Flight of the Gooney Bird
The N.C. Transportation Museum works to restore the Potomac Peacemaker
The N.C. Transportation Museum works to restore the Potomac Peacemaker
By Jim Dodson
Reprinted from the January 2013 edition of PineStraw magazine.
Two winters ago, while visiting for the holidays, my daughter, Maggie, made a point of asking me to get her up at the crack of dawn so she could go off to hot yoga class.
At that time I’d only vaguely heard the phrase “hot yoga class” around town. It conjured a charming picture in my mind of thoughtful people concerned about declining yak populations and freeing Tibet and other such noble enterprises, sitting peacefully après group meditation in a peace circle on a warehouse floor or a redwood log in the forest, drinking organic hot cocoa or maybe green tea, sharing cleansing quiet.
Then again, I’m a 60-year-old broken-down golfer with a dodgy right knee from football donkey years ago who still limps around the golf course carrying his own bag for exercise and sometimes, weather permitting, walks to work.
“Happy to get you up,” I said. “Hot yoga sounds like fun, especially if they give you hot cocoa.”
She stared at me incredulously, as if I’d made an impolite yak mating noise. “Dad, they don’t give you hot cocoa. And I wouldn’t exactly call hot yoga fun, though it is fabulous. I’m totally addicted to it — go twice a week back in New York. It’s what keeps me sane.”
“No hot cocoa?”
“No. But you really should try it. Seriously. The stretching alone would be great for that old athlete’s body of yours. You’ll feel so wonderful after you finish a session. And the place I’m going to here is such a beautiful space. They play gorgeous meditation music and place a lavender-scented cloth on your head and massage your neck with relaxing oils at the end.”
“Sounds great,” I agreed. “I guess I can always buy my own hot cocoa afterward.”
“So you’ll go?”
“Wonderful. You’ll thank me!”
But, alas, I didn’t go. Over the next year, in the interest of exercising more and improving my health, I limped around the golf course a little more than usual and steadfastly avoided setting foot in the Taj Mahal of a health club where we belonged, simply because the multitudes of people exercising there — especially the old ones — were so frightening in their dedication to physical fitness.
They wore headphones and huffed along on computerized treadmills and other machines that required a basic engineering degree to operate until they looked half-dead, at which point they mopped their brows and sauntered past flabby sometimers like me wearing a look of pure Teutonic smugness. And this was just the old ladies!
Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when I blew out my right knee from idiotically stepping on a kicking tee while playing football, nobody except guys who pissed off the coach by sitting on their helmets during games or lonely aces who couldn’t get a date if their own sisters invited them out went to the gym to actually exercise. The gymnasium wasn’t at all cool except with bodybuilder types who shaved their armpits and actually dated their sisters.
In the ’80s, I played a great deal of pick-up basketball with college dudes 10 years my junior, plus shortstop on two different fast-pitch softball teams. I also hiked in the mountains and ran a couple of 10K road races with a crazy girlfriend who ate tofu by the crate and planned to live forever. Trying to keep up with a skinny girlfriend with the approximate body fat of a Serengeti cheetah, I learned, is no fun at all. She literally left me somewhere around mile five and that was that — for romance and road racing.
In the ’90s, I built my own house on a hilltop in coastal Maine, rebuilt old stone walls, planted stuff, chopped and stacked wood endlessly, and shoveled more snow than one man should probably have to shovel unless he’s in a Soviet gulag in Siberia.
I walked a golf course twice a week and even joined my first gym, which I belonged to for about three weeks, until I realized the people reading “The Bridges of Madison County” on the Stairmaster machine and taking their own pulses actually liked going to the gym. Also, I didn’t like being naked with strangers who loved to admire their toned bodies in full-length mirrors. Had the strangers been female, well, that might have been a different story.
Anyway, flash ahead 20 years — lots of chopping and walking and working like a convict in a garden, keeping me more or less in what I called “farmer shape” — to the winter day I finally took my daughter’s advice and showed up at the yoga studio for something called “Warm Flow Yoga.”
I was the first to arrive for class on the appointed Saturday morning and discovered the instructor was an attractive young gal named Lisa, who was so charming and blessedly fit, I was tempted to turn and bolt for the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts.
Lisa quickly put my qualms to rest, placed me on a rented yoga mat, and explained that the purpose of yoga is to achieve a proper balance between the body and the spirit through various timeless meditational poses meant to exercise the body and liberate the dude within.
Being a yoga rookie, I was advised to watch others as they performed the various traditional asanas (postures) and warm-ups and to “listen to my body” by doing only what I felt my old body could handle.
“There’s no right or wrong here,” she emphasized. “Yoga is a learning process, you must do at your own speed.”
Seven women and one guy joined the class and immediately began stretching out. I started stretching out too, pretending I knew what I was doing, which I didn’t, but rather liked doing anyway, greatly enjoyed in fact, especially watching all these fit middle-aged women in skimpy outfits warming up all around me in the candle-lit room with serene flute music coming from a Tibetan mountaintop.
I vaguely wondered if this might be why they call it “hot yoga,” but then the class started and all such worldly distractions disappeared as Lisa led the class though a host of flowing postures and breathing exercises meant to still the monkey in the mind, to free our spirits from past and present concerns, to find peace and sacredness of the moment, the simple act of being.
Truthfully, Warm Yoga nearly killed me at several points, especially when my dodgy right knee refused to cooperate on a difficult one-legged pose. But somehow, with Lisa’s gentle guidance, I even got through most of the challenging poses. By the time I was lying flat on my back during the final recovery period, breathing deeply and covered with sweat and relaxed as a steamed lasagna noodle, I truly realized why Maggie and 30 million other Americans find this ancient form of exercise so completely and utterly beguiling.
