Road Trip VIII, Days 28-31, Durham, N.C.: The Five Things I Miss About My Hometown

Spending a full week in Durham and Chapel Hill has me reflecting on the answer I give to folks who ask me what I miss, since leaving the South 27 years ago. It’s a short but sweet list.

1. My family. Officially, all that’s left here are my amazing parents—Mom shown here with a salad containing the last of the Traveling Avocados that ripened as we crossed the country.

Mama knows what’s good for you

Unofficially, our “family” now includes friends the Mate and I have known in some cases longer than we’ve known each other. But that’s another category. I do know, as a 56 year-old, how incredibly lucky I am to still have both healthy parents living in the same house where they raised me.

Mom in her truck, pulling her horse trailer

My dad’s collection of shoes reveals his active life better than anything.

2. Friends—both tribal and non-tribal. I’ll explain that in #5.

Respect the oak.

3. Oak trees. I’m not talking those scruffy things they have out West. With a few exceptions—talking to you, Laytonville, CA—those oaks are piddly, short things with prickly leaves. But the white oaks of the east? They have GRANDEUR. And their dead leave smell like life.

The next generation of red oak—so vibrant

4. North Carolina-style pulled pork BBQ and Mama Dip’s fried chicken. With fried okra, and hush puppies, and greens. Sweet tea optional.

I’ve blogged enough about soul food—I’ll just leave it at this.

5. Tarheel basketball. With the Tribe—a.k.a. a bunch of over-educated lefty lawyers, professors and administrators, and retired ditto—who gather once a year to eat #4, above, and scream at 20 year-old guys tossing around an orange ball. I didn’t want to violate my friends’ privacy by posting their picture, so here’s a shot of a Chapel Hill fire truck—just to give you some idea of the grip Tarheelism has on this town.

Even the paramedics bleed Carolina blue

Last year our team won the National Championship, but they did so in April, when we were already back home in the northwest…where nobody cares, except to inquire, “What IS a Tarheel, anyway?” So, yeah—I miss that.

Go Heels!

If you are someone who no longer lives in your hometown, what are your five things? Take your time and think about it.

Road Trip VI, Days 24-27, Cumberland Island, GA to Durham, NC: Bewitched By Spanish Moss

Cumberland Island is known for its wild (or feral) horses, and I’m a horsey gal.

Horse in your campground, ma'am? Why sure.

Horse in your campground, ma’am? Why sure.

But here’s what really couldn’t drag me away: its Spanish moss. Can anyone tell me WHY this stuff is so entrancing?

Soooo....pretty...

Soooo….pretty…

Seriously. Tell me. I’ve been trying to figure it out.

It’s gray. It’s parasitical–or at any rate it gets a free ride from the trees it drapes; we’re not talking any sweet symbiotic relationship here. And it’s EVERYWHERE in South Georgia, especially on the barrier islands. It should creep people like me out. Instead, I can’t get enough: fondling it, taking pictures, gazing at it from every angle.

image

In my quest to break down the components of natural beauty, one word kept coming to mind: grace. But what does it mean to call something graceful?

OK, the tree ain't bad either.

OK, the tree ain’t bad either.

It undulates. Something about the smoothness of wave action must be inherently awe-inspiring, or comforting, or both.

It hangs vertically in a forest of torturous sideways live-oak limbs (seriously, these things grown LITERALLY every which way but up) and herky-jerky pines and saw palmetto, providing a soft set of downward strokes, like Impressionist painting. Or like tinsel strands on a Christmas tree. Also comforting, though I have no idea why.

image

It’s soft, despite looking spiny. Well, OK, I get the appeal of soft.

Somebody stop me!

Somebody stop me!

As for connotation–if you read my last post, you know that Southern scenery, even at its finest, is haunted by ugly history. So I would never say Spanish moss’s beauty derives from its context. More the opposite.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten here in my quest to understand. What do you think accounts for its beauty? Help me figure this out, y’all.

All RIGHT. I'm done. Wing out.

All RIGHT. I’m done. Wing out.

Road Trip V, Days 21-23, Durham, N.C.: Let Us Now Praise Famous Trees

…or not-famous trees (which was kinda the point of James Agee’s title). Trees that are famous only to ourselves, perhaps. Special. Dare I say sacred? Do you have one in your past?

