Now Is Better

I don’t recall exactly how I learned that a school friend from years ago had written a novel, but I was immediately intrigued enough to look into it. A novel! That’s real writing, integrating creative imagination with the real world. I admire that ability.

The book had a title that gave me pause — The First Year It Sleeps — what in the world could that be about? My interest was piqued even more when I saw that the setting was a place very familiar to me, in the real world, and the time period was — Hey! Omigosh that’s when I was a kid. I had to read this book.

Click the pic, preview the book online.

Well, I read it, and I was enticed page after page to keep going for one familiar clue after another as to exactly where this or that happened, and was this or that piece of the puzzle real or was it part of the fictional story. That kept my nose in the book. I remember how our parents worried about polio in the 1950s, and maybe we even knew a kid with it. I remember the freedom of speeding recklessly on a bike, of conspiring with friends to go sneak into some forbidden place or get lost in the woods, to get creepy-scared in an eerie cemetery, to have secrets, to have a friend move away, forever! To learn about  bullying one way or another, or to be put in fear of your life by a grownup. There was the teacher with the odd mannerisms, the nuns with their stern ways. To take a dare to go up to some old spooky place — say, an abandoned manor house — where a mysterious old recluse lives, and, what now, ring the bell and run? Sneak inside? Hide there overnight knowing there must be ghosts? Boo! Dare ya! Turns out it wasn’t just my neighborhood and my time; it was the story of everybody whose childhood included being able to play, run, laugh, and cry.

I wrote a review about the book on Amazon.

The First Year It Sleeps by Brenda Gibrall

I was drawn into the story initially because it was about the time and place where I grew up. So many of the place descriptions took on special meaning because I had lived in them. I marveled, despite that would-be advantage, at the detail and vividness that came through. If I had been a stranger to the place I would have seen it just as fully through the author’s skillful descriptions.

The story brought me back in time as well, not just place, seeing the world through the eyes of a group of play-friends as they learn about life. The differences between the several families, the sometimes-furtive outings and dares, the secrets, the kid stuff. Learning grownup stuff too, overcoming segregation and revealing insights on Southern race relations of the time, in touching perspective. A mysterious death, some classic kid detective work, what more could a story need?

There’s more to the story.

Not long after reading the book, I had occasion to visit my old home town. Before leaving Colorado for Richmond, I contacted the author to check out some of the clues I had found, to see if my guesses were correct on the places and some of the characters in the story. I asked if the spooky old manor house was real, or if she had built it from research and imagination. It was real. Not really abandoned and spooky — that was literary license — but it was a real house. Not only that, but it was built around 1780. 1780! And it’s still there! And it’s a ten-minute walk from the house where I lived as a child! Lots of things in Virginia are old, but I had no idea of anything like that.

My curiosity was engaged to the extent that on that visit to Richmond I went to see the place. Mr. Vernon Creekmore owns it now. He lives there and runs a high-end antique business from the house. He is not a descendant of earlier owners, but he is a fine historian of the place. He was at home when I stopped by, and he graciously invited me in to learn about the history of the house and its former very large estate. It had been a horse farm, and had a racetrack located where the McGuire VA Hospital is now. That hospital was across an open field from my old home.

The first of my McDonald forebears to settle in Virginia were my great grandparents Archibald Macdonald and his bride-to-be Margaret McDonnell, arriving well after the Civil War. Archer and Margaret were married in Richmond in 1881. He was a farmer, raising strawberries and asparagus. Archer’s land was divided among his children when he died, and then some of those divided to theirs. As I learned from what Mr. Creekmore described, my great-grandpa’s farm was within the area formerly included in this estate. The farm and its racetrack were called Broad Rock.

The land was adjacent to the land of Col. Robert Byrd II (big name in Virginia). The house was built by Col. Archibald Cary though he had an estate in Buckingham County and may not have lived at Broad Rock, or not for long. It was built around 1780-1790 as shown by the kind of nails used, according to Creekmore. Maj. Ball, a supplier for the Revolutionary War, bought it and it was during his tenure that the horse racing was at its apex in the late 1700s.

