Saturday, August 27, 2011

the color you see

Imagine this empty glass
Approach the color
you see
Open every piece
of dream
the raw world sings

--lks august 2011

(I am becoming an apologist for the haiku poetry magnets. It seems to be about the best I can do right now.)

Monday, August 22, 2011


Across the seeded green
of somewhere new and lucky
the language of feathers and drums
feasts and gathers,
a laugh of wind and nest,
blue and easy
in a celebration
of winged

--for dd, August 2011

Sunday, August 21, 2011

one from R.S. Thomas

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean. 
We launch the armada 
of our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then, 
whose margins are our margins; 
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?

--R.S. Thomas

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Capture and Witness

from May 2008

I want to write something today about how animals call us back into the moment, how they summon me away from my drifting thoughts, my errant mind. How birds retrieve me from my sorrow, my worry, my preoccupation with time and things. They do this when they fly over a marshy north Georgia meadow, a tag of crimson brightness on dark wingspan in the gray late afternoon, and when they haul their spindly heronlegs and arching necks up over that same still brackish water and out to the edge of the woods. It’s always been this way. A friend reminded me recently of how this works, of how fast the mindfulness of being with creatures can come upon us if we let it, if we’re open to it. I thought about how immediate this could be for me as a child, how eager I always was for the experience of smelling my horse’s warm sweaty hide when I rode her or went to feed her. For the joy of seeing the raised flare of whitetail over deerhaunch, springing through high pasture grass. For the starlike spread of a possum’s pink paws on the wood of our porch, stealing cat food, and for the dry wheathusk of a kingsnake’s recently shed skin at the base of my favorite tree. The other day I went to a gathering of strangers to hear them play their flutes, and I began my time with them by hunkering in the grass with a fat bumpy toad and its big eyes, shuttered beads of black and bronze shimmering in the heat. The toad hopped about in the weeds for a bit while I tried to photograph it. Then I stood a ways off from it and let it abide under the tassel of something green. I got down on my belly and noticed the pulse of its creamy amphibial throat, the ridges and curves of its back and neck, the shapes of its nostrils. I thanked it for letting me see it so close and I took my pictures. That moment, a small one of felicity and sweetness, laid out a template of calm attention and inner peace that spent the rest of the afternoon with me.

Lately, on a website I belong to that features independent artists and photographers, I notice that when people compliment each other on their photographs they often say “nice capture.” While I appreciate their sincerity and encouragement, something about this language bumps up against me in a way that seems kind of goofy but which I understand. For me taking pictures is less about “taking” per se and more about watching, honoring, noticing, and being. The picture will come if it’s meant to. And sometimes, even when it seems meant to come and it does come, perhaps it isn’t meant to stay, I learned recently. Not that long ago, one late April afternoon during spring break, I was walking around up on Fort Mountain, about an hour north of where I live. The mountain was just starting to green up. It’s a sacred Native site and I won’t say much more than that about it other than to make mention of the long gray tumble of stone that spreads across the mountainface and the place’s aura of hauntedness, of the slightly melancholy sweet spiritpresence that is always there for me. I was standing around outside the old WPA tower on top of the mountain when my attention was directed towards the butterflies tumbling and rushing through the woods. Tiger swallowtails, mourning cloaks. i couldn’t get any good photos of the swallowtails but the mourning cloaks offered themselves right up to me. They were big and slow and tired from mating. Two in particular came right up to me, even brushing my forehead over and over as I lay on the ground near a big old log that seemed to hold some pull for them. They kept coming back and back to the log. I was able to get very close and the tattered wings and furry bodies of the mourning cloaks showed up gloriously on my camera. One mourning cloak paused on a branch near a big brown leaf that mirrored its body’s hues softly, earthily, eloquently. I was moved and thrilled by my photographs, and I thanked the butterflies when I left.

The next day I was in the little mountain town of Dahlonega, standing outside a cafĂ©, taking photographs of pansies and their expressive curling faces when I did it. Somehow, in my eagerness to take better macro shots, I reformatted my entire memory card, deleting all the splendid mourning cloak shots as well as photos from my father’s house at Eastertime and other pictures that I loved. I was sick at heart but tried to lean into the incident as a lesson in nonattachment. I’d never done anything like this before, and I pretty much knew my way around my relatively simple little Canon. Though what I’d done seemed stupid and careless, cavalier even, I decided to feel into the emptiness a bit and try to learn what I could from it.

