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.

Pilgrims to Andalusia, the Home of Flannery O’Connor

During the thirteen years that I served as the director of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, I had the privilege of meeting thousands of fans of this gifted writer. They came from every state in the country and from almost every continent around the globe. O’Connor is one of those rare authors whose work attracts an amazingly diverse audience. On any given day at Andalusia farm, we might have welcomed a busload of World War II generation grandparents in the morning followed in the afternoon by college students dressed all in black with spiked hair, black fingernail polish and lipstick, tattoos on all visible surfaces, and metal piercings decorating their faces who would walk in the door and say, “Flannery O’Connor is so kick-ass!” Her fan base covers almost every segment of society: straight, LGBTQ, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist (one of our largest donors was an atheist biology professor), Democrat, Republican, alt left and right, blue and white collar, and readers representing all income levels. Her books have been translated into at least twenty different foreign languages, indicating the cultural diversity of her following too.

What draws readers to O’Connor’s work, and why do they travel great distances to visit Andalusia, the place where she finished all of her published books? From my standpoint, there are only a few definitive answers but plenty of speculation. When we welcomed visitors to the farm, the first question we asked them was, “How did you find out about Andalusia?” Their answer would usually give us some clues of how to structure their tour to give them the best experience possible. If their response was, “We just saw the sign on the road and wondered what was back here,” then we would give them plenty of biographical information to introduce them to O’Connor’s life and the significance of her contributions to American literature. If on the other hand they told us that they had been teaching O’Connor’s work for 25 years and had always wanted to see the place that inspired her fiction, we would go in a different direction, encouraging them to ask questions that would satisfy their curiosity about O’Connor’s environs.

Andalusia, Home of Flannery O'Connor
Andalusia, Home of Flannery O’Connor

Anyone who has read O’Connor’s fiction even once immediately recognizes that her characters are particularly odd and not altogether admirable, which is probably the most polarizing point for her readers. Consequently, there are few lukewarm reactions to O’Connor’s stories; people either hate them or absolutely adore them. The haters walk away puzzled at why the lovers become nearly obsessed. Many of the die-hard fans who visited Andalusia had a mission to locate every place on the property that supposedly appears in the stories: the hayloft where Hulga lost her wooden leg; the milking parlor where Asbury drank the unpasteurized milk; the equipment shed with its tractor that ran over Mr. Guizac; and the white water tower in “A Circle in the Fire.” Other admirers weren’t as fascinated with such direct physical connections but were nevertheless impressed with how the farm clearly served as an inspiration for the fiction. O’Connor is revered by so many writers, some of whom made the pilgrimage to Andalusia while I was there: Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powell, and Salman Rushdie were among them.

Who else visited Andalusia and why? Here is where the story becomes more intriguing and just a tad O’Connoresque. A few examples may shed some light on how wide the spectrum was and render a snapshot of the author’s devotees. The true pilgrims were the visitors who regarded O’Connor and her home with a certain sense of reverence, like the woman who stepped up to the front porch and asked me if she should remove her shoes before entering the house, as if she were about to tread on holy ground. I assured her that I always kept my shoes on in and outside the house. Those who were specifically drawn to O’Connor’s use of grace bestowed, if not slammed, on her characters truly considered Andalusia to be a place of religious significance.  This was especially the perspective of practicing Catholics and most notably clergy, like the two priests who requested to hold a prayer vigil in the guest bedroom on the second floor where they would be less likely disturbed by, or be disturbing to, other visitors. They were up there for an hour. I was impressed with their stamina — the room was hotter than three hells in the summer, which was the time they elected to visit, in full black vestments.

