Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
I share Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s belief that I am somehow the same me as I was at the time of my first memory, when I was a 5-year-old girl. I feel exempt from easy categorization and the stereotype of who a person my age is supposed to be. I will admit to being an adult, thank heaven, but in many ways I feel the same way I did as a child. I felt my opinion should matter, I wanted to learn and know the truth for myself. I wanted to make a difference with my life. I wanted to love expansively and joyously. And I did not fit in easily among the other children. I was afraid to be myself in public. I was shy. In many ways I was hiding.
Here I am still hiding in plain sight, camouflaged as a mild-mannered, white Southern woman with many ideas and dreams.
Disguises are very big during the Halloween season, and adults and children in costume are walking outside our house today on their way to Halloween parties. Masks are important not only for Halloween but in order to protect us from Covid with more than wishful thinking and misinformation. Yet masks have become a battleground as has so much else: Vaccines, school board meetings, city and county legislative meetings, social media, airline flights, cities and rural areas, red states and blue states.
What is it like to live now? It feels as if we are living on the edge of a precipice overlooking a great expanse of sea and sky. There are craggy, jagged rocks far below, and the fall looks particularly horrifying and unforgiving. I try to stay away from the cliff’s edge and look to the horizon where the sky and earth meet with color and possibility.
The sky and earth meet with color and possibility in the eyes of my grandson Lincoln and granddaughter Penelope. They do not hide in plain sight. Who they are, what they are feeling, and what they want are clear from their words and actions. They instinctively want to learn new skills such as jumping into the water from the wide of the pool or lake into the arms of the people they love and trust. They learn new words, whole sentences, complete paragraphs. They emulate what they see us doing around them.
Lincoln, age 4, loves dinosaurs. At some point Lincoln will learn that dinosaurs were once alive, but became extinct 65 million years ago. Yet their skeletons and where their bones were found have been guideposts for us to learn what they ate, how they lived, and where they died. We still learn from creatures that dominated our planet for 165 million years and then, for the most part, died away. Lincoln loves their dominating, mysterious, and wild ways.
Lincoln’s younger sister Penny, age 2 and 1/2, loves cats. Felines are mysterious and elusive animals who live with us as pets, but they will not be led on leashes as dogs are. Cats make their own rules and are still in some ways as wild and undomesticated as their kind ever were. Penny loves their dominating, mysterious, and wild ways.
In your eyes The light, the heat (in your eyes) I am complete (in your eyes) I see the doorway (in your eyes) To a thousand church (in your eyes) The resolution (in your eyes) Of all the fruitless searches (in your eyes) I see the light and the heat (in your eyes) Oh, I wanna be that complete I wanna touch the light, the heat I see in your eyes
Peter Gabriel, English musician
My goal is to aid and abet Lincoln and Penny in their adventures to become themselves so they will not have to hide in plain sight when they are adults. My wish is that they can be independent, think for themselves, make their own way, and learn from the creatures and ideas that inspire them.
May they each seek and find a habitat that will support their life; may they seek and find fellow travelers who will accompany them as they make their journeys; may they have the freedom to find their bliss and fulfill their passion; may they find what stimulates them and makes them feel gloriously alive. May they not only survive, may they thrive. May they not perch on the edge of the abyss; may they fly from it.
May they not only run–as Penny especially dearly loves to do–but may they fly.
If I believed in such things I would have done a spirited rain dance this summer and early fall to implore the skies to deliver the right clouds to make it rain for longer than the brief five minutes at a time that we experienced this summer.
Farmers and gardeners, and all humans for that matter, must adapt their lives to the seasons. Feast or famine. Drought or flood.
By the time we make it to October in East Tennessee, we have slogged through a stew of vaporous humidity, high temperatures, and day after day, week after week, and month after month of little-to-no rain. Yet we have plants, trees, shrubs, and grasslands that need rain. And, yes, people need rain too.
Water is what makes life on our planet possible. Our bodies are around 60 percent water, and even our bones contain 31 percent. No wonder the sounds of water falling over rocks, water lapping on the sides of boats, and water trickling through a creek are irresistible and balms to our souls.
Without water, our gardens would be deserts. And so would we.
Globally most of us have been metaphorically slogging through a desert created by the fear, uncertainty, and disruption of Covid, the disease of unease caused by a coronavirus that has killed at least 4.5 million people around the world, and around 700,000 Americans.
It is not the virus alone that causes us to be bleed our discontent. We Americans cannot agree on how to respond to the virus, despite the fact that nearly every American knows someone who has died. Some of us are vaccinated, others not. Only 45 percent are currently vaccinated in my home state of Tennessee. Not caused by availability problems, mind you, but mostly for political reasons and misinformation. Yes, while some countries suffer without access to vaccines, too many people in rich countries such as ours squander the benefits of a lifesaving vaccine by refusing to do their public-health duty to ensure we reach something close to herd immunity so the babies, children, and immunocompromised people can be safe.
In our family, we have a new baby who is due to join us in February next year. He knows nothing about drought, disease, floods, hurricanes, hatred, vaccines, masks, wars, guns, and politics. I feel sorry for this little man who hardly has a chance. We have the memories of better times. But for him there may be no butterflies to inspire him with their delicate, ethereal beauty. For him no country that hangs together when things are tough. And just like his older brother and sister, he will never know my Daddy. Oh, what a loss! He will not know the force of nature and passion that was Daddy–the man who was the matchmaker who believed his parents should be together before anyone else thought so. And yes, this little boy will be the youngest and will compete with his older siblings for life’s goodies. In the short term, his siblings will find him to be the tiny, crying usurper of his parents and grandparents’ time, attention, and affection.
