Mary Ward Brown

Posted in The Writing Life on June 3rd, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment


More often than not,  you can find one of Alabama’s many wild and varied cast of homegrown characters – football coaches, fiery politicians, American Idol stars — gracing national headlines. Few people outside of literary circles, however, know that one of Alabama’s greatest but lesser known voices, Mary Ward Brown, passed away recently. I remember when I first read her book of short stories in the late 1980s how shocked and grateful I was for her insight into the complexity and subtleties of the Deep South during a time when so much had changed, yet so much had stayed the same the same. Below are three articles worth reading about Mary Ward Brown, one written by Kerry Madden, the author of the young adult biography Up Close: Harper Lee; one by the southern historian, Wayne Flynt; and the last by Bruce Weber.








Posted in The World Today on April 16th, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment


“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”      Eleanor Roosevelt                                                                                                                                                                              

Boston makes my heart clutch in fear, frozen by the thought of random acts of violence and evil, unable to explain to my children in any coherent way what a terrorist is and why people plant bombs in a crowd of innocent men, women and children. I’m at a loss, but I do know I can’t watch too much news coverage or I will be overwhelmed with grief and despair, images of 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine and the recent Sandy Hook shooting rushing into my mind, looping around in a way that’s not so easy to turn off.

What becomes clearer to me the older I become is that we are here for this brief time to serve others and bring peace, compassion and love into the world. I don’t say this in a philosophical, breezy or even egotistical manner. I’ve got to believe the smallest gestures and words of kindness make a difference while also being compelled to act in larger ways through a commitment to social change without conflict or the mantle of righteousness.

As an individual and a parent, I am charged with the question: how can I live daily to make the world a safer, more sustainable, better place to live?

One bright spot is the fact there are so many incredible young people already changing the world. Something that hit home for me when I atteneded a board meeting this weekend in Chicago for the Newcomb College Institute of Tulane University ( Newcomb played a life-changing role in my educational life as a young woman, and today, through the Newcomb Scholars program, this powerful legacy for women continues as these college students become agents for social change in a variety of fields. Through innovative teaching on gender issues, service learning courses, and engaging public programs, this amazing program mentors the next generation of women leaders

While in Chicago, I also visited Hull House ( I knew who Jane Addams was, but never understood the depth of her compassion and social activism until this weekend. It was a humbling experience, to say the least. Now more than ever, we need individuals like her to help heal our social ills.

“Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world.” Jane Addams






Letting the Light In

Posted in The Writing Life on March 25th, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

The Ring of Kerry, Ireland, March 2013

I recently finished Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and Turning Pro. I love how he combines practical advice based on his personal experience and spiritual approach to living an artist’s life, doing the work, and showing up every day to write.

Below are a few observations he made that I find helpful.

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”

“Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

“Each day, the professional understands, he will wake up facing the same demons, the same Resistance, the same self-sabotage, the same tendencies to shadow activities and amateurism that he has always faced.”

“In my experience, when we project a quality or virtue onto another human being, we ourselves almost always already possess that quality, but we’re afraid to embrace (and to live) that truth. The amateur is an acolyte, a groupie. The professional may seek instruction or wisdom from one who is further along in mastery than he, but he does so without surrendering his power.”

“First, the pro mindset is a discipline that we use to overcome Resistance. To defeat the self-sabotaging habits of procrastination, self-doubt, susceptibility to distraction, perfectionism, and shallowness, we enlist the self-strengthening habits of order, regularity, discipline, and a constant striving after excellence. That’s not hard to understand.”

“It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true: in order to achieve “flow,” magic, “the zone,” we start by being common and ordinary and workmanlike. We set our palms against the stones in the garden wall and search, search, search until at last, in the instant when we’re ready to give up, our fingers fasten upon the secret door.”



