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Archive for sojourn

sojourn . Itta Bena, Mississippi

Back in May as our summer plans were just starting to materialize, I knew I wanted to take some opportunities to explore. We had already planned trips to the beach and Memphis, but I was determined that we would spend at least a few days on sojourns to Mississippi places we hadn’t seen before. I felt very blessed to have the children hanging out at home while school was out, and to have the flexibility in my freelance work to “schedule in” some unscheduled time.

So, on a Wednesday in the middle of June, we picked up breakfast donuts and headed west on Highway 82. It was the first day trip in our new car, which made for excitement with the kids in checking out all the bells and whistles, and I had heard that the B.B. King Museum in Indianola was pretty cool. Even though I was born and raised in Mississippi, I really haven’t spent a lot of time in the Delta, and the kids had never been to that part of the state. I was eager to take time without an itinerary, to soak up my little ones on the journey, and to explore some of that storied part of my home state.

There’s something mesmerizing about the sudden flatness of the land as you move out of the “hills” region of Mississippi. The sprawling farm fields, the succession of small towns popping up along the way, and so many broken down structures out of time. My children have tagged along on enough adventures to know my tendency to wander down side roads and stop on various Main Streets to capture photos of historic buildings, hand painted signs, and the curious sights of the small town South. This day trip had its share of those kinds of stops!

After pizza and visiting Indianola’s homage to Riley B. King, the kids indulged me in the short right turn onto Mississippi Highway 7 in Leflore County, down to Itta Bena. We wound past fields and water towers to a small square of a downtown with a city park surrounded by half cobblestone streets and nearly vacant storefonts – no evidence of the fast food spots and quaint downtown shops found in some of the other Delta towns we saw. It was late in the day and not many businesses were open. Not many businesses were there. We saw cars gathered around a few storefronts including a small convenience store, and a few folks were gathered on benches near the park. We drove around the square several times, across the railroad tracks and through the surrounding streets, stopping to capture the “place” of the place through my camera lens, and trying not to look too conspicuous.

Itta Bena seems to share part claim to Mississippi Valley State University with its neighboring county seat, Greenwood, just twelve miles East. The community also stakes claim to the birthplace of B.B. King, technically in Berclair, three miles to the West. I learned that Itta Bena comes from a Choctaw phrase, “iti bina,” meaning “forest camp,” and was named by a state senator who relocated his plantation there and built a home in the mid 1800s. He called it “Home in the Woods.”

We didn’t see much “woods.” We’ll seek that out for the next trip, but I enjoyed the glimpses into shops and businesses gone by and what I most often seek out on these adventures – the haunting and beautiful blight common in so many rural Mississippi towns. The gutted gas station. The vacant lunch counter featuring “Southern Cuisine”. The old structures you find give a hint to entrepreneurs and business folk who once made downtowns like these thrive. So that what you see is indelibly tied to what you imagine you would have seen twenty or fifty years ago. And sometimes the make and model of parked cars blur the difference.

The bricked pavement. The railroad tracks. There always seem to be railroad tracks. Military cannons and statues in the park memorializing one conflict or another. Buildings bear the remnants of their last use, sometimes overcome by weather and decay, but still vibrant with color. Sometimes the structures are just a shell with no roof remaining, and their own rural garden of weeds growing where countertops and store shelves used to be. Mom and pop restaurants, corner convenience stores and beauty salons are often the last hold-outs of downtown commerce, displaying store windows with the current price of a six-pack or posters of the latest beauty inspiration. Churches and public buildings are well-kept, but the interesting finds are those structures with a tell-tale hodgepodge of styles revealing their changes through the years. The boarded up remnants of stained glass windows and worn plaster ornament.

