Pledging Allegiance

I started pledging allegiance to the flag when I was a small child in elementary school, a ritual that I never questioned and that was just as much a part of the daily routine as lunch, recess, and reading from a primer about the riveting adventures of Dick, Jane, and Spot. I can vaguely remember that there were one or two students who were exempt from “saying the pledge,” and we were told that their religion forbade them from participating. At the time, I couldn’t begin to fathom the meaning behind such a religious restriction, having no exposure to any faith traditions outside rural Southern Baptist churches. You can’t get more patriotic than Southern Baptists. I don’t recall reciting the pledge in class when I attended a white-flight, church-sponsored private high school, which strikes me now as most ironic. Maybe we did and I was just too preoccupied with friends, girls, and turbulent hormones to give it any thought at all. Even as young children we could all rattle off the run-on sentence with no regard whatsoever to its intent to inspire devotion to the homeland. When Francis Bellamy penned the original pledge in 1892, it was generic enough to be adopted by any republic with a flag, not just the United States, and it had no mention of God even though its author was a minister. The pledge was given official recognition by Congress in 1942. The divine creator was inserted in 1954 by a request of President Eisenhower and an act of Congress in reaction to atheism associated with the spread of Communism.

The United States didn’t have an official patriotic song until 1931 when Congress passed a law formally designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Fast forward almost a century and now we find ourselves in a national debate over the proper respect due to this song and that waving banner it praises. Of all places, the most high-profile test of true patriotism in this country apparently takes place just before kick-off at televised football games in the National Football League. The suggestion is that respect for a song and respect for the United States are of equal importance. I cannot quite agree with that premise. Should American citizens respect the National Anthem? Perhaps, but I don’t necessarily consider such respect to be a qualification of patriotism. Should they respect the flag? Well, they should be encouraged to respect the flag, although pledging allegiance to it should never be required by law.  Furthermore, I don’t think demonstrations of allegiance to the National Anthem or the American flag should be a requirement of employment either, even for athletes, but that isn’t my decision to make.  Disrespect of the flag is a right protected by our constitutional government and demonstrates the price of democracy and free speech. Without this protection, waving a flag that represents the Confederacy — a failed attempt to disband the government of the United States — would be an illegal act. The mere display of a Confederate flag is a blatant disrespect of the Republic, but we permit it. In certain parts of the country, flying the Confederate flag is encouraged, even by elected officials who have sworn allegiance to the Constitution over and over again. Somehow, this paradox wreaks of hypocrisy to me.

Do we show respect for the country by habitually standing for a song while giving little or no thought to its lyrics? Is there any evidence that daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag by children produced within their adult hearts and minds some measure of undying loyalty to their country, or upstanding moral character, or compliance to the law? I wonder how many times before April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh stood for the National Anthem and pledged his allegiance to the flag?

Before anyone can honestly be expected to honor the flag, he or she needs to be able to respect the Republic for which it stands. In truth, we all know that recent developments around this issue aren’t really about a 19th-century song or a piece of red, white, and blue cloth. Those are just symbols of a collective dream that still hasn’t come true for too many of our citizens. Perhaps, some day, when America truly is a unified Republic that is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL,” everyone will be proud to pledge allegiance to the flag that waves over a land of free and brave patriots.

Wildlife In Our Garden

One of the great benefits of a home garden is the diversity of life that it supports, which includes fauna as well as flora. Depending upon the plants growing in the space and its overall size, the garden may have both temporary and permanent residents. With the right mix of food, clean water, and cover, the gardener may play host to a wide variety of species. Of course, gardeners may not roll out the welcome mat to all wildlife, especially the kind that feast on our plants. Some we can deter; others we may choose to eliminate altogether. Slugs and Japanese beetles come to mind in our own garden.

