Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hey Little Bird, Fly Away Home. Your House is on Fire and Your Children are Burning.

The world is on fire. The smell of burning timber from South Georgia, East Alabama, and Central Florida has made a home in the Jones Valley and obscures the buildings and the television towers, Sloss Furnace and the far side of the Valley. I can't see farther than about 11th Avenue. The smoke is in my hair and eyes and it burns my nose when I have to go outside. David and I visited the Okefenokee Swamp something like four years ago this summer. I don't like the idea of the cypress and cedar and lilies and mosses burning, burning, burning all through the days and into the nights. We need some rain. Please God, we need some rain.

Lately, I've had the idea that something is very very wrong with the world. The very things that make us human, or at least remind us that we are, are missing. We don't talk like humans. We don't eat like humans. We don't love like humans. We don't fight like humans. This is a nation of automatons fighting over half-million dollar houses in manicured neighborhoods still longing for something. We bow to the idols of religion and community when what we need are friends. Perforate community and put it on a roll. What I need is one good friend. Or two. In this respect, I am a wealthy woman.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Blackberries Grow on My Grave

So, it's been a while since my last update. Several of the happenings of the last 19 days beg to be remembered, but I'll focus on one. Last weekend, we went to an iron pour at Sloss. It was the culmination of one of the summer's first open studio sessions, and there were something like ten artists actually suited-up and pouring. There were also a handful of Old People who had participated in a class offered by the Birmingham Museum of Art and were standing behind the safety line to observe iron being poured into the sand molds they made. I don't call them Old because they were advanced in years, but because they appeared to be cultured to near-death. They wore years of season tickets to the symphony, classes at the BMA, and museum-sponsored galas and banquets on their faces like they had been stamped there by a power hammer. Their presence confirmed my long-held suspicion that pretension is aging. I dare go as far as to say that Pretension Kills. I wonder at the prospect of making a mold and watching someone else pour the iron and crack the mold while you watch. In my mind, that's the art of the process. If it doesn't require a hard-hat and a welding jacket, it probably isn't much fun. And that's my opinion. Life necessarily means dirty hands. .

I think the wilderness is trying to imprison Sloss in a tangle of poke weed and blackberry bramble. Like a battalion of slow-moving infantrymen, the green encroaches on the casting shed and the old bath-houses now used as artist studios. I'm not referring to the refurbished number two furnace where you might go to see a concert or be scared out of your wits at a haunted house. I mean the old number one furnace on the other side of the blower-wheels and towers. The casting shed of the number one shelters something like four small furnaces, several mig and arc welding rigs, a forge or two and a large crane used for the metal arts programs. Here, iron is still poured at Sloss, and I think nature wants to bury the scar of it under green tangles and Virginia Creeper. There are still signs posted for the last men who worked at Sloss in 1971. Protect your hands. Your wage earners. You owe it to your family. Two soft, white hands are clasped together under the words. I wonder if anyone but me sees the irony (ha ha) in that. I made some jam from the Sloss blackberries last week and although it might be my perverted sense of taste, I swear it adds a metallic twang to my brown toast. In the end, when all of our industrialism has amounted to nothing, the world will end under a tangle of blackberry brambles, Virginia Creeper and poke weeds. Just ask Walker Percy.

On another note, here's a very cool exhibition in Auburn. My neighbor is one of the artists. You must go.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Tomato Heaven

There are something like seven baby tomatoes on my German Queen this morning. One of my neighbors calls it a "Drag Queen." She says that would be more appropriate in this neighborhood. When she tells a joke, one of her eyes does a little half wink and her mouth kind of puckers up. She plants sticks in her yard and they grow into Oak Leaf Hydrangeas. That's her spiritual gift. I think she sneaks around at night and takes cuttings of other neighbor's plants and makes them grow in her laboratory. It doubles as a kitchen. I imagine her mug-shot. She'd be posed front-side-otherside with gloves and garden shears.

I've a Better Bush plant as well. It's not an heirloom like the German Queen, but it works it's heart out making smallish red fruit out of air and soil and water. (And Miracle Grow, of course.) Last weekend, I planted a Super Fantastic and a Mr. Stripey. I'm wishing them well. They're my friends and I'll have to learn how to salvage their seeds to bring them back next year.

The hollyhocks are growing brilliantly. Last year, their flowers were pure white, but this year I've got some pinks too. They came off the same seed, so I'm not sure how that is possible. It makes me happy and reminds me of Marguritte who gave them to me two summers ago. I've got more than I can manage and I'm happy. I hope Marguritte is doing half as well as her hollyhocks.

The sunflowers look like weeds in the flowerbed. I wonder how long I can continue to grow unruly weeds in my flowerbed and strange vines in 5-gallon buckets on the front stoop before I get a letter from the city.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Maybe,Baby, The Gypsy Lied

Somewhere up north of here, there is a field full of strawberries in the middle of the sky. The best berries hide in the middle of the rows shaded by green-leaf fans and white flowers with buttercup centers that remind me of the dumplings with the buttery middles my father tried to steal from me when I was small. Pay seven dollars and walk down a sandy path past the Old Lady with Her Bum in the Air. (Don't say "follow the old lady bum!" Because that bum belongs to someone's mother.) Pick quick and try not to think of what it would be like to be a migrant picker. That just makes your back hurt. By this time tomorrow, I'll have jam. And shortcake. I left a bucket on my neighbor's porch. He spread them out and took a picture for his Big Love Thing who lives very far away and likes to eat strawberries and beef jerky for supper. He has sad eyes. She'll be here to stay soon. I'm glad about that.

