Songs of the Season ~ O, Tumbleweed!

O, Christmas Tree

If the words ‘toolpusher’, ‘roughneck,’ ‘monkeyboard,’ or ‘mud man’ aren’t familiar, you might not recognize the aging bit of oil field equipment in the photo as a Christmas tree.  Obviously, it has nothing to do with the fragrant pines and firs we bring into our homes for the holiday, but the array of valves, spools, and fittings designed to control the flow of fluids into or out of a well apparently reminded oil and gas field workers of old-fashioned, decorated Christmas trees: so much so that the name took hold, and still is used today.

Whether Charles Follen would have appreciated a connection between the improbable oilfield trees and the more traditional ‘tannenbaum’ he introduced to New England is impossible to say, but I suspect he would have been intrigued.

Raised in Germany, Follen immigrated to America in 1824, becoming Harvard’s first German-language instructor in 1825. By 1832, living in Cambridge with his wife and two-year-old son, he decided to recreate the German Christmas customs of his childhood and youth. In the woods near his home, he cut a small fir, decorated its branches with dolls and candy-filled cornucopias, and illuminated it with candles.

Harriet Martineau, an English journalist visiting Boston at the time, described the unveiling of the tree at the Follens’ Christmas party:

The tree was the top of a young fir, planted in a tub which was ornamented with moss. Smart dolls and other whimsies glittered on the evergreen and there was not a twig which had not something sparkling upon it…
I mounted the steps behind the tree to see the effect of opening the doors. It was delightful. The children poured in, but in a moment every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke, only Charley leaped for joy….
It really looked beautiful; the room seemed in a blaze, and the ornaments were so well hung on that no accident happened, except that one doll’s petticoat caught fire. There was a sponge tied to the end of a stick to put out any supernumerary blaze, and no harm ensued.
I have little doubt that the Christmas tree will become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England.

Over time, trees like the one introduced by Follen changed. Candles gave way to electric lights, imported glass baubles replaced paper chains, and peppermint canes supplanted candy-filled cornucopias. Still, the pine, the fir, and the spruce remained the Christmas trees of choice: good trees being defined by their conical shape, even branches, and straight trunks.

Finding such a perfect tree was possible in New England. In Texas, it was more difficult, particularly in the days before Christmas tree farms and modern transportation.

The native Ashe juniper, also known as Texas cedar or mountain cedar, became a more-than-adequate substitute for early settlers. Even today, hill country families harvest nicely-shaped Christmas cedars from their land, keeping with long Texas tradition.

A decorated Ashe juniper at Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood home

Farther west and south, even cedar grows sparse. Ever-inventive, a few lucky Texans harvest the stalk of the agave, or century plant, for drying and decoration. Impressive in its natural state, the plant’s stalk can grow to as much as thirty feet, making it especially appropriate for large spaces.

Agave at Sunset ~ Goliad, Texas
Decorated agave at Mission Espíritu Santo, Goliad, Texas

If there isn’t an agave handy and cedars are in short supply, Texans in the Panhandle always can turn to the tumbleweed. They’re often lighted and hung from trees as yard ornaments, and more than a few rotund ‘snowmen’ have made use of the weeds, but the best stories revolve around tumbleweed Christmas trees.

Red Steagall, well-known cowboy poet and raconteur, tells one of the best tumbleweed holiday stories, and he tells it in song. As it turns out, there are Christmas trees in Notrees, Texas, and not all of them are sitting in the oil patch.

