And Now Something Completely Different

Words matter. The words we choose to describe our lives actually define our lives. We must be ever-vigilant to assure the words we utter and think are as true and honest and precise as possible.

Ever since I read Between the World and Me* by Ta-Nehisi Coates—and subsequently discussing the book with a group of very smart women—Coates has become my guru. He doesn’t know it, but he’s leading me on a journey I am willingly undertaking so that I might understand my own white privilege, and to recognize the habits of mind and the words ingrained in me, that keep my white privilege erected as a barrier between what the world really is and what I was taught it was. I believe—having been taught in my southern culture and communities and schools—the world I described yesterday with my southern words is actually a lie. That I was taught untruths, however, is no excuse for remaining uninformed and ignorant. I’m actively trying to fix that. And Coates has become one of my guides.

* I highly recommend reading Between the World and Me, which is a love letter to Coates’s son. Whites should read it humbly, making every effort to dispense with our egos and our excuses, and our self-protections. It is a difficult read under any circumstance, but even more difficult to gain insight from if we allow our white-ness to filter his experience; if we try to minimize his experience based on our own.

In this article (pasted in its entirety below, re-blogged from The Atlantic and with the original linked here) Coates generously offers a reading list that he recommends so that we southerners who were taught lies might “lose our stupid.” In my opinion, Coates uses the word “stupid” (a word I actually hate and nearly never use myself, as I believe it is overly pejorative) too liberally. 

Yet I feel he might be forgiven, because I do hear his frustration with white people, and our propensity toward excusing and forgiving and lying amongst ourselves about our lives, history, and communities; and I empathize with his being tired of repeating to us what he and his darker-skinned patriots have been trying to convey for decades if not centuries.

I was having a discussion about just this subject with my mother the other day. While she is among the most liberal and enlightened nearly-90 y.o. southern-born-and-bred women I know, she was raised in Richmond, VA. Without getting too deeply into the weeds of our point-counterpoint, I feel her position might best be understood as nostalgia (as in having a soft spot in her heart for her milieu of childhood) rather than an outright desire to “never forget our glorious Southern heritage” (in which I honestly do not think she believes). Our discussion climaxed around the existence of the “Civil War Heroes” erected along Richmond’s infamous Monument Avenue. In counterpoint, I argued that, unless there were equal honors given to non-white heroes and heroines along the same route and equally prominent as those white Confederate tributes extant in the public square, then all of the statues required moving to museums or battlegrounds—including that of our blood ancestor, Robert E. Lee.

Both of us came away with quite a lot of food for thought.

And since our discussion began with John Kelly’s truly ignorant statements about the Civil War this past week (and those of our president earlier), I thought that fellow seekers of truth and deep understanding, who are, as I am, starting from a position of ignorance (if not stupidity) and humbly wanting to learn and do and think better and more truthfully, you might also want to read Coates’s recommendations (I’ve already read Battle Cry of Freedom but none of the others). I suggest this so that we do not simply hear stupid (as with Kelly’s ridiculous statements) and nod along without comment because we actually don’t know any better.

Without further explanation or fuss, I present here Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, November 1, 2017

Five Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War

29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, U.S. Colored Troops in formation near Beaufort, South Carolina, 1864 Library of Congress

On Monday, the retired four-star general and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly asserted that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” This was an incredibly stupid thing to say. Worse, it built on a long tradition of endorsing stupidity in hopes of making Americans stupid about their own history. Stupid enjoys an unfortunate place in the highest ranks of American government these days. And while one cannot immediately affect this fact, one can choose to not hear stupid things and quietly nod along.

For the past 50 years, some of this country’s most celebrated historians have taken up the task of making Americans less stupid about the Civil War. These historians have been more effective than generally realized. It’s worth remembering that General Kelly’s remarks, which were greeted with mass howls of protests, reflected the way much of this country’s stupid-ass intellectual class once understood the Civil War. I do not contend that this improved history has solved everything. But it is a ray of light cutting through the gloom of stupid. You should run to that light. Embrace it. Bathe in it. Become it.

Okay, maybe that’s too far. Let’s start with just being less stupid.

One quick note: In making this list I’ve tried to think very hard about readability, and to offer books you might actually complete. There are a number of books that I dearly love and have found indispensable that are not on this list. (Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America immediately comes to mind.) I mean no slight to any of those volumes. But this is about being less stupid. We’ll get to those other ones when we talk about how to be smart.

1) Battle Cry Of Freedom: Arguably among the greatest single-volume histories in all of American historiography, James McPherson’s synthesis of the Civil War is a stunning achievement. Brisk in pace. A big-ass book that reads like a much slimmer one. The first few hundred pages offer a catalogue of evidence, making it clear not just that the white South went to war for the right to own people, but that it warred for the right to expand the right to own people. Read this book. You will immediately be less stupid than some of the most powerful people in the West Wing.

