Settling Down While Still Flapping Around

During my only graduate-level writing course at the University of Tennessee, Professor Jon Manchip White, an ex-patriate from Wales as well as from Hollywood where he spent his screenwriting days, advised us that we would-be writers should keep a commonplace book filled with ideas we could use to inspire our work.

Apparently a practice that originated in Early Modern Europe, commonplace books in the 21st century can be filled with quotations, snatches of movie dialogue, song lyrics, overheard conversations, lines from books, titles, phrases–anything we want to remember for future reference.

During our recent moving process, I realized the idiosyncratic way I had taken Dr. Manchip White’s advice, as I packed and unpacked 15-20 of my commonplace books. The first few pages of each journal was marked with my handwriting and then nothing in the pages thereafter.

Life certainly has a way of taking me away from my best intentions of writing more often and even from regularly writing in my commonplace book. Inspirations come at me nearly every day, and my husband and I talk about how great a blogpost this or that idea would make. Then instead of writing, I chase my tail through the halls of my life, filling up the trash containers, taking out the recycling, washing ever more clothes, and cleaning the never-ending pollen from my front porch rail.

When we were in London for my husband’s work in the 1990s, we took the Tube (the subway system) around the city. It occurred to me toay that’s the Tube is what my life looks like to me. I am watching as the light flashes by at each Tube station, then the dark of the Underground tunnel, followed by the light of another station, then the dark tunnels interchanging until we arrive at my destination station, and I race off to my next errand. Clock’s a-ticking.

As I dashed through life in 2011–the year I was not-so-graciously encouraged to leave my 30-year job at the University of Tennessee–my commonplace book noted sound advice from American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910) who advised in The American Claimant:

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles–by the ears, by the heels, or any other way, so you can manage it; it’s the healthiest thing a body can do.

In any time or place, excessive study of our own belly buttons–rolling in the mud of our own bailiwicks–is just a disaster for a sound mind and spirit. My sister and I ascribe to the keep moving doctrine. No matter the aching muscles or bones that remind us we are aging, staying busy has kept us sane. Oh, most of the time.

From These Amazing Shadows, a 2011 documentary featuring some of the best movie treasures, I noted that Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington (born June 1, 1929) said:

Stories unite people; theories divide people.

Certainly life in America and throughout the world in 2018, has proven Dr. Billington’s notion that telling our stories reminds us of our shared humanity and has the hope of bringing us together. Pontificating, pointing fingers, telling other people how to live, seeking to control people who speak, look, or worship differently has led humankind to war followed by war, followed by war, followed by war.

A page from my 2011 commonplace book.

Except for halting the scourge of the Nazis during World War II, war has not, in the final analysis, solved anything. People die: young men in the flower of their bloom, medics and nurses attempting to staunch the wounds and patch up the holes in precious bodies, civilians, children, old men and women who can barely stand.

Certainly our nation’s own Civil War solved nothing as factionalism, racism, and division thrive today–one hundred and fifty-three years after the end of the war–and these forces grow like weeds throughout our land. War festers hatred as it takes root in generation after generation–as we see with the Middle East’s unending conflicts that have continued for thousands of years with seemingly no end in sight.

As Simon Schama said in The Story of the Jews, a five-part PBS documentary about the 3,000 year history of the Jewish people:

We tell our stories to survive.

Yes, we do tell our stories to survive and perhaps lay down the burden of carrying them alone. We tell our stories so we can communicate, connect, share wisdom, build community, touch others, and breathe hope into the idea that by sharing some of the worst indignities visited upon humans by other humans (genocide, child abuse and/or child sexual abuse, rape, murder, torture, racism, apartheid, slavery, and other degradations of the body, mind, and spirit) we will make it just a bit less likely that particular horror will happen again.

Here is my husband Kurt with our adorable 6-month-old grandson who we call Little Man because he is already such an amazing presence.

Personally I can only place one foot in front of another by turning my head from the many problems I can do nothing about and taking refuge in the everyday good I can do. As American author and illustrator E.L. (Elaine Lobl) Konigsburg (1930-2013) wrote:

Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place. But there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.

The highest joy we can imagine is living in the presence of our 6-month-old grandson who himself lives gloriously in every new moment of his strange new world. He loves to touch faces, feel water on his body in his shower/bath in my kitchen sink, and taste yogurt and other foods for the first time. Watching him discover the world opens my eyes to hope as he shares his new-eyes world with us and we share our how-things-work-around-here world with him.

Nothing says cozy to me so much as a cat nestled into a sunny spot taking a nap. Yet with nine lives to burn, a cat can be off in a flash chasing a mouse or outrunning a barking dog. Something about ying and yang. Balance. Settling down and still flapping around. Happiness creeps up on us when we least expect it, and we can’t really expect it to stay ’round forever. So savor the little things for all they are worth–and open your arms to the joyous little things in this world that make life gloriously worth the living.

~ Anna – 4/30/2018


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A Blue Moon Easter Eve

I haven’t written a blogpost since January because the last two months have been a blur of  packing, downsizing, moving, and all the details that such a nightmarish task entails. At times we have wondered if we should have left well enough alone and stayed in a neighborhood where we never quite fit in, but where there was room for all the stuff we have accumulated over the past 15 years.

Goodwill could power a whole store with all the items we donated to them on a daily basis throughout February and March. The friendly women who helped us with our boxes at the drop-off door probably decided we were crazy to have so much stuff and to be ever-so-willing to get rid of some much of it. Freedom is less stuff to drag around through life–or at least that’s my motto.

