Connected to a Web

November 25, 2017

hummingbirdThis piece was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

We recently moved to rural Yell County, a place I’ve dreamed of living since I was a child. We started a fall garden, created a compost bin, are building a portable chicken coop, and plan to get the clothesline up this weekend. I can’t wait to build a root cellar, get some goats and mules and donkeys, and put in some fruit trees and muscadine vines. I do miss Little Rock (especially the people), and someday after I’ve had more time to find the words, I’ll write about the transition from living next to an interstate to living down a dirt road. But until then, suffice it to say, I love my new home.

Though we dream of goats and sheep and all manner of equine, we’re a pretty practical family living on a shoestring budget. So we started our new life by putting in some simple hummingbird feeders along the porch’s roof line. My mother always enjoyed hummingbirds, but I never really paid that much attention to them until we all started sharing a front porch.

As my close friends know, I’m an anxious person, quick to worry. My brain is a huge hamster wheel of nervous energy, and I’m always a little on edge. I’m working on that. The first few days with the hummingbirds I found naively peaceful. Sure, I noticed their nervous energy, but only cerebrally. I looked up at Springs Mountain in the distance, I saw the fluttering wings up above me, and I was generally enamored with the whole situation. What magic, I thought. Maybe it was that second feeder we put in that sent the whole situation over the edge, but after only a few days I began to feel how much hummingbirds move.

They routinely fight over the sugar water, running each other off, and flying so close to our heads as to create a whirlwind kind of breeze. Their wings sound like little lawnmowers or tiny airplanes coming in for a landing, and some of them let off these high pitched chirps as they whiz by. The fly into our front window and then propel backward, as if to say, “again?” I laughed at myself as I started to realize that here I was sitting on a porch, staring at a mountain, trying to hang out with birds in some effort to encourage a more calm state of mind, only to realize that these little creatures gave off a nervous energy that totally surpassed mine.

So I decided it was time I got to know them a little better. One Sunday morning we pulled out a book on hummingbirds we’d recently picked up from the Dardanelle Library. Our reading led to lots of numerical details: hummingbirds beat their wings up to 70 times per second and their heart rates can reach over a 1,000 beats per minute. They typically fly at about 30 miles an hour. But they can fly up to 60 miles an hour when they’re sailing around trying to impress.

Buried deep in one of the paragraphs about their tiny eggs, I found the single most fascinating bit of information I’ve heard in years: hummingbirds bind their tiny little nests with spider webs.

I’m not exactly sure what triggered it, but I’ve been thinking a lot about spider webs for at least a year now. My last column for ABOUT was about their proliferation in the late summer, and in recent months I’ve been trying to put spider names to web designs. But truth be told, I’m not nearly as interested in spiders as I am in their housing.

We soon learned it’s the silk the hummingbirds are after. It’s sticky, stronger than steel, and has a gentle give to it. It helps bind the nest to the tree, but it also gives the nest an elastic quality that helps the tiny nest expand to fit the growing chicks. Hummingbirds are also partial to lichen, plant fibers, and fur. I’d like to tell you I’ve found several nests around our place, but no luck so far. Apparently they build them anywhere from 10 to 90 feet off the ground, and they’re only about the size of a quarter. Like the webs I have recently come to love, I suspect the whole place is teeming with tiny nests. I just haven’t learned to see them yet.

In case you are wondering, most of the time hummingbirds go for recently vacated webs. But every so often they wind up getting trapped in a recent one and don’t make it out.

Back in my twenties, I used to spend a lot of time thinking about anthropomorphism. It’s basically a big word that refers to the way we humans ascribe human feelings and emotions onto animals. I guess I still do think about it a little, but I’m okay with the gray areas. And after I found out about their whole spiderweb collecting ventures I decided I was totally happy to share my porch with these tiny little anxiety flappers, even if we are all a little bit too wound up.

So I see the hummingbirds darting back and forth and I laugh at myself, and I smile at them, and I just go on about my reading and my mountain watching, knowing that we’re both fixated on — we both grew up connected to — a web.

Mattie Ross

September 1, 2017

This piece originally ran in ABOUT the River Valley magazine.
A radio version ran on the Ozarks at Large program on KUAF 91.3 FM, NPR.

As a child growing up in Dardanelle in Yell County, I lived with my parents and my grandmother Martin, whose room was right next to mine.  Her bed was always covered in a purple handmade quilt sewn by her youngest sister, Estella Mae. A photo of her and her late husband sat on the cedar chest, and she always kept the same two books on her nightstand: A faded blue leather King James Bible and a first edition paperback copy of True Grit  by Charles Portis.

Charles Portis is an Arkansas native. He was born in El Dorado in 1933 and raised in the tiny town of Hamburg, graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas in 1958. He’s best known for True Grit, though many of his fans say it’s actually his worst book. Others praise the work as one of the great American novels, a work some consider in the same vein as Huck Finn.

I was too young at the time to read anything longer than a chapter book, and all I knew of True Grit was that it featured murders and shoot outs and hangings and that somehow or another it was about our  hometown of Dardanelle. A picture of the fictitious Mattie Ross — the book’s fourteen year old protagonist — graced the front cover. Her long brown hair hung in braids and she’s balancing her weight on the butt of a rifle. In her left hand she’s holding loosely to the reigns of a black horse. The back pages were filled with pictures of John Wayne and Glen Campbell, an extended advertisement for the first film rendition of the novel, which was quite a hit in 1969. I remember picking the book up a few times thinking I’d give it a try. But I was young and quickly bored.

Though she received very little formal education, my elderly grandmother read voraciously. She enjoyed sitting in her harvest gold living room chair with a Louis L’amoure western or a religious booklet. Sometimes she’d stow away to her room to read the National Enquirer in secret. By the time I was a preteen she took to reading whatever I brought home from school or the library. She borrowed my Laura Ingalls Wilder and Judy Blume books. She made her way through a lot of Sweet Valley High stories and seemed to share my long-standing obsession with any book that had a horse in it.

