Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year

"Kiva probably won't be here next Christmas," A said seriously. "Mom told me."

At fifteen, Kiva is an old dog, a survivor and a loved family member.

I see her and remember the puppy who bounced and bounced like a ball from spot to spot in my niece's first Brevard house. I see her and remember the mountain house where my niece and her husband lived and where her son was christened and where her mother, my sister-in-law, died. I see her and think of my old cat Lucy, who didn't make it to Christmas this year.

And when C spontaneously cuddles with Kiva on her pillow, it's hard to take the picture.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Way Legos Connect

That snap, when brick fits brick just so, making a lego castle or fox chasing rabbit, that's the way this family fits, the parents (builder and flower artist) and the children (nature lover and crafts maker) complementing and enjoying each other.

No better way to spend an afternoon than this: a Christmas-gift trip to Michael's, lunch at Moe's, and a stroll through The North Carolina Arboretum.

"Let's find the koi," says C, and we do.

"Pops loves koi," says A, and he does.

"A butterfly!" says A.

"A swallowtail," says C.

"Yes," I say, "an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail!"

"Look at the detail," says E, and I do, and all of them -- plastic brick art, red- and yellow-limbed dogwoods, giggles and skips, smiles and silly faces bloom into one garden of joy.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


Today, on the way to see my niece and her family, I stopped three times -- once for gas, once for food, and once for love.

I have long loved the mountains of North Carolina -- the low lumpy ones and the high peaked ones, the silvered and grayed ones, covered by clouds, and the blue ones like these, receding and bluing into the distance. Their beauty never ages.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Show Us Your Best

Alex Wild has invited readers to make a Best-of-2013 science or nature gallery and share the link. Here goes, one for each month, beginning with December.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Visual Obsession

I have 20/20 vision. At a distance. I can see a tiny bug or dust mote and follow its flight or float. I can read road signs. I enter a big box store, and I can find the right aisle.

But with clarity provided by man-made lenses, I have also lost something I loved, but never knew before just how much: I cannot shift my eyes out of focus. 

I don't remember learning to tie my shoe laces or to read, but I remember stumbling upon that trick as a child. Once I learned how to let my eyes shift, I'd do it again, and again and again. I wanted to see the world in shapes and colors, let them swim together and apart, meld and separate.

In the last two weeks, I have asked my camera to do what I can't. I have, as is my wont, become obsessed. Everywhere I look, I aim and shift myself and camera settings, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always with childish pleasure.

It's a silly thing, but in a time of stress and worry, of endings and beginnings, a small thing can weigh much. And this discovery does.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Gifts

When everyone droops with gift-giving, even the dog Betsy, we take to the outdoors.
One walk with my niece and her youngest takes us past my childhood church, now a dancing school. "I wish they had dance here," my niece said. "The studio is so beautiful." "Oh yes," I say, "I can well imagine."

Another walk takes me and the older of the two Birmingham great-nieces to the filling station for AA batteries. We're on a mission: to take a few snaps. We photograph reflections in windows and doors, feet and each other, bricks and stones, and water. At home, I edit one of her photos, and her sister V exclaims, "Did E take that???" "Yes," I answer. "Wow," E says. I hope this is the start of something.
On the last walk, just before we take the turkey to the in-laws' house for Christmas dinner, my nephew and I stroll through Birmingham's Botanical Gardens. We marvel at ferns and names of hundreds of iris (I'd like to see them come up), walk up and down hilly paths, admiring crape myrtle bark aglow in late afternoon light, and stopping at the Conservatory entrance to read the plaques memorializing members of our "second family.

On our way home, we pass my father's childhood home and my two childhood homes, and I think of all those who aren't here now to enjoy Christmas -- my parents, my aunt and uncle, my second family "aunt and uncle," and one first cousin.

Their gifts live on in the season of giving.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Bling

Tree bling.
Yard and house bling.
Child bling.
Everything shines brighter at home for Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

How My Mind Works When I Face Blogger's Blank Screen Every Day

from Percy Bysshe Shelley's
"Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni"

The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.

Today, I needed a dam to direct the flow.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

To the Reader: Winnie

Today, I saw myself in a Christmas ornament and thought of you, my most loyal reader. 
Perhaps you might enjoy this poem, in which I might substitute "book" with "blog."

To the Reader
by Ben Johnson

Pray thee, take care, that tak'st my book in hand,
To read it well: that is, to understand.

Here I am in this blog, Winnie, in words: you don't need to see me to read me.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Little Kindnesses

I met a former student at The Waffle House earlier tonight for a bit of conversation and her "interesting news" during an hour stolen from her long drive home.

What I didn't expect delighted and moved me. Along the windows, homemade snowflakes had been taped ("Made by the third shift ladies," our waitress explained; "they could have used store-bought ones, but they didn't!"). At the counter, an older man, alone, played a game on his telephone, another waitress and the fry-cook chatting with and asking him questions -- a regular customer clearly, a widower perhaps, enjoying the generous attention from folks whom he knows.
We don't always get what we expect. Tonight, I expected the penetrating smell of grease and inattention of the wait staff, just like I'd had before at the same restaurant.