Despite the exhaustion from the devastating effort of this move, our new home in the Old North Knox neighborhood of Knoxville is indeed a neighborhood. We have already been welcomed by our a host of our neighbors in a way we never were in our former, more suburban, home in the West Knoxville area. Here we have sidewalks, a park nearly across the street from our house, and a market as well as a whole host of businesses and restaurants within easy walking distance. We finally feel we are home.

However, there is no time for a long post so late on Easter Eve, so tonight I send you, my loyal blog followers, a photo of the metal, garden art goat that found a new look for the annual Easter Egg Sale at Stanley’s Greenhouse today. This goat reminds us that once in a blue moon (and yes, I read in today’s paper that a blue moon was visible sometime today–and there will not be another one till 2020) magical things can happen on Easter Eve. Such as? Feeling at home, as well as finding a pink Easter egg inexplicably placed between your horns.

The metal garden art goat (ceremoniously and unceremoniously) decked out for the annual Easter Egg Sale today at Stanley’s Greenhouse.






// Anna ~ 3/31/2018




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The Paper

Steven Spielberg’s latest movie “The Post” tells the story of how Richard Nixon tried to stop the New York Times and the Washington Post from telling the American people their leaders doubted the outcome of the Vietnam War from its beginnings.

Until I watched Steven Spielberg’s latest movie “The Post” last evening, I had never thought of the throughline that newspapers have had in my life.

When I was growing up, Daddy supplemented our income by working Saturday nights–through the night until the compilation work was done–at the Knoxville News-Sentinel putting ad circulars into the rest of the paper by hand.

Being a sports maniac, Daddy thrilled at seeing the Sunday sports page–with all the notable sportswriters of the time–on Saturday night before the papers were delivered on Sunday.

Daddy at my grandparents’ home in 1957.

When he was just out of high school, my son Justin started working at the News-Sentinel in distribution and worked there for 13 years–even after he began going to college.

He was a union representative during a difficult time at the paper when he and his fellow distribution employees worked without a contract. Such was the way of unions in the South: not as numerous or as powerful as those found in the North.

Lisa, a dear friend I grew up with, worked for the local Knoxville paper as a reporter. I envied her job because she wrote for a newspaper. The real deal. Putting words on paper, telling stories that were conveyed into people’s homes, changing opinions and lives.

Snow on the University of Tennessee campus in 1934.

After a few years at the paper, my friend switched jobs to work for the University of Tennessee’s liaison with papers across the state and nation, its Information Services office. I suppose working for a paper was not a good living wage for a woman starting out in the 1980s in Knoxville. And I’m quite sure it is the same now that the News Sentinel no longer has a hyphen in its name and is no longer a truly local paper either. It was subsumed a few years ago into the Gannett/USAToday corporate amalgam of papers that use USAToday stories and add in some local flavor, sports, and obituaries. The rates go up, and the papers get slimmer, and the Knoxville news too often doesn’t get told.

Knoxville lost its main alternative weekly newspaper twice. The highly popular Metro Pulse was purchased by the News-Sentinel organization, then canceled after a few years when Gannett bought the Sentinel. The subsequent upstart Knoxville Mercury newspaper, with editors and contributing writers from the Pulse, lasted a few years before it too bit the dust in a town that really could use some truly local reporting. My nephew’s amazing girl friend Paige wrote for the Metro Pulse, and my dear friend Stacey worked for the Mercury. I was devastated at the loss of both papers.

When you move in the Fort Sanders area of Knoxville, you can actually get carried away.
Photo: Knoxville Mercury

Without a local, independent paper, Knoxville is a small-town city without a voice. The stories covered by the Metro Pulse and then the Knoxville Mercury were the investigative stories that needed to be told to an audience that was eager to read it.

When our house in South Knoxville–that we had tried to sell for two years–needed to reach the attention of folks who might be interested in buying it, our real estate agent placed an ad in the Metro Pulse and sold our house in three weeks. Putting an ad in the News Sentinel would not have the same effect now–nor would it have 15 years ago.

As I watched “The Post” and saw its depiction of the craftsmen working with blocks of type to ink the paper, and the long line of newspapers flowing high above the pressroom, it reminded me of what my Daddy used to say about loving to see the presses run. The thrill of watching blocks of type, combine with ink and paper, get folded in half, and sent out “hot off the presses” containing the hopes and dreams and stories of the people of our city.

A 1956 bride photographed with her father–my mother and my grandfather.

And what stories: who died, who won the football game on Saturday, who was getting married, who had gotten a scholarship, the scandal when one of Tennessee’s governor went down in shame, the glory of all the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vol national championships. It was in the paper and we shared a community of information that is for the most part gone.

Sure the News Sentinel still has a sports page with local writers, that’s one of the few sections of the paper that actually still has a stable of writers. Because sports is, after all, what this town is really interested in. But we used to have more than that. Of course, the News Sentinel was never a muckraking paper and did not win many national awards. But it was our paper. And told our story.

General Eisenhower with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II.

Many people do not care about the downturn in the fortunes of daily newspapers because, well there is, after all, the Internet and broadcast television news. But thank heaven for the few papers who pay reporters to write the stories that hold the rich and powerful accountable because that is what is critical to the health of a democracy.