By the time I was a teenager and taking AP English classes at Dardanelle High we were both reading Toni Morrison and Shakespeare. But it would not be until years after her death that I finally got around to reading about the spunky girl from Dardanelle, Arkansas, who “had clear title to 480 acres of good bottom land on the south bank of the Arkansas River.”

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school and visiting a friend’s parents in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, that I recalled that old bedside copy of True Grit. My friend’s father wanted to know where in Arkansas I was raised. Most people have no idea where Yell County is or, if they do, they make some kind of  joke about the nearby nuclear plant. But his eyes lit up when I said the name of my hometown. “You mean you’re Mattie Ross?” he laughed. It took me a minute to make sense of his question. “I’ve never met anyone from Dardanelle in Yell County,” he explained, quoting a line from the book.

I’d like to think I was quick witted enough to quote John Prine and laugh at my own fascination with meeting real people from Muhlenberg County. But instead I just told some rambling, unnecessary detailed story about how my grandmother had a copy of the book by her bed. Isn’t it funny how easily we are enamored with the artistic romanticization of someone else’s hometown?

My grandmother had been dead for about five years by then, but I’d had the copy of the book on my shelf since her death. And with this conversation I realized it was high time I learned about this Mattie Ross character. By then I was in my early thirties and the John Wayne and Glen Campbell film version had become a classic. The Cohen Brothers were gearing up to make their 2010 film version featuring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld, giving the book increased exposure.

When I picked up the old paperback it was yellowed and brittle and smelled like dust. I wondered how many times my grandmother had read it and how she’d come to own a copy in the first place. The book is set in the late 1800s, not too long after the end of the Civil War. It begins with Mattie speaking:  “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

She explains that the family’s hired hand, a man by the name of Tom Chaney, went off with her father to Fort Smith to purchase some horses. While there Chaney wound up in the middle of a gambling game gone wrong. When Mr. Ross tried to keep Chaney from fighting, Chaney shot him in the head killing him instantly. Then he ran off with Mr. Ross’s money and his horse and his gold plated watch. With her mother sick in bed it falls on young Mattie to head to Fort Smith to collect the body. She travels with Yarnell, a black man who I’ll touch on a bit later. “From our place to Fort Smith was about seventy miles as the bird flies,” Mattie explains, “taking you past beautiful Mount Nebo where we had a little summer house so Mama could get away form the mosquitos, and also Mount Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas, but it might as well have been seven hundred miles for all I knew of Fort Smith.”

We don’t know much about the deceased Mr. Ross, but Mattie makes it clear that she adored her father. As many critics have noted, her attachment to Rooster Cogburn — the “deputy marshall for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas having criminal jurisdiction over the Indian Territory” that she hires to avenge her father’s death — is at least partially her way of latching on to another father figure. Whereas Mr. Ross was a so-called stand up, wealthy landowner with two California gold pocket watches, Mattie first happens across Rooster Cogburn while he’s being questioned by the infamous Hanging Judge Isaac Parker for shooting an unarmed man. As the story progresses we learn that Rooster has a sordid history at best. But in Mattie eyes he has real “grit,” and is the best person to locate her father’s killer. Mattie has money to pay Rooster for the job and she’s determined to accompany him as he makes the trek out west where Chaney is presumed to be.

Though a fictional plot, the landscape and cultural dynamics are largely accurate and still visible today. For starters, there’s Mattie’s fathers ties to California, a narrative running through the histories of just about everyone in Yell County. Mattie passes through familiar points along the way, including Mount Nebo where we learn that her family is of the small wealthy class of Dardanelle folks who can afford to summer in the cool of the mountains. Mattie rides with a black man named Yarnell to Fort Smith, a hired hand who has to sit in a segregated rail car and is on the receiving end of racial slurs from the white man running the train. When they arrive in Fort Smith they learn that there is to be a triple hanging that day thanks to the notorious Judge Parker. And Mattie frequently encounters Native Americans from multiple tribes, noting that Fort Smith lies on the outskirts of what would have been termed “Indian Territory.”  And there is plenty mentions of regional outlaws Jessie and Frank James for good measure.

As multiple reviewers have noted, True Grit is both a western and a parody of one, and a young and blunt Mattie Ross provides the deadpan narration that carries the story. The lines between con men and law enforcement are vague at best and life in the so called Indian Territory is filled with a lot of backstabbing and gun powder and revenge. In other words, there’s no good ole days to be found here.

Yet at the same time, Portis gives little space for his characters to speak to or against the evils of a world where monied white people hold all the power. Nor do his characters take any real opportunities to question unjust systems that are in place. And while it’s true that Mattie Ross is a protagonist who defies her own gender and social norms, she never comes across as anyone trying to call the larger social system into question. For example, when she tells the back story of a black man named Yarnell she mentions how he was born free in Illinois but later kidnapped in Missouri and brought to Arkansas before the Civil War.

Maybe she does find fault with a system that made it possible for a person to be kidnapped and owned in her home state. But she doesn’t say so. By the end of the book, when she has long since returned to her home in Dardanelle, we learn that she enters into her later years as a wealthy, one-armed, unmarried banker who chooses to have the late Rooster Cogburn dug up from a Confederate cemetery in Memphis and reburied in Dardanelle. She has a tombstone made for him in Batesville inscribed with these words: “A Resolute Officer of Parker’s Court.”

It’s pretty clear early on that the so-called grit she’s looking for in Rooster Cogburn can be found in herself. She starts off pretending to be tough and initially has to convince Cogburn and Labeouf (another law enforcement official on the trail of Chaney) that she’s fit to make the trip to avenge her father’s murder. By the end of the book she’s seen shoot outs and helped load dead men onto horses. She fights rattle snakes and fires weapons. And she wins the respect of the two morally questionable officers of the law who are better at drinking and arguing then finding criminals.