And, I love the signs. In addition to the faded out brands – logos that have since been updated to meet today’s visual appeal – small towns often show great examples of hand painted signs and repurposed banners showcasing a business owner’s pride. Somebody’s initials. Somebody’s name. Somebody’s stamp on the world. The local Big Star grocery became Big Star Tobacco, and even that has since gone defunct. Warehouses and old train cars usually provide an overlapping series of letters as the sun fades one generation of signage into the one before. The past, present and a citizen’s ingenuity.

Those glimpses of a small town – like the ones we captured in Itta Bena – are interesting and layered and sad and curious and indicative of how time passes. And sometimes passes by. Looking back through the images of our drive made me wonder what I keep trying to capture. When I seek out these broken and aged views of the small, worn South. I think maybe they are a glimpse of the greater challenges we have in our state. The wrestling of past and present, of sustaining opportunity, of growing and overcoming, of how we clean up our messes. Of capturing the moment in time. Or letting it go. All told, we spent less than an hour on our drive down to Itta Bena. That’s not enough time to know the place. Not enough to see what’s really gone and what remains. Not enough to see what might be emerging.

sojourn . Old Salem School

Very often while I’m working in my studio, I think about this historic brick structure. It’s the “Old Salem School” off Highway 14 in Noxubee County, and I think of it because the work table I’ve made a habit of painting and block printing on came from the school. Mr. Cotton, the caretaker from the Noxubee County Historical Society, is a long-time family friend, and he gave the kids and me permission to go inside the very dilapidated building last summer. For years, every time we drove by it on the way to Busy Bee, I said I wanted to go inside and see the space. Last summer, we finally did it.

One reason the school is very interesting to me is that my grandfather went to elementary school there in the early 1920s. Not long ago, we were looking through an old lockbox from my grandmother’s house and found his diploma from Salem Consolidated School, promoting him to high school on April 17, 1925. The school is one of the earliest remaining public schools in Noxubee County, and was officially confirmed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The structure is basically a four room school house in a dog-trot type plan, with stairs in the center hallway and two large rooms on each side of both stories. On one side the rooms have been divided into smaller spaces connected through a series of doorways. My mother said that during some of the years the building was in use, one side was used as housing for teachers or caretakers.

Upstairs on the east side, the remnants of a corner stage area are still there, and as a child, my mom remembers going to community Christmas suppers held in the room with entertainment and even a visit from Santa Claus on the stage. After the building was no longer used as a school, it became sort of a community center available to the Salem community, including Salem Methodist Church and Concord Baptist Church. From the looks of the chalkboard we found inside, Sunday School classes and church meetings were sometimes held there, and my mom remembers going to birthday parties on the property as well.

During our visit, layers of peeling paint and cracked wall plaster revealed the bones of the building, and the aging patina of old chimney pipes, metal ceiling panels and cornices. And although it is in very severe disrepair, we could still see the remnants of wooden bead board chair rails, shiplap walls, movable classroom panels, and even the brass nameplates of families who donated money to install windows and other features. You can see from the angles in the shiplap photo below, that the building is just on the edge of being structurally sound. I’m afraid it may not last much longer, and I’m very glad we were able to visit when we did. It was interesting to see my children explore the space and to imagine someone going to school there. I hope I was able to impart to them the importance of historic buildings and remembering their significance to a community, especially as they listened to their grandmother talk about her own memories there.

After our visit, I nearly begged Mr. Cotton to allow me to rescue two of the last pieces of movable furniture I found there before they were overtaken with weather and falling down ceiling materials. Mom and I loaded an old six-foot wooden table into Dad’s pick-up along with a large chalkboard that was made to hang on sliding panels in the school classrooms. Underneath the graffiti writing of other explorers, the chalkboard still had names on a list titled “To-Day’s Record”, where Sunday School member attendance and offerings were recorded during years when the building was still in use. We brought the table home, cleaned decades of dust and insect friends from it, and added a little reinforcement to the legs to accommodate printmaking duties. It has become a treasured part of my daily studio activities, inspired by the knot holes and rusted nails as reminders of the heritage I imagine happened there. One of this summer’s projects will be to restore the chalkboard to hang in our entryway, and in the repainting, I plan to replicate that Sunday School secretary’s hand-writing as we create a space to document our own “To-Day’s Record.”

