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Northern Lights, Southern Exposure: A Yankee’s Thoughts on Living in the South

Sally Mann cameraI’ve been on a Sally Mann kick lately.

In the span of a few days, I binge-watched a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment, then a documentary about her life and photography. And if that wasn’t enough, I read her memoir, Hold Still, and reacquainted myself with her stunning body of work (at least what we have of it on our bookshelves) – from the controversial photos of her young children in Immediate Family to What Remains, her visual meditations on death.

And yet, despite how compelling I find her process and meticulous attention to detail, what’s stuck with me most is her philosophy of capturing the local, the immediate, rather than the highly conceptual, the wide-flung and international.

She talks at great length about being a southerner and loving the south – warts and all. In the way you love your family, even if some of them make you want to put a nail gun to your temple. Or theirs.

After having now spent a good deal of my adult life in the South, interpreting Sally Mann’s work and reading her life story has made me think about my own evolution in thought about my adopted home.

Sally Mann self portrait

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, surrounded by neighbors with last names like O’Malley, Dulik, Zito and Dumbrowski. And I’m a Yankee who moved south with many, if not all of the same prejudices that my northern peers excel at.

See if this sounds familiar: the South  is racist, backward, quaint, overly-mannered, full of fake smiles. It’s uneducated, unenlightened, and uninterested in ever evolving out of its troubled past.

I won’t discount them. Stereotypes don’t appear out of nowhere in a puff of pink genie smoke. Like gossip, they hold some truth.

Except that the South is also beautiful in a weeping, classical sense. Lush. It’s air is like hot breath, and it’s people are neighborly, stubborn, courtly, and languorous.

When I dropped off an antique clock at a repairman’s in April and asked when I should plan on picking it up, the clerk said – I kid you not, “Why don’t you try back about Thanksgivin’ ma’am.” The place was as quiet as church. The man as leisurely as a sip on a Mint Julep.


As a compulsive storyteller and story-listener, living in the South has provided fascination and fodder for me. Like the Irish, Southerners are lyrical in their thought and speech, chronicling the local through verse, drama, a pick on a guitar.

Think Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams. And this is only a sampling from the immediate post Civil War period – a time when the South was utterly devastated and had no business contributing to the canon.

Post war stars of the literati include Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, William Styron, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Anne Rice, John Grisham, Pat Conroy and Tom Robbins, just to name a few.

(Ok, I know I went heavy on the writers here, but what do you expect?)

It is because of the South that we have Jazz, Country and Rock-n-Roll music. Around the world, hearts ache, flutter and rejoice to the distinctly southern sounds of Johnny Mercer, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, Jimmy Buffett, REM, The Black Crowes and yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Because there is a depth in Dixie, one that plays muse to those of us inclined to interpret and examine. Maybe sing a love song. It lies beneath the wrap-around porches and behind the polite banter. In the tiny, time-warp towns that dot the valleys.

It is evident in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, notably “The Declaration of Independence.” In perhaps one of history’s great ironies, this document, written by a southern gentleman and slave owner, includes what has been called the greatest sentence ever written:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

sally mann jump

Still, at least for Yankees, the Hollywood invented “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show seems a more typical example of southern culture.

Now, I’m not putting the blame squarely in the lap of un-watchable early eighties television here. It would appear the South’s reputation as a cultural backwater has been around for a while. It really took off in the 1920s, when Yankee writer H.L. Mencken penned a satirical piece highlighting the South’s inability to produce anything of cultural value. He became wildly popular after the publication of his essay, and his perceptions have stuck, taking on a life of their own and feeding the imaginations of coastal city rats.

Sally Mann underwater

Years ago, when I acted in a British play (“Grace” by Doug Lucie), I portrayed a southern woman.  A theater critic (NYC born and bred) spotlighted my excellent southern accent while disparaging another actress whose cadence”seemed fake” to him. Only that I’d gotten my accent from TV and my fellow actress was a real live southerner from Alabama.

I’m not saying this to pick on the critic – not much, anyway. It’s just that we northerners think we know southerners the way people think they know Britney Spears. We’re vaguely aware that regional inflections exist, but are utterly incapable of distinguishing between a Texan’s drawl and a Virginian’s lilt. We snicker about the South’s preoccupation with the Civil War. The statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, the re-enactors.

“War, war, war,” if I can quote Scarlett O’Hara. Get over it!, we say.

