Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (3/19) — Chapter Three, Crapemyrtle (3/3)

HARDENED AND BROWNED by the summer sun, these beautiful crapemyrtle seed pods burst open like flowers.


MORGANTON, N.C. (Sept. 8, 2019) – The first time I noticed an open seed pod on our crapemyrtle, I thought it was some kind of wooden flower. It was just an empty shell. But it was beautiful.

To be completely honest, I had never looked so closely at that tree before—or at any other plant, for that matter. Until I started taking so many photos of our flowers with my cell phone, I had never seen their stems, leaves and even blossoms in such detail, except in a Georgia O’Keeffe floral painting.

I guess that’s one reason I like flowers so much—because of our abiding love for the work of O’Keeffe, our favorite visual artist. Like the particular types of music and literature I’ve come to prefer, O’Keeffe’s style of painting is deceptively simple. It is line, shape and shade of light.

TIMBERLEY SURVEYS THE TRAIL to Box Canyon, the “back yard” of our adobe casita at Ghost Ranch in 2005.

Also, throughout her long life, O’Keeffe recognized and revealed beauty in things that the average art lover would not have considered worth a second look until she came along—sun-bleached cow skulls, blossoming weeds, desert landscapes, enlarged pistils and stamens, one particular flat-topped mountain, and … wait for it … feelings. One can’t help but feel something when looking at an O’Keeffe work.

Perhaps my favorite O’Keeffe painting is “Music Pink and Blue II,” which is basically her view of the blue sky as seen through the socket hole of a pink, orange and white pelvic bone that she had found in the desert near her home in northern New Mexico near Abiquiu. Her most famous home was at Ghost Ranch, which, with the exception of a small section for her house and property, has been an education and conference center owned by the Presbyterian Church (USA) since 1955.

It’s one of the magical places that Timberley and I have visited that we know we’ll probably never see again. Due to newfound physical limitations of the past few years, we know we’ll probably never take another long airplane flight anywhere nor will we make another cross-country road trip like the one in 2005 that took us from North Carolina to New Mexico on Interstate 40 and sections of old Route 66.

In all, we visited New Mexico three times between 2004-05. We flew out twice in 2004—at Easter and immediately after we got out of school in early June—and then made the long drive in our Jeep Liberty the following summer. On the road there and back, we paid our respects at Graceland and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, at Central High School in Little Rock, at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, at Ghost Ranch, and at the Trinity Site near Socorro, N.M., at the very spot and on the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test explosion that ushered in the Nuclear Age for better or worse.

One of the main reasons for our road trip was to do research for my unpublished novel For the Sunrise, which I finished at Quarry Farm near Elmira, N.Y., in July 2008. That historic farm, owned by Elmira College and its Center for Mark Twain Studies, was where Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his family spent more than 20 summers from the early 1870s to the mid 1890s and where he wrote original drafts of masterworks including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Just as our published novel, Night Lights; or, Golf, the Blues and the Brown Mountain Light, was more than a bit like Tom Sawyer, my road novel For the Sunrise was modeled on Huckleberry Finn, but with I-40 and Route 66 serving the same purpose in my story that the Mississippi River serves in Twain’s, as the course of the pilgrim’s or refugee’s life. Sometimes I think those two terms—pilgrim and refugee—are the same and that people identified as such should be treated with similar respect. But they aren’t.

Mmmmm. Hold on. As my preacher always says, that was where I just got personal—or, in this case, political. But as another preacher says—the one in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes—there’s a time for everything under the sun. And the time is now, before the corruption and hypocrisy get any worse, if that’s possible.

It’s time to stop vilifying an entire people who have come to America seeking better lives than were possible in their home countries. Or, rather, peoples, as they are groups as different as is our nation’s shrinking white majority—we of British, Scottish, Irish, German, Scandinavian, Italian or whatever -ishian ancestry. All people of Hispanic descent aren’t Mexican. In Morganton, many are Guatemalan, from a country I’d never heard of until my cousin served there as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s.

And it’s time to stop supporting with our silence the hateful words and actions of corrupt leaders and their spineless enablers who use race-baiting and fear-mongering to maintain their grand old regime’s death grip on our democratic republic, which was founded they claim, when it suits them, on Christian principles. Would those principles be faith, hope and charity? Is that the way for Americans to live successfully? How do those in power know? The Bible tells them so. Or is that just money talking?

I remember the first time I saw an official information sign with both English and Spanish side by side. The sign was posted at a railway stop in Zion, Ill., a small town on the shore of Lake Michigan north of Chicago, when Timberley and I stayed there on a summer road trip in June 2000. When my family had lived there in the mid-1960s, my first-grade class at Central Elementary School had included only one Hispanic student—my best friend, Erick, whose family had emigrated from Argentina.

While the six-year-old version of me had thought nothing of the differences between my little life and Erick’s—in fact, I don’t remember noticing any differences—the 41-year-old me was slow to figure out why Spanish instructions took up as much space on that large railway sign as the “official” English ones did. I also admit that this illustration of the rail line’s concession to common sense—that a significant number of daily riders were native Spanish speakers—bothered me a bit two decades ago.

Why did it bother me? Well, I worked as a teacher of English, after all. It was my chosen profession, my calling, my raison d’etre—oops, I mean, my reason for being. After all, English is America’s official language, isn’t it? And, after all, anybody who ain’t from around here needs to learn to speak English as good as me. But that isn’t the be-all and end-all, after all, when people need help. Since then, Timberley and I have enjoyed working with more and more students who aren’t native English speakers, and we especially valued our time not too long ago as volunteers at the Burke Literacy Council’s Project Flower in Morganton, a program serving mothers in our community who are English language learners, many of them Guatemalan.

On our trips to New Mexico in 2004-05, I learned time and again that Timberley and I—and dear old Georgia O’Keeffe, too, for that matter—were the true newcomers to the Land of Enchantment. The first lesson came during our 125-mile shuttle ride from the Albuquerque International Sunport to Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu when our driver pointed out where he and his family lived near Espanola, north of Santa Fe. But he meant family in the larger sense, as in, “My family has lived here for over 300 years.”

After all, why was the state named New Mexico? Because it used to be part of Old Mexico, that’s why. And then there’s Texas. There’s always Texas. As the saying goes, New Mexico is so far from heaven, so close to Texas. If you’ve ever driven the 113 miles of I-40 between Amarillo, Texas, and Tucumcari, N.M., in July heat, then you know how true that saying is. Down I-25, near the Trinity Site and in the 100 miles between Las Cruces and Socorro in southern New Mexico is the Jornado del Muerto desert, so named by the Spanish conquistadors who visited the region around 1600. Before those Spanish guys brought horses to America, everyone walked. Imagine that.

Look closely at those last three Spanish place names: Las Cruces, The Crosses; Jornado del Muerto, Day of the Dead; and Socorro, Help. If you’ve ever been there or have seen pictures of enough Georgia O’Keeffe landscapes, nothing is lost in the translation, and, in fact, meaning is added for the English-only speaker who is curious enough to learn some Spanish. As Mark Twain wrote in his first bestseller, The Innocents Abroad, about his voyage to the Holy Land with a bunch of Christians, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

After all, familiarity may breed contempt, but ignorance certainly breeds fear, which eventually turns into hatred and violence. The time has come to choose.