Farewell, Miss Nelle Harper Lee


Here’s the courthouse tonight in Monroeville, Alabama, thanks to a friend in town. If you look carefully, you will see the set for the Mockingbird play below. Alabama will miss you, Miss Nelle Harper Lee.


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The Patriot


When did it become unfashionable to be openly patriotic? Did I miss a memo? After WWII, Americans were showered with flowers and kisses as they helped liberate countries and concentration camps throughout Europe. To this day, America is the first place the world turns to when disaster strikes or despots rage out of control.

American taxpayers feed more starving people worldwide than anyone else in the world. That’s a fact. We do that. American citizens. With our hard-earned money. Yet, we are often vilified. I wonder what would happen—and I’m not suggesting this is a good idea–if we stopped aiding the helpless, defending the weak, freeing the oppressed, or protecting our citizens and others around the world. Would those who receive our aid continue to bite the hand that feeds them? I honestly don’t know.

I am proud to be an American. That’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. I shouldn’t feel defensive when I make such a statement, as if I am identifying myself so that the rest of the world can hang a target around my neck, but I do. My son plans to study abroad next year, and my husband and I have repeatedly warned him to blend in with locals. We don’t think it’s safe for him to stand out as an American. We fear for his safety. Isn’t that sad?

I occasionally feel like I have to justify my patriotism to others. I haven’t always felt like this, but I do now. When I fly the stars-and-stripes from my porch (a normal-sized flag for a private residence; I’m not stringing up a flag more suitable for the Super Bowl, I assure you), I am sometimes asked by joggers or walkers going by on the sidewalk in front of my house why I’m doing so, as if the custom is somehow dated, passé, or quaint. I feel the need to cite a socially acceptable reason for flying our flag—the 4th of July, Memorial Day, or some other “official” holiday—as if it’s unseemly to be openly patriotic on an ordinary day.

This questioning reminds me of the folks on television who say, “I support the troops!” followed almost immediately by a criticism of the commander the troops follow, our government in general, the country as a whole, large segments of our population, or our way-of-life in this part of the world. These statements are thinly veiled insults, like the follow-up to, “Bless her heart” or “no offense, but . . . ” which, as everyone knows, is code for “I’m about to offend you.”

I’m unabashedly proud to live in this country. My hope for everyone else in the world is that they, too, can live in peace and safety in their own parts of the world like I do in mine. That’s what we all want, regardless of place of birth, religious affiliation, history, government, or any other variable, isn’t it?

The success our country and people have achieved isn’t some sort of cosmic accident, happy circumstance, or lucky break, you know. It’s self-determination that was hard-won initially, later overcame the loss of over 600,000 of its own citizens in our Civil War, and eventually resulted in a country that has ended up on the side of right more times than not.

Sure, our country is still a work in progress. It has flaws, like our record with regard to civil rights for Native Americans, African Americans, and gay Americans. There is no question about that, but it’s still the best place for an average person to live on the planet. I’d infinitely rather be poor here than poor almost anywhere else. When did we become reluctant to brag about that? We don’t build fences to keep our citizens here, and there’s always a long line to get in.

The circumstances of one’s birth do not define one’s destiny in this place. Ironically, this is one of the few places in the world where you can legally protest, sue, and generally talk bad about the government and all its minions. You can even re-write our laws, elect new leaders, and continue to scream and rant without fear of death, torture, or being tossed on the nearest plane to nowhere.

Americans occasionally learn the value of that privilege the hard way—by attempting to do the same thing while visiting or working in foreign countries. Not every country can handle criticism. It doesn’t take long to figure out that nowhere else is like America. It’s the greatest nation-state experiment in modern history.

We often take our liberties for granted, I think, the same way we know we will have water when we turn on the tap and electricity when we reach for the light switch. I am reminded of this reality, our “normal,” when I see news coverage showing citizens in far-flung places clamoring to be heard, to have their votes counted, to participate in their own government, and to secure the same basic rights for themselves that we enjoy.

It amazes me in the twenty-first century that there are still many countries in the world where women are not allowed to drive, where a son is worth more to a family than a daughter, and where citizens do not have the freedom to worship (or not worship) as they choose.

The rights we take for granted are still battleground issues around the world. I can’t imagine living in a society where a woman’s rape could bring dishonor to her family or where children are conscripted into war. What is considered civilized or barbarous is a matter of where one is born, what one believes, and who is in charge. That’s not okay with me. Might does not make right, or at least it shouldn’t.