But can you really blame southerners for their obsession? The Civil War was the pivotal event in our country’s history – the one that scarred us, shaped us, grew us up and made us who we are today. It happened on southern soil – the fighting and the bleeding, the burning, the gouging and the tears. Then the aftermath. The shame which lives on.

Sally Mann haunted landscape

As Sally Mann points out, southerners are the only non-immigrant Americans who know what it’s like to lose. To return home in utter defeat…to crawl back to their families quite literally on their hands and knees. To have been on the wrong side of history and morality.

When you look at other cultures who have had to navigate devastating losses – the Slavs, the Germans, the Jews, the African-Americans – they share with the American South a fixation on who we are that’s difficult for your average Yankee to understand.

Here is my interpretation.

Yes, the South is the place of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. But it is also a place of self-reflection, of having to own up to devastating mistakes. Of trying painfully, desperately to change, without losing a sense of identity and dissolving into self-loathing and bitterness. Or violence.

Despite the specter of the past, or maybe because of it, there is a fellowship here that I never encountered in any place I’ve lived in the North. A sense of family and level of comfort between the classes and races that I admit took some getting used to.

Not because I didn’t like it, but because I simply didn’t expect it.

In many parts of the South, including my own neighborhood, the poor, middle class and rich still live on the same street. When there’s a big storm, we offer those who lost power a place to hang out. When there’s snow, we help shovel each others driveways. We know each other’s kids. We smile and wave at each other. We don’t lock our doors.

And yes, I mean “we” now. We’ve been here long enough that we can’t say “they” very credibly anymore. This is the place our children call home.

There are Confederate flags tacked in the windows of ramshackle country homes and there’s a proliferation of “Don’t Tread On Me” licence plates. Delusions of grandeur permeate every level of society. There is ignorance, and a simultaneous fear of moving on and being left behind. But southerners don’t have the luxury of placing themselves above it all the way northerners do. The way I used to.

Southerners have had to look one another in the eye for a long time, and deal with a disgraceful past. Clumsily perhaps. Imperfectly. But with a sense of “the local” that Sally Mann inherently understands. Her images of Civil War battlefields depict strips of land that have absorbed blood, death and despair, but remain luxurious. Reclining sensually, and with a weary grin, they tell our story.

Sally Mann Georgia

All photographs by Sally Mann.


The Life Enthusiast Chronicles with Victoria

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This week, yogi, writer and all around wonderful woman Britt Skrabanek had me on her blog as her April “Life Enthusiast.” I’ve reblogged the post below, but I urge you to go to her blog and follow. She’s just such a lovely, positive person who brings great heart and soul to everything she does.

Britt Skrabanek

Two months ago I asked my lovely readers to vote on a monthly series I had running for two years, The Life Enthusiast Chronicles. The series is all about what makes people from all over the world absolutely in love with life. The sole purpose of the series has always been to inspire and uplift.

Worried that maybe the series had gone on too long, I had to ask you guys this: Should the Life Enthusiast Chronicles continue?

You said yes. So, here we are.

I took some time selecting a Life Enthusiast for the comeback post, because it felt important to bring someone here that could reinvigorate the series with unabashed beauty. That person is Victoria Dougherty from Cold (and from Virginia).

I’ll proudly admit that I have had a girl crush on Victoria all the years I’ve been reading her writing, both on her blog and her fantastic novel I…

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The Communist Who Peed His Pants and Other True Stories



I think any major life event involves an often far-fetched amount of conjunction, coincidence. This is especially true of war.

There is something about war that inspires double meanings, providence and twists of fate that are mythological in proportion. It is why true stories, when written under the auspices of fiction, sound too extraordinary to be real. Why I’ve chucked several scenes – even entire chapters – in my fictional endeavors because they were rooted too much in reality and therefore, somehow, didn’t ring true.

Just imagine the unfathomably harrowing story of Louis Zamperini in “Unbroken” and the skepticism a reader might feel if it was written as a work of fiction.

Italian immigrant and juvenile delinquent becomes Olympic runner alongside Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. He goes to war. His plane crashes into the ocean. He survives some  47 days on a life raft only to be rescued by the enemy and become a prisoner of war. He’s tortured, beaten, shuttled from camp to camp and followed by an effete, sadistic tormentor who is fixated on him and his Olympic career. He narrowly escapes execution when the war ends. He comes home with PTSD and starts drinking heavily. He goes broke, his wife almost leaves him, but then he happens to meet the Reverend Billy Graham, stops drinking, stays with his wife, turns his life around and ends up devoting his life to helping others. In his golden years, he carries the Olympic torch as his former tormentor looks on.