Even though we don’t really have a democracy, since twice in the past 20 years the choice of the majority of voters did not become President of our country. But at least we ascribe to democratic values, we defend democratic values at home and abroad, and we tell ourselves that we act on democratic principles–that the will of the people means something in this country.

In order for the will of the people to mean something, however, a free and independent press must hold the government (at all levels), corporations, businesses, banks, the rich, our politicians, and our leaders accountable. Because that is what our nation was based on, and that is what keeps us free in any real sense.

So, yes, I would have been proud to have worked for a newspaper and been one of those few women who rarely made it to the table where decisions were made, but were at least on the team of a real newspaper. I would have been honored to tell the stories of people from all walks of life.

Author Dorothy Allison’s autobiography Bastard Out of South Carolina was one of the books I read that really spoke to me as a writer, and as a child who grew up poor. I was lucky enough to meet her when she came to the University of Tennessee to talk to would-be writers in the university’s English department. She told us, “Tell your stories. That’s your gold. We want to hear your stories.”

She was right. And we must continue to tell our stories. We must find a way to tell our stories, even though the traditional ways to be heard have dwindled, and it is harder to hear and learn each other’s stories.

I suppose this blog is my attempt to continue telling my story. And my Daddy’s. Although he is gone, he is with me as long as I live–and for me he is still smiling at the wonder of it all: those papers on their conveyor belts, speeding on their way to all those homes where people will read them and together they will weave their common language of community and hope.

//Anna ~ 1/31/2018


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Ode to Little Man

Lincoln, our 1-month-old Little Man.

I have a dark-eyed, adorable obsession: the Little Man who a month ago was born into our lives. Last year my son Justin married the love of his life Tracy. From their love, has come their son Lincoln, the already dignified and compelling presence we call Little Man because he is already so much his own person! And he was born with such large hands that he is still growing into them.

When I was a child, I used to swing on my grandparents’ backyard swing set and make up songs. I can’t remember a time that music has not played in my head when I am not dealing with all that life stuff that keeps me running about. So over the past few weeks I have made a lullaby for Little Man to the tune of the song Little Bird, Little Bird, written by Mitch Leigh in 1972 for the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. So here we go . . .

Little Man, Little Man
Don’t you wanna wake up?
Little Man, Little Man
We can have lots-a fun!

You can stare at me
With your big dark eyes
I can coo at you
Try to make you smile

Open up your arms
To the big wide world
Who’s more lucky
Than us!

Lincoln on the day of his birth.

The unadulterated force of my love for Lincoln and joy at his birth has been in sharp contrast to rest of the past year. Since I lost my dear father a year ago, and we gained an untenable leader for our country, I have been despondent about the present and the future.

I was born in the United States–in Tennessee, a historically poverty-stricken state, I’ll grant you–at a time when the country was riding high. When I was old enough to be aware of the world around me, America was about 25 years past saving the world from Nazism; World War II veterans were in their prime and led local, state, and national organizations; and we were proud of our place in the world.

Our high school chorus sang:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Little Man, a few weeks old, with his big hands.

Until today when I looked up the exact wording of this song, I did not realize the lyrics of this song were written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, a New York poet who was the daughter of Jewish immigrants. She wrote it to help raise money to properly exhibit the Statue of Liberty which was given to our country by France. This statue, formally called The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, was given by the French people out of friendship and to mark our countries’ shared commitment to democratic ideals.

When we received this extravagant gift, many Americans were less than thrilled about a monumental statue of a woman holding a torch which required an expensive pedestal in order to display it. Fundraising efforts were not going very well, so its leader asked Emma Lazarus, a 34-year-old New York poet, to write a poem to be auctioned–along with works by other popular artists of the time, such as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman–to secure enough money to exhibit Lady Liberty in a fitting manner.

Although she was reluctant to write a poem on demand, Lazarus contributed a sonnet to the effort. As for Mark Twain, he refused to contribute any of his work. Instead he sent a check with a letter enclosed proposing that a statue of the Biblical Adam would be more fitting and wrote:

What do we care for a statue of liberty when we’ve got the thing itself in its wildest sublimity? What you want of a monument is to keep you in mind of something you haven’t got—something you’ve lost. Very well; we haven’t lost liberty; we’ve lost Adam.

Another thing: What has liberty done for us? Nothing in particular that I know of. What have we done for her? Everything. We’ve given her a home, and a good home, too. . .

But suppose your statue represented her old, bent, clothed in rags, downcast, shame-faced, with the insults and humiliation of 6,000 years, imploring a crust and an hour’s rest for God’s sake at our back door?—come, now you’re shouting! That’s the aspect of her which we need to be reminded of, lest we forget it.

When I read Twain’s objections to the Statue of Liberty, it was not clear to me what aspect of Adam, the Biblical first man, Twain believed Americans had forgotten and needed to remember. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve lost their freedom to decide their own fate by disobeying God and were cast from their home, the Garden of Eden.

Perhaps Twain meant that a statue of Adam would be an apt reminder that we should safeguard our freedoms better than the first man reputed to have lost his. Although Lady Liberty has been a very effective inspiration to the world fpr the past century and a half, Twain’s admonition could be more relevant to our present-day situation than his own.

In any event, Twains’ alternative suggestion went unheeded, and Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, The New Colossus, was read at the Statue of Liberty’s 1883 exhibition.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

The love of our lives.

Lady Liberty has welcomed millions of refugees to America which has been a sanctuary from oppression, a land of opportunity and second chances. Her welcome presence in the New York harbor has been a symbol to hope to  immigrants seeking a better life.