It was a rough year for roughnecks’ children,
hard times and harder livin’,
we moved when the rent come due,
and it come due once a week.
That year in late December
found us in an old house trailer,
west of Odessa, near a town they call Notrees.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Notrees, Texas
Too poor to pay attention,
Daddy lived on good intentions;
he intended Christmas to be just what we believed.
Drove to town in the company pickup,
when he didn’t have a sawbuck
for the price of a Christmas tree —
he brought back a tumbleweed.
The tumbleweed I captured outside Dodge City, Kansas
Christmas eve in Notrees, Texas,
wind blowin’ through the cactus,
Santy Claus was a rich kid’s saint
and a poor kid’s dream.
I’d trade every fancy present
I ever had, or ever will get,
for the night of the tumbleweed Christmas tree.
Daddy set it on the dinette table,
Mama made a newsprint angel,
ornaments of tinfoil scraps and buttons on a string.
Took us all night to decorate it,
When we got done I’ll have to say that
it was the prettiest tumbleweed that I’d ever seen.
O, Tumbleweed
Wind rocked the trailer like a cradle,
While we sang our Christmas carols
settin’ on a sofa on the duct-tape Naugahyde.
Daddy looked proud as a big city banker,
Mama tried hard to be thankful
Lookin’ at that tumbleweed,
she laughed until she cried.
Christmas eve in Notrees, Texas,
Wind blowin’ through the cactus,
Santy Claus was a rich kid’s saint
and a poor kid’s dream.
I’d trade every fancy present
I ever had or ever will get
for the night of the tumbleweed Christmas tree.
I was just six, goin’ on seven
being poor is an education;
That night I learned a lot
about just what Christmas means.
It means love and it means lovin’,
It means money don’t mean nothin’,
and it means a tumbleweed can make a Christmas tree.
Christmas eve in Notrees, Texas,
Wind blowin’ through the cactus,
Santy Claus was a rich kid’s saint
and a poor kid’s dream.
I’d trade every fancy present
I ever had or ever will get
for the night of the tumbleweed Christmas tree.

And so it is. ‘Makin’ do’ isn’t the worst thing in the world, and sometimes it’s the best. After all — it’s not the tree that counts, but the song it evokes.

Comments always are welcome.

Giving Thanks for “Yes”

One of my amusements during the holiday season is people-watching. Where crowds, lines, and captive children are the norm, amusement abounds.

During a pre-Thanksgiving swing through a local grocery, I landed behind a child and his mother in the checkout line. The boy appeared to be three or four years old, and he was fussy. Hanging on to his mother’s skirt, he circled around until he found safety, tucked between her body and the cart. Looking past us to displays of merchandise across the aisle, he pointed to something and tugged on her skirt to gain attention. Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him — a mistake she would come to regret.

The boy continued to demand her attention, until ‘fussy’ transformed itself into ‘cantankerous.’ and he began to wail with rage and frustration. He was tired. He wanted to go home, and he certainly didn’t want to wait while his mother sorted through coupons. As his outraged protest grew louder and more high-pitched, his obviously embarassed mother tried her best to reason with him.

“Do you want to ride in the cart?” she asked. No, he did not want to ride in the cart. “Do you want to look at your book?” No, he did not. “Do you want me to spank you?” He certainly didn’t want that. “Do you want to go to your room when we get home?” That wasn’t acceptable, either.

In desperation, his mother looked at her overflowing grocery cart. “Do you want a cookie?” “No!'” he shouted. Startled by the unexpected response, she asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?”  At that point, the boy began to wail and his perplexed mother tried again. “Do you know what I just asked you?” This time, there was no reply; the unhappy child only re-buried his tearful face into her skirt, muffling the sound of his refusals.

Those of us watching were as amused as his mother was uncomfortable and embarassed, but all of us — mother and onlookers alike — seemed astonished by the intensity of the child’s “No!” Caught up in the perverse pleasure of opposition, his refusals had become more important to him than a cookie.

Unfortunately, the instinctive response of that child has become the habit of too many adults. Nay-sayers abound. Petulant, obnoxious, pessimistic, and filled with cynicism, their entire raison dêtre appears to be shouting No! into the face of life. Offered the hand of friendship, the challenges of collegiality, or the possibility of intimacy, they respond by clinging ever more tightly to their rejection of every overture; every gesture of conciliation; every offer of hope.

Tiresome and exhausting in personal relationships, negativity becomes corrosive and toxic on a social level. When whole groups begin saying No to one another, more than feelings get hurt. Society becomes segmented. Fear erodes acceptance. Selfishness appears, together with its unhappy twin, a hunger for power. From urban alleyways to the halls of Congress, from boardrooms to the halls of academia, we increasingly are confronted by the spectacle of enraged, petulant children shouting “No!” to those who dare confront or care for them: an army of aging children possessing adult strength and power: children whose negativity is capable of killing or reshaping lives without regard for consequence.

