Martha and the Redbud

Redbud Flowers

My father’s mother was not ashamed of revealing her favoritism when it came to her children or grandchildren. Different though we were, neither my father nor I were among her favorites. My mom supposed that was because we didn’t need her as much as the other siblings or grandchildren.

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Building History


We are new to an old place. We live in a rambling, white farmhouse with a porch that wraps clean around it, upstairs and downstairs alike. It was built in 1888, or something near. When we first met this house, the woman who showed it to us told us it was haunted, but we felt peaceful inside of it.  A family had lived here for years, that of my new neighbor, an elderly red-headed woman who used to read in the upstairs window seat when her own grandmother lived in the house. Her name is Miss Katie, and she laughs and tells me there were sixteen red-headed children here, bursting out of the doors and windows and that she loves to see it full again with a new batch of ginger-haired kids. We left behind us in Atlanta the only house we ever built. It was full of books. Love had poured into its very construction. It was a home from the start, the Last Homely House.

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Dispatches from the South: Thirteen-Year Cicadas, Donald Trump, and Intimate Violence


Seven years ago I cleaned the bedrooms of an Appalachian craft school: labor in trade for classes in basket weaving. Framed on one of the walls was a black and tan drawing of a cloud of cicadas, wings outstretched and illuminated in scientific detail. Underneath the drawing the script read: “Cicada song: you are the heartbeat of the South, my dying mother.”

On early evenings most summers, in this Southern Appalachian valley where I live, you can hear the sound of cicadas screaming. At times the sound is so loud, people stop their conversations and turn their eyes to the trees, looking for the bullet shaped insects. Sometimes you see one clinging to the bark, betraying itself with a grating wail. Other times, when the trees are full in the evening, the rise and fall is much like a mother’s heartbeat to her unborn baby; it’s everywhere and everything, inescapable and indispensable, all at the same time.

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On Valuing Absences


I sat in my friend Jacob’s living room, listening through Emmylou Harris’s “Greener Pastures,” from Roses in the Snow. Ricky Skaggs and Dolly Parton joined in on vocals, and Willie Nelson played a gut-string guitar solo. The song lists as an old traditional hymn, and it surfaces once in a while in the annals of classic country and its associated genres. Ralph Stanley played it on Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, and the David Grisman bluegrass supergroup Here Today covered it on their once-in-a-lifetime project. That evening with Emmylou Harris was my first introduction to it, though. Jacob’s house is the one mile stop on my evening run, and as we plowed through sundry records and tracks, Ricky Skaggs’ vocals stood out to me in the trio. They were nearly pentatonic, with the exception of a few notes, and it lent the whole performance a power that would not have been present otherwise. I was reminded of the force conspicuous absence lends to artwork.

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Seeking Refuge


In an age of oversimplified political and social narratives, we may find refuge in stories that reflect the disturbing, conflicting aspects of living out our faith in the midst of a broken world. Recently released on DVD and streaming, Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents takes viewers into a place of sanctuary that has become a center of pain and confusion. In a state of desperation, the nuns find help from an unbeliever who must wrestle with their devout faith. This slow, emotionally complex film, may open our hearts afresh to the surprise of hope in the midst of despair.

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The Voices of Mr. Morelock


For the first sixteen years of my life, I lived in a house I thought was haunted, but there was never any proof. We often heard the sound of doors slamming down the hall, yet the doors remained wide open. A few times we investigated crashing noises in the basement, a sound like shelves of tools had fallen over, but nothing was ever out of place. Even when water faucets suddenly turned themselves on, my dad would rather blame worn out washers than speculate about poltergeists.

Those noises might have been caused by the house settling, or something else, but certainly not anything from the spiritual realm. Dad thought everything must have a logical explanation, and that’s how he raised me and my sister, Jennifer.

So years later, when Jennifer and I moved in with my mother and her boyfriend, I didn’t think too much about sounds of doors opening and unexplained footsteps. At least, not at first.

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The Catechist


What is the sky?

The sky is above us—
There; it’s blue.

Can I touch it?

No, you can’t touch it.
It’s too far away.

If I go higher,
can I touch it?

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