Friday, September 11, 2015

9/11... again and again

my good friend Melanie posted a picture of the twin towers on her Facebook page today with these words:
The world feels more filled with hate, people fleeing for their lives like so many from these building 14 years ago. May we focus today on Lady Liberty who welcomed so many who came knowing a better life exists with freedom.
yes, the world does feel more filled with hate, and though we pray for peace, much of the world is just not seeing it. 

i wish i knew the answer. i do know that many people much smarter than i am are working on that answer, and across the world there are people opening their arms to the children of Syria, giving them water, food, a safe place, far away from violence.

on this 9/11, i always go back to the Sunday of the 10th anniversary, as i sat with my friends on a pew far away from home, listening to a sermon about forgiveness. i'm sharing it again, because i, for one, need to be reminded. i think of the first responders, who turned now away from what faced them, but toward it. 


we sat in upholstered chairs this morning in a small Episcopal church in mid-coast Maine. no kneelers, just clear glass windows looking out over scrubby pines dotting the landscape. save for one small stained glass window above the altar depicting Jesus calming an angry sea, and these words: Fear not.

we shared our chair pew with four friends we have met in the past eight years. the six of us are in Boothbay Harbor taking in the crisp air and celebrating 80 years of marriage between us. at supper last night, we shared memories of our earliest years as married couples, laughed at our naiveté and marveled at our sticktuativeness if there is such a word. the oldest among us married at 22 and 23, will celebrate 40 years together on Sunday. the newlyweds have been married just 10, tying their knot tightly around each other and changing their world as a couple, just 10 days before our whole worlds changed — 10 years ago today.

the readings for today were about forgiveness, how when Peter asked Jesus how many times he was supposed to forgive someone who had wronged him, Jesus launched into hyperbole, saying seventy-seven (or seven times seven, depending on your translation.) and then He talked about the master whose slave owed him the equivalent of around a billion dollars in today's world. a price he could never pay back.

'we owe God everything,' the priest said. 'just because we opened our eyes this morning, we owe more than we can ever repay.'

i listened, waiting for the lesson about 9/11, and it was there, in the middle of all that need to forgive. how personal forgiveness, which is often the hardest, is based on the illusion that we might have had a better life if the person who had wronged us had not done so. and how as Americans living in a post-9/11 world, forgiveness is not so simple anymore. it was no accident, he said, that our lessons for today — of all days — were about this subject. chosen years in advance, this is just how God works.
in the past week, my husband and i watched several specials about that Tuesday 10 years ago none of us will ever forget. it was harrowing to watch once again, as planes that seemed to come out of nowhere hit the Twin Towers and forever changed our lives as Americans. as i watched and listened to survivors and our nation's leaders tell their stories, i said a silent prayer that nothing like this would happen again.ever.

our daughter lives in NYC, and last week, she and her husband moved into a new apartment. her Upper West Side home is far away from Ground Zero, but as the anniversary of that day approached, i knew it is much on her mind. when i talked with her yesterday, they were staying home. traffic had been horrible since Friday, when the only news, it seemed was about a new, credible threat.

she was a senior in high school the morning of 9/11, and i was set to teach writing to members of her class later that morning. at home, preparing for the day, i saw the second plane hit in real time. then the Pentagon plane. it was almost impossible to pull myself from watching to get to my work. a little more than an hour later, after both towers had fallen, and as i walked up the steps to the high school, i listened to a silence so absolute I could not remember a time when my world had ever been so quiet. a man i didn't know came out of the building and we stared into each other's eyes for more than the split second strangers allow.

six months later my daughter and i visited Ground Zero ourselves with my best friend and her daughter. we stopped in at the office of one of my husband's colleagues, an Indian woman who told us the story of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge toward home and how it took hours to get to her little boy. 'the smell is gone,' she said as we stared into the canyon that still seemed to smolder. it was not gone. she was only used to it.

we were deeply moved awhile later by the thousands of fliers and bouquets of flowers posted on the fence that surrounded St. Paul's Chapel —the nation's oldest public building in continual use — which stands across the street from where the towers once stood. the minutia of the grieving, put there by families searching for loved ones missing when the towers fell. from September 2001 to May 2002, St. Paul’s opened its doors to firefighters, construction workers, police officers and others for meals, beds, counseling and prayer.

