Dusting off your instinct.

WHAT A STRANGE and unsettling time we’re in, suffering the coronavirus pandemic. Two months of self-isolation and at least we can say we have managed to master the mechanics the situation: living separate, working from home, properly logging in to Zoom. We’ve found ways to love well, give well, pray well, and we’ve done it in the midst of a reality that was previously unimaginable.

So now I would like to make this pronouncement, which I suggest we make official.

I am worn and weary from the effort, I’ll tell you that. I am sick of using good energy simply to cope. My heart longs for connection, to be encircled, to be reinvigorated by the good that passes one to another when we human beings collect. Not virtual contact (although I remain grateful for this) but real, live, in-person, huggable, eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul connection.

Maybe there is hope on a far distant horizon. States are reopening and businesses are trying their best to figure how to operate in an uncharted Phase Two world. Still the truth is these decisions carry with them even greater risk than we’ve already faced, something that seems impossible. We are entering into a time that, to me, feels more burdensome and breath-stealing than ever. And so I worry and wonder, and my spirit constricts again.


THERE IS A VIDEO taking the world by storm, The Great Realisation. (If you have not seen it, please take four minutes to watch it.) The Great Realisation is a bedtime story made by a young English poet in which there’s a look back at 2020 as the start of a changed way of living. (Hindsight is 2020, you know.) The piece is gentle and lovely and hopeful, and as I watched, a line took hold that will not release.

But while we all were hidden, and amidst the fear, people dusted off their instincts. They remembered how to smile.

It’s a beautiful and insightful concept, dusting off instincts, returning to behaviors so central they are born in, they live within, they provide for our very survival. Instincts don’t just offer fulfillment, the poet suggests, they are fulfillment, and thus they offer the path to joy–pure, uncomplicated, and childlike.

And so I consider. The novelty of the pandemic is gone, and as hard realities stretch into the future so far they cannot be predicted, can I lean on instinct to walk through the slog that is ahead?

What has been my instinct, anyway?


IT IS THERE, of course, as I look back over my #stayhome days. And the answer surprises me because it is not what I would have expected. It has not been writing, it has not been photographing these beautiful mountains, it has not been cooking or walking or even being in nature.

No. In isolation, in all this anxious turmoil, my instinct has been to make.

And I know why: I am a maker at heart. I was, as a girl, my hands always busy with whatever happened to be the project of the day: a tiny book of poetry from typing paper and a stapler; construction paper and colorful markers then, voila, greeting cards; a set of Barbie clothes (with poncho) from an old piece of fabric.

All of which is to say, in recent days, I have been at my most content when I was making.

a new project, a quilt

What has been your instinct? Can you name it, lean into it, lean on it as we move through these next slog months? Can you recognize and honor its significance? Can you let it offer joy–no expectation, no judgement–but just a return to the welcoming of sweet, simple joy, however your tender heart defines it.

It’s the only way we’ll make it through, that’s what I believe.

It’s how I’ll keep my own heart happy, of that I am certain.


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with thanksgiving

We’d planned it for a while, this trip to the mountains for Thanksgiving week, and we both knew it would do our souls well. It always does. There is a sweet gravity in these hills that anchors me, that sets my feet on solid ground and holds them there, working as a poultice on whatever ails me. It is the same for Tim who finds peace in a place where, as he says, the earth is just as God intended. We are mighty blessed to have this pretty spot where most everywhere we look our eyes take in North Carolina’s Black Mountains. The entire range lies before us like an accordion fold pulled open. It begins to our left, east–then spreads wide, knob to peak to gap to peak for 15 miles. It descends just in front of us via Big Butt (meant to be Butte, locals say) having intersected the Great Craggy Mountains just behind, which roll on to west.

The view this offers is spectacular, changing from month to month, hour to hour, minute to minute as the weather shifts or light passes across. We find ourselves endlessly fascinated. And deeply humbled, I will tell you that, with a profound yet grounding reminder that life goes on, that seasons change and plants and animals carry on doing what they do day after day whether we are watching or not, whether we are here or not, that it has been this way for thousands of years.