Eventually his siblings will know him in a different way. Those of us who are old enough to know the score will welcome him straightaway and love him because we know how precious new life is. And we will welcome him with wonder and delight, awestruck at his unique qualities and nature. We will love him immediately, and help him get the feel for how it is to live in the 22nd Century. We his adult family members will shield him, but we will also help teach him how to–with every new step–make his own way in the world.
Frank Cabot was an American visionary who created a gloriously idiosyncratic private garden called Les Quatre Vents at his home in the Quebec province of Canada. My husband Kurt and I watched the documentary, called “The Gardener”, that tells the story of his life and his way of thinking about gardens. To him, gardens are life. He believed fervently that people can have a personal relationship with each garden they visit. Frank Cabot (1925-2011) was a gentleman, a gentle man, and he dedicated his life to making gardens, and saving endangered private gardens. In the documentary, he shared his belief that:
Everybody has a garden within them, and it’s a way of expressing one’s creativity.
Francis “Frank” Cabot, Self-taught American horticulturalist and saver of gardens
Cabot created beauty and was never happier than when he thought that a person was touched spiritually when they visited his garden. May we encourage our new little man–this tiny little gardener entrusted to his parents and his family–to explore the beauty and awe and spiritual nature of the natural world. May he find his way, may he find his passion, may he find his bliss, may his spirit soar.
There are many ways to bring joy to this our second summer of the Covid pandemic, but I prefer the ones that are simple, inexpensive, and can be easily accomplished without interacting with large groups of humans who may or may not be vaccinated, may or may not have the virus, and may or may not take common-sense precautions to keep themselves or others safe.
What’s a thinking woman to do when confronted with a second year of pestilence and pitifully inadequate state and local politicians? Well, here are a few of the antidotes I have been using to raise my flagging spirits.
The night blooming cereus in bloom. Photos: Kurt Weiss & Anna Montgomery
Grow an indoor/outdoor night blooming cereuscactus – Also called Queen of the Night, this plant can be bought in a nursery or even started by placing a piece from a friend’s cactus in good-quality potting soil or cactus growing medium. It will root on its own. Amazing. My year-and-a-half-year-old plant bloomed a few nights ago for the first time this summer. These cacti bloom at night, for one night. My cereus had five buds: three opened one night, two opened the next. And what other-worldly flowers they have with a delicious fragrance. During the late spring, summer, and early fall, put the cactus outside in shaded or indirect morning sun (I have one on my porch and one beside our house near our porch). Bring your plant indoors for the winter. From November till May, I have mine near a large window that gets afternoon sun (although morning sun would be fine). My cereus grows exponentially over the winter. When the branches get too big, just clip them off and start another pot. What a mysterious and interesting plant! If the plant is happy, it will surprise you how much it will grow in the winter. And what an easy plant to grow!
Give yourself a refreshing spritz with Avene Thermal Spring Water – On your face, on your body, when you are outside in hot weather, before you put on moisturizer, when traveling, after a workout, after shaving, on the beach–wherever, whenever. You say, hey, it’s just water. Nope. No one does toiletries like the French. The spray nozzle is a spa experience unto itself! Spray it, let it dry naturally for a few minutes. It has minerals that are healthy for the skin. You deserve it! It is even safe for sensitive skin. Not expensive either. The thermal water sprays come in three sizes: $9, $14. and $18.50.
And put serum not just on your face, but your body as well, especially after a shower or bath with Necessaire The Body Serum (yes, it is French too) – This serum allows you to apply hyaluronic acid on your body as well as your face. And no, I do not receive any of these products for free or even a percentage off. They are just products that make me feel pampered. Maybe they will work for you too. And all these fun products are good for men and women. Necessaire The Body Serum is $45 and fragrance free.
Take an aromatherapy mineral and epsom salts bath – with Aura Cacia Chamomile for tranquility and Geranium for comfort. Soak for 20 minutes, and you are new person! These blends make an entire house smell like a spa. You can buy a 16 oz. container from Aura Cacia for $13.55 or a 2.5 oz. packet for $3.57. Besides my favorites of chamomile and geranium, these mineral baths are also available: Balsam Fir, Cedarwood, Eucalyptus, Lavender, Lemon, Peppermint, Rosemary, Sage, Sweet Orange, Tea Tree, and Ylang Ylang.
Take care of your lips – Hey, cause it is a dry, windy, cold or hot world. Hanalei Lip Treatment (Clear) can be used by anyone (men and women) to take care of their parched lips. I put it on before I go to bed (I also use it all day long), and I can still feel it on my lips when I wake up the next morning. That’s staying power. It has Kukui seed oil, beeswax, shea butter, and a host of other softening oils and ingredients. If you want long-lasting pucker power, this is the lip balm for you. The lip treatment is on sale now for 25 percent off its regular price of $20.
Wash your car at the easiest and most fun car wash in town – Yes, a fun car wash. Three years ago we moved to a house near the downtown area of Knoxville, Tennessee, and gave up, yeah you guessed it, a two-car garage. Our cars have been suffering daily doses of bird and tree droppings. Then our next-door neighborhood said she and her husband use Pure Magic Carwash that has a location about five minutes from our home. We tried it and it is wonderfully Covid perfect. I ride through the carwash–which is my zen moment of three or so minutes of having nothing whatsoever that I have to do–then they have plenty of free vacuums to clean your interior, and plenty of parking spaces so you can wipe off the little bit of water the machine did not remove. We have monthly plans that allow us to take our cars as often as we want. The packages are $19.99, $24.99, or $29.99, and there are seven locations around Knoxville. We were paying $9 a go for a drive-through carwash that was doing nothing but splashing around water and a bit of suds. This has been a life-changer. It makes me feel powerful, organized, in charge of my life, and as the sign says when I drive out: “Stop. You look fabulous.”