And here it is: photographs for me are gifts of spirit. They’re a collaboration between my eye and the world with its tenderness and its sternness. They’re not about capturing but about witnessing and being there to let something come through. This process isn’t about passivity or even just receptivity, though: I think one has to seek, or at least open up, in order to receive. But it can and for me should be a sort of prayer, even in the goofiest and most playful of moments. If I carry this sensibility with me then my photographs will do the same thing for me that animals can: ground me in the thisness of now in a way that will nurture and befriend the spirits who see them.


One of my favorite books is Byrd Baylor’s I’m in Charge of Celebrations. A breathtakingly beautiful book, accompanied by Peter Parnall’s illustrations, it’s narrated by a young woman who lives “alone” in a Southwestern desert. She’s not lonely, though, since she’s “the one in charge of celebrations.” She has a hundred and eight of them too—Dust Devil Day, when the dust devils “came dancing in time to their own windy music;” Rainbow Celebration Day, when she saw a jackrabbit poised on a hill staring into a triple rainbow; Green Cloud Day, when she saw a cloud “green as a jungle parrot” high up in the winter sky; Coyote Day, when a certain special coyote followed her through the desert holding her gaze as any friend would; The Time of Falling Stars, when during a meteor shower she also saw a fireball blaze across the nightsky; and her own New Year’s Celebration, which happens in springtime, around the end of April, when the white-winged doves come back from Mexico and the desert is abloom with cactus blossoms.

That young girl’s spirit resonates so deeply for me. I’ve always felt my own sense of the wheel of the year and when I was a child I would create my own holidays according to when good things happened or when I saw something wonderful, just as she did. Now, I don’t do that anymore, but I could, and maybe I will again.

So, if I did, what would the holidays be?

Blue Ice Day will come in January, to mark the time when an icestorm came and blanketed the forest around Jasper with a particularly deep blue sheen of crisp, fiercely shining ice. This ice kept the light that shone through it and reflected it out into the air so that the world seemed hollowed out with a magical aching blueness. On Blue Ice Day, you lean into experiencing the world by candlelight and firelight.

In April will come Dogwood Day, when the dogwood blossoms reach their peak and the creamy branch stretching across the top of my backyard shows itself bright as a floral nightlight in the Georgia dusk.

In mid-June will be Lake Conasauga Day, a special midsummer day and night set aside for a pilgrimage to Lake Conasauga, the highest lake in Georgia, up above Ellijay in the Cohutta Wilderness. It will have to be a perfect bluegold summer day, which is to say there might well be a thunderstorm in the late afternoon, which will then give way to a sunshot early evening with mist hanging over the face of the lake in deep wet pockets. On Lake Conasauga Day, I and whoever wants to go with me will drive up to the lake, enjoy a picnic lunch of crusty bread, Manchego cheese, lime fizzy water, grapes, hummus, and halfmoonshaped fried peach pies from Annie’s Restaurant in Talking Rock. We will then take a nap on the banks of the lake while the food settles. Then we will go for a swim in the cool teabrown waters of the lake, and then we’ll hike deep into the gray shadows of the woods to the Firetower, which requires a ceremonial climb every summer so that a perfect view of the Cohuttas is available. There are stairs, so it isn’t particularly dangerous, but it’s a ways up, and the wind blows hard up there. It’s another world, for just a little while, a windy pocket of perfect vision and separateness, a suspension of body and spirit in time and place. Then we will either have a campfire and settle into a quiet evening of fishing and marshmallow roasting, or we will head down the mountain back home.

In fall, preferably late October, will come a day for frolicking in the leaves: Leaffall Day. It’s all about leaves on this particular day---rolling in them, smelling like them, playing in them, raking them, burning them if possible, taking pictures of them, naming them. Oakfire, poplarchild, sweetgumracer, maplewhirl.