I do, and I visited it today. Actually, I visited its ghost; the tree itself died many years ago. It’s a sycamore growing by a creek in the woods outside Durham where I grew up, and once upon a time it looked like this:

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

Sycamores are special. Like madronas, which I wrote about at the start of this trip, they start unremarkably but show more individuality with each vertical inch. Twisting, curving, pied, spotted, toward the top they gleam creamy, crazy white–so white you can spy them from 100 yards away through winter woods. They also have the quirk of growing solo, so that a single sycamore will stand out amidst hundreds of gray and brown fellow tree-citizens. (I try, but usually fail, to avoid thinking of sycamores as tree royalty reigning over their patch of forest.)

My sycamore was solo. She grew in some woodsy acres my family bought when I was in high school, and we discovered her while exploring. Not only did this single tree stand out, her roots supported the banks of a little creek with tiny rapids and wild violets growing in the crevices. I was enchanted. When my school’s annual Mini-Session came around, one April week for high school students to pursue special projects, mine was to camp alone in our woods, in the company of my sycamore.

This was hardly Outward Bound. I was only a couple of miles from my home, but deep enough into the woods as to be safe from outsiders. I had my tent and a little cooking stove, and I spent my days reading, writing in my journal, going for walks, or just lying on a log watching the creek. (Can you tell my Senior English teacher had assigned us Thoreau and Annie Dillard? Yeah, I was quite the teenage Transcendentalist.) I had to leave the woods twice to attend college classes I was taking, and my then-boyfriend (now my Mate) even came to visit me once. So, hardly Annie Dillard either. But mostly I kept company with my tree.

Years later, The Mate and I enjoyed taking friends, and then our young boys, to look at Gretchen’s Spot and visit my sycamore. We could always sight it long before we could reach it through those tangly southern woods. Then some years went by without visits, until we finally went back to find my tree looking like this:

The ghost of my sycamore--keeping company with our friend's son

The ghost of my sycamore–keeping company with our friend’s son

But in my mind? She’s still a queen, and she looks more like this:

(In Big Sur last year, with our sons)

(In Big Sur last year, with our sons)

Do you have a special tree, or did you? Care to share?

Road Trip V, Days 18-20, Durham, N.C.: Community Lessons For a New Author

One year ago this week I proudly debuted my first novel at the bookstore in my hometown. Yes, Durham is 3,500 miles away from where I live now, so The Regulator didn’t figure to loom large in my new author “career.” But this week, as The Regulator hosted an event for my second book, I realized it had taught me a lesson.

Author readings are not about the author. They’re not even entirely about the work. They’re about community.

Just the author? What else ya got?

Just the author? What else ya got?

Think about it. You’re a busy person. What would make you take time out of your week to sit and hear an author read? You might be enamored of that particular author and happy to get a close-up view. You might wish to ask questions, or get an autograph. But for an author like me, I know you’re there mainly to support the idea of authorship. You are accepting a role in the literary community. Authors need to honor that role.

So here are three new tenets I’ve adopted:

1) Involve community members, especially kids, if possible. I’m a very good reader, having practiced with my two sons and 20 years of students, but still–just my voice, my presence? After my debut reading, I decided I could do better. Now, if I can, I stage dramatic readings with myself as narrator.

Now this is more like it!

Now this is more like it!

2) The beginning is not always the best place to start. I’d thought starting anywhere else would require too much explanation, but audiences catch on quickly. And in the case of my first book, the Prologue is one of the saddest sections. It took me most of the way through Chapter One to cheer the group up again. Since then, I think about it from their point of view and try to choose the most entertaining part. Duh.

3) Offer cookies afterward. Hey, these nice people are giving up an hour of their busy lives to support me. The least I can do is say “thanks” the most tangible way I know, with butter and chocolate.

Terrific students from Carolina a Friends Middle School--my alma mater--with their teacher who used to be mine!

Terrific students from Carolina a Friends Middle School–my alma mater–with their teacher who used to be mine!

I have a big reading coming up next month in Seattle, and I have some more ideas for that one. What other Lessons in the Obvious have I to learn?

So I’d love to hear what else folks might have experienced. What makes an author reading stand out for you–other than, of course, the written work itself?