A common observation shared by so many Andalusia visitors was a sense of the author’s spirit being present in the main house and on the property. For some this was merely a recognition that the authenticity of the place — buildings, furniture, and furnishings original to O’Connor’s time at the farm — helped them somehow feel closer to its famous occupant. Of course, we also had our fair share of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators who, for reasons that defy understanding, believe that the departed with celebrity status are more easily detected than your run-of-the-mill homeowner. I have never understood why ghost hunters don’t spend more time at hospitals, the very place where so many people pass on to the “next plane of existence.” I could usually tell if a visitor had high hopes for a Poltergeist encounter by the familiar question, “So, did she die in the house?” She did not. She died in the hospital.

Some of our guests went the extra mile to make their visit to Andalusia a truly memorable experience. A couple of folk singers recorded an original song on the front porch. Artists painted landscapes and farm buildings. Writers drafted stories while sitting in the iris gardens. Photographers snapped shots everywhere their eyes pulled them. One young woman was so taken by the beauty of the place while she was attending the college in town, O’Connor’s undergraduate alma mater, that she decided to have her wedding on the front lawn under the enormous oak trees, complete with peacock feathers in her hair. (O’Connor raised many different breeds of domestic birds, but peacocks are the species so identified with her life at Andalusia.)

O’Connor fans have found inventive ways to demonstrate their devotion to the author, from naming their daughters “Flannery” to having elaborate tattoos of peacock feathers permanently decorating their bodies. It was a pleasure to meet them all and to hear them share their admiration for this comic genius. Some made great sacrifices to pay homage to O’Connor at Andalusia, like the four scholars from Japan who spent most of a Saturday at the farm. When I asked what brought them to the states, the only one who could speak any English at all looked at me with a surprised expression and then smiled warmly and said, “Flannery O’Connor.  This place.” I was moved.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

The impact that O’Connor’s work had on some visitors’ lives was immediately apparent when they walked in the front door of the main house. Their countenance, their excitement, and their strong emotions spoke volumes. Several claimed that O’Connor had drawn them to the Catholic Church. Others credited O’Connor for launching their vocations as writers, artists, teachers, or ministers. It is rather ironic that a writer who has brought great joy to so many readers also endured great suffering for the last third of her 39 years as lupus slowly took away her life. This is an inescapable part of her story that no sensitive visitor to Andalusia would ever miss. I watched big, burly men apologize to me as they wept standing at the doorway of O’Connor’s first-floor bedroom where she slept and worked. No need to be sorry — I cried too, more than once.

Gardening Comes Second Only to Reading

Many years ago, my two sons gave me a special gift for Father’s Day that I am still using now, all the time, 365 days out of the year.  The gift was a fabricated flat, natural-looking stone that is engraved with the sentence: GARDENING COMES SECOND ONLY TO READING.  It was the perfect present because, for me at least, that declaration is quite true.  I would argue that my family actually comes first (I hope they would agree!), and I could certainly make the case for several more seconds and thirds, with music taking a prominent place near the top of the list.  Both of my boys knew then, as they still recognize now, that gardening is a passion for me — something on which I am willing to spend plenty of hard-earned dollars.  I have lived in three different locations since they presented me with that engraved stone, and it is still part of the hardscape of my gardens today.

Entry way garden
Entry way garden

I became interested in landscaping and ornamental gardening in 1987, shortly after my sons’ mother and I bought our first house.  I had started working in a public library two years earlier, and I was fascinated by gardening magazines and books that I was cataloging.  I wanted to have a yard with more than just an expanse of grass and a few foundation shrubs around the house.  I wanted to create a little oasis!  I started building my own personal library of gardening books, learning as much as possible about soil condition, hardiness zones, watering, fertilizing, and plant identification.  I didn’t have much disposable income in those years, so I started out small and concentrated on a few specific areas, such as the side entrance to our house that we used most often.  A few years later we started a family and moved into a larger house on a steeply sloping lot.  It was a challenging yard, but over the years I began to mold it into something that I could work with and make attractive.  One of the most successful projects was the creation of a lush entry-way garden leading from the parking area to the front door, which is pictured in the photograph above.  Before moving away from that house, I also created two azalea islands under oak and sweet gum trees in the front yard, a pathway leading through ornamental trees and shrubs in the backyard, and my first small pond with a waterfall. (See my post from May 17, 2016 to learn more about the waterfalls and ponds I have designed through the years.)