Doug Remer, a former associate rector at my church and a family friend of my friend Anne Boone,  was a relief worker at the chapel and invited us in. we knelt in pews where George Washington worshiped. we read some of the hundreds of letters lining every pew and wall, written by children from all over the world and sent to relief workers, thanking them for their service.

this is not something you ever forget.


the priest today said people have approached him in the years since 9/11 saying: where was God in this? why did God cause this to happen?  "i don't know what kind of God you believe in,' he said, 'if you think God caused it to happened." he did not believe in that kind of God. nor do i. i can tell you where God was. in every single fire fighter and police officer who entered that building. in the couple, as the priest reminded us, who jumped out of the burning buildings, holding hands, knowing this was something that could not be done alone.  there, in the community of strangers who huddled together for comfort, in elevators, in stair wells, on the top floors unable to get out, in those airplanes as their fuselages broke the windows of the towers, my God was there. 

i found myself weeping  — i can't remember a sermon in a long time that has made me weep — for the 3,000 souls gone, for the children of 9/11, for my daughter living in a city targeted yet again by terror. and closer to home, for the man sitting next to me, whom i have failed to forgive too many times, but who never fails to forgive me.

10 years ago, i had not yet met the friends that occupied my pew today. we were all in different places in our lives — Tim & Linda living in Birmingham, Lee and David living on base at Fort Bragg, NC. Lee had not even unpacked her belongings when David — who was supposed to be on vacation — came home to tell her he would be needed at work. (last week, as we recalled our 9/11 memories, several of us spoke of the quiet. Lee could not help thinking of how at Fort Bragg, there was no silence at all. just mayhem. 

within five years of 9/11, the six of us would be brought together by church, and as Tim said over dinner last night, our connection to each other has changed us all.


after church we took a car ride to a beautiful little island and found a tiny church built in i think 1918, nestled in the pines and rocks, right by the sea. inside, i knelt, finally, and said my prayers, once again, for having safely arrived at this spot, on this day, with these people. for my children, husband, parents and siblings. for the world, and peace.

this afternoon, we sailed in 12-knot winds aboard a three-masted 60-foot schooner. i braced my feet against the side as we heeled, her rails almost into the chop, tried to take a few pictures. and i thought about how to connect all the moments of this day: the church, the priest's message, the friends, my marriage and this sail.

i thought about the small stained glass window of St. Columba's, depicting to me, Jesus calming the waters during the storm. "fear not' read the words in one corner of the small window.

i didn't know until just now this about the window: "the theme 'fear not'  was adopted  (by the church) soon after... 9/11.  It also takes into account that we are a seafaring town. the touches of green signify the headlands of a safe harbor as the angel speaks peace from a bruised and stormy sky."

well. after 9/11, we are all bruised. though it's a gift to be married so many years, sometimes it bruises us, too. as the priest said: God is in the midst of them. and us.

fear not. angels speak peace from a bruised and stormy sky.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Like kudzu, come to think of it

sometimes the words i throw out into the world scatter and create new stories, all by themselves. sort of like children, i suspect. you raise a story up from that first uncertain word until it blooms into 700 or even thousands of words and then you nudge it out, into its own journey.

such is a story i published two weeks ago now, about the farm i share with my siblings — though none of us could wield a plow if we had to. shortly after the story ran, the emails began, mostly from people who hail from Sunbury, the little village near where the farm sits. a cousin i had never met contacted me, as did strangers with my own last name, sharing their own memories of the place i had written about. as my quiet little story picked up steam, i lured in a couple of new blog followers, and six on twitter. #wow! 

still more strangers shared it on Facebook, on their own pages and even on a page dedicated to memories of Gates County. as the days passed, i responded to the emails, marveling at how connected people felt because of my few words about, well, connecting.

