Friday, June 6, 2014

Walking with Your Head Down



            June has arrived, bringing with her a first blast of heat and humidity and a promise of more to come when her sisters, July and August, make their appearance with the turn of the calendar pages. Everything outside is growing and alive - flowers bud and bloom; trees stretch out the fingers of their new leaves to catch the sun and rain; the grass shoots tall each week only to be clipped back by the mower’s blades; wild animal babies and birds leave behind their downy baby coats and their mamas to explore the world; and bugs of every kind hatch to flit, fly, scurry, hop, and crawl anywhere and everywhere. In this time of growing and newness, I like to walk with my head down. Not hung, mind you, in shame or embarrassment. But purposely pointed toward the ground, the better to focus on the ground around my feet. That’s where all the little things lie.
            Some of my earliest memories are of looking at the ground as I played outside. If you’re familiar with the book The Casual Observer by Elizabeth Whitson, a story of a little girl with her head always pointed toward the ground the better to observe nature, that was very much me. Behind my childhood home, a rocky and wooded hillside rose up, up, up to a road with more houses above. A stream flowed down the hill and boulders served as shelves and seats among the trees. The ground was filled with all manner of treasures for my woodland abode: sticks to serve as wands, many colors of leaves that made excellent placemats and plates, rocks in varieties from sandstone to anthracite coal. I collected the many kinds and became somewhat of an expert at identifying them. A wild muscadine vine twined around trees on one side of our lot, dropping its green and purple fruits for me to find among the grass and leaves. The backyard stream meandered by our patio before spilling over a wall at the head of our driveway. When I peered closely at the water in the narrow gap between the lawn and the patio, I could find little tadpoles. And toads, both brown and gray, hid in the leaves, hopping away when startled by my play. Occasionally, an adventuresome turtle would make his way from the deeper creek behind the houses across the street to serve as my delightful companion, albeit a quiet and slow one, for several hours.
            On Sundays, Mama, Daddy, and I would go over to my grandmother’s apartment for Sunday supper. Muzzie, as I called her, lived in a one bedroom one-level at the end of a row which provided her with a yard in the front, side, and back. The backyard sloped down so that she had a deck off the kitchen with steps that led down to the grass. While waiting for the meal of beef roast and vegetables to emerge from her small, hot kitchen, I would walk around the yard looking for bugs, four-leaf clovers, and tiny flowers. Below the steps in the back, the ground was dusty and bare except for pebbles and rocks that I collected and arranged to serve as the decor for my “room” under the stairs.
            After supper, Daddy would drive back home to watch a game or another suitable man-show on TV while we three girls went for a walk. Our route always led across the street and behind other apartments. We’d pass their patios and then continue through an intersection to buildings housing doctors’ offices and a bank. Along the way, I’d acquire a branch to serve as my walking stick for the evening. We passed landscaped beds bordering parking lots. With my head down, I always found little plants growing in cracks in and around the sidewalks. Despite these inhospitable spots, they sprouted from pieces broken off the plants in the nearby beds or from seeds carried on the wind. Once I found a purple petunia blooming in a crack and joyously showed it to Mama and Muzzie. We pulled it up, roots and all, and took it home where Mama planted it beside its store-bought cousins in a whiskey barrel where it thrived.
            I’ve found many treasures through the years by looking at the ground: a lost plastic monkey from a Barrel of Monkeys game on a sidewalk outside a toy store; a collection of straight pins with heads shaped liked lady bugs under a clothes rack while Muzzie shopped for Alfred Dunner pants; a sand dollar not much bigger than the head of pin on the sand at Orange Beach; sea glass of every color among the pink sand of a Bermuda beach; confetti shaped like a smiley face, a star and a flower on the stairs after a party; a plastic Pakistani flag the size of my thumb on the steps outside of my office building; and a little tomato plant struggling up from a sidewalk crack by the lot where I park. I carefully uprooted the tenuous fella before someone could step on him and took him home, where he grew tall and strong in a pot and provided tomatoes for our salads all summer long.
            I’m pleased to say that I’ve passed on to my daughter my habit of walking with my head down. Laura loves to go for nature walks. Her elementary school is within walking distance of our house, and sometimes I’ll surprise her on Friday afternoons, when I work half-a-day, by arriving on foot to pick her up. As she chatters away about the details of her day, she keeps her head down to spot treasures on the ground. By the time we arrive home, my hands and hers are full of interesting leaves, sweet gum balls, pebbles, flowers and acorns. On a trip to a museum in Houston, while walking by a park, she found sticks shed by overhanging oak trees and sporting balls of Spanish moss. “Fairy wands!” Laura proclaimed. “Fairies live in the park!” We gathered up all our hands could hold and brought them home, after making sure we had left plenty for the fairies. Laura’s treasured collection from her perusal of the ground includes tiny pebbles, snail shells, and a butterfly wing. She’s showed me a white, gooey bug egg clinging to a grass blade; pointed to honey bees gathering nectar from clover; gasped over a translucent spider that a breath would carry away busily spinning a web in the grass; lamented over ants carrying their dead home; and giggled about inch worms measuring the world one inch at a time.
            Laura sees the things that so many people miss. And when I realize that I’m too stressed by all the responsibilities of my life, too distracted by the un-doable to-do list in my head, I look down. Beneath my feet I see a world where the little things matter. So when life seems overwhelming, I highly recommend you walk with your head down. Treasure and wonders await you, you just have to look. You’ll be amazed at all you’ll see.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

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