Pond garden at sunrise
Pond garden at sunrise

When I met my second wife, she was living on a lake in central Georgia.  When we married, I moved in with her.  The previous owners of this lake house had invested considerably in the landscape, but my wife had made several improvements before we were married including upgrading the irrigation system, replacing an old patio, removing pine trees, and installing ornamental shrubs and trees.  We decided to have our wedding ceremony on the patio overlooking the lake and a small pond and waterfall that I finished just a few days before the big day.  Over the next two years I added plants and landscape lights around the pond to make the area into a separate garden spot, complete with a bird feeder and a bench.

Patio lake garden
Patio lake garden

The new and expanded patio was a perfect place to add a container garden, so we began looking for interesting pots, such as the sculpted face pot and stand that we affectionately named Annabel — the face on the pot looks melancholy and reminds us of the subject of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee.”  The patio container garden was framed by a beautiful stand of Loropetalum shrubs that my wife had planted shortly after she moved into the house.  This garden was completed by a chiminea and a hot tub, which is just out of view at the lower left corner of the photo above.  The gently sloping grass of the yard and the view of the large cove beyond were a perfect backdrop to this little slice of paradise just outside the sliding glass doors leading from our master bedroom.

Front island garden
Front island garden

In 2013 we moved to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Georgia.  This part of the state is in a different plant zone than our previous location.  As such there are some semi-tropical species that we can no longer have in our yard, but other ornamentals that need cooler temperatures are perfectly at home here.  Our growing season is a week or two shorter also, but climate change is bringing earlier springs and extended autumns as the years go by.  The previous owners of this house did a fine job of building the “bones” of this property, with a large planting island in the front yard and a fairly deep shrub bed in front of the house.  We have made a few changes, such as adding some annual planting beds and thinning some of the dwarf Nandina on the side of the house.  We have also added to the plants in the front island (pictured above) and covered it all with a healthy layer of wood chips.  The greatest addition we have made to the property is the installation of an in-ground swimming pool with a waterfall, providing us with yet another opportunity to create a new garden oasis.  Although I did not build this “pond,” my wife and I did help with the design.  We have worked very hard over the last two years on the landscaping around the pool by installing a river rock border, bringing in new plants, and arranging container plantings around the decking. The sound of running water is such a pleasant feature of this space, which of course, is also a perfect area for enjoying my first passion . . . reading.

Pool waterfall garden
Pool waterfall garden

Art and Social Change

Do artists have a social responsibility?  That was the question posed for discussion to participants in lunch breakout sessions at the recent Symposium on Arts and Social Change sponsored by the Lillian E. Smith Center of  Piedmont College, a small private liberal arts college in Demorest, Georgia.  The Symposium, titled “Between Dream and Reality,” focused on public art as an inspiration for social change and was held at the college’s second campus in Athens, a town dominated by the presence of the University of Georgia.  Each breakout session had no more than a dozen people, so the conversations were manageable but lively.

Jen Delos Reyes
Jen Delos Reyes

The Symposium featured keynote speaker Jen Delos Reyes, Associate Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago. Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, and radical community arts organizer. Her practice is as much about working with institutions as it is about creating and supporting sustainable artist-led culture. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially-engaged art that has been active since 2007 and hosted conferences in two countries at locations including the Queens Museum in New York.  In her early-morning presentation, she highlighted three artists who are also community activists, people who have used creative approaches to address serious challenges in their neighborhoods with projects such as restoring row houses to safe, habitable homes that had become drug-infested death traps.