Like Lady Liberty, my grandson’s birth awakened a hope in me that I thought was gone. When I look into his eyes, I want to ensure he has a world where he can breathe freely, love who he wants, do what he wants, and realize his dreams. Despite the daily evidence to the contrary, Lincoln’s existence gives me hope.

Loving Little Man as I do makes me want to fight for his best future. It is no coincidence that a female figure was chosen to exemplify the ideals of democracy and freedom, even if females have not always been able to exercise those rights in this country. Now that women have the right to vote, we should use that right from an impulse of love, not an impulse borne from (and born out of) fear and hate. More than with our vote, we should also use our individual talents as well as our combined efforts to conserve and protect our environment; provide affordable health insurance for all, but especially for children; promote policies that favor the majority of people, not policies that favor only the wealthy and powerful; and support regulation and legislation to make education at every level more child-friendly and affordable without graduate-school education benefits being taxed as compensation.

I am not a glassy-eyed Pollyanna, but a realist who knows the odds are stacked heavily against us. But we must do what we can. Twice in the past two decades, our country has demonstrated that Americans do not, by definition, live in a democracy where the power of the people and the rule of the majority decide their leader. We can argue about many things, but the present rule by the minority over the will of the majority is our present-day reality. However, I am encouraged by the fact that America and her allies overcame the Nazis in World War II and put an end to the systematic death machine of the Holocaust. If we could overcome the seemingly unbeatable German juggernaut, perhaps we have a future beyond the chaos of our current governance.

May he have the chance for a bright future.

A few years after Emma Lazarus wrote her poem to help raise money for the Statue of Liberty, she died of cancer at the age of 38. Her obituary did not mention her contribution to the way the world viewed our country: as a symbol of hope and liberty. Although it wasn’t till 1903 that her poem was championed and her words were added to the Statue of Liberty, her work has inspired generations to emigrate to theis country that my grandson’s namesake, Abraham Lincoln, said was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”.

Sometimes the best efforts can seem lost for years, but then they may unexpectedly resurface above the waves, and find safe harbor. May it be so–sooner rather than later–for the precious sweetheart we call Little Man, and all the other little women and men we hope will have a future in this world.

// Anna ~ 12/1/2017




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Daddy’s Ro-phorisms

My sister Lisa and me in the snow outside our first home, 1963

When I was growing up Daddy used to drive me crazy with his corny aphorisms for every situation.

We didn’t have the money to eat at the fancier restaurants such as Shoney’s–yes, we were indeed that poor. Mama and Daddy would occasionally take us through the McDonald’s drive-through where the odds of getting a plain hamburger for finicky me were pretty slim. About half the time my “plain” hamburger came with the icky mustard and ketchup abomination they slathered on those unsuspecting burgers!

Mama would say, “Wipe it off with your napkin.” And Daddy would chime in with, “Anna, you’ve got to take the sour with the sweet.” I didn’t want to take the sour with the sweet! I  wanted a plain hamburger on a plain bun without the nauseating condiments that made me want to throw up.

But making do was my family’s mantra. Don’t make waves. Don’t ask questions.

Doctors always knew best–even if we went to the quack doctor in our poor side of town who diagnosed my torn cartilage as water on the knee. I walked around on that swollen knee for months before the former nurse across the street said, “You’d better get that looked at by a knee specialist I know.” The orthopedic doc suggested surgery right away. Voila! I could walk.

My mantra was making it better. Whatever “it” was, I wanted to read about it, learn about it, ask questions about it, organize it, devise a better system for it, put a bow on it, and for sure not have disgusting condiments all over it. Let’s say my parents and I were not always the most smooth dance partners for a childhood pas de trois.

Our second home with the big old trees in the front yard that Daddy hated because he hated raking leaves.

Daddy however was one to rail against the elements. With grim resolve, he’d say, “I’ve gotta go down and stoke the furnace.” From the pile of coal in our backyard, he’d take a goodly amount of coal in a bucket down to the furnace in our dirt-walled basement. If he was successful, the registers that brought heat into our house would spew forth warmth. If he was not successful, we were cold.

I’ve often said it, Daddy would have made a good king. He would have been a magnanimous monarch of a well-off country if there was a tidy bureaucracy to look out for all the details of his duchy. Justice and integrity would have ruled the day. But Daddy was not mechanical, he certainly could not fix anything, and he was so methodical with everything he attempted that he was left in the dust by the cut-corners, beer-and-pizza, salt-of-the earth men of his time and place.

But Daddy had his values, his aphorism, his theories, and his truths. Some of them were spot on, some less so. I find now I trot out more than a few of Daddy’s sayings to put the punctuation mark on life’s ups and downs.

We’ll cross that road when we come to it.

Jealousy. It’s jealousy. That’s the root of all evil.

This is dogwood winter, next we’ll have blackberry winter, and then whippoorwill winter.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Better late than never.

Beggars can’t be choosers.

You win some, you lose some.

You can’t beat a good team twice.

You can’t take it with you.

We don’t want to wear out our welcome.

Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.

Live and learn.

Dad jimmit!


Time flies.

It’s as slow as Christmas.

That’s a pig in a poke.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Money isn’t everything.

Little things mean alot.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Practice makes perfect.

Two heads are better than one.

That’s the pot calling the kettle black.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Don’t go out with your head wet.

Get home before dark.

Did we turn the stove off?