It is not difficult to feel small here, and to count that a blessing.

It is not difficult to feel all the blessings, every time you’re here.

IT’S THE SAME, I know, for folks when they make the long trek up the winding road to visit. There are so many reasons I find these to be some of the most joyful times of my life. For one, once you’ve traveled up up up the unpaved road–wondering more than once if this can possibly be right, if you’ll ever, ever get there–you find you are as removed from proper civilization as it felt you might be. It is a strange sensation when what you are used to is traffic and noise and lights and activity. You step out of the car, here, and the sound that greats you is wind. Or nothing, if it is a calm day, but for the birds or the buzzing bees if they are about. (Until I come running, that is, inevitably squealing YOU ARE HERE! with delight.) You catch your breath then catch the view and breath leaves again, it requiring every molecular space in a body to take it in. And that’s just what happens–I swear. You stand quiet on this mountain for a nanosecond and it will pull you in–no, no that’s not quite right–the mountain comes to you, is more what happens, you feel the glory and close your eyes and before you can open them no space divides, no boundary separates as you become one in the same with the beauty, all the beauty that surrounds.

It is a feeling both lovely and overwhelming, at least for me. Because at the same time you feel the beauty, you also feel wild, the native, the unrefined.

The unspun truth.

AND SO WE are here for Thanksgiving, for which I am thankful, and for which I am roasting a turkey and making dressing and my mother’s gravy (I will stir like hell) and my world famous Bourbon Cranberries. Dear friends are driving up following their own family gathering and have graciously agreed to eat Thanksgiving Round Two with us tomorrow night. I will miss having Eliza and her sweet Preston this time around but who can complain as we now live so close? And there will be football and fires and hiking (motivation pending) with just enough of a chance for snow to keep things interesting.

AND SO. WHEREVER you are, however you are marking this let’s give thanks holiday weekend, I hope it is filled with people and experiences that bring you joy, that make you feel wonder, that remind you blessings and beauty abound. And that grace will find you–always, always–grace will find you if you give it space, if you allow your soul room to breathe.


the spinning world

EVERYTHING ON THIS MOUNTAIN is unpredictable, which is one of the things that makes a stay here fascinating. I’ve gone on and on about the weather–you simply do not know one minute to the next what is going to happen. Last month, for instance, we were enjoying a sunny day when an angry bolt of lightning came from nowhere and striking in the meadow, sent a ground current up through the house’s foundation and into the long-handled roller Tim held as he painted the lower porch. The energy arced as it traveled, and he saw it jump wall to roller but thankfully did not feel anything but for immense surprise and awe.

And great relief, praise hands.

Nevertheless the bizarre occurrence certainly got our attention.

And here we are now, another strange something afoot.

august’s filmy angelica

It is late August, which means the season of azalea, rhododendron, and wild mountain blueberries has come and gone. Our time here has been sporadic, and yet it is worthy of mention that we have not seen a single black bear since early June. Or was it May? Friends on the mountain tell us their bear sightings, too, have been infrequent, centering on one shy, lone fella who moves about with no consistent pattern. He has appeared on our wildlife cameras over these months but only two or three times.

most recently

It is an odd, dramatic change.

It is a change that feels unsettling.

ALL OF THIS is to say we move about differently up here without the stay-on-high-alert THERE MIGHT BE A BEAR status of prior Augusts. For instance, just yesterday friends joined us for an overnight and we took a leisurely hike down the old OM Trail, winding through the deep woods of Narnia, then back up through the tall grasses of our steep meadow.

Tim and Steve, exploring
pretty, peaceful (for now) Narnia

I found plenty to photograph, as always. But the hardly-have-to-worry stroll served as a powerful reminder of how short the season is here, how when you are down in it and amongst it you become aware of just how quickly nature takes over. It has a mind of its own, that meadow, and as we’ve let it go with very little trimming this summer it has been very happy to remind us just WHO’S BOSS.

fall grasses
the meadow wild
autumn’s thistle dance

It insisted to me, as well, that summer, here, has passed.