of course the email chain faded, as happens, and i set my sights on work and other things, wondering what in the world i'd write next.

a couple of days ago, a new email landed in my inbox, a delightful tome from a woman on the west coast whose Tar Heel sister had sent her my column. her own grandparents lived near our family farm, and she recalled her father's home:
"...a real crossroads with their house, an uncle's and across the street the country store and owner's house where my warts were wished off one Sunday afternoon."
her own family farm stands not far from ours but it is out of the family now. i wrote back, saying that we were practically neighbors, to which she responded: probably 14th cousins, several times removed. 

this is such a part of what i love about writing: readers who take the time to tell you how much your little story means to them. these comments are no small thing to me. 

we continued to email each other, unknowingly setting into motion a "whole 'nother story," as they say where i come from. 

as i learned more about her, we discovered link upon link to each other: our grandfathers were contemporaries. she grew up on one end of Halifax County and i on the other. she gave her sister my book a few years ago. she loves Nags Head as much as i do, and the beach cottage her family rented when she was a child? owned by her "Cousin Joe Byrum," who was my grandfather's brother and married to her grandfather's first cousin. can you follow? i might need to diagram it.

(wouldn't that make her a cousin to me by marriage? maybe 14th, several times removed?)

no people. you can't make this stuff up. 

photo copyright Watson Brown. Used with permission.
this morning, i found myself lured back to my Sunbury connections on Facebook, when i stumbled upon a photograph of our farm, taken last year by Watson Brown, the exceptional photographer of weathered old buildings and the beautiful landscape of eastern North Carolina. Another accidental connection.

I don't know Watson personally, but we have many mutual friends, and i've followed his work for the past couple of years, drawn to his images of home. there is a great beauty in the art he finds among the ruins. 

His calling is to document the fading history that connects all of us who call 'God's Country' home. he travels the back roads and dirt paths in search of life as it was once lived out.

browsing through his work, i image the voice of an aproned mother calling her kids across the field to home, the scrape of a father's boots on the back porch on his way in from a long day of fielding, the sounds and smells of something fried drifting out of the kitchen window toward the noses of those children, who turn and run, hurdling the rows of cotton, so as not miss a morsel of a summer supper.

my new friend on the West Coast and i hope to meet next time she comes this way. i have no doubt we'll find even more connections that link our families. in fact, i have a second cousin i'd like her to meet. his grandmother was her grandfather's cousin, Irma, so they are actually related. maybe we will share our family trees and see the many ways they do connect. 

if i've learned one thing in all my years of writing, it's that a story can take root and grow right where you sow it, standing tall and strong against the sunlight like a weathered old oak. but sometimes a story lifts itself up and spreads like kudzu all over the landscape, one thread leading to another until it's hard to tell if there is any beginning or end.

this is a story like that, i think, and i hope it will keep on growing. 

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

summer sentence 2015

i sit, staring into the eyes of
my five-week-old great niece Lucy, 
the two of us bound together
by blood
but not yet by story;
the only missive
we share is our 
week together
saying 'good morning'
and touching noses,
me bouncing her soft body
when she cries,
me trying to soothe, 
her trying to discover 
her new world;
and on this morning, 
our last together, 
she turns the corner 
of her mouth, just so 
into a soft, baby smile
and i know she is thinking
about the times
her mother fed her, or
my mother rocked her
or when her sister 
(2, plus some)
held her and 
kissed her face, 
of the times her uncles
took her into their arms 
and showed her 
their world at that moment,
bound by beach and sound and sky;
or of when her grandfather 
danced with her
in afternoon 
delight for both;
and as i look into her
family-blue eyes and
marvel at our same chins,
i wish she could remember
what i have seen of this week —
my sister holding and bouncing
her new granddaughter,
my brother walking into the
surf with his grandson, 
now 8, who
asked my nephew
about girls and French kisses,
and Monopolized our evenings;
our beach party dance-off
with no misunderstanding
from our
part-time partytime
how her mother ate fresh peaches
and slept when she could
(and cried a little),
not able to stick her toes 
in the sand often enough
like her namesake, 
my grandmother
always liked to do;
how we ate shrimp 
and how we watched
the sun set
over the blue waters
of the inter-coastal waterway,
my husband wishing
he was out there, skimming
the smooth surface,
under sail,
or my son
casting chicken necks tied to string
in search of crabs for his
Maryland love;
or how my daughter
lifting the paddleball
into the air or tossing it
into the ocean 
with her husband,
who sweated
into soccer heaven
with the 8-year-old, 
all of them no longer afraid 
of the sharks 
they had read about 
in the news;
how i sat with my
nephews for the 
first time in a year, 
learning about jobs
and life
as they see it,
shared an early-morning coffee
with the newest girlfriend, 
her eyes crisp as
the ocean water 
we were about to leave;
and how after supper,
on our last night,
my mother sat
at the kitchen table
with her grands,
holding stories
in her lap as
softly as she did her
hoping to pass 
her own history on.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