I’d completely forgotten about that final glorious touch — a soothing cool cloth smelling like my old lavender garden back in Maine, placed over the eyes. For a few lovely moments I was back in my old Maine garden, and in a bit of heaven.
I left the studio feeling like a new man with an old body that was eager to return as soon as possible. With or without the hot cocoa at the end.
Remembering a radio icon of Christmas past
By Billy Eye
By Jim Dodson
Reprinted with permission by PineStraw Magazine.
When I was young, the only thing harder than the coming of Christmas was saying goodbye to it.
After weeks of anticipation and suspense, savoring the agonizing build-up to the big morning and everything that went with it — food, carols, festive lights, crowded stores, nights that held the prospect of snow — everything seemed to wind up in the twinkling of an ancient elfin eye, literally overnight.
Suddenly, Christmas magic was over: There were no presents left to unwrap, a fine dinner was reduced to tin-foiled leftovers in the fridge, favorite cousins were heading home, leaving behind a kind of postpartum lethargy that carried through the week to New Year’s, a finale that felt anticlimactic compared to the assorted glories of Christmas. As the ball was dropping on New Year’s Eve, it was the rare first night when I was even awake.
My parents, of course, were probably to blame for this phenomenon, for I was merely the product of their own unbounded enthusiasm for everything about the Christmas season.
Beginning with Thanksgiving, my mom became a baking fool and commenced decorating the house at the crack of the first December dawn. My dad, meanwhile, spent hours untangling and repairing strings of outdoor Christmas lights and lived for our annual trip down to the abandoned family home place deep in the woods near Hillsborough to shoot mistletoe out of the towering oaks that grew there. Our December trek to Ashe County to cut a live Christmas tree was a given, as was his Christmas office party, a lively afternoon affair conducted in the spirit of Dickens’ Fezziwig, a man whose love of commerce was only topped by his personal generosity to the people around him. In its own way, our mom’s annual open house before church service on Christmas Eve — the finale of her cooking and baking season — was equally festive, and something friends and neighbors counted upon every year to seal their own holiday spirit in a nimbus of love.
It was the goodbye part that always got to me.
The most exciting time of year — something I waited eagerly for eleven months of the year, a small eternity to a 10-year-old — seemed to suddenly arrive and disappear like the Christmas goose on the Cratchit family table.
To compound matters, in our neighborhood, several folks actually took down their Christmas trees the day after Christmas and hustled them out to the curb for collection like a disreputable uncle who’d overstayed his welcome.
I remember once taking a spin on a new Christmas bike and being startled to discover several of these sadly discarded Christmas trees, stripped bare save for a few straggling pieces of tinsel, discarded symbols of the season awaiting the coming of the trash man. To this day, that sight always saddens me.
Looking back, though I didn’t begin to comprehend it at the time, I learned a valuable life lesson from the slow coming and quick going of such happy Christmas seasons, this seductive blending of Christian tradition and Father Christmas — namely, that saying goodbye to people and things you love is, indeed, all about the wise use of time and simply one of life’s bittersweet inevitabilities, a fact of life that varies only by degrees of intensity and one’s own perception of what’s really important.
In the spirit of Old Fezziwig, human generosity never goes out of season.
Leavetaking of one kind or another happens every day in our lives, so commonplace and cordial it’s easy not to notice because such moments are so tightly woven into the fabric of the ordinary.
The perfect evening ends. Guests say goodnight. You kiss your spouse goodbye in the morning without a passing concern about the day ahead. We operate on an unseen principle that goodbye is never really goodbye — just a temporary parting.
And yet, in ancient times, given the brevity of ordinary life, goodbye really meant something. Roads were perilous and dangers rampant. The word “goodbye” was simply shorthand for “God be with you,” an acknowledgement of life’s fragile impermanence. By the same token, the word “farewell” comes from middle English and meant quite literally “fare thee well” on your onward journey, wherever it leads you and whatever rises up to meet you. Fare thee well on the road of this uncertain life.
Daily rituals aside, sometimes the act of saying goodbye does penetrate to the heart muscle and strikes a deeper chord, causing us to pause and think, the throat to constrict, the eyes to burn.
It happens unexpectedly when your child goes off to college or your favorite neighbors move. The job changes. Your daughter gets married. Illness comes. The dog must be put down.
The effect of these goodbyes can alter your perception of everything.
Following the death of his dog, the poet Pablo Neruda had nothing shy of a spiritual awakening. “I, the materialist,” he wrote, “who never believed in any promised heaven in the sky for any human being, I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter. Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom where my dog waits for my arrival waving his fan-like tail in friendship.”
Death — believed to be the ultimate leavetaking by some, a mere hidden doorway to the onward adventure by others — makes everyone a believer in something, if only the value of a saying a heartfelt goodbye, for now.
Twenty years ago, though it was quite painful at the time, the smartest thing I ever did was leave my own young family behind to come home to be my old man’s caretaker as he was slipping the bonds of this world. With the help of a kindly hospice worker, I sat with him in my boyhood bedroom and tended his daily needs, talking about things both inconsequential and profound, just being with Mr. Fezziwig through the last hours of his life.
The night before he died, he politely asked me to help him into bed with my mother just down the hall. I remember how my eyes stung at the sound of them talking quietly beneath the quilt like the old lovers they were. They were saying goodbye. He passed serenely the next night, a goodbye that enriched my life immeasurably.
