Dr. Pepper, Pecan Trees and the Old Lady That Read Keats

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The boy and his pecan tree, separate them and they are one. They were mighty, messy and rewarding. But I was just a boy peeking through its depth. My shadows fell long across Golf Avenue. The hot hill country air had swept in. Smelled like rain and freshly cut golf course grass. The air carried the fine dirt that he could see in the distance forming slowly over the hills. The elderly lady inside the house was distantly related. So close as she was a great grandmother. But so far away in regard to the young mind and its inability to grasp time. Just a boy living every day, not understanding quite yet the timeline in which we all have a part. His mother was always so excited. She had such memories here. But this trip the mood seemed stuck in a perpetual state of aging and depression. There was very little smiling. Lots of holding hands and praying interjected with bitter or sweetly defiant words.

During the summers, we played under the Pecans. Its sticky mess would rain down like fine mist. The pecans were savory and smelled of dark vegetation and inside the piano would play. The same piece of music always sat at attention on it. The head of the household was tall and imposing. She often had a stern look, but could quickly be coaxed into a laugh. She would sit and play for us. Church hymns as fine you would hear during service. Her feet would stomp a deliberate motion against the pedals and as voice quivered and quaked ever so gently. She was singing to us, but mostly to the Lord.

She would open the kitchen cabinets up to reveal pastel colored dishes and red reflective glasses with tiny chips in the painted on veneer. We would sip on Dr. Pepper which seemed to be her one love in life outside of Jesus.

We would get in some alien shaped car for quick rides to the grocery or post office. It was a relic of a car, but seemed reliable and tame. It moved as if it weighed as much as an elephant. She was a solid and musty smelling beast stripped of all modern convenience. But it fit right in on this street that seemed stuck in a time that happened long before I was born.

One summer she was reading on the back porch as I collected pecans and little decorative rocks. I asked what she was reading. With a twinkle in her eye she showed me a small book of romantic poets. She read me one. It was about how the world around us was all connected in some way or the other. I remembered the lesson because the poem talked about how flowers were just as important as sheep. The idea of something existing for something else was intriguing to me. It ended with the passage, “An endless fountain of immortal drink, Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.” It would be years until I would see that poem again. She had attempted to teach me a lesson through Keats.

In the evening fireflies were everywhere and we would play thieves to the Honeysuckle hanging on the back fence. Acting as if every tiny drop we extracted was a fine delicatessen. Then later when everyone was asleep, the house became something different. The wind made the Pecan giants groan and then they would pelt the roof with pecans one by one in synchronistic rhythm. The boards in the house popped and creaked. But nothing that scared you. It is was just as if the house lived and breathe like the rest of this place. Summer visits were about stepping back in time. They were about reconnecting with a past while taking a leap into the future. Almost as if we were holding onto something that was desperately trying to let go.

On this particular summer visit though, the old lady in the house was very upset. She had just found out that her days of sitting in the Texas wind and watching golf carts careen down the street in search of errant golf balls had to come to an eventual end. She had to say goodbye to the Pecan trees. She had to say goodbye to Dr. Pepper and riding in her alien car with a sunhat on. She had to say goodbye to independence. We don’t always take bad and horribly depressing news well. She certainly had no trouble expressing her displeasure and given the circumstances, that seemed well within her right. I was sad for her too. But mostly I just hoped wherever she moved next would still have Pecan Trees and Dr. Pepper. But I knew she wouldn’t. On down the street the giant gutter called for me to play. Maybe given time, when I returned, everyone would be in a lot better mood for the drive home. Or maybe I would be sitting next to a sad and angry old lady.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

John Keats
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Naked Bulbs

Naked Bulbs

“I can’t stand the sight of naked bulbs”, he thought. His life was like a horrible 80’s sitcom with no budget for proper lighting. Every scene was white light that seemed to burn. With the thought of this bleak truth smashing around his brain, he finished his gin and smashed the last remaining lamp shade against the wall.

Mandela and the Quiet Whisper of Revolution

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“I can rest only for a moment,
for with freedom come responsibilities,
and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

I was in the 8th grade when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In school a man we had previously been taught very little about suddenly became the topic of conversation and classroom discussion. It was about freedom and a system where native Africans were denied rights.

I was an avid reader from a very early age. I loved reading the newspaper every day, front to back. I had my favorite columnists. I wanted to be a writer and maybe even a journalist. So for the past couple of years, I had been following the news coverage of a man imprisoned. And only because of his opposition to a system that sounded so archaic and far from what I thought could ever exist in my world of freedoms.

My favorite story growing up was the Count of Monte Cristo. A man wrongly imprisoned. Who gains his freedom and fights the injustices that landed him there. Righting the wrong inflected on him and those close to him because of greed and political power. And here in the papers every day, I was reading about a modern day Count. He had been imprisoned for years on this island for vague crimes that were motivated by the same exact things. Except this time it included racism as well.

