The Savage South

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Have you ever tried to pull a young saw palmetto out of a lawn? Just one fan leaf, maybe two, maybe four inches tall. First you send out a silent apology for ending a brand-new life, then you bend down and pull. Nothing. Not a millimeter. You pull with more force. No. Now you straighten up, frown. Okay then. You fetch the weeder, that little lever tool designed to get under the root. You plunge the steel spearpoint into the ground, under the plant, as deep as possible and push down. A tearing sound! Certain of success, you pull again. Sorry. You reposition yourself, try from another angle. Nope.

If you’re a sixty-four-year old woman with arthritic hands and worn-out shoulders, this is when you stand back and marvel. All you can do is snip the wee plant at ground level, acknowledging its imminent return. It has no choice. All it knows is life.

Greenbrier is another opportunist in the lawn. While this plant can be yanked out more readily than palmetto, doing so is like playing whack-a-mole. In the time it takes you to prize the long white root from your turf, another upstart appears. I still have a red scar on my ankle from an attack by one of these thorny vines three weeks ago, before I understood that in order to survive here, one must move slowly and focus on the ground.

Reaching for the hose faucet a few days ago, I glimpsed a flash of movement not two feet from me. I gaped, stunned to see a snake so close, and not an innocent garden variety but something coiled and menacing. I could tell from the triangular head that it was venomous, but not until my spouse came out with the trusty Audubon guide did I learn that it was a young cottonmouth whose bite causes intense pain, bleeding, swelling, nausea and potential amputation.

Yesterday a katydid landed on my back door. I peered through the glass at the leggy green bug, gradually becoming aware that it was missing the lower portion of its body; then I noticed it was also missing one of its hind legs. I don’t imagine a katydid can live for long without these vital parts, and I realized the injuries were fresh, that in some hidden pocket of my verdant yard there was a frog or toad or snake with half a meal in its mouth.

We have box turtles here with bright yellow streaks on their leathery skin and beautifully patterned shells. There you are watering a shrub and here one comes, appearing out of nowhere, on its way to somewhere. They are a delightful surprise. The first time I saw one I knelt beside it and placed my hand on its shell, wondering if I could transmit my goodwill through the simple method of touch. We stayed that way a moment, my hand cupping the generous domed shell, the turtle, head tucked, eyeing me with equal interest. At some point I noticed that a good part of its shell, the area behind the head, was missing, no doubt a run-in with a vehicle. The turtle seemed no worse for the injury, and I have since learned that turtles can grow back at least some of their shell. I have also learned that box turtles commonly carry salmonella; I don’t touch them anymore.

I keep a flashlight near the back door so that when I come out before dawn I can sweep the beam across the cement, making sure I don’t step on something with a beating heart. The other day I saw a black wasp flying out of a small hole in the frame of my deck chair, reminding me of the swallows next door that made a nest in the open sewer pipe of the home under construction. You can find at least three small frogs perched inside my hose reel box any time you lift the lid. Not for a minute does anything go to waste here. There is panic in the air, the hum of a million creatures trying to stay alive.

I am just one of them, hoping my modest savings will last longer in Alabama than in California and that my new home will survive the coming storms.

Coffee With An Ex

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Sometimes you reach back,
unearth an ex.
It never works, does it?

You’re not looking for trouble,
god no.
All you want is corroboration,
proof of where you’ve been.

You do not remember the intimacy,
though that was once your world:
the smell of her skin,
the way she kissed.
You do remember
her laugh, her anger,
her moments of grief.
Her youth is yours to keep.

The years have broadened her face,
coarsened her hair,
and this makes you tender.
But her stories only bewilder—
how can you both be right?
The distance between you
makes itself clear.
Who knew you would leave
with less than you came with?

You have more in common with a stranger,
someone who never met
the person you are not.

Photo by chichacha on Foter.com / CC BY

Alabama For Beginners

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The contractors here, born Alabamians, call me Miss Jean. They refer to my brother-in-law as Mr. Danny. Beyond paperwork, surnames are ignored, as if they are only a nuisance, something that gets in the way. They also use “Ma’am” and “Sir” for punctuation, a habit I’ve already picked up, courtesy being contagious.

The women here are even more tender. They employ all sorts of endearments: Hon, Baby, Sugar, Darlin. The first time I ordered a sandwich at the local Subway, the girl behind the counter buckled my knees with kindness. The fact that she was brutally overweight and not blessed with movie star beauty made her benevolence all the more touching. People here understand, are born knowing, that civility is a form of wealth—the most important form—and the poorest among them can be rich beyond measure.

My wife and I moved to coastal Alabama six weeks ago. Many of our Napa friends worried about how we would fare in a red state, particularly as a couple. Well, it appears that a pair of gray-haired lesbians is not sufficient cause for alarm. Folks greet us as we greet them, with smiles and handshakes. There could of course be more to it. Maybe Cindy has gained standing by way of her new John Deere mower, the Ford Ranger she drives, or the shop she is having built. Maybe they like my plantings, the shutters we’ve put up, the well we’re having dug. Our neighbors seem to respect these things, practicality being the benchmark of worth in the deep South.

You don’t see many Jaguars or BMWs here. You see a lot of trucks, tractors and ATVs. The men driving these vehicles know how to fix them; they know how to fix and build all sorts of things. This is such a DIY kind of place that it’s difficult to find a handyman you can actually hire. Forget about consulting Yelp or Angie’s List—most folks here express themselves in person.