Daddy being irrepressibly himself at a 1996 wedding reception.

Daddy was especially fond of asking about the stove being off–a sign of his obsessive-compulsive disorder, along with his taking an hour to shave. We used to have a hee-haw, my sister and me, shaking our heads about Daddy taking an hour to shave. Bless his soul. I miss him so.

My Daddy, Roy Rotha Allen, died a year ago on December 2, 2016. I think of him often. My husband Kurt and I enjoy quoting Daddy’s sayings to each other. I usually preface one of these wisdoms with “as Daddy used to say . . . ” Kurt calls them Daddy’s aphorisms, his Rotha-isms, or his Rophorisms.

Despite Daddy’s 10th-grade education, his mother dying when he was only 4 months old, and his being raised in a home full of neglect, alcoholism, and abuse, Daddy was the parent who taught me to laugh and live life with open-armed passion and joy. He taught me not to be afraid of living life to the fullest, to talk openly, to question, and to love without reserve. He taught me these things because I shared more than a bit of his genetic makeup, and I watched him live. He loved me without qualification and without trying to make renovations, as Mama tended to. He was proud of me and everything I accomplished. He was proud of my education and the jobs I earned that allowed me to make a difference in the world.

Daddy at Christmas 2000.

Mama gave me my energy, drive, and hardworking, never-say-die work ethic. But Daddy gave me the sweet love that sustained my soul during the times in life when I was in serious harm’s way. He LOVED me. And because he loved me, I knew in my bones how to love others. Loving myself and accepting myself with all my imperfections has been hard; I am my own worst critic. But Daddy saw only my shiny-faced good points, and he made me glad to be alive.

He still does. And as long as I live, he will always be with me. He is still my sweet, sweet, adorable, dearest Daddy.

//Anna ~ 11/30/2017



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Arriving at Last

The young dreamer, circa 1972.

In the fall of my senior year at South (Knoxville) High School, I was offered a full scholarship to Berea College, a small liberal arts college in Kentucky.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionists who took their beliefs seriously enough to start the first interracial and coeducational college in the antebellum South. They expanded their mission through the years to offer poor Appalachian kids like me a free college education in exchange for working at the college.

Although my father was proud of my academic accomplishments in school, he made it clear he could not help me with my college education. He was not being unkind, just stating the obvious, since my family’s income was around $7000 in 1975. I knew I needed scholarships to attend school and was especially excited about a full scholarship to Berea where everyone would be a kid of limited-to-no means like me. Coming from a family where Daddy’s father was illiterate and Daddy did not graduate from high school, I was the first person in my family to seek a college education.

Accepting my diploma from high school in May 1975.

Making this whole Kentucky college education dream even more appealing to a naive, hopelessly romantic girl–who had grown up on a steady diet of old-time movie romance–I had met a young man from Kentucky that past summer. His father, the pastor of the Prestonsburg Baptist church, was a close friends of the pastor of our church in Knoxville. In the mid-1970s, Prestonsburg was a small town in Floyd County with one red light–a milestone over which there was great excitement and pride. There was even talk of a second one coming soon.

Our church youth group was invited to Prestonsburg to hold Vacation Bible School classes for the kids of coal-mining families. Just down the road from town, the hollers of nearby Johnson County hadn’t changed much since Loretta Lynn–the world-famous, country music singer-songwriter–grew up there in Van Lear, Ky., 30 years before.

The young preacher’s son, Dell, was kind, attentive, also a rising senior in school, and was such a gentleman when we went to see a movie at the nearest theater in Paintsville. The West Virginia line was just 30 miles or so away. This was coal country where mining families lived in hollers (hollows) that went straight up the mountainsides. I was amazed that their front yards were mud, the houses where not much more than shacks, but there were usually several cars beside them–some on cinderblocks, but some quite pricey. What little money they had went toward wheels, either for bragging rights or perhaps to take you someplace you’d rather be.

Here I am in April 1975, just before I started college in June.

My Kentucky gentleman and I wrote each other when I went back home to Tennessee for my senior year. My parents even took me and my sister up to see him play quarterback in a football game that fall. He had been voted Mr. Prestonsburg High, was the quarterback of the football team, and was a Baptist preacher’s son–what more could a young Southern, religious, girl like me want?

I dated no one my senior year, didn’t go to my senior prom–not that it was a terrible hardship since I hadn’t gone to many dances during my years at South. Being considered a “brain” had made me dateless for most of my high school years anyway. Instead I wrote earnest letters and dreamed of a future with such a nice guy as Dell. I must have confided to one of the girls at church about my dreams of going to college in Kentucky and a future with Dell, because she told a friend of hers in Prestonsburg, who mentioned it to Dell, and I received a Dear Jane letter. Perhaps a long-distance relationship was too tenuous to build a future on–or maybe he found someone else.

My Irish Mamaw Jerushia Cunningham Henderlight at my college graduation in 1987.

The breakup with my Kentucky boy friend made attending Berea College seem more like a pipe dream. So when I won a one-year Knoxville PTSA scholarship in an essay-writing contest, I decided to attend the University of Tennessee in my hometown.

Meanwhile life has happened over the last four decades. Busy, busy, busy. I graduated from UT where I worked for 30 years, the majority of those years spent writing for the fund-raising arm of the university. Education had been my ticket to a better life for me and my children, and I felt so fortunate to have earned a spot on the team that was working to ensure that other kid’s educational dreams could come true.