As my friend Rachel Reynolds Luster notes in her Art of the Rural article, “Bread and Buttered: Ozark Women on Screen,” Mattie fully embodies the “plucky” Ozark and Ouachita archetype. She is crafty and determined. She’s resourceful and cares little for how the rest of the world sees her. She admires people who live in the gray areas of life and when she sets her mind to something you know she’s going to get it done. And isn’t this the archetype all of us Yell County women aspire to be? At the very least, it’s certainly how we like to remember our collective grandmas.

For all the messages young Arkansas girls are given about what it means to be a woman, we all know that hovering around the edges of those pervasive, stifling, sexist ideas about passivity or gentleness or under-nuanced godliness, there’s a whole word of stories where our bygone great aunts and grandmothers were tough, resourceful, fearless and creative. They wrung chicken necks. Their depression-era kitchens were home to an endless loaves and fishes situation. Despite being drenched in a world of patriarchy, no man would dare override their decisions. At least not by the time they hit seventy. It’s a duality of messages that confuses young girls and lead to the complex stories of middle-aged women. Just as Portis sets up his book as both a western and a parody of one, I’d say that Mattie Ross provides a useful caricature of how we all like to imagine our elderly female relatives: they don’t take any mess.

Though True Grit is often considered to be one of Portis’s least funny novels, I found myself laughing in at least a few of the places where Mattie quotes scriptures. Take for example this passage where she goes to the barn in Fort Smith to take a look at the ponies her father had purchased before being murdered:

“I hated these ponies for the part they played in my father’s death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious “claptrap.” My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8:26-33.”

Just like a Yell County preacher, Mattie likes to make references to the Bible without actually quoting scripture, forcing the reader to admit to themselves that they haven’t read their Bible nearly enough to have committed it all to memory, guilting them in to pulling out the good book the first chance they get.

Of course, this is the story of how Jesus sends the demons into the pigs. There’s a world of symbolism going on with Mattie and animals, way too much to discuss in this short article. But I think it’s safe to say that Mattie’s relationship with the Bible will have a familiar ring to those of us raised in the region. She never let’s the Bible get in the way of what she deems justice. And she finds it to be an apt book at upholding the predominant morals of the day.

Reading this book as an adult, and thinking about the tough attitude of this mythical young girl from Yell County, I found myself wanting Mattie to do so much more than just push past the boundaries of age and gender. I wanted her to take that can-do attitude and ask tough questions about Jim Crow and Native American rights in world that was being rapidly colonized. I wanted her to wrestle with the whys and hows of the Civil War, an event that Mattie references throughout the book. But I’d say that  behind Portis’s depiction of Mattie as a self-reliant young Ouachita girl, is a voice that’s ultimately reflecting the world, not really challenging it.

I have read True Grit a few times now and I’m sad to say that all that wear and tear has torn my grandmother’s old book to pieces. Both the front and back covers are no longer attached, and my toddler daughter made off with one of the photos of John Wayne. I suppose there goes the book’s worth as a collector’s edition. Despite my critique of Mattie’s ultimate adherence to the status quo, I can easily imagine how my grandmother would have been drawn to a person like her. Who wouldn’t be? After all, she was only fourteen years old and facing all her fears — a preteen version of the gutsy grandma we all want to know and/or be. And maybe there’s more to Mattie than I can see. Perhaps she’s there in all her bravery and flaws to remind us of both our cultural strengths and weaknesses.


September 1, 2017

web cc

Photo from Creative Commons

This piece was published in the August issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine.

I first noticed the spider webs while walking around the base of Spring Mountain one Saturday afternoon in late June. Ducking underneath and between the spiny limbs of the new growth forest, I collected sticky strands of silk in my hair and on my arms. This wasn’t intentional, of course. I kept trying to dodge them, feeling uneasy about how much hard work I was plowing through.  But I had to get to the creek, and there wasn’t any other path.

A few days later I was walking across the Big Dam Bridge connecting Little Rock to North Little Rock. It’s 4,226 feet in length—and has never been used for cars or trains—making it the longest pedestrian/bicycle bridge in North America. Who knew our state held such a gem, right? On any given night the bridge is filled with people. Some are walking in comfortable clothing, others jogging in run gear and bright shoes. If you’re a dog person it’s a great place to see scruffy mixed breeds, shiny labradors, and hyperactive tiny dogs. There are couples in shorts and sandals holding hands in the spark of a new relationship, friends catching up on gossip, extended families pushing strollers, taking photos, and speaking in their first languages. There are benches every few feet just perfect for staring into the river or doing a little people watching.


Walking the full length of bridge always makes me feel weak behind the knees. Despite my love for occasional trips to truly large cities, I’m not really into heights created by human hands. At the midway point it rises to 90 feet over the river and 30 feet over the dam.  The gray concrete dam looks so industrial and impersonal, and the river itself—-so beautiful and almost gentle from the shore—looks totally disinterested in whether or not I should I accidentally fall in. I always want to enjoy a peaceful walk across but often I’m rather preoccupied with the height of it all.

On this particular day a friend and I arrived near dusk; the sun was still out when we began walking up the first bit of incline. The bridge derives much of its length from the these long ramps on either side of the river and the expanse of metal railing lines each side. Before I could even begin to think about my fear of heights, I saw the webs.

There inbetween each square of railing was an orb. Some looked fresh and new, almost sparkling; others were a little shabby and stretched, as if the wind was becoming a bit too much for them. Some held a recent catch; other webs seem abandoned. In others, a spider waited patiently in a discreet corner of the web. As we continued our walk I kept looking from side to side to view each square of railing. This was clearly prime spider real estate. In the literally hundreds of small squares formed by the railing, not a single bit was left empty.