Broad Rock Racetrack was one of three racetracks in the Richmond area. Virginia was big in early horse racing, and Ball was big in horse racing. Around 1780-99 a famous race horse was brought over from England, Diomed. He sired Ball’s Florizel, famous for his bad temper; William Ball owned the horse and he was so fast and so mean that no one wanted to race him. He went to stud at an early age. Also famous in the line: Turpin’s Florizel, Sir Archy. Horse-racing fortunes were made and lost, and this line went on from Virginia, leading into the world-class Kentucky racing culture.

Now, I don’t know anything about race horses or horse racing, except I bet $2 on a horse once and decided it’s not my path to riches. Nor do I know about those Revolutionary War era Colonels and Majors, but still, it was fascinating to connect with that history of the place where I played tag with cousins and learned to ride a bike. Colonel Cary, the one who had the house built, was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses for Goochland, 1748; Justice for Chesterfield, 1750; Burgess 1758-74; of Committee of Safety, 1774-76; of Colonial Committee of Correspondence of all the Revolutionary Conventions & Speaker of the State Senate from 1776 until his death.1 He married Mary Randolph, daughter of Col. Richard & Jane (Bolling) Randolph, of “Curles.” She is an ancestor cousin of mine, daughter of Jane Bolling whose sister was my 6th great-grandmother Martha Bolling. Then later, among the owners of that house, Ball married Bettsy Cheatham. She was another distant cousin, and the Cheatham family was the family that owned the land when part of it was taken by the Government after WWII for that VA hospital.

I am reminded of a moment I wrote about in A Breeze in Bulgaria.

     I passed by a monument in the center of town, “The Column.” I stopped for a moment to try to read it. It was written in an archaic version of the alphabet…. It was something about the Turks…. Seeing me peering at it, an older man stopped alongside me and looked at it too, probably for the first time as it often happens with things we take for granted.
     I was surprised when he turned to me and said, “Istoria.”
     History.
     I said, “Da, istoria, interesno.”
     He replied, “Sega e po-dobre.”
     Now is better. 2

Now is better.

Think about it. The Good Old Days, our glorious history. Do we long for a return to those old times? We have it tough now? Life was better, simpler, easier? The American presence on this continent started with freezing and starvation. The Revolutionary War, with Patriot and Loyalist neighbors attacking and killing each other even before it turned into a war between armies. Slavery. The Trail of Tears. The Civil War. Reconstruction. Starvation. Trench warfare in The War to End All Wars. Prohibition. Gangster murders. The Dust Bowl. World War II. OK, how about the 50s, all OK, right? Sure, if you were white and middle class or a factory owner. Civil Rights violence in the 60s. I’ll let it go at that; work your own way through the 70s and up to now.

Now is better.

Guest Blog: Not Living in Fear

The President of the United States said, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

Fearless. I know some fearless people. One is Piper Beatty Welsh. I met her through a mutual acquaintance and shared interests. She is a lawyer and an advocate for Cystic Fibrosis research. She is a survivor of that disease and cancer, as well as lung transplants. I have featured her wise and passionate articles in this space before, and I just can’t help sharing this one too. The President says not to live in fear. This is important.

Guest Blog Article by Piper Beatty Welsh

So I’m gonna be honest: the public conversation around “living in fear” of COVID has raised some interesting points for me as a person with (now multiple forms of) chronic, potentially fatal illness. The irony here is that I personally have used similar language before to explain my own life choices — although in absolute fairness to myself I don’t think I’ve ever been so callous as to label people who take more precautions than myself as “living in fear.” But whatever, I digress.

