Santa Barbara’s trees, like its oceans and mountains, are one thing she says she never tires of here.”I feel very fortunate to have my car,” she says. “It’s a little cramped, but it’s softer than cement.” For Some Seniors Without Housing: A Parking Lot Is Home; NPR, Sept 18, 2016

My stomach lurches every time I look at this photo.    How can this be happening in upscale Santa Barbara?  This woman  could be my neighbor, the grandmother in the  pew next to mine at church, she  could be that woman struggling along with me at  Pilates class.   She probably  went to college, paid her bills on time, baked cookies for the PTO, raised a family.  Or so it would seem.

Maybe not.  Maybe she lived wildly beyond her means, enrolling her kids in expensive private schools, indulging in spas and Mediterranean cruises, driving a Lexus. Rotating credit cards for payment, betting on the return of the pre-recession economy.  Or maybe  she was forced out of a longterm marriage by a deluded husband frantically trying to recapture his youth.  Or maybe she’s a widow  bankrupted by overwhelming medical bills.

Maybe.  But is  something more fundamental in play?   In our frenzied rush to achieve “success,” have  we have forgotten our need for each other?  Have we  lost our communities?

I grew up in a tight community.  And I hated it.  Everyone knew everything you did, and worse, attributed it to your genetics.  If your family was properous, that predestined your success, despite all distressing evidence to the contrary.  If as in my case, your familymain-street
were not  wealthy landowners, city fathers or otherwise distinguished, you were not expected to rise above your family’s  social standing.  No credential, diploma or bank statement could refute  this.    That was the down side, the only side, I saw growing up.

But no one, no matter what color or family circumstances.  NO ONE lived in a car or wanted for food or clean clothes.   This was not because were endowed with unnatural virtue or were a microcosm of  Christian charity.  Far from it.  We were mean-spirited, kind, quilting-bgenerous, greedy,  intellectually gifted and psychotic, industrious, and lazy; like people everywhere.  With one major exception: We needed each other.  No one had to tell us that.   We knew it by birth;  we were a poor farming community; if we were to survive, it meant cooperation.  It meant community.  In our case, a community formed around a church.

The little community still exists; thrives, in fact,  and its people are still just as flawed and nosy.  Inevitably, though, time has brought  change. Its members are more diverse, better educated, more tolerant now.  But  community foundation  never changed.  If a neighbor’s house is damaged by flood or fire, the community rebuilds the house and supplies food and clothes.  A  member’s bad medical diagnosis country-church1triggers a  rotation of members to supply food and housekeeping.   Extra rows are planted in  gardens for needy members.  The list goes on.   And this is why such a photo could never have been, never will be,  taken in that community.

So I wonder.  Why have our larger urban communities failed this woman?  Does she not meet some tedious beaurocratic requirement?  Is she in need of psychiatric help?  Are there so many like her that community organizations are overwhelmed?  Is it even possible for government to organize community?   Or can lasting  community be forged only on the anvil of  fundamental interdependence?    Is her plight, then, simply the logical outcome of a society who has forgotten this  fundamental truth?






Celebrating Southern Writers: Sally Whitney

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the many benefits to me of this blog is the opportunity it provides me to  celebrate  the successes of fellow southern women writers.   I am delighted to  showcase  Sally Whitney’s  latest book, Surface and Shadow, just released today.

A few weeks ago, I asked  Sally to share some of her thoughts about being a southern writer and in particular, what inspired her latest book.

What gave you the idea for this novel?

 I can’t say that anything gave me the idea for this novel. The idea just seemed to grow. Strong women have always been my favorite characters in novels, so I knew my novel would have a woman as the protagonist. I think women have a hard time being strong because for many years, expectations and requirements have been set against them. Too often, women have to show strength in defying cultural norms before they can be strong anywhere else. I wanted to show this personal battle within my protagonist. I’m also interested in North Carolina cotton-mill towns, partly because very few of them still exist. I put the woman in the cotton-mill town and asked “What if?” And the story grew from there.

 Why did you choose to write about the South?