Recognizing the power of negativity to erode, consume and destroy, I’ve come to depend on the folly of hope: a willingness to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humanity remains good at heart, that joy is possible, and that, however broken trust may be, it still can be rebuilt. To paraphrase the famous words of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I chose to believe humanity not only will endure the shouts of “no” we call history, but that it will prevail over that history by the “yes” of courageous human hearts.

Is such hope naive? Has faith in humanity become outdated? Have the cruelty, ridicule, and small-mindedness of the schoolyard made dignity, perseverance and acceptance irrelevant? Faced with such questions, I find myself once again aligned with a poet of my roots. Let the naysayers of the world rant on. Carl Sandburg knew the people; he knew the power of grace; and he knew the people’s “Yes.”

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it…
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”…
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
march:
“Where to? what next?”

Comments always are welcome.

Upward, then Onward

Madonna of the Trail  ~ Council Grove, Kansas

Confused, frightened, or hungry for attention, children quickly learn the value of the single word, “Up!”  Whether shouted as a demand or whispered as a plea, the word is capable of bringing adult arms down to a child’s level: ready to enfold the needy little bundle of humanity into a blanket of security, lift it high, and ensure its safety.

The urge to flee upward seems instinctive. On my third birthday, neighbors decided I should have a pet. When the time came to share cake and ice cream, they appeared at the door with a tiny puppy in a box.  Black, glistening curls of fur and long floppy ears wriggled in pleasure as belly rubs and ear scratches were offered.Then, the puppy was turned loose. After making a few quick circles, the creature produced a cascade of wild yips and headed straight for me.

My escape became the stuff of family legend. Bounding upward, I landed first on a dining room chair and then atop my mother’s prized mahogany dining table, shoes and all. The puppy continued to tumble and jump, trying to follow, while I screamed in terror, refusing to be reassured. Eventually, the well-meaning neighbors made their way home with their new dog, while I scooted off the table and was consoled with a second helping of ice cream.

Fifty years later I met French Charlie, a sailor who’d had his own experience of moving ‘up’ in the world. Born in Marseilles and given to crossing the Atlantic at the first hint of boredom, he preferred single-handing in cast-off, creaky old boats. Everyone agreed he must have had angels as crew, since it was the only way to explain his survival.

Charlie liked to say he’d made five-and-a-half crossings of the Atlantic. The phrase ‘half-a-crossing’ always got someone’s attention, giving Charlie a chance to tell his favorite story: how he left Marseilles in a bathtub of a boat; how one failure led to another; how, ankle-deep in Atlantic waters, he radioed for help before clambering to the top of his boat to hang onto the mast and await death.

With his boat slowing sinking beneath him, his angels brought a Danish freighter to his side. “What do you need?” called the First Officer, leaning over the railing in amazement. “Up!” Charlie responded, in the wavering tones of a brave five-year-old. Taken aboard the freighter, he watched his boat sink beneath the waves. Not long after, he decided coastal cruising might be more to his liking, and he left the open ocean behind.

Again and again, the impulse to head ‘up’ has saved lives. Wakened from sleep, a vacationer in Phuket misinterprets screams outside his window as the foolishness of children until he looks, sees the ocean scouring the streets, and blindly begins running upward: scrambling from stairwell to balcony to the rooftop where he survives, witnessing the implacable rage of a tsunami.

Astonished by the sight of tropical storm Allison pouring into his home through still-closed windows and doors, a Houstonian clambers with his children from tabletop to stepstool to attic, where he watches the swirling water fill his house while he waits for the deluge to cease.

Terrified by Katrina’s second surge, thousands of people fled to their rooftops, blessing the Coast Guard, neighbors, and perfect strangers who rescued them by water and by air.

During the passage of hurricane Ike, a couple who’d chosen to stay in their home climbed from first to second to third floors until, as the storm’s eye passed overhead and the moon emerged from the clouds, they looked out to find themselves at sea. Bridges and roads, stop signs and billboards sank beneath the flooding tide. Only the circling currents and wind-driven waves reflected the hazy moon.

Galveston’s 1900 Storm Memorial Confronts Hurricane Ike ~ Houston Chronicle

In the face of rising storms, heading to higher ground is a reasonable choice. But while people can move, structures don’t.  In the Storm of 1900, Galveston learned that painful lesson. Not only their most vulnerable dwellings were destoyed. Substantial homes, churches, public buildings, and schools were ravaged equally, leaving the survivors with a decision. Would they run from the devastation, seeking new homes on the mainland? Or would the city itself move away from the coast in order to re-establish itself as an inland center of commerce?