Listen to music from The Mavericks (Latin, eclectic rock, country–they can really play any style of music!), Natalia Lafourcade (Mexican, dance, pop, and folk), and the late Johnny Clegg and Savuka (African, Euro-African). What all these musicians share in common is their zest for life no matter what. Born in England, Johnny Clegg grew up in the apartheid of South Africa, living with his Jewish mother after his parents’ divorce. He defied the separation of whites and blacks, learned Zulu culture and music, and was arrested repeatedly for being with his black friends after curfew. The Mavericks’ trumpet player Lorenzo Molina Ruiz was attacked for speaking Spanish to a friend in a Franklin, Tennessee, restaurant. Although Natalia Lafourcade did not grow up under apartheid or suffer violence for being Mexican, her father, Gastón Lafourcade, a celebrated Chilean musician, dismissed her musical choices as not classical or serious enough. She persevered and has worked in a host of artistic and musical genres. What these three musicians have in common is fusion–the bringing together of disparate styles–and joy. All three make me want to dance and sing and share the joy with others.
Meditation through the Calm app – I was never a person who thought meditation would work for me because I have a very active mind. But the Calm app that I access through my iPhone has daily ten-minute meditations that have really helped me feel that I can better handle my every-day life and the sorrows that inevitably come my way. After the free trial periods, the app offers a host of price points from monthly to yearly with special add-on options. Check them out carefully and choose the one that is best for you.
And keep growing, especially in the fallow periods. Learn from the life-affirming movie, The Gardener, a documentary about self-taught American horticulturalist Frank Cabot (1925-2011). This beautiful man created one of the most spiritual gardens in the world, his beloved Les Quatre Vents in the Charlevoix region of Quebec in Canada. Yes, he wanted visitors to have a spiritual experience with his garden. He also worked with like-minded people around the world to save endangered gardens. His work continues now through The Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit organization he started in 1989 to preserve gardens for future generations.
Frank said gardens have souls and he wanted people who visited his garden to have a life-altering experience by communing with it.
Everybody has a garden within them, and it’s a way of expressing one’s creativity.
Frank Cabot, Plantsman and Self-described Horticultural Enthusiast
We can create our own gardens whether they are indoors, outdoors, metaphysical, or solidly literal. Nourish yourself, create beauty; grow something, create something. And if you are lucky, you can get your hands dirty, see something bloom, and experience the world smiling at you through the eyes of a cat or a dog or another fellow animal that we are lucky enough to share this planet with.
My husband Kurt and I were in Egypt twenty years ago in the car of a young woman who had been a participant in one of my husband’s training classes in Cairo. I will call her Lela although I cannot remember her exact name. I remember it started with “L” and was a lovely name that suited her: a young, beautiful woman, with long, wheat-colored hair and wisdom beyond her years.
She told us she was from Lebanon. Although she loved the country of her birth, she could no longer live there due to the civil war destroying it. She visited as often as she could to see her family, but could not make a life for herself with the instability caused by hatred, violence, and death.
Suddenly Lela reached for a CD and said, “Listen to this song. Isn’t it the best!”
I dream of rain I dream of gardens in the desert sand I wake in vain I dream of love as time runs through my hand
Desert Rose, songwriter Sting
Although the song pulsated with passionate Middle Eastern rhythms and opened with background singing in Arabic, the main voice was unmistakable and I knew immediately it was Sting, the British singer/songwriter. It was a powerful song, and I was struck by it immediately. But why had this song spoken so powerfully to our Lebanese friend?
Well,Desert Rosewas a huge hit in countries around the world including the Arab world. Sting said he wrote it as an homage to the Rai music he had heard in Paris nightclubs. which is a fusion music, combining elements of Arabic, French, jazz, and other world-music styles.
Some of the most popular musical genres, such as rock and roll, are combinations of earlier musical influences.
Rock and Roll: a type of popular dance music originating in the 1950s, characterized by a heavy beat and simple melodies. Rock and roll was an amalgam of black rhythm and blues and white country music, usually based on a twelve-bar structure and an instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums.
The Oxford English Dictionary
Like Rai, rock and roll is a fusion music bringing together musical styles from countries very different from one another.
So Desert Rose was a top ten hit in a host of countries, rose eventually to number nine in the U.S., and was a Top 20 hit in the U.K., but again why had this song resonated with our friend from Lebanon who could not live in her home country because of war.
I dream of rain I lift my gaze to empty skies above I close my eyes The rare perfume is the sweet intoxication of love
Desert Rose, Songwriter: Sting
I believe the song gave her hope that vastly different cultures can respect each other’s cultures by coming together. Hearing Sting singing in English combined with Algerian singer Cheb Mami singing in Arabic, with a wall of Middle Eastern rhythmic beat supports the possibility of union over division.
Many people in the 1950s were at first not comfortable with combining black and white music, or black and white musicians playing together. To these people, country music should stand alone, rhythm and blues should stand alone, and they had won the day, rock and roll would never have been born. In their homogenous, white-bread world there would have been no Elvis Presley, no Chuck Berry, no Johnny Cash, no Little Richard, no Buddy Holly, and no Everly Brothers. And without them, there would have been no Beatles, and the deluge of musicians influenced by the Beatles. Thankfully the music won–and so did we.