That it has gone so quickly!

That seasons change so fast.

THERE ARE MOMENTS, like right now, when I feel this and can hardly catch my breath.

summer’s rare lingering bloom

There are times (like this morning) when I have awakened long before the sun, and I have lain there, quiet in the dark, certain I can feel it, certain I can hear it: Time moving on.

the bee balm’s last hurrah

Time a speeding train

racing through space,

passing in the very air

above me.


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When you’re pretty sure your spirit animal is a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

I SPEND A GOOD BIT of time alone these days, but for the characters in the novel I am working to finish. It’s good work, solitary work, work that takes focus. And so I have routines that ground me.

  1. I am committed to an early start;
  2. I have a Yeti mug of coffee (prepared by my husband) just the way I like it: 2/3 Starbucks French Roast & 1/3 Eight O’Clock Coffee Hazelnut, skim milk heated and frothed;
  3. Quiet. And if there is not quiet, a noise machine to cancel extraneous sounds;
  4. Essential oils in the diffuser, typically Wild Orange or Tangerine for energy and optimism;
  5. Standing desk for ergonomic accuracy, better posture and less back pain (I am a believer);
  6. Desk and laptop positioned for maximum positive energy flow in my feng shui-ed mountain studio.

Seems awfully fussy, now that I write it. But it’s every bit true.

SO ON THIS PARTICULAR day my head is down and I’m well into it (and going at a pretty good pace) when I hear, just outside the studio door, peck peck peck, peck peck, peck peck. A bird, of course, a woodpecker, I imagine. But this is a metal sound, not wood, so a woodpecker pecking on what? The roof? The gutter?

This is certainly curious.

I step away from the edit. I pick up my camera, slide open the studio’s glass doors, and move onto the deck to investigate.

Sure enough he flies. But he doesn’t go far–just to the tree–the one right there, closest to me.

I raise the lens, snap a shot.

And here he comes, headed straight for me and the deck! I jump, it surprises me so, and right there on the deck’s railing he lands.

He is not three feet away! Might be two! And he is as curious as I.

We regard each other in wonder. I snap another photo, he tilts his head.

I snap one more, he looks on.

I take a step toward him and he does the same–move away he does not!–he is far too interested, apparently, in what I am doing to take off in flight.

We stay like that a good while, the baby woodpecker and I, until finally I say out loud, as much for my benefit as for his:

I do believe you are my muse. Or maybe you are my spirit animal. Yes, you are important to me little bird, and I thank you for showing up.

This he seems to acknowledge. Then he lifts off and heads back to the tree where he lands, turning once again to look at me, then takes flight.

And I slide open the glass door, step back inside. I smile, and I get myself back to work.


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Hey. Look.

IT IS QUIET on this mountain, something that won’t surprise given that our gate is locked, our roads aren’t paved, and the nearest neighbor, of which there are only a handful, is acres and acres away. Add to this the fact we never turn on the television (but for football or evening binging) and you probably are getting the picture.

It is a gift, this silence, a mighty force that holds my introverted, introspective heart in balance.

WHY JUST LAST WEEK we arose to a particularly gentle day. It had rained during the night and the sun, still hidden by clouds and fog, created a beautiful, serene surround. The birds were singing, yes, but the meadow glistened like it had been perfectly cast to create a soft, atmospheric glow. Or not a glow, exactly, more like a wash that left it new, positively glistening.

I walked up the steps to my studio as I do each day we are here, and I got right to work. Throughout the morning I trekked those stairs down and up what must have been a thousand times. I needed my laptop; I’d forgotten my camera; where was that charger, as the dang Ipad on which I was proofing a manuscript will not hold power. On and on it went, up and down, more coffee, a scrambled egg, a cold drink of water.

Long about eleven I ran into Tim who was busy busy scraping and cleaning all manner of wood as he is spending his summer painting this house and its endless decks. You see all those spider webs? he said. This surprised me as, relatively speaking, we see fewer spiders up here than you might well suppose.