Can’t you just hear yourself saying, “Yeah, right”?

Cowboy, bored

Then, there are the stories of coincidence, like my friend Sophia’s. The ones that make us wonder if there isn’t a repeat cycle in the universe. If genetics and history, seemingly unrelated, are actually intertwined – first cousins, if you will.

Sophia, back in the mid nineteen nineties, was reporting on the civil war in Yugoslavia. As luck would have it, she managed to miss the only bus that could take her to the other side of the country in order to catch her train back to Prague a couple of days later. There she was, a young woman in her early twenties, walking alone in a war zone with little hope of finding refuge. She figured she’d have to spend the night in a ditch somewhere, and hoped the wrong people wouldn’t come across her.

But lo and behold, as she trudged down the dusty, pitted road, a car of three young men pulled up alongside her. They expressed concern for her safety and offered her a place to stay for the night, promising to drive her the next day to catch yet another bus that would get her to her train on time.

Well, Sophia hopped right into their car, and was taken to a farm about an hour away, given a comfortable room and told to come down for dinner. As she ate hearty Yugoslavian fare with her hosts, the matriarch of this family said to her, “What was your name again?”

Sophia told her, and the woman shook her head in disbelief.

“Is your father ___?” she asked.

Sophia smiled kind of sheepishly. You see, she’s from this really fancy European family – the kind that just about everybody has heard of. “Um, yes,” Sophia acknowledged.

Turns out Sophia’s father, as a soldier at the end of World War II, had found himself on the same dusty, pitted road, missing the same bus as his daughter, and was picked up by the brothers of the mother who’s sons had picked up Sophia. Got that? Sophia’s father was taken to the same family farm, where he spent the night in the same room as his daughter, and ate dinner with the family. It’s unclear whether he ate the exact same meal, but at this point, let’s just say he did.

Needless to say, Sophia called her dad that night and exclaimed, “You’re not going to believe where I am right now!”

Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Maybe your saying, “Yeah, right.”

smokin after bad day

My own first job after I moved to Prague was on Political Prisoner street – newly renamed in honor of the many who were held there in a labyrinthine monstrosity of a building where I went to work every morning. A building where my own mother was held, though I couldn’t say in which room. Perhaps it was my office.

One day, as I stood at my tram stop with a friend, I watched an older gentleman pee his pants as we waited. He was angry, humiliated. He kicked the tram post, hating himself for his frailty and hating us for having witnessed it. He swore under his breath, mumbling. Shooting dirty looks. It was summer, so he had no coat with which to cover the large wet stain on his crotch or mask the smell of his urine. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t know how.

“Do you know who he is?” my friend asked me.

I didn’t. But apparently he was a former hard line communist bastard with a long list of offenses for which he was never tried. He had, I was told, made many innocent people pee in their pants. Not out of frailty, but fear.

And if my friend knew who he was, there was a good chance that someone else in the vicinity knew him, too. Maybe someone who’d been made to walk home from the political prisoner building, with a big, wet oval on his pants, reeking of piss, shaking with fright and shame.

In these real life stories, parables bubble up without the help of a historian or Bible scholar. These are stories that make us believe in karma, in comeuppance, in God. They are a map of the human spirit, showing us the way, giving us the chance to break out of the loop and change our destinies. Or perhaps feel the sting of our past, giving some measure of justice to those who we’ve harmed.

And they are the inspiration for our fiction, which tames, takes apart and interprets these larger than life occurrences. It makes them accessible, personal and helps us walk in the footsteps of another human being, nodding our heads, saying, “Yeah.”

frosted window





Bling For Your Soul

tourists - no zazzleHave you ever wanted to tour Paris with a fine arts painter? Moscow with an acclaimed journalist? Chicago with the former leader of a counter-cultural movement?

Or how about The Bone Church of Kutna Hora with an author of historical spy fiction?

Cold readers, I know I don’t shower you with diamonds and champagne cocktails. Nor do I buy you designer dresses or expensive watches. And it’s true – I don’t think I’ve ever once treated you to dinner at the fancy new restaurant in town.

But after today, you can’t say I’ve never taken you anywhere.