I walked the length of the bridge that night without much fear, mostly because I was so preoccupied with the webs. The sun went down, the big lights came on, and by the time I was walking back the across, the blue lights from the dam below were glowing bright. As we came across the incline I lost my breath. There in the railing were hundreds of webs backlit by the bulbs, a huge spotlight on the shiny threads. The river was so big and the webs so tiny and so….everywhere.


Each web had its own design—some with zipper-like patterns down the center; others with details across the outer edges that would put your grandmother’s doily collection to shame . In the distance I could see the headlights of cars moving quickly across the interstate bridges. Below the water was deep and the dam thick. The chatter of voices was ongoing. But all I could see were the webs, and, sometimes, the spiders.

Since that evening I’ve been thinking a lot about spiders. I’ve lived my whole life sharing every house I’ve ever known with them. But do I really know them? I love a good Google investigation, so this past week I’ve spent time reading everything I can find about web weavers. I have learned that orb weaving spiders are known to build their webs in high traffic areas, especially those with artificial night time lights, since these places are literal lighthouse for all manner of tasty bugs.

I’ve learned that spiders recycle their webs, usually digesting the old one near dusk, waiting an hour, and then and and building a new one in preparation for the night time abundance. I learned from my bridge-walking friend that spiders spin sticky and non sticky silk. Only they know which threads are which, and they walk down the non sticky thread to weave and to catch. There is so much more I want to know. I know each spider has its on web style. But are there spiders who get creative? A lineage of web designs known to, say, central Arkansas bridge weavers? Do they have turf wars over the bridge spaces? Would the same species of Yell County spider making its webs between the thin trees of a new growth Harkey Valley forest take quickly to the squared railing of a city bridge and vice versa?  (I am a cultural studies person, after all. I’m going to find out. Stay tuned for future columns.)

One of my core childhood memories is sitting in a patch of clover in my backyard. I was looking for a four leaf clover. I remember our backyard always seems to be filled with bees and fireflies. I was searching through the clumps when I began to notice all the motion below. There were smaller bugs under the clover. The soil was a literal metroplex of activity. It dawned on me that everywhere I step whole worlds exist. All of us—people, plants, animals— are so deeply, deeply connected, regardless if we ever acknowledge this.

This memory surfaces in moments like the web evening. I am struck with this weighted feeling of how much is happening around me that I’ve never noticed. It’s not a sad weight. But it is heavy. Like I need to be strong to carry it. And don’t we all want to be strong?

And then my mind slips into a series of questions that go something like this: Why am I just now noticing these webs? Is there something unique about today? Have the webs always been there and I just never noticed? Why have I never noticed? And, finally, now that I have noticed, how do I live my life with this new information?

Stories are always bigger than can really be explained, and there is so very much more to this story than webs in lights, and I recognize that for much of the world seeing a spider web is rather uneventful. But why is that? Everyday we share the world with weavers who put our human designs to shame. Are we paying attention?

Learning Goes Both Ways

February 28, 2017

A more tightly edited version of this column was originally published in the February 2017 issue of ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.



As soon as children begin verbal communication they learn to divide the world into categories. Things with wheels are automobiles. Things with four legs and wagging tails are dogs. Children’s books and programming focus on the importance of recognizing opposites. Things are hard or soft, hot and cold, big or little, open or closed.


Those of us who have spent a lot of time with children know that sometimes they have trouble recognizing our adult distinctions. The difference between an apple and a pear may obvious to us, but to a young child the differences are less apparent. Likewise, abstract concepts like big and small are very much situational distinctions and it takes a while for children to grasp that our way of naming things is highly contextual. In other words, what’s big in one situation is pretty small in another.


One of the greatest joys of working with children is watching them discover the things we forget. They love to find the moon and the sound of thunder fascinates them. We adults may not pay a bit of attention to the bird on the limb, but it gives them unspeakable joy to be able not only to see it but also to name it. They speak with pride when they can identify a dog, or a cat, or cow. They are learning to divide the world up into ideas and characters and categories and they can’t wait to show us.


I’m a mother of three young children and I work with toddlers for a living. It’s an honor to help them learn what makes red, red or how to name concepts like fast, funny, and happy. I teach them songs about opposites and I help them learn needed structure in the classroom. But while I’m helping them find the words for expressing the difference between, say, water and grass, they’re busily teaching me that sometimes we adults get a little too hemmed in by our divisions.


Children see commonalities in the most unexpected places. Give them a chance to dress themselves (without laughter or judgement from adults)  and they’ll go for a combination that defies any adult’s sense of fashion. If you ask them why they chose that particular get up they almost have an answer about why the plaid looks great with the flowers or why mismatched shoes are actually a good idea. We often laugh and write it off as they not understanding how color coordination works. Which is true, I guess. But what’s also going on is they’re making their own choices in a framework that hasn’t been socialized to see certain things as natural companions. Clothes are a simple example, but an important one. After all, if you’re two you have very little freedom to make choices. Clothing is usually one of the first places we see choices emerge.


They’ll combine foods in unorthodox ways; they’ll take a toy out of the package and have little use for “correct” way to use it. If you pay attention you begin realize that this experimentation is more than just cluelessness about the world. It’s the way they learn. It’s the way they become themselves. They are scientists, inventors, artists, storytellers. They have their own sense of what is beautiful, and if we think we have nothing to learn from their freedom and creativity then we’re the ones in need of some direction.

I learned long ago that sometimes we adults often treat children as receptacles for our pain. We have a lot of unresolved issues and heartache, regardless of who we are. So often I see adults down right obsessed with this notion that children are just waiting to get something over on us, even children who haven’t learned how to speak.  Children are seldom out to get us, at least not at this age. They’re just trying to figure out the world and see things we’ve long since forgotten.

