Saturday, May 28, 2011

Going to Summer Camp - A Memory of My Mother

I stood next to my bed folding tee shirts and shorts, while my mother bustled in and out of my room bringing me more things to pack into my suitcase to take to Camp Toccoa. We had spent all day yesterday with a marking pen and iron-on labels, making sure my name was printed on every item and labels ironed onto all my clothes. Even my socks had my initials, JLC, printed in black magic marker on the toes.

Mama helped me arrange my clothes in the suitcase, shoes on the bottom, then shorts, a pair of jeans, shirts, and finally pajamas on top. My socks and underwear were tucked neatly in the side pockets. All my toiletries nestled in a brand new pink plastic carrying case, which lay on top of my clothing. My blanket roll contained everything I needed for my bed and shower- sheets, a blanket, two towels and wash cloths,and my pillow, all wrapped up in an oilcloth which would protect my bed and me from the damp ground when sleeping under the stars - a Camp Toccoa tradition - all rolled and tied neatly with a strong rope. We checked off each item from the list from Camp Fire Girls Headquarters as we carefully packed. We didn’t want to forget anything I’d need for my week at summer camp. Finally finished, we left the suitcase unlatched for last minute additions and made sure the bedroll was tied securely enough to stay intact during the two hour train ride from Atlanta to Toccoa.

I was excited about going to camp. I was eight years old, and ready to spend a whole week at camp, even the nights! My sister, Molly, was already at Camp Toccoa, where she was a counselor-in-training for the summer, so I wouldn’t be totally on my own. However, I was a little apprehensive about being away from Mama and Daddy for seven days and seven nights. I decided that I needed a photograph of my mother to take with me, so that I wouldn’t forget what she looked like while I was away. As I searched through Mama’s desk drawer where she stored her keepsakes, I realized how old both she and Daddy looked in the photos stored there. People often mistook Daddy for my grandfather because of his snow white hair, and Mama was what her friends called “salt and pepper” gray. I was the youngest of five children, stretched out thirteen years apart in age, so they really were old compared to my friends’ parents.

Finally, I found what I was looking for--- a portrait of a lovely young woman who looked a lot like my Aunt Lois, Mama’s youngest sister. Mama smiled when I showed her the photo, and confirmed that it was a picture of her and not Aunt Lois. She told me that the picture had been taken when she was a student in nursing school before she and Daddy got married. She said that it would be fine for me to take the picture with me to camp. I carefully sandwiched it between two tee shirts in my suitcase to keep it safe from breaking. Ready for a week at summer camp, with the photo of my young mother going with me, I snapped the latch shut.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Georgia Girl

I’ve been living in Social Circle, Georgia, for almost eight years. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve gained some insights into living in a rural area, away from the big city. And, in the past few months, I’ve become more acutely aware of how I’ve become a small town Georgia girl.

When I started my new job at Amtico International in Madison this past January, my life changed dramatically. It wasn’t that I was beginning a new job, but it had more to do with the people I found myself surrounded by. In every other job I’ve had since I’ve been back in the workforce, I’ve been either in downtown Atlanta or in the suburbs. Even though I moved to small town Georgia, I was still part of the city scene. Things are different now. And I like it.

As I meet folks who work in the plant, they ask me where I live. I tell them that I live in Social Circle, after which they tell me where they live. People come from Newborn, Greensboro, Buckhead, Jersey, Monroe, Greshamville, Covington, and other neighboring towns to work at Amtico, and many live right there in Madison. I can’t think of anyone I’ve met who lives in metropolitan Atlanta. This part of Georgia is their backyard, and it extends for many miles radiating out from Madison. They are local people, for the most part, with a few transplants like me. When we talk in the breakroom, it’s about gardens and pets, children and grandchildren, Monday and Friday. Amtico, in my opinion, is set smack in the middle of Georgia’s heartland.

We don’t dress up for work. Amtico is a manufacturing plant, so those who work there wear their Amtico shirts, blue jeans or khackis, and steel-toed shoes. For the few of us in the office, we follow suit with casual dress. I love wearing my jeans and tennis shoes to work. My steel-toed shoes are tucked under my desk, to slip into when I need to go back onto the manufacturing floor. I gave all of my business suits to Goodwill last month, and I’m wondering if I’ll have a chance to wear my summer skirts that I like so much. Oh well, I think I can manage if they hang in the closet most of the season. I wouldn’t change jobs, just to be able to wear a skirt!