No, I said. Where?

Everywhere, he said. They are everywhere.

And sure enough, they were.

He pointed out one strung between deck railings, and then another, one railing down.

Then two more.

Up, look up, Tim said.

In the trees.

And I saw in the tall fir there were three, maybe more, no ten, no fifteen webs. Maybe twenty! On and on they went, as if the great force that had come in the night that had so perfectly adorned the meadow as a bonus had added these.

A quiet collection,

a convocation, if you will, of delicate, intricate,

breathtaking works of art.

It was something to behold, something I almost missed.

I must remember to look, I reminded myself.

I must remember to always, always look.


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The Rhythm of Life

IT IS TRUE LIFE IS DIFFERENT high on this mountain. Neighbors are few and the primary consideration is not traffic or the news or even the Jeopardy champ (although that is discussed) but is, instead, the weather. We check the forecast before we go to bed at night; we check it again immediately upon rising. I suspect this is how it is for those who live a farming life, who depend on rain and soil condition and air temperature for their livelihoods as well as their daily activities. And although we don’t have so much as a vegetable garden (we go and come too much for proper maintenance) I believe what we share with them is a deep, deep connection with the land.

Part of it, for us, is simply our positioning. The sun rises each morning over the Black Mountains to our left and our bed and bedroom window face east. We leave the blind up with the great intention of waking at first light and properly greeting the day. This time of year it is a very early rising and without fail, we face it with the joy and anticipation of eager children. This is our fourth summer on this mountain and I swear to you every single sunrise is different.

Often there is rain, or clouds, or we are completely “socked in” like the peaks you see in romantic photographs. Even those days are fascinating. Every moment offers the chance for change: wind blows or fog rises and for a moment the meadow below or the ridges beyond show through. Cover will come again, or not, and still we watch with ever-present oohs and aahs.

THEN THE DAY comes. While we neither farm nor head to the city for work, we are busy. Tim, for instance, always has a big project or two over which he is fully committed. He hustles to maintain a semblance of order on the property–good heavens you simply drive into Asheville for dinner and by the time you return nature has taken over, every living green thing gaining height and girth and insistent wildness.

This summer he is also painting the house, the studio/workshop, and all 3500 square feet of decking.

soon it will all be putty gray

It is a massive job.

I write. I take my coffee across the deck and up the steps to my newly feng shui-ed studio (thank you, Mary!) where I stand in the filtered morning light and spend the next eight hours immersed in the world of my second novel. I marvel that this lifestyle allows me to be three hours in by the time I typically would have just made it to the office. I know, now, I am at my best the earlier I start (thank you, Maria!) and so I forgo every other responsibility or diversion until I have taken care of this one. I do not eat first. I do not exercise first. I do not even shower first–no one cares, so why waste my personal prime time on something that can be done later? Or not at all?

What a gigantic gift that is.

DAY PASSES, OF COURSE, the sun moving high in the sky and traveling across the ridges where it casts changing light that illumines and shadows the mountain faces. It, too, is an ever-changing show and a constant visual (and visceral) reminder that time moves on. Evening comes. It is late this time of year, soft, a slow release from the work of the day. We don’t see the orb of the sun as it sinks in the west but we do benefit greatly from the magnificent light it casts, the colors always a surprise, the hues shifting, deepening, then fading to dark.

day is nearly done

WE ARE GREATLY BLESSED to have this place, this time, this remarkable vantage point. And it’s something about which we are keenly aware every single minute. We give thanks and rejoice in the gift, in our having the youth (relatively speaking!) and the strength and the health and the stamina to make the most of all this change in geography and lifestyle offers. We never take any of that for granted. And still when the time comes to pack up and leave and we return to our regular lives–when we drive down the mountain and head for home and all it has waiting for us: work and mail and meetings and bills and decisions and appointments and Things That Must Be Dealt With–we somehow cannot seem to carry with us the beautiful awareness of the great passing of days. We are delighted to be home, of course; we love and are grateful for our equally blessed, beautiful flatlander lives. Still when we are there we once again rise with a pre-set alarm. We complain about traffic. Tim manicures the overgrown lawn and I buy things at Target.

