High granite curbs and hundred-year-old oaks lined the street I grew up on. The rhythm of those oaks’ tall shade along Jackson Street was interrupted only by the church next door to my house, a vacant lot where we played wiffle ball, and the Darden’s house directly across the street from ours. Theirs was a beautiful but maybe a bit tired wedding cake Victorian. But instead of the typical water oak in their front yard, a massive magnolia tree stood. This wasn’t one of those magnolias with an impenetrable skirt of branches down to the ground. Theirs had a massive bare trunk rising up into the umbrella canopy of thick, glossy green leaves.
The Darden’s were different in other ways than just that tree. They kept a little more to themselves. Connected to but not intertwined in the web of old Decatur social circles. They lived among but were still independent of the goings on. Their isolation created a bit of mystery and rumor among the neighborhood kids. Our very own Boo Radley, Mr. Darden became the unseen monster who the mere mention of would send us scrambling away. As an adult, of course, I realized what a gentle, kind man he was, living quietly behind that magnolia tree across the street.
They read books. Focused on education. And they had no television, another thing that made them more fringe than fabric. These were foreign concepts in our neighborhood, about as heard of as skipping church or sunscreen.
Every so often Mrs. Darden would pay me to water her plants when they would go out of town. That’s when I got a real feel for how different things were inside their home. Knocking on the big beveled glass of their front door, I could see Mrs. Darden smiling as she came to let me in. She opened the door and greeted me, her voice scratchy and soft. Shaky, as if she had Parkinson’s, but she didn’t. She had a crown of very pale yellow hair and wore Land’s End clothes, such practicality in a town more familiar with brighter ladies’ trends. Smiling, she invited me to the kitchen to discuss plans.
As we walked through the living room – lots of bookcases and comfortable chairs, the entire room was natural wood kept dark and quiet with unpainted shutters on the windows. I started to feel something different in the air of this home. Through the dim dining room my natural speed slowed by Mrs. Darden’s steady pace. The sound of our footsteps alternating from Oriental rugs to hardwood floors sending creaks and echos off high ceilings.
In the kitchen we stepped into bright light from tall bare windows overlooking the back yard. This was a kitchen long before interior decorators set their sights on them as rooms of fashion. It was purely utilitarian with pale green walls, laminate countertops, not enough cabinet space, and an old kitchen table covered in bowls, a few pots, and houseplants. This was a room where life happened. Where a family was fed and children nourished. It wasn’t a backdrop. This kitchen was the bacon grease in a tin can, the sound of a knife on a cutting board, the lungs and liver of their home.
She showed me what plants to water and other things to do, of course. But I don’t remember much of that. What stays with me is the calm air around her. The way she saw me. She must have known it wasn’t easy living in my house across the street, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. Except every once in a while asking me to water her plants. Then she’d have a chance to hold me in her eyes and let me know she at least understood.
I sat with her talking about the matters at hand, but I don’t think I was in a hurry to leave. I liked breathing that still air. Mrs. Darden’s acknowledging presence calmed me. I was inhabiting something new by being there. I think it was hope.
Somehow I didn’t feel so alone knowing this smart, gentle family was right across the street. It wasn’t so much that I thought I’d run to them, but the sight of their house peeking out from behind that giant magnolia tree gave me a visual. Knowing them gave me a reference for what different looked like.
Several years later, I’m guessing I was probably twelve, the Dardens hung a swing in that magnolia tree. It was just a simple board hung from a single rope. I doubt I was officially invited to use the swing, but that didn’t matter. Every chance I got I would leave my yard and cross the street for the shady magnolia room and fly away.
I suppose, like the air inside their home, things were different under that tree. Maybe the hope I’d felt with Mrs. Darden had found its way out those tall windows, off the porch, and into the yard. For hours I would close my eyes and push myself back and forth. Alone. Without my brothers and their torturous play. Alone, I’d swing without my father. Without his disappointment for his life and all who happened to end up in it. Alone. Where I could replay over and over my mother’s voice telling me I could do anything or be anything I wanted. Breathing the calm air in the shade of that magnolia, I’d swing.
I’d kick off from the trunk and spin around in a long, wide arc leaning back and looking up at the coppery underside of all those leaves and hints of blue sky overhead. When I’d swing back around I’d draw my knees in, so when my bare feet would hit I could kick off harder to go even farther and spin even more. Over and over again. I’d fly away in the shadows and feel a sense of freedom I wouldn’t feel again for a very long time. Each kick took me on a quiet, four-second journey a million miles away from my house across the street.
Several years ago I was asked when and where I felt safest as a child. For some reason I thought of that swing in the magnolia tree. I remembered the feeling of spinning and kicking off that trunk for hours. That was the place where, when I look back on it, my heart felt great peace. There were other times I was happy, of course, but it was under that tree – alone – where my memory settles on a sense of calm. This was where I’d found a stillness in the jostled, sloshing bucket of my childhood.
The work in this book was born out of experiences that remind me of that swing. It’s the away. The safe space for dreaming and listening. I have found that no matter what, a bubble grows around our little worlds, and it’s good to step outside of it every once in a while. To get away and listen and explore.
A few years ago I went to Italy for the first time. I traveled there alone for three weeks, and this was when my sense of creativity was reignited. I had stepped away from the practice of creativity about five years prior, as it had become a tool for hiding who I was instead of discovering who I am. But on that trip I realized I was ready to see things in an all new light.
Walking through crowded airports or train stations surrounded by voices I didn’t understand, I found myself turning inward. Hearing the sound of my footsteps on hiking trails or old stone, I heard encouragement. And looking at a map that was nothing like the back of my hand, I saw endless possibilities. Not just for my day, but for my future. All of these things became my companion on that trip, and I stay connected to it by stepping outside the bubble.
Every time I kick off from the trunk of my life to swing out into the world, I’m reminded of that safe space. I’m reminded of the freedom to fly and dream and create. This is where I see light, love and, ultimately, the opportunity we all have to be that space of hope and calm for those around us.