The World Within: Lillian Smith’s Global Journey of Rediscovery

(Based on a lecture presented at Reinhardt University on June 27, 2019)

Lillian Smith is certainly not the most recognizable writer from the South, and now the light from her star is practically imperceptible in a literary sky illuminated by the likes of Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty. I have written about her life as a writer and civil rights advocate in a previous post. During her lifetime Lillian Smith was a highly acclaimed author, successful businesswoman, a creative educator, and one of the most effective champions of human rights of her generation. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally featured in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Today, Lillian Smith is generally regarded as a respectable novelist who was among a handful of white liberals fighting racial discrimination in the South during the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. But it is a mistake to limit Smith’s interests, passions, concerns, and influence solely to these parameters. With brutal honesty she exposed and fought injustice everywhere she witnessed it, while maintaining her characteristic Southern manners and eloquence. I would argue that there is no writer from mid-20th-century America whose work is more germane to the crises we face in 2019 around the world than Lillian Smith.

Lillian Smith, 1963; photo by Joan Titus
Lillian Smith, 1963; photo by Joan Titus

Like most people of the South in the early 20th century, and even the nation at large, Lillian Smith grew up in a racially segregated society. She was well schooled in the paradox that characterized Christian teaching of her region and her time, including the Methodist denomination in which she was reared. Jesus loved all the children of the world, but white children were inherently superior to black children. White children played with white children and black children with their own kind. There were white churches and black churches, just as God had intended it to be. These were among the unquestionable manners that made the post-bellum South tolerable to its white citizens who insisted on perpetuating a caste system 25 years after Reconstruction had made their earth tremble. These “truths” were accepted by Lillian’s Smith’s parents, both of whom had descended from slave-owning families.

In her early twenties, Smith studied music intermittently at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but she ultimately accepted the disappointing reality that her talent was insufficient for her dream of becoming a concert pianist. However, her training at Peabody prepared her for an opportunity that would change Lillian Smith’s perspective on almost everything and challenge all her preconceptions about her homeland. In 1922 at the age of 24, Lillian moved to China where she would remain for the next three years working as a piano teacher at Virginia School, a Methodist mission for girls from wealthy families in the city of Huchow. She was one of about a dozen westerners in a city of 250,000 in what was then a remote part of the country.

While working at Virginia School, Smith reported to a female principal who was liberal in her philosophy and had a deep appreciation for China’s rich culture and resources. Lillian immersed herself in that culture, learning from her students, their families, and from the people of Huchow. She read extensively during this time, exploring Chinese poetry and philosophy. She wandered through Buddhist temples and began to contemplate faith traditions other than Christianity. She also became familiar with the history and current events of India and South Africa. “Suddenly, the whole earth opened to me,” she wrote, “and I saw us as one people, as human beings, all aching for freedom, all longing for knowledge and understanding, all reaching toward the light of truth, all wanting to love and be loved.”

The 1920s were a turbulent time in China. The hopes and aspirations that inspired the Revolution of 1911 and the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty had been crushed shortly after the establishment of the Republic of China. The provisional government became a puppet of strong military leaders and ultimately disintegrated. By the time Smith arrived in 1922, the tenuous government was under a military regime. Ruthless provincial warlords were in command of much of the region, spreading terror as they mounted revolutions and counterrevolutions, exploiting rich and poor alike. Smith learned about the country’s turmoil from people who were intimately involved in the transitions of power. She met the sister-in-law of the President of the provisional government, a woman named Soong Mei-ling, but we are more familiar with the name she adopted after she was married: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, First Lady of the Republic of China.

It was in this environment that Lillian Smith began to see injustice and affronts to human dignity with fresh eyes. She was horrified by the effects of war on the Chinese people, specifically the lowest class of unskilled laborers, the coolies. She witnessed them being treated no better than slaves by soldiers who came through Huchow. She also recognized that some of the worst indignities were at the hands of Christians, even the people she worked with, who seemed to tolerate blatant abuse. In a letter to her father dated February 23, 1925, Lillian wrote, “All of it makes one wonder how Christians can sit by and say: ‘Of course war is wrong – but’. There is no ‘but’ to it.”