At the university I met an extraordinary man, Kurt, and we married in 1995. Ironically he had earned his undergraduate degree at Transylvania University, a liberal arts college in Lexington, Ky. This year our nephew Zach began work on his master’s degree at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, so last month the planets aligned and we gleefully set out to visit Zach and his adorable girl friend Paige at their home there.

Inside one of the gorgeously appointed buildings at Berea College. Photo: Kurt Weiss

Only a short drive from Lexington was Berea, the college that had offered me a full scholarship beginning the fall of 1975. I could have gone there, worked alongside other poor kids like me, and gotten a first-class education without debt or tuition. Of course, being such a sensitive, homesick kinda girl as I was at 17, I would have needed the additional incentive and support of a boy friend down the road at Eastern Kentucky University who was in the engineering program–which at the time was what Dell said he wanted to do.

But just for a moment, it is sweet to imagine that I had been raised by parents who knew more about the ropes of higher education, and I had been able to chart my own course at Berea. I could have become a history teacher or an English teacher, and gone on to make seemingly dry subjects shine, inspiring a few of my students to dream they could be more than the lives they were born into.

The Historic Boone Tavern at Berea College, September 2017, photo by Kurt Weiss.

It did not happen that way for me. But last month, in September 2017, Kurt and I left Lexington, went to Berea, and stayed at the college’s historic Boone Tavern, We had a tour of the campus given by an undergraduate student  who loves the school so much that she hates to leave even for holiday visits with her family! We enjoyed lunch in the student-staffed coffee shop, bought student-crafted mugs in the student-ran bookstore, and scored an organic rosemary plant from the student-ran farms of Berea. The grounds were perfect, the buildings immaculate, and everyone seemed very happy to be there.

One of only seven work-colleges in the country, Berea gives their students the highest quality education (worth approximately $100,000) and is consistently ranked one of the best private liberal arts colleges in the country. Pretty remarkable for a college that started with the dream of promoting equality by making education available to men and women of all races. Yes, men and women of all races.

Love this tree that fits me perfectly! Photo: Kurt Weiss

There is more than one way to make a dream come true, and the road to fulfilling Berea’s full egalitarian, interracial mandate was littered with roadblocks–such as Kentucky’s law in 1904 forbidding the co-education of blacks and whites. But 46 years later, in 1950, Kentucky amended the law to allow co-education above the high school level, and Berea again accepted black students.

Soooo, I was not able to go to Berea in 1975, but 42 years later I arrived–a bit late for sure. But so excited to see the college for myself at last. The huge old trees dotting the campus were planted by students we were told, some of the buildings were built by students, and we watched as students mowed the college grounds. Talk about sweat equity. This is triumph of the spirit. Of course, not everyone who begins as a freshman makes it to graduation at Berea. Some students cannot keep up with the rigorous academic standards and work responsibilities. But for those who have the work ethic, determination, and heart, Berea is the train they can take to where they want to go which gives them more power over their lives. For that is what education does–gives you more power over your life.

I finally arrived at Berea College–a bit late, but so happy nonetheless!

Berea College was never able to make my dreams come true, but as an adult–with some occasionally disposable income–I can support Berea and help other ambitious young people of limited means to realize their hopes for a better life.

As the famous primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall recently said in an interview printed in the October 21, 2017, edition of The New York Times:


I meet so many incredible people doing amazing things, saving animals on the brink of extinction, restoring the forest, cleaning up a river. It’s knowing what can be done that gives people the courage to fight.

Here’s to having the courage to fight and make a difference! And here’s to finally arriving!

Anna// ~ 10/31/2017

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Education, Family, Freedom, Ideas, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Taking Along Our Ghosts

When I was young, I saw the 1979 movie “Being There” starring Peter Sellers in his most provocative role as Chance, a simple, uneducated man who grew up and tended the garden on a great estate, and had never been off its grounds. Since the film was shot at the gorgeous Biltmore House in North Carolina, I felt a special kinship to the movie since I had been there a few years before.

As the movie opens, Chance the gardener’s life has irrevokably changed with the death of the estate owner who was his guardian. Chance cannot continue his existence of simply tending the garden and must make his way in a world he does not understand. Curiously, however, everyone he meets “writes” onto Chance as if he is a blank slate seeing in him what they want to see. A misunderstanding of his name leads to him becoming known as Chauncey Gardner who inadvertently achieves fame by appearing on television as a man of simple wisdom who eventually becomes the chief adviser to the President of the United States.

Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in the 1979 movie “Being There”.

Gardening is all he knows, and gardening is all he really talks about. Yet everyone he meets and the people who watch him on TV, see great imagery, depth, and import in his simple phrases about roots, growth, the seasons, and “liking to watch” TV.

I couldn’t help but muse about “Being There” and Chauncey Gardner after the night I woke up at 4:00 a.m., on November 9, 2016. The day before had been Election Day and I had followed the returns with mounting dread. At about 1:30, I went to sleep hoping against hope that my country would not elect a reality TV star as President. A scant few hours later I was awakened as blood poured down my throat from a burst blood vessel in my nose.

And it wouldn’t stop bleeding. As I held a wet Kleenex to my face, I texted my friend who (thank heaven!) is a wonderful ear, nose, and throat specialist here in Knoxville. I explained my situation and asked if she could work me into her morning schedule. Of course there was no immediate answer at 4:30 a.m., but finally the nose stopped bleeding. I checked my iPad and learned that, yes, our Electoral College system of counting votes by the population of each state–rather than by democratically counting each citizen’s vote–had given the election to our own 2016 version of Chauncey Gardener.