Butterfly on cherry blossoms
Butterfly on cherry blossoms

I am fascinated by the members of the animal kingdom that have frequented our yard over many seasons. Our current home is bordered by a national forest, which means there are plenty of nesting spaces and protection from predators. Our garden serves as a small oasis and a source of food for many of the animals that venture out into the open. Each spring, our ornamental cherry tree is covered in butterflies that appear to dance around the branches as they feed on the nectar from the blossoms. As the season progresses, they are joined by moths and bees, making their way through the bloom cycles of the chaste tree, lantana, and the butterfly bushes. Everywhere we have lived we included bright-colored annuals in the summer landscape, which attract hummingbirds. I am continually mesmerized by their aerial acrobatics. For other avian species, both permanent residents and migrants, we offer a gurgling bird bath, a waterfall, and a seed feeder. At our previous residence on a lake, a pair of male and female ducks would occasionally come ashore, cross our lawn, and splash in our garden pond.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at our feeder
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at our feeder
Ducks at our pond
Ducks at our pond

Watching animals in the garden has provided me with countless hours of entertainment for most of my life. Photographing them has almost become an avocation. I plan and develop sections of the garden specifically with animals in mind, considering what they need, what will draw them, and how I can best observe them. I set up trail cameras to catch a glimpse of them in action.

Our photo-bombing squirrel
Our photo-bombing squirrel
Praying Mantis on our fence
Praying Mantis on our fence

Our garden is home to insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. The frogs are in a class all to themselves, at least when it comes to their most noticeable contribution to the garden — sound. During the warm months of the year, they gather in and around our pool and fill the air with responsive croaking that is at times almost deafening. By contrast, the reptiles are so quiet and subtle. I came very close to stepping on a turtle before seeing it and walked past a snake resting on top of a shrub three times before noticing it all.

Black rat snake resting on our holly shrub
Black rat snake resting on our holly shrub

Admittedly, I don’t give all animals free access to the entire garden. Unfortunately, the deer and rabbits will take far more than their fair share. They will eat the plants they like all the way to the ground. I use Liquid Fence to deter them from my annuals, perennials, and flowering shrubs, but they have plenty of grass and border foliage to sustain them. It wouldn’t be polite to completely bar them from the yard. After all, the name of our street is Running Deer Road. This is their home too.

Deer across the street
Deer across the street

A New Steward for Andalusia

My wife and I were invited to a ceremony on August 9, 2017 making official the transfer of ownership and stewardship of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor, to her alma mater, Georgia College, in Milledgeville. The great American novelist and short story writer lived on this farm with her mother, Regina, for the last thirteen years of her life. In her first-floor bedroom, O’Connor worked faithfully every morning for several hours, struggling on her manual typewriter to construct sentences and paragraphs that would not only entertain her readers but help them envision the action of grace on characters who were often violently resistant to it.

Andalusia transfer ceremony 8-9-17
Andalusia transfer ceremony 8-9-17

We were invited to this special occasion because I served for thirteen years as the founding director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that gifted the 544-acre site to the College. The current chair of the Foundation, Donna Barwick, explained to the people gathered that rainy August morning how she and her fellow board members arrived at this decision. “We would never, as a small organization, be able to raise the amount of money that it will take to maintain this place in the way it should be for Flannery’s legacy,” she said. “So we’re confident that this place will be treated properly.” Sadly, she is absolutely correct. Private entities that are responsible for the care and preservation of historic homes have an extremely difficult time raising the capital to do the job — in many cases, it is an insurmountable task. Andalusia is no exception. With a sizable two-story Plantation Plain house and a dozen outbuildings, this literary landmark will require millions of dollars to completely restore it and then a respectable annual budget to maintain it and keep it open to the public.

When I first began as the director of the Foundation, I had unrealistic expectations of how much money we could raise to restore the farm. I was sure that wealthy benefactors would be eager to drop thousands, if not millions, of dollars into our lap in honor of such a great writer. After all, she has friends in high places, at least financially. Celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, Tommy Lee Jones, Bono, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the Coen Brothers have all publicly paid verbal tribute to the author. We made overtures to all of these people, but they either never responded or indicated that they were focusing their charitable giving on other causes, like world hunger.  It’s hard to trump world hunger.