In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. She also had some wonderful memories of the country. During the early 1930s, she worked on a novel about China under the title, And the Waters Flow On, where she was exploring the connection between racism and sexual attitudes in a Chinese setting. Tragically, the manuscript for this novel was later lost in a fire at her home in Clayton. Like other southern writers, Lillian Smith made the connection between sexual attitudes and racism, but she did so with unusual fervor and explicitness. These connections were likely formed in her mind during the China years.

Her experiences in the Far East changed her at a deep level, which as it turns out, was not an unusual phenomenon for Smith’s generation of white southern liberals. Morton Sosna speaks to this pattern in his 1977 book, In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue, published by Columbia University Press. Sosna writes, “An important influence upon Southern liberals was their experiences outside the South.  Even when they returned home, they found that residence elsewhere had added new dimensions to their views about the South’s racial situation.” For Lillian Smith, the parallels between the discrimination on opposites sides of the globe were crystal clear. Sosna continues, “Lillian Smith was shocked by white foreigners, including the missionaries, who established enclaves in China that excluded Chinese. She drew an immediate connection between what was occurring in China and life in her own native South.”

Many years after her return to the states, Lillian Smith continued to express her deep concerns publicly about social injustice, in her native South and elsewhere. She made references to the evils of white supremacy and imperialism in China but also in Russia, Burma, Java, and on the continents of Africa and South America. She stressed that people from around the globe were searching for a democracy that works, one they could trust. In a time where Americans believed their most valuable export was democracy, Lillian Smith said they had to prove they really believed in it by using a language the whole world understands: the democratic act.

She witnessed on the world stage in real time the tragic results of systematic race-based hatred. “It is just possible that the white man is no longer the center of the universe,” she wrote. “It is just possible that even German Nazis, British imperialists, and white southerners will have to accept a fact that has been old news to the rest of the world for a long, long time.” Lillian Smith recognized that the South, by passing and enforcing Jim Crow laws, was trying to buy its future with a figurative currency that no longer existed: Confederate money. She expanded that metaphor when she wrote, “The new world will be found only when the people dream about it. . . .  And when we find it, we must buy it. Not with old Confederate bills of race slavery and prejudice and frustration; no. Not with the imperialistic British pound of arrogant exploitation; nor with blocked marks of madness and hate; nor with violence and death. But with the democracy of the human spirit, with intelligence, with creative understanding, with love, with life itself.”

In his article, “Lillian Smith, Racial Segregation, Civil Rights and American Democracy,” published in the Moravian Journal of Literature and Film in the Fall of 2011, Constante Gonzalez Groba notes that Lillian Smith adopted Gandhi’s view of the negative effect of segregation on the oppressed and the oppressors, a premise that she would return to many times during the struggle for civil rights in the South. According to Groba, Lillian Smith “was one of the first to see the transnational dimensions of the cultural and racial practices of her region, and one of the first to characterize the white dominance of the South as a colonial relationship.”

The outbreak of World War II and the unavoidable involvement of the United States in the global conflict was of great concern to Lillian Smith as it was to most people of her generation. She was not as repulsed by the physical part of war as she was the more permanent effects it had on minds and emotions. To her way of thinking, war was an extreme example of human segregation. She was convinced that the threat from abroad made it even more important for the races in America to understand each other. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt from April 7, 1942, Smith wrote, “There is something heartbreakingly valiant about the young of the Negro race, so eager to prove to white America their willingness to die for a country which has given them only the scraps from the white folks’ democracy. There is resentment also; a quiet, strong resentment, running like a deep stream through their minds and hearts; something I think few white Americans are aware of, or want to face.”

Following the war, Lillian Smith made two trips to India. During the summer of 1946, she traveled as a member of Britain’s Famine Commission, an initiative to gain American support for India’s famine victims. Her second trip to the subcontinent in 1954-55 was much more substantive – a six-month visit with financial support from the U.S. State Department to gather material for a book comparing India and China. She had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and a number of other dignitaries, artists, and writers. The book project never materialized, but it is clear from her correspondence after returning from this second trip that Smith had immersed herself in the culture of India, especially the arts.