I wonder if I would have the courage of the patriots throughout history, people in every country and every culture who risk everything to make their dreams the new reality. I am grateful to those from my own country who have gone before me to secure the rights and privileges I enjoy and for those who work to ensure their survival to this day.

When I see our flag, my heart never fails to swell with emotion. I get a lump in my throat, and I don’t care how cheesy that sounds. I can easily imagine the desperate faces of individuals from all over the world who searched desperately for a glimpse of our flag to know they were safe, or home again, or about to begin a new life.


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Cat People


I’m sinking to a new low with this essay. I’m writing about cats. Go ahead. Roll your eyes. Scrunch up your nose in condescension. I deserve it. Scratch another item off my “you’ll-never-catch-me-doing-that” list. Every time I think I’ve hit writing rock bottom, I discover another layer of sinking sand. It’s embarrassing. Sometimes, I even roll my eyes at myself.

Cat people are a breed unto themselves. I’m not one of those people. Banish that thought from your mind. I don’t have coffee mugs with my cat’s picture on them. I’ve never emailed photos of my pet to my friends, and I don’t routinely post cute Facebook pictures of cats online. The very idea makes me cringe.

First of all, my cat is not that cute. We’ve had three cats in our home over the years. One lived nineteen years; another lived seventeen. Cats are a long-term commitment—not like a macaw or parrot where you have to worry about someone taking care of it after you’re pushing daisies–but still a huge chunk of change, time-wise.

Our current cat has deigned to live with us for the past seven years. It’s obvious that he thinks he’s doing us a favor. My daughter found him under a house in the country when she was visiting relatives with her grandmother. She begged to bring him home. I refused repeatedly. She begged some more. “Where is the cat right now?” I asked over the phone. “In my lap,” she responded. That’s when I knew we were getting a new cat.

This cat comes from humble roots. He hadn’t even made it to a humane shelter or pound when my daughter found him. His mama wasn’t a pampered pet. His dad was probably his brother, cousin, or uncle. You know what I mean. Genetically speaking, he’s a little bit special. He has an extra toe on each of his front paws, which makes him look like he’s wearing oversized mittens. It’s oddly appealing. He’s territorial, possessive of his humans, and not above taking a bite out of someone who dares to stop stroking him when he’s decided it’s time for the plebeians he lives with to adore him.

What I admire about him is how faithful he is to his routine. He sticks to a strict daily schedule. First thing in the morning, after being picked up and cuddled, he begs for milk and breakfast. Then it’s off to lick himself clean and take a nap under the dining table. After that, it’s playtime with available humans, maybe a little cat television (sitting on top of a chest under the window to track squirrels and birds like the big-game hunter he thinks he is), followed by another nap on the bed and litter box time. At night, he drapes himself across whoever gets in bed first like a dead weight and refuses to move again until morning. Woe unto anyone who interrupts the routine.

I’m a woman who appreciates routine and predictability. As a mom, I never take an ordinary day for granted. If nobody goes to the emergency room, knocks off a car bumper, or calls me from the principal’s office, I call that a good day. We’ve been known to celebrate a day like that with ice cream.

I’m amazed and humbled that a completely different species of animal clearly wants to be around me. Sure, I’m his source for food, water, and a clean litter box, but it’s obviously more than that. This animal seeks me out for attention. He has an emotional connection to me. It’s clear. He seems himself as part of our family. That’s so surprising to me. I recently attended a lecture by my favorite primatologist, Frans de Waal, about just this sort of thing. He’s done some fascinating studies about social interaction in different species. If you are unaware of his work, go on YouTube and watch a few of his experiments. You can probably predict the results yourself. They are so close to human reactions. It will make you think animals in a new way. My cat would be an interesting study, but he’d never cooperate—not for all the catnip in the world.

In fact, he has quite a high opinion of his own importance. I can tell. He’s a little snotty and believes himself far superior to any other animal he encounters. He refuses to engage with babies or small children in any way. They are clearly beneath him. He knows they aren’t trustworthy, and he turns away and stalks out of the room with a disdainful tail wag when we have the nerve to bring small visitors into his territory.

To show his displeasure with any of us humans, it is not unheard of for him to poop in the shoe of a particularly offensive overnight guest, and he once used my sister’s clean laundry pile as a substitute for his litter box. Subtlety is not one of his talents. He is crotchety, difficult, messy, and often a pain in the behind, much like some of our human family members. It’s a good thing we think of him as family, too. Not every one would put up with him. He has a bad attitude most of the time.