Laborers move with deliberation, keeping pace with the temperature, and “soon” is a term you learn not to heed. Take a deep breath and know you will not be forgotten. A promise is a promise.

Municipal matters in Alabama are not handled in deadbolt fashion. Clerks are merciful and will often bend the rules a bit to accommodate citizens in a bind. If you are a California transplant, this clemency, when you first encounter it, will undo you.

There are plenty of places I drive right past, things that don’t pertain to me, like churches, gun stores, pawn shops. There is no shortage of enterprise here, and no shame if these ventures fail. People just toss the dice again and hope for a win; maybe a skating rink next time, a cupcake stand.

Utilities, products, services—most everything is cheaper in Alabama. I don’t know if this is because merchants don’t realize they can charge more or if they actually care more about people than profits. There is an expectation of decency in the south, a collective innocence that shames me a little.

You see quite a few emergency clinics here (all the DIYers?), but I have yet to spot a plastic surgery center. Women are easier on themselves here, as if they are loved without condition, or at least feel that way. For women especially, the south is a good place to grow old in.

I think the region itself enlarges this feeling of ease: the spacious yards, the endless lawns, the smooth straight roads, the long hot days. Land and water for miles and miles, all you could ever want. Coming from California, where the landscape is chronically imperiled by drought and fire, I am stunned by the green abundance of coastal Alabama, the toads, and turtles and tadpoles, the squadrons of dragonflies and pelicans. And fireflies! Those beacons of my youth, lighting the night woods, assuring me that all is not lost.

I won’t tell you that the humidity is not oppressive, or that I wouldn’t mind a few more libraries, a few less gun shops. What wounds me most is the careless damage: the plastic bags stuck in roadside shrubs, cigarette butts on a trail to the beach. You don’t know what you have, I think, snatching up litter on my evening walk. You have no idea the trouble we’re in.

What is there to do but help, to try and make better whatever place you call home? There is no curbside recycling here, but you can find salvage bins near grocery stores and city offices. Rather than throwing everything into my single gigantic waste receptacle, I am separating the cans and glass and plastics and loading them into my car, teaching, I hope, by example, the way I am being taught the ways of southern kindness. It’s not much to pay for a brand new life, for fireflies and box turtles and the pleasure of being called Miss Jean.

A Day Like This

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Mist rising;
sky a deepening blue;
treetops wreathed in morning sun,
and just enough breeze to ripple
the grass and nod the yellow tulips.

Above me swallows slice the air.
Short dark arrows, they never miss,
their flight too swift for error.

I bet they fly faster, farther,
on a day like this,
the way dogs on a beach,
will break into a run,
or cats on warm sidewalks
will stretch their full length,
surrender their bodies
to the splendor of heat.

How much have I missed
in the hurry of my life?
Bring me back
with fur or feathers,
let me claim
all that is mine.

The Dying See

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The dying see
what the rest of us don’t,
will speak to these phantoms—
often people long gone—
in a manner so earnest
we begin to doubt
our own senses.
Is heaven real, has a corner lifted?
Or do the minds of our loved ones,
unmoored from the task of living,
fall back to the beginning:
a state of infinite odds,
where fact and fiction
have no meaning,
and whatever we imagine
is waiting to meet us?

The Tyranny of Yoga Pants

Last week Honor Jones of the New York Times wrote an excellent article on the yoga pants tsunami. It’s good to know that I am not the only person mystified by the number of women who have decided that tourniquet tight legwear is a wardrobe must. And not just slim women; women of all shapes and sizes pry on their yoga pants and sprayed-on jeans each day and head out into the world, defiant as new parolees.

I don’t care if you have a rockin’ body, I don’t care if you don’t. I’m just tired of seeing so much of you. I never signed up for a free subscription to your ass.

“Yoga pants move with your body,” a woman explained to me, beaming at her thighs, which were shrink-wrapped in a dark gray material splashed with giant yellow daisies. Indeed your body cannot shake these pants; there is no escape.

Every time I see a girl in tight jeans—which is every day, many times a day—I cringe a little, imagining the difficulty involved in sitting, bending and walking. A fashion that limits movement, impinges on circulation and inhibits healthy breathing is not a product that favors liberation and empowerment.

Remember Grunge? Well I do, even though it lasted just half a minute back in the early 90s. Grunge fashion—for both men and women—was characterized by durable and cheap clothing often worn “in a loose, androgynous manner to de-emphasize the silhouette.” Decades later, men are still wearing comfortable clothes. Women, sadly, are not. I guess Doc Martens, loose jeans and flannel shirts did not contribute to the objectification of the female form. If a women’s body is de-emphasized, who will want it? Who will care? What is it worth?

What I recall most from the Grunge period was the way women carried themselves. The sureness of their movements, the nascent confidence. Women were finally realizing that they owned themselves, or could.

There are a handful of Olympic sports that benefit from tight uniforms. When winning is measured by a thousandth of a second, a second skin is the way to go. The rest of us have options, especially those who don’t know they do, who believe that yoga pants and tight jeans are tickets to personal freedom.

Comfortable, gender-neutral clothes are not easy to find, but they could be, and if you want to be your own gal, you might want to give them a try. Things are changing for women now. Here’s to freeing our bodies as well as our voices.

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