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sojourn . Best of Busy Bee Summer 2017

As I posted last week, summertime for my crew has meant indulging in the season’s “lazy, hazy” reputation and taking advantage of some unscheduled down time. We started our summer vacation with a week at our farm house in Noxubee County, Mississippi. We spend a few weeks there each year, and one of them usually serves as our summer kick-off.

I love that when we visit the farm, we each have favorite places and experiences we want to enjoy. Whether it’s walking dirt roads, exploring pastures, climbing favorite trees or making a bonfire, I’m so happy that my children are learning this place in the same way I did as a child. Even though I’ve been to the farm countless times, it seems like every visit I see something new. This trip, it was a white wild rose that has popped up around some of the fence rows. (I brought some cuttings back to see if I can get it to grow in my backyard.) Because we’ve had kind of a wet start to the summer, the greens of the trees and the pastures seemed unusually green, and tons of wild blackberries were already starting to ripen. This trip, we took the time to clean up around some of our favorite “climbing trees” and we added some wood footholds to one of them with the help of our longtime family friend, Mr. Clarence. Of course, I brought along my camera. I’ve already posted about my search for toadstools, but I wanted to share a few more of my favorite photo captures…

 

sojourn . Starting Spring at Busy Bee

March is coming to a close with all its fickle Southern tendencies! For a month that always ushers in the Spring season, this year’s has sure given us the full spectrum of Mississippi seasons from winter freezes to summer heat. My children were out of school for Spring Break a few weeks ago, and we were able to spend the week at Busy Bee, our family farmhouse in Noxubee County. I always enjoy taking time there to unwind, enjoy unstructured family time, and get my fix of pasture walking and breathing in country air. This year, our Spring Break weather included some cold and rainy days, but we made the most of it, squeezing in at least a few of our favorite farm adventures.

I don’t know if it’s because of the burst of warmer weather we had early in 2017, but I can hardly remember a time at Busy Bee when the pre-Spring days were SO green! Although we had some freezing temperatures, the pasture carpet was full of new life. In these early Spring days, the green seems the most lush before summer’s heat has the chance to tire it out. Of course, I always have my camera with me, and it was fun to capture a few glimpses of how Spring on the farm cracks through the more stark color and contrast of winter. For us, it was a week of seeing two seasons at once, sometimes in the same frame. I came home with renewed energy and excitement for the ideas I’ve wanted to tackle this year.

sojourn . Summer Days at the Farm

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[so many greens]

My oldest has been talking about memories a lot lately – not necessarily specific ones, but more the concept of having them. And how they’re associated with places. Busy Bee, as we call our family farm land, is one of those places that has instilled memories for me, and it’s always been my goal for my children to have them there as well. We’ve set aside weeks to spend at the farmhouse each year to help build those memories, and it was neat for me to realize again this summer that the memories are taking hold.

We usually take a week of farm fun around Memorial Day to kick off our summer vacation. This year, as we were driving on the gravel road leading to our property, Travis noticed the typical cows in the fields. They are almost always black ones like the ones my dad used to keep. Now my uncle keeps a similar breed on our property. I think what caught Travis’ attention was the unusual red cow in the field. After pointing it out, he commented that it wasn’t like the ones on “our farm.” And then, “See Mommy, we have memories here.” It was a small and unselfconscious declaration taking ownership of one of our places and experiences. And it brought a smile to my face. What joy to have my children enjoy some of the same experiences and build some of the same memories I had as a child!

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[fairy stages?]

