life between the pages

“I spent my life folded between the pages of books.
In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”
Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me

Saturday, March 22, 2008

and sunrise greets the dawn

Image courtesy Wright and Associates

Society Hill. Cashua. Darlington.

And - just so you blend in and aren't immediately branded as "you ain't from here, are ya?" - that's Cash-euw-ay. Not Cash-eu-uh. Say it soft and let it roll off your tongue like sorghum syrup, smooth as the serene Pee Dee River itself. I haven't really been there yet, but it's on the list.

Society Hill is the little town where the crew goes for a special meal during the Kolb project. It used to be just the way it sounds - and in a matter of speaking, still is. Gracious folk come out laying platters of barbecue, vegetables, cakes and pies down on a table around which gather the scientists, who for one night are treated like family no matter from whence they hail. Most of them are not from the South, and many are young, in their third or fourth year in a University program, and in general have a slightly bemused attitude toward the natives.
Cashua St.-Spring St. HD Streetscape, Darlington
Many are older, and have been here many, many times, or now call our state home. They let them stay, as long as they behave and are respectful of their elders, and don't forget that no matter how long they live here, they will never, never be natives, and there are certain subjects therefore that they will never understand and opinions thereon may be tolerated out of respect for a friendship, but will never be shared.

We know ourselves and our idiocyncracies and foibles, and are comfortable with them. Thank you all the same.

I did not attend this meal, but I always hear about it. One of the ladies makes certain my husband's favorite, Key Lime Pie, is on the menu. They all get a taste of the local 'shine, and are expected to render an honest opinion on its vintage as compared to the previous year. They leave with full bellies and humble hearts. The outpouring is a bit overwhelming, for they are essentially strangers and infiltrators, yet the locals treat them with kindness and hospitality usually reserved for family and the closest of friends.

As little as some have, it is still wondrous to know there are places where a handshake is as good and enforceable a contract as a registered document at the courthouse, and the fact that someone looks you in the eye while you speak means that not only will he remember you, but your words as well, even if several months pass by and you do not speak. So I smiled as I listened to the team still expressing gratitude and astonishment at the bounty spread before them earlier in the week. And I was reminded of arms laced over a community well-fed, bustling with purpose, accomplishment, peace, and generosity.

As previously related, I left early the next morning. In the seat of South Carolina auto racing, I stopped to refuel at a corner market. A neatly hand-lettered sign on the pump caught my attention, and I squinted in the reflected sunlight to make it out:

Welcome to the Corner Connection
Due to drive-offs, we ask
that you please pre-pay for
gas after dark. Sorry for your

The attention paid to politeness and sincerity was as clearly etched in those words as the pleasant expression on the attendant's mouth as I entered the store. A small man with a merry face akin to a hobbit's, he bobbed behind the counter talking smack with a big man in pursuit of a lottery ticket while I paused at the counter display of pre-packaged donuts, bear claws, and other disgustingly sugary substances. There was no way I could eat that stuff, so I moved over to the aisle where the pretzels were stored, forgetting one major facet of small-town life, even as it was drifting into my ears, my eyes roaming inattentively across the shelves.

"Hey there good morning," the clerk spoke to me, savoring the words with a long, sweet essence of kindness in each syllable. I looked up and waved, then ducked my head down again. Uncomfortable with strangers, especially males, I resolved to get something quickly and get out of there. I could eat real food when I got back home, only about an hour away.

"Gimme one of them educational tickets, the green ones," the big man spoke up.

"Yeah? Gitcha in trouble," was the affable reply.

"I don't care."

The clerk continued to greet each customer in like manner: "Good morning, there." "We sure appreciate your business." "Come back now, anytime."

As I type these exclamations now there is no way to communicate the warm hospitality and plain goodness in the man's speech. I heard it, and it cracked my shell. Tentatively, I approached the counter, laying a bottle of orange juice down and a pack of Orbit gum.

"Do you happen to know where I can get a biscuit around here?" I asked. I gestured vaguely down the road in the direction I was headed.

"Why, we got the best biscuits you'll eat right here," was his reply, and I was immediately struck with my stupidity. Of course they did. This was the "Corner Connection," after all, not a big BP Plaza. I'd chosen it specifically because it was NOT a franchise market, and its neat appearance bespoke respectability and pride in honest work. You find these all over the south, if you'll just look, mind you. You out-of-towners ought to broaden your horizons, and try the local fish. But as I was sayin'.

"Do you wanna plain biscuit, nothin' on it?" He gestured toward the back and also along the heated window just to his right, where neat packages containing portable breakfasts waited neatly, exactly --and i do mean exactly as my grandmother made, and a few extended cousins still do, to take along to work for those who must do so in the mornings. I knew in those wax-paper wrapped shells lay the melting-hot goodness of homemade biscuits with scrambled eggs, sausage or bacon, and the hot sauce was sitting right there at my elbow if I cared to embellish it a bit.