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I Hear Voices


My favorite weather report is windy and cold. I know I’m in the minority with that vote. Most people prefer hot summer days. I do not. You need to respect my opinion and move on. I don’t expect you to agree with me. I’m not campaigning for cold, windy, wet weather fans. I don’t understand why people are so scandalized by my preferences. When I claim to like windy, cold days, people act like I’ve personally offended them. It’s as if I’ve confessed to stuffing ballot boxes or buying an outfit to a wear to a party that I plan on returning to the store the next day. There’s nothing unnatural about preferring overcast days to sunny ones. It’s unusual, I admit, but my preference doesn’t make me freaky. I’m a little bit tired of having to defend my views on weather. I like storms, too. Deal with it.

Where I live, I don’t get nearly enough windy, cold days. When I luck up weather-wise, I have to hide my delight from the sun-worshipping masses. I check my grin and grumble a bit to fit in with my fellow commuters, but secretly, I’m throwing a little party in my head. I especially like the sound effects on cold-weather days—a roaring fire, rustling leaves spinning across the sidewalk, and the whooshing effect of wind rattling the last dry leaves clinging tenaciously to tree branches. Those sounds are so much prettier than the incessant clicking of cicadas on a hot, humid summer night. That is a harsh, repetitious, non-melodious noise that I associate with misery. In fact, that’s the sound of crazy in the South, if you ask me.

Prepare yourself. I’m asking you to keep an open mind as you continue reading. I need room to write here, a little literary license, often defined as a willing suspension of disbelief, and some leeway. Humor me for the next few paragraphs, and I promise to give you something interesting to think about for the next few days.

The sounds of wind blowing through trees, a faint, whispering murmur, sounds just like voices to my ears. In my imagination, those voices could belong to all the people I have ever loved in my life who have died before me. Before you get all worked up, let me reassure you that I’ve not gone round the bend, I promise. You don’t need to call someone to check on me. Let me explain.

Instinctively, I strain to make out faint sounds when I hear them. We all do. So when I hear the wind rustling the leaves and branches of trees, a sound that mimics human speech to my ears, I close my eyes and concentrate. If someone is trying to talk to me, I want to be hear what he or she has to say. What if that could really happen? I want so desperately to hear those voices distinctly and to connect with people I’ve loved who have died. This is the stuff of ghost-hunter fantasies. I’ve never pursued such hobbies myself, but I’m open-minded. I have gone on ghost tours in Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana. (That’s a whole industry now, in case you didn’t know. People will do anything to make money. Humans are resourceful like that. I think it’s an admirable trait.) Those were fun. And I had a friend who had a Ouija board when I was young, but we never got any messages to the other side. I wanted to stop for a palm reading several times on long trips with my husband, but I have never been able to talk him into it. He said I could just roll down the car window and throw my money out to get the same result. He’s not as interested in being open-minded as I am.

Haven’t you ever longed for contact with someone who has died, even though you know it’s impossible? Sometimes, I think I can hear those people in the wind, as if they are discussing the upcoming SEC football schedule among themselves. It’s just a faint, murmuring sound. The experience reminds me of the time my dentist showed me a cavity on my X-ray. “Can you see what I’m talking about?” he asked, looking down at my upturned face. “I think so,” I replied, “but it’s possible I’m imagining it.”

When I feel the chill wind on my face and hear the murmuring, I feel sure that the presence of those voices is real, as real as other conversations I overhear when I’m walking down the street passing pedestrians deeply engaged on their cell phones, or when I make my way past tables of bar patrons in search of a bathroom. When I lie on a beach with my eyes closed, my face turned up to the sun, my body draped across a lounger, I hear conversations around me ebb and flow against the background of waves crashing on the shore. We can all agree those conversations are real. What is so different about the possibility of . . . more?

When I walk across campus after teaching all day on my way to the parking lot, my brain is tired and more open to hearing voices. (You could argue here that my students have actually driven me mad, and I am hearing voices because I’m two minutes away from crazy town. That’s one interpretation.) In the minute right before I drift off to sleep at night, I think I’m more open to the sounds around me, too. Voices, maybe echoes of former conversations, seem to crescendo and demand that I pause to remember the random people who have crossed my path over the years.

I know, I know. Hearing voices isn’t a good sign—is it? I might be in need of medication or a hearing check-up, but I don’t think it’s something boring like that. Don’t worry. The voices don’t threaten me or give me instructions or anything scary like that. It’s just a warm presence I feel, like hearing the noises from a fun dinner party my parents hosted when I was a child when I was tucked into bed on another floor of the house. It was nice, even then, to hear those pleasant sounds. It made me feel safe and happy. I knew I wasn’t alone, and I had nothing to fear.