When I still taught prep school, I began the first tenth-grade class of the year with "Molly and Ned," a game designed to test students' lack of awareness of their preconceptions about language. "What do you think this phrase" -- I'd point to "functional fixedness" already written on the board -- "means." Eventually, students would untangle the phrase into something like a fixed way of thinking about something. "Yes, a way of thinking that sticks you in a rut when you encounter something you don't expect. We're going to play Molly and Ned to uncover your functional fixedness. Your job," I'd say, "is to discover the rules of the game by asking me questions to which I can answer yes or no. Begin." After much frustration and experimentation, students who followed their instincts and who thought creatively -- often those their classmates had written off as "slow" or worse -- would catch on. I'll leave it to you to imagine why the game is called "Molly and Ned."

Tonight, I banged up against my own functional fixedness. I have long thought of The Waffle House as a restaurant of the lowest order -- a place of last resort. But I have been blind to the humanity of the people who work there, and tonight I am grateful to them for their little kindnesses.
I suspect my friend and former student is, too.

Friday, December 20, 2013

That Annual Itch

It's hard to find the kind of Christmas lights that make me tingle on the campus of an Episcopalian college. My staunchly Episcopal mother was a lights snob: only white and only tiny (never blinking or synching); all others were "tacky." Tiny white is pretty much what folks around do, if they do anything at all. (I can think of three exceptions, one down the street. But only three.)

Oh, how I love lights.

In New Orleans' City Park, a light fantasia reigns every Christmas season. Even without children in tow, folks find Celebration in the Oaks inspiring. When I lived in the city, I drove St. Charles every evening and marveled at the crisp white lights draped over stately mansions. Once, a friend who lived in the same Metairie neighborhood as Al Copeland, flashy founder of Popeye's, took me to see his display. He spent a fortune on Christmas decorations of the kind not only my mother would pooh-pooh, but of the kind even I found over-the-top tacky.

Another Christmas, when I was living in Birmingham, I was invited to a Christmas party that included a tour of Gardendale lights, including one house that lit up the entire neighborhood. Every window opened onto a special enclosed scene, and music blared. I would not have wanted to live near that house, but I sure enjoyed seeing it.

Tonight, feeling Christmas-lights bereft, I drove out of the parking lot at the Pig. Instead of pulling up to the highway, I stopped just short. The Amish Hippie's lights and light rain made just the kind of scene I have been missing.

Maybe I should drive over every night, just to scratch that Christmas itch.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Dear Jim,

You asked earlier this afternoon if I'd get a walk in today. I'm sorry to say that I didn't.

But at 4 I took a short drive, a much shorter stroll, and lots of pleasure from this.

It doesn't take much to make happy.


PS Thanks for asking.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Finding a Small Scalp of Upturned Moss at the Lake

and feeling responsible for having heeled it up myself yesterday, I remembered "Moss-gathering" by Ted Roethke.

To loosen with all ten fingers held wide and limber
And lift up a patch, dark-green, the kind for lining cemetery baskets,
Thick and cushiony, like an old-fashioned doormat,
The crumbling small hollow sticks on the underside mixed with roots,
And wintergreen berries and leaves still stuck to the top, --
That was moss-gathering.
But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the

And afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road,
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance,
By pulling off flesh from the living planet;
As if I had committed against the whole scheme of life, a desecration.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tiny Forests

Lie on damp spongy ground, and look straight ahead. If you're lucky, like me, you'll see a tiny forest, not neat rows on a Christmas tree farm, but a mishmash of mosses resting on their own soft mat.

I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, and though I wanted to like the book, I didn't. But I loved the passages about the main character's passion, mosses. Gilbert is herself an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener and a scholarly student of her topic (now I want to read Robin Wall Kimmerer's Gathering Moss, which Gilbert read and re-read) She writes about moss with such precision, respect, and joy that the bryophytes seem to spring up from the page.

Among many passages that captured my imagination were these:

"Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone; scarcely anything, in return, eats moss. Moss dines upon boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries. Given enough time, a colony of moss can turn a cliff into gravel, and turn that gravel into topsoil. Under shelves of exposed limestone, moss colonies create dripping, living sponges that hold on tight and drink calciferous water straight from the stone. Over time, this mix of moss and mineral will itself turn into travertine marble. Within that hard, creamy-white marble surface, one will forever see veins of blue, green, and gray -- the traces of the antediluvian moss settlements. St. Peter's Basilica itself was built from the stuff, both created by and stained with the bodies of ancient moss colonies."

"[Moss] grows on the fur of sloths, on the backs of snails, on decaying human bones."

"Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. . . . This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here was barely visible tributaries running through that jungle."

Moss: soft, springy, strong, satisfyingly beautiful.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Triple the Pleasure

Triple the fun!