Five years later, I was sitting with my mother at her favorite restaurant on the water near our house in Maine where she suddenly admitted how powerfully she missed my father — and life in North Carolina. When I apologized for moving her to the nice assisted care residence near our house, she simply smiled, patted my hand and sipped her wine. “Don’t worry, sugar. That’s just life. I’ll see your father soon.”
Less than a week later, she suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. When I took my children to see their grandmother, she was lying in bed smiling at them. They kissed her and she seemed — crazy, I know — almost radiantly happy. I came back to sit with her that night and we held hands and talked of the smallest sorts of things — her love of peonies, her growing grandchildren and the pride she felt in all of us. Nothing was left unsaid.
She passed away peacefully the next morning.
Not too long afterward came another passing.
We — well, I — said a painful goodbye to the rugged post-and-beam house I built with my own hands on a forested hilltop, the place where my own children were born and where I grew an ambitious garden in the woods.
Handing over the keys to a couple from Massachusetts who had matching Doberman Pinschers was a moment that bruised my heart more than I care to admit. The house was my so-called “dream house,” the place I’d fully planned to spend the rest of my days digging in the garden and watching the seasons pass until some thoughtful person spread my ashes among the giant hosta plants and daylilies of my Redneck Philosopher’s Garden.
But dreams have a funny way of changing shape. Instead of forever, one bright sunny May afternoon I bid the place a reluctant “fare thee well” with a lump the size of a tulip bulb in my throat, choosing to take writer Beryl Markham’s good advice on such moments:
“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”
I closed the door and didn’t look back. I’ve never been back. Though that house still shows up in my dreams from time to time.
“To live in this world,” echoes the poet Mary Oliver, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
Good advice for saying goodbye, I’ve learned, to anything you love from an old dog to a favorite holiday.
A decade ago we moved home to North Carolina and brought a beloved holiday ritual that started in that house on a snowy hilltop more than twenty-five years ago.
Our annual winter solstice party invites friends and neighbors to come share great homemade soup and my bride’s amazing desserts on the longest night of the year, illuminating the darkness with bawdy skits, Medieval songs, favorite poems, magic tricks — whatever moves the spirit — providing much laughter and Fezziwigian fellowship in a world that is forever passing away, an ancient celebration of our own fragile impermanence.
For our ever-widening circle of friends and family, it must be said, the winter solstice has become a valuable part of the Christmas season, the perfect prelude to the day that always came so slowly and passed too quickly.
When all the gifts are opened and the house has fallen quiet late on Christmas Day, I confess, I will stir the fire and pour myself a glass of good aged port and drink a little toast to all that’s passed through my life, still feeling a touch of the old sadness at saying goodbye — for now — to people and things I’ve loved, a bittersweet hollowness that is only filled by the hope that things don’t really end, that goodbye is really just another kind of beginning.
Finding a Good Story for a Bad Knee
By Jim Dodson
I’ve been limping along with a bum knee for exactly six months. One thing I’ve discovered — the painful way — is that I’m not a natural limper.
There are some people who are born to limp and look darn good doing it. Forest Gump, Ben Franklin and Dr. Strangelove all limped, and just look what it did for their careers. Ditto Grandpa on The Real McCoys, Napoleon Bonaparte and James Arness of Gunsmoke fame, who limped from a leg wound that won him a bronze star during the Second World War.
Then there are the athletes who limp. One of the greatest moments in the history of baseball — the best performance by a limping athlete, if you will — happened in the World Series of 1988 when an injured Kirk Gibson, nursing a bum left knee exactly like mine, startled fans by limping out of the dugout to pinch hit for the L.A. Dodgers, down 4-3 with two out in the bottom of the ninth in the first game of the series against the mighty Oakland A’s. Ace Dennis Eckersley was on the mound throwing smoke. Gibson somehow worked a full count and then swatted a home run to win the game over the right field fence.
My limping, on the other hand, is downright embarrassing. I look nothing like Kirk Gibson limping around the bases while the crowd in L.A. loses their minds and the great Curt Gowdy hollers in disbelief, “It’s a miracle, I tell you! A miracle.”
A bum knee, in short, needs a dramatic narrative. But my limp looks like a grocery cart missing a front wheel or an old pirate who lost part of his peg leg in a tavern brawl.
People who see me limping along like an old pirate pushing a broken grocery cart feel so sorry for me. I can see it in their faces — pure, undisguised limping pity.
“Oh, dear, are you all right?” a tender-hearted granny-sort asked me the other evening as I limped through Harris Teeter to buy my first quart of seasonal egg nog.
“Yes ma’am,” I said truthfully. “It only hurts when I walk.”
“Oh, sweetie, how did you injure it?” she wondered, the picture of deep granny-type concern.
I told her the truth. “If you must know, I recently leapt out of a helicopter into a raging flooded river to save a litter of golden retriever puppies about to go over a waterfall in a washtub.”
She was so moved she could hardly speak.
“That is so brave,” she finally managed, wiping a tear and hugging me.
“Yes ma’am. The best thing is, every one of the puppies survived. Now I’m finding them all good homes for Christmas.”
True, I lied. You probably guessed that by now. But having a bum knee and a sorry limp with no narrative at Christmas can change you in ways that make Dr. Strangelove look like a Boy Scout selling homemade brownies.
How could I possibly tell that sweet little granny-like person with an honest face that I simply hurt it while playing golf on a rainy afternoon back in May? That all I did was make a sorry swing with a sand wedge and feel the sand shift beneath my left foot and something in my knee twist. What kind of silly injury is that?