Another thing I’ve discovered is the morning sky. I’ve always loved watching the sunrise, but my new commute has revealed much more than what I was accustomed to seeing. I travel 15 miles east from my house to go to work, and it’s into the sun every morning. I’ve watched as the rising sun has moved across the horizon from winter to springtime, puzzling me about exactly where east is. I know that is has something to do with the tilt of the earth’s axis and the changing seasons, but it still amazes me, and I don’t quite understand it. The sun is now behind the upper left corner of my sun visor as I drive to work – three weeks ago, it was shining straight into my eyes, and two months ago, it was a little further to the right, peeking out from the horizon.

Instead of driving in morning rush hour traffic to work, I cross miles of farmland. I barely remember what rush hour in the city is like! For me these day, it’s meeting a vehicle at the four-way stop sign, which occasionally happens. Most of the time it’s a farm truck or tractor at the intersection, and sometimes a chicken truck. It’s not until I get to the last few miles of my trip to work that I hop onto I-20, going east, that I encounter any traffic, and it is always very light, especially in the direction I travel. I find that I have to put my car into cruise control, or I might drive too slowly along my way, I get so caught up in the beauty of my surroundings.

The land is changing with the coming of summer, as I watch the hayfields grow, which are then mowed down and baled. The spring wildflowers are spectacular, even though I’m experiencing spring hay fever that I’ve never had before. Rows of corn and other crops are beginning to define the farmland in lines of emerging vegetables. Wild blackberries are blooming along the fence rows, and tiny wild plums are fattening up in the thickets.

As the morning scenery changes, I realize that I am changing, as well. I promise myself that I will never get on I-20 West ever again to go to work. I don’t think about Atlanta, and have no desire to walk down Peachtree Street – I don’t think I’d mind if I never set foot on it again in my lifetime. The towns in this area of Georgia have everything that I need – delightful little restaurants, Saturday markets and outdoor concerts in town squares, grocery stores with locally grown produce, meat and eggs, doctors and dentists who are as good, or better, as the ones I knew in the city, and good, good people everywhere. I love hearing the whistle of the train in the distance, as it crosses the road about two miles from my house, and I enjoy hearing the braying of the donkey that lives down the road from us. I even don’t mind when a passing car stirs up dust on our dirt road.

I look forward to a day off from work, so that I can get out into my garden to pick strawberries or pull weeds. Soon, I’ll be spending all of my spare time picking and “puttin' up.” Our freezer is almost empty, ready for this season’s abundance of good food to store. The days are getting longer, the world is bright with greens, blues, and wildflower colors, and the warm sun on my skin reminds me that hot summer days will soon be here. I am learning patience, how to slow down to watch and wait, and how a prayer is always only a breath away.

Yes, for this Georgia girl, life is different than it used to be, and oh! so much richer!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Shopping Bag

This narrative piece was read last night at "The Puzzle: A Festival of New Work" at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. I was thrilled that it was selected as part of the festival!


Every person living on this earth is required to walk through the experience called life individually and, basically, alone. We encounter others along our way, and we often walk alongside them for awhile on our life’s journey - sometimes for a short distance, while other times for many miles. When it comes right down to the actual trip, however, we each have our personal road to travel. The road I travel through my life is mine alone, and nobody but me will experience it in its entirety.

I enter my life carrying a shopping bag of sorts, which stays with me throughout my journey. In my mind’s eye, I see it as the type that department stores dole out at Christmastime to holiday shoppers. Square-shaped with lots of room for packages, it is made of sturdy heavyweight paper, with a stiff, plastic-coated rope handle at the top on each side for easy grasp. I use my shopping bag to collect and store the many articles I pick up and carry along with me as I walk down my life’s road.

As a child, I tend to drag my bag along beside me. I am so small, and it is very large. It isn’t heavy yet, and it has plenty of room inside. Among the few things I carry in my childhood bag are the sticks and stones that break my bones, and the words that are not supposed to harm me. I also carry a bushel and a peck of “I love you”, and a hug around the neck. My bag may not be full, but I discover that it is very difficult to remove items from it, and that it is easy just to carry the bag with these things inside. Who knows? I may need them later on!