Larger Than Life

Posted in The Writing Life on November 18th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment
Larger Than Life: Memories of Carl Martin Hames

Larger Than Life: Memories of Carl Martin Hames

During my high school years when my own father was absent, Martin Hames became a father figure to me.  As a student, he always pointed me in the right direction when I searched for a new novel to read, understanding how literature was a lifeline for me. He entertained our class with fabulous stories of great artists and gossipy vignettes from his own trips around the world. As eccentric as Ignatius Reilly and as flamboyant as Truman Capote, he was a character in his own right. Who can forget the story he told when he, a four-hundred-pound man, tried to ride an unsuspecting camel in the Egyptian desert? The narrative content—whether a lecture on Faulkner or a summary of what happened that day in the lunchroom with Mrs. Wilson—was irrelevant. He always gave an Oscar winning performance, the bar scene in Stay Hungry his closest brush with Hollywood.

In his classroom lined with the yellow and black playbills, abstract paintings, captivating photographs and bizarre sculptures, students nervously stood before him to recite the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Slurping his sixth cup of coffee from the largest cup ever made, he barely acknowledged them, flipping furiously through his appointment book to schedule his dinner engagements. Reading Beowulf as a senior or trying to imitate a Rauschenburg painting in “America in the Twentieth Century,” I learned the transformative power of the arts, how at its very best art can sustain, reflect, and heal our culture.

I was also lucky Martin took a personal interest in me as a student. I discovered many years later that when I couldn’t afford the college trip, he’d helped my mother with the cost.  With such an incredible intellect, he’d been accepted to Harvard, but his mother, a single woman, couldn’t afford to make his dream a reality. A dedicated educator, he showed a heart for his students who faced similar obstacles. Throughout his teaching life, access to higher education was a moral imperative for him.

After graduating from college, I returned to teach English at Altamont.  As a teacher, on many days it felt like Martin conducted his business like a 15th century Florentine prince, signing edicts and commissioning sculptures. But he also toiled like a peasant for his beloved Altamont, intuitively understanding people’s characters and motivations as he navigated his way through a world of students, parents, colleagues, trustees, artists, and socialites.

Martin could be a loyal friend and a fierce foe. There was very little in between. After eight years of teaching, I left when Martin and I had gotten turned sideways. But to this day, the man who inspired me as a student and encouraged me as a colleague is one who continues to loom larger than life in my life. I see a certain piece of art, read a particular author, or remember one of his exaggerated pronouncements in a given situation, and my mind flashes to him. When I finished writing my recent book, I dreamed I ran into his office shouting, “Guess what? Guess what? I just wrote a book, and it’s 87,000 words!”

A dear colleague once told me of a conversation she had with him a couple of years after I’d left teaching at Altamont. She said Martin had commented how much he’d once loved me. Hearing this, hearing the past tense loud and clear, I was filled with sadness, a piece of my heart still bruised. I only saw Martin twice after we parted ways. The last time he was confined to a wheelchair. Struggling to speak, he pulled me over with a mischievous glint in his eye and started regaling me with a humorous anecdote about Roosevelt, the long-time Altamont custodian, of all people.

The last days of Martin’s life, my mother and I went to visit him in the hospital, but he was down the hall, hooked up to a dialysis machine, as he had done so many times the last years of his life.  I signed my name, the last on an impossibly long list, hoping he would see my signature, hoping he knew that no matter if he’d once loved me, I still loved him for the kindness he showed me as a child.


A Blue Dot in a Red State

Posted in Alabama Living on November 5th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

I live in Romney country, a blue dot in a red state. One neighbor down the street has a “Fire Obama” sign; another has a “Obamanation” sticker plastered on the back window of the car. Winding through carpool every morning, I pass a sign that reads: “Fight back. Vote Republican.”

This morning when my daughter noted that today was the day before the election, I found myself telling her not to discuss the election with anyone. It’s like football talk around here I explained. No matter what you say or do, you will not convince an Alabama fan to become an Auburn fan, or vice versa.

I remembered her experience one day last month around the time of presidential the debates when her fourth grade class discussed the upcoming election. Frances and one other boy were the only two who supported Obama. The other nineteen children, astonished and puzzled, asked why. Frances retorted: “Don’t you want women to have rights?” I was proud when she told me this. I was also wary, worried about her speaking her voice, a different voice, in my suburban, well-heeled community.