Toward the end of my tenure at Andalusia, I had a meeting with the incoming President of Georgia College, Dr. Steve Dorman, and we spent considerable time then and later discussing the ways in which our Foundation and the College could collaborate. We even toyed with the idea of the College taking over the operation of the site, although we never truly talked about any specific plans or what such an arrangement might look like. Now that the mantle has officially been passed, I am giving some thoughtful consideration to this next chapter for Andalusia. I feel a certain allegiance to Georgia College because it is the place where I earned my BA in English and my MA in History. Naturally, I will always have an emotional attachment to Andalusia, the home of the author whose work I so admire and the place that I devoted so many years to preserving.

I believe that Georgia College is the most logical beneficiary for this remarkable treasure. The College has the staff, resources, and state-wide support needed to protect and preserve Andalusia. I would imagine that Flannery O’Connor and her mother considered other colleges for the future writer to attend, but they decided on Georgia State College for Women, which is now Georgia College. As the state’s designated liberal arts college for the University System of Georgia, this institution is also home to the world’s preeminent Flannery O’Connor studies program, which was cultivated for many years by Dr. Sarah Gordon and is now directed by Dr. Marshal Bruce Gentry. The College publishes the Flannery O’Connor Review, edited by Dr. Gentry, which is the longest running journal devoted to a female author in the world. I am convinced that the administration understands the value of this donation, which was expressed by President Dorman at the signing ceremony: “We are grateful to the Andalusia Foundation for entrusting us with its future and look forward to continuing to share this piece of American history with the world.”

I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with a good friend of Flannery O’Connor, Marion Montgomery, who taught English at the University of Georgia for thirty years. He shared with me a conversation he had with Regina O’Connor not long after after her talented daughter had died. She may not have completely comprehended what Flannery was doing in her fiction, but Mrs. O’Connor understood the importance of the work and that Flannery’s professional papers needed to be preserved for scholars who were already exploring her genius and many more that would follow. Mrs. O’Connor confided to Professor Montgomery that she was struggling with the decision about where the papers should be reposited. Colleges and universities in various locations around the country were expressing deep interest in acquiring the archive, including Georgia College. Professor Montgomery asked her where she thought the material belonged. “At the College here in Milledgeville,” Mrs. O’Connor replied. Mr. Montgomery said, “I agree.” Since that time, hundreds and hundreds of scholars have spent countless hours poring over the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College, the place where a young woman’s talents as a cartoonist began to evolve into drawing startling figures with words instead of pictures. And now, some fifty years later, the landscape that sparked a brilliant artist’s imagination is exactly where it belongs.

When the Splurge Is Worth It

Most Americans are not wealthy, unless compared to the millions of people who live in less-developed countries around the world. Although there is a vast household income spectrum in this country, most of us have limits on our discretionary spending. We have to make choices, especially about our wants as opposed to our needs. Some folks are truly prudent and seek savings that other families pass up: driving small, fuel-efficient vehicles; eating at home or taking lunch to work; shopping around for insurance; or even selecting generic products over name brands. Americans are among the most consumer-driven individuals on the planet. We love our stuff! We crave gadgets, electronics, toys, and a whole host of disposable products. We will spend hard-earned money on the most useless objects to occupy the limited time we have away from our jobs. The latest obsession that comes to mind is the fidget spinner, ranging in price on the low end from $3 to $10, but going well over $400 for the designer models. Millions have been sold across the country in 2017 (and in other countries as well). What is the function of this incredible device? It spins. That’s it. Oh, and it is branded as a remedy for everything from boredom to Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have absolutely no issues with what people choose to buy with their money, as long as they are paying their own way and taking proper care of their dependents. I certainly do my part when it comes to blowing money on the absurd too. However, as I look back over the decades, I regret a few times that I didn’t make certain choices that would have afforded me with lifetime experiences and memories. One example that comes to mind was during the summer of 1984 when I was studying abroad in England. Pop music has been an important influence in shaping my world view since I was a child. Some of the lyricists and musicians from the 1970s had the effect on me that poets and painters have on others with more sophisticated taste than my own. I was and shall always be a huge fan of the music of Elton John and his long-time collaborator, Bernie Taupin. That summer in 1984, Elton John was on his “Breaking Hearts” tour and played a concert at Wembley Stadium in London. As a graduate student who depended on the sacrifices of my parents and the funds from two grants, I was on a tight budget. Still, I could have found a way to purchase a ticket, but I didn’t. There would be plenty of other opportunities to see Elton John in concert, especially in the states, but it would not have been the same. That chance came and went but left its mark on me.