In December, around the time of the solstice and in its spirit, will come Shadow Day. On this day the liminal spirit of wintertime, of threshold and slumbering possibility, will be held forth in a quiet reflective time of meditation and simple stillness. Shadow Day will be a bowl of time, a curve of hours meant for reflection and labyrinth walking, for stillness and the hush of hopeful holy darkness. On Shadow Day, you might choose to suspend yourself from all the bustle and expectation of the world, or you might decide to write things down, examining them and pondering the passage of months and weeks ahead. It’s up to you, your space, your deep emptiness. Shadow Day smells like juniper and smooth stone, like wet earth and damp wood.

I think Byrd Baylor would approve.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I ran across these thoughts just now while looking for an old lesson plan template. I think I'll revisit this project. I felt so strongly about it a couple of years ago. It still feels viable....and somehow suddenly important.

I’ve been thinking lately about how to begin writing down any sort of coherent narrative, or set of narratives, about my family---who they were and are and how their respective senses of self were formed, altered, damaged, rebuilt or not. It’s been intimidating to begin this project and I’ve had a hard time getting started, so I thought I would just start typing. First of all, I want to set some sort of intention, but I don’t exactly know what I want to end up with. So I suppose I should start with what I think I want. I want to collect and preserve and write family stories, but not primarily for their narrative qualities. I want the stories to come together or at least relate to each other in terms of having some sort of overarching coherence and meaning regarding specific themes, paradigms, issues, struggles, and recurrent personality traits, for lack of a better term. I don’t think I’m capable of writing a true family history and that isn’t really what I’m after anyway. Maybe these stories will morph into fiction; maybe not. I think what I need to do is record my experience of them—how I learn about the people, places, and experiences involved—in a journalistic sort of way, incorporating my own thoughts, impressions, feelings, disappointments and hopes into the mix as I go. I am not sure what will happen, but that really does seem all right at this point. I hope I gain a stronger sense of that as I write and learn and record more.

Starting off, I want to look at my grandparents and start to write down stories and impressions and information about them. I want to think about them, as well as my parents, in terms of several different aspects of who they seem to have been, but I know I won’t be able to get any sort of total or complete sense of that. That’s all right; a full and accurate depiction of character isn’t what I’m really looking for, and I don’t think it’s possible. There are always different perspectives, layers, stories within stories. So, I am also willing to be surprised. I hope I will be. One of these components of identity has to do with spirituality, one has to do with vocation and creativity, and one has to do with exploring what seem to me to be real polarities of personality---a need for solitude and a desire/need to be of service to others. (I suppose this last paradoxical set of stuff is pretty much typical of the human condition, but I think it expresses itself pretty intensely in my family, and I’m interested in how it has played out in our lives. How it’s folded into our beings, jerked us around, brought us loneliness and joy. Kept us whole, torn us up. I guess this is a universal sort of matrix but I am hoping there will be some sort of resonance and singularity about what I come up with that makes it worth reading. ) People in my family seem to be dealing with very strong desires to help others, to be part of community in a tangible, profound, and service-based way, and yet they also seem to be bumping up against very powerful tugs towards solitude. Sometimes silence. Sometimes a kind of self- or other-inflicted exile. I know I feel the paradox of this dynamic in myself, and maybe I am just splicing it onto my sense of who my people have been. But I don’t think so.

On my mother’s side, there’s my grandpa Floyd. I’m not going to enumerate everything I know about him here. There are a lot of gaps regarding him and it should be interesting to fill them in. he was a public servant, working for the Federal government as a revenue agent, and he had a sort of mythic status in this town, a larger than life character who was apparently well loved by even many of those he chased down and arrested. But according to my mother and cousin he was quite a curmudgeon—not a family man at all, and prone to needing time alone in the woods. There’s a story about how he informed my grandmother when he first went out with her that he wasn’t looking to get married. This doesn’t seem terribly unique to me but I am interested in how the specifics of his character might show me some of this apparent paradox. Maybe it isn’t there after all. But I think I will learn interesting things about him. I don’t have a strong sense of his spirituality at all. It’s a blank page for me aside from the bald facts of what church he apparently attended. That isn’t true of my other family members; he’s the only one.

