Significant Objects


My Grandfather’s Reading Notebook

In the prologue essay in Dinah Lenney‘s collection of essays, The Object Parade, she says, “Things, all kinds–ordinary, extraordinary–tether us, don’t they, to place and people and the past, to feeling and thought, to each other, and ourselves, to some admittedly elusive understanding of the passage of time.” I started a photography project a while ago that I referred to as “Significant Objects” and photographed various objects that had meaning or some significance for me. It was a visual meditation on why we keep certain things or why some things that might seem worthless to others hold significance for us over time. After moving twice in a year, with one move involving a cross-country journey, I had to make many ruthless decisions on what to keep and what to jettison after living in our house in southern California for 17 years, a house that filled up with books and a multitude of other things, rocks, feathers, pens, notebooks…etc. I performed a radical pruning of my book collection, donating close to 100 boxes of books (which barely put a dent in my overall library), keeping the books that meant the most to me. It was a hard exercise, mainly because books are not just objects to me. They are sacred artifacts. They have always been like that for me since I was old enough to read. And that passion for reading was instilled and nurtured by my maternal grandfather, who took me to the library with him every week. He’d walk out with a stack of at least five books and by the time we returned to the library a week later, he had read them all.

When he and my grandmother passed, my mother and my aunt had to pour through all their belongings to determine what to keep and that’s how my grandfather’s reading notebook, a list of all the books he read from 1971-1974, ended up in my hands along with his library card. At some point, I hoped to incorporate some of the books he read into a reading project of my own, where I have a one-sided dialog with him across space and time about the books he read. He made no lengthy written response about any of the books he read. He simply assigned them a place on a scale of “excellent, good, fair, poor, to very poor.” I, too, keep a reading journal, though I include more information about the books I’ve read than just a grading scale. Still, when I hold my grandfather’s reading notebook in my hands, I can feel his hands, see him jotting down the information about the book he just finished. I was aged 11-14 years old when he kept this notebook (there seemed to be no other reading notebooks, just this one). While he was devouring the historical fiction of Frank G. Slaughter, I was working my way through Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series. Time does wrinkle for me as I turn the pages of his notebook. I can still see him sitting at the kitchen table with a book in front of him, a cigar in one hand, and a small glass of whiskey off to one side.

A Change of Worlds: From L.A. to AL

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve posted here. Since then, we’ve survived Covid so far, my husband retired, and we left California to find a home and some land on which to put down roots. At first, we thought this place would be in eastern Tennessee, near Knoxville, an area Joe researched and he determined it was a place where we could find a house and some land while still being close to some culture and teaching opportunities for me. By the time we sold our house in CA, moved cross country with 3 cats, and established ourselves in a rented house in a crowded housing development outside Knoxville (one of many popping up all over the area), the real estate market in TN went nuts. Though we looked from Kingsport to Chattanooga, we didn’t find anything that spoke to us that wasn’t grossly overpriced or being fought over in a bidding war. Once there, we discovered that native Tennesseans weren’t all that welcoming in our area, feeling like they were being overrun by us western libtards clogging up the infrastructure, jacking up property taxes, and muddying the color of politics. So we expanded our search to include northern Georgia and northeastern Alabama. We finally found a house and acreage in central, eastern Alabama on the outskirts of a small town called Alexander City. And while we swore our neighbors in the taupe-ridden “Shady Glen” development in TN were all in the witness protection program (we hardly saw them and rarely talked to them even though the houses were separated by only 8 feet), our neighbors in Alabama, being about a half a mile away from us in either direction, have been more warm and welcoming than we ever expected. They’ve brought us fresh eggs and homegrown vegetables. Joe shares a bourbon on the screened-in porch with one neighbor whose cattle we can occasionally hear across the way and who gifted us with one of the biggest heads of cabbage I’ve ever seen. The fact that Joe grew up in northern Alabama and graduated from Auburn University gives him some street cred around here that we might not have gotten as readily, particularly since we moved here from CA by way of TN, or maybe I’m just a bit jaded by my experience in TN.