I tried to doze a little on that early morning of November 9. I was awakened by a text on my phone from my ear, nose, and throat doctor saying I could come to her office straight away. As I drove my nose started bleeding again. Between driving and bleeding, bleeding and driving, I was lucky to make it to her office where she did surgery to close the artery in my left sinus. She explained that when we get older, our sinus cavities are not so resilient and blowing our nose with too much force can cause a rupture and open an artery. Live and learn. But too often we do not learn–certainly we do not learn from history.

I am a native Tennessean, born and reared in Knoxville. My various family lines (Irish, German, Scots-Irish, French, and English) have been in this country for hundreds of years.

My maternal grandfather’s family, the Henderlights, came from Germany in the 1700s. During World War II, my grandfather’s brother Ed was captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war. Mama says that because Ed Henderlight’s ancestors came from Germany, they saw his German last name and let him go. My Irish grandmother’s brother, my Uncle Charlie Cunningham, also fought in World War II.

Through archival research, I have found that my paternal grandmother’s line of Montgomerys came originally from Normandy (what is now France), then to England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The ancestor who came to the U.S., was William Montgomery, a Quaker, who emigrated from either Ireland or Edinburgh, Scotland, to Philadelphia, then to Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1772. He is buried in New Garden, which became a Quaker college, called Guilford College, a few years after his death.

During this country’s Civil War, my great, great-grandfather Lindsey Montgomery was a private in the Carroll County Militia Infantry, Company G of the 54th Virginia Regiment of the Confederate Army. The 1870 U.S. census states that Lindsey was a farmer, the value of his “personal estate” was $150, and that no one in the family could read or write except his son Thomas, age 8.

My paternal great-grandmother Cordelia Nichols Montgomery and her Carroll County, Virginia family.

The 1880 census notes that Lindsey and his wife Mary lived in a household of nine family members including Lindsey’s mother and their youngest child, my great-grandfather John Montgomery who was 9 years old.

According to her widow’s pension application from the state of Virginia in 1902, Mary noted that her husband died of “fever” on November 19, 1895, near Baker Mines in Carroll County, Virginia. Since her husband died after the war, Mary only received $25 a year instead of the $40 received by Virginia widows whose husbands who had died during the war. At that time Union widows received three times the amount that Virginia was able to give its widows.

My husband Kurt and I watched the 2012 documentary film “Death and the Civil War” by Ric Burns (documentarian Ken Burns’s brother) about the sheer numbers of dead during the Civil War and the crisis it created for the living: locating the bodies, identifying the bodies, transporting the bodies, burying the bodies, and so on.

The documentary was based on historian [Catherine] Drew Gilpin Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil WarBesides being a leading American historian, Drew Gilpin Faust is also President of Harvard University.

Faust and Ric Burns tell many stories about the sheer numbers of dead to be dealt with during the Civil War, a war that most people of the time felt would last only a few months. In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, alone the numbers were unmanageable, unthinkable, and beyond all reason. As Mental Floss reported in their 2012 article on the documentary:

The battle of Gettysburg incurred death on a scale that we can hardly imagine. With an estimated 51,000 casualties and 7,786 dead, the scale of carnage overwhelmed the town of Gettysburg, which itself only had 24,000 residents. There was simply no way the people there could properly care for the wounded and dead. As the film’s narrator explains: ‘In three days, Union and Confederate forces had suffered almost as many casualties as in all previous American wars combined.’ Add to that, 3,000 dead horses lay dead on the battlefield. The task of burying the dead fell to Union soldiers and the townspeople, who faced the unimaginably grim work of burying these people in the summer heat.

Confederate dead near Chancellorsville, Virginia.

Most Union soldiers died on Southern battlefields far from home. And, of course, Southern soldiers could die in Virginia, but if they were from West Tennessee or Mississippi or Louisiana, they were still very far from their loved ones back home.

Grand designs and machinations of powerful men fed the grievances and fear that led the two major parts of the U.S. to reach the cacophony level that led to civil war: South from North, North from South. Each side had lost the ability to hear or see each other. But most of the soldiers on both sides who lived and, sometimes died, through disease and cannon fire were hardly aware of the bigger consequences of the war or how historians would make sense of it.

Dead soldiers from the Battle of Antietam, Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Loved ones, who were told their sons, husbands, fathers, lovers, brothers, or friends were dead, had no body to prove it. No body to bury. No grave to visit. It is estimated that 40 percent of the dead were never identified, and 66 percent of African-Americans who fought for the Union were never identified. Two out of every three died from disease instead of in battle. Between 1865 and 1868, the Union received over 68,162 requests at its Missing Soldiers Office. And the United States government worked diligently and spent a great deal of money to locate and bring its Union dead home. However, the national government that fought a war to bring its erring brothers back into the Union fold had no interest in finding Confederate dead, recovering their bodies, or bringing them home to their loved ones.

My grandmother Darcas Montgomery (standing, left) with her parents John and Cordelia, her brothers Robert (left) and Adrian (right), and sister Regina Eutaw, Carroll County, Va., 1906.

Most Southern states were virtually bankrupt after the war–and the Union was in no mood to help them. The work-a-day people of the South suffered dearly for the decisions made by the powerful men who thought it was a good idea to secede from the Union. The women of the Confederate states worked together to raise money to find the bodies of their loved ones and bury them.