Today as I drove back over the Mountain toward home, I saw the sun fall like a crimson comet into the western part of the city. Now, the moon is coming up under Vulcan and the WBRC sign, just to the left of the first tower. It's almost time to sleep, so I'll put on my white pajamas and crawl under my quilt. Lately, I've been sleeping underneath just the quilt. It makes me feel loved. Tomorrow for breakfast, I'll have strawberries and bread left on my porch by a kind stranger. I'm not used to affection of that sort. It feels like a massage: theraputic and a little painful. I hang on the cusp of anger and acceptance. This feels like grief. I send it to the Cross. Amen. Good Night.

Is that Me baby, or just a Brilliant Disguise?

I had just finished paying for two bottles of Safer spray and twenty pounds of soil when the rain started. The people in the checkout line scratched and pecked like yard chickens when the wind picked up and the clouds moved in. I think it's going to rain. Do you think it might? I hope I can get to the car in time. Where are the Venus Flytraps? Can someone bring them to me? I don't want to get out of line! The Holy Spirit and I shared a joke at their expense: do you remember that time we..? Yes. I remember. Are you going to make it rain? I might. Bring it. Bring it like you did back then. And the sky, ripped apart by His laughter in lightning, opened up and the rain fell down on the asphalt and the cars and the people who covered their heads inadequately. Sinners in the hands of a mirthful God. In the liturgy for Whitsunday, Jesus says ...and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. It's a strange and intoxicating thing to have the only Son of God be manifest. If it's something we're able to share with others, I haven't been able to. If it happens in community, I haven't seen it. I believe there's a margin between what human fellowship can offer and what a body needs to hold itself together. No matter how we idolize our human communities and try and make them stretch across that black expanse, they always snap back into their prefabricated shapes and forms. They can't span the distance and cover a lonely human soul. And that, I believe, is evidence of a merciful God. Because it's in the gaps and the margins that Jesus chooses to manifest himself to those who love him and are loved by the Father. No church, no community, no sermon, no communion, no sacrament is as sacred to me as the jokes we tell each other when the Holy Spirit and I are alone together. It's Jesus manifesting himself because I love him. And he loves me.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Neighborhood Part 11

Laura's belongings are piled up on the sidewalk. A model ship, clothing in tiny sizes, laminated posters and other detritus sit abandoned under the Chinaberry tree collecting rain and becoming bedding for the feral cats who make Southside their home. Piles like hers are all over Southside. I used to think they represented irresponsible neighbors who just dumped their junk in the street as they moved, but it finally dawned on me that they're the scars of hasty evictions. The piles look like junk because all of the tenant's valuable possessions have long since been traded for drugs or found their way to one of Birmingham's pawn shops. Each pile represents a person. Laura's pile is the collected flotsam and jetsam of her life. Her clothing. Things she treasured and couldn't trade. Marks of her identity under the rain, under the wind, under feet, under cars as if her life were a mark on a chalkboard that could be removed with one swoop of the landlord's eraser. I don't know if it's wrong, but I'm glad she's gone. And I don't blame the landlord for evicting her. She didn't leave him with a choice. It's just that I feel compelled to eulogize her murdered future somehow. Here lived Laura. She is a wrecked shell of a human being, but she is still a human being. She murdered her dreams, but she still had them. Once upon a better time, here in this house, under these Chinaberry trees.

I've learned a little more about Laura's dreams over the past weeks. In an unsurprising twist of fate (unsurprising only because nothing is very surprising anymore), I discovered I have a friend who worked with Laura before she relapsed back in January. My friend actually found Laura a little intimidating. I found her intimidating, too, when I used to see her leave her apartment in a suit and heels off to her marketing job. She was a graduate student. Intelligent, reserved, serious. As I sat on the porch barefoot in my husband's shirt and ratty jeans, I felt less than her somehow. She had a purpose and a plan. I had a lawnmower and a monkey's job. Laura was my friend, my friend remembers. Never in a million years would I have believed she would come to this. One of my neighbors remembers Laura refusing an offered beer. I used to have a rough life, she said, and I don't drink anymore. She used to tell the neighbors that there were a lot of bad people in our neighborhood and we laughed, thinking "well, you're the bad people, Laura." But now I see what she meant. She was afraid she couldn't stand up under the pressure of available heroin and available clientele.