 The South chose me. Place is very important to my fiction. Often with short stories I get a sense of place before anything else. I see a backyard vegetable garden baking in the mid-summer sun. Or a front porch sagging under the weight of family generations who have traipsed across it. With Surface and Shadow, I saw the narrow main street of a small town with its decades-old store fronts and a mysterious aging farmhouse partly obscured by trees and flowers.
Always the places I see are in the South, usually in North Carolina. And it’s not just the physical places that draw my thoughts in that direction. It’s a sense of mystery and wonder, history and hope, darkness mixed with light. When I was in graduate school in New Jersey, I tried to write about a woman living in New Jersey, but my professor told me to “get that woman back down south where she belongs.” He knew where my imagination lives.

 What do you think are the greatest pitfalls to writing about southern women?

 Number one is falling prey to stereotypes. We all know them. Southern women have been caricatured in books and movies and jokes since such means of communication began. But avoiding stereotypes and still conveying some of southern women’s significant characteristics can be tricky. Stereotypes, like caricatures, have some basis in truth. While southern women are not as hung up on social niceties and proper etiquette as they’re often portrayed, we do expect people to be kind to each other. Good manners are nothing more than being considerate of other people. We are not simpering, obedient belles trying to please the men in our lives. We do not go to college just to find a husband. We are independent women, but we often find ways of exerting that independence that are more persuasive than combative. We like men, and generally love a few of them, but they aren’t required to help us lead fully developed lives.

 What do you think defines a “southern writer?”

 Although southern writers are often defined by where they live, I think they’re more accurately defined by the books they write. My favorite contemporary southern authors, including Lee Smith, Joshilyn Jackson, Tom Franklin, and Fannie Flagg, tell stories of passionate people caught in difficult circumstances, not necessarily unique to the South, but certainly influenced by southern culture, climate, and geography. In Jackson’s gods in Alabama, for example, the great respect many Alabamans hold for football plays an important role. In Franklin’s The Tilted World, which he wrote with his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, the roaring force of the southern Mississippi River is a major character. Heat is often one of my favorite characters in stories by southern writers. Although other parts of the United States can be hot, there’s no heat like southern heat. And heat can make people do crazy things. Southern writers understand the South and its people with all their beauty and their flaws. They know the strong ties between the people and the land and the climate. Their stories could not take place anywhere else.

For more about Sally Whitney and her work, see this blog, May 1, 2015.  











Silent Healing


In this Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 photo, Louisiana Army National Guard dump truck, loaded with rescued flood victims, makes it way back to dry land in Walker, La., after heavy rains inundating the region,(AP Photo/Max Becherer)
In this Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 photo, Louisiana Army National Guard dump truck, loaded with rescued flood victims, makes it way back to dry land in Walker, La., after heavy rains inundating the region,(AP Photo/Max Becherer)

In the haggard silence, there can be no words

A  merciless anguish falls on the sodden bodies

But comforting too, the  bodies close

Pressed, crushed together

They are a single throbbing wound

That can only heal as one.

Of all the heartbreaking photos of the flooding disaster in Louisiana, last weekend (and there were so many),  this one cries to me the loudest.  The faces register shock, disbelief, loss, pain.   And yet there are no tears.   Old and young stand together, defiant,   facing ahead  in  a solid show of will.   Their common  suffering has become the bond that will unite them to survive



“That ship sailed.” I say that a lot these days. So many things now, that I won’t or can’t do again. I will not, for example, be partying allimages-3 night, taking the “red-eye” cross country, wearing sequined jeans, images-3getting a tattoo, signing up to run a 10K or any other kind of “K”, or tottering around in shoes with spiky 4″ heels. And I’m OK with all of that.

If we’re lucky, we all grow old. And I’m OK with that too. But I never noticed it happening to me as I navigated life’s passages; graduation, career, marriage, parenting, the AARP card, grandchildren, downsizing and finally retirement.