Given her work in advancing the cause of civil rights, it would be natural to assume that activism was Smith’s greatest passion, but that’s not the case. She expressed on numerous occasions how she disliked struggling against injustice, even racial discrimination. The idea of fighting for a “cause” was rather unappealing to her. She was much more interested in literature, poetry, painting, and music. Her humanitarian efforts were not as much a passion as they were a deep, moral obligation. In a letter to Richard Wright from June 12, 1944, she wrote, “I am not in the least interested in political movements or in being any kind of a reformer or political leader. Hence, I find myself avoiding – too much, I suppose – organizations. I simply want to say what I believe and say it my own way. I have an idea that you feel much the same about this. Because you do, I believe we together might be able to work out some suggestions for other writers that might encourage them to do more creative thinking and writing about our cultural problems, and yet leave them free of any ideological ties.”

By the late 1950s, Smith’s views about democracy and colonialism were reflecting over 35 years of reading and writing about world events and the shifting international political landscape. In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Killers of the Dream from 1961, she observed that Asian and African colonists thirsted for independence but not necessarily Democracy as the U.S. assumed. They wanted equality and would “trample the earth to get it.” They wanted their human rights and their recognition by the United Nations. What they hated and feared more than death were the symbols of oppression: segregation, apartheid, and colonialism. Smith urged Americans to listen to the desires of these young nations, whose leaders she feared may be driven to overcome their hurt dignity with racial supremacy, just as white Southerners embraced White Supremacy during Restoration in mutual hostility toward people of color. “African and Asian nationalists may harness the hatred of tribal hostilities” she said, “and turn it into hatred of whites who continue so stubbornly to think of themselves as superior.”

Lillian Smith boldly spoke out against the injustices of her day, even those occurring in other countries. The most obvious abuse and that which was closest to home for her as a southerner was racial discrimination. She combined her talents as a creative writer and her keen sense of observation to publish persuasive books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. Her fiction reflected her sensitivity to prejudice and injustice. Her travels abroad filled Lillian Smith with wonder and excitement, but she also let the experiences mold her conscience as well as her consciousness. She had a more inward view of the words of her contemporary, T. S. Eliot, who in his “Four Quartets” reminded us that after our explorations are over, we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time. Lillian Smith’s version goes like this: “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”

A Weekend of Writing at John C. Campbell Folk School

Not too long ago I participated in a weekend writing workshop at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. Beginning on Friday evening and ending at lunch on Sunday, the program provided inspiration, encouragement, writing prompts, editing tips, and one-on-one coaching for writers of all skill levels and in multiple genres. The instructor was a kind and gracious poet named Karen Paul Holmes, an award-winning writer who has been published in HuffPost, business publications, literary journals, and anthologies. Her books of poems are Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press, 2014) and No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Books, 2018). She founded and hosts the Side Door Poets in Atlanta and a monthly Writers’ Night Out in Blairsville, Georgia.

John C. Campbell Folk School historical marker
John C. Campbell Folk School historical marker

For more than 90 years, the John C. Campbell Folk School has encouraged all students and guests to become a part of its community through activities such as concerts, dances, presentations, and meals. People with varying interests are given a chance to come together through song, art, nature, gardening, cooking, and storytelling. From basketry to writing, participants can choose from over 860 weeklong and weekend classes each year in a broad variety of areas. This creative experience is enhanced by knowledgeable instructors and small classes. My writing class had only seven people. The classes are structured to create a non-competitive, hands-on learning environment.

Orchard House
Orchard House

Our class met in a house-turned-dorm and meeting space called the Orchard House. We had two males (including me) and five females. There was one young woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. The other five students were all older than I was. We were all amateur writers with diverse backgrounds: education, ministry (the other man), and corporate business. As a librarian, literary landmark manager, and artist retreat director, my career probably brought me closer to writing and writers than anyone else in the room save the instructor, but I certainly did not feel I had a competitive edge whatsoever. The retired folks were spending much more time writing than I was, and they took it seriously. They were good at it.

One woman had recently lost her aging mother after an extended decline, and she was working on a collection of reflective essays about the thoughts and emotions she experienced as her mother’s caregiver during those final years. The piece she shared with the group was funny at times but also incredibly moving. The retired Methodist pastor was an affable guy who had some great stories and the ability to translate them into writing that didn’t read like sermons. There was a woman who seemed to be still living in the 1960s. She was a widower and shared through her poetry intimate memories of the relationship she had with her husband, and sometimes her language bordered on the erotic. Her poems were passionate, but her sense of loss was still raw and full of grief. I was most impressed with the work of the woman I guessed was the oldest member of the class. She shared memoir-style essays that demonstrated wisdom, insight, and a remarkable command of words. I was envious.