Other featured speakers at the Symposium included Ellen Elmes, a retired college art instructor who has painted twenty-five plus murals in several different states that celebrate community. Another presenter was Hope Hilton, an Athens-based artist, educator, designer, and writer who works with communities and students of all ages to inspire and facilitate a sense of place, history, and agency.  Broderick Flanigan is a freelance artist in Athens who is a community activist and the founder of Flanigan’s Portrait Studios.  The event was moderated by Barbara Brown Taylor, the Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College and author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Learning to Walk in the Dark and An Altar in the World.  All of the presenters at this Symposium are devoting significant time and energy in their capacity as artists to promote, encourage, and facilitate positive social change.

Symposium logo
Symposium logo

Throughout her career as a writer and humanitarian, Lillian Smith examined how the arts engage people around issues of social injustice, segregation, and isolation.  Art was her passion, and she held a deep conviction that the artist has a responsibility to engage her audience in the conflicts and struggles of her generation, an opinion not necessarily shared by the students of The New Criticism movement, the literary theory that dominated the mid-20th century.  Smith emerged in the 1940s at the forefront of the Southern debate on segregation, where she was at least a decade ahead of other white liberals and stood virtually alone in calling for an immediate end to segregation laws and practices.

During the tumultuous years of the mid-20th century, when lynching, convict labor, and Jim Crow laws were still casting dark shadows across the South and African-Americans all over the country were pleading for justice and equality, there were plenty of elected officials and prominent leaders who were endorsing a patient, moderate approach in addressing the crisis.  Lillian Smith was not one of them. In a speech prepared for the Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change on the first anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Lillian Smith wrote these words:  “You have done many good things, down here in Montgomery.  But one of the best, one of the most valuable, has been the fact that you have dramatized, for all America to see, that in times of ordeal, in times of crisis, only the extremist can meet the challenge.  The question in crisis or ordeal is not: Are you going to be an extremist?  The question is: What kind of extremist are you going to be?”

In a powerful essay titled “The Creative Process” written in 1962, James Baldwin made the following observation:

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

There can be little doubt that, through her novels and nonfiction works, Lillian Smith was indeed trying “to make the world a more human dwelling place.”  Does art exist in a vacuum?  Should the artist seek to be completely separated from society, unattached and oblivious to the pressing social issues of the day?  The answers to those questions can be debated over and over again with no real resolution.  What is clear, however, is that art has the mysterious power to transform minds and emotions, to spark imagination, to inspire collaboration, and to motivate people to act.  Once the work is done and that power is unleashed, the artist has very little control over the ultimate impact of what she has created.  Perhaps recognizing that indisputable truth is where the responsibility of the artist begins.

“To find the point where hypothesis and fact meet; the delicate equilibrium between dream and reality; the place where fantasy and earthly things are metamorphosed into a work of art . . . this is what man’s journey is about, I think.” –Lillian Smith, The Journey

Godless Ethics

Good Without God by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed by leading atheists with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness. In some sense, he is playing the role of a modern Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor who is trying to find consensus between the religious and the secular world.

It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

I get the sense that he thinks the creation of humanists organizations that look and function like churches, synagogues, or mosques will somehow make humanism more “competitive” or more attractive or perhaps even more palatable to the skeptics or the indecisive. It reminds me of vegetarians and vegans who eat foods that are considered meat substitutes because they crave meat but won’t eat it. I think humanists can find community and social interaction outside organizations that look and sound like religious ones. In fact, I would venture to say that plenty of believers find their most meaningful connections outside their religious circles.

This is a very accessible book that is well written, thoughtful, and completely unoffensive to left-leaning, progressive readers. Evangelicals and other orthodox or fundamentalist faithful will hate it. There is no doubt that Epstein was very encouraged by the election of Obama, which occurred one year before the book was published. For people who were raised in strong religious environments but now find themselves in the camp with agnostics or even atheists, Epstein’s conclusions can be reaffirming, perhaps even comforting.