So, in the end, she didn't make it. She's alive if you can call it that, somewhere in south Florida serving a four-year sentence for prostitution and possession, but she didn't make it out of Southside back into life. Heroin addicts refer to the time when your drugs are gone and you're junk-sick as "nighttime." So, it's nighttime for Laura, and maybe hope comes in the morning. Somehow, I think I've been fascinated by her life all these weeks because it's a metaphor for what's going on all around me. But unlike Laura, I feel delivered. I feel that somehow God looked at my little family and said That's enough for Team Smith. And I know I don't deserve it. I'm not better than the people facing the wrecking ball, but that knowledge doesn't stem my gratitude for being spared. I'm tempted to think that God spared us because David deserved it, but that isn't true either. I think he spared us because he's good. He'll lead us into difficulty many more times as we walk this earth, but he won't let us be destroyed. Ever. He promised and I believed him.

I had a dream that David and I were standing on the edge of a cliff. He took my hand and said "Just don't let go," and together we leaped off our security into the Wild Blue Yonder. And God said it was good.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

When The Lord Made Me, He Made A Ramblin Man

A 59-year-old man showed up at a Wal-Mart in Tuscaloosa with a suitcase and went inside. Ten minutes later, surveillance cameras caught him climbing into a yellow taxi and driving away. For almost two months, his family didn't know what had happened to him. Was he abducted? Did he have some sort of mental break? There weren't any answers to their frenzied questions. It turns out that the taxi bore him to the Tuscaloosa Greyhound Station where he boarded a bus bound for El Paso. He didn't say why. He just went. Fifty years ago, he might have just hopped a box car down at the rail yard to the sound of a harmonica's lonesome waw-waw-waw as the city rolled away. News reports didn't indicate if he had any plans to come home.

It was a bad thing to do. His family was worried about him. He's a bad man, but I understand. I feel it as I sit at a fashionable pre-fabricated restaurant with a group of people I know little and understand less. I feel it when I look at the same sink full of dishes I washed yesterday. I feel it when I see a private jet span the blue distance between the television towers above my happy cottage. I feel it when I'm cornered by the pleasant conversation of a person who isn't all that pleasant. It's a feeling of wanting to go. Not somewhere, just away, and maybe not even forever. I saw an open box car flashing down a track in our neighborhood recently and I imagined running along beside it, throwing my bundle and pulling myself up. I thought let's just jump in there and see where we go. I was almost kidding. I feel I've been seeking some kind of freedom my whole life. A few times, I've tasted it. I used to drive my car along the highway between Auburn and Tallasee just to watch the river pour over the Alabama Power damn. The dark water under the glimmer of the bug-flecked streetlights made me tired. The highway flickering by under the sporadic light of honkey tonks and auto body repair shops made me sad. Freedom, in that sense, isn't what I wanted it to be.

The mystery I'm starting to unravel is that freedom is the fortitude to stay put until the restlessness passes. So, here am I, anchored for the course. Not free to jump a train, but free to stand and be delivered from all that makes me want to.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Copper Bob

They call him "Copper Bob" because if you look at his face in just the right light, you can see on his skin the greenish cast of the copper he's been sculpting for twenty-five years. His studio is in an abandoned limestone quarry somewhere north of town. He's a stooped man, permanently fixed in an almost subservient posture. He doesn't make eye contact readily, but when he does, I can see the little boy he used to be still suspended in mischievous blue eyes hidden in a mass of curly honey hair. I can see the little boy in his art, too. A copper frog swings on a copper trapeze suspended from a copper limb. A copper gnome hides in a copper knothole. A copper sunflower dances in a passing breeze.

I'm learning the subtle differences between the iron and the copper sculptors. Iron artists work in casting teams of something like ten people. Everyone counts. Everyone matters when you're melting iron in a 2800 degree furnace that just might be named something like "Old Grumpy" to indicate it's propensity to blow up in your face. There's a feeling of glory and wonder at the human accomplishment of channeling nature and doing something you just, by all logical summation, shouldn't be doing. It's electric. It's sexy. It's overwhelming. Even the clothing cast iron sculptors wear belies the testosterone surge of man (or woman)-over-nature creation. Their leather jackets bear the mark of where they come from. One might say CHICAGO. One might be a picture of a fairy and and bear the mark ICPO WORLD FAMOUS FOUNDRY. I once saw one of them throw back his face shield and light a cigarette off a cooling sculpture. He reached for a swig of beer before he went back to tap-tap-tapping the furnace to start it's molten flow. Their casual approach to possible incineration lends them a mystery I haven't felt since I was ten years old watching a lion tamer at the circus. Immediately, I think I've gotta get in there. They say that the ghost of an old iron man killed at Alice Furnace more than a hundred years ago continued to haunt the catwalk at Sloss up until it closed so he could see the tapping of the furnace. My neighbor says he's still there on iron-pour days and that his shadow darts between the buildings trying to get a look at what they're doing. I can't imagine what it must have been like to watch the tap of Old Number 2 from the First Avenue viaduct. The old furnaces can't be used now, but I'm grateful for their 8-foot replacements like someone who has never seen the sun is happy for the moon.

Well, I meant this entry to be about Copper Bob, but I'm too smitten with the iron to write about the copper. Coming soon to a neighborhood near you: Susan in face shield pouring iron. June 22. Can't wait.

Iron Pour

Tapping Sloss