John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC
John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC

This weekend dedicated to writing was an amazing opportunity provided to me by an artist who served on the advisory board of the retreat center where I was the director. It was such a rewarding experience. Our instructor gave us several writing exercises, one of which resulted in a short post titled “Bliss” that I decided to publish on this blog in 2018. I highly recommend this workshop with Karen Paul Holmes, but any program that gets us away from home and in the company of other writers to practice the craft can be immensely satisfying and productive. Finally, I would encourage anyone who values the arts to visit the John C. Campbell Folk School and consider becoming involved with its programs. It is such an extraordinary place.

John C. Campbell Folk School art
John C. Campbell Folk School art

So Many Books, So Little Time

The title of this post is familiar to reading enthusiasts. We have seen it on mugs, posters, social media memes, etc. I once had a tee-shirt with the slogan printed in multiple colors on navy blue fabric. Serving as a professional librarian for fifteen years of my career, peddling books was my trade. Librarians everywhere through the years have repeatedly attempted unsuccessfully to dispel a popular myth about the profession: librarians spend all their time reading. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have no more time to devote to reading than most other professionals. We spend our time, talents, and energy making sure that our patrons have what they want to read. Libraries have certainly undergone major changes in recent decades, but the central mission of making information available to users is still the same as it was when the Library at Alexandria was established over 2,000 years ago.

I was fortunate to have family members who read to me as a small child and instilled within me an appreciation for books. We had a set of the World Book Encyclopedia even before I started school, and as I learned to read, I spent an increasing number of hours browsing through the volumes. In elementary school, my teachers appointed me as a student library assistant, which probably gave me an early understanding of the importance of libraries.  I was turned on to reading on my own with our Weekly Reader elementary magazines in school. I went through the comic book phase that most young boys did during the 1960s but eventually moved on to science fiction novels as I moved into adolescence. The first lengthy novel I can remember reading in high school was Jaws by Peter Benchley, published in 1974. From that point on, I began to move away from science fiction and toward mainstream fiction. I am forever thankful to my mother for driving me to the central branch of the public library and allowing me to spend so much time perusing the shelves for the next reading adventure.

In addition to three wonderful English teachers in high school, I had several professors in college who helped me develop a thirst for literature. My undergraduate degree was in English, and after going on to get an MA in history, I started my first full-time job in a public library. A few years later, I earned a degree in librarianship. I continued to read classics in literature while also adding works by contemporary writers of serious fiction, with the occasional nonfiction book thrown in as well. It was during this period of my life that I made a conscious decision to devote most of my valuable reading time with either literary classics or contemporary award-winning books. I am willing to spend two or three hours watching a movie just for fun, but typically I want more than just entertainment when committing over ten hours to a book. The major exceptions to this rule are audiobooks and titles associated with my profession, gardening, religion, and science.

As is true with so many aspects of our lives, modern technology has had a tremendous impact on the practice of reading. From the early experiments with electronic books in the 1970s to the e-readers of today, the definition of the book is constantly evolving. My wife bought my first Kindle in 2008, and as much as I love bound pages of print, I was enamored with the device from the moment I downloaded a title, which was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. To read a review of a new book and have it in my hands ready to read in less than 60 seconds is miraculous to me. Yes, there are some disadvantages to e-readers, but to my way of thinking, the benefits far outweigh the shortcomings. For readers who also enjoy traveling, the ability to carry multiple books in the palm of your hand is just about perfect. I am on my fourth Kindle so far.

Book collection
Book collection

In 2010, a dear friend introduced me to Goodreads, my first social media site for readers. To date I have added to my profile 559 books completed over my lifetime, 190 of those since I joined the site. Goodreads is a web community that allows members to share with Friends what they are reading, look at book descriptions, read and write reviews, and see author’s profiles. The site boasts 80 million members worldwide. I primarily use Goodreads to track my own books and to write reviews of what I have read. I also share my reviews and recommendations on other social media sites, primarily Twitter.