Back in my early teens and twenties, after all, my own mother used to call me Hurricane Jimmy because I displayed a talent for injuring myself in all kinds of interesting ways: falling off my bike or out of trees, tripping into open holes, coming home with a bloody nose or flesh wound after every sort of neighborhood game. I never cried and healed fast. Getting injured was my thing.
For example, I nearly put out my right eye by sliding home in a Little League baseball game and colliding with the catcher, a moment that briefly gained me the admiration of classmates and the attention of the elusive Della Hockaday. I got to wear an eye patch to school for a week and was thus encouraged to present Della a mood ring from Woolworths, which she wore for almost two whole weeks before giving it back in order to go steady with Woody C. Ham, who had a more interesting injury than mine, having broken his arm by falling down the bus steps. He had a big honking cast on his arm that the whole school got to sign, making him an instant celebrity. By then my eye patch was gone, my heroic baseball injury forgotten, and so was any hope of romance with Della Hockaday —my first hard lesson in love and personal injury.
That next winter, while skiing in western Maryland, I crashed through a snow fence and wound up spending New Year’s Eve with my right leg in a sling at a Catholic hospital where the nuns made a big fuss over me. I believe this might be where I had my first sip of eggnog — straight nog, of course. So I owe the nuns that. But it just wasn’t the same as Della Hockaday.
Rather disappointingly, I played two years of organized football but never had a decent injury to speak of until college, where I foolishly attempted to make the university’s team as an invited walk on and tore apart my dodgy ski bum knee and required surgery. I spent a month hobbling on crutches with a leg cast that made Woody C. Ham’s look like a cheap trick just to get Della Hockaday in the mood.
Later, I crashed gloriously headlong into the bleachers during a heated intramural basketball game that required a dozen stitches in my forehead, but made me look more like a son of Frankenstein than Hurricane Jimmy. On the plus side, that very next summer, working on a crew putting up lightning rods on barns, I drove a steel rod threw my hand and wound up being the head usher at my college roomie’s wedding with a right hand swaddled up like baby Jesus. I was a big hit with the bridesmaids.
In my twenties I played on three different softball teams in Atlanta and wound up having that same bum right knee seriously operated on twice more, each time milking my injury for all it was worth.
Then something strange and totally out of character happened. I moved to New England, got married, became a father, built my own a house on a forested hill and became a crazed landscape gardener. During those two decades I traveled the world walking golf courses and rebuilt the ancient stone walls that surrounded our property, with plenty of cuts and bruises, but no major injuries worth mentioning. I even spent six weeks in Africa chasing crazy plant hunters though some of the scariest terrains on earth with nothing more to show than a bad tick bite and a few gouges. I was informed by our guide that the tick bite might cause a terrible case of jungle fever and I might wake up in the dead of night shouting out for Kim Bassinger or at least Della Hockaday. But sadly, it just never happened.
Where had Hurricane Jimmy gone? Life is so bittersweet and short when you’re living from one injury to the next.
All of which makes the silly little injury to my “good” knee in a sand trap last May so embarrassing — maybe even a true sign of age and creeping decrepitude. All it took was a little twist in the sand and I’ve been limping like Chester on Gunsmoke ever since.
The orthopedic specialist who examined the pathetic knee in question pointed out that I’m too young for new artificial knees and suggested I simply shut up and give my sissified injury time to heal on its own, which I more or less have — except for the shutting up part.
At the risk of sounding like that sixth grade Lothario Woody C. Ham, since every other person you meet here in the Sandhills can boast of either a new artificial hip or pair of new knees and is more than happy to show off with a brief tango or tell you about their advanced aerobics class at First Health, I’ve created my own dramatic narrative to explain my pathetic limp in grocery stores.
True, six months has officially come and gone and — yes — the sissy knee feels better and my limp seems to be finally fading a bit. But this ordeal is so unworthy of my happy Hurricane Jimmy days, I’ve had to resort to bold narrative measures.
Which explains why I’m drinking straight egg nog with both hands this Christmas and telling myself (and anyone else who will listen) that at least I saved those adorable puppies in the nick of time and found them a warm safe home for the holidays.
Wherever she’s gone, I hope Della — depending on her mood — might be proud.
By Jim Dodson
In our house, saying grace at Thanksgiving — anytime, really — is something of a cosmic adventure. Like Forest Gump’s box of chocolate, you never quite know what you’ll get.
I suppose this is because we’re a fairly diverse lot as blended modern families go, a spiritually mixed tribe that includes everything from Catholic elders to Jewish young people, with a liberal sprinkling of Protestants in the middle. My wife grew up Roman Catholic but her college-boy sons, who were reared in a reformed Jewish tradition, now see themselves as broad-minded, multi-faith guardians of a fragile planet, enviro-crusaders. My own children, who grew up stout little Episcopalians singing in the Chapel Choir, now seem more inclined toward the meditational power of Buddhism seasoned with a smidge of the enlightened agnosticism from their late Scottish grandmother.
If there is fault to be assigned for this hot-house society of homegrown free-thinkers who gather round our supper table only a few times a year now, typically only at the holidays, it probably falls on the heads of my wife and me who dutifully instructed our children in the spiritual traditions of their forebears but strongly encouraged them to make up their own minds about matters of the spirit, for life has a way of road testing endurance and faith in a variety of unexpected ways.
Still, under my roof, I have certain practices and beliefs that aren’t fully negotiable and saying grace — offering a simple blessing of thanks over a shared evening meal — is one of them. Maybe it’s the force of tradition that perpetuates this ritual of gathering or possibly the simple grace that comes with the wisdom of saying thank-you.
Gratitude, goes an old French proverb, is the heart’s memory. “The mouth gives voice to what fills the heart,” points out Luke’s gospel.