In fact, Galveston chose a third option. Detailed by Cornelia Dean in her book Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches, Galvestonians determined to stay on their island, avoiding future calamity by instituting a remarkable plan.

Rather than retreating from the shifting sands to points higher elsewhere, the city decided to fence itself off from future disasters with a seawall. Everything inside [the seawall] – houses, churches, offices, trees, gardens – was raised by as much as 17 feet, and then flooded with silt. It was a plan that, even in an era of engineering, stood out for its size, cost and audacity…
The lifting operation was one of sheer brawn. Laborers ran beams under the buildings and mounted them on screwjacks that burly men turned by hand. A total of 2,156 buildings were laboriously hoisted, a quarter of an inch at a turn, until they reached the requisite height and new foundations could be built beneath them. Meanwhile, children climbed rickety catwalks to reach their schools; housewives hung their laundry from lines strung fifteen feet above the ground.
Even substantial structures took to the air. At St. Patrick’s Church, a three-hundred ton brick structure, services continued as it rose to the grunts of laborers manning two hundred screwjacks beneath it.
Galveston and Texas History Center ~ Rosenberg Library

Once the seawall had been built and the city floated above its island like a cloud, the process of grade-raising began. A canal dredged through the city center obtained fill from Galveston Bay. Dredges moved continually between harbor and canal, spewing out a slurry of water and sand on both sides in a lengthy process that required years of labor. During those years, people lived, conducted business, and attended worship in their ‘floating’ buildings, making their way around town on boardwalks fastened to the top of fences.

Houses raised and ready for filling
Photo by Zeva B. Edworthy, courtesy Galveston County Museum

The largest of four dredges was given the humorous nickname Leviathan, and gardeners grew oleanders atop their roofs until new topsoil could be brought from the mainland, but mostly there was hard, back-breaking work as an entire city literally raised itself out of despair.

Galveston and Texas History Center ~ Rosenberg Library

After the 1900 Storm, residents of Galveston elevated their city and raised one another’s spirits with a vision of new life. Roughly a century later, as that same coastline faced a series of hurricanes, Galveston’s seawall held, and their tradition of self-reliance held firm.

Up and down Gulf beaches and bay shorelines, people in surrounding communities encouraged and supported one another through the recovery processes. Through the years, an increasingly important element in that recovery has been the elevation of homes. In San Leon, Bacliff, Oak Island, Surfside, Clear Lake Shores, and Kemah — in all the towns and villages of southeast Texas — the wisdom spray-painted onto one of Hurricane Ike’s still-abandoned homes is cherished: “Move Up ~ Don’t Give Up”.

Today, elevation happens differently — no dredges are pumping slurry into neighborhoods — but the sense that higher is better has been written into hearts as well as building codes. Sometimes the progress is slow. But the work goes on, and every completed home lifts the heart a little higher.

Tiny bungalows and cottages rest on new pilings as lightly as a feather. Gardeners work the soil, hanging petunias and bougainvillea for color. Families incorporate bits and pieces of personal history into new construction while pondering questions washed up by the surge: How shall we reshape our lives? shall we stay, or shall we go? Are the answers offered by the past adequate for our day? Is there a way, finally, to rise above circumstance?

Even in years unmarked by the anguish and devastation of a major hurricane, the lessons of Galveston’s Great Storm are worth remembering. Not every flood is due to the river’s rise or a hurricane’s surge. Not all the debris floating through our lives is so easily disposed of as plywood and plastic. Not all of the filth that clogs our minds and coats our spirits can be washed away like so much clinging mud.

There are devastations of the spirit, surges of pain, winds of conflict or change that shake our certainties, unnerving us as surely as the worst storms of the season. Remembering those who both endured and prevailed over the natural world, we may find our own inspiration to create some higher ground; to raise our sights; to shore up our foundations and re-build our ties to one another before another, unexpected storm seeks to sweep us all away.

 

Comments always are welcome.

To Rise, to Stand, and to Live

 

Lingering at the breakfast table, an hour or two of chores already completed, my grandfather folded away the newspaper before turning to smile at the small, barefoot disturbance running into his kitchen.