I have never been ambitious enough nor had the attention span to have two books going at once — until last year, when I became an Audible subscriber. A subsidiary of Amazon, Audible is an online portal for purchasing, downloading, and listening to audiobooks. It allows customers to search for or browse a large collection of audiobooks, which they can buy using money or membership credits. Users can listen to downloaded titles on computers or mobile devices. I spend a significant amount of time driving, and my car is equipped to play audio files from my phone through its speakers. Now, while I am reading a book in print or on my Kindle at home, I am also listening to an audiobook when I am away from the house. With this new reading approach, I have drastically increased the number of books I am completing. From 2010 to 2017, I was averaging about fifteen books per year. In 2018 alone, I read or listened to 63 books.

According to Forbes magazine, there are anywhere from 600,000 to 1,000,000 books published in the United States each year. Only a small percentage of those will become best-sellers. A much smaller fraction will win the most prestigious awards in the publishing industry, such as the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Even with the expanded capacity provided by audiobooks, I struggle to keep up with reading each year what I consider the best books published that interest me. I have to pick and choose from the award-winners and highly-recommended titles, while working through classics from the past that I still haven’t read. This is a frustrating process for everyone who loves books, but it is a sweet dilemma that comes with the passion.

 

A Big Move

We received the exciting news while we were taking a long weekend at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida. My wife got a call from an official at a university in Springfield, Missouri, informing her that she had been offered a position for which she had applied almost two months earlier — an opening that she only discovered because a search firm agent specifically identified her as a strong candidate for the job. She proceeded through weeks of submitting paperwork, studying for interviews, meeting administrators, answering the tough questions, and patiently waiting through the elimination process. We were expecting a call that afternoon at the beach but were not sure about the offer. While still on the phone with the university, my wife came out on the balcony of our motel room with an exuberant expression and a fist pump that made it clear she was the university’s top choice. We both were elated.

Downtown Springfield
Downtown Springfield

My wife has lived in three different states: Kansas, Arizona, and Georgia. She has traveled extensively around the country and to several foreign countries. Before I met her in 2007, I had been out of the country only once (study abroad in England as a graduate student) but otherwise had never left the South. I was raised in central Georgia and traveled to several southeastern states until we were married in 2008. We began traveling outside the South together for work-related events, to see family, and for vacations. We even made it to Europe a couple of times. Traveling is truly one of our favorite activities. We subscribe to the recent slogan adopted by Delta Airlines (we are good customers): “Good things come to those who GO.”

Traveling far from home and moving far from home are two different things. Did I have any apprehensions about leaving Georgia? Not one. What about the South? Nada. I have never had a sentimental connection to the region as so many of my friends do. I love its beauty, the diverse geography, and so many of its people. I am less fond of how provincial many southerners are and how they romanticize certain aspects of the region’s checkered past. I don’t like the strongly-conservative tide that has washed over Georgia in recent decades, a surge that has continued to shift further right with each passing year. Of course, Missouri is emphatically a red state, so I am not escaping the South’s political persuasion. However, Missouri doesn’t seem obsessed with the Civil War, even though quite a few battles occurred here during the conflict. I have yet to see a rebel flag, an unavoidable and ever-present icon in Georgia. Best of all, the “Show Me” state is not inhibited by the Southern Baptists’ lingering resistance to alcohol that characterizes so much of Georgia. You can buy liquor (not just beer and wine) in the grocery stores, pharmacies, and even Wal-mart.  Some grocery stores even have full bars where you can buy a drink and then walk around shopping with it in your hand. Sweet! I’m beginning to think that Chick-fil-a is the only place spirits are not sold.

Crown Royal display in Wal-mart
Crown Royal display in Walmart

Both of my sons and my extended family still live in Georgia. The driving distance from Springfield back to Georgia is anywhere from eleven to fourteen hours, depending on the final destination. I have never lived that far away from my sons, but they are both adults now and quite independent, which made it much easier for us to make the big move. Fortunately, there are four flights a day from Springfield to Atlanta, and the flight is less than two hours. We still have our house in the north Georgia mountains, so we have a base for returning to my home state for visiting friends and family and for vacations. We are already enjoying the amenities that a city of 250,000 offers: wonderful restaurants, great shopping, cultural resources, good healthcare, and more. Coming to Missouri opens up professional doors for us now and has the potential to provide more opportunities in the future, even after we retire. We are on a new adventure, and we love adventures.

The Summer of 1984 in England

My first airplane trip ever was to England for a six-week Study Abroad program during the summer of 1984. I was a graduate student majoring in history at a small public liberal arts college in central Georgia. My concentration was civil rights in the South, but I was also a fan of British literature and history. I had read Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Woolf, and many other major British writers while I completed a BA in English. I was fortunate enough to receive two different scholarships offered by my college, along with generous assistance from my parents, to cover the cost of the program sponsored by a university in Atlanta.