Whatever it is, and regardless of their true feelings about the practice, our diverse band of cosmic travelers is pretty good-humored about humoring the old man’s old-fashioned desire to join hands, bow heads, and thank whatever kindly force of the universe allowed us to gather and break bread.
Perhaps they sense, as I certainly do, that in a world that’s moving as swiftly and unpredictably as the one around us does, the act of pausing to merely express a timeless form of gratitude to whatever divine and mysterious power shapes and illumines our lives is not only a healthy social exercise but a way of getting in touch with each other’s heart.
But there are always nice surprises, like the time my young daughter Maggie, then about age 4, pointedly asked to say her first grace at Thanksgiving and came out with: “Dear God, thanks for this nice food Mom made. And, oh, by the way, Christmas is coming up and I’d really like to have that doll house. And please stop Jack from whistling at bedtime. He’s so annoying.”
As far as this patriarch is concerned, all thanks are welcome. Blessings come in every form, as diverse and surprising as life itself.
My own faith journey, after all, is a pretty mixed affair of the heart. My great great grandfather was an itinerate Methodist preacher who founded churches across the state after the Civil War but I grew up in a skinny-legged Lutheran in Greensboro surrounded by two large and robust food-loving Methodist and Southern Baptist clans for whom sharing a homemade meal – and saying grace over it – was central to their exercise of faith. But this was just the foundation of my own magical mystery tour of grace. My first memorized blessing was the classic: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our Food,” though some years later I raised more than a few shocked aunty eyebrows by declaring, “Good gravy. Good meat. Good God, let’s eat!”
By attending a Scout troop at a Quaker church, I grew fascinated by the idea of an inner light of God in every soul and the simplicity of Quaker ways. In high school, meanwhile, I fell hard for the transcendental writings of Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, which naturally led me on to the sages of the East who heavily influenced them and a deepening love affair with the beautiful writings of ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Sufi poets whose grasp of the beloved seemed to eclipse and inform my own evolving understanding of a loving force that can’t be defined or contained by any particular religion or rigid doctrine.
To this day, as a result, wherever work or pleasure travels take me, I love turning up at a local cathedral, church, temple or synagogue simply to sit and soak up the music and prayers of the faithful. I even dig sitting in empty churches — recalling Emerson’s famous remark that the silence before the service is often more powerful than any sermon.
Moreover, as I age, like my own father and his father before him, I find myself less inclined toward the social politics and endless theological squabbles of modern church life in favor of the simple splendor of nature and changing seasons, seeing more of God’s presence in the smallest movements of the natural world, the silence of a vernal pool in spring, a walk along a leaf-strewn dirt road in fall, hungry birds at a winter feeder or my own growing garden. The path to heaven, as good and cheerful Buddhist friend of mine likes to say, is heaven itself.
During the two decades we lived on a forested hill in Maine, I claimed a granite rock looming over a hidden stream in the woods behind my house where the dogs and I used to go sit for a hour or so once a week, my private woodland cathedral, my personal philosopher’s stone where I retreated to just sit and think or not think, to simply observe and be observed by sovereigns of the forest. Invariably, I wound up counting my blessings.
Once, on a book tour, a radio interviewer asked me what religion I practiced.
Without thinking, I joked that I was probably unfit for any religion that would have me, per se, but was essentially a “Southern Transcendentalist and practicing Quaking Buddho-Episcotarian with a strong fondness for old timey Baptist hymns and a good Methodist covered dish homecoming supper on the lawn.”
“Is that, like, a real religion?” she wondered.
“Yes ma’am. With only one known practicing member, I’m afraid.”
When one of our own spiritual wayfaring progeny agrees to say grace over a holiday meal and comes out with a rambling exhortation about the shrinking Arctic shelf or the perils to the planet of an unchecked military industrial complex, I simply thank God for their own growing awareness the world they are inheriting.
Saying grace is, after all, simply a form of prayer — a conversation between Heaven and human beings as diverse as human society itself, dating back thousands of years before any single religion got itself organized. “Pray,” wrote the blind poet Homer, “for all men need the aid of the gods.”
Not surprisingly, prayers of gratitude or thanksgiving are among the oldest hymns of man, recorded as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. In every society the act of giving thanks to a higher power for the abundance of field and table is one of the most commonly defining elements of human civilization.
America’s first Thanksgiving celebration at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, was essentially a communal prayer of thanks to God for providing the food that sustained their fledgling colony in a dangerous new world. Saying grace from that day forward invariably took the form of thanking God as well as the hands who made the meal.
For more than two decades, even my Scottish mother-in-law, a wise old agnostic with a deeply tender heart, grasped the power of this idea and loved to lead us all in her favorite childhood grace – “Some hae meat and canna eat / Some hae meat and want it. But we hae meat and we can eat and so the Lord be thankit!”
Lately I’ve been researching potential new blessings and graces for our New Age Turkey Day table where the Southern-fried Transcendental patriarch always gets to say a few words of thanks as the candles are lot and hands joined. Lately, I find, the fewer the better.
A sampling of this year’s leading contenders:
“Do good and don’t look back.” – Dutch proverb
“He prayeth best who loveth best; all things both great and small.” – from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” By Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“If your only prayer was thank you – that would be enough.” – Meister Eckhart
“A table is not blessed if it has fed no scholars.” – Yiddish proverb
“Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, for we shall never cease to be amused.” – Anonymous
“Grub first, then ethics.” – Bertholt Brecht
“Eat your bread with joy, drink your wine with a merry heart.” – Book of Ecclesiastes
“May the love that’s in my heart pass from my love to yours.” – Traditional American blessing
“Thou hast given me much. Give me one more thing – a grateful heart.” – George Herbert, English poet and pastor
Somehow, hands joined, this just says Thanksgiving to me.