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by a company called Voice Map. Voice Map is an app for iPhones and Android devices that provides immersive audio tours written and performed by bestselling authors, artists, photographers, seasoned travelers, educators and journalists. You might hear about murder on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, nostalgia for the vanishing hutongs of old Beijing, or about a Gothic church in the Czech Republic that’s been adorned with the bones of some 30,000 dead Christians.

Voice Map asked me if I would be interested in writing and voicing some tours of my own and I gave them a resounding yes! Not only do I love to travel, but I love to share my adventures, tell my stories, and incite in my friends a passion for the places that have clawed their way into my heart and set up camp.

tourists - egypt

My first tour – one of many, I hope – centers around (you guessed it) The Bone Church of Kutna Hora, also known as the Ossuary at Sedlec. My thirty-six minute audio tour packs in a lot. I take you to The Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and John the Baptist – one of the great Gothic cathedrals in the region; we walk past a large Philip Morris outpost and I tell you all about the Czech Republic’s change from a communist country to a free market parliamentary republic, and then meander down the suburban streets of Sedlec, where I wax nostalgic about drinking too much Czech beer, sleeping under the stars at my father’s farm and translating a tragically comic communist propaganda play. We finish up at the Playboy Centerfold of my tour, savoring the eerie wonder of a sacred Gothic chapel decorated entirely in human bone.

cherub bone church

I hope to provide you with the sort of travel experience that I would have killed for had it been available to me when I was still a world traveler. Before love and kids and soccer games and slumber parties took me on a whole different journey.

And don’t worry – you don’t have to pick my tour! I understand that a trip to the Czech Republic may not be on your immediate horizon. Voice Map has tours all over the world and are adding new ones at an astonishing rate.

All you have to do is leave a comment here on this blog post, briefly telling me about your favorite travel story – maybe it’s strolling under a full moon by the river Seine, floating in the Dead Sea or just hiking a trail on the outskirts of your home town. At the end of your story, you must provide me with your email address. THIS IS CRUCIAL, as I can only send you the link to your free tour if you give me a place to send it.

Trust me, this is better than a pair of earrings, or a new electronic gizmo.

This is bling for your soul!

tourist - germany




True Friendship in the Era of Small Talk and Rants

pool boyMy son recently approached me about attending a leadership camp this coming summer – one that would take up most of the free, bumming around time he’ll have left after we check the boxes on visiting family, hitting the beach and sending him to a week of Scout camp.

“Why won’t you just hang out at the pool?” I asked him. I lived for those days during my own summer vacations. Sharks and minnows, Marco Polo, gorging on fudge pops and french fries at the snack bar. Isn’t that living the dream?

But apparently, it’s not.

He told me how he just didn’t like going to the pool anymore because his usual cohort of summer friends spend all of their time staring at their phones. “It’s boring,” he said. He remarked on how hard it is to find someone to really talk to.

That hit home, because for the past few years I’ve been having my own problems connecting with peers.

Like him, I’ve always been a best friend sort of person who goes a mile deep and an inch wide. This trait is evidenced in my marriage, my faith, my relationships with my children, my choice in career, even in my daily work-outs for God’s sake – I’m a yoga person.

If you like to go for long walks that are as as meandering as our conversation – call me up. If you’re the type who almost exclusively likes to surround herself with people you can drop trow and pee in front of – I’m your girl.

girls at urinal

I feel oddly out of place at my kids’ sporting events, where small talk rules and a personal question or observation is often treated like an STD. There are times I simply go hide in my car, listen to music, make notes about a book or essay I’m writing. Anything not to have to sit out on the field, waiting for the game to start, and having the same conversation about the coaches, the schedule, the damned weather.

It occurred to me that if my own kid is longing for deeper attachments in his life – my kid, your average thirteen year-old boy who loves video games, boobs, fart jokes and all manner of teen superficiality – then maybe we’re not alone in feeling this void.

And it’s not as if we’re not talking at all. In fact, what’s curious to me is while millions of chats have sprung up in social media, ranting, over-communicating in excruciating detail, our face to face interactions have become, as my son observed, “boring.”



But I’m not picking on social media here. Even if I was, it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future, so we need to figure out how to manage its presence in our lives, make it work for us.

Because in a lot of ways, it does.