Not only was this my first flight, it was also my first time leaving the South. Up to this time I had ventured no farther north than Washington, D.C. and no farther west than Alabama. Flying was an alien form of transportation for my family. My father had flown one time in his life as a young man to Pennsylvania, but that was it. He loved the idea of traveling, and our family took road-trip vacations every summer to places in Florida, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. My parents had respectable jobs but not the kind of professional careers that afforded the luxury of air travel in the 1960s and 1970s. As far as I know, my mother died in her early eighties without ever boarding a plane, which is ironic considering that she worked at a huge Air Force base surrounded by aircraft. I will always be grateful for the sacrifice my parents made for me to travel overseas.

British Museum
British Museum

The program I was enrolled in allowed me to pick up several credit hours that would be applied toward my degree. Our class numbered about twenty students, and we were led by two professors teaching in Georgia. We were not officially affiliated with an institution in London where we were based for the six weeks. Our classes were informal and held in the dining area of the Haddon Hall Hotel we occupied on Bedford Place, a block from Russell Square and just around the corner from the British Museum. Haddon Hall was more like a hostel than a hotel by American standards. I had not lived in dorms as a student, so it was a bit of an adjustment to share a bathroom and showers with a large number of strangers of both sexes occupying a floor of the hotel.

Most of our curriculum involved field trips to museums and historic landmarks, and we were required to write papers based on what we learned on our tours of these places. As a class we visited the London Tower and saw the Crown Jewels. We also visited the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and other famous sites. The typical routine for the course was to meet with our professors for a lecture about the places we would visit, and then we would have follow-up discussions before writing down our thoughts and reflections.

Another major component of the program was the theatre — we attended numerous stage productions in some of the most famous houses in the city. We saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” in the round at the New London Theatre (now the Gillian Lynne Theatre) when it was only four years old. We saw award-winning actors like Claudette Colbert and Rex Harrison in “Aren’t We All” and Peter O’Toole in “Pygmalion.” These were the first professional plays I had ever seen, and I was mesmerized. Our professors did a fine job of planning and coordinating all our activities, providing the class with meaningful exposure to British culture and history.

Queen Elizabeth II - Trooping the Colour
Queen Elizabeth II – Trooping the Colour

One of the most valuable features of the program was the free time we had to explore on our own. I was able to wander around London’s parks, avenues, markets, and squares for hours at a time, watching people interact with one another. I returned to museums the class had visited to spend more time in wings and galleries that interested me most. I also took advantage of opportunities that were not included in the class syllabus, like historic and literary walking tours, attending Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I stood just a few yards from Queen Elizabeth II as she rode by on horseback celebrating her birthday as part of the Trooping the Colour ceremony. I made day and weekend trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, Wales, and St. Albans. I took a hovercraft across the channel to spend the day on the west coast of France in Calais and Boulogne. I spent a fabulous day at Wimbledon during the Grand Slam tennis tournament and had the chance to watch athletes like Chris Evert compete on the grass courts while I savored mouthfuls of strawberries and cream.

At Wimbledon - July, 1984
At Wimbledon – July, 1984
Postcard of Piccadilly Circus
Postcard of Piccadilly Circus

Spending six weeks in London gave me some idea of what it would be like to live in the capital and the most populous city in England. I spent my free time in much the same way the locals do by enjoying the green-spaces, hanging out at Piccadilly Circus, shopping occasionally, strolling along the Thames, attending outdoor events, and traveling around the city in the Tube. Of all my immersion experiences in London, the evenings I spent at a neighborhood pub called The Plough were the ones that I remember most fondly. Pub food was undeniably the best of any I tried in England, and the meals I had at The Plough were authentic and delicious. More importantly, I was introduced for the first time there to hard cider, a perfect alternative to beer for people like me who have never “acquired a taste” for liquid barley, yeast, and hops. It would be several years before hard cider made its way to the shelves of stores in America, but once it did, the beverage became quite popular. I am never without bottles of cider in our refrigerator and find it on tap frequently now in bars everywhere.