To me there’s a very big difference between refusing to “live in fear” and taking reasonable steps to avoid preventable harm. And, yes, I’ve had real life experience with both. For example, when I was faced with a projected 3 to 6 MONTH life expectancy last year (not the first time in my life I’ve been handed that sort of diagnosis) I looked my doctors straight in the eye and told them that I’d be taking a trip to Japan with my husband in the middle of chemo therapy. We flew literally around the world to a place where neither of us spoke a word of the language in the middle of a course of extreme chemo, with an IV line hanging out of my chest and a carry on bag stuffed to the brim with medical supplies for the simple reason that Japan was a lifelong dream and we wanted to experience it together, and we had good reason to believe that would be our last chance. So we spoke with my doctors and had all the necessary conversations — not to ask “permission” but to make sure that we had all the information and advice we needed to make smart choices and stay as safe as possible within the boundaries of our personal risk choices. At the time, we chuckled that the decision was “so Piper,” so like the woman who toted IV meds to law school classes and kept her treatment machines in her office at the firm so she didn’t have to go on disability. I’ve always taken pride in my decisions to prioritize my dreams while still managing my health, and while I know I’ve made mistakes along the way, it’s still something I value deeply.

Fast forward a year and suddenly random strangers on the internet — folks who in some cases have never faced a true medical emergency — are sitting behind their keyboards gleefully calling out all the “cowards” who “live in fear” of a “simple cold.” Mind you, it’s a simple cold that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and increased our annual death rate by approximately 20% in this country, but hey, who needs facts? According to these brilliant online philosophers, there are only two choices: live life exactly as you did before this virus, or “live in fear.” No other options exist. There is never any reasonable middle ground.

But here’s the thing: most folks who have truly stared death in the face will tell you that it’s not that simple. Living life to the hilt in a mortal world actually means taking responsibility for your choices and being smart enough to know which boundaries are worth pushing. The greatest climbers in the world will tell you that they’re highly aware of the risks they take on the side of that mountain. They spend tons of time planning their route, examining their equipment, practicing their moves, and learning from experts before they ever place a hand on that rock. The great ones don’t ignore the risks, they adjust and work with them to achieve their most important goals anyway. Same with skydivers or extreme skiers or race car drivers or deep-sea divers or the woman with breast cancer who desperately wants to attend her kid’s band concert despite immunosuppression and intense treatment. These folks make a plan, they understand the risks, they prepare themselves and their bodies beforehand, and then they do what is most important to them WHILE protecting their own life and the lives of those they love, because THAT’S what truly living is all about.

So pardon me, keyboard warriors, if I choose to stay home instead of hanging at the bar — that’s not an experience I’m willing to take large risks to enjoy when so many safer socialization options exist. And excuse me for a moment if I opt to follow the expert advice when I go out in public — my lifetime of medical experience tells me that public health is worth protecting. And please control your rage when I dare to wear a mask in your presence — I hate to offend, but my life means more than your delicate feelings. And don’t be surprised when you come at me with your rantings about “living in fear” and being a coward and you start to detect a slight smirk behind that mask of mine — because after all I’ve been through it’s gonna take a heck of a lot more than your silly words to bring me down.

And I’m not afraid to say it.

Be brave, beautiful people.

Four Seasons

It’s been hot here in Colorado lately. Not unusual for the season, I’ll agree. Not like the 120 °F that they’ve reached in spots to the west of us (even in temperate Southern California, wow!) but for us, reaching 100 degrees is pretty unusual. That’s what we had a day or two ago in Denver and then today… well, more on that later.

I remember summers in Virginia, where I grew up. What I remember is sweat. When it starts it never seems comfortable to me, though it’s doing the work of cooling me off, setting me up for the next cool breeze. Maybe I should be more appreciative, but it just makes me feel slow, and dank, and awkward. Once when I was a kid, I remember…

Summer. Sweat.

I was never so gangly and sweatful and dumb
As on that day when a new cousin came to see us.
A second cousin Mama said, family up from Tennessee.
I was seven and she was too but she was older, by far.