Social media has brought friends long gone back into my life. I’ve met a couple of people on Facebook who I would love to get to know better, and feel could be real friends of mine if only we could sit down and have a long talk somehow. Social media has given me a virtual water cooler to hang around with colleagues – a not insignificant thing for a writer, as we spend so much of our time alone in our home offices.

What social media has done very effectively is brought many, many acquaintances into my life. People with whom I exchange fun comments and family pictures. I get to see a shot of their romantic Valentine’s date at a local crab and lobster joint, admire their children’s accomplishments, learn about a cause that is dear to their hearts. Not knocking it.

It’s just that what social media has not brought into my life, has been the sort of intimate connection that forges a true bond – one that facilitates exposure and genuine comfort. A Facebook friend will not hold you after you mother has died – either physically or metaphorically. You might receive a swell of well meaning “so sorry for your loss” posts, but a heartfelt comment, a long missive, a response that takes thought is rare in that format.

That in and of itself would be fine if I didn’t fear those closer ties were becoming increasingly more rare in our lives. True friendship takes time, trouble. That is the magic elixir that deepens a relationship and turns an acquaintance into something more.

With so many distractions and cotton candy friendships to keep us propped up, give us that hit – like a line of emotional cocaine – I wonder if we all aren’t becoming more fragile than we realize. Unhinged in a way we won’t discover until something big goes down. And when it does, we might find ourselves surrounded not by a community of caring hands, casseroles and telephone calls, but “likes.”


On my most pessimistic days, I fear true friendship is gasping for breath beneath the fluff of disposable comments and “shares,” much the way courtship and love seem to have experienced a downgrade in the era of Tinder. Convenience is the stuff that networks are made of, not closely-knit communities.

Then a few months ago, my friend Jessica called me after nearly a year of both of us being too busy to really make the time to talk. She’d left her cushy job at Google and started her own tech company, developing an app she named Rolltape. She told me how she wanted to create a means to really nurture and facilitate friendship among people again. Like me, she’d lost touch with too many friends when she moved to the other side of the country, and making new friends – real friends – had been a spotty venture for her.

She also thought I might make a good beta tester for her product. Rolltape, you see, is a sort of audio version of Instagram that incorporates voice messages, pictures and music. It’s “for your inner circle,” as her company’s tagline contends.

rolltape icon

“That’s awesome,” I said. I told her how inspired I was by her guts and I meant it. Jess has three kids and is the bigger breadwinner in her household. She gave up a lot of creature comforts to stick her neck out and start a business. And I know in pornographic detail how hard it is to start and run a company, having done it myself.

What I didn’t tell her was that I had absolutely no interest in participating in another social media outlet. What I also didn’t tell her was that I didn’t think a social media app – by its very nature – was capable of cultivating intimacy on a broad scale. Social media, as far as I could see, was about expediency, entertainment and self promotion.

But in the cycle of sound bite and photo that’s part of the DNA in most social media applications, I’d forgotten about a crucial missing element.


Voice is a powerful thing. It is as nuanced an instrument as the eyes. With a voice, I feel as if I’m hearing a secret that is just for me. The voice of a friend makes me feel not merely connected, but interconnected. A voice message, I’ve found, is the antithesis of the selfie.

My friend Ella’s voice has the ability to set the tone for my whole day.

Her voice – thoughtful, caring, filled with good humor – has illuminated me in a most authentic way about the death of her father when she was eighteen, being raped shortly after, her soul-crushing first marriage, her daughter’s struggles with bipolar disorder, finding true love with the man who has been her husband for the past eighteen years. In turn, I’ve revealed to her the continuing fall-out from my own daughter’s bout with cancer, the love story between me and my husband, how difficult it’s been to be a good daughter since my mother moved in with us, the types of books I want to write, and the way I grapple with friendship in my adult life. How my approach to all of these things feels at odds with the rest of the world.

Ella and I live on opposite sides of the country, and talk, on average, about once a week. I feel a thrill when she reaches out, knowing that our conversation will help sooth some of my more raw emotions, and provide me with a place where I feel I belong.

And I have never met Ella. She’s a Rolltape friend.

In my few short months as a beta tester, I’ve heard the father of a friend explain his increasing anxiety about death, had intense, but respectful political discussions (who knew such a thing still existed?) with people from all sides of the political spectrum, and pondered the use of Botox with professional women – all amidst a backdrop of samba music and ridiculous crinkled forehead selfies. Above all, I’ve been reminded that I not only have dear friends, but am still able to make them.

that face

We have become a devoted tribe – anxious for each other’s messages, unafraid to ramble on. No winky-faces necessary – we can hear each other’s tone. We go out of our way every day, truly listening, contributing, and in the process have recaptured a sense of camaraderie that had seemed to slip away from us.