There was an old professor from the University College London who must have spent every evening in The Plough. I don’t recall his name or even his face after all these years, but we developed a friendship, and I enjoyed hearing his stories about students, about being British, and about living in London. He was a serious music lover and was obviously proud of his LP collection, which he treated with all the care of an antiquities conservationist. As he put it, “Once played on a ruby, ALWAYS played on a ruby.” I frequented the pub more and more often, and he would recognize me when I walked in the door. With a bombastic voice in a heavy British accent, he would exclaim from across the room, “Come over here, you damn Colonial!”

The Plough
The Plough

My time in England as a graduate student was transforming and gave new meaning to the history and literature I had studied. It altered my thinking about so many aspects of life and what it means to be both an American and a human being. All of the students were required to keep a personal journal to record thoughts and feelings about our varied experiences. I still have mine, along with some memorabilia from those six weeks. Over the years, I have pulled out the journal several times and relived so many moments that will be with me as long as memory allows.

Bliss

“You need to clean your room, honey,” my grandmother says in her soft but commanding voice, and I know that doesn’t mean just shoving everything scattered on the floor into the closet. Why put everything away only to be bothered with pulling it all out tomorrow when I’m ready to play with it again? My mom’s mother lives with us, maintaining the household and making it possible for both of my parents to work. She knows how to hug and spank with equal skill.

I’d rather be walking out the back door, across the brick patio to the exterior two-bay garage to find my red bicycle waiting for me like a faithful companion. That bike takes me to the convenience store five blocks away to buy bubble gum. It takes me to my cousin’s house less than a mile away to play outside or curl up inside reading comic books. My bike has had many reincarnations: firetruck, racecar, motorcycle, roller coaster, spaceship.

I ride down the street, past houses of people my parents know casually but whom I only recognize as neighbors in cars and front yards. I would be shocked to learn, years later, that some of them drink alcohol, a substance of sin never permitted to cross the threshold of our baptized home. I cannot fathom that the housewife I never see next door beats her husband, and his shouts we hear from time to time are most likely cries of anguish, pain, despair.

My bike and I are unaware of nearby marriages crumbling, family financial crises, chronic illness, depression, or the fear of impending death. It’s inconceivable that some people on our street never go to church. Perhaps there are even parents who don’t pay attention to their children’s cluttered rooms. We are saved from the unimagined horrors that are carefully concealed behind neatly trimmed shrubs and front doors always closed.

Irma, the Unsolicited Landscape Designer

Homeowners go to great lengths and expense to harness nature and control their environments in order to create their own versions of paradise in the form of landscape gardening. These efforts may include grading, building retaining walls, terracing, hardscaping, designing planting beds, installing shrubs and trees, trimming tree limbs, or removing trees altogether. It can take months or even years to alter the property and establish the desired effect . . . or, nature can make the decision to completely change it all in a matter of minutes. Such was the case in our front yard in September, 2017, courtesy of Hurricane Irma.

Georgia is a state that experiences extreme weather conditions, from sub-zero temperatures in the mountainous regions to weeks of mid-day temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the southern and coastal areas. A soaking wet spring and summer may easily be followed by six years of very little rainfall at all. Dry conditions can lead to horrible wildfires, especially in south Georgia, while heavy rainfall frequently brings flash floods to the streams and rivers that carve through the hills of the Piedmont region. The influx of warm, wet air from the Gulf creates an unstable atmosphere over the state that results in severe electrical storms, strong winds, and heavy downpours, even if this activity is isolated. In the late spring and early summer, tornados are an ever-present threat. The greatest risk of widespread destruction comes in late summer and early fall — hurricane season. Catastrophic hurricane damage in the state is rare and limited to the coast for Atlantic storms and southwest Georgia for storms that come into the panhandle of Florida from the Gulf.

As is always the case with hurricanes, wind is typically a secondary problem to the primary issue of either storm surge or torrential rains and flooding. On rare occasions, high winds and rain from hurricanes come together in a deadly combination that inland forested areas are not able to withstand. Such was the case with Hurricane Irma. With the strongest winds ever recorded of any storm in the open Atlantic, Irma caused incredible damage in the Caribbean then crossed the Straits of Florida to eventually make landfall on September 10 in the Keys with sustained winds at 130 mph before swirling up the west coast of Florida towards Alabama. This was a huge hurricane with outer bands that spread out over several states at once: Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. The outer bands on the east side of the storm ended up causing the most damage to inland areas, such as the mountains of northeast Georgia where we live. In fact, we heard reports in the weeks that followed the storm that our county suffered more damage from Irma than any other in the state outside the coastal counties.