We do not watch the sun rise or set; we rarely take time to sit together, outside, watching, waiting, listening.

THERE IS A DIFFERENT RHYTHM on this mountain, I suppose that is my point. It is one established not by us but by the earth, the sun, the moon. The critters large and small who move through our meadow.

The tall, wild grasses that grow and swing and sway in the summer breezes, the winds that pass over this rugged, ancient land.


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Morning Song

The sun gets up early this time of year, peaking over our mountains just after 6 a.m. So if you want to catch the prettiest light, you best be standing on the deck, coffee in hand, 5:40, 5:45 at the latest. It’s well worth the early rise for me; the show is magnificent most days, and very shortly thereafter I can be settled into the studio, happily writing the morning away.

It is my favorite time of day.

As it is for this sweet friend,

who meets me there rain or shine, nearly every morning

each time heralding the glory of the new day

in song.

Joyful, unbridled song!


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Moving on.

This pesky little wren (whom I can’t help but love) made a home last year in the bird box on the east side of our mountain home. He/she built a nest, laid a batch of eggs, and best we can tell, successfully birthed a new generation of babies that grew and fledged and ultimately moved on to establish their own grownup lives in bigger, more exciting cities.

Atlanta, or Charlotte, is what I’m guessing.

The children gone, the parents nonetheless kept watch over the box, checking in, keeping claim.

Then this spring, nest building commenced again. We watched, and marveled, like always. Then we went and left them to it, heading home to South Carolina for a week or two.

We returned to the mountains to (GASP!) discover this.

A bear, Tim and I agreed, what else could have stripped the wood and left the nest box in pieces/parts on the ground below?

Oh little wren, I thought, seeing/hearing/seeing it flit about, hopping around on an old decaying log, chirping/singing/chirping the desperate sad song of its heart.

I am so very, very sorry.

HOWEVER, I REALIZE JUST NOW I have failed to mention the other, newer, more colorful birdhouse we also hung on our previous visit. It came to me as a Christmas gift from the oh-so-thoughtful Island Monettis, and we’d located it on the west side of our home, high above the mass of wild mountain azalea that blooms so profusely in early June.

And you’ve already guessed, I’ll bet. The wrens took the opportunity to relocate!

This time to the beach!


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Because. Well. June.

It’s a more gentle life here in these North Carolina mountains when slow, yet sure, comes June. Temperatures modulate, the winds calm (relatively speaking), our meadow comes to life. A wild new green climbs the ridges then settles, making a deep rich carpet, one just the color of the pile that covered the floors in my own childhood home. I wonder now, looking across, if this was something my mother realized at the time she chose it. Was its name “summer mountain green”? Or did the color simply feel familiar? A comfort?

Because I grew up in mountains like these, though I’ve spent the bulk of my grown-up life in the South Carolina flatlands. I watch, now, as the daisies multiply, the rhododendron burst into bloom, the tall oaks spread their distinctive leaves that unfurl (overnight!) and hang and stretch and offer shade to the living world below.

“I need a mountain to rest my eyes against,” said author Lee Smith‘s daddy, a man I never met but one with whom I feel a spiritual connection.

I need a mountain to rest my eyes against.

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big little things

SO MUCH feels uncertain. Economies teetering, the world shaky. Lives changed in the blink of an eye.

Which makes anything of routine all the more welcome.

The hummingbirds returned to our mountain this week.

One, then two, then three, then four. Timid at first, just a quick nip from the feeder. Then more, the nectar sweet after a winter away.

And sunshine, green, and Spring was here once again.

It’s something about which we are keenly aware on this mountain. We watch the seasons like it’s a religion noting every change, every turning, every remarkable bloom.

And every time,

every single time–

we feel grateful.


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