If Doublemint can do it, so can I!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Eleven Favorites without Explanation and One Bad Picture

Time to look back and remember eleven favorites of 2013.

January 20: What I Wished For Today

February 27: My Twelve-step Program

March 28: Another Kind of Blooming

April 25: Rooting

May 14: A Overdue Thank-you Note

June 23: Sunday Morning

July 10: Another Author in the Family

August 25: Summer Evenings Long Ago

September 26: Roosting

October 12: Improvising

November 16: Biscuits and Honey

One bad picture that shows why I like blogging: I enjoy looking and then altering to suit some purpose. 

In this case, a rescue.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Essentials




Friday, December 13, 2013

Reading and Writing

The Greats and I love books and their neighborhood library, where we went on an expedition. One returned four books, one five. One checked out three books, the other three.

The youngest settled onto a bench in the children's section and said, "I want to stay here and read."

The other said, "No, not today," so off we went.

One stayed home, and the other came with me for a treat at the local coffee shop. After chai tea and a milk frosty (from which I had to eat the whipped cream because the Great said, "It's gross"), she took me upstairs where I had not been.

At the top of the steps, she said, "Isn't it cool?" The man settled in an armchair looked up from his paper and smiled, but the two students cramming for exams did not.

"Shh," I said, "this is the quiet spot."

We agreed it would be a cool place to read.

On the way home, I asked, "What's the best part of third grade?"

"Cursive," she said, and she was serious.

When we got home, she proved it.

These are things we love: books (all three of us), reading (all three of us), writing (two of us), and the people who write the books we love (all three us).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

No Longer Living in a Blur

I no longer 
  • commute long distances at sunrise and sunset
  • know only my neighbors because I am home so little during daylight
  • spend endless hours grading papers and always feel guilty about the grades
  • rise to an alarm clock or go to bed by a given hour
  • feel tired all the time
  • get crabby easily
  • forego reading because of failing eyesight
  • have no time for my own interests
  • live in a whirling blur of hurryhurryhurrydothisdothatgoheregothere
Now I can see a blur and find it life-affirming, not have to live in one and find it life-depleting.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Glitter Wing

Heavy frost, the kind that snaps, crackles, and pops, even on the slowly rotting wing of my J. L. Nipper airplane, glitter-ing.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ice Houses


In childhood, my family sometimes spent summer weekends at a "camp" on the Black Warrior River. We stayed in Cabin 1, a two-bedroom wooden affair with a screen porch along the front and no running water. To cool our drinks, my father would stop on the way out of Birmingham at an ice house, which sold dry ice, block ice, and chipped ice. Inside the big cooler, where I was sometimes allowed, everything shimmered starry blue.


Years later, when I lived in New Orleans, I knew the family that founded and ran Pelican Ice. From my friend, I learned about the contributions of the ice company during hurricanes. Until then, it had never occurred to me that ice was such a precious commodity, especially along the coast. 

I was a late-learner.


I am not a late-appreciator of the beauty of ice, however.

After picking up our ice for our River trips, I loved running my hand across the block, feeling the cracks and crevices, the watery bits and the sticky bits. Or when my father or a brother chipped it, I loved the thunk of hammer and tinkle of chips collecting, spattering and sputtering against a metal container.


I have always known ice storms. Birmingham is sometimes the epicenter of dangerous ice storms that bring down power lines and trees, marooning folks inside their homes for days.  Strapping on my boots and jeans, I headed out to the creek, walking across slippery leaf litter and railroad ties, just to look at the slickery rocks and frozen bits of weed or limb along the shoreline. Sometimes, I headed to the neighbor's hilly lawn for a ride downhill, trudging through knee-high weeds encased in ice.


Today, the lake shimmered, and I thought about the river, the Behres, the creek, and the ephemeral beauty of ice.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Saving a Day

Warm light
a day 
in cold 
mist and fog.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Drafting Frenzy

A friend recently said, "You always get so worked up over your Christmas books, Robley."

Well, maybe.

But the thing is that my process of writing requires a l-o-n-g time for thinking before I even start my "zero draft," the mess from which I hope to make something worth giving. Then, suddenly, I feel a shift and everything pours out like the all-day rain falling here today. Add to this the book designing and making, and yes sometimes I work myself into a swivet (the good kind -- the I-am-doing-something-interesting-that-I've-never-done-before-swirl-of-creation swivet.)

Finally, I had to learn a new online program to make the book. Only after I had created three solid working drafts did I even figure out how to unlink text blocks.

After many proofreading/editing sessions (mine and two friends') I gave the command to print this afternoon. This is it!

it's blurred because it's still a secret
Bring on Christmas and the Greats!

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Enjoyable work
Friends who make soap
Those who rescue cats
Artists who create beautiful handicrafts
Tolling bells
Freezing fog & icy mist
Sweet treats

Strong black tea
Christmas book-making for those I love most