The worst weather from the outer bands hit our county between 5:00 p.m. and midnight on September 11. The wind began to pick up that afternoon around 3:00 p.m. Within an hour we were hearing the characteristic howling of the gusts as they came through in waves. The electricity went off at about 4:30 p.m. Over the next three hours the wind continued to build in intensity and the gusts were almost becoming sustained. We were most concerned about the large oaks closest to our house, located in the front yard in a landscaped “island” of mulch planted with an understory of shrubs and perennials. Every few minutes we would walk to the front windows and shine our flashlights out toward the trees to check on them. At about 8:00 p.m., we noticed that one of the oaks was starting to lean with the force of the wind, and the ground around the trunk was beginning to bulge as the roots were being pulled toward the surface. It was a frightening spectacle. By 8:15 p.m., two of the trees were uprooted and fell across the front yard, completely missing the house. We were sad to lose the trees but thankful the house was spared. The wind got stronger, and then it got dark. Not being able to see out the windows to tell how far the wind was bending the trees in the forest surrounding us was quite disconcerting.

First trees fallen
First trees fallen

Less than 30 minutes later, we heard a loud crash and felt the whole house shudder. We knew we had lost another tree, but this time, it fell on the house. I sprinted upstairs to look for holes in the ceiling or broken windows in the front dormers. I was greatly relieved to find that the roof had apparently not been breached, but all I could see out of the front second-story windows were the leaves and branches of the tree’s canopy resting against the roof over the front porch. Then I heard my wife shouting from downstairs, “The tree is in the house!” I rushed back down to find her at our open front door in a desperate struggle against tree branches that looked like a horticultural monster invading our foyer. A portion of the tree canopy had spilled onto the front porch, and when my wife opened the front door, the bent limbs sprang inside and almost knocked her down. It was like a scene out of Jumanji.

Downed trees on the house
Downed trees on the house

We managed to push the limbs back outside and close the door, realizing in the process that two trees had actually fallen on the house, for a total of four lost trees. Each of these oaks was over thirty feet tall with combined canopies covering an area over 1,000 square feet. The fallen trees caused damage to the porch, roof, and brick walkway, and completely demolished a light post. The destruction could have been much worse in that regard, as it was for so many people in our part of the state. The downed trees were removed two days later by a local tree company with some of the fastest and most efficient workers I have ever seen. Within a few weeks all the damage to the house was repaired as well. What Hurricane Irma left behind for us, however, was a completely altered landscape for our front yard and gardens. What had been a sheltered area for shrubs and shade-loving annuals and perennials was now exposed to full sun.

Post-storm island
Post-storm island

After our contractor removed the stumps and most of the roots of the extracted trees and smoothed over the scars in the ground, we brought in a fresh load of mulch to dress the area and replanted the under-story plants that had been temporarily removed to a safe location at the edge of the yard. The existing dogwood and redbud trees under the big oaks came out remarkably unharmed. Surprisingly enough, when the trees fell they completely missed our two large (and expensive) planters, and they only slightly injured the smaller plants in the island. We did purchase some ornamental grasses to fill in some of the new space, and we transplanted a red-blooming crepe myrtle from the backyard where it had been under-performing due to lack of sunlight.

Island in bloom for spring
Island in bloom for spring

For the 2018 season, we had to totally rethink our flower beds at the front porch. In the past, these beds were filled with impatiens, caladiums, coleus, and other shade-loving annuals. We switched to impatiens, Mexican heather, begonias, zinnias, and other annuals and perennials that enjoy morning and early afternoon sun. These beds were beautiful before, and as we learn more about what will thrive there with the new conditions, they will be just as handsome. Where we once depended more on foliage than blooms for color, now we have just the opposite situation. I wouldn’t say they look better, just different. I must admit, in the days following the storm I was a bit worried about how our front yard gardens were going to suffer with the loss of the trees. I think we are comfortably acclimated to the new look now. It’s going to be just fine. One thing I know for certain. I will not miss for a second spending hours of time in the late fall picking up large acorns before they have the chance to burrow and sprout. For that little gift from Irma, I am quite grateful.

Sunny front flower beds
Sunny front flower beds