I believe the song gave her hope that as rain can fall in the desert bringing new life and the possibility for renewal, growth, and fulfillment. Even if it has not, as yet, happened in Lebanon.
Today, twenty-one years later, we have a worldwide plague, the coronavirus Covid 19, to add to the tensions between countries, religions, tribes, sexes, and people who speak different languages, have different cultural mores, and have different skin colors. We can argue that such things as skin color and religion and sex and the language a person speaks should not be the determining factor in whether a person has value, but we have not collectively arrived at the enlightened moment when such things can be overcome. And if history is an example, humankind cannot get to that place.
We could learn many things from the other animals on this planet. History has shown us that as a species we have not evolved to be sentient creatures who value the life of our own kind enough to act on that awareness.
However, and there is a however. We still abide. We are still alive; where there is life, there is hope. We still love. There is still music. And there is Bruce Springsteen.
Hey what else can we do now? Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair Well the night’s busting open These two lanes will take us anywhere We got one last chance to make it real To trade in these wings on some wheels Climb in back, heaven’s waiting down on the tracks
Thunder Road, songwriter: Bruce Springsteen
Perhaps there is an answer in the Arabic opening lyrics in the song Desert Rose that Lela loved:
Oh night oh night It has been a long time And I am looking for myself and my loved one
Desert Rose, songwriter: Sting
There is such a concept in ancient religions called Karuṇā which is translated as compassion or mercy and sometimes as self-compassion. Perhaps we can elevate our human condition and a have a decent shot at happiness by having compassion for ourselves by putting the metaphorical oxygen mask on ourselves first before we place a metaphorical oxygen mask on our fellow life travelers. This self-compassion and self-love makes it at least possible to extend love and compassion to our loved ones, our friends, and other humans.
If we look at things from above, perhaps 220 miles above our planet as in the photo above taken of Egypt from the International Space Station in 2010, we can get a glimpse of what is really important in our world: Our planet, beauty, inspiration, and life.
. . . dreams walking in broad daylight Three hundred, sixty five degrees Burning down the house.
“Burning Down the House”, songwriters: David Byrne, Christopher Frantz, Martina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison
Seeing the world through the eyes of a baby or toddler is to find magic in every raindrop and bubble that floats past. What is real, what is fantasy? If we look with their eyes, the world reimagines itself with each new life, with each new day.
In David Byrne’s American Utopia, he says research shows that:
Babies’ brains have more neurons than adults’ brains. We lose the ones we don’t think we need.
David Byrne, American Utopia
After spending the last few years with infants and then toddlers, it is not hard for me to believe that babies and children come into this world with an essential wisdom we would do well to heed:
~ Simple joys are the best.
~ Laughter is the right answer for everything delightful that happens.
~ Run, run, run, in circles. Sometimes with your sister, sometimes by yourself.
~ Sand is wonderfully malleable. Shape things around you to your heart’s desire.
~ When you are in water and you cannot swim, ask for help from someone you trust to hold your head above water.
~ If things get scary, seek out those who love you best.
~ Dance to your favorite song, even if a song is not playing.
~ Keep your eyes open for the wonder and discover.
~ Anything that looks remotely like a flower, is a flower.
~ Sometimes you can chase the bright, shiny bubbles that come your way and catch them.
~ Climb higher than you have climbed before, say “Whee”, let go, and fall back into the arms of someone you love.
All of my adult life I have tried to discover the most electric, stimulating, lifeforce-charging and lifeforce-changing music I could find at that particular moment in time. One of my high school boy friends told me dismissively that I lived as if I was in a movie. And why not? What does a movie have that life does not? A soundtrack. I have been trying to find a solution for real life’s particular failing from the time I could swing in my grandparents’ backyard and make up my own scraps of music.
But perhaps nature does have its own soundtrack.
While watching a documentary called “Muscle Shoals” about the seminal soul music created in the 1960s and 1970s in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, I heard an oral story handed down to a man of the Yuchi Native American tribe from his great, great grandmother.
The Yuchi (also spelled Euchee or Uchee) people originally lived in the Eastern Tennessee River valley in what is now central Tennessee. They lived alongside the Tennessee River which they called Nunnuhsae, meaning “the river that sings”. The Yuchi people believed that a young girl lived in the river, sang her river song, and thereby protected them. Then the white people came and built dams in the Tennessee River Valley and muted the river girl’s song. And it seemed that they could hear the song no more. But the Yuchi people believed that in the quiet places, you can still hear her sing.
Listening to a babbling brook or gurgling spring captures the essence of living, as it moves, constantly changes, and somehow stills the troubled mind. However, not many of us live beside a lake, river, beach, creek, or stream. But when it rains we can hear the sound of moving water which is a symphony of natural wonder. Lord knows it rains seldom enough here in East Tennessee, that I look at rain as an exciting, replenishing miracle for my garden and for me.
In the movie “Wild Mountain Thyme”, written for the screen by John Patrick Shanley based on his play “Outside Mullingar”, a young woman named Rosemary farmed her family’s land alone after the death of her parents. On the next farm, Anthony lived on his family’s farm with his father.
Anthony confided to Rosemary that after his mother died he could no longer see colors, and asked Rosemary, “Where do we go when we die? The sky?”
Rosemary replied, “The ground.”
Anthony said, “Then what’s the sky for?”
Rosemary: “The sky’s for now. The sky is for now.”