The tarot reading — and tattoo — that changed my life
By Corrinne Rosquillo
In 2018, I visited New Orleans for the first time. It’s a magical city, full of history and an old energy that cannot be described, only felt. It was where I received my first professional tarot reading — not from some Creole witch (missed opportunity, I know), but from an elderly white man with a calming presence.
I don’t remember his name now. I wish I did. I’m sure it was something like John or Mark. Ordinary, simple — fitting. He did a standard reading with twelve cards. The first eleven of them are a blur, but the final card — the card meant to represent me — still appears in my mind’s eye with crystal clarity: Juno, Queen of the Gods, a force to be reckoned with. That, and the reader’s parting words: “You are your own worst enemy. You can accomplish anything if you get out of your own way.”
I cried because I knew it was true. His words resonated, touching something deep within me that had been there all along, a continuing theme throughout my life. That’s what tarot does — it doesn’t tell you your future or some hidden secret of the universe. It points out what has been sitting in front of you that you were too busy, too distracted to notice.
At the time, I struggled with anxiety and depression. I still do; I probably always will. But I got the message loud and clear.
I paid him via Venmo and left.
Fast forward to 2019, where a knee surgery plunged me into the deepest depression of my life, a depression that almost killed me. Key word: almost. I’m still here, winning battles against myself.
Those words, spoken to me years ago, still resonate. I knew in 2019 that I wanted to create a permanent reminder for when my depression would inevitably rear its ugly head again. Yesterday, I finished that reminder with the help of Gene Cash at Seven Sagas Tattoo Studio.
I took the classic Roman Juno and made her mine. I have a woodblock style crane on my right shoulder that represents my first triumph over depression, so I thought, why not a Japanese Juno? Some of her classic symbols are still there: the peacock feathers, the spear, the moon, the lotus. The words beside her, written in Japanese, are purely for me to know: watashi no kataki wa jibun. My enemy is me.
But my favorite element of the whole piece? If you look carefully, the top line of the moon isn’t finished. It’s intentional, an aesthetic called “wabi sabi” in Japanese. It’s about appreciating beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete” in nature. Fitting.
Juno is on my right arm to remind me that I am a goddess, capable of overcoming anything. So long as I believe it, I know I will.
To that tarot reader, wherever you are, thank you for awakening the divine in me.
Corrinne Rosquillo is a contributor of O.Henry — yes, the goddess with the gorgeous tattoo of Juno on her arm.
Tales from the real Land of Oz
By Billy Eye
Last month, when Wicked blew through town, I was reminded of my own trip over the rainbow to the actual Land of Oz.
Perhaps you recall that fabled but star-crossed 1970s amusement park nestled atop Beech Mountain? You entered the attraction through Dorothy’s Kansas farmhouse, where you would “experience” the tornado and then, once the dust settled, exit the home to find two legs in striped stockings sticking out from under the frame.
Joining Dorothy’s journey down the Yellow Brick Road, park guests encountered the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch of the West. The adventure culminated with a big stage extravaganza at the Wizard’s Emerald City castle, then visitors were whisked back to the parking lot in a gondola lift retrofitted to look like a hot-air balloon.
Land of Oz opened in 1970 as a sister attraction to Tweetsie Railroad. After a successful first year, attendance grew spotty even before a fire badly damaged the premises in 1975. New owners pumped major money into the venture in 1977. That summer I was hired to play the Scarecrow for a promotional shopping mall tour across a three-state region.
At the Carolina Circle in Greensboro, Dorothy and I entertained children with a musical puppet show created by Jerry Halliday (a Vegas mainstay with a risqué show you wouldn’t dream of taking your kids to, although his Oz puppets were adorable). I only visited the Land of Oz theme park once on a VIP tour meant to give us a sense of what the attraction was all about.
Neglected for decades but mostly intact (except for the Emerald City, which was raised for a housing development), Oz has been open to the public summer weekends since 2019 as more of a theatrical experience. In fact, their Autumn at Oz event is the largest Wizard of Oz-themed festival in the world. (Eye attempted to get tickets in 2016 when they were booking limited monthly tours, but the demand was so high that it crashed their computer system.)
After 30 years of slow but ongoing restorations, the Yellow Brick Road is once again the pathway to a magical place from a long ago past, one you may have heard of once in a lullaby.
Next summer, a somewhat truncated but magnificently restored Land of Oz will once again open their gates for visitors and private parties. Visit landofoznc.com for more details.
By Jim Dodson
Someone once told me the key to a long and happy life is understanding why you’re on this earth.
I used to think it was to write books and harmless essays, edit magazines and enjoy an occasional bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with extra mayo and not too much guilt.
Ha! What a laugh. Turns out my real purpose in life is to serve as personal valet — fulltime butler, if you prefer — to a pack of demanding domestic animals.
The aforementioned animals live in our house. Or rather I live in theirs.
They number five in all: three dogs, two cats. Three are rescues, two are purebreds. Two are old and whiny, two are young and pushy, one is a little of both. All are as demanding as spoiled Saudi princes.
Old Ella, a golden retriever, hails from a barn in rural Maine. She’s 13 and basically dumb as a rusted pump handle and twice as stubborn. She can be sweet as long as it serves her purposes. Over the years she has survived every affliction known to doghood and boasts the vet bills to prove it. Our vet faithfully sends Old Ella birthday greetings thanking her for another year of generously underwriting their new wing. All Old Ella cares about, frankly, is eating until she blows up and rubbing her butt on the most expensive rug in the house.