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[growing wild all over, but not quite ripe]

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[trumpet vine, somehow this has made it to my yard over the last year]

We spent the week enjoying more of our favorite farm adventures… walking the gravel roads, throwing rocks in the creek, noticing a thousand greens, digging through fallen trees, exploring the woods, finding old animal bones, the tree bench, gathering sticks for a bonfire, s’mores, driving to the “back back” and checking out fences, rocking on the deck, picnics by the barn, discovering blackberries, cooling off with a dvd marathon, sleeping late, and lots of conversations. I try to document our journey with photos and sometimes paintings. This trip, I painted most days on the deck each day, and the kids joined me a couple of times. Maybe that will become another tradition.

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[found cow bones now repurposed to dig in a tree stump]

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[does anyone else see a fish?]

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[my grandmother’s fig tree still producing]

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[old milk barn window with vines]

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[Elisha’s tiger]

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[Maggie’s sun]

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farmpainting6 [Memorial Day 2016]

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sojourn . Glimpses of Fall Break at Busy Bee

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We were very excited to spend part of last week at our family’s farm land for the children’s Fall Break. We enjoyed many of our usual farm activities, and I thought I would share a few inspiring thoughts and views discovered there. We aren’t usually at the farm until later in the fall, so this time we had the chance to see a nice mix of summer and autumn as well as a few wild flowers and plants we don’t often get to see.

We call the farm “Busy Bee” after an old African American church that was once located in the area. It may be just a name our family uses, but it’s stuck since I was a child. For this trip — and for the first time in a long time — I left my laptop at home and had a welcomed break from work activities. I didn’t even take my paints or sketch book, and I didn’t miss them! A true sign I was due for a mental break from creative activities.

We filled our days with down time, conversations, and walking in the pastures. We found a couple of new trees to climb, checked out the hay yard, walked the Southwest end of the property, and explored the Dry Creek bed (which was actually dry this time of year). It was a much needed change of scenery for me and for the kids, and in that void of deadlines and creative pursuits, I had the chance to let the whirling of thoughts and ideas in my mind settle. I came home with this small reminder written in my journal…

It’s hard to take the right steps forward if I am not disciplined to spend time listening to my own inner voice.

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fallbreak15g [pasture wildflowers we haven’t seen before]

fallbreak15f [sometime rust can be very colorful]

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fallbreak15d [lilypads forming on the back pond]

fallbreak15c [the remaining two walls of an old hay shed – before my time]

fallbreak15a [an honest to goodness tree bench discovered in the woods at the Southwest corner]

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Revisiting Long Beach

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When I was planning our summer, one of the things I wanted to do was take my kids to a few Mississippi places they hadn’t seen to give them more of a taste of our home state. When we scheduled our family vacation to Gulf Shores, Alabama last month, I decided to tack on a few extra days at the front end for us to wander through the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

My late husband, Mike, grew up on the Gulf Coast — in Long Beach, Mississippi — and I have bittersweet memories of only a few visits we made there, and of him sharing with me some of the things he enjoyed most about it. Although the Coast is only about five hours from our home in Starkville, before this summer, I had not been back to the area since we were there together. And, that was also a few years before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

For the Mississippi leg of our vacation, we stayed in Gulf Port, but did a lot of driving and exploring from Bay St. Louis to the west, all the way across to Ocean Springs to the east before heading over to Alabama. The trip brought up a lot of emotions for me. As with many things related to their Dad, I was a little apprehensive about showing the children some of the places that hold deep memories for me. At the same time, I was also excited to show them more about the things he loved and the place he lived as a child. They were so young when he died, and sometimes I think I need to fill in more of the picture they never got to experience with Mike. Of course, with anyone visiting the Coast for the first time since Katrina, I was very curious and apprehensive again about seeing the destruction and the changes it caused — even 10 years later.

It was actually a neat and cathartic experience to return to some of the places Mike showed me in on the coast, even with some of the huge changes caused by the hurricane’s destruction. The children were most interested in the simple details rather than any of the emotions about the places, and that was about my speed too.