So we have the river, the rain, the sky. And as our country’s young poet laureate Amanda Gorman said on Inauguration Day 2021:
There is light if we are brave enough to see it. There is light if we are brave enough to be it.
Amanda Gorman, January 2021
May we heed the call and listen to the natural rhythms of the Earth around us, and be wise enough to live by them.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. ‘Be still’ they say, Watch and listen– You are the result of the love of thousands.
Helena Bonham Carter, “Our Grandparents’ War” PBS Series, Episode One
Today, I honor my grandparents whose love made my life possible.
At left are my maternal grandparents Jerushia Flemingtine Cunningham Henderlight (who was called “Boots” by my grandfather) and James Thomas “Tom” Henderlight (who was called “Thomas” by my grandmother) on their wedding day in 1932. We, their grandchildren, knew them simply as Mamaw and Papaw.
At right are my paternal grandparents Darcus Nickaline Montgomery Allen (originally from Carroll County, Virginia) and Roy Hodge Allen who was known by Hodge. This photo was taken on their wedding day in February 1934.
Both sets of my grandparents lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, and both overcame great hardships during their lives.
When Mamaw and Papaw had their first child, James “Bud” Thomas Henderlight Jr., he had multiple handicaps and the physician who delivered him (at their home) advised Mamaw to give up on him. One of his legs was considerably shorter than the other, his lip was deformed, and it was possible that he also had brain damage due to his difficult birth. Mamaw refused to abandon her firstborn and dedicated her life to caring for him.
Many couples might have decided that having more children would be unwise since their first child had multiple disabilities and would take a good deal of time and energy to care for. But my grandparents were undaunted at the prospect of increasing their family and had two more children: my mother Arzelia and my aunt Rheta. If Mamaw and Papaw had allowed their fear and misgivings to overcome them, my sister and I and my cousins Robin, Bobby, and Ricky would never have been born.
As for Daddy’s mother Darcus, she was born and lived her early years on her family’s farm in Carroll County, Virginia. Her father John Martin Montgomery had a difficult time making ends meet, and eventually had to sell their 34-acre farm and move his large family to the nearby town of Fries, Virginia. Teenaged Darcus and her younger sister Eutaw Regina worked as cotton spinners in the new cotton mill that had been built in Grayson County. A few years later their father died of cancer, so their mother Cordelia moved her children to Kingsport, Tennessee, to be near family who lived there.
Darcus’s mother Cordelia had been cautioned by their family doctor in Virginia that her oldest surviving daughter Darcus was too sensitive and physically fragile for the rigors of marriage. However, several factors combined to change her thinking about whether Darcus should marry: after Darcus’s father died of cancer, Cordelia remarried and having a grown daughter living with them was less than ideal; their doctor in Tennessee advised that Darcus should marry and have a child right away; and Darcus met Hodge Allen from Knoxville. She saw in him a gentle soul that she could make a home with, and they were smitten with each other.
In February 1934, Darcus Montgomery and Hodge Allen were married. By summer Darcus was pregnant, and in April 1935 my father Roy Rotha Allen was born. In August my grandmother Darcus died, according to her death certificate, of insanity from pellagra psychosis, a severe nutritional disease that afflicted many Southerners who lived in poverty during the first half of the 20th Century. What was pellagra and how did she get it?
The first question is easy enough to answer. According to a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2017 and 2018, “The by-product of insufficient niacin consumption, pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the American South, killing roughly 7,000 Southerners annually at its peak in 1928.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in October 1999, “The near elimination of pellagra by the end of the 1940s has been attributed to improved diet and health associated with economic recovery during the 1940s and to the enrichment of flour with niacin.
The second question: how did Darcus get pellagra? Probably from being pregnant, just as her original family doctor had warned. And of course, Hodge’s family–the young couple lived with Hodge’s mother and brother–were poor.
In any event the improvements in the Southern diet and economy in the 1940s came too late for my grandmother Darcus who we never had the privilege to know. And perhaps she would have died in any event due to her fragile health and sensitive nature. What is true without a doubt, however, is if Darcus had not taken the chance, followed her heart, and married Hodge, my father Roy Rotha Allen would never have been born, and neither would my sister Lisa or me.
So today, I honor both my grandparents–who did not go to war in quite the same way as Helena Bonham Carter’s British grandparents did as they lived with bombs raining down near their home in London–sometimes on a daily basis. But my grandparents made their own sacrifices to dream, to hope, and to love–giving future generations the gift of life.
I got my first dose of the Covid vaccine today in a drive-through operation at Ft. Sanders Hospital West here in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was a flawless experience except they did not set up a second shot right away on the spot. Thanks to a friend, I did discover I could call Covenant Health’s vaccine number and eventually set up my second appointment.
For those of you who are questioning whether you will get the vaccine, or are fearful to get the vaccine, I encourage you to do it. Why?
The vaccines available in the U.S. (and in most places around the world) are safe and have been proven to be highly effective.
Vaccines save lives. Not just your life, but the lives of your loved ones as well as the cashier at the grocery store, the pregnant woman and her unborn child behind you in line at the post office, the teacher at your child’s school, and the delivery guy bringing your packages.
They are free in this country. There is no charge whether you have insurance or not.
If every person who is physically able gets the vaccine, and we reach herd immunity, adults and children who cannot take the vaccine for medical reasons will be protected.
We can reach safe harbor where we can again (1) attend a concert and experience an indoor live musical performance, (2) hold indoor funerals for our loved ones who die, (3) go to a movie theater or see a play, (4) go to a church service or community gathering, (5) sing in a choir, (6) go to a wedding and dance, and (7) eat a delicious meal at a restaurant without fear of dying alone in an ICU.
Live without the fear that a simple trip to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription could make you so ill that even months after you first got sick with Covid you cannot live anything like a normal life. Yes many long-haul Covid sufferers wonder if they will ever live normal lives again.
Do not listen to the conspiracy theorists The what-iffers, and the whispers of the uninformed. Seek out the vaccine whenever it’s available And do your part.
I got the Pfizer vaccine today just before noon. Now at 6:00 p.m., my upper arm is a little sore, and I felt tired for a few hours. That was it. No wild symptoms, no strong reaction. I have read that the second dose of the vaccine is more likely to give mild symptoms. But that is a good thing because that is the sign that our body’s immune system is learning how to fight the virus, as we have for the past 12 months.
Today I went to our wonderful local independent bookstore Union Avenue Books and picked up a just-published book, “Lifelines” written by the co-founder of the children’s toy company Melissa & Doug, the number one, parent-rated toy brand. Melissa Bernstein founded a phenomenally successful company with her husband, gave birth to six beautiful children, and lives on a 500-acre farm in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Yet most of her adult life Melissa has lived each day in despair due to existential depression ,which was first identified and defined by pioneering psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl.
Existential depression: the state of hopeless doubt that life has any purpose or value.
Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
By the time Melissa met her husband Doug in 1986 when she was a senior at Duke, she had a severe eating disorder, had lived through a couple of mental breakdowns, was struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and weighed only 82 pounds.
I can relate. When I was a junior in high school, I stopped having periods due to anorexia. A boy friend broke up with me and his parting shot over my bow was, “And you’re fat.” I was not, and have never been overweight, but being an inveterate pleaser who wanted to “control” her life, but I decided: I might not be able to control my love life, but I could certainly control how much fat I ate.
Melissa Bernstein said she, “truly reveled in the power of depriving myself through starvation and over-exercising.” That sort of mental illness runs in my family as well. Both my sister and I were anorexic in high school. Daddy was obsessive-compulsive till his dying day, and his mother died of insanity from pellagra psychosis when Daddy was only 4 months old.
A few years ago Melissa heard about existential depression and saw herself in it. Through therapy and writing poetic verses she has come to love herself, has written of her experiences in her photography-filled book of verses and prose, and has started an online nonprofit community, LifeLines.com for fellow seekers, as she calls those of us who are gluing together our broken places–which is all of us, is it not? As the LifeLines homepage says:
It’s not about feeling better, it’s about feeling everything.
Melissa Bernstein and her team (including her two oldest daughters Ilana and Audrey) at LifeLines
In order to be on an even keel, I prefer to need to stay busy, hit my marks, and accomplish high goals. I have always wanted to achieve, get the best grades, be ahead of the pack, make things better somehow, and make a difference in the lives of others.
The Covid pandemic has been a speed bump in my fast-paced lifestyle as my husband and I (and our cat Cadi Kitty) have squirreled ourselves at home and taken the virus seriously. Kurt and I have not eaten in a restaurant for a year, or seen a movie, or attended any indoor communal activity. Before the outbreak, Kurt traveled half of each month. Now he is home all the time. Over the last year, we have stared at our navels more than we would have wished to at this stage of our lives.
And yet, we are the lucky ones with a comfortable home, stability, jobs we can do from home, grandchildren in our social bubble, and a neighborhood where we can walk and get fresh air. But the pandemic has taken its toll nonetheless. Kurt’s mother died last year and we could not hold a funeral; a friend of mine died of Covid; the virus has been politicized at the local, state, and national level (under the former administration) which has meant that navigating occasionally around people not wearing masks–which has been terrifying.
Much has been lost, but much has been gained. Yesterday I decided to wash the pillowcases on the ornamental pillows on our bed. Most of our bed pillows are filled with man-made stuffing. But these pillows are stuffed with feathers that escape and float freely around the room. They are individually intricate and beautiful when they are free of their collective housing. They remind me of my Irish grandmother with her round belly and jolly laugh.
Balance is where the joy is. We do want to float freely–and some time in the coming year, after our vaccine is fully in force, we can move more freely, still masked and socially distanced to protect others because we can still carry the virus even after we are vaccinated. When herd immunity is achieved–when somewhere between 70 percent and 95 percent of Americans have been vaccinated–we can gather in groups without the fear we have now.
When Kurt and I were walking in the rain around our neighborhood this evening, we were surprised to smell a very strong perfume coming from our neighbor’s large bed of spring-blooming narcissus. We had walked beside these bed for days, but they had shared their sweet, strong fragrance before. The rain had brought out the scent of the flowers. Over the last year, it has been raining for us. May be bloom, may it rain, and may we display our full creative force.
As Melissa Bernstein writes on the back of her book:
It was only when I learned How to release what was suppressed That I truly birthed creation And organically expressed
We must take those special gifts Conceived inside us from the start And release them to touch others Bringing solace to the heart
Melissa Bernstein, Author, Successful Businesswoman, Mother of 6, Seeker
Melissa created imaginative toys to delight the world’s girls and boys. Allowing herself to fully live finally allowed her to connect with her own six children. We realize we are not like anyone else. When we glue together our broken places and risk showing our brokenness, we are not alone.
~~ Anna – St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2021 (and yes, for the first time in my life, I wore green!)
. . . But you remain a timeless smile Who’d just begun life’s tangled ways.
British Singer/songwriter Sandy Denny (1947-1978)
That uplifted chin, the beginning of a smile on your face as you recognized your goal was achieved. You held my flip flops, one in each hand, and your triumph was complete. I took this picture a couple of years ago in the upstairs of our house. What a happy child you were two years ago, Lincoln dear!
In many ways you still are a happy child at nearly 3 and a half years, but things are definitely not the same as they were when you were a baby and toddler. Nearly a year ago, in March 2020, we were told that a dangerous coronavirus was attacking the world, and we should take precautions to stay safe. What changed in our lives a year ago? For most of his career, your grandfather Kurt has traveled extensively for his work, and Kurt has not traveled in nearly a year. We have not eaten in a restaurant, watched a film in a movie theater, gone to church, or visited friends indoors. At Thanksgiving and Christmas we did not gather with our extended family. We have not visited our beloved nephew Zach in Portland, nor did we fly to New York to visit as we had intended to last spring.
You will never know her, Lincoln, but Kurt’s mother Dolores died in the summer of 2020, and he made the difficult decision not to travel to her nursing home to be with her. She was unconscious, and as far as we knew she did not have the virus, but we decided it was too dangerous for Kurt to say his final goodbye to the woman who gave him life. Yes, I know. That is a heavy burden for a person to carry. Poor Kurt. Neither was it safe for his family to hold a service to mark her passing, but we celebrated her life with an obituary in the local paper with a photo showing how lovely she was when she was a young woman. Times are different now, my dear boy. We have not lived through a time like this before. It has been over a hundred years since the last pandemic, the influenza outbreak at the end of the First World War, shattered lives and livelihoods. Perhaps a few very old people are still alive who were babies in 1918, but they would not recall the horror of so many deaths. They would have grown up in its aftermath. Like you.
I will share a story I heard from one of my cousins who now lives in Utah, but our shared family once lived in Virginia. Daddy’s mother’s family, the Montgomerys, lived on their 35-acre farm in Carroll County, Virginia. John and Cordelia Montgomery lost their beloved 11-year-old daughter to what many people called the Spanish flu. The dreaded disease did not really start in Spain, but it was a terrible flu, sure enough, and poor little Luva Vera died from it. She made a fearsome sound just before she died, which was called the death rattle. When her mother Cordelia heard it, she screamed in grief and pain. Can you imagine that, dear boy? I cannot think on it for long because I cannot allow my mind to dwell on losing a beloved child in this way.
Luvie (for that’s what they called her) had a best friend and playmate who lived next door. This small boy of around the same age also fell ill with the disease. Just after Luvie died, one of the little boy’s parents knocked on my great-grandparents’ door and asked to borrow their ironing board to lay out their son who had just died.
At that time, not so very long ago, poor people laid out their dead, especially the children, on an ironing board because if the bodies were straight and rigid, the corpses were easier to place in a coffin. In addition to their own four daughters, my poor great-grandmother Cordelia and her husband John, were raising their eldest son’s daughter, and lost all five of them in infancy or childhood except two: my grandmother Darcus and her younger sister Eutaw Regina. My grandmother did not last very long, as she died at the age of 31 just four months after she gave birth to my Daddy. Times were hard then, Little Man.
And times have been hard for so many people in our country and world over the past year. A friend of mine who I sang with in our high school alumni chorus–a guitar player such as Kurt and a genuinely nice man–died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that has spread around the world and still kills so many. As far as I know, my friend Herb died alone in an intensive care unit after fighting this horrible disease that attacks the respiratory system (and so many other parts of the body) for over a month. He was a sweetheart of a man who nearly always had a gentle smile for everyone. He possessed a lovely tenor voice and, although he worked long hours, was always quick to help his friends and family however he could. He is dearly missed.
In March a year ago, I wrote a letter on my blog to your then 14-month-old sister Penny. Now I write to you, sweet boy, about what your life is like now as the Covid pandemic goes on. We have a vaccine now, but as I write this blogpost, only 12 percent of Tennesseans have received one dose of the two-dose vaccine. You, of course, are oblivious to why your parents and grandparents, and occasionally you, are wearing masks. This way of living is all you remember. And when you are a bit older, you will probably not remember this year either. But you used to attend Montessori pre-school, sweetheart, and you were very happy there with all the children from age 2 to 13 or 14 years, or so. Your Daddy has asthma and it would not have been safe for you to continue to go to school.
Before you attended pre-school, as in the first photo above, I used to keep you two days a week in our home while your Mama worked. Now that you are 3 years old, we take you to the park or to the University of Tennessee track for a playdate or play with you at your house once or twice a week.
At the park the last two weeks, you have reacted in fear to people leading their dogs on leashes. I wonder if you are simply afraid of dogs or have you picked up on our fear that strangers, with or without masks, will come near us. Your vocabulary and mastery of English is not yet advanced enough for us to be sure whether it is the dogs and their owners, or just the dogs that you fear.
I will tell you, Little Man (which is what I called you when you were smaller), that I am fearful these days too. We do not eat in restaurants or go to church or visit friends indoors. Your family is what is called “in our bubble” which means Kurt and I and your parents have decided that we will see each other (and, of course, you and Penny) indoors without masks. Why? Because we believe it is important enough that we see you and love you and be with you as much as possible even during this time of disease and uncertainty.
And, sweet boy, let me tell you how your laughter rang out in the car last week as Kurt and I played with the toy remote car keys we got you and your sister Penny. We were being silly, and you, sitting in your carseat in the back seat, laughed again and again. It was quite wonderful to hear. There is nothing like the sound of you laughing. Adults may pretend they are amused, but you do not do that, my love.
When we got to the park, you began playing with the tiny rocks on the footpath and feeding them to your T-Rex dinosaur. Over and over again you made patterns in the rocks with your fingers, working diligently, intent on your task. I fed your stegosaurus pieces of wood because his jaw would not open to hold rocks.
After awhile you and Kurt ran off with the soccer ball toward the stationary train behind the fence at the far end of the park. I looked at the two of you, the sky, and the river that runs alongside the park, my dear sweetheart, and I thought there was no more wonderful sight or feeling in the world than seeing you and Kurt playing in the distance.
You have visited upon us such great joy, Little Man, and I hope this divided young country and tired old world can make a sure enough path for all the bright possibilities your adolescence and adulthood can hold. I love you, Lincoln. And may you be forever blessed with laughter, creativity, fulfilling work, delightful friends, devoted family, and the warmest of memories of your childhood spent running with the wind by the banks of the Tennessee River.
We walk through this world feeling unseen, unheard, unloved. And part of that is because we are not seeing and hearing and loving others. We’re so busy fighting to be seen that we’re forgetting that we are others. And we need to do our part to see people and to acknowledge them instead of fighting to be seen ourselves.
Last Monday night, Kurt and I watched the filmed version of the show “In & Of Itself” that played to packed audiences in New York from May 2016 to August 2018. The show stars the indelible Derek DelGaudio, who plows headlong into the thicket of identity and the illusion of identity–how people around us only see a fraction of who we are and, by that tip of the iceberg, proceed to define us.
Derek DelGaudio who created and wrote the show, began his career as a magician doing some of the best sleight-of-hand tricks you will ever witness. He demonstrates some of his mastery of cards during In & Of Itself, but he is also a storyteller and conceptual artist extraordinaire. What he accomplishes in this performance is simply beyond belief–and yet it is authentic and moving as well.
Every secret has a unique weight to it, and you can only carry them for so long.
Derek DelGaudio, in the film, “In & Of Itself”
Derek DelGaudio’s secret as a small boy was that his mother loved women. Trying to keep that secret so he could have friends, and not be bullied, made his life a misery–and somehow the bullies and would-be friends always found out his secret anyway.
Why do so many people bully others? Why did his schoolmates’ parents not allow their children to be friends with a boy whose mother was a lesbian? Why did those parents and classmates decide to reduce Derek’s mother to one part of her life–to define her by only one aspect of her humanity? Why do so many people refuse to see that all the isms around us reduce humans to our skin color, where we were born, what accent we have, what religion we practice, or who we love?
Isn’t that the crux of the matter in our country and world? So many people insist they can only feel better about themselves by denigrating others. So many people find anyone who is different from them to be impossible to tolerate. Perhaps these unhappy people do not feel seen, heard, or loved. It is so much easier to seek a scapegoat than to deal with the fear inside.
I cannot help but believe this is why the angry mob broke into our nation’s Capitol Building on January 6, while our nation’s legislators were certifying the 2020 Electoral College results from our 50 states.
I did not see happy faces assaulting Capitol police officers. These people believed if they listened to their chosen leader and followed his directions, they could overturn the results of a national election. Their anger, fear, and hatred for people who do not look like them and do not think like them, led them to assault our Constitution and the Capitol police and DC officers who came to help. And, if the mob had been successful, and captured members of Congress, who knows what they would have done to them.
People died. A young woman was trampled. Another was shot. A Capitol police officer was killed. Two Capitol police officers committed suicide. Because of hate, misinformation, and wanting our former President to remain President.
I tried to understand the madness and could only cry for my country. I have never been so overwhelmed with sadness for my homeland–the country that made the difference in defeating Hitler in World War II, and then helped our former enemies rebuild their countries. The country that has been a source of inspiration to oppressed people around the world.
How to understand how formerly law-abiding, 99 percent white, middle-class people could storm the U.S. Capitol Building? So many reasons, including: because their President asked them to. However, there is another reason many people chose to drive across the country and put their lives and futures on the line.
To fill the black hole that is inside them. To feel powerful because they had the answer: they were supporting the man they felt should be in power. Damn the torpedoes. Down with the ship, the dictatorship. But would it make them happy, would they be more important, would they have better jobs, would their children have better lives, would their own lives suddenly have meaning?
Because meaning is what we are really looking for. As Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor, physician, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote:
. . . it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, . . . gives him ample opportunity–even under the most difficult circumstances–to add a deeper meaning to his life. [He] may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.
Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
From his research, as well as his experience watching people who survived in concentration camps and those who did not, Frankl wrote that people find meaning in life: (1) by working toward a worthwhile goal, (2) “by experiencing something–such as goodness, truth and beauty” and by (3) “experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness–by loving him.”
We need to reach outside our boxes–the ones we put ourselves in and the ones other people put us in–and see others, hear others, and love others. The only real happiness in life is in serving others, thinking of others, and making a difference in the lives of others.
That is why those angry, lost souls besieged and broke into the U.S. Capitol Building; that is why some of them wiped their own excrement on the walls of the sacred house of the American people. They thought they could fill the black holes inside themselves if they could get more power and more control over the lives of others. What a false narrative!
It is only when we seek to see, listen, help, serve, and love that we fill the black hole within us and become a light to help ourselves and others. Stop staring at your own navel, and raise your sights to the true source of happiness: community, understanding, and love.
He who owns a rood of proper land in this country, and in the face of all the pomonal riches of the day, only raises crabs and chokepears, deserves to lose the respect of all sensible men. --Andrew Jackson Downing