Since that summer in 1984, I have made countless spending decisions — most were fairly routine but some were certainly significant. I am thankful to have more discretionary income now than I did as a graduate student! My wife and I love to travel, and even though some trips can get a bit pricey, I never regret the money we spend this way because of the incredible experiences we share during our journeys. In recent years, I have taken advantage of opportunities to attend concerts with family and friends because I never want to miss out like I did that summer so many years ago. My older son and I saw Bob Dylan a couple of years ago — who knows how much longer this musical icon will be around? We also saw Pearl Jam in the band’s hometown of Seattle a few years earlier. I understood about 2% of the lyrics that Eddie Vedder sang, which is absolutely irrelevant. My son is a huge fan of the band and the whole grunge movement, and I was so glad we could take the trip.

My wife tells a proverbial story from several years ago when she was stressing over the decision to spend extra money on a wonderful hotel for a trip we were planning to Rome. She asked the opinion of a good friend and mentor, who wisely said, “Five years from now you won’t remember how much you spent on the hotel, but the two of you will never forget the experience of staying at that place.” She was such a wise woman, and we followed her advice with absolutely no regrets. In that same spirit, we have attended several concerts in recent years and have seen some incredible shows, including Fleetwood Mac and Earth, Wind & Fire. In 2012, The Rolling Stones announced that they were coming to Newark, New Jersey and to New York City for a 50th anniversary limited tour. Thinking that the band might be announcing their retirement, we jumped at the opportunity to see them. We bought plane and hotel tickets and made it a long weekend in NYC, which was expensive. Do we remember how expensive now? No. Will we ever forget the moment Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts walked out on that Prudential Center stage? Can’t imagine. Of course, we couldn’t have known then that the Stones would end up touring several cities in the U.S. the next year and are still making appearances around the world. Again, no regrets.

The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones, 2012

One more example should be enough to make my point here a tad more convincing. The Eagles are a band that helped define the music of our generation. They have a tumultuous history of substance abuse, infighting, breaking up, and reemerging from the ashes. They also created some of the most memorable music of the rock era. Their harmonies were close to perfect, their lyrics spellbinding, and their performances were almost legendary. They have won almost every major Grammy and at least five American Music Awards. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. When the band announced the “History of the Eagles” tour for 2013, we paid an additional fee to grab early tickets and the best seats we could afford. Their concert in Charlotte on November 15, 2013 was truly the best show I have ever seen. The vocals, instrumentation, stage presence, lighting, acoustics, and video production were just outstanding. As a reporter for the Charlotte Observer wrote, “The Eagles didn’t just give fans a typical concert Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena. It gave generations of fans a musical history lesson from its 1971 formation to its 1994 reunion.” As thrilled as we were at the end of that phenomenal evening, it would be just over two years later that we truly appreciated how fortunate we were to have been there. The news on January 18, 2016 of the unexpected death of Glenn Fry, the band’s front man and one of its founders, sent a shudder through the world of popular music. It also drove home to us the realization that, whenever possible, we need to take advantage of every one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that comes along.