No one knows exactly how old Old Rufus is. A fluffy yellow tomcat, he was old and cranky as hell when my soft-hearted wife brought him home from SCC campus seven years ago. God only knows his true age now, the George Hamilton of tabby cats. He boasts an impressive vet bill too because he can’t — how shall I delicately put this? — poop. But like his canine partner-in-crime Old Ella, Old Roof never misses a meal — his or anyone else’s — and is unfailingly sweet to perfect strangers and the staff at the vet’s. So cute and cuddly. Me, however, he treats like his Mongolian servant, following me everywhere demanding food and carping like an old man who can’t get his plumbing unstuck. He stays out all night, complains all day. A Romeo who can’t poop.
Mulligan is my dog, dang near perfect, a Carolina black dog I found as a mere pup living wild and free eight years ago. She is as smart as our current sitting governor (actually, smarter) and better behaved unless you try to steal her food, at which point she will take you down and you won’t get up. Wherever I go, she goes. Her tail is always wagging, her soulful brown eyes always shining with gratitude. She cannot believe she has to put up with a household full of such complaining, pooping and non-pooping dogs and cats.
Next comes Ajax, aged three, a purebred golden aptly named for the giant warrior of Greek mythology — I tend to call him Junior simply because he’s the most spoiled loveable lug on four legs. Junior was a surprise 10th wedding anniversary gift to my bride a few years back, worryingly smart and far too handsome. Not surprisingly, my wife has completely ruined him. I call him the “Worst Dog on Earth” because he pays absolutely no attention to anything I say to him, steals my shoes and takes himself for unauthorized moonlight swims in the pool.
Our newest resident is Boo Radley, a handsome year-old gray tiger cat our college-boy lad Conner found wandering the streets of The Pines as a kitten. His original name was Nico but somehow Boo Radley suited him better, probably because he looks scary but turns out to be a true pussy cat with questionable friends. One morning not long ago I looked out and saw him sauntering along the driveway with a young gray fox a neighbor feeds. The two are evidently pals. Who can figure. Boo’s preferred way of coming in from a fine night out with foxes is to bang on my office window and demand entry.
Keeping up with the needs and complaints of this bunch, let me tell you, ain’t no picnic at Downton Abbey.
I rise around four each morning to write, put on the coffee and shuffle off to my office to try and work. Silly me.
Soon comes Boo Radley’s insistent rap at the window. Old Rufus, meanwhile, waits at the back door, annoyed and constipated beyond belief. The two meet in the utility room where they hiss and snarl at each other until the butler separates and feeds them both.
At this point Mulligan is out the back door, eager to scour the property for any unauthorized critters that may need to be killed. She detests the expensive organic gourmet dog food we provide and would much prefer, say, freshly killed antelope for breakfast.
Old Ella is up, too, faithfully tagging after Mulligan, the alpha dog on her appointed rounds. Eventually Junior and his mistress make a sleepy appearance, she with a yawn, he with a shoe, and he lumbers out for a pee and perhaps a quick morning dip in the pool.
Soon everyone is back, eating, demanding more, squabbling over who got more of the good stuff. After this everyone goes their separate ways for the day until the process is repeated in the evening.
Not long ago I read that the average dog costs its owner eight grand over the course of its life, the average cat about a third less.
By this math I project we’ll have laid out close to forty grand before my days as a butler to domestic animals wind down.
It’s a good thing they let me live here for free.
Spending Time and Miles on the Backroads
By Jim Dodson
Owing to heavy end-of-summer traffic, I took several back roads on a recent trip from Wilmington to Greensboro, and then on home to the Sandhills.
The drive probably took an hour longer than necessary. But more and more these days I find it’s the back roads of this state that make the journey more appealing than the prospect of a timely arrival.
Besides, given a choice, part of me will always take the quieter road home or the forgotten highway wherever I’m bound because that’s where — with apologies to Chevrolet — you still see the beating heart of America.
When America’s Interstate Highway System debuted with much fanfare in 1956 — authorized by an act of Congress and officially called the Dwight. D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways — it was hailed not only as the most revolutionary innovation in modern times but the most ambitious public works project in human history.
The system proved to be every bit of that and more — shaping everything from the way America went on vacation to the way goods and services were delivered cheaply and in unprecedented time, a boon to big business and a nation suddenly in a hurry to get someplace else at the dawn of the modern automobile age.
Today, sixty years later, now boasting more than 46,800 miles of super highway with legal speeds in places topping 80 mph, our aging Interstate system is still adding roads and often held up as a model of America’s postwar engineering ingenuity, widely credited with bringing goods and services to rural portions of the country and spreading commerce — and popular culture — into the nation’s backwaters, creating prosperous towns and cities where there was formerly only prairie or small towns adrift in time. Some historians, in fact, go so far as to credit Interstate culture with narrowing the regional differences between formerly hostile sections of the nation — easing ethnic and racial tensions along the way, the theory goes, to say nothing of homogenizing the nature of modern car travel.
Maybe this is so.
Maybe, on the other hand, this homogeneity and national worship of speed and efficiency explains why I’m so naturally wary of Interstates in general and addicted to back roads and forgotten highways in particular — because I’m old enough to remember when there were no Interstates, per se, at least in the parts of the rural South where my family did most of its traveling. Going somewhere in a car was still an adventure in those days, still took time to do it and almost always offered something different and often surprising — a shaded historic picnic ground by a stream? An old-fashioned tent revival in progress? An old-timer in faded overalls selling watermelons from the bed of a rusted pickup? All . . . just around the next big curve or over the hill. Road travel then was magic.