2) Grant: Another classic in the Ron Chernow oeuvre. Again, eminently readable but thick with import. It does not shy away from Grant’s personal flaws, but shows him to be a man constantly struggling to live up to his own standard of personal and moral courage. It corrects nearly a half-century of stupidity inflicted upon America by the Dunning school of historians, which preferred a portrait of Grant as a bumbling, corrupt butcher of men. Finally, it reframes the Civil War away from the overrated Virginia campaigns and shows us that when the West was won, so was the war. Grant hits like a Mack truck of knowledge. Stupid doesn’t stand a chance.

3) Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee: Elizabeth Pryor’s biography of Lee, through Lee’s own words, helps part with a lot of stupid out there about Lee–chiefly that he was, somehow, “anti-slavery.” It dispenses with the boatload of stupid out there which hails the military genius of Lee while ignoring the world that all of that genius was actually trying to build.

4.) Out of the House of Bondage: A slim volume that dispenses with the notion that there was a such thing as “good,” “domestic,” or “matronly” slavery. The historian Thavolia Glymph focuses on the relationships between black enslaved women and the white women who took them as property. She picks apart the stupid idea that white mistresses were somehow less violent and less exploitative than their male peers. Glymph has no need of Scarlett O’Haras. “Used the rod” is the quote that still sticks with me. An important point here–stupid ideas about ladyhood and the soft feminine hand meant nothing when measured against the fact of a slave society. Slavery was the monster that made monsters of its masters. Compromising with it was morally bankrupt–and stupid.

5.) The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: The final of three autobiographies written by the famed abolitionist, and my personal favorite. Epic and sweeping in scope. The chapter depicting the bounty of food on which the enslavers feasted while the enslaved nearly starved is just devastating.

So that should get you to unstupid–but don’t stop there. Read Du Bois. Read Grant’s own memoirs. Read Harriet Jacobs. Read Eric Foner. Read Bruce Levine. It’s not that hard, you know. You’ve got nothing to lose, save your own stupid.

Fascinating Origins for Common Sayings & Usages

Follow the link to read the entire story. These excerpts might help inspire you to read on! The final one is the one I found most surprising:

• They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot & then once a day it was taken & Sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were “Piss Poor.”

But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot. They “didn’t have a pot to piss in” & were the lowest of the low.


• [Annual] Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the Bath water!”

• Houses had thatched roofs: thick straw piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof, hence the saying “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house [from the ceiling/roof]. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.

• The floor [of most dwellings] was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, “Dirt poor.” The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way. Hence: a thresh hold.

• Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.

• England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive… So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.

(shared here as requested by the site and author)

Room with a view

I used to look up at the mountains from my horse pasture in Virginia’s piedmont. I remember telling myself, “One day, I’m going to live up there.”

That was in the early seventies, when I attended middle school and was into horses. We rode and exercised and trained the horses at home, certainly. But we also trailered them up the slope of the mountain a-ways to a workshop/camp, escaping the thick, wet heat of August. We boarded them at a nearby farm and rode over to the workshop site, where we underwent professional scrutiny and training as we worked the horses in an arena and over challenging fences in the field. We rode English and did a lot of show jumping and fox hunting in those days.

Me in the arena, show-jumping Willie. 1972.
Me in the arena, show-jumping Willie. 1972.

Although we worked the horses hard and got dusty and hot ourselves, we were glad to be at the higher elevation – not anywhere near so hot and sticky as back at home. At the end of the day, with the sun settling down behind the ridge and the air quickening with night breezes and the sounds of peepers; with the aromas of horse sweat and hardhats mingling with the dusky mountain air, we rode the horses back toward the stalls. The chores of picking manure from the straw, feeding and watering the horses, and grooming the crystalline sweat off their coats still awaited us, to be accomplished under lights. The sweaty saddle pads would be separated from the saddles and hung to dry overnight. And we’d do it all again the next day.

On one of those evenings, after fifteen minutes of clopping along a paved country road, en route to the close of the day, we took a detour through an apple orchard. Our hostess assured us it would be okay to ride through and pick an apple apiece — one for the horses we rode, and one for ourselves.

I could reach some of the high apples that would have been impossible, had I been afoot. That was the first wonder. The horse I rode knew well what these hanging red spheres were, and chomped merrily and shook her head to free it for consumption. The tree seemed reluctant to release that one, so the branches shook and rocked as the horse freed her prize. I laughed as the branches whacked my hardhat and shoulders.

I reached over my head and picked a beauty for myself: red flecked with yellow; perfectly rounded; greenish on the shoulder.