I believe there are proverbial thin places in the world, spots where this world and the next one are close, literally, as if we are only separated by a sheer veil, (think Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban here) but I believe the thin places may be different for everyone. There is some scholarly reading on this topic if you’re interested. I’m not the first person to talk about this by a long shot, which is reassuring, I admit.

When I allow my mind to wander, or when I’m especially tired, that’s when I hear . . . more. Have you ever experienced a thin place in your own life? Open yourself up to the possibility. Listen carefully. You might hear voices, too. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I think we’re both perfectly sane. We are in good company in those thin places—in more ways than one.


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Camp McDowell


It’s out! The Camp McDowell book by Doug Carpenter is available for purchase! All proceeds to benefit the new Bethany Village at camp!

To buy: $23 ($3 P&H, $20 to Bethany fund, make check to Camp McDowell, The Rev. Doug Carpenter, 3037 Overton Rd., B’ham, AL 3223. carpenter.doug7436@att.net

This is a beautiful gift book for a worthy cause! Doug will sign and personalize every copy!

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The Grand Moments


I remember—exactly—how my red, wrinkly, newborn babies’ feet felt to my fingers the first time I touched them. I can feel, even now, twenty-eight years later, the heat from my husband’s breath when he bent his head to kiss me for the first time.

Of course, these moments are the very definition of cliché. Milestones like these are common to us all. They are the high-water tides that break over our heads, ripple out in every direction, and determine the course of the rest of our lives.

Often, it’s the firsts in our lives that define us—a new job, a fortunate meeting, or a path taken or not taken in a meandering journey. We have no idea what the repercussions will be when we live, as we so rarely do except in these clichéd firsts, entirely present in the moment.

When these freeze-frame moments of incalculable import come out of nowhere when we least expect them, and when there is little or no time to consider, weigh, or debate, that’s when we often choose to leap off the high dive to see what will happen next.

I’m fascinated by these grand moments. They are small slices of our lives in terms of time, but they have the power to change us irrevocably for better or worse and for all time. The split second when a choice must be made that will define our own personal ethics forevermore—to do the right thing when no one is looking, for example—will ultimately declare who we are, what we believe deep-down, and what we can or can’t live with for the rest of our days.

What makes a person decide in a fraction of a second to risk his or her life to rescue a stranger? What drives another to a moment of infidelity? How does a lone protester suddenly find the courage to stand up to oppressors?

What we leave behind when we die are the chain reactions begun by each of us in our “first” moments, our split-second decisions, and the choices we make when we are courageous enough to take a chance.


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The Incident With the Big Toblerone


So . . . it’s that time of year again. You know what I mean. The BIG GIRL Toblerone bars are out for Valentine’s Day.

This candy bar is my personal kryptonite. Diet disaster of epic proportion. Temptation worthy of Jesus in the desert. My all-time favorite chocolate AT A BARGAIN PRICE.

I can’t lay off that. The truth is: I’m a weak, weak woman.

I spotted the big Toblerone the second I walked into Target like an eagle spying a bunny streaking across a grassy plain. I craved it instantly, with a knee-jerk longing that I’m convinced is encoded on my XX chromosome helix somewhere.

I NEED chocolate to be happy. I also need bubble baths, good books to read, and my children to hang up their wet towels.

When I approached the candy aisle with my red buggy (with the John Williams theme music to the movie “Jaws” streaming in my head), I’m sure I heard a faint hiss:

“Just let me ride in your buggy, lady. You know you want to.”

“Get behind me, Satan!” I yelled, loud enough to make other shoppers avert their eyes and scurry out of the aisle like teenagers fleeing a party when the cops arrive.

“I’m on sale,” the evil Toblerone continued persuasively, “You should at least take me home to your children. You’re a good mom. Think of the children. You could have a bite of me first, of course, and save the rest for them. It would be so thoughtful. You really are very unselfish.”

I resisted. At first.

“I know what you’re doing! You aren’t just a candy bar—you are TEN SERVINGS of candy bar that I could consume in the parking lot without taking a single water break! I might as well plaster you to my tummy right now! There aren’t enough spin classes in the world to work you off. I’m on to you,” I taunted my cocoa Satan.

That’s how it started this time. That’s how it always starts. It’s an old story for me.

In the buggy. In the car. In my mouth. On my hips. Regret. Remorse. New resolutions. But the story always ends the same delicious way: I’m always happy to talk about my new diet with you—preferably as we devour our “last” Toblerone.

Happy Valentine’s Day season to my fellow chocoholics!


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