The Eagles
The Eagles, 2013

 

Best laid schemes o’ brides an’ doves

We have all been there at one time or another. We spend hours, days, weeks, or even months making plans for an important event. We take into account every conceivable variable, leaving nothing to chance. We play out scenarios in our heads and make adjustments along the way as we try to predict how every second will unfold. We write and rewrite schedules, have meetings with all the key players, and make sure that all participants understand their roles. We even have a rehearsal, a “dry run,” in attempts to catch any last-minute omissions and pave the way for a smooth, flawless finish. All of this careful preparation, and still, something unexpected happens. Something goes terribly wrong. This frustrating scenario is played out at festivals, concerts, conventions, board meetings, and many other gatherings; however, the one place we all hate to see it happen most is at an occasion that is expected to be nearly perfect — a wedding.

Wedding bands
Wedding bands

As an amateur musician and performer in a small town, I was hired to sing at weddings several times each year for a period of about twenty-five years. I saw a lot of couples get married. I also witnessed some unusual rituals in the preparation for and implementation of the ceremony. Brides and grooms are typically nervous as the big day approaches, and some even need to be medicated just to make it through the wedding. I once had a request from a mature bride preparing for her second marriage who wanted to practice standing face-to-face and holding hands with her fiance in my living room while I played the entire song to be included after their exchange of vows. “We need to be prepared for how awkward this is going to feel,” she said. I’m quite sure neither of them felt more awkward than I did at that moment.

Some weddings end up being less than what was planned simply because of unrealistic expectations. There will always be those couples whose wedding fantasies are so removed from the realm of possibility that disappointment is the inevitable outcome. Here are a few examples.

  • Outdoor weddings in the South during summer – everything and everyone melts
  • Weddings on the beach – frat boys on spring break live for this crash opportunity
  • Very young children as attendants – they invariably cry, run, pick their nose, or pee
  • Including animals of any kind – could there be a more unpredictable element?
  • Reciting vows totally from memory – they forget each other’s names AND their vows

Of course, all the careful planning in the world cannot prevent the occasional catastrophe. I have heard photographers stumble and crumble down the steps and land loudly in the bottom of an empty fiberglass baptismal pool ten feet behind the alter where the minister is rendering an eloquent prayer of blessing for the couple. We have all seen, either in videos or in actual attendance, members of the wedding party fall out on the floor after locking their knees and fainting. I have seen my share of wardrobe malfunctions, coughing or sneezing fits, uncontrollable nervous laughter, power outages, and the all-too-familiar dropped wedding bands rolling down the center aisle of the church.

One of the funniest mishaps occurred at an outdoor wedding back in the 1970s where I was hired to play my guitar and sing a song during the ceremony. The weather was pleasant that day with no rain in the forecast. The venue was a lovely public park with a small fountain covered by towering oak trees. The plan was for the wedding party to walk down a series of steps along an embankment leading to the lower level of the park where the service would take place. A groomsman was put in charge of providing a recording of Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” on his cassette player, and the sweet, elderly woman serving as the wedding director had the responsibility of hitting the switch to start the song when the bride made her grand appearance at the top of the steps. We all sat and watched as members of the wedding party made their way down the steps to take their places without a single stumble or hitch. There was a brief pause, and then the bride, escorted by her father, crested the hill in her flowing white gown, took her place at the top of the steps, and waited for the music to begin. The groomsman’s “boom box” was a state-of-the-art dual cassette player, and for reasons defying all comprehension, he had failed to remove the second cassette from its deck. When the director flipped the switch, instead of hearing the most recognized wedding song in modern history, we were all assaulted with the Blues Brothers’ rendition of “Soul Man.” It was breathtaking.

Is there one particular wedding disaster that rises to the top of the pile in my memory? Well, of course there is. I was hired to play the guitar and sing two songs for another outdoor wedding at a National Historic Landmark in middle Georgia. It was late July.  At 6:00 p.m. when the ceremony began it was hot and humid enough to wilt silk flowers. The wedding party was large, and they all had to process across an expansive grassy lawn. The minister decided that weddings, like all religious services, are an opportunity to give an abbreviated version of the gospel message, which he did with all the fervor of a tent-revival preacher. My musical contribution was to take place after the exchange of rings, and my cue was the release of two white doves from behind a drape that served as the backdrop for the minister and the bride and groom. Just before most of the guests expired from heat exhaustion, the rings were exchanged with the appropriate promises and proclamations. And, then I waited for the doves to ascend to the scorched heavens. And I waited. The guests began to turn to one another, realizing that someone had dropped the ball. I felt several hundred eyes staring at me as I sat on my little stool over to the side nervously waiting for an aviary extravaganza to commence. As my face began to turn an even brighter shade of red, I saw a young man come running from behind the drape, around a long privet hedge, and toward my direction. He skidded to a stop beside me, leaned over, and whispered loudly, “The doves died! Sing the damn song!”