"I think I'd just like a plain biscuit, thank you --oh," as I saw him walking toward the kitchen, I faltered.

"'Melda - do we have anymore o' them biscuits back there? Nice lady out here wants a plain one." He fairly danced on the tips of his toes. I knew the woman back there, whoever she was, had been up with the sun like me that morning, only with a purpose of mind that led all the way down to her fingers, and in turning out fifty or so breakfasts, she'd already done a days' work, and was in the midst of scrubbing up. I could not do that to her. Or myself. Sheesh.

I closed my mind against things like cholesterol and fat calories. Today was a day. The end.

"No, no, that's all right." I waved at him, staring at the case and spying the answer I was looking for. "Do you have any sausage ones, made up?"

He turned, smiling. "Sure do." He opened the case and a heavenly smell poured out. Ohmygod. Yum.

He grasped a hefty one and popped it into a little brown bag, handing it over with what I knew to be his trademark smile, tho' I'd never seen him before and likely wouldn't again. "That's the local Weinberg's sausage," he added with satisfaction.

"Well, I love that," I responded. I had no idea, which fact added to the word "local" consummated the decision for me at once.

"Do you? It's good, " he said, nodding as he took a bill from my extended fingers. He rang it up promptly and handed me my change.

"We sure appreciate your business. Come back anytime."

"I'll do that. Have a lovely day." And I went out into the morning, a treasure in my hands and heart. In the car, I opened the paper and bit into the softness of the biscuit, reveling in the spicy flavor of the homemade sausage on my tongue. So good. Moist. To hell with factory-sized hog farms. Waste of resources, pollute the watersheds. This was heaven, and you can't get it from industrial hogs. (I should have stopped at the farm-store when I saw it on the way out of town and picked up several packages for the next time I make cassoulet. Nothing better, and there's more in common between the family Provencal and these Darlington-area farmers than you'd think at first. It's all about taste.) These babies were raised spoiled as hell, living fat and happy off the land until the day they died, and the sweetness of their existence underscored for me the expanded meaning the words, "family business" have for me now.

Just as the word, "primitive" now evokes a mindset evocative of grace and peace, where food and goods and services touched by human hands are still evident, "still in the family" means they haven't let go, haven't sold out, someone still rises every day to greet the dawn expending hours of energy in just doing what they do best, working at an honest trade or purpose, where the sounds of birds calling and cows lowing and the wind in the grasses frame a lifestyle where you can still hear the heartbeat of the earth.

Truly the light is sweet
and a pleasant thing it is
for the eyes to behold the sun.

And I started up my car, and drove home, unabashedly poetic about the fact that I'd just put $20.00 in my gas tank. These days of multiple-miles-per-hour travel like this are ending, drawing to a close, and I am saving up memories to recall for the future. I am where I am supposed to be. It is life-affirming to come into contact with people for whom, in spite of the Internet (and I love it so), in spite of rampant commercialism, in spite of the assimilation of a mass-market cultural freakism by so many other places, there still remain those with whom I share a deep cultural connection, with whom it would be silly to compare notes, because even though we are separated to a vast degree by education and political views, we line up exactly to the nth degree on what matters most.

Community is worth saving - and there are so many communities, even those intrinsically associated as Darlington is with a sport like auto-racing, who remain diversified enough, close enough to the ground and still interlinked with their agricultural roots, that they will be saved, they will endure, they will survive and go forward to the next thing that awaits. The keys to their future lay within their past, and in their vast inner wisdom, they never lost it. Again I have to say it: We will be fine.

Amen, even so come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, March 21, 2008

moonset over the pee dee

We woke this morning in the dark, gathering our things and venturing out into the world to find that frost limned the windows with silver lace. I spent a cozy night in a grain silo converted into a dollhouse, or rather a hunting lodge; four floors of airy living that the longer I stayed the harder I knew it would be to leave.

But I was only a momentary visitor to the Great Pee Dee Heritage Preserve, a once-a-year enticement that gives me fodder for ruminations and prose for long months afterwards. Like any foray into the wild, either modern or anachronistic, here is where I re-learn that my connection to the land is temporal and severe.

Image courtesy Johannes Kolb Archaeological Site Public Outreach

Last evening I drove up from Stateburg, entering the Darlington Historic District just as the sun dropped below the horizon, so that the last few miles of the trip were cloaked in gilded splendor, tracing the tender branches of the newly-budding willows that lined the corridor of the river, silhouetting the great Black Angus cattle as they lumbered toward dinner, the glow of new green grass behind them shouting the advent of spring as much as the fecund scent of orchard blossoms.
The Silo

Husband, the archaeologist, has a valid excuse to stay the entire ten days that the annual event is open: he's working. From all over the southeast dozens of volunteers, students, and faculty descend on the property once inhabited by one Johannes Kolb, a farmer of some success in this community that still derives the bulk of its income from agriculture. The site has been studied for over ten years, and has yielded a wealth of information about its former occupants.