By their very definition, Interstates don’t have much magic, big curves or even hills to speak of. By careful design, you see very little of the world at large from them. They carry travelers in starkly efficient straight lines from point A to point B, minimizing the need to toil anyplace along the way — the very reason, in fact, why every neon outpost with golden arches and motels where you briefly exit to gas up looks eerily like the ones you saw ten hours and two state lines ago.
Perhaps my first and most vivid memory of life was a road trip nobody in our family wished to take. It happened on a cool November evening in 1957 after my father said goodbye to a handful of employees who worked for him at the small weekly newspaper he owned for a while in Mississippi. Owing to a partner who’d cleaned out the company accounts and vanished to parts unknown, reportedly with a cigarette girl from a Gulfport hotel, the paper had been forced to close down.
My father’s dream was ashes and we were “starting over” someplace else, though I had no way of understanding where or what exactly this meant — merely that our furniture had been sent on a truck ahead of us and we were having to leave sleepy Gulfport in our family’s two-toned Pontiac Star Chief, heading east into the darkness to a place called Wilmington, where my father had a new job waiting at the newspaper.
Maybe I’ve heard this story so many times I simply see all of this playing in my head like an old home movie. I was almost five years old, after all. My brother Dickie was already six. We had a Cocker Spaniel named Amber. Our mother had just suffered a miscarriage. It was twilight and we watched from the back seat of the car as our father shook hands with the five or six folks who worked for him and slipped them a small white envelope. Inside — I learned this from my mother three decades later — was the last of his own personal savings. The elderly black man who worked on the paper’s loading dock — supposedly one of the best blues rhythm guitarists between Mobile and New Orleans — gave me a harmonica for the trip. Everyone called him “Pops.” I never knew his real name. He had a glass eye and a bright gold tooth.
We waved goodbye and turned on the two-lane state road leading out of town, eventually running out of street lights. Our mother, who was still pale from her stay in the hospital, leaned her head against our father’s shoulder. He tuned up a radio station out of Jackson playing Nat King Cole.
“You boys get comfortable,” he said quietly over his shoulder. “It’s a long ride. Maybe we’ll have breakfast in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
I hated to leave Mississippi but I was eager to see mountains of any kind, especially if they were blue. The night felt oceanic, scary and thrilling. My brother had his side of the Star Chief’s big back seat and I had mine. He warned me not to play my harmonica or cross into his side of the seat.
My first glimpse of the mountains came at dawn, when we stopped for pancakes at a crowded diner somewhere outside Chattanooga next to a stand selling “Genuine Cherokee Indian moccasins.” The placemats were a map of the entire United States you could color, and our parents let my brother and me buy a pair of those moccasins. Later, we stopped for a picnic on an overlook somewhere around Asheville. In the distance, the hills were indeed a milky blue. The air, I remember, was crisp and cold.
Over the next ten or twelve hours the drive to the coast took us down a winding road from the mountains through smaller hills and on through the rolling Piedmont into much flatter country, through small towns with sleepy courthouse squares, past Esso and Sinclair stations, past harvested fields and sleeping barns and farm stands already closed up for the season, roadside churches, cemeteries, VFW halls, a drive-in theater, and a dairy bar or two, where we finally stopped in late afternoon for an ice cream cone.
When I think back to that pivotal road trip in the life of my family, I realize something potent must have gotten into my bloodstream about small towns and back roads.
For it’s the rarest of back roads I’ve happened upon in forty-plus years of driving that I didn’t seriously consider taking instead of the ubiquitous Interstate highways and even more ambitious super tollways that now cinch suburban America’s landscape like a corset. As urban America expands, highways and country lanes sometimes seem like an endangered species.
This is why, given the choice recently to get home before dark via a mindless Interstate or meander along a quieter road at the whim of nature and pure serendipity, I chose the road not taken much anymore.
And like Robert Frost in his golden wood where two roads diverged, one of the first poems I ever memorized, this once again made all the difference.
Passing through a green-gold swamp, I saw a pair of snowy egrets sitting on a fallen branch over a blackwater pool, discussing world affairs while they waited for their evening supper.
Through the open window of the car I caught whiffs of summer’s last honeysuckle, just-cut hayfields, the dank smell of woods and streams, and wood smoke from a woman burning raked-up magnolia leaves and sticks in her yard.
I saw the first chevron of geese heading south for the winter.
A farmer waved to me from the seat of his tractor, chatting on his mobile phone.
Somewhere around Spivey’s Corner I pulled off in a fierce thunderstorm to buy fresh-picked silver queen corn, vine-grown Big Boy tomatoes and a paper sack of what my late Southern grandmother called “Florida butter beans,” large creamy white affairs speckled with bits of burgundy.
On I rambled past a wooden freewill Baptist church with a sign out front that read “Forbidden Fruit Makes Many Jams.”
I saw a beautiful cemetery under ancient oaks, several fields of grazing cows, a spray of flowers attached to a banged-up tree, a high school athletic field where a football team was ending its first practice of the season.
Somewhere around Campbell College, where the sun was out again but sinking fast, I passed four teenagers in a long line at the Dairy Queen. Two were holding hands. The other two were eating sundaes and laughing. The girls were shockingly under-dressed — or so my late Granny Taylor would have said. Date night in the slow lanes of America.
“How was your drive?” my wife asked when I finally got home around nine. She was watching a movie.
“Just the way I like it,” I said.
“I figured that’s why you were late,” she said. “You took the back road home again.”
Reprinted with permission from the September issue of PineStraw Magazine.