“Are you done, Grandpa?” Glancing toward the oversized cup resting next to its saucer on the table, he said, “No, not quite. Do you want a turn?” Without waiting for a reply, he pushed back his chair as I hopped from one foot to the other, filled to the brim with impatience.

Carrying his cup to the stove and refilling it with coffee from the dented aluminum pot simmering on the back burner, he turned and eased into his chair before carefully pouring a portion of the dark, fragrant liquid into the saucer.

Accepting the saucer from his hand, I tentatively rippled the muddy, steaming pond with my breath. If the coffee remained too hot for drinking, I would continue, breathing across the bowl until my lips no longer burned and I was able to sip. Then, my child’s share taken, I handed the saucer to my grandfather. “Perfect,” he’d say with a smile, finishing the cooled coffee in the saucer. Refilling it from the cup, he drank again: pouring and filling and drinking until the last of the coffee was gone.

Later, I learned a phrase that described this way of taking coffee: ‘saucered and blowed.’ However old or widespread the custom, it perfectly described our custom and our comfort: a ritual as much a part of our mornings as the reading of the obituaries.

His coffee gone, Grandpa always reached again for the newspaper, unfolding it carefully as he looked over his glasses at me and said, “Let’s see if we’re still here.”

Always, we were the lucky ones. Mrs. Gasparovich had departed after taking a tumble and dying of her injuries, and the nice Andersen boy who came through the war without a scratch had been killed in a tractor accident. Mr. Flanagan, who lived two blocks over and worked in the mines, died of lung problems related to the coal dust, and eighty-nine year old Sadie, famous for her cookies, simply had faded away. They were gone, all of them: but still we endured.

“Well, Sunshine,” Grandpa would say, refolding the paper a third time as he prepared to get back to his chores, “We’re not goners yet.” He always grinned, and I’d smile right back. It was a new day, waiting to be lived.

My grandfather’s sanguine approach to obituaries, so typical of the time, made it easy for me to view death with a certain bemused acceptance. I tended to think of death much as I thought of the ne’er-do-well neighbor who’d moved away to Nebraska. I didn’t expect him to show up on our doorstep, asking to move into the back bedroom, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.

That was the way death arrived in our town – unannounced, unexpected and often unremarkable. No axe murderers or arsonists roamed our streets. We had slate falls in coal mines and accidents on farms. Now and then a child was thrown from a horse, or a hitchhiker hit by a car. Measles killed some, while others died of scarlet fever, pneumonia or undiagnosed illnesses that surely were cancer. Tuberculosis and polio thrived, and smallpox scars were familiar.

After the war and during my childhood, things began to improve. The mines became safer. Pencillin became more widely available, and polio vaccine arrived. Measles became rare, while the number of old folks increased. Over time, even the ringing of the telephone lost its ability to evoke anxiety. Long considered a death knell, its sound became ordinary and ubiquitous, part of the cacophony of modern life.

By the time my grandfather’s death knell sounded, life was changing. Rituals I cherished as a child began giving way to the less delightful routines of adulthood. Constrained by schedules, pressured by obligations, I carried my coffee in saucerless styrofoam and rarely took time to browse the obituaries. Death still wandered the back roads, but I paid him little mind. I was on the highways of life, and I had places to go.

Still, the pull of the back roads remained strong, both for the solace they offered and for the mysteries they contained. Anticipating a first foray into the bayous and swamps of southeast Louisiana, I hardly appreciated the depth of those mysteries: how easily beauty conceals the threats of the world, or how quickly the distracted and inattentive can be shown the error of their ways.

As we threaded our way through the steaming landscape of Acadiana on narrow, water-lapped roads — Grand Cailliou, Little Cailliou, Montegut — my traveling companion exclaimed at the herons and egrets fishing the bayous, and admired the great, unnamed grasses reaching to the sky.

As late afternoon sunlight began painting the grasses and birds with a deepening glow, we stopped to walk the narrow, vegetation-choked bank in search of vantage points for a photo. When the grasses parted, roiling and crackling, flailed by some tremendous unseen force, we caught only a glimpse of the slapping tail half-concealed by thick, heavy shadows, or the ripples it sent streaming over the bayou.