Come join the conversation:





Love Stories

bride of frankensteinSome years ago, about a week before my wedding, I was at work listening to a radio show on a topic that was understandably on the forefront of my mind: marriage. On this show was a man being touted as the preeminent expert on Holy Matrimony – a guy whose name I can’t remember – but a fellow who’d been studying the institution for decades and could tell with startling accuracy and within minutes of meeting a couple whether they would still be married in five years’ time.

I sat listening with my ears pricked up as this guy was the real deal. Enough to make him the focus of an entire segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation for a solid two hours.

Obviously, Mr. Marriage (as I’ll call him for the sake of this essay) had a lot to say on the topic. He talked about respect being the cornerstone of a lasting relationship, the importance of morality within the confines of a union, the way couples should fight, and how a pair of lovers must always take up the challenge to evolve together. All very sensible and true on an intuitive level.

But what caught my attention most was his assertion that story is an essential element to a lifelong love affair. In other words, what seems to matter in an intrinsic way is not that a couple has gotten together but how a couple has gotten together. The story of us – of how our love takes flight – appears not only to be the spark that ignites the fire we need in order to sustain passion, but the one that foments friendship and trust, and gets us through some of the dark, dark times that visit us during the course of our lives. Things like illness, child-rearing debacles, job loss, snoring, opposing tastes in television shows, and a mother-in-law moving in.

over the threshold

In my interpretation, Mr. Marriage was explaining how courtship – the process of wooing an amour by gestures large and small (i.e. the candy and flowers routine) – plays a vital role in spinning that magic web we call true love. Courtship, like a good story, tantalizes. It promises so much, but threatens to take it away at any time. At its heart, courtship makes a couple earn each other’s affection and intimacy. It is the inverse of a hook-up.

I was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between love and story very recently when a friend – a new friend who I’m just getting to know and with whom I’ve found a lot in common – asked me to share with her the story of how my husband and I got together. She and I are both writers and we also happen to write about love in various ways. Neither one of us are romance writers, per se, but love in its many forms is definitely a shared theme of ours.

She and I are also both happily married, and have confided in one another about how love took us completely by surprise. It’s not like our previous relationships were all that great, and neither of us came from what popular culture would call “happy families.” We had to piece together on our own what we thought a blissful union might look like.

But somehow, as if by osmosis or destiny, it happened for us.

love on swings

Before I began telling her my love story, I took a deep, meditative breath. It had been a long time since I’d recounted the tale of how my husband, Jack, and I had fallen in love, and in all honesty, I’d put that narrative on the back burner while he and I focused on some pretty big things like having babies and making sure we could feed them.

But damn, we do have one helluva story, and it wasn’t until I told my friend about how we met and went nuts about each other that I realized what a critical subtext our love story has been in getting us through some very challenging episodes. Things I’ve written about on this blog – obvious things like dealing with one of our children being born with a catastrophic illness and surviving the financial roller-coaster that hit a lot of folks from around 2008 to 2011. But also the smaller things like moving from city to city, starting a business and deciding how much autonomy to give our children.

So, yes, I will tell our story. But if you’ll forgive me, I’ll give you the condensed version. The fleshed-out, nitty-gritty version makes me blush and withdraw. It’s also too long for a mere blog post.

It involves a chance visit to a foreign city,
A meeting in a four-hundred year old, candlelit pub,
Some dirty poetry,
A Christening,
Several dozen anonymous postcards,
New Year’s Eve,
A jazz club,
Fried chicken and champagne on a cliff side,
The kind of mushy language most people pretend to despise,
And a belief in destiny.

kiss like no one else is there

Of course, after the swashbuckling part, the early wonders of discovery, the heavy breathing, we pretty much replaced our candy and flowers routine with the meat and potatoes of our relationship. Less poetic perhaps, but warm, comforting, sweet. Our nearly twenty year love story has been a very different adventure than our courtship.

It has involved believing against all odds,
Not blaming each other for things that have gone awry,
Doing our part,
Mustering every bit of energy in order to conjure romance amidst ruin,
Ignoring bad moods,
Having sex even when we don’t feel like it,
Bragging about each other’s accomplishments,
Dancing close in our kitchen when it all gets to be too much.