We need to be there to show them these distinctions. We are their teachers. But as any good teacher knows, real learning always goes both ways.

I did not take this picture of a rock. Thanks Creative Commons.

I did not take this picture of a rock. Thanks Creative Commons.

A version of this originally appeared in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

(Sorry for my messy writing on this one. The deadlines, I can not meet them. 🙂 )

I have always been someone who has at least two books going at once. Back before I had children, I’d often balance a novel with a non-fiction read, slipping in a few articles here and there for good measure. With three young children at home, these days I am more likely to have eight books going.

Not intentionally, of course. It’s just that uninterrupted reading time is basically non-existent. I never know exactly when I might happen upon a few quiet minutes, so I just leave the books scattered throughout the house. There are some on the coffee table, another three by the bed. I have a few in my office to read when I’m restarting my computer or downloading a large audio file for my radio job. I read these books in very small spurts: Three pages here, a half a page there. I’ve long since given up on novels, as they don’t really lend themselves to this kind of patchwork. But I’ve always been more of a non-fiction reader, so this suits me just fine.

I recognize this may seem horribly chaotic, and you might wonder how in the world I ever retain anything. I’ll be the first to admit that many things fall through the cracks. But all we can do is work with what we have, right? Strategy can never be about perfection.

Long before the kids ever came along, I’ve been rather enamored with this idea of reading seemingly disparate topics at the same time and seeing what kind of connections bubble up. It’s something I try too hard to cultivate. I don’t try to come up with perfection combination of topics or anything. Rather, I just let my curiosities lead the way and just wait and see what commonalities bubble up: Here are a few recent combinations:a book on poor people’s social movements and the spiritual life of children; a anthropological work on the Quapaw in Arkansas and Ta-henishi Coates new book Between the World and Me; Articles on the Young Patriots and Rufus Jones’s Essential Writings; a children’s book about the life of Muhammad Ali and a book about an autobiography of a white anti-racist woman called Memoir of a Race Traitor.

Sometimes I have time to jot down a few notes about the parallels in my journal. Usually though the themes just get sewn together without much commentary, only later to come out in some radio piece of magazine commentary. They seep into the groundwater of the collective building of the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources. And, hopefully, they influence the ways I interact with the world on a daily, mundane basis.

Every so often there are books that seem to never be bumped out or rotation. I’ll put them down only to find them reappear on kitchen table or in the hallway floor, deposited there by my daughter who seems to gravitate toward anything she knows I find meaningful (I recognize this is a short lived phenomenon. By sixteen she will likely be repulsed by the things I love). One is my Quaker Faith and Practice book. That one is always around. But there’s another that keeps showing up: Louise Erdrich’s collection of poems Original Fire: Selected and New Poems.

I’m not much of a poetry reader these days. Back in my early twenties I was an avid reader of poetry. But these days I crave things a little less distilled. But a few months ago—as I was heading out the door to go camping with the family—I saw the title on the self. I’d acquired it years ago, but I’d never spent any time with it. After reading it by the campfire one morning, I felt something shift. And I have be re-reading it ever since.

There is one set of poem in particular that I keep returning to. I find it to be crushing yet invigorating. Futile, but with a spark. The kind of spark you have to work for. And I think, maybe, that’s the one thing I’ve come to crave in reading.


“Asinnig” by Louise Erdrich

The Ojibwe word for stone, asin, is animate. Stones are alive. They are addressed as grandmothers and grandfathers. The universe began with a conversation between stones.


A thousand generations of you live and die

in the space of a single one of our thoughts

A complete thought is a mountain

We dont have very many ideas.

When the original fire which formed us


we thought of you.

We allowed you to occur.

We are still deciding whether that was


2 Children

We have never denied you anything

you truly wanted

no matter how foolish

no matter hos destructive

but you never seem to learn.

That which you cry for,

this wish to be like us,

we have tried to give it to you

in small doses, like a medicine, every day

so you will not be frightened.

Still, when death comes

you weep,

you do not recognize it

as the immortality you crave.


August 9, 2016

13517515_10153547953601010_5645646305855754992_oThis column originally appeared in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

One of my daughter’s first words was “stuck.” She used it to mean “this thing won’t work” or “this block is too big for this box” or “I really want to climb up in this chair and I need your help.” It was particularly helpful for when she accidentally wedged herself between the couch and the wall or couldn’t get the lid off a container. For quite a while  it was the cornerstone of her five word vocabulary:  “Mama,” Dad-Dad,” “cup,” “this!” and “stuck.” You’d be surprised what you can say with so little.

In recent months her language has exploded. It’s varied and metaphoric. There’s “chooch” (a train or pretty much anything with wheels) “kits” (cats), “Else,” (dog, short for our dog, Elsie), “cake” (anything soft and sweet), “six” (any number or letter), “coat,” (a word that can mean both coat and cold). She’s tackling complete sentences, making it clear that she’s very proud of her independence: “I’m do it!” But as it so often goes with us humans, our brains and our bodies seem woefully out of sync.  One morning she was trying so desperately to communicate with me and I just couldn’t make out her request. She slumped over in my lap as if defeated. She paused for a moment, pointed to her mouth and said, “Is stuck.”

I broke out into laughter. Not because what she said was funny, (it was, of course), but because I was so very proud. She had taken her limited language and used it to communicate about the limits of her limited language. That’s brilliant. Not wanting for my laughter to be read as trivialization, I quickly shifted my tone and told her how astute her comment was. I told her how her frustration was a normal human feeling and that in finding a way to name it she had done something quite remarkable. I’m not sure she totally understood, but in any case we hugged and shared a moment. And then we went back to the lovingly labored work of trying to understand one another.