Curiously in May 1958–nearly 100 years after the Civil War–the United States enacted a law giving Confederate veterans and their widows the same pensions given veterans of other wars. My online research indicates that two Confederate veterans and a few thousand widows were still alive to receive the pension.

It took 100 years for the hatred between the warring states to diminish enough for Americans in the North to agree that Americans in the South, mostly widows, could have a tiny bit of money–$60 or $70 a year–to improve their lot. Does it really take a hundred years for such hatred to abate? Yes, and sometimes the hatred continues after thousands of years as we see with the tribal forces fighting each other in the Middle East and Africa.

In addition to watching the “lived” values of my parents, Daddy taught me that movies can provide a profound education about people who lived before me and the importance of searching the metaphorical seashore of their experiences for nuggets of hard-earned truth about how I should live my life.

Perhaps the movie that touched me the most in this regard is the 1996 masterpiece, The English Patient, adapted from a historical novel of the same name by the British author Michael Ondaatje. This Best Picture, Oscar-award-winning movie has everything going for it: a stellar cast, intelligent writing, luminous cinematography, and what a memorable story.

With a name so like my own and with a similarly sensitive termperament, Hana is the character that most captures my heart. In her Oscar-winning role, French actress Juliette Binoche  plays Hana, a French-Canadian nurse who loses everything in World War II: her fiance, her best friend, and her willingness to live. Hana decides she will leave the medical caravan as they drive through Italy with their badly injured soldiers. Instead she will care for their most precarious patient, a hideously burned man with little memory, only a “bit of lung”, and bandages over a badly disfigured face. Because he speaks perfectly clipped British English, he is assumed to be British.

Juliette Binoche as Hana in “The English Patient”, 1996.

She cares for her patient (beautifully played by British actor Ralph Fiennes) in an abandoned monastery. As she eases his suffering, Hana finds comfort in the simple acts of everyday life: reading aloud, sharing a juicy plum, playing the piano in the bombed-out library, and listening to her patient’s hallucinatory memories triggered by the regular doses of morphine used to alleviate the pain of his burns. They both know he won’t live long, but he encourages her in the love she finds with Kip, a young Sikh British Army soldier, whose job is defusing unexploded mines left behind by the retreating enemy troops.

Kip lifting Hana by rope and pulley so she can see the amazing frescoes painted on the walls of a church.

Kip takes Hana to an abandoned church at night and lifts her into the air with a rope and pulley so she can view–by lantern light–the marvelous frescoes left there by master painters long ago. Sharing the beauty of the natural world, as well as the creativity of art with Kip by the flickering lantern light, inspires Hana to risk living–and loving again–in the middle of chaos, destruction, hatred, and mindless death.

Hana and her patient discover his history as his memory slowly returns. He is not what his speech pattern implies–not British, but a Hungarian cartographer (schooled in England) named László de Almásy (an actual historical figure). When the war broke out, he and his expedition were mapping Egypt and its archaelogical treasures for the British Royal Geographical Society. He had fallen in love with an unhappily married woman, Katharine Clifton, whose husband Geoffrey tried to kill them all when he discovered their affair. His chosen method was suicide (and murder) by plane: deliberately crashing his plane into Almásy’s campsite in the middle of the desert–with Katharine in the second seat of his biplane. Geoffrey successfully kills himself, but misses Almásy and badly injures Katharine. Walking three days in the desert, Almásy tries desperately to find help to save  Katharine who cannot walk.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Juliette Binoche as Hana by candlelight, 1996. ©Miramax Films

As you can well imagine, Almásy’s quest to save Katharine’s life is not successful. Despite his English accent, when he reaches the nearest British outpost he is mistaken for a German spy. When he finally flies back in a borrowed plane to the desert cave where he left Katharine, she is dead.

In his grief he carries her dead body to the plane and is flying with her over the desert when he is shot down. His badly burned body is found by Bedouins, the nomadic people of Africa, who tend his wounds and bring him back to a military hospital. They do not care whether he is British or German or Hungarian or American; he is a man who needs help and they give it.

Although Almásy was not able to save the woman he loved, his friendship with Hana saves her. In deep emotional and physical pain, he asks Hana to end his suffering with an overdose of morphine. With tears flowing down her face, she gently complies. Sometimes a healer must put her patient’s needs above her own misgivings and end suffering in a different way.

A military truck passes near the monastery, and in the movie’s final scene Hana hops in the back. With her hair blowing, her face toward the wind, eyes open, she looks ahead and smiles. Hana has left the ghosts behind her, or perhaps she has found a way to take the ghosts along, and through her love for them, they, and she, live on.

The French word for “story” is historie. Curiously, the German word for “story” is also historie. In order to go forward in our own strange, chaotic, frightening time of the 21st Century, it would be comforting to imagine that we could learn from our ancestors’ stories and from the stories that inspire us in books and movies. That we could learn from our own history, our country’s history, and our world’s history.

If not, we can at least take up the charge as Hana did–face to the wind and to the sun–and find the courage to live passionately by learning from the simple acts of everyday life, sharing the beauty of the natural world and the creativity and wonder of art, drinking deeply of the lifeforce of friendship, and taking our ghosts along with us.

Anna ~~ 09/22/2017


Posted in Autobiographical, Backyard Nature, Beauty, Courage, Creativity, Freedom, Friends, Ideas, Love, Screen, The Arts, Wonder | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment