Lecture for Romania, part one

Due to unforeseeable circumstances, I will not be attending the International Book Fair this week in Bucharest, Romania.  I had so looked forward to the opportunity to talk with you about your beautiful country.  I further regret being unable to share with you some of the rich history of the Southern United States; reflections of growing up here in Alabama, coupled with excerpts from WE SHARE THE SAME SKY.

What I can do, however, is post an abbreviated version of what I’d intended to share.  I’ve not included the self-introduction.  The lecture is rather long, so there is the necessity of posting it in segments.  And, rather than moving through the text and rewriting what I’d highlighted in the chapters, I will instead post the entire chapter.

I will miss meeting you all.

Sincerely,

ELIZABETH MOZLEY

 

 

PART ONE, LECTURE FOR ROMANIA

I began writing WE SHARE THE SAME SKY following my return from a summer trip I took alone to Manhattan the summer I turned forty.  I was contemplating a major change in my life and knew that the time away would give me the space I needed to think and see things more clearly.  With children in the house, money spent toward a trip for myself –rather than a family vacation- filled me with guilt.  So, I needed a second reason, one that might alleviate what felt like self-indulgence.   I decided to write about my week in the city and include the history of the boroughs and enclaves of Manhattan, the cultural beauty of the place, the ever-changing neighborhoods that continue to foster a sense of belonging for our immigrants.

While I expected to get caught up in the magic that is New York City, I didn’t expect my mind to constantly jump back to the South.  Throughout these days of wandering, images of home and memories of my childhood kept pressing in on me, as if demanding recognition.

You see, I was missing family; I was missing place. There simply is no getting away from who you are or where you are from.  Place retains its significance to the human spirit because we tie to it the emotions of our memories.  Being Southern means having a relationship with the land, a relationship with nature.

Being away, immersed in that immense, fascinating city, I could more easily reflect on the past, the people and events that made me who I am.  The week in Manhattan actually helped me reconnect.

I’ve heard it said that as children, we are closer to our true selves, that we know our passions.   I think this is true.  It is only later when we are busy being adults that we slip up and forget.

 

(Excerpt from WE SHARE THE SAME SKY)

“There is as much dignity in plowing a field as in writing a poem.”

—Booker T. Washington

Awakening, I move about in a stupor and realize that the bed is unfamiliar. The pillow is unfamiliar. The sounds coming from outside my window –all are unfamiliar. Slowly remembrance sinks in and settles like freshly poured concrete. I am snuggled safely within the city I adore! In the subdivision in Rainbow City where I live, there is a small farm down the street that sits so charmingly out of place. Grandfathered in when our neighborhood was developed, the old farmhouse and tiny field remain. Every morning I am graced with the sounds of the family’s rooster trilling and the donkey baying for his morning meal. Here, the glare through the window forces me awake. And yet, thanks to the sound ordinance, rarely does one hear the frustrated, incessant blaring of aggressive horns. I have over-slept and awakened with the capricious nature of an unruly child. Pulling aside the curtain, I take a peek outside, mouth a quiet thank you to Him.

Late last night, I listed everything I want to cram into my day. Far and wide, my desires are spread from Upper West Side through Midtown and Upper East Side. Locating my list on the map, I realize that I will be all over the place. But really, who cares? It is not as if I am following a dreaded agenda. Flip of a coin, shake of the Magic 8 Ball; perhaps I have been going about my decision making all wrong. So, sensibility will not dictate my path, at least not today!

 

Morningside Heights

Is there anything better than sliding into a taxi when you know you are in for a long day? I don’t think so. As I get in and arrange my things, I notice the driver is talking on the phone. Hating to be rude, I jot down the address and hand it to him, trying to smile. He never makes eye contact and never hangs up the phone. Ill-mannered people get on my nerves and my pet peeve is rude cell phone use. Maintaining my silence, I sit behind him and seethe, wanting to tell him to please get off the phone and drive because frankly, he is scaring the hell out of me. I fantasize about reaching from behind and snatching the phone from his hand and flinging it hard out the window –something my father would do. And yet, I know that when he lets me out, I will tip the inconsiderate ass any-way. My mother reminded me several weeks ago that unless one speaks their mind when they are displeased, they have no right to be resentful. Regardless, I am full. And, I am irritated with myself for letting something shake the sense of inner peace I awakened with. In the South, protestant church signs post words of wisdom each week. My favorite is the adage “He who angers you, controls you.”

The driver drops me intact at The Morningside Heights Greenmarket located at 116th Street and Broadway. While planning, I discovered that the market is sponsored by Columbia University and Barnard College. Amazed by the selection of fresh produce in the city, I find myself constantly comparing it to what we have back home. Surprisingly, it seems there are many more open markets available here.

Quickly, I purchase a pint of the plumpest blueberries and wish for some fresh yogurt. The apples are gorgeous. There is one variety that looks similar to those my grandmother Libby called horse apples. Although the skin of these apples is not the prettiest, they always have a good tart taste that makes them perfect for apple pie and apple butter.

Looking over the boxes before me, I think back on my fifth grade year when before morning announcements or even the pledge was completed, I was hauled into the Principal’s office to stand before Dr. Leftwich.

“It has been rumored,” she said “that you have been stealing apples from a nearby yard and selling them on the bus. Miss Mozley, being industrious is one thing, but thievery is quite another.”

My grandmother always reminded me to pause before answering and so I did. I knew that the man who owned the place had seen me a couple of afternoons as he sat out on his back porch. The tree I had chosen the day before was close enough that I had noticed he was drinking tea and cracking pecans as he read The Gadsden Times. I also knew that he didn’t mind or he would have said something. I even hoped that he liked me, although I never saw him smile. Yes, he liked me and he appreciated the fact that I enjoyed his trees, his apples. After all, he had dropped the paper to below eye level and watched as I gathered them in my shirt and climbed back over his fence.

He was not the one who reported me. I knew this. But regard-less of who had, I was either in for a good scolding or a paddling. But, not both; Dr. Leftwich was known for giving one or the other. My only hope was that she wouldn’t call Papa. Double or nothing I thought, then replied, “Yes, ma’am. I’ve been doing just that.”

The following day –because she did not paddle me or even call my father –I left a rosy store-bought apple on her desk. I didn’t think a note was necessary.

What is it about picking your own produce that makes the taste more intense? My children swear that the apples they pick from our trees to bake each morning are better than those from the store and I believe them.

Apples purchased from the grocer sit prettily in the glass dish on our dining room table almost forgotten. It is as if they are there for the eye rather than the palate.

Each year, the children and I look forward to visiting an orchard. For years, we picked our own from an elderly gentleman’s backyard in Riverside. Posted near the bushel baskets was a sign listing the cost, and sitting below on a porch step was an old rusted coffee can where you deposited your money. Some of the trees that grew along the back row of his orchard seemed to be as old as the man himself. Laden with a full load, the sagging limbs were propped up with felled hardwood. When the old man passed away the property was sold, his bountiful trees cut, the land leveled and landscaped. The children and I mourned, then set out in search of another orchard. We headed north.

I had found a listing for a large family-owned orchard in North, Alabama. After a long morning drive, we arrived to find the place boarded up. Disappointed we turned back, but decided the return trip should be a different route, in the hope of coming across something of interest along the way. What we found was a North Alabama Indian mound. The gate, drawn shut and locked, held a sign posted no trespassing, but the children and I pretended not to see. We quickly parked the car and walked to the mound by way of a neighboring cotton field, full and white.

Catching sight of the mound, Anderson and Isaac stopped at once. I walked to where they stood, looking on with awe at the vision that lay before us.

A prehistoric Native American relic of the Mississippian culture, it was an amazing thing to see, just sitting there modestly in a field of lolling green pasture, surrounded by a pearlescent ocean of cotton and the distant emerald foliage of hardwood trees. In silence we climbed the mound, stood and gazed across the land. With unspoken reverence, we turned and descended quietly, then walked back through the high cotton to where we had parked.

Several miles down the road, we happened upon a very small family owned orchard. Although we didn’t get to pick the apples ourselves, no one seemed to care. We bought several bushels and an antique apple peeler to make our work easier. That evening, we set about slicing and filling the dehydrator racks sprinkling each layer with cinnamon; the remaining apples we baked and then topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.

Memories of time spent with my children bring only happiness. I say a quiet thank you. Because of them, I have much to be grateful for. Isaac’s cotton seeds are still in the backseat compartment of my car! When this thought comes, I cannot help but laugh outright.

I continue to pick up an apple from each selection, admire its uniqueness and fresh smell. I think of a quote from Walden, of Thoreau and his reflections on the farm he almost bought but didn’t. He laments, “I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only.” Now this I under-stand. But, when he admonishes “…As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are com-mitted to a farm or the country jail.” I am want to disagree. To own and work a piece of land is to take pride in something that becomes an extension of self; a sense of accomplishment fills the soul of the weary possessor at days end.

Moving around the selections, I watch and listen to the interactions between the farmers and the locals and wish that I was staying somewhere that would allow me to purchase what I really want so that I might cook a meal early in the evening. Within arms reach are the most delectable Roma tomatoes I’ve ever seen accompanied by a beautiful purplish heirloom. I wish I could gather them up, take them back to the room, slice them, dehydrate them and pack them in oil or buy a couple of crisp ones still good and green, to fry.

There is also pineapple, freshly cut. If only I had several slices of a good homemade white bread and some mayonnaise. Is it only Southerners who eat pineapple sandwiches and hot tomato biscuits? Recognizing true hunger, my stomach rumbles at the thought.

The idea of dinner alone makes me miss being at home, cooking and dining with the children. They would be thrilled with this marketplace.

We often shop the farmer’s market in Birmingham. Not so much for the fresh produce –even though the offerings are amazing with over 200 farmers participating- but for all the other phenomenal vendors. Isaac’s favorite is a table of sliced cakes, presented by The Bakery at Cullinard. Anderson heads immediately for the croissants and chocolate sauce offered at another stand. Shelves of homemade preserves, jellies and jams call to me.

 

In our area, the weekend flee markets are where most folks shop for serious produce purchases. These are located closer to Gadsden, our hometown. We frequent Collinsville on Saturdays and Mountain Top on Sundays. Visiting a trade day in the South requires rising early. The best vendors arrive and begin setting up around 4:30 a.m. then pack up around noon. Collinsville Market is located in a small rural town of the same name. It is surrounded by beautiful green sprawling hills of farmland and the distant ridge of the lower Cumberland Plateau. Prettiest in the lambent light of the early hours, the view competes with the winsome sounds of farm animals. The smell of sausage biscuits and fresh coffee drift far and wide.

Regional pride has led to many a foolish notion. Admittedly, I always believed that Southerners held a closer relationship to the land and therefore held the prime pickings when it came to pro-duce. Looking about, I acknowledge that I’ve been proven wrong on both counts. Before walking away, I watch a small family load their purchases into four worn arm baskets; supple, they easily bend and allow the carrying of much weight. What is it they will cook for dinner tonight? What are their traditions, and is this trip to the market one of them? I think on our family’s beloved catfish Sundays. Grandpa farmed and fished all week. GrandMosie began cooking early that morning while we attended our various churches. Gathering at their house after services, we children fought over the fried fish with the longest crisp tails. We gnawed them down to the nub before beginning on the flesh, filled our plates repeatedly, then lazed away the afternoon waiting for stomach pains to pass. It was a happy gathering. What a shame that in today’s haste, many have let the tradition of Sunday supper with extended family all but slip away.

I watch the father help his wife, guide her gently through the throngs of people. He is protective of her, she of the children. The

Breathing deeply and enjoying the early morning air, I decide to move on. It occurs to me that all of this walking, where the wander-ings of body and thoughts meld, has helped clear my mind. Physical exertion, be it callisthenic or aerobic, alleviates depression and anxi-ety. Wandering is much like pacing in that it requires constant yet thoughtless movement; while the body moves about as if by its own accord, the mind is free. For me, this is proving therapeutic and provides time to reflect on the important things, to examine what exactly it is that has brought me here, not just to this city, but to this juncture in my life. Perhaps with realization, healing and creativity can begin again. It is not that I have become blind to the limit-less joy God places in the smallest of things, rather I have become distracted by circumstance. Time to wander, to think, to remember and reflect –without these we lose something fundamental and vital to self.

 

Days That Ran Long

 

Standin’ here,

Hands spread

Across faded green,

I listen undeterred

To moans and groans behind me

Of ungodly ugliness.

I care not

For I’ve found a treasure

That’s less than grand sight

And slick worn feel

Bring back dusty memories

Of skinned knees, stringy hair,

Days that ran long and knew untold endin’s.

Who would’ve known

That city folk congregated in search

Of fine Wedgwood and walnut

Would find themselves subjected

To grandeur so rural,

That’s beckonin’ calls to those

Whose memories once held rough edges

Hewn by hard work and time.

It stands there inquirin’

Remember me? Remember

The gatherin’s…

I become absorbed

In its green flat formica

And long since lost its shine chrome-

Where many times did

Families coagulate

When such things were so,

To feast on meals

Pulled from the ground, wrung by the neck

Then presented to kin whose presence

Represented true survival

Of hell and brimstone storms

Characteristic of a glorious

Southern Sunday morn.

 

EM 2004

 

*Please join me on Facebook at WE SHARE THE SAME SKY and also on Twitter @ElizabethMozley and @CentipedeYAread

 

Thank you all! ELIZABETH

 

Image result for we share the same sky

Dear Romania,

It is 8:50 a.m. here in Alabama and it is a warm morning with clear blue skies.  Up early, I went for a long walk and along the way began working over in my mind exactly what I want to share about growing up here in the southern United States when I get to Romania.

     There is so much.  If I am to expound on the power of storytelling here in our region, I will have to first describe the area’s earliest settlers and how they were shaped by both their heritage and the terrain of the South as it once was.  And there is the melding that comes with the influx of even more settlers, their customs, beliefs, foods…
      …and our history.
     See?  There is so much to explain before the sharing of stories even begins!
     But isn’t it the same everywhere?!
     Of course it is!   WE are shaped by our elders and their teachings; the land and our attachment to it; our beliefs and the fundamental ideals of which we are comprised.
     Nearing the end of my walk, I acknowledged that while I can share so much, it would be helpful if I understood your interest in our South- what is it YOU want to know?
     I would greatly appreciate your response.  I so look forward to my days in Bucharest, and to meeting you all and learning something about each of you!
     Share with me something YOU love about your country, memories of the area you grew up, your stories!
See you soon!
Elizabeth Mozley
woman in field

 A Day in Central Park

(Excerpt from the memoir, We Share the Same Sky)

 

“As if in him the welkin walked, the winds took flesh, the mountains talked…”
Ralph Waldo Emerson.   Society and Solitude
     Outside, it rains. I can hear it and I can see it. But from where I am there is no feeling or experiencing it, and yet, I know it carries lonesome notes. Easily, wantonly, I shut my eyes and slip back into bliss.
__________
I close the door gently, careful that the draft does not pull it quickly shut and awaken others.  Outside steps and streets remain damp; puddles of water stand along the sidewalk, if only for the hour.  Back home the humidity following a summer rain is miserable, but here it transforms the air, touches the skin softly like a Swedish massage, plays with the senses.  It feels almost like fall, or the warm yet crisp morning of a false spring.
     Acknowledge the melancholy, I tell myself, go get lost in the world.
CENTRAL PARK
      The distance to Central Park is not great, so I choose to walk and think.  How many days since I last spoke at length with an adult, or followed a routine, resided indoors for any real amount of time?  How many days since I blamed myself?  What good can come from all this?  I stop and repeat the question.  What good can come from this?  And, then I realize that the attitude with which the question is posed is as important as the answer.  Attitude is a powerful thing.  It can temper regret.  It can propel us forward.
    The best lessons are learned from the young.  Recently when Isaac beat me in chess, he covered my hand with his and told me, “Sometimes you have to lose to get better, Momma.  You know, forfeit a knight to save a queen.”  Laughing, I’d reminded him, “Funny thing is, Isaac, it didn’t save my queen!”  Learning to view a negative in a more positive light helps.  But it takes practice.  Sometimes losing is what makes an experience worthwhile.
__________
    Everyone has a favorite place.  Some of us find ours at a young age and then later seek others like it throughout our adult lives –somewhere we can go and just be ourselves, unwind and find some comfort away from others, a place of solace.  My favorites are usually near the water or in the woods.  Both places serve as reminders of my childhood home.
      When I was young, my parents owned a piece of heaven, where lolling hills beckoned, undivided except for a wide hyaline, clear creek lined with large smooth stones.  In Green Valley, the pasture ran deep to the edge of a forest that bordered a gradual slope up into dense mountain.  There I ran wild and free through soaring broomsage, toughened my bare feet against the harsh forest floor.  Most afternoons I spent stretched out in the cold running water, soothing tender skin freshly cut by long brazen grasses, blackberry thorn and wild briar.
      Then late one evening following dinner, I overheard my parents discussing the necessity of selling the property.  I walked alone back down the hall to my room, squeezed myself into the small space between bed and wall and mourned like one who has lost everything.
      Several months passed.  We loaded into Papa’s jeep for a Sunday ride along the steep narrow pass that wound around Dunaway Mountain before creeping downward to where the road widened, leveled out and ran along the length of the Coosa River, broad, murky, and pungent. Years ago, Lister Ferry was located here.  For a minimal price, folks from Riddles Bend could cut their drive to Southside in half and avert the steep climb up the unpaved mountain pass.  The road, though widened and paved now, retains the name Lister Ferry.
     Having driven only a short distance, Papa pulled the jeep alongside the woods.  We parked and hiked through the tall pines where shed needles appropriately silenced steps in what felt to be an otherworldly place.  Small hardwood leaves blazed molten, the color of lava and fresh syrup.  Fall here was as significant, as decadent even, as spring and summer had been on our pastured land.  Again, with child’s heart, I fell in love.
      We spent months camping and clearing the land.  Breaking away from our work during midday, we were free to climb the mountain, follow the well worn deer path into the deeper hollows to catch salamander and tiny crawfish in the untouched waters that originated there.  These made superior fish bait and a worthy day was often determined by our find.  Later, blinded by a night without stars and light, we slipped along the mossy bank and looked without luck for our Ivory soap, not realizing it was being nibbled down to nothing by the fish we caught and dammed in.
     Oh, how I want to be that little girl again!  All these memories flit across my mind in but a moment, the moment it might take a baby to drop a pacifier or a young boy to skin his knee.  It is this park.  It is miraculous!  I pause to breathe, listen and feel.  How can you love two differing things so completely?  There is the companionship of the city and the solidarity of the country.  Yet even alone, both places keep me company.  Never could a choice be made between one or the other.  Even suggesting this would be like asking a child, “Do you love your mother or your father the most?”  Or asking a chef her favorite food, a musician his favorite song.  Choosing between two things you love is inconceivable.
     How unfortunate that often in life we must let one thing go before gaining a grasp on another, as a too-full fist remains stuck in the cookie jar.  Greed and fear can curtail true growth.  And yet, thankfully, it is especially healthy to fill ourselves repeatedly with the things that bring us joy!  And I intend to do just that.  Today I’ve designated as Central Park day, a day to rest and give thanks.
     The horse drawn carriages are almost tempting.  At the southernmost point of the park, I bypass other sightseers busy reading the plaques and posing for photos.  I imagine that even folks who grew up in the city possess the ability to recognize the smell of horse flesh a mile off.  But, do they appreciate it?
     My cousins grew up on a farm and were lucky in that their father loved horses.  He was at times, however, overprotective.  That is to say which he was more concerned for, us or the horses, I’m still unsure.  Either way, we were forbidden to ride without permission.  But, our young hides had long since grown thick and not to be dissuaded by threat of rain or a good beating, my cousin Denise and I snuck Midnight and Playboy, my uncle’s favorite horses, out for a quick ride along the back mountains of Green Valley.
     Consumed by the thrill of defiance, our senses heightened and this spurred us onward at a careening, furious pace.  The wondrous beauty of each mountain easily enticed us to climb yet another.  The sound of rain hitting the leaves, thunder rolling low overhead and the heavy breathing of the animals beneath us as they heaved was strangely captivating.  All my senses were suddenly in tune and I wondered if I had become part of the animal or part of the storm.  Either way, I felt untamable.  Drunk on exhilaration we lost track of all time.
     At dusk we returned soaked but invigorated.  Heavily in the air, the scent of us, wet leather, and sweat from the exhausted beasts mingled.  These smells rose, bonded with the dank aroma of old barn, dirt floors and sweet hay.  Outside, the relentless rain sounded heavily on the tin roof, battered against it, puddled within its rusty folds, then dripped down around the rafters as if to create a seal against the outside world.  I was at home here, too.
      At the time, I did not recognize this day as being significant.  And, honestly, I am unsure even now of its relevance although it was exciting, liberating.
      Homesickness hits me hard.  It has come just as quickly as the memories.  I move further into the shade.  What makes an event stick so perfectly within the mind that it can be remembered in such great detail?  Do we remember best what is either truly miraculous or horribly hideous?  Possibly.  I lean against the railing and recognize within the memory what I miss.  Age has mellowed me to a degree.  I miss the younger, more vivacious me.
     The Pond and Hallet Nature Sanctuary are not the specifics of my destination, but are enjoyed none-the-less.  The object of my pursuit is Gapstow Bridge.  Built in 1896, the simple stone arch is probably the most recognized bridge in the park.   Approaching it from a distance, the pond and lay of the land could easily be mistaken for a reservoir in North Alabama –if the skyscrapers could be removed from the foreground. Stopping at the gentle crest, I turn and silently applaud the view.  Slivers of The Plaza peek from between limbs and leaves.  Bells from a distant church peal crisply, marking the time.  I walk away wishing I could see the bridge standing lonesome in winter gray.
     At the Dairy I grab and stash visitor pamphlets, then walk across Sheep Meadow to see the Tavern on the Green, debate looking for Mineral Springs, then decide to head to the Mall.  Mineral Springs is tempting because of its name alone.
     Found in abundance throughout the United States, people traveled far “to take the waters” of mineral springs.  During the 19th century the spas and resorts that built up around these springs prospered and offered an optimal family vacation.  The therapeutic and restorative properties of the springs were considered an integral part of holistic healing and therefore lauded loudly.
      It is said the minerals can increase appetite, improve digestion and purify the blood.  They are also reported to help skin conditions and relieve joint pain.  Sometimes they are even accredited for aid in chronic disease.
     The types of springs are many.  The various waters include:  acidulous, chalybeate, sulphur, saline, calcic, alkaline, silicious and thermal.  Although most of the spas have long since closed, people continue to visit mineral springs for therapy and artesian wells for pure drinking water.
     I stop at an outdoor eatery for coffee and to people watch, but instead find myself examining their companions.  Sunday, it seems, is the day for bringing a favorite friend to the park for a bit of out-of-doors.  Dogs are everywhere.  There are more of them than their would-be owners!
     Leisure, free, unrestrained time.  Me time.   I am enjoying myself immensely.  Quickly claiming a small table, I dump my things and walk to the window of the cafe to order a little something, then settle in to watch a man and woman nearby.  She pulls at the leash of a small Scottish terrier whose only interest is to chase the tiny birds that hop about so enticingly in search of breakfast crumbs.
     A slower pace everyone seems to find here today.   For me, Sundays have always cast a magical spell.  Longer than other days, stretching out until after bath and prayers, Sunday was the last of the sweet before the reality of Monday began to settle in.
      There is again that silent recognition.  There are some things I need to work on. And some I have.  I have slowed down in almost everything I do.  Owning my time, I am not rushing to the tempo of another.  I walk slower, breathe slower, eat slower and life seems to have geared down to keep pace just with me.  I have mastered being passively active these past days, voided deviant behavior, kept in check the sardonic self.  If my life is filled with nothing but work and worry and I do not pause or stop to simply enjoy, what is the point of it at all?  This knowledge seems to reaffirm something only recently realized.  Don’t choose the things in life, choose the moments instead.  I didn’t take the gondola in Venice but purchased a cameo ring instead.  A year later, while trying on gloves, the intricately carved shell was lost.  Another lesson learned.  I got lost in Florence.  Twice.  Both times were wonderful.
     It was also in Venice that I began to reflect on the importance of perspective.  Climbing the gradual steepening streets to The Ponte di Rialto, Mother, Anderson and I paused to admire the work of a handsome Italian painter.  His wares were piled high on a cart, but before he would allow me to look, he had me answer a dozen odd questions.  Do you like this or that?  When you think of this, what do you see?  All these questions made me wonder until he exclaimed, “Bella!  You love impressionism.  You are a romantic!”
      He was correct in his brief assessment.  I do love impressionism.  It is like my life, sometimes appearing a mess.  Until I step back.  Until I focus less.  His painting of a Venetian canal hangs in my bedroom on the wall opposite my bed.  A reminder of time, it whispers.  It is the first thing I see upon awakening each morning.  The sunrise seems to come from behind the buildings’ terra cotta roofs rather than the window nearby.  Then late in the day and near its end, when I have been writing and oblivious to the passage of time, evening settles in to fill the room and the Venetian waters therein darken black and blue.
_________
LITERARY WALK
      There isn’t a more enchanting place in all of New York City, than this!  I find a vacant bench and sit to take it in.  Quiet, most lonely and serene, the line of trees seems to say, “I would keep more than silent company with you, if only I could.”  These limbs that reach out as if in want to touch will soon be bare and dark against the glint of a brilliant first snow.  Surely the cloak of January well suits this peaceful scene.
        I take out my book, turn the bookmark and notice my hands, so rough, so telling of my age, my ambivalence.  Once they were pretty.
      —My young hands followed her hands.
Fill the delicate china cup with flour four times; put a small fistful of Crisco in, run flour between fingers but not too much; make a small well for the buttermilk in the center; work the batter gently, then pat it out flat; cut the biscuits with my tiny juice glass, place them on an old pie plate and put them in the hot oven.  Sipping coffee, we talked while they baked. —
     As long as she was there, my biscuits were like hers.   But, without her, later, it was as if the spell was broken, the charm gone.  If only my personality and temperament had been more similar to hers, my life would have been more serene.  “It’s all about timing,” GrandMosie would patiently say, moving in and out of the early light that brightened the dark corners of the kitchen.
     The most important lessons I’ve found in the little things.
     Sitting, soaking up the healing sun, I read above the noise of strange birds, their glut-throated tweeps, twerps and full song.  Because I am sitting, reading and not moving about, the breeze that earlier was refreshing is now too cool.  Pulling my sweater about me, I notice a young woman seated nearby.  She smokes one cigarette after another.  An interesting sort, she is attired in orange runner’s pants and a bright green tank.  The kicker is her pink suede pumps and matching handbag!  Other than the weird get-up, she appears very well put together.  Looking closely, I recognize her odd beauty.
      “Are you here with family?” I hear a man’s voice ask.  Startled, it takes me a full minute to realize that it is me who is being addressed.  Turning, I see a gentleman, some years older than my father, settling onto the bench near me.
     “No,” I answer, smiling nervously, thinking the question strange.
     “So you are working or vacationing.  What is the reason for your visit, then?”
     “I am here on what I call a somewhat sabbatical,” I tell him laughing at myself.  Feeling my response somewhat vague, I explain that I’m here for a quiet reprieve, some time alone.
     “I do not understand the young women of your generation.”  He huffs, sounding irritated as though he has been trying for years.
     Amazed, I wonder which generation he means, exactly.
     “Your incessant bemoaning of stress and needing time alone,” he continues.
     No thank you, I think.  What had begun as a pleasant exchange is over.
     “Enjoy your day,” I tell him, rising.
      Graciousness doesn’t cost a thing.  I hear my mother say and so sit back down.
     “Why are you here?” I ask.  To my surprise, he tells me.
     “My wife and I married in this park in 1953.  Every year we visit on our anniversary and also on every holiday.”
     “Every holiday? Which holidays?” I want to know.
     “Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July.  And, of course any of the others she wanted.”  Silently, I catch the change in verb tense.  “My wife loved this park.  Always did.  She had old black and white photos of the place all over the house.  ‘Can’t we get something else, something with a little color?’ I would tease her.  And, she would laugh and tell me that I loved her park.  She was wrong.  I didn’t love this park and I don’t love it now.  But love her I did.  This is what made her happy and so it made me happy.  Now, I come here alone.”
      “Well, I think that is wonderful,” I tell him, trying to sound cheerful.
     “There were times it pained me to come all the way out here instead of celebrating with friends or staying home.  But, I had rather be somewhere I didn’t want than be alone, without her.”
     He rises to leave.  “I hope you enjoy your sabbatical, Mrs…?”
     “Mozley,” I answer, realizing with a start that I’ve given my maiden name.  “Thank you for talking with me,” I tell him before he turns away.
     Although I know I’ll not be able to return to my book following this exchange, I sit back down for a moment and think about all that was and was not said.  Recently, I have become so caught up in thoughts of the past and the future that I have let the precious moments of the present pass me by.  Often as not this recognition that time cannot be reclaimed is made without a pause in whatever it is I am doing, regardless of the knowledge that I should be spending time on something more worthwhile.  There are times I exasperate even myself.
_________
     A book can only captivate a willing mind, so I wander to Bethesda Terrace and the Fountain.  There are a few things within the park that really hold my heart.  Visiting these qualify as one.  There is something about this place that calls to me –the steps, the terrace courtyard, the pull of the lake and the fountain.  All are irresistible!  Children play sing-song along the steps while people stand and talk.  Others move about the place as if they are drawn here as well.
     Within the terrace bellow, I find a spectacular passageway I’ve never seen.  It is regal and rather like the woman’s beauty of which you often hear but upon meeting are unprepared for!  I feel like I am walking the halls of some long forgotten, golden palace.
      Back outside, bronze blessings beckon.  Angel of the Waters is an Emma Stebbing’s fountain, the first sculpture commissioned by a woman in New York City.  The work was sculpted in 1868 and unveiled in 1873.
     Standing high upon a pedestal base, the angel reaches out to bless the waters of Bethesda.  The cherubs represent Temperance, Peace, Purity and Health.  I dip my fingers into the cool pool before bringing them to my face.  Throw in a coin for a blessing.  Rummaging through my bag I find only leftover Euros, souvenirs from Italy.  Though I hate to part with them I toss three, pausing before each to say a quiet prayer.  Keep my children safe and healthy.  Bless them all the days of their lives.  Help me find my way.
     Moving toward the lake, almost in a daze, I recall a quote by Longfellow:    “Not in the clamor of the crowded street, not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves, are triumph and defeat.”
     Quotes, like Bible verses or words of wisdom given by a loved one, if taken to heart, are remembered.  When you stop believing in something, the good leaks away.
     If there is a liar in every crowd, why is it always turning out to be me?  Detesting a lie as I do, it is amazing the extent to which I will go in order to convince myself of something I deeply know to be untrue.  Like the ultimate politician, self can be serpentine.  Is it also that there is a vein of stubbornness that runs through me, one that makes it almost impossible to acknowledge defeat?  Is there a difference in calling it quits and giving up?
     Simple acts to symbolize my freedom.  These are things I constantly find myself doing.  How many times in my life have I declared my independence beginning with the statement, “From this day forward…”?  However, like most things of any significance, liberty cannot be simply declared but must also be characterized by some action, a turning point, some representative of change, the symbolic act being paramount.  Changes to a telescopic past cannot be made.  There can only be an acknowledgment of the person I once was.
     I walk to the terrace edge nearest the water and lean against the railing to look out across the lake.  To my right is Loeb Boathouse, a restaurant where I would love to eat, relax away the afternoon on the deck, rent a bike or a row boat if time allowed.
If time allowed.
     To my left is Bow Bridge and just beyond is the border of the Ramble.  Decisions.  Do I want to walk through the lightly wooded area of the Ramble or back-track to Strawberry Field and the Imagine mosaic?  The place offers a natural sanctuary for many people, not necessarily just followers of the Beatles or artists who want to pay homage to a muse but people who were, perhaps, born idealists.
     Just as some must have cursed a life working the soil or toiling under the weight of manual labor, others too must have thrilled at the euphoria of its exhaustive, natural state.  If it is true that the backs of immigrant labor built Central Park, then they must have taken as much pride in their work as the designers themselves.
     In Walden Thoreau states, “One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.”  So much of this city fell into ill repair during times of economic strife.  It took the iron will of the dedicated to return it to its former grandeur.  This is true of the park as well.
      I set off in search of the most appealing footpath through the Ramble.  Walking with the sun in my face, I might as well be home.  The sounds are the same.  The smells are the same.  Hunting the lolling hills of Sand Mountain when I was in my teens, my eyes wandered across all that lay before me.  What was once pasture land had become neglected fields grown up in sweet broom sage, silvery rabbit tobacco, and thorny briar.  Papa and I had spent the morning quail hunting only to find singles.  Enumerable coveys once thrived there.  It was now land almost barren of fowl.  Pests like coyote, fire ants, and the thriving hawk had all but decimated the population.  Everything left untended goes back to the wild.
     Background noises from the lake seep into my thoughts:  barking geese in the distance, strident insects, perhaps crickets or maybe katydids, and the agreeable sound so very far away of a fish breaking the water’s surface.  Tip-toeing through shallow pools of water, leaves and mush, I think how unfortunate it is that we are so tuned in to technology and so tuned out of nature.  How does one determine if a storm is brewing if they live in the city?  What I mean is –are there things you notice when out and about that foretell a change in weather?
     Thank Country folk look about and notice what the animals are doing.  (Of course, we also look to the moon when children become unreasonably unruly and ex-husbands more obviously insane.)  My great-grandmother Lela Bell used to say you can tell a storm is brewing if dogs are eating grass, cows gather in the field to feed and songbirds quieten.  A thick coat of fur on animals, squirrels collecting and burying nuts early.  Both are signs of a bitter winter.  And, there is the symbolic owl.  If you hear one hooting midday, high winds and heavy rain are soon to follow.  The dreaded owl sighted before the setting of the sun, however, announces only death.
      The South still thrives on tales of wonder and awe.  The character of those in awe remains just as often described ages ago; a likeable people open with home and conversation, God-fearing, yet prone to violence.  It goes without saying, that the better the tale, the more often it is told.  I recently heard a wonderful story while attending a friend’s family reunion.   One summer day, my friend’s Uncle Jule was out raking hay with the younger James when a storm came up unexpectedly.  Afraid of losing half the hay, Uncle Jule grabbed a double bladed axe from the back of the pick-up truck and planted it deep within the earth, at the center end of the field nearest the approaching storm. The younger James stood astonished as the storm clouds separated and went around the pasture.  Although Jule was not present at the gathering, James was and verified the story.  Our region is comprised of the strange and unusual.
      Oh, how these thoughts stir the desire to just sell all and move out into the country again, purchase an old farm house, stock the pantry so that it feeds for a month, trek into town only as the want arises.  Away from others and all outside influence, turning  inward toward taciturn, would I slowly become myself concentrated, filtered free of the impurities of society or would I work myself into something more like sour mash?  Does it matter?  At least I would be free to quietly reflect on and practice the often odd beliefs and charms of honest country folk, tend chickens, bees and smoke house, grow a grand garden!  I laugh.  Children might pass by my house on Halloween, rumoring it to be the home of some crazed woman or a witch.  I smirk.  Considering my profession as an educator, this may not be too far from the mark.
     Trees, trees everywhere! Oaks, maple, elm wild cherry, locust, sweet gum, dogwood, hawthorne, crab apple, silverbell and sassafras. The Ramble was envisioned by Olmstead as providing a natural landscape within an otherwise orderly park, a slice of nature beyond the crowded city, where people might wander, think and feel as though they have stepped away from it all.  But we cannot foresee the future.  Some places become what they are not meant to be.       For many years, the Ramble held a questionable reputation.  But, images can yet again change.
     Today I’ve passed a tour group and several bird watchers.  I overheard one of the women say she had just seen a Red-Tailed Hawk.  These are prevalent back home, being protected as they are.  Often, they are blamed for making off with kittens and the thinning of our bird populations.  What I regard as the most beautiful bird of prey, other Southerners see as a damn nuisance.
     Passing through an area that appears to be a recent planting, I cannot help but think that so many of these young trees are perfect for fiddling worms and wonder if anyone ever tried here so many years ago.  If I were with a guide I’d be tempted to ask but probably wouldn’t for fear of embarrassment.
     Every summer on a day after there had been no recent rain, my brother and I would go fiddling worms with Papa in the woods along the outer hills of the old forgotten cemetery.  We arose early and knew instinctively what to gather for this was a habit of so many years: a five gallon bucket, the old handsaw to cut the young saplings, rubbing alcohol and a wet towel.  We would load up in Papa’s old International, and stop at the store for Cokes and small fried apple pies before heading on our way.
     Parking in an area where we were forbidden to travel alone, we would walk the short distance into the sparsely wooded hillside surrounding the cemetery.  Searching along the south side of the hill, we would locate a small sapling around which the floor of the woods was well covered with leaves, and then cut the young tree off about two feet above the ground.  Papa then placed the saw within the center of the cut, blade down into it, and began to pull gently against the wood, sending out vibrations along the remaining trunk down deep into the soil. Within minutes the leaves around us would begin to come alive with movement as the long fiddle worms made their way to the surface, seeking the quiver they thought was rain.  We would reach, grab and throw them into the five gallon bucket, layer them with soil and leaves.  Our work finished, it required the entire bottle of rubbing alcohol and the rough texture of the towel to remove the gluey slime from our hands.
     Unable to walk thirty yards in any direction without my mind jumping to yet another memory, I decide to find a place to sit and journal.
Journal Entry:
If only someone could chart out these frequent memories for me and explain what they all mean.  But really, it is not so much what they mean, but that they are memories of an earlier version of me, of how I once was.  As children, we are very near our truest character; we have yet to be so influenced by society.   Mother said the most important thing I would ever obtain would be an education.  Papa said it would be memories.  They were both right.  Although my education allows me some independence, the memories remind me who I really am.
The distance provided by this trip gives me room to think.  There are some who say you should still the mind; others believe you should let your thoughts flow unimpeded and simply recognize them.  Personally, I would just like to make it from point A to point B without making myself crazy.
 
The lack of schedule and the freedom of open days have worked magic.  Like muscle coaxed to relax by healing hands, day-to-day living has released a poisonous tension from my body and mind.  There remains the weight of decision but even that has been smoothed down and buffered.  The fear and dread remain but do not inflict the same damage.
 
What do I want?  What do I expect?  Perhaps, just perhaps, this is the rotten root of the problem.  Are my expectations so high as to handicap me as an individual?  When it comes to expectations, what constitutes healthy?  I can’t imagine lowering them!  But, what if they are the reason I keep ending up in the same predicament time after time?  Am I stuck in a cycle created by my personality, my choices and my expectations?
——-
SWEDISH COTTAGE MARIONETTE THEATRE and BELVEDERE CASTLE
     The footpath I follow leads out to the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre.  Constructed for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, it was moved here by Olmstead a year later.  The Marionette Theatre puppeteers present daily shows for young audiences.  Further down the path, I arrive at Shakespeare Garden and although I am only passing through, decide to sit for a while on a handsome rough hewn bench and admire a similarly constructed fence.  There is nothing here I do not appreciate.  Lucky are the children of the surrounding boroughs who get to visit on free weekends  and let their imaginations run wild.  The quiet garden is well planned.  Its free flowing feel so real it is easy to forget that these are well thought out plantings, that within the artist’s original idea the garden was most likely just as it is.  Gathering my things, I look about with regret.  I missed the emergence of the daffodils, the unfurling of the fern.
     Drawing near its stone façade I wonder -what could a kid not love about Belvedere Castle?  From an English garden to a Victorian folly sitting high atop Vista Rock, this section of Central Park leaves nothing to be desired for anyone with a touch of imagination.  Belvedere Castle is a Victorian folly that was designed by one of the designers of Central Park, Calvert Vaux, in 1869.  The castle is constructed of a mica schist known as Manhattan Schist and gray granite.  A mythical cockatrice beacons from a transom and high above a wind vane dances atop the castle tower.   The Central Park website states that the National Weather Service began using the tower in 1919.
      After suffering from years of neglect, the castle was restored in the early 1980’s and reopened to the public as the Henry Luce Nature Observatory.  Children today experience hands-on lessons in natural observation and hone critical thinking skills while learning the fundamentals of scientific method during free community programs.
      I watch the children play, listen to carefree laughter that trills amid the wildflowers, observe their shadows shift and grow long.  There is almost no discernable difference between their cheerful sounds and the vivid colors of the garden.  Both are without want, without care, their essence the satisfaction of just being.
     Cold biscuits with a fine cut of cheddar, residue of butter and crumbs on fingertips.  Is this why the dragonfly alights on me, for something of smell?  Or is it to bring the luck that I may soon need, come to stay with me a while before moving on?  Sitting for some time, drinking a bottle of lukewarm water and thinking, the realization comes clear that I find myself at this juncture in life quite without friends.  I put myself into my kids, my husband, my work, but I’ve let my friends go.  It is a jarring thought.
     The child in me tugs gently.   I have one more thing I simply must see.  A fascinating icon for adults, the Obelisk or Cleopatra’s Needle, is located on Greywacke Knoll, a short distance from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The 220 plus ton granite needle once stood in Alexandria Egypt.   It is estimated that the Obelisk was built around 462 B.C. as ornamentation at the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis.  The Obelisk is one of a pair and was given to the United States around 1869 by Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt.  The gift, given in hopes of improving trade between Egypt and the United States, arrived in New York Harbor in 1880.  Following a parade and ceremony, The Masons laid the cornerstone for the Obelisk.  It seems a strange but wonderful addition to the park.  Until I began researching for my visit, I’d never heard of the needle.  Today, the hieroglyphs which are engraved on all sides have deteriorated quickly due to the city’s climate and pollution.
     There was the idea of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and so I took the time to scan the “on view” paintings online.  The Sacrifice of Isaac, oil on canvas by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo is one that I really wanted to see for its amazing color and riveting Bible story.  Another, Virtue and Nobility, also painted by Tiepolo is noted for its symbolism.  Soap Bubbles by Thomas Couture 1859, and Leon Bonnat’s Roman Girl at a Fountain 1875, are also a must.  My desire to see these iconic works is based on the most immature of reasons.  One I wish to see for a child’s expression, so obviously lost she is in thought, a sight with which I am all too familiar.  The other I want to see simply because I find the combination of color and texture beautiful.  But, as much as I would like to go, I cannot today.  The idea of being held indoors, even for the briefest amount of time, has me stalling, like the condemned before the hangman’s noose.
     I think today, more than any other has me missing my children. Of all the things I’ve experienced these past days, perusing Central Park has been something that Anderson and Isaac would have enjoyed and remembered.
      Just inside the subway an old black man sits on a wooden crate, strumming his guitar, his voice almost surreal.  When he finishes the song, I step forward and ask if he will play “The House of the Rising Sun”.  Without any acknowledgement that he hears –no understanding crosses the eyes nor is there a nod of the head –as if channeling, he begins to play, strumming the blue notes, talk/singing the folk lyrics in an uncanny, easy way.  I smile a thank you, then put my loose change and some ones in his open case.
“Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain…”
     Walking the last few blocks alone in the early evening, I let myself consider what may or may not be and try to visualize again what my best life might look like.  The winds seem to push the gray black sky along with me.  I am hungry, physically tired and emotionally worn.  I want nothing more than a glass of crushed crackers mixed with cold milk and a soft place to lie down with a warm blanket.
Journal Entry:
If, at the end of our lives we were given the opportunity to relive five moments, which ones would we choose?  The choices would reveal what is most important.
 
The first time I remember ever hesitating over an important decision, my grandpa reminded me that wringing hands is a waste of time.  “Flip a coin,” he said.  I was shocked and told him I was afraid of leaving an important decision to chance.  But, he handed me a quarter anyway.  I called each side of the coin then flipped it.  When I uncovered the coin, I smiled and Grandpa said, “Your reaction when you first see the coin should direct your choice –not the coin itself.”

 

“To Travel is to Live.” Hans Christian Andersen

6A8E2A01-94A9-455B-9AB2-1F160C02DCD4In Out of Africa, after listening to a beautifully spun story, Denys Finch Hatton asks Baroness Karen von Blixen if she has traveled to the places in her tale. Regretfully, she admits that until her purchase of a farm in the Ngong Hills of Africa, she had been only an armchair traveler.

Wandering exploration and travel by armchair are two very different things. But we cannot label one as better than the other for science proves that escape within something enjoyed, especially books, brings a great relief of stress, moving one beyond the day-to-day components of life.

But oh, the joy of real travel! There is something glorious in the discovery of a new place –and there is the knowledge that when one returns home, they are somehow changed for the better. Just as a student’s growth is visible to the knowing eye of the teacher when they return from summer vacation, others notice the change in a friend who returns from sabbatical.

Travel gives birth to new thoughts, and reflections on memories perhaps otherwise forgotten; moreover it fosters creativity. In seeing more, we become more; in experiencing another culture, our souls stretch and grow. Moving beyond the steadfastness of our present lives, we once again recognize that we are more than our profession, more than a parent, someone’s child, or sibling.

The images we retain from a meaningful trip are colored by the emotions we experience when traveling. While we cannot possibly recollect it all in great detail, we bring back with us snippets, souvenirs of sorts –be it an appreciated object, purchased or found; notes on a napkin or postcard; photographs.

Then when the time between travels grows too long, we seek out the objects that they might transplant us to that special place again.

Go~ make plans, fill the heart with anticipation!

 

*****

ELIZABETH MOZLEY

@ElizabethMozley  &  @CentipedeYAread

And on Facebook – We Share the Same Sky, author Elizabeth Mozley

We Share the Same Sky, a memoir

https://www.amazon.com/Elizabeth-Mozley/e/B00J7KJWIU