty places for air, light, sky, whatever tint that may be today.  And past the last road sign, the forty-first street, the end of the state road, the asphalt simply gives way.  Things grow there.  Dirt, soil sprout fingerlings of green hints stalwart in their presence:  life here, too, will persist.  Walk on.  You’ll see.  Or not see. 

The turnaround is always a gamble.  To proceed to the end, to the unromantic, less-than-majestic, unheralded by shady oak hands point-of-no-further-stepping, or to wheel around before the bitterness sinks in, to tiptoe up to the end of the shadowy lines on the ground and not even for an instant ponder the bright beyond, unknown.  Usually, I make the turn before then.  Past the barrier, beyond the pavement and baby grass, but before the isolating mid-road stance that begs question and neighborly concern.  I turn back before curiosity does.  The road rambles on.  Into one gulley, through the culvert, shot out into a ditch, somewhere near a Georgia chemical plant, abandoned railroad tracks, weedy bridge-crossings, coarse gravel.  Rain pools in places where rust rims the dirt.  Footprints hold back.  Grasses grow tall.  The sky there is like glass, waiting for someone to shout its name, to shatter it into a thousand vanishing pieces.

24 January 2011

night, the fish caves, Heimaey

Day one in Vestmannaeyjar.   I set up my tent inside a circle of mountain.   Volcanic walls surround my cloth home on a field crowded with dandelions.  Swarming above the scattered tents are as many birds as there are people in Reykjavik.  Thousands of seabirds squawk about, lighting on tufted nests that look like messy green mustaches.  Near the sea stands a shelter constructed with the volcano's crumbs, a four-walled, turf-roofed abode, a hole in the rain.   This is where I write. 

They call this place fiskehellar, the fish caves, because of the hundreds of dry pockets worn into the mountainside.  When the island was being fought over, fiskehellar is where the women and children kept safe.  Tonight, it cradles me to sleep, too, as I flatten dandelions into pancakes beneath my back and pray that my tent is spared the steady fall of ammoniac rain that artfully speckles the ground.

The flight here made my heart leap.  Heimaey and its little siblings rise out of the water like emeralds set in asphalt.  A late evening light cast them in an oblique, golden hue.  The runway reminded me of the airport in Pulaski, except instead of a quarry preceding the landing, we lipped a bungled volcanic cliff covered with birds and giant waves.  There was a young soccer team aboard -- about a dozen ten year-old kids wearing their uniforms and grass-stains proudly -- and when the wheels touched down smoothly, they let loose a spirited applause.

The rain has stopped, the birds haven't.  One slight shadow falls when camping in around-the-clock sunshine - aside from being hard to fall asleep at first, the birds are never quiet. All hours of the night they squawk and sing away.  But perhaps they do that back home, too.  I cannot remember.  I am looking forward to darkness again, even if I spend it mostly asleep...

excepted from a letter written on Heimaey, the largest of the islands of Vestmannaeyjar, off the southern coast of Iceland.
July 3, 2010

03 January 2011


Kiruna, Sweden
January 2010
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