I took the first bite of that apple as we reined out of the orchard while Willie, my mount, worked her apple around the bit in her mouth, tossing her head, jingling her hardware. I swear that was the best apple I’d ever eaten.

This photo was taken a few years ago. I'm on the right, with my niece.
This photo was taken a few years ago. I’m on the right, with my niece.

Today the horses are gone, but the apples in my mountain orchard still evoke wonder and amazement in me. Instead of horses, I ride my bike. No workshops up here, but I work hard and get sweaty training for cycling events like Bike Virginia, coming up later this month. I pedal along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the cool, pristine mountain air. I take in the wide vistas, smell the blackberry blossoms, go slowly up and quickly down the slopes, marveling that I made it to the top of the mountains, living here for 20+ years now.


I stop occasionally to look at the piedmont below my ridge line. I am struck by awe again and again when I think that I am exactly where I had willed myself to be 40 years ago. I have found my home and my heart in these mountains and would not have it otherwise. I am lucky and fortunate and I try never to take it for granted. Who lives better than we?

My husband, Jack, in a Rails To Trails bike tunnel, on one of our cycling trips. Digital artwork.
My husband, Jack, in a Rails To Trails bike tunnel, on one of our cycling trips. Digital artwork.

Found Time

I’m really tired of snow.

But today, an obligation was taken off my calendar because of it. I just couldn’t get there from here. At least, not on time. Had it been an afternoon meeting, I could certainly have gone.

Since it wasn’t and I didn’t, I decided to declare today a “found time” day. Sure, I could have caught up on the “to do” list. I could have cleaned the house or done the laundry. I could have gotten just a wee bit more of a handle on several upcoming deadlines I’m going to have to really hammer soon. (Noticeably not among the options = shoveling snow. No way.)

I could have taken one more step toward finishing out the last week of falconry season in style by flying the birds. Not really too smart, after all, though — the wind was such that they would have been blown into Franklin County, I expect.

I could have done any of those things. But I didn’t.

I decided to have a day to myself, with no gotta do’s, only wanna do’s.

So I sat down with a new toy and played.

It’s a digital pen and USB tablet, gifted to me from a very generous friend, Leigh Rainey (thanks, Leigh!). I was wondering how to get used to it. I’ve never been much for creating something out of thin air, preferring instead to use a model, so to speak. So I checked out some of my fave printed B&W photographs. I stumbled upon one that I’d taken a long time ago, on another day when late March dumped a layer of snow on us in Meadows of Dan, and thought to myself, “How appropriate.” So I photocopied it with the setting on “light” and studied it. The image really took me back.

Back to when I was working at a horse farm in Floyd. We used the photo’s subject trailer to haul manure and sawdust to our garden, after I’d hauled each horse cookie out of the stalls. Many days, we’d park the trailer at the barn so the horse s**t could be wheelbarrowed straight from the stalls to the trailer (instead of having to pitchfork it from the steaming manure pile into the trailer, to then haul to our garden/compost pile at home).

It took me back to that March snow, sometime in the 90s, before I had a digital camera. That was a warm snow; heavy and wet. It lasted only a few hours (as opposed to this, which fell yesterday, 7 fluffy inches, with another inch overnight and drifts along the driveway of 18 inches or so; and looking forward to continued sub-freezing temps for another day and night “they” say).

And when I sat down with the pen-and-tablet, it took me back to when I was high school age, and had loved pen-and-ink drawing. I haven’t done much of that since — tried a couple of things on the iPad, but you gotta keep your hand floating above the surface with my generation of iPad in drawing mode. That’s not only imprecise and fiddly — it’s tiring.

This wonderful thingie Leigh gave me is truly fun and almost-but-not-quite-exactly like a pen and pad of paper. It is pressure sensitive, just like real life. It does, however, make much more noise than the scratching of a thin nib on paper.

I’ve spent all day experimenting; creating and discarding layers; mapping out how the “paper” will be arranged with which grays/layers/nib widths would go where. After quite a few false starts and do-overs (I love being able to use layers and to save the bits I like rather than tossing the entire piece of paper out), I finished what I think is my first digital pen-and-ink artwork.

I hope you like what I finally came up with — gotta say, it was fun. Now I’m all inspired to get back to pen-and-ink — only at the digital level, though (I’m such a techno-dweeb). I just don’t want to go back to those frustrating high school days using ink, pens with thousands of expensive nibs (that need cleaning every time you’re done, and sometimes fail altogether), and paper with no do-overs.

Not sure how I’ll find the time, though.

Thanks again, Leigh, for the inspiration and the tools.

And okay — thanks, universe, for the snow. Really ready for spring, but the Found Time has been glorious.