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The Independent Bookstore: A Reader’s Oasis

The last Saturday in April is designated as Independent Bookstore Day, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, bookstore sales increased 2.5 percent from 2014 to 2015. The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent sellers, reported 1,712 member stores in 2015, up from 1,401 in 2009.  These figures should put to rest the notion that books made of paper are soon to be replaced by electronic forms.  I realize there are plenty of readers who still hold great affection for traditional books — the paper kind.  There are scholars who have argued that reading physical books is a completely different experience than reading eBooks.  Most bookstore owners would probably agree.  Both formats seem to be doing fine, which should be good news to all readers.

Once a medium of information is introduced, it tends to survive no matter what other “new and improved” medium follows.  Some platforms may become obsolete (stone tablets, 8-track tapes, Beta videotape, etc.), but in general, new forms of information delivery don’t dispatch previous ones.  The written word has never stopped people from telling stories or stage acting. Motion pictures certainly didn’t do away with reading.  Radio didn’t destroy movies, television didn’t stop radio broadcasts, and the availability of videos hasn’t destroyed the television industry.  One could argue that computers have only facilitated many of these delivery methods rather than replacing them.  More importantly, none of these has killed the book, regardless of how we decide to read.

There is no question that the last few decades have been tough for small, independent bookstores.  Many of the ones that survived the advent of the mega-bookstores were finally wiped out by the online providers.  Electronic books no doubt delivered another crushing blow to bookstores, but the truly creative entrepreneurs figured out a way to stay relevant and competitive as a niche market.  One approach is to create a salon-type atmosphere that welcomes the reading shopper and provides a sanctuary, a respite from the fast-paced grid that characterizes so much of our society.  Nicole Sullivan, owner of Denver’s BookBar, was quoted in a recent article in The Denver Post.  “As it gets harder for brick-and-mortar businesses, hybrid businesses become more important,” Sullivan said. “It’s either get it fast and cheap online, or come into a store and have an experience. That’s what indies have to offer, a more personalized experience and that sense of community we’ve lost a lot of over the years.”

I have fully accepted the convenience of eBooks and have been an Amazon Kindle customer since the first year they came on the market.  I’m sure some of my library colleagues were horrified by the introduction of virtual books, but now eBooks are a big part of library holdings.  For fiction and other books that rely very little on illustrations or graphics, I actually prefer eBooks.  However, I treasure the large, hardbound gardening, history, and travel books that fill our shelves at home.  Not even iPads or desktops are acceptable for those titles for me.  I also prefer to browse through slick-paper magazines by physically turning pages, not touching a screen.  Because we live in a rural area, the chances of an independent bookstore surviving for very long are slim, so we order many of our books online.  We also go to the web to shop for household goods, clothes, and equipment.  But, when we travel to places like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, I almost always make a point to visit an independent bookstore.  To me they all seem to have their own “personality” that makes them unique.  If a book is the door that leads to imagination, then a bookstore is a hallway with almost endless possibilities.

Book Lady Bookstore, Savannah, GA
Book Lady Bookstore, Savannah, GA

Restoring My Soul

Sometime in February while I was scrolling through Facebook, someone posted a short video of himself playing his guitar.  In the message that accompanied the video, he mentioned that he was on a solo retreat in a cabin.  It had never occurred to me until then that a weekend of solitude and reflection could be so attractive.  A wise scholar and friend recently observed that, like she and her husband, my wife and I are “well married.”  It’s a phrase that we had not used before but now fully embrace.  We are indeed well married.  We have been together nine years and married for eight of them.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We like working at the same place, coming home for lunch together and having dinner together, either at home or at a restaurant.  We love to travel; we love to hike; we love working on projects; we enjoy our time at home, especially our evenings and weekends.  My wife has some friends and colleagues that she will occasionally meet for lunch or dinner, and sometimes she makes it an overnight trip.  It is good and healthy for her to stay connected to these people because they have been so important in her life and her profession.  Sadly, there are more such connections in other parts of the country where she has previously lived, and it is difficult to see them regularly, but she makes an effort to do so when possible.