We visited Shelter Rock Drive. Mike grew up in a small house on that block which is adjacent to Hwy 90. Although his childhood was filled with challenges, the neighborhood was a good spot, considering his love of wildlife, fishing and so many outdoor experiences. The lot on the corner of his street and Hwy 90 stood vacant since Hurricane Camille in 1969, when the house that was originally there was destroyed. Mike told stories of climbing the live oaks that remained on the lot during his childhood. During this first time back, my biggest glimpse of the reality of Katrina’s devastation was that Shelter Rock Drive is virtually just grass plots and concrete slabs almost grown over now. Not an easy sight to see, although I knew in my head it’s what I should expect.

Aside from driving around a little, the other place we visited in Mike’s hometown was the Long Beach fishing pier. Mike and I actually fished there a few times, which you can read as mostly Mike fishing and me dropping a few casts every now and then. Mike spent a lot of his youth fishing the pier and in some of the streams like Wolf River.
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The water in the Mississippi Gulf looks dirty. Mike taught me that it’s because it IS dirty. Not from lack of care, but because of the Mississippi River. The barrier islands trap water spilled into Mississippi Sound from the river and push it to shore. It makes for a “brackish” environment with its own wildlife and habitat. At least that’s my recollection of his explanation.

Mike taught me a lot of small details. And they’re all sometimes a little sketchy now…

Oleander is very pretty, but don’t ever use the stalks for a marshmallow roast because they are poisonous. The beaches on the Gulf Coast are actually man-made, and the native beaches were a lot more rocky. Deer Island almost touches the mainland in Gulf Port and he enjoyed camping there on occasion with friends. In the days before gambling was legal in Mississippi, the casino restaurant boats would sail out far enough to touch international waters in order to comply with the law. And folks on the boats tipped well. Crab cages have a trap crabs can crawl in, but not out. Crabbers drop their traps with a weight and line and come back hours later to haul in their catch. The water moccasins look just like hanging vines on Wolf Creek. “Floundering” uses this jabby thing on the end of a pole. Flounder have both their eyes on the same side of their body and if you slide your feet along the beach floor, you might stir one up. Fish from the pier really prefer live bait, but cold shrimp will do. Live bait shrimp aren’t pink. When somebody gets a hit on the pier, everybody watches him reel it in. There’s a tiny little jelly fish that washes ashore sometimes during low tide that makes the beach light up as you touch them. Pelicans fly long distances, see their prey from high up and take an amazing dive to grab it.

In our short visit to the pier, the children saw the same pelicans I did when Mike took me there. They looked across to Long Beach Harbor. They watched the daily fishermen cast out their nets with the weights on the end. I told them the same stories he told me and shared the details like I was a pro. Only, I’m not. I’m just trying to remember. The same as they are. All part of weaving together a life that only forms in our memories now.

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I’m so glad we took the time to revisit Long Beach this time — the first time for the children. Like priming a pump, the first time visiting what could be a difficult place draws out the opportunity for future experiences. I’m actually excited about taking them there again, and hoping they can find some of their own special places and memories in the place their Dad called home.

Stay tuned for a few more posts to come as I share more about our visit to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Gulf Shores, Alabama area. We explored as many downtown areas across the coast as we could and found lots of fun places — small businesses, restored areas, museums, collections and more. Good memories!

sojourn . Summer Farm Views

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The children and I are spending this week at the farm to celebrate the start of summer vacation. It’s a great excuse to enjoy some down time, play time with the kids, exploring, and good times free sketching and painting.

We were last here in March when the scenery was just beginning to show signs of spring. Now, we seem to see green in various hues peeking through every possible crevice, and the pastures look almost completely full of growth. This trip, I brought my Canon SLR, and I took a short walk to capture some of the scenes after we arrived. I loved these views of the “nail hole constellations” in the tractor shed walls. In a dark, shadowed space, the tiniest pin hole of light just seems to grow and vibrate.

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