Stunned at first into silence, my friend finally spoke. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “Was that an alligator?” Probably, it was. Or perhaps it wasn’t. At the time, it hardly mattered. We backed away from the bayou with pounding hearts and trembling hands, sharply aware of being terribly alone in the midst of a world we barely understood.

Laughing about the experience some months later, I said we’d been street-smart but bayou-stupid. Eventually, I discovered Mary Oliver had turned to poetry to express similar feelings about her own sweet foolishness with an alligator.

I knelt down
at the edge of the water
and if the white birds standing
in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand.
I drank up to the very moment it came
crashing toward me,
its tail flailing
like a bundle of swords,
slashing the grass,
and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth
gaping
and rimmed with teeth–
and that’s how I almost died
of foolishness
in beautiful Florida.
But I didn’t.
I leaped aside, and fell,
and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path
as it swept down to the water
and threw itself in,
and, in the end,
this isn’t a poem about foolishness,
but about how I rose from the ground
and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is.

And that, of course, is the gift: to see the world as it really is. If it takes a second time, or a third, or a tenth, hardly matters. What matters is finishing the coffee, folding the paper, and rising again from the table or ground to affirm the wonderous, incomprehensible truth: we’re still here.

Despite our ability to engage in every sort of foolishness, our obituaries aren’t yet written, and the world is waiting. As Grandpa liked to remind me, every day is new: filled with beauty and challenges. We’re certainly free to insulate ourselves in the service of an illusory safety, just as we’re free to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear or swept away by rising tides of irrational hysteria. But we’re also free to claim a different freedom: the freedom to rise, to stand, and to live.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Hulls and Humanity

While Galveston was seeking new ways to celebrate Mardi Gras and South Padre Island continued to hope for a successful spring break, Port O’Connor began cleaning rods and repairing reels in anticipation of the spring flounder run.

Port O’Connor knows how to party, but in Port O’Connor, fishing comes first.  Lying at the end of the coastal road, clinging to the edge of Matagorda Bay like a derelict boat that refuses to die, the town is salted with spray: rusted and grayed, weathered from decades of storms. At first glance, she seems an unpromising destination, but beneath the surface of her bays, redfish and  trout school and scatter. Beyond the intracoastal waterway, across the barrier island and over the dunes, surfcasters work the waves; offshore, marlin, snapper, and tarpon lure the adventurous with the promise of exhilarating combat.

Some years ago, I spent time in Port O’Connor maintaining a classic sailboat. Owned by land-locked partners who wanted to keep their boat near the Gulf for easy access to offshore sailing, it was a delightful opportunity. I labored through the days sun-lit and warm as a basking turtle; evenings were filled with equal delights. After dinners of fresh-caught shrimp or fish, a lamp-lit cabin and uninterrupted time for reading or sleep were there for the taking. If I happened back onto the dock to gaze at stars or watch passing barges, an old fellow who lived aboard two slips down sometimes came to visit, glad for a few minutes of conversation.

The man loved to tell stories, and his tales were memorable. Generally, they involved long, intricate meanders through the details of weekend bar fights: harmless confrontations fueled by drink and boredom. But he watched visitors to the marina with a sharp eye, and recounted their antics with amusement.

My favorite of his stories, a Hemingwayesque account of a young man and the bay, involved a novice who went out to fish in a lightweight dingy without a motor. He hooked the big one he’d always dreamed of, then found he couldn’t land it. The fish towed the dingy across the flats until the line broke. At that point in the story, between snorts and guffaws, the old story-teller would gasp, “Damn fool never thought to cut his line, but even if he’d had the thought, it wasn’t gonna happen, ’cause he didn’t have a knife. No knife! Who goes fishing without a knife?”

Sometimes the old man shared his recipe for ceviche, or bragged on the boys who hang trophy marlins, or reminisced about the old days, when life was simpler. Always, he ended with The Storm. The Storm was Carla, the mythic hurricane that landed on Matagorda’s shores long before Katrina, Rita, Harvey, or Ike provided their own dramatic narratives.

Carla was a Cecil B. DeMille kind of storm: a storm so vast, so compelling, that decades later people still gasped at the memories. Carla carried wheat straw from fields and drove it into the brick walls of homes. She left rattlesnakes hanging from trees, and broke the legs of cattle. Her unearthly howl so unnerved one woman that she ran into her back yard and howled back in defiance, until her panic-stricken family dragged her back into the house and made her drink whiskey.