Regardless, we have traded droughts, earthquakes, and wildfires for a verdant piece of land overlooking a huge pond, rolling pastures, and the kind of privacy we only dreamed about after living cheek to jowl with neighbors outside Los Angeles. Our vocabulary now includes words like “Bush Hog” and “Kubota.” We’ve made friends with Stella and Jake, our cattle-owning neighbor’s cattle dogs, who ride along with him when he drives his Kubota over from his land to ours. We wave to Miss Fancy and Butters, our other neighbors’ horses who are sometimes in the pasture that abuts part of our quarter-mile driveway. We enjoy the family of deer that live on our land in the woods beside the pasture. We’ll be harvesting blueberries from the enormous bushes in the garden area. We also witness phenomenal thunderstorms with strobe-like light shows and thunder that rolls on continuously for twenty seconds or longer. After a storm, we have to be careful not to run over any of the turtles in our driveway or on the road, turtles that have crawled to higher ground in advance of the storm.

“Broken Pane,” Cades Cove, TN

But along with our appreciation of this new pastoral splendor, we must also acknowledge this is an area steeped in a dark history. Most of our neighbors have been on this land for generations when much of what surrounds us was part of a plantation. Even though our road name bears the name of a chapel, the name of a little predominantly white attended chapel, I wonder why it doesn’t bear the name of the black church that’s also located on this road that has been here since before emancipation. Its cemetery’s gravestones are worn and some bear no markings, or the markings have long since been erased by weather and time. A half a mile away from this chapel, you can see a Confederate flag waving atop a run-down trailer. There are still Trump/Pence 2020 signs staked into front yards. One of the employees at the local hardware store has a swastika tattooed on his arm. We know that if we had moved here with non-white skin, we may have been received much differently. Nevertheless, we chose to be here, closer to Joe’s folks who live three hours farther south in AL.

So, the next adventure begins. We’ve been so busy there’s been little time to get behind a camera. I need to see how the light lays against surfaces here. I hope to connect with this place and let it reveal itself to me because I still believe, as Annie Dillard says, “…beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” I try to be there with a camera in hand.

Thanks to Scott Baker, a photographer who grew up here, but who photographs landscapes, people, and commercial projects all over the world, whose article in the NY Times about returning to Alexander City during the pandemic gave me a terrific introduction to this place that I am now calling home.

A Devil and a Good Woman, Too


Julia Peterkin

The joy of research means discovering new things, like a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who seems virtually unknown today. Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary, the fictionalized story of the Gullah community on Peterkin’s plantation in South Carolina, won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1929. A Devil and a Good Woman, Too by Susan Millar Williams, is the only biography written about her. Thomas Landess’s book, pictured here, offers some biographical information, but it concentrates mainly on Peterkin’s oeuvre, including Roll, Jordan, Roll, the collaboration between Peterkin and photographer, Doris Ulmann. This is the first, published collaboration between a woman photographer and a woman writer. Appearing in 1933, it predates similar, collaborations, like Cabins in the Laurel, featuring a collage-like memoir by Muriel Earley Sheppard and the photographs of Bayard Wooten. Roll, Jordan, Roll also predates more famous collaborations like Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Roll Jordan Roll

Three Bunnies Outside Los Angeles, CA

Three Bunnies Outside Los Angeles, CA

Three Bunnies Outside Los Angeles, CA

It’s the first day of Spring, although it doesn’t feel like it. So many dark things going on. It makes the growing length of days feel dimmer. So, I pull my focus inward and take some deep breaths. The sky has grown overcast with an impending rainstorm, but the rain is much needed in this drought-stricken area in spite of potential mudslides.


Indigenous Peoples’ Day


Basket, Mabel McKay

On this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I think about Mabel McKay, Pomo basket weaver and medicine woman. Recently, I went to see an exhibition of her work at The Autry Museum in Los Angeles and was struck with the serenity and with the spirit of healing and strength her baskets exude. Greg Sarris’s biography of McKay, Weaving the Dream, recounts a lecture where a student asked her if it was her grandmother who taught her the art of basket weaving. Mabel responded: “It’s no such a thing art. It’s spirit…..I only follow my Dream. That’s how I learn.”

Art, spirit, and dreaming have always been linked for me, and I could feel that in Mabel’s work, even though it was all safely housed in environmentally controlled glass housings. Such work, such medicine people, like Mabel, have so much to teach the rest of the world. In an era of such profound disconnection from spirit, from the earth, from each other, these are people whose work can help weave us back into the fabric of life, back to a place where we can awaken and realize our place within the original web of connections.

What Rough Beast

Sad Day

Sad Day

The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

A Certain Slant of Light


A Certain Slant of Light

A Certain Slant of Light

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons – 
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes – 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – 
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are – 

None may teach it – Any – 
‘Tis the Seal Despair – 
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air – 

When it comes, the Landscape listens – 
Shadows – hold their breath – 
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Emily Dickinson