I remember when my twin sons first started doing something similar. I was equally enamored then, and wrote an essay about how they managed to turn the phrase “all done” into an all-purpose expression for all of their needs. Watching them learn how to communicate I quickly realized that one of my most sacred tasks as a caregiver was to provide space and protection for their natural human drive to be resourceful with language. My sons laid the ground work for me knowing to take my daughter’s desire to communicate so seriously — to know when to laugh and to know when to be sincere. Children crave communication, and they’re fearless with it. They’ll likely remain so if we value this fearlessness.

As an adult — and as someone who gives some of my time to community work — I often think about how atrophied adult imaginations can be, my own included. We tend to think that the ways things have always been is the way they must remain.  Our sense of fearfulness around our limited language leaves us feeling as if we have few tools to build new ways of being. Put another way, sometimes we can scarcely talk about what it could like to build a more just and loving world, let alone get around to building it.

I often find myself in situations where we adults stumble around language as if to figure out some kind of magic formula for how to bring more justice into this world. We examine our ideas and find them inadequate. We look at our resources and deem them lacking. We hit the limits of our language and get angry. Sometimes we think if we can just find the right analysis we can finally bring about change. I don’t want to oversimplify things, but I do think we need to spend more time watching children learn language.

Kids come into this world knowing how to be resourceful and creative. They aren’t hung up on our boundaries. They can take a box and transform it into a rocket. They can look at their own hands and make them into cheetah paws (a favorite trick of my son’s). In my daughter’s case, they can take a five-word vocabulary and provide astute commentary on their five-word vocabulary. In other words, they work with what they have. Not because they believe they must remain within those limitations, but precisely so they can break out of them. After all, all you can ever do is start exactly where you are. If my toddler can convey vast ideas with a five-word vocabulary, surely we have such capacity within in our own.

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[A version of this piece was published in ABOUT the River Valley magazine and later ran as a radio piece on Ozarks at Large on KUAF 91.3 FM Public Radio.]

My father recently gave me an envelope full of my mother’s old photos. Inside I discovered an image of a twelve-year-old me, reaching out to pet our recently born colt. I’m wearing wranglers, an embossed leather belt, and my long hair hangs down the length of my back. In the background sits heavily wooded Spring mountain; in the corner of the frame the neighbors clothes are hanging out to try. Surprisingly, I am wearing short sleeves, a rare occurrence, even in the warm months.

My short sleeves exposed large patches of psoriasis, a skin disease I’ve had for years. I was already going into remission by the time the photo was taken; The patches are relatively small and only cover a small portion of my arm. For years there were scales all down my leg and from my elbow to the middle of my forearm. I tried all kinds of cream, sat under sun lamps, applied a medicated tape I had to wear for days at a time, and eventually took cortisone shots, something that is considered too dangerous today. But the patches only grew. Bright red and scaly, they would peel and crack. I wasn’t supposed to pick at them, but I could never resist. Sometimes they hurt, itched and bled. But mostly the discomfort was emotional.

Miraculously, by the time I around 13–around the same time I was diagnosed with scoliosis and given a back brace—the psoriasis was almost gone. This may have been the result of the treatments or just good luck. The severity of auto-immune disease are known to come and go. By then I had learned a lot about how cruel people can be when your body doesn’t fit their expectations. I can still hear the voice of the young girl who refused to sit by me at the Dardanelle Rodeo. She called me gross and began to run away, grabbing her friend’s hand and pulling her along, telling her that if she touched me her arms would turn scabby and bloody, too. By the time I was fitted for that back brace I was a little tougher, a tiny bit braver. And I had learned to quickly recognize the people who asked questions about my body with a kind and accepting curiosity.

My mother was always taking photos of our family, something that drove me crazy back then. I usually made quite an effort to hide my arms from the camera. I even developed a pose for family shots where I’d fold my arms in toward my chest, an awkward look to say the least. For whatever reason, my guard was down that day. Or maybe I didn’t even realize she had the camera.

I still have occasional flareups with psoriasis, but mostly it’s turned into psoriatic arthritis, another autoimmune disease that affects adults who had severe psoriasis as children. It does cause me some discomfort, but thankfully I am able to keep it under control with a healthy diet and lifestyle. And it’s not a visible disease like my psoriasis, unless you count the subtle ways it’s reshaping a few of my fingers. Every so often when I play guitar my fingers swell and turn red. I sometimes wonder if I will have my hands will eventually curl in the way my grandfather’s did, a man greatly disabled by rheumatoid arthritis

Nearly twenty-six years later, I’m a distinctly different person then the timid girl in the photo. My mother is dead; those boxes of photos are where I have to go to hear her stories. I’ve traveled, I’ve started a family, I’ve faced more fears that I care to count, and I’ve come back home in more ways than one. And now I look at my arms reaching out to that colt and I think those patches look beautiful. The red is fiery and shiny. The white, pale skin around the red fades into my summer tan. I don’t have any regrets over the sadness and shame I used to feel, nor do I feel like I wasted my time worrying. I learned a lot about myself in those moments. And I certainly don’t regret what I learned about people and the limits of acceptance. All of us are so affected by mainstreams ideas of beauty. It takes bravery to reject this mask.
After staring at the photo for sometime, I decided to share it with my sons. I told them about the psoriasis, the cruelty of some of my peers, and the kindness of others. I told them how my mother almost never sounded sound fierce except when she made it clear to me that I was never, ever to be cruel to anyone, to shame or make fun of them. She had no tolerance for human cruelty–whether I was receiving it or dishing it out.

The had a lot of questions about my arms, and wanted to see the subtle scars near my elbow. The were particularly intrigued by the my telling of the repeated needle pricks from the cortisone shots and how my mother called me brave as I sat still during the whole procedure.