I have a good friend who lives not too far away from us – someone that I have been close to for over twenty years now.  We see each other about once a year or so, and I enjoy catching up with him.  We also stay in touch by phone, texts, and Facebook.  I don’t have as many good friends as my wife does, that is, people I have maintained a close relationship with through the years.  As gregarious as I probably appear to colleagues and acquaintances, the truth is I am a bit shy around people I don’t know, unless I am speaking to groups professionally or performing music.  I was in a band for ten years, so I’m sure there are folks who would scoff at the idea of my being bashful in any shape or form.  There are times, and only for brief periods, when I truly cherish being alone.

When I saw that Facebook video post, I began to think about what it would be like to have a solo weekend, something I have not done in decades.  I started thinking about what I would do for 36-48 hours away from my bride, my sons, my job, our home – away from anyone I know.  I could read, write, study, play music, think . . . and think some more.  I was a bit nervous about pitching this idea to my wife, because the last thing I wanted her to think was that I don’t adore her company.  This woman who clearly loves me unconditionally thought the idea was marvelous and whole-heartedly supported my decision to find a cabin in the mountains for an early spring mini-sabbatical.  Now, as I write this blog entry, it is Saturday afternoon.  I am looking out the window of my retreat cabin in the high country of North Carolina less than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I arrived yesterday afternoon, checked in with the inn keeper in town, drove a few miles to my cabin, settled in quickly, poured a glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and headed to the front lawn to relax in a comfortable chair and take in the view.  I followed the inn keeper’s recommendation for dinner at a local bistro, which was an excellent choice. I bought just enough provisions at the grocery store to keep me satisfied for 24 hours, and then I came back to the cabin and sipped more whiskey.  A storm came through last night and dusted the surrounding hillsides with snow, just enough to make it pretty but not so much to make it a nuisance.  I got up a little before 8:00, put on the coffee, and started reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel I read many years ago and have mostly forgotten.  I have been reading news and op-ed pieces from the New York Times.  I have had a fire in the fireplace for the last couple of hours, and I have played songs on my guitar that I haven’t attempted in years.  I don’t intend to leave the cabin until heading out for dinner this evening.  I am enjoying a full earth’s rotation of intense relaxation.

Relaxing by the fire
Relaxing by the fire

Just now, as I sat down to reflect on this opportunity and record it, I was reminded with great humility and appreciation of just how fortunate I am.  When people from my past ask me if I’m happy, I usually reply, “I’m the luckiest guy I’ve ever met.”  I am lucky to have a wife who ignores my inadequacies, my rough edges, my occasional crudity, and loves me with a devotion that is almost frightening.  It is also a gift to love her more than I have ever loved another woman.  I am lucky that my sons seem to be stable and healthy in spite of great tragedy and loss they have endured.  I am lucky to have extended family who may not always understand me and perhaps even worry about me, but who also love me deeply and take joy in my happiness. I am lucky to have been raised by parents and grandparents who encouraged creativity, loved to laugh, believed in the virtue of hard work, and exhibited rock-solid faith in their God and their church.  While not having the advantages afforded by a higher formal education, my parents made the necessary sacrifices to ensure that I received the advanced degrees I desired and that have opened up so many possibilities for me through the years.  I have had some incredibly inspiring teachers.

I have lived almost 56 years with few significant health challenges.  I have some modest talents and skills that are fulfilling to me and that I have been able to share with others.  My wife and I have a standard of living that is not enjoyed by a large majority of the world’s population.  We are grateful, even though we know our generosity does not extend as far as it should.  My career path has presented me with so many memorable encounters and experiences, and I know how rare that privilege is.  Lastly, we have the resources that make it possible for me to rent a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to be self-indulgent for a weekend and to contemplate the precious gift of a good life that I’m sure I don’t deserve but for which I am eternally grateful.  And to my bride, the love of my life: thank you for giving me this place and time.