Here’s what the trailer looks like today:


Smoke and the Reptile Brain

smokey seating
Sunshine captures a film of particulate air.

A mantle woven of smoke settles just below my neighborhood. The weaver sits far away, but is busy, busy, and her work piles up to climb the slopes, and the wind is able to tip it over the ridges, so it flows down into the hollers and valleys. My house is halfway along a slope, so the weaver’s work rises nearby in grays and ashen blue, while I watch the distant vale thicken to brown. 

Logic invests a perfectly reasonable explanation: a pair of wildfires many miles distant; one to my north and another raging westerly. Be rational, my verbal brain says. This does not threaten Meadows of Dan.

I set foot outside and my nostrils fill with an age-old aroma. My heart quickens, my eyes widen and demand that I turn my head to see behind. The threat is near enough to smell and my reptile brain is on “flight” overdrive. Some DNA-level instinct knows this is not a “fight” situation. It kickstarts imaginings of piling pets and necessaries into the car, ready to flee.

How will I know when that time has come? Calm yourself, I say. If you must, worry about something real, not imagined.

Carrying on the chores, my alarms are silenced from constant exposure and habituation – the odor is, quite simply, ubiquitous.

Then the wind picks up. The aroma grows stronger and the hue is slightly more pine, or more plastic-like (is that a house burning?). The hairs on the back of my neck rise again and the autonomous brain returns. There is no visible change in my environment – I see no smoke rolling over, as the fog so often rolls through our homestead.

But my imaginary weaver continues to ply the warp and weft of combustion byproducts, and the fabric falls to the ground, piling below the loom, rising as the wind carries it like a flag of warning, invisible yet tickling my reptile brain and deeply disturbing my life.

Story in Seven: No words beginning or ending in “s”

The tree rat escaped while the hawk, aground, walked with a rustle of leaf litter. Tripped by a branch and falling to a knee, I watched the fuzzy tail disappear behind a tree.

Did it go up? Did it run on?

Once, a dog duo tracked the path and offered directional pointing.

I growl in frustration for not being a canine. I weep in the woodlot for my lost team.


Story in Seven

It is quirky, lopsided, iconic.
He gave it to her for their last anniversary together, saying, “It reminds me of you,” and they laughed because it was true.
They hung it in the bedroom where it stayed until he was gone.
Next, it resided under her pillow and endured a year of tears.
Now it hangs beside the front door of the house they built, and she touches it, like a talisman, before passing in, through the front door.
It tells the neighborhood that he is still truly there, in walls, and kitchen aromas, and photographs, and hearts; it reminds her of him.
It is quirky, lopsided, iconic.

Flash Fiction Challenge: Partings

By following Stevie Preater, I found a neat flash fiction (under 500 words) writing prompt blog that my author friends might enjoy. Check it out.  

Here is my own contribution to the Parting effort. I’m lousy with titles, so if you have any suggestions, comment away!


Her stepmother brushed her hair so hard! Of course, it was tangled – she’d just woken up. Shelly wondered how her hair always looked so perfect when she came out of her room in the morning. Maybe because it was so curly. Shelly secretly wondered if it wasn’t hair at all but maybe a woolen cap, and she just slipped it on her head every morning.

Shelly’s hair was straight. She’d asked a million times if she could cut it. It always got in the way when she was trying to watch a tadpole in the creek, or swinging by her knees from the limb of a tree, or the jungle gym. No, of course not, a girl doesn’t cut her hair.

“A woman’s beauty is in her hair,” she was told. “And it should never be allowed to hang in the face, especially when a face is as pretty as yours is.” Shelly would roll her eyes. “And look at that widow’s peak!” (Whatever that was, thought Shelly).

“At least let me have bangs,” whined Shelly on many occasions.

“And lose that stunning, high forehead? Never! Why, you don’t want to look like a boy, do you?”

Shelly’s best friends were all boys. Why shouldn’t she have hair as easy as theirs?

So the brushing ritual had to be endured every morning, before Shelly even had any cereal. Dang!

But, worst of all were the braids.

First, a severe parting, carved down the middle of her head from stem to stern with the sharpest comb ever invented. Then the tug and pull and twist and yank of the first braid (always the left); “rinse and repeat” on the right.

Shelly went to school every day with a raw-looking red line halving her skull. But she triumphed over her stepmother’s will by the end of the day.

Somewhere around 2PM (sometimes earlier, but always after recess) Shelly’s fine auburn hair slipped its restraints, slim strand by slim strand, and began waving about her head like rays of the setting sun. By the time she rode her bike home, that parting was nothing but a faint signpost among a criss-crossing of alternately loosely held and totally free hanks of hair, and the braids were stumpy, crooked, dwarf-like versions of their former selves.