I owe a lot to that girl in the photo. I can see a latent fierceness there, and all these years later I might be starting to uncover it. While I do remember how sad I was back then, I don’t want to go back to console my fears or take away those patches. I want to bring that young girl with me into the present, show her how to channel her anger and would-be shame into a different way of being—to bring those experiences into everything I am and pass them down through the coming generations.

iceflower sain

Photo by Johnny Carol Sain for ABOUT the River Valley

This column was first published in the December 2015 issue of  ABOUT the River Valley magazine.

“I don’t want to be afraid of my children growing up.”

I kept turning the phrase over in my mind as I lay in bed drifting off to sleep.  My 17-month-old daughter was sound asleep beside me. I ached a little bit when I thought of how tiny she once was, back in those early days when she used to fit in the curve of my arm. Now she seems to take up half the bed. How many ways are there to say, “she’s growing up so fast?” Isn’t that all parents ever seem to say?

My first children were twins. When I found out I was pregnant with a singleton I looked forward to nursing one baby at a time, holding her in stillness, getting to spend one-on-one time rather than running back and forth between putting out fires. After she was born, I marveled at how easy it was to hold and feed her and sank into the satisfaction of being able to meet her needs as they arose rather than asking her to wait in line behind another sibling. When nap time came I would put her in the carrier and hold her close to my chest, swaying back and forth until she fell asleep slobbering on my shirt. It was all so tender, holding one baby at a time. If you’ve had children you know how it goes. I blinked and then she was crawling. Now she walks along beside me, her tiny little hand wraps easily around my ring and pinky fingers. She points out cats and birds and likes to hide things under pillows and then pull them out exclaiming, “dere is!”

It rained all day today, and the early, dark evenings make it clear winter is here. Things will slow down a little, or at least the early dusk would have us think so. Holidays will give us extra time together with family and perhaps a snow day or two will keep us all inside on the couch. But nothing ever really slows down when you have young children at home. Even in winter.

I don’t think I’ll give birth to any more children, which makes my daughter the baby of the family. Presumably she’s the one I’ll find hardest to let go. I recently discovered something called RIE parenting. The RIE stands for “Resources for Infant Educators.” Titles for concepts of parenting usually get on my nerves, and this title is no exception. I mean, parenting isn’t a theory. It’s a moment to moment ever-evolving state of being. That said, we need words and phrases to help us name ideas and concepts, and those phrases give us the tools to turn these ideas and concepts over in our minds. We can’t challenge our misconceptions if we can’t name alternatives. Such is my frustration with the gap between language and experience, I guess.

Anyway, here is the basic tenant of RIE, as quoted from author Janet Lansbury: “We not only respect babies, we demonstrate our respect every time we interact with them. Respecting a child means treating even the youngest infant as a unique human being, not as an object.”  Even the youngest babies are seen as active players in their own lives. There is an inherent trust there, a willingness to see the complete and whole person way before their little legs can stand.

I’m not writing this to expose all the ways of this school of thought, but you can find plenty of resources online, especially via founder Magda Gerber and Janet Lansbury, the woman behind the Elevating Childcare site.  (Be sure and follow Lansbury’s facebook page here).  The more I read the more I realized this was the kind of parenting I’ve been attempting to practice. I just didn’t know it had a name. Part of why I’d latched on to this idea was that I am hyperaware that any attempts to hem my children in would likely only backfire. I’m not one of those parents who can’t wait for the kids to get grown. While I do enjoy time to myself, I don’t find my greatest enjoyment in my time away from them. I love my life with my children. It’s life-affirming, and it’s the most beautiful, difficult, challenging, eye-opening experience I have ever known. But I don’t want to be someone who needs my children to be children. I want my children to be themselves. And everyday they are becoming more and more of who they are.

I remember as a child feeling excitement as I grew older, that budding independence like sparks everywhere. If I am so lucky, my children will feel that too, and I want to find ways to be there for them. Not be there broken-hearted, begrudgingly weeping for the good old days. I want to be there at that very moment in that very moment with the people they are in that very moment. I know this will take some work.

There is a whole world of pressures out there that tell us to lean into a feeling of guilt as our children grow up. We recoil from the pain of it all. But I’m pretty sure that a lot of this is just about fear. And if I’ve learned anything about fear it’s that once you name it, it dissipates, a least a tiny bit.

So this winter I’m going to do what I always try to do: spend as much time as possible with family. But on those days when everything feels like it’s moving so fast and I feel that punch in the gut when I see how big my youngest is, I’m not going to guilt myself into fearing the passing years. I know growing up is a gift of enormous measure.  And I refuse to feel guilty or fearful of the very nature of growth. Even in the most still, silent moments we’re growing. All of us. And that is one of the most beautiful things we humans can know.

They didn't make it.

They didn’t make it.

This column was originally published in the October issues of ABOUT the River Valley magazine.


This past week we moved to a larger house. This is the fifth move we’ve made since we started gardening about a decade ago. We’ve gardened in the Ozarks, in western Kentucky, and in both large and small towns near the Arkansas River. We tell ourselves our next move — the one where we build a house in the country by the creek at the foot of the mountain — will be the last time we box up our belongings and set out for larger spaces. We’ll see.

Moving boxes is tedious and sometimes backbreaking. Moving a garden is a process of letting go. You have to weigh the risks of removing each plant versus leaving it behind. The day after we’d moved our belongings over to our new house I sat in my front yard with spade in hand running through my options: Should I move this rosemary? Would digging it up kill the roots? What about this foxglove? Will the next people who live here care for the plant? If not maybe I should just dig it up and take my chances?

Some decisions were easy to make. I quickly dug into the roots of the yarrow. It’s easy to move, hardy and always defies the odds. The echinacea, too. The lavender is a bit more delicate, but I decided it was worth the risk. As expected, the milkweed and marigolds have made the move just fine. But I think I killed the mums.