The mood in this country seems to me as divisive as it must have been during the civil right movement. Just a couple of nights ago, the brand new signs commemorating the Freedom Riders Park in Anniston,  Alabama, were burned.

This year is the first time I haven’t staked my candidate’s sign in my front yard for all the world to see. I don’t trust people’s reactionary rage, even though in 2013, it will be fifty years ago since the beatings, burnings and bombings in Alabama.

Call me paranoid, but tomorrow, I will let my vote speak for itself.

Mentone: The Sedona of the South

Posted in Alabama Living on September 3rd, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

Mentone, a place the Great God built,

Up near the sunlit sky,

There life is new and friends are true

   And days too quickly fly;

Where wearied souls regain their power

              And  sorrows leave in the night.

Where peace is born with each new morn,

       A haven of joy and delight.

                                                            Sidney Lanier

Mentone is one of those special places that if you happen to pass through and stop, you might decide to stay there. Many people have done just that. Over the years,  “Adventurers, poets, crafts-people, musicians, promoters, dreamers, people of religious fervency, farmers, coal miners, sawmillers, educators and a few bootleggers have found this spot” writes Zora Strayhorn In the History of Mentone. Indeed they have.

Today, an eclectic mix of folks call Mentone home: retirees, hippies, mountain mamas, artists of all stripes, shamans, Buddhists monks, entrepreneurs (meth labs don’t count), summer campers, writers, good old boys, hikers, cyclists, biker dudes, herbalists, energy healers—all individuals with an independent spirit, to say the least. Even the black bears have returned to Little River Canyon.

Here are a few of my favorite places and people. This list is by no means a comprehensive list! Just a sampling.

Founded in 1884, Mentone Springs Hotel ( is the oldest hotel in the state of Alabama. I especially like the hotel restaurant, Alice’s, where you’re guaranteed a good meal and live music on a wraparound porch overlooking town. Rumor has it the mineral springs, home to the healing waters that brought so many people here seeking refuge and rejuvenation in the first place, along the mountainside next to the hotel will re-open one day.

A stone’s throw from the hotel, you can find Jim Marbutt, owner of Kawliga, on the main street in the heart of town. Chainsaw in hand, he’s hard to miss, hanging out with his carved creatures. If you sit a spell, there’s no telling what kind of story he’ll conjure up to entertain you with—headless Hessian horsemen, tales of the war between the states as if it happened yesterday. My favorite piece he’s done lately is a bench with a catfish holding a rod on one side. A honeypot dangles from the end of his pole tantalizing the bear he’s trying to catch on the other side.

After listening to Jim, keep walking and you run into a coffee shop, art gallery and antiques shop all under one roof at Kamama  (, owned by Ray and Sandra Padgett, two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They first happened upon Mentone in the 1970s, and even owned the hotel for many years, renovating it on the weekends while they worked and lived in Atlanta. They’ve now retired here.

Miracle Pottery ( is located on Highway 117 on the right as you drive up the mountain into Mentone. You can’t miss the flashing sign. Valinda Miracle’s work is both beautiful and functional.  And, yes, her last name is really “Miracle.” In her new book, The Dead Don’t Bleed, Those Who Are Alive Do, that she also sells in the shop, she describes the many miracles in her life, overcoming one adversity after another, including a flesh-eating disease. This is a woman who will captivate you with her pottery and her stories. Now, my daughter Frances wasn’t so sure what to think the day we watched Valinda throw pots and talk to a group. When Valinda started describing one of the many times she came back from the dead after entering in the inner chamber’s of God’s kingdom, Frances decided it was time to go. Clearly, this is a woman with a powerful faith.

The beauty of Mentone is the abundance of spirituality and healing found here in the “Sedona of the South.” Go down to Valley Head and you can practice your faith in yourself by firewalking at Rock Ridge Retreat. Edwene Gaines, a Unitarian minister and the director, leads prosperity retreats. Who knew?