As I grow, the shopping bag ceases to drag the ground, and I carry it along beside me, still collecting items to put into it. I switch hands from time to time as the weight of it tires out one side of my body, and then the other. I also swing it over my shoulder from time to time to carry it like a back pack. Every now and then I look into the depths of the bag to discover that it is filling up with all kinds of interesting and important items that I have collected during my childhood and adolescence.

My walk continues, and I realize how handy my shopping bag has become. I pick up things as I travel, studying, scrutinizing, and turning them over and over in my hand, before making the commitment to place them inside my bag. I decide that some things aren’t worth keeping and toss them back onto the shoulder of the road, discarding them as worthless or not necessary at this time in my life. Those items that I decide to keep find their place inside my bag.

With this decision-making process comes the problem of determining what to keep and carry and what to leave behind. Sometimes I make good decisions, while many times I make poor judgments about the value of the things I find. I stop to collect rocks and stones, and more sticks, sometimes a banana peel or an apple core. I know these things are potentially hazardous for my journey, but for some reason I am compelled to keep them, even though they are of no real use to me, and only add weight to my bag and take up space.

As I continue walking down my road, my shopping bag gets heavier and heavier with all sorts of stuff. I don’t know why, but I pick up a handful of dirt and sprinkle it on top of my assortment of articles. Maybe the dirt camouflages what lies beneath, or maybe I have simply become a collector of useless items. Even though my load is getting heavier and harder to handle, I find that I enjoy looking down into the bag and feel a sense of pride in all the junk I am able to lug along with me. I am strong and able, and my weighty bag is the sign to myself and everyone I encounter that I can handle my life and carry my load all by myself. I am proud of my shopping bag and of all the things I keep stored within. It has become a part of who I am, and I believe that I need each and every item with me all of the time.

I am surprised when I come to a fork in the road and another person joins me going the same direction. We walk in silence for a short distance, scrutinizing each other and stealing furtive glances into the other’s bag. We carry our own load protectively until we are too tired to go further, and we stop to rest along the side of the road. A superficial conversation begins, and then we take a giant step by reaching into our bags and pulling out an item to show the other. What a risk this is! Is it worth it? If it isn’t, we look at each other’s possession, comment on it politely, and then return the treasure back into the bag where it belongs. After a brief rest, we rise refreshed and continue down the road to the next fork, where we part company and continue on our respective journeys in solitude.

But what if we share our treasures with each other only to find out that we carry similar items in our bags, and we can exchange personal thoughts about our journeys? We may even dump our bags in the excitement of finding someone who is interested enough to examine and admire our belongings! We ooh and ahh over the rocks and sticks and wadded up paper and crumpled up containers we each are carrying, and we help our new companion re-pack our shopping bags, placing everything very carefully back into place. We might even convince the other of the worthlessness of an item or two, and leave it behind on the road. We then decide to walk together for awhile, where we can share our load by carrying the other’s bag for a short distance, giving each other a respite from the heavy weight.

As the two of us amble down the road together, we notice wildflowers growing along the way. We pause to pick a few, proclaim their beauty to one another, and place them gently in the top of our bags. My friend finds a bird’s feather, and a rainbow, a chip of a robin’s egg, and the song of a waterfall, and shares these delicate and lovely items of nature with me. As they are placed into my bag, an amazing thing happens. The shopping bag feels lighter and easier to carry. I check the bottom for a tear or a rip, but find none. I still carry all my prized possessions, but they appear to have lost their heaviness. The beauty of the newfound treasures has transformed my bag into a lighter, more manageable piece of baggage.

My journey continues, and even though my friend may have to leave my road to take another path, I keep the gifts with me. I hold them from time to time, remembering. Their beauty lasts, never fading away, and they rest lightly always in the top of my shopping bag. They have made my load lighter, and I tire less quickly.

As I reach the end of my journey, I pause to examine once more the contents of my shopping bag to reassure myself that I haven’t lost anything along the way. I have carried these things for such a long time, and they have become a part of who I am. I open the bag wide and stand amazed at what I see. All the contents are gone! No rocks, no sticks, no banana peels or apple cores, no wadded up paper or crumpled containers. Even the dirt that was sprinkled over everything is gone! My bag is empty, or appears to be so. I look more closely. I bend down for a closer examination. Wait! There is something still in my bag. Resting lightly in the bottom of it, I see a wildflower, a rainbow, a bird’s feather, and a small blue chip of a robin’s egg.

And when I place my ear close to the bag’s opening, I hear the song of a waterfall.