My favorite thing about Chrysanthemums is their ubiquity. By October they’re in full bloom, lining the garden beds with deep shades of red, orange, and burgundy. They’re simple, colorful, and — despite my own recent experience — terribly easy to care for. When temperatures are dropping and leaves are falling from the trees, mums help close out the flower garden.

These particular mums were at least four-years-old, a bright orange variety that matched the pumpkins. In theory they should have lasted several more years, but I’ve been gardening long enough to know that sometimes plants just die. I haven’t been gardening long enough to always know exactly why this happens. In this case, I probably didn’t get enough of the root. Of course, you can never garden long enough to know all the whys. Gardening is just like that. Sometimes things die. Sometimes they live despite the harshest of odds. This is why gardening is both a release from and an immersion into life itself.

Since the mums bit the dust I’ve started thinking back on all the mums in my life. My husband and I were married on a cold November day over a decade ago, and we filled the Civilian Conservation Corps building where we said our vows with mums of all shades. We gave most of the plants away, but took a few home and planted them around the alley near the house we rented from Marcia, our wonderfully eccentric, cat-loving landlord. When we moved to Kentucky we took the brightest red mum with us and left it there when we moved two years later. I like to imagine it’s still adding color to that little yellow house on High Street.

My mother always loved mums. She loved autumn in general. As the air begins to change I find myself daydreaming about how we used to pick out a pattern for a Halloween costume, the smell of soup on the stove as I walked through the front door, or her front porch filled with hay bales and kitschy seasonal decorations. She died during an October. The mums that were given to us for her funeral I planted in my own garden the month after she died. When we moved to Little Rock I started fresh with several new varieties, most of which are still safely in the ground awaiting a new renter. They’ll be blooming just in time to welcome in the new folks. Except that orange one, of course; it’s a goner.

After we get settled in at this new place I think I’ll probably go pick a few new mums from a local grower. I can’t imagine a fall garden without them. I’ll let my sons pick out the colors, and I’m sure my toddling daughter will want to help dig up a place for flowers or eat some of the dirt while I’m busy digging the hole. I think when it’s time to move again — you know, to our dream home with nearby creek and water catchment system and six dogs and three goats and a donkey and mule running around in the yard — maybe I’ll just leave the new mums here. I’ll buy some from a Yell County grower for the new place. I kind of like the idea of leaving a trail of fall flowers across the state.

tiny creatures bookThis column was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine. 

As a child, I never did very well in science classes. I passed the classes with decent grades but something always felt so out of reach, so disconnected. Now that I’m well into my thirties I find myself craving a more solid foundation in biology, botany, even physics. I’m discovering that my children are the best science teachers around.

At five-years-old, they’re enamored with the way anything and everything works. They’re fascinated with the idea that numbers can have no end and that things appear smaller the further they are away. They’re curious about how water freezes and how it boils. They want to know all about the body parts of a grasshopper and how ants poop. They ask questions about meteors and stars and the sun and the moon. Finding a spider or praying mantis in the garden shuts down all other activities. They make inventions and suggest hypotheses, their curious minds lighting a spark in my own. Together we explore.

As a young child my mom always took me to the Dardanelle library, making sure I made it to story time and took part in all the summer reading programs. She taught me about inter-library loaning and always encouraged —or at the very least, tolerated — my short-lived reading obsession with everything from horses to pirates to historical fiction. She believed in the fundamental power of childhood reading. Even when she was confused by or disapproved of my topics of interest, she always encouraged me to learn more. Because of this curiosity she honored in me, I can honestly say that as an adult I don’t ever get bored. Should I ever happen upon some free time (hahahaha), there is always a book waiting. I consider this inoculation against boredom one of her greatest gifts to me.

This summer my sons are taking part in the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten program, and we’ve been plowing through the hardcovers left and right. We’ve read picture books about Frog and Toad and the twins Ling and Ting and the Good Dog Carl series and pretty much anything we can find written by Mo Williams (be sure and check out City Dog, County Frog, even if you are 68-years-old and there are no kids around. It’s a book for the ages). We read books to their little sister about bushing teeth and the importance of going to sleep. But more often than not we read science books.

I love our time reading together, and not just because I get to watch their excited faces or hear their joyful exclamations or any of those other clichés everyone always says about kids and books and discovery. I love it because I am learning so much.  So far this summer I’ve learned how to make a wormery for compost, everything I could ever need to know about the life cycles of bees, dragonflies and grasshoppers, and how people go to the bathroom in a space ship. I’ve learned about the secret life of microbes and the details of pollination and the hibernation habits of bears and how owls make pellets. I have learned how wind makes weather and how microbes multiply.  Just this morning I learned about Antarctica.

I’m taken aback by the spark of hope and creativity I am finding in a 20 page book on how sea salt is made. And I’m throughly impressed with all the information that can be packed into a large font publication on bulbs and roots. Thanks to the generosity of several dear friends who sent us boxes of math-focused books, we’ve even started reading about fractions and basic math, and I am finding that maybe I have more of a math brain that I originally thought. Children’s books leave so much up to the imagination, and maybe that’s what I was missing all those years in science classes.

After all, when you have less than 20 pages, there is no time to wallow in the minutia of a subject. The authors get straight to the heart of the matter in simple and straight forward sentences. I keep thinking of the well-worn but useful quote from Einstein:  “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”So hats off to children’s book authors. Anyone who thinks there just simple little books is missing out on what might be the most important thing we can ever come to know.

Below is a list of just a few of our favorites, all checked out from the Arkansas public library system. What are you reading this summer? Visit me online at or and tell me about your favorite kids books this summer.

What Are Bulbs and Roots?
by Molly Aloian

World of Insects series – What is Pollination?
by Bobbie Kalman

by Denise Fleming (a book about ants)

The Frog Scientist
by Pamela S. Turner

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes
by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

How Does Weather Change?
by Jennifer Boothroyd