We could’ve never gotten through the latter list without the former. And I guess that’s what Mr. Marriage was talking about. Over and over, his research pointed to how the foundation of a relationship most often requires a sense of transcendence, a belief in the overall good of the love that has bloomed. There is a reason why we call the one we’ve been looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. Right implies virtue, honor, truth. And according to Mr. Marriage’s research, an attraction built on betrayal, for instance, has a hard slog ahead. Such a union has no anchor, and over the long run often devours itself from the inside. After all, what do you say when someone asks you how you met? “Well, my first wife was at Little Gym with our two year-old, and I, uh…well…you know. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.”

Story, it turns out, can sink you as well as save you when it comes to love.

Felix and M at bone church

In fact, story is so crucial to the long-term viability of a relationship that it can actually be the determining factor as to whether a troubled marriage can or cannot be salvaged. When asked how he knew when a marriage was definitively over, Mr. Marriage said this, according to my memory: “In my experience, a marriage is beyond repair when you ask the couple how they met, and they cannot conjure any joy, even a smile from recounting that tale. If they can still tell that story with even the tiniest glimmer of fondness, there’s hope.”

That is a powerful truth to behold, and one we might want to consider in the broader context of our lives. As we endeavor to create new stories this coming year – whether it be with spouses, friends, colleagues or acquaintances, we may do well to remember that the promise of love, of what is right, strikes at the core of our very humanity. And the narratives we are spinning today through our actions, words and impulses will have a tremendous influence on our future well-being.

standing gypsy

Down There By the Train

train 2

Winston O. Link

The first time I saw the house we now call home, I thought I might kill my husband. We’d moved across country from San Francisco to Virginia in order to live a quieter life. A life our children could look back on as being filled with memories of small town wonder: playing in streams, catching crawdads, taking hayrides, huddling by a wood-burning stove after a snow storm. After years of hipster restaurants and glittering to-dos, we looked forward to doing the uncool things like Christmas caroling and knowing our neighbors well enough that we could drop by any old time just to say hello. Or ask to borrow a cup of good gin.

I’d had a baby only a couple of months prior to our move, so I hadn’t been part of the whole house hunting process. I’d left it solely in the hands of my husband, confident that he and I shared the same sensibility – a love of the very old or the ultra modern with little room for in between, an appreciation of nooks and crannies and imperfections. Or of vision. We longed for a home with story and a sense of style all its own. Or a place where we could invent the story ourselves. Such is the pathology of writers – at least these two writers. We’re people of romance, not utility. And we don’t like to keep up with the Joneses so much. To quote my husband, Jack. “I just can’t live in a place where I could see myself standing by a pool and giving a recent graduate advice to go into ‘plastics.'”

train graduate

The Graduate, “plastics” scene.

We’d always done well with our choices before – being exactly on the same page when we bought a loft condo converted from an old automotive factory, rented a shabby chic Victorian flat, and almost purchased a plot of land ready for a prefab house that would ultimately have been made of wood and concrete.

So, as we plotted our radical change of address from California to Virginia, Jack would send me pictures of this house he’d found, which I have to admit looked good. In his emails, he swore up and down how much I was going to love our new place, and I was so on board. The painted brick of our proposed home, the large, Shaker-inspired windows, all showed tremendous promise. I loved that the structure paid homage to its geography with four white columns and a big front porch begging for a couple of rockers, but upon closer look had the austerity of a post office.

The place screamed Southern Gothic.

“And it’s historic,” my husband said. Which is true. “It’ll accommodate us as our kids grow and we have more children.” Also true. “It’s got magic, sweetheart, trust me.” That was the part I had a hard time with a few weeks later as I stood staring at a gloomy and ancient brick house that looked more suitable for the Addams family. To add a sour cherry on top of this gloppy, half-melted sundae, our new house sat about a softball’s throw from an active (although not prolifically so) single railroad track. I can’t say that it looked nothing like it’s photographs, but it definitely had the quality of an aging actor seen up close. All of a sudden you’d pick up what the camera didn’t, what good lighting obscured. Like the hair dye, the pancake make-up, dentures, too many attempts at plastic surgery.