still the same, at heart

For the life of me, I can't recall what the story was about, but it involved Pinocchio, Geppeto, a mailman, a bunny, girls with hearts and Jiminy Cricket, and me — the girl on the second row, right end, scared to death of the cowboy next to me who claimed kin to Earl Scruggs. I remember I wore an itchy petticoat and white gloves (if you look closely, you can see them.) I am listed in the program only as 'girl'.

We were the Class of 1962 in Miss Lottie Welch's kindergarten — a tiny house in her back yard where she tried to teach our town's smallest to sit still, get along with others, sing songs and finish the puzzles we took off the shelf. We'd miss recess of we didn't, this I know because I'm guilty of it. 

And this afternoon, a baker's dozen of these kids will gather for the first time in 20 years.

Some of those little ones moved away and we lost track of them. Two of the girls died of cancer a few years ago. In the last couple of years through Facebook, I found out that the cowboy really is a distant kin to Earl Scruggs. 

I look at these small faces and see each one as a gift. One of us is really good at poker. Another at growing tomatoes. The pretty girl on the back row holding the big heart is a fashion designer. The boy in the middle of the first row in the striped jacket is a history teacher who is trying to preserve our town's history on Facebook, though few of us live there anymore. Pinocchio is a musician and will bring his tunes to us tonight. Jiminy Cricket is a successful businessman. I'm not sure what the mailman grew up to be, but I can't wait to ask him. There is a coach in there, and a hospital administrator. And the girl on the back row sitting with a heart in her lap is an artist, and she created my daughter's bridal bouquet.

I have known this group since I was that chubby freckled girl, some of them since birth. Six weeks ago, 'the girl next door' and Jiminy Cricket and I  chatted on a sunny Sunday morning and said, you know, it's our 40th year out of high school, so we ought to get something together. It is amazing to me in that short span of time we've pulled together a reunion of some of those pictured here, and some who joined our school from neighboring towns. There will be a few who didn't graduate with us and a surprise or two, and the chatter that this event has created over these past weeks has been heartening.  

Our historian will remind us that our education began in some ways, when an Air Force jet flew over our playground that year so close to the ground we thought it would crash on us. (It did crash just north of town, killing the pilot.) Our years continued with the Kennedy assassination our first grade year, took us through the walk on the moon, the Vietnam War, race riots and marches in our streets and the end of segregated schools, our soundtrack the Beatles, Three Dog Night, The Spinners and The Temptations. Some of us lost parents to tragedy, others to old age, and a few of the lucky still have them both.

Browsing through old scrapbooks and yearbooks in the past few days, I have been reminded of what a rare gift it is to travel from kindergarten through high school graduation with some of the same people. These folks knew me before I knew myself, and I, them, and sometimes, sometimes, you just need to go back to that place before the world happened to you, and see if they — and you — are still the same 5 year-olds who graced the stage that day, some of them holding hearts in their hands.

(look for me in the News & Observer on Sunday, June 20, as I begin and new stint as an  Our Lives columnist)

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.