Alabama, One Year Later

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Sometimes I feel like a spy. Sometimes a fraud. Always an outsider. I don’t expect these feelings to go away in the twenty or so years I have left on this earth (statistically speaking), nor do they need to. Who isn’t living a negotiated life? Who, without concessions, has a nickel’s chance of happiness?

Moving from a blue state to the deep south is not easy; I knew that going in. I was braced for the politics, the risky food, the staggering summer heat. What I didn’t anticipate was the kindness, which goes far beyond that famous “southern charm.” Folks here seem genetically programmed to extend courtesy, to cheerfully meet the needs of others, a compassion at odds with their blanket disregard for current global crises. When I see store clerks mindlessly handing out plastic bags and customers mindlessly taking them, I have to breathe deep and rub the worry stone in my pocket, a blue piece of Amazonite shaped like a heart. My sister gave it to me when I moved here, telling me it was the stone of courage.

My wife and I live in a young semi-rural development that is fast losing its woods to new houses. I know that the tall pines I am presently viewing from my dining room will one day be chewed up by a “bush hog,” a frightening, deafening machine that turns trees into ragged splinters. My heart is already broken, so I am prepared.

My neighbor to the right is a big woman with enormous arms and an everlasting smile. She babysits our cat when we go away and brings us vegetables from a roadside stand (farmers here like to give you bargains: if you buy a dozen ears of corn, you always get more). Last summer she rented a jumpy castle for her little boy’s birthday. I could see the red turrets from my back porch and hear the prolonged hilarity. I don’t want to think about all that plastic and where it might wind up, but I can’t fault her maternal devotion.

My neighbor to the right takes care of his yard and waves when he sees me, though we don’t chat anymore. We were discussing lawn care last spring, and he said he was going to use a pesticide. I couldn’t help myself. I said I didn’t use pesticides because they ruined the subterranean ecosystem and left the birds with nothing to feed their babies. I wasn’t snooty. I didn’t actually use the term “subterranean ecosystem.” I just wanted to stop the carnage. But I saw his mouth harden a little, like I was trying to stir up trouble, and since then we’ve kept our lawns between us.

Which are ridiculously big, the lawns. Water and land are plentiful so most new homes come with a surfeit of yard, and developers would rather throw down ratty hunks of centipede grass than figure out less thirsty arrangements. You should see these “lawns” in the beginning. You’d swear they were dead on arrival. You’d be wrong. Southern plants are savage, armed with runners or thorns or tap roots or poison—whatever it takes to triumph.

We moved here from California, essentially trading earthquakes and fire for hurricanes and heat. Having retired at this time, Alabama’s low cost of living was a factor we couldn’t ignore. Coming from Napa, where real estate is valued by the square inch, it’s hard not to feel smug about the affordable bounty we have now. The proximity of my sister and brother-in-law made the move that much easier. As for the wide-open roads draped with oak trees, the blue herons poised in orange sunsets, the box turtles that cross my yard on spring mornings, these are incidental riches.

We’ve been here a year now. What I like about living on the Alabama coast and what I don’t like have pretty much stayed the same. What is different is the way I feel about being a resident. I no longer worry about fitting in; I don’t think you have to fit in. I think you can be a happy outsider, loving whatever streams by.

Just today we took a stroll on the local dock and enjoyed the surprise sighting of two black drum fish nosing in the shallows and then a group of skates, skimming the sand like phantoms. A couple came walking up at that point and we began chatting about the wildlife. They were Brits and had moved here several years ago, didn’t miss Britain at all, they said. Sparking off each other, we began sharing stories. They had three children, the woman told us, “one after the other. We stopped after that—finally figured out what was causing it.” I laughed, studying her with fresh interest.

I spend many moments gazing out the window at my spacious backyard, which I am gradually filling with shrubs, flowers and vegetables. I have hung two birdfeeders and put up a stone bird bath, and now the yard is alive with goldfinches, cardinals, fat mourning doves, red-headed woodpeckers. Squirrels too. They race from here to there, rummaging for fallen sunflower seeds.

I view this scene as a “before picture.” It’s how I see everything now. This is the way it looked before the storm, I remind myself, before the pines snapped and the plants disappeared. It makes me love harder. There’s a chance this will not happen in my lifetime, but in this gorgeous moment I am prepared.

 

Alabama For Beginners in bioStories

A big thank you to editor Mark Leichliter for featuring my essay “Alabama For Beginners” in bioStories. This is my fourth appearance in bioStories, and I am honored to be among the many talented contributors.

“bioStories offers word portraits of the people surrounding us in our daily lives, of the strangers we pass on the street unnoticed and of those who have been the most influential and most familiar to us but who remain strangers to others. We feature essays from an eclectic variety of viewpoints and seek out writers of literary excellence. We particularly look for work that offers slices of a life that help the reader imagine the whole of that life, work that demonstrates that ordinary people’s experiences often contain extraordinary moments, visionary ideas, inspirational acts, and examples of success and failure that prove instructive. In short, we believe every life displays moments of grace. bioStories wishes to share pieces of these lives and celebrate them.”