But I do not come to study in any official capacity, I come to absorb and wallow in the good company and newly unearthed information. Archaeologists live simply, but believe in epicurean comforts. And there is always music. They incorporate what they have learned into their evening relaxations, as they turn a warm fire into the means by which reproduction earthen pots are kilned, as close as possible to that used by the makers of the shards dug up during the week. The bits are studied as to form, structure, and composition, and copies are attempted.

Some of them are marvelously useful. Others for some reason or other do not make it through the firing, coming from the ashes with deep cracks or scars, but these are still considered useful for what they yield about the process.

So we sat in the dark after dinner, imbibing our choice of refreshment, and laughed and talked and sang to the two guitars that appeared to accompany the evening's quiet melodies from the tree frogs and waterfowl. As I said, they live simple but rich, and anyone who wanted to suggested a song and whomever knew the words would sing. The musicians created fantastical accompaniment, and the frogs provided rhythmic backnotes.

There is a lesson here: everything we have is all we need. They discussed the pits they'd dug, and assessed their uses as aboriginal refrigerators. They showed me how the pots were formed for differing purposes - some for boiling, some for storage, some for carrying. Some of them know how to make cordage from fibers found in the eastern woodlands, they know what mushrooms to eat and what leaves will treat wounds.
One of them can make fire in his hands. I didn't say with his hands, I said in his hands. That deserves its own post, for now I will leave that to your imagination, so you may feel the wonder of the phenomenon in the same mystery as the children for whom it was created millenia ago, and you may think about from whence come magical legends of such things. They weren't as magical, or as mythical, as you may believe. But I'll give you a hint: the aboriginal was a chemist.

The promethean in me laughs up her sleeve at that.

This is how I know humanity will be fine, no matter what. This is how I can bury my nose in my books, tend to my children, live my life, with only half an ear to the wind, listening to the wails that beset much of the world obsessed with oil and finance and danger. You tend to that if it pleases you. I'll be as far away from that as I can possibly be, heart dancing in accompaniment to the wind that breathes through my soul.

How can you live like that? I ask you.

Today is Good Friday. Let me tell you why it is ALL good: because everything we have is all we need. And there is only so much we can accomplish if we are listening to angry voices, trying to make up for sadness in which we had no hand, and for which the only answer is to pick up and walk away. And be the beacon. It only took me about 3/4 of my life so far to figure that out - Good God, do you think I want to dwell on how much time I wasted? Wouldn't you rather concentrate on what you've learned and may put to good use, enriching your everyday life and that of those you love?

I believe you would. And so would I.

The definition of wealth contines to evolve, and I am today as wealthy as I've ever been, even though dollar-wise I bring in less than 1/4 of what I did five years ago. I measure my wealth in smiles, and laughter, in peaceful moments around a campfire, in viewing miles of lovely arching trees, old oaks, willows, and pine; in quilted pastures through which creeks tumble in tranquil paths, neat farmhouses set back from the road, brick stores, lumber roads, and a deepest-blue veiled purple morn. And I measure it in better health, and seeing less stress in the eyes of my children. My world is a succinct registry of all that matters.

This morning I had a perfect sky of cerulean blue edged in a silken swath of apricot. Last night I took part in community harmony of the happiest sort, and watched artists at work making useful, beautiful things out of river mud. I was warmed by a red-hot purple-gold fire of wood gathered not fifty feet from where it was built, that served a dual purpose both in beauty and utility. I slept in a building that gives new meaning to the words "adaptive reuse."

PeeDee River at flood stage
It cost me exactly $14.43 in gas money. Everything else was free.

If that isn't your definition of a bargain, I'd really like to know it.

But there is more. Tomorrow I'll tell you all about it. But first, go out and greet the sunrise, say good-night to the moon. That is where it begins.

Note: You can read more about the Johannes Kolb site in this article originally published in South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, Life on a Sandy Knoll, by Christopher Judge.

Archaeologists Chris Judge and Jason Smith

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

dialogue across a chasm

Statement from Bishop Mark Lawrence in response to the recent ENS article on the Presiding Bishop's visit to South Carolina

I have read the recent article from the ENS regarding the Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts Schori’s visit to the Diocese of South Carolina. It was a gracious and accurate description of much of our time together. Indeed, there was a warm hospitality which we were most intentional in cultivating through our prayers and our hearts. What the article failed to convey, however, is the depth of the theological chasm that lies between many of us in South Carolina (and others within the church for that matter) and the trajectory of so much of the leadership of The Episcopal Church. To explore these cavernous depths is indeed the great work that lies before anyone in leadership today. Along with showing hospitality and witnessing to God’s work among us, the earnest exploring of this chasm was and remains one of our chief objectives.

--The Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence

Audio Recordings of the Presiding Bishop's Visit to the Diocese of South Carolina