My grandma Floyd is someone I knew, though not as well as I might have. I think my cousin Jeff is the primary one to talk to about her. I don’t have a sense, actually, of a need for solitude in her. She seems the least introverted, the least inward of my four grandparents, for sure. Maybe that’s why I felt less of an affinity for her when she was alive, less of an immediacy of kinship, than I wanted to. She had so much energy and was so connected to so many different people. I do relate to the sometimes chaotic and discombobulated expressions of that energy that I remember in her as I get older and acknowledge my own patterns of thinking and living and how very similar they are to hers in that way. I do know she had a strong sense of personal religion. I get the feeling it was an authentic thing for her, not lip service, at least when I knew her. I remember my mother speaking of her mother’s service to her church and to other communities she was a part of and how it brought tears to my mother’s voice. I also want to think about my grandmother’s creativity, especially in terms of her painting, and how it informed who she was. How she came to her various expressions of it, what it meant to her, how it allowed her to become more fully and completely herself. I know she began painting in middle age, and I’m curious about how things changed for her inwardly when that happened.

Next, my granddaddy Sorrells. He was a legendary figure for me in childhood and someone I grew up sad about not knowing. He was, according to everyone who spoke about him, deeply committed to serving his community. He was a city policeman, deputy sheriff, and then county sheriff for many years, until he was killed in the line of duty in ‘62. I’m prepared, at least a little I think, to have some of these perceptions shaken up a bit. I’m not sure who might do that, though. My father’scousin Danny? Maybe. I am specifically interested in how my grandfather Sorrells’ relationship(s) with the African-American community of Walton County worked, or didn’t. as far as religion and spirituality go, I know that my grandfather Sorrells was born a Primitive Baptist but left that church when they told him he couldn’t be a Mason. So he chose to be a Mason rather than a Baptist. That interests me. It doesn’t bespeak a spiritual lack at all for me, though I am sure it did for some who knew him then…I am interested in why he might have made that choice, what it was about the community of the Masons that appealed to him and called to him more strongly than that of the church.

My father’s mother is the person, of these four, whom I knew the best. She was a very private, quiet, shy person, and certainly someone who chose a great deal of solitude. I don’t think she disliked people or even society, though; she was partly just shy and partly traumatized by personal experience. I never got a sense of her as misanthropic. I am interested in how she created and found relationship in her solitude. I think my dad is the best person to talk to about all this, though maybe his cousin Jeannette will also help, as well as his cousin Danny. I’m interested, finally, in my grandma Sorrells’ generativity, her creativity. It expressed itself in her sewing, quilting, baking, and cooking---domestic activities that she seemed almost constantly engaged in, at least peripherally. I am interested in how they helped sustain her and how they, again paradoxically, maybe contributed, if they did, to her solitude. As to grandma’s religion—I don’t think she ever did any de-mythologizing of any kind. Her stories were simple and unquestioned. But the faith she had, the belief system she carried, seemed to work for her. She relied on it emotionally a lot. Maybe, though, it failed her in some ways. It must have. I am curious about that. And I’m curious about the specifics of her friendship with Claudia Hillman, the African-American woman who saved my brother Brian’s life when he was a toddler. What were the rules and understandings surrounding grandma’s and Claudia’s friendship? How did it help her be less isolated, less lonely?

These are some of the questions and considerations I am starting out with. I am excited about where they might take me.

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About Me

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Georgia, United States
I live at the edge of the forest in a little town in the north Georgia mountains. I teach sixth grade Language Arts and am writing a memoir of sorts about family, spirituality, and narrative. I am also exploring a possible writing project having to do with contemporary lay contemplative experience and how it might be informed by the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity. I am a relatively recent convert to Roman Catholicism and an admirer of Pope Francis, Leonardo Boff, Joan Chittister, and Richard Rohr. I'm a Lay Associate of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia. I am interested in indigenous cultures, narratives, and spirituality, especially how these can inform my spirituality as a lay contemplative. I write, read, take pictures, play around with creating ephemera from paper and cloth and other organic things. I cook, hike, watch wildlife, and collect random bits of interesting oddness, both tangible and abstract. I am a seer of smallness and a caretaker of ridiculous minutiae. If you want, e-mail me at or