But I didn’t feel old! OK, maybe I was starting to get arthritis, maybe it did take longer to “bounce back” from winter colds, perhaps I did need those “readers” more now. So I did give up running for walking, and power aerobics for yoga. And could it be true that our children were receiving their AARP cards? Unsettling, but… I still had time, plenty of time – to take that trip, to be with family and friends, brush up my piano technique and attend concerts, to visit that lonely person, to read books, to write books. Those were my dreams. And I’d get around to them. Someday.

I don’t know the exact moment when I knew life actually had changed. Was it a day when someone opened a door I didn’t need opened – or ran to pick up the sunglasses I dropped, was it my sharp images-1intake of breath at my reflection under the harsh lights of the beautyimages-1 shop, or (please, God, no), when someone called me “cute?” No matter. It’s true. Things have changed, they have really changed. And while I haven’t experienced substantial losses, yet, praise God, a thousand “little sailings” unnoticeable at the time, have manifested in sea changes in my life over the years. Life was never, after all, endless journeys to far horizons, but a voyage through tributaries, narrowing to one. I am at that tributary.

And that was not OK with me. Not at all.

I have always worked toward goals that catapulted me toward new ones. That made sense in my 40s, but it was foolish now. My fear of aging would not let me see that I was no longer sailing toward a destination, but had arrived. So I continued to postpone my dreams as I always had – to Someday. When I was older. Not now. Not yet.

But as I watched friends battling terrifying chronic diseases, becoming incapacitated, losing spouses with fat bank accounts still intact, I had to admit that in fact, Someday was here. Time to face my fear of growing old. I didn’t enjoy that at first. But this foolish denial was costing me my dreams. Time to get busy. Things to do. Time to welcome Someday.

So I’ll be scheduling that trip, spending time with the grandkids, going to those concerts, writing, reading, hanging out with my friends and family. It’s Someday. And my ship is safely anchored in port.


Looking towards the lightIn a wheelchair beside the nurses’ station, a tiny old woman sits, eyes closed, lips parted, hands folded in her lap. Her head droops to one side. Ragged wisps of white hair stray across her forehead. Her nightgown is rumpled, one slipper has dropped to the floor exposing a pale bare foot.  She could be asleep, perhaps even comatose.  Visitors pass, a nurse rushes by and jostles her wheelchair but offers no apology.  No one notices.  It’s  as if she’s invisible.

As nursing homes go, it’s a good one.  It’s so  clean it’s almost unsettling,, the furnishings  expensive and inoffensive,  the staff’s crisp white uniforms fairly rustle as they pass.    Vivaldi plays  softly in the background. They try hard.  But it is still a nursing home.  Where no one wants to be.

A  small dog being led by a visitor trots by, then  suddenly pulls at his IMG_1147lead, resisting  his owner’s attempts to move forward.  The visitor tugs at the lead, averting her eyes from the woman in the wheelchair.   But the little dog is determined.  He sits  down by the woman’s wheelchair as if he has reached his destination.    After a few seconds, the woman opens her eyes and raises her head.  A smile spreads slowly across her weathered face at the sight of the little dog.  Her watery eyes twinkle. A soft voice breaks the silence.  It has a characteristic honeyed lilt, a pattern of speech once cultivated in finishing schools for proper southern ladies.

“Well, hello there!  And aren’t you a pretty little thing?” A bony finger reaches down and strokes the little dog’s ear. He stands, reciprocates with a swift lick of her finger, then sits again,  tongue hanging  sidewise, looking up at her expectantly. They regard each other silently.  She reaches down and gently strokes his back.

She turns to the visitor, “Do you take good care of him?”

“Yes, I do, ” the visitor says.

“Well, make sure you do, now, ” she admonishes. “He needs a lot of care.”

“Don’t worry,” the visitor assures her, “I take good care of him, I promise.” A few minutes pass as the woman talks softly to the little dog.

Finally, she looks up at the visitor, as if to dismiss her. Thank you.” she says, smiling, returning her hands to her lap.  “Can he come back sometime?”

“You’re welcome, “ says the visitor. “And of course! I’ll bring him to see you again.”

The woman smiles as the visitor and the little dog walk away down the hall.