Almost as an afterthought, Carla raged through Port O’Connor’s collection of boats. Skiffs and jon boats were scattered or destroyed. Shrimp trawlers plowed into fields; sport fishers were carried inland by the surge. Barges forced miles inland were strewn up and down major highways like old-fashioned toys. When it was over, there was nothing to do but gaze over the scene in numbed astonishment and think, Well.

Loss wrought by storms is at least understandable. When wind, waves, and surge tear at rigging and batter hulls for hours at a time, some boats will survive, but many let go before the implacable forces of nature, tossing and tumbling to their deaths.

What isn’t so easily understood is death by inattention: the death of a boat that’s been abandoned — left neglected and lonely, allowed to rot away in marshes, at docks, or on out-of-the-way moorings.

Like dogs or cats callously thrown into the world to fend for themselves, unwanted and unloved boats know they’ve been abandoned, and they grieve. Deserted by owners too busy to give them care, relinquished in favor of other pursuits, cast off as no longer romantic or affordable, they are ownerless in truth if not in fact.

Bereft of attention, they begin to decline. Unused hoses harden and crack. Unlubricated winches seize up; barnacles colonize the bottom. Rust blooms, paint flakes, and hanging gardens of algae begin to ring the waterline. Eventually, as time and weather shred the canvas and dry the wood, the boat begins to settle on her lines, leaning inexorably into dereliction.

Anyone familiar with boats has seen it happen, and knows the truth. A boat has to be loved, used, and maintained, lest it die. But when inattention has led to a boat’s dereliction or seeming death, nothing satisfies more than bringing it back to life.

The process of restoration is neither mysterious nor complicated. The only requirements — apart from money — are a few simple tools, a good bit of time,  and a high tolerance for tedium. It’s also helpful to understand that 19th century techniques don’t always lend themselves to 21st century schedules, and to have a passing acquaintance with the basics of weather. But with diligence and focus, even the worst damage can be undone. With patience and persistence, wood turns silky, fiberglass shines, and machinery that clanked, rattled, and banged begins to quietly hum like an absorbed and happy child.

As work progresses and the boat begins to realize that she’ll sail again, you can sense the signs of new life. A boat with hopes of leaving the dock rides differently in the water. The rigging no longer howls like a woman facing down a storm; it sings in the breeze with overtones of satisfaction and joy. When a boat no longer feels abandoned, when she once again hears the call of the sea, she begins to gaze into the depths of her watery mirrors with a sense of restored dignity. 

When I find myself working on a more-or-less abandoned boat, it becomes  impossible not to think of parallels between its condition and the plight of people left to bob and rot in the backwaters of society. Decades ago, ‘derelict’ was a word reserved for bums, drifters, and vagrants. To be called derelict was to face moral judgements built upon assumptions that you were negligent, undependable, untrustworthy, and irresponsible.

Certainly, there are irresponsible and deeply untrustworthy people in the world, just as there are people who seemingly prefer disconnected and unproductive lives. But some who wander our world have more in common with derelict boats than with skidrow bums or amoral profiteers. Abandoned by family, neglected by friends, or rejected by the institutions and structures of society, their dereliction is less a matter choice than of circumstance.

If transformation is to come, what holds true for boats will be no less true for such people. No matter how damaged a heart, no matter how hardened its lines, no matter how tattered its dreams or hard its grounding onto the shoals of unhappiness, there is nothing that time, patience and loving attention cannot restore.

Repairing a heart certainly requires dedication, an acceptance of the vicissitudes of daily life, and a willingness to engage in repetitively difficult or unpleasant tasks. Certainly it profits from steady faith and a willingness to believe that even when the past makes its presence known, even when its reflections linger and shimmer in the brightness of newer days, all of the shabbiness, disrepair, and simple ugliness of dereliction eventually can be undone.

In a season dedicated to exchanging hearts as tokens of affection, it’s worth pausing a moment to ponder these less romantic realities of life and love. Somewhere, docked at the edges of our lives, moored just beyond our concern, run aground in a marsh of indifference or neglect, a derelict heart leans inexorably toward desolation: forsaken and forlorn. It may be time to begin its restoration.

Comments always are welcome.