My first copyrighted song: “The One You Call”

As a life-long amateur musician and singer, I have been writing songs since I was a teenager. I wrote love songs when I was in high school. I tried to write a few songs that were more artistic in high school and college, but alas, I wasn’t a poet. Being raised in a Southern Baptist church and attending one for much of my adult life, my major contribution to worship was in music. I wrote songs that I could perform in church, which I did for about twenty years. I posted some thoughts about my experiences and my evolution with church music here.

I joined a mid-life crisis band when I was in my early forties, which afforded me plenty of opportunities to perform — only covers and never original material. One of the band members had a nice studio setup in the basement of his house, which is where the band practiced. When I approached him about helping me record an original song I had written, he went beyond just laying down tracks. He solicited help from some of his musician friends from other parts of the country, and they added bass and other instrumental accompaniment to my keyboards. He added acoustic guitar and electronic drums to complete the instrumental recording, and then we got together in his studio to add my vocals. The finished product is an amateur effort, but the instrumentation and the mix are really top rate for a home studio recording.

I regret that my voice is not quite professional quality. I have been told for decades by congregations, audiences, family, and friends that I should record my songs. They all mean well and I deeply appreciate their support, but I know the difference between the quality of my voice and what I hear in the entertainment business. I’m okay, but I’m not that good. However, I do think the original song that my band mate helped me with and recorded for me is marketable. I think it is as good as many of the country and pop songs played on radios all across the country. In the hands of the right people, and with the right voice, I believe it could be broadcast-worthy. Family and friends also strongly encouraged me to copyright the song. I procrastinated for several years, but I finally decided to submit the lyrics and the sound recording to the Library of Congress Copyright Office last year. This song is the first thing I have ever copyrighted.

A link to my recording of the song is available on YouTube here. I am singing all the vocals. The words and the music are written by me. The lyrics are printed below.

“The One You Call”

When the night gets cold
And you need someone who knows
Exactly how it feels
Someone who knows it’s real

I know you want to be strong
But you’ve been hurting for so long
You don’t have to take the fall
Let me be the one you call

I know your heart is broken ’cause I’ve been there before
You think you won’t survive it baby; can’t take this anymore

If you just want to cry
Don’t need a reason why
You don’t have to be alone
Just let me take you home

Now don’t you be afraid
What anyone may say
You don’t have to take the fall
Let me be the one you call

When will you see that I am so in love with you
Look deep into my eyes now baby; you know it’s true

If you just want to cry
Don’t need a reason why
You don’t have to be alone
Just let me take you home

In the middle of the night
Though you may not think it’s right
It won’t bother me at all
Let me be the one you call

Let me be the one you call

Lillian Smith: One Writer’s Brave Journey

Lillian Smith was a highly-acclaimed writer, successful business woman, a creative educator, an early civil rights advocate, and one of the most effective champions of social justice in the 20th century. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally excerpted in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Her best-selling first novel, Strange Fruit, was published in 1944 and told the story of an inter-racial love affair in a rural Georgia town shortly after World War I. Although she lived most of her life in Georgia, Smith was born in 1897 about 90 miles east of Tallahassee in the small town of Jasper, in Hamilton County, Florida.   She was the seventh of the nine children of Calvin Warren Smith and Anne Simpson Smith. The town of Jasper was founded in the 1830s, but it really didn’t begin to grow until shortly before Lillian was born with a rich trade in turpentine, tobacco, cotton, and pine lumber. Calvin Smith was one of the entrepreneurs in the area who capitalized on that trade with his business ventures in lumber and naval stores.

Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White
Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White

Lillian Smith spent all her childhood and the better part of her teenage years in this town. On many occasions throughout her life, she introduced herself with a story from her childhood years in Jasper, a story she later titled “Trembling Earth.” She said the land in North Florida is strange. She described it as “a thin little island that is hung on to the Okefenokee Swamp and hung on to the Georgia Islands and hung on to Alabama.” It felt like the ground was floating. Much later, as a seasoned writer, Lillian Smith used this image to describe the human experience: “I wonder if the whole, everything that happens to a human being is just like trembling earth? Is it all floating on something that we’ll never know, something unknown and mysterious?”

There’s little doubt that her years in Jasper shaped Lillian’s worldview for the rest of her life. As she put it, “No one could read my books without finding these early signs of my childhood,” which included telling stories to her friends, like Marjorie White. For a story to become vividly real, it needs a listener, and Marjorie played that role very well. As Lillian put it, “Her heart was lonely for what my heart was lonely for.” Near the end of her life, Lillian confided in a friend that when her family moved from Jasper when she was 17, the whole town was all frozen for her – she could go back in her mind and see all of it, and in a sense, she never left it.

When his Florida businesses failed in 1915, Calvin Smith moved the family to the small town of Clayton, in northeast Georgia, where he had recently acquired property on Old Screamer Mountain in his wife’s name and where the Smiths soon opened a summer camp for girls. During the 1915-16 academic year, Lillian Smith attended a small college thirty miles south of Clayton in Demorest, Georgia, called Piedmont College. Many years later, Smith wrote about her short tenure at the institution and expressed her gratitude for the fine instructors she had, some of whom were trained at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oberlin, Smith, and Cornell. Although she was offered a scholarship to continue at Piedmont for the next year, family obligations prevented her from returning.

In her early twenties, Smith studied music at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and in her mid-twenties she served as the head of the music department in a Methodist mission school for girls in China. She witnessed terrible cruelty and repeated examples of discrimination and injustice. In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. With the demands of the growing summer camp operated by her family, Lillian Smith was obligated to leave China and return to Georgia in 1925 to help with the operation. She had different ideas from her father on how the camp should be structured, and with her parents’ blessing, she soon became the owner and director of the family-run business: Laurel Falls Camp for Girls. Moving far beyond the traditional hallmarks of summer camps, such as swimming, horseback riding, archery, arts, and crafts, Lillian Smith created a female community at Laurel Falls that challenged Southern conventions of gender, sexuality, religion, and race.

Through writing, drama, music, visual arts, and in-depth discussions, she instilled within her campers the importance of independent thinking, compassion, and confidence. Very few camp directors in the South were as bold as Lillian Smith in confronting the issues of segregation and racial inequality. Laurel Falls Camp continued through the late 1940s and developed quite a reputation. Lillian Smith did not manage the camp alone. A woman named Paula Snelling came to work for the Smith family for the summer of 1921 as an athletic director for the camp.  The two women formed a close friendship after Smith returned home and took over the camp, an intimate and loving relationship that developed and grew into a life-long partnership.

Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling
Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling

Lillian Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 1953. Later that year, her third book, titled The Journey, was published. The book expresses the author’s hope for humanity and her belief in our infinite possibilities. The final paragraph of the book begins with this sentence that exemplifies this optimistic vision: “To believe in something not yet proved and to underwrite it with our lives: it is the only way we can leave the future open.” Smith would go on to publish several more books, fiction and nonfiction, and numerous articles and essays on social justice and racial equality, all of which were written from her home on Screamer Mountain. She died on September 28, 1966 and was buried there. Paula Snelling suffered a stroke in 1979 that left her partially paralyzed.  She died in 1985.

Lillian Smith
Lillian Smith

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 and powerful books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. So many of the words we read from her works are just as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.