How could a country in Africa have policies in place that didn’t give black Africans equal rights? I had grown up listening to stories about our own countries fight against racism. That made more sense because blacks were not the majority population here. But in Africa that could happen?  So I went to the library. This was a place I practically lived in those days. And I begin reading about colonization and a system where the minority ruled the majority under the guise that they were better for the country in the long run. Suddenly the world was different. The battles we had waged as a country, suddenly seem to pale in comparison. These problems existed around the world, even in places you didn’t think it would or could exist.  And not only did they exist, but in ways our country had not seen in many years. The plight of Mandela, and my eagerness to learn split my thought process apart and showed me a new reality.

He had said very little in 27 years while in prison, but had actually said quite a lot in his silence. He had taught a 14 year old privileged white boy living in Virginia that justice and freedom in the world was not a given. You had to fight for that right.

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The day he was released from prison, the world was a ball of excitement. And I inhaled that excitement. It was the same excitement I would come to know many times in my life. From the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union or the destruction of communism in Romania… that was an amazing feeling. But for me, the day Mandela was released from prison was the first time I had ever noticed it. I became acutely aware that freedoms had to be fought for. Injustices in the world did not right itself. It felt more right than anything I had ever experienced.

A couple of months later, a giant concert was held in London to celebrate a free South Africa. Being that music has always been a huge part of my life, I was excited. It had artists I knew and loved like Natalie Cole, Neil Young and Chrissie Hynde. And so many others I was unfamiliar with but would go on to be some of my favorites. Bands like Stetasonic and Simple Minds. During that performance, I also got to see Mandela himself on stage and in person for the first time. He seemed as stoic and wise as I had imagined. That excitement I had previously felt was at its peak that night.

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But one song and artist in particular spoke to me. Tracey Chapman was huge at the time because of her hit song “Fast Car”. So I was already excited to see her perform. But it was another song she sang that night that stayed with me to this day. The song was “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”. It was a simple message about equality and standing up for your rights. It featured the amazing line, “Don’t you know, they’re talking about a revolution. It sounds like a whisper.”

That is what it had felt to me. In my small town and middle school, I didn’t see huge protests. I didn’t get to see footage on TV of police firing tear gas into crowds. I didn’t get to hear about the stories of all the people who had been imprisoned just for daring to oppose a government’s political position. Instead it was a whisper. Every day for a couple of years, whispers in my ear from the newspapers, and the books and the quiet example of one man stuck in a prison far away from my home. Her words had rung true for South Africa. “Finally the tables are starting to turn, talkin’ bout a revolution”. It had happened. The tables had turned. Four years later he was president and apartheid was dead.

And that was Nelson Mandela to me. He was part of a my political awakening and my growing sense of social awareness. The knowledge that my life was a privileged one and other parts of the word or even my own country could be vastly different. And for that I thank him greatly. I would like to think I would have come to that understanding without him. Something else might have influenced me and set me on the same path to social awareness. But I can’t say for certain. For that reason I consider him to be a pivotal point on my path of life. And wish I could have told him that. But I am positive that I am not the only one who ever felt that way.

The Stain

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There is a stain in the road. A blackened and cracked stain that has been there for five years. Thousands pass it every day. Few would know what caused it. But it is a road memory.  I know what caused it. And when I pass it, I remember. It never leaves me. It tells a story.

We also have our stains. Many may encounter it every day. And few would know what caused it. But you do. The memory never leaves. It shapes us just like that road. It leaves us cracked and colored. Different than we were before.

There is a stain in the road. It was not caused by happiness. It was caused by pain and trauma. By leaking fluids and high heat of white flames.

There is a stain in our souls. It was not caused by happiness. It was caused by pain and trauma. By leaking tears and the high heat of emotions.

A section of perfection that now lies permanently etched.  It reminds us of lessons learned. Every day when I drive by the stain in the road, I am reminded of the driver who died. Who for whatever reason lost sight of the road. Lost sight of the destination. The red lights of the truck reflecting on a forehead as they looked down.  A collision that took a life and changed a family.

Every day that I live I think of the stain. I am reminded of mistakes I made. Remembering how I lost sight of my goals. Why I made the decisions I did. A decision that changed my life and took me in a different direction.

I don’t grieve for the stains. They are chapter closers. They are amazing epiphanies worthy of a Kerouac novel. A paragraph that summed up that part of my life. Taught me more about me. Taught me more about life. That stain is my badge of honor. That stain defines me. That stain defines the road. That stain is my proud tattoo of accomplishments.

I will not be caught again with red brake lights in the reflection of my eyes.