“What do you do around here?”
“I dunno. Play I guess.” Stupid answer, so stupid! Why did I say that?
She sat with the grownups and they all talked.
Her hair was golden, shiny, curled. After a while, bored, I went out to play.

Outside, Tommy came over and we chased each other,
tag-I-gotcha no-ya-didn’t until breathinghard sweatstreaming we paused,
swiping at the little grimy sweat beads that catch up dirt in the creases of your neck
and you can roll them out with your fingertips.

Afternoon sun glaring, heart pounding hot, leaning over hands braced on knees, sweat.
They all came out to her daddy’s car, cool as lemonade. “Bye now, y’all come see us.”
Such a bright smile, like my mother’s.
We never did go down to Tennessee.


Then comes the fall. One November, when Stormy and I were working in Bulgaria, I noted about the change in seasons that the month “started off with windy bright days that sent confused little eddies of dry brown leaves skittering noisily around the sidewalks in a panic.” 1

Fall. The Wind.

“Why so fast, Wind, what’s the need
For such ruthless, restless speed?”
Trees are frightened, some may fail,
Overcome by autumn’s gale.

Straining, bracing, they resist
Yielding to your brutal fist.
They whose leaves were high and fair
Stand naked now, denuded, bare.

Running, fleeing, leaves fly free
Through the streets ahead of me.
Hiding, huddled, by the stair,
Some dry leaves cower, shiv’ring, scared.

A moment’s rest, a heavy sigh
And then a prowling gust comes by.
“Aha! I found you! Now you’re done!”
Frantic, frenzied, out they run.

This day will bring no rest for trees
Or leaves, or me, out in the breeze.


And then today (remember it was extra hot a few days ago!) this is what we woke up to. Snow on trees

It reminded me of a story, a little fable I’ve told before2

Winter. The Snowflake.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,”
The tiny black coalmouse said.
Taken aback, the dove thought it over,
And puzzled, she tilted her head.

“Why it’s nothing more than nothing,” she cooed,
“As light as an angel’s kiss.”
“Well then, I have a marvelous story to tell,”
Said the coalmouse. “One still night like this,

“I sat by the branch of a fir tree,
As many a time I had done.
Then softly and dreamlike in silence
A small snowflake fell. I said, ‘One.’

“Then idly I counted a million
And two million more, making three.
Then hundreds of thousands to seven
Each one on the branch of my tree.

“I almost lost track in a flurry
But I had a big job to do.
Three million sev’n hundred and forty-
One thousand, nine hundred and fifty-two.

“Each one safely settled and rested
Until with a SNAP! loudly heard
The three million sev’n hundred forty-
One thousand, nine hundred and fifty-third

“Broke the branch and so they all tumbled,
With one added flake down they slid.
Its weight was just nothing and nothing you said,
But see what that one snowflake did.”

The dove pondered this for a moment;
A quiet insight had its birth.
“Perhaps there is just one voice lacking
To finally bring peace to the earth.”

— Poem based on the story Also Sprach der Marabu, by Kurt Kauter (1913-2002)


Stormy and I lived for years and years in places where it seemed there were no seasons, or at least they were subtle, or muted. When we moved to Bulgaria it made us remember our childhoods, and the regularity of seasonal change, the lessons that come from knowing that things will not always be as they are. The lessons of preparing for the next season, like the lesson the ant tried to teach the grasshopper. “Winter survival” was what they called the preparation for the reality of the barren bitter cold. Enduring the winter was made bearable by the promise of spring, and the festivals anticipating the season were as much a part of the yearly cycle as planting and harvesting in their times. The anticipation of the season of wondrous new growth reached a peak on March 1, with the Baba Marta holiday 3 and the return of migrating storks to their nests. The season of renewal…

Spring. The Sprout.

Pushing, straining hard
Through dark damp unyielding earth.
Sunlight! I love you.