“I love it,” I said, swallowing hard. He was so excited and there was no way I was going to burst his bubble. Especially since we’d already secured financing. That night, the first time a train came by around midnight – and felt like it was thundering right through my forehead – I actually went into the bathroom and cried.

train suicide

“We knew we’d like y’all,” our neighbors told us. “Only special people would buy your house.”

Hmm. Special. At least when I was growing up, special was a word used to describe kids who were different, but not in a good way. Kids who were weird were “special.” Kids who had disabilities were “special.” They rode on a separate bus and ate at a table off to the side during lunch.

And now we were special. We lived in a special house. One that, like the trains, was going to take some getting used to. The tall, tall ceilings and oddly shaped rooms – some oblong, others square and huge. Still others tiny, like prayer rooms. The heat would grind, the floors would creak for no good reason – even when no one was stepping on them. A family of snakes made their home in our basement.

We were told this was a good thing. Keeps the rodent population down.

train 6

Winston O. Link

But after about a week, the lone coal train that would come through in the middle of the night stopped waking me up. And lo and behold, rather than waking our kids up, that train actually put them to sleep. Whenever they started crying, the way children under two are apt to do, Jack and I would check the clock to see if the train was coming any time soon, and if it was – cha-ching! We knew that by the time its hard-stepping lullaby was finished, they would be fast asleep.

I figured this was a sign. A sign that I should maybe give our new house a chance before I began slowly planting the seeds that we ought to be looking for a different place. A converted barn, perhaps. We’d always wanted one of those.

So, about ten days into living in our new home, I picked up my camera and went from room to room taking photographs of each space and all of the details I liked – the antique tin ceilings, the original pine floors spotted with coal burns and oil drum rings, the handmade, flat-headed nails that held the place together, the way the light moved through the house as the day progressed.

I began to revel in the natural beauty that surrounds us. Long walks on a country railroad provide some of the most sublime back views in our county. At night, during the spring and summer, bats flutter around the moon like it’s a bug light, while local foxes scream blood-curdling mating calls.

train track shoes

The place did have potential. Even if I couldn’t wrap my head around when or how, with a bunch of little babies crawling around, we were ever going to fulfill that potential. It’s not like either of us had the time or skills to fix her up on our own.

It’s funny, though, about dreams. About taking on more than you think you can handle. It’s a tender process that you must surrender to bit by bit. You learn to fix the things that need fixing – or find someone who can do it for you. You learn to work with the place instead of fighting against it.

“Know what you do when you’ve got a problem in an old house?” Said our neighbor, whose home is even older than ours. “Ignore it. Usually goes away on its own.”

I started to imagine colors on the country trim that frame our doors and windows – moss greens, chocolates, rich creams, faded reds.

“If we knock that wall down, we’ll double the size of the living room.”

“Do you think we can make that chimney work?”

“How about if we blow out the ceiling in our bedroom to expose the original wooden beams?”

Just so, we began to execute to the structure’s potential, instead of complaining about its shortcomings. We started to celebrate the glorious layers of past, present and future that made up our home.

And in the process, our house became as much a part of our dreams as our work, our family, our love. We wanted to do right by her. Respect the relationship our house had and continues to have with the community at large. Seems everybody around here has a story about her. If not them, then their dad, or grandmother, or Uncle Louie.

We wanted our time here to leave behind a story or two as well. So, we did our part.

While we’ve never been much into Christmas bedazzling outside of putting up a Christmas tree, we made sure to screw green and red light bulbs into our porch lights outside. We’ve done this mostly for the train conductors who always blare their horns in salute as my kids jump and wave at them. When our son was really little, the conductors would even let him sit in the caboose when it was time for a shift change. In recent years, that same boy – not so little anymore – has mooned them at least a half dozen times. And they’ve been awfully good sports about that.

And as we’ve become the stewards of the long road of memories made here, we’ve come to understand how a place, too, can be a living thing. There is a magnetic quality to this house that not only lured us to it, but has kept us here. It is as tangible as the unmistakable something that draws us to a friend or a lover or a calling.

Sometimes we have cursed how this old broad seems to hold us captive. Other times we have thanked the powers that be for letting us stay. Mostly, it’s been the latter. But whatever the case, I’ve been forced to reconsider my initial reaction to this place, and embrace my husband’s instincts.

In that rare moment in a marriage, I’m compelled to say, “I was wrong. Yes, I was unequivocally wrong, and you were right, honey. This place does indeed have magic.”

christmas card 1

Yes, this is us (photo by John Michael Triana)




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