We tend to avoid  people who seem needy,  especially the elderly.  Perhaps we are afraid we can’t help, that we  will become  entangled in their problems, that it will take too much of our time.  But as the little dog knew, people are not always what they seem.  And our gifts do not have to be big ones.  The little dog gave the only thing he had to give, his attention and his love, and it was enough.   In the words of  Mother Teresa, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”



Summer Rainstorm



It is early morning and I watch the sun rise over the lake from a sagging settee on the sleeping porch.  Our Boston Terrier, Jake
IMG_1910peacefully naps  at my feet.  As I sip my morning coffee, I watch his rhythmic breathing  punctuated now and then by a twitch of his ears, a muffled yip or a brief pummeling of his legs.  Maybe he dreams of chasing  a squirrel or a cat.   Maybe he doesn’t dream at all.  I wish I knew.  I wish he could tell me.

Our house is on a cove. which  this morning I share only with  nature’s creatures, or more accurately, they share with me.   A great white heron perches on a rock, his large round images-1body impossibly balanced on  one long thin leg. A school of ducks fat from the bread we feed them  paddle languidly by and assorted songbirds compete for air space.  An occasional bird of prey soars overhead in search of food.  Today there are only buzzards and hawks but on rare occasions, we see golden eagles.  I wonder why we revere hawks and eagles, and find their buzzard relatives disgusting. I wonder if buzzards know this.  I wonder if Eagles do.

The loblolly pines on the distant banks are a blue-green blur in the morning light. One by one, lights appear in houses along the shore as daybreak approaches.  A lone fishing boat advances slowly from the far side of the lake, the sounds of its outboard motor growing louder as it nears.  I watch it come closer, its metal hull slapping on the waves, a flag  of Louisiana fluttering from a standard.   It is a bass boat, rigged out for serious fisherman.   Its occupants are visible now, two young men in camouflage hats and gear.  Seeing me, they wave, and I wave back as they veer into the main channel of the lake, headed for the fishing grounds.

The statue-still heron on the rock  cocks his head sidewise, and although I cannot see it, I know that  his steely, menacing eye is intently following the movement of an unsuspecting fish below the water’s surface.  He holds his preposterous pose perfectly still, patiently waiting for the right time to strike.  Suddenly, and with lightning speed, his long pointed beak jabs into the water.  His ambush is successful; he  emerges with his prey in his beak,  lifts into the sky and soars above the lake, his long neck curved backwards towards his body, legs straight behind.  I watch his great wings
images gracefully folding and unfolding, embracing the morning air as he glides away.

It is perfectly still in the aftermath of the kill.   The only sounds are the waves lapping at the wooden bulkheads below and the chirping of a small martin warily eyeing the bird feeder in our crepe myrtle tree.   The rising sun glittering on the undulating waves creates the illusion of tinsel blanketing the lake.  Only the slowly escalating motion of the waves foreshadow  a storm brewing in the south.

A squirrel hops effortlessly between the limbs of the sugar maples bordering the lake and disappears into the high branches of a nearby elm tree. The creatures, sensing Mother Nature’s mood about to change, disappear into their nests or hiding places.  Blue-grey clouds slide in front of the sun and jagged lines of lightning, white against the darkening clouds light up the sky,  followed by thunder claps, getting louder as the storm nears.   Jake is suddenly on his feet and into my lap, ears back, trembling, his nap destroyed.  His big brown sad eyes seem to plead with me to make it go away. I wonder why he is so afraid, and I wish I could make him understand that he’s safe.

Curtains of rain advance across the lake minutes later as the storm gathers force.   The first raindrops hit the tin roof of the sleeping porch in single sharp pings. Slowly they  intensify into a steady rumble. The wind IMG_0373has picked up now, and the lake is choppy.  The rain slices at the side of the house and the wind drives it into the porch.  I watch the rain pounding on the lake and wonder about the young men and their ill-fated fishing trip.

I revel in Mother Nature’s operatic performance and  am loathe to give up my front row seat. I hold Jake tightly to calm him but the thunder is getting louder and he is increasingly more anxious.  I cannot stay.  But for this moment, I am at peace with myself, the lake and its creatures.



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