The natural beauty of the area is in and of itself a powerful, healing source. The falls at Desoto State Park ( are stunning, not to mention the great hiking trails and mountain bike paths. Nice cabins and tent camping as well.

Check out One World Adventure Company, for sure, to go canoeing, kayaking, or embarking on other outdoor adventures!

This is just a tiny taste of a what is truly a “haven of joy and delight.” Go to or to discover more.

Campaign for the American Reader

Posted in The Writing Life on August 20th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

This entry was recently posted on the wonderful website, Campaign for the American Reader. Check out what other authors are reading by visiting

I typically have several books on my nightstand and a stack of magazines I subscribe to—Tin House, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Poet’s and Writers, Creative Nonfiction and Writer’s Digest. If I’m lucky, I’m able to read snippets from each book before bed at night and find a moment during the day to catch up on the latest issue of one of my magazines. If I’m lucky, that is. Gone are the days I enjoyed chunks of time to gobble up books. Now, I read late at night, absorbing what I read in bits and pieces. Most of the time, my reading choices are connected to particular experiences or person in my life, as I’ve noted for each choice.

Since I’ve spent the past couple of years writing Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight for Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, I’m always reading a memoir. Currently, I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I read memoirs for the same reason we all do: to discover the emotional truths someone else has wrested from their life’s journey. I also read memoirs to see how writers craft a narrative from the messy facts of life, how they shape their experiences into an object of beauty, and how they crystallize a moment into its essence much like a poet does. At the beginning of her memoir, Strand reflects, “I’d set out on the trail so I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again.” What she finds is she’s consumed with her most immediate cause of physical suffering. But as she navigates the hardships she encounters in the wilderness, she does indeed restore her soul, learning that she has no choice but to face and navigate time after time on the trail, as in life, another seemingly impossible obstacle. Strayed writes about her emotional and physical adversities with humor, wisdom and honesty.

The Architecture of a Novel by Janet Vandenburgh

(Recommended by writer who has published nine novels in the past ten years.)

I want to control, plan and orchestrate the ending of a novel even before I’ve put one word on the blank page. This book is great for me because it explores the organic nature of writing while at the same time discussing the immutable laws about a novel’s structure. Vandenburgh writes about learning the truths of a novel from the inside out. She also writes, “ A book, as I’m writing it, gives me someplace I always need to be and it feels to me like home.” My sentiments exactly. She notes how stubbornness and the daily discipline of writing are far more important than talent when it comes to finishing a novel. She, like so many writers, completes a work while folding laundry, shopping, driving, stirring the soup, carrying on with her day to day life. She dreams the dream of her narrative, running it through her mind while tending to the mundane. In the last half of her book, “The ABCs of Narrative Structure,” she explores the technical aspects of writing, explaining the most basic of narrative truths with fresh language and insight, reminding us what we already know, have forgotten or have yet to discover.

The parenting book I read and reread is Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. A dear friend who was the counselor at a suburban hugh school where I taught high school English recommended this book to me when I asked her about good parenting books. This choice was perfect for me. I had read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophic Living, so I knew a bit about his Buddhist take how to heal ourselves. Now, I’m the antithesis of a mindful parent. I screech and scream and react and then overreact. That’s why I reread this book. Parenting for Kabat-Zinn is a spiritual practice. He shows the reader how to cultivate an awareness to help her stay calm, grounded and clear in the stressful daily lives of families. He illustrates his advice with stories and his own experience. In his eyes, parenting is really an eighteen year meditation retreat where parents are challenged to become aware of our authentic selves, through breath and quiet contemplation, in order to grow so we give our greatest gift to our children: our presence in the deepest, most spiritual sense of the word.

Thrive: The Vegan Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life by Brendan Brazier

(Given to me by my husband.)

I’ve always been focused on nutrition and now more so than ever as I careen into middle age, face my mortality and understand how our food choices, the treatment of animals we eat, and our method of food production affect our planet’s future and our children’s health. My husband has recently become a vegan after giving up meat almost fifteen years ago. I no longer eat meat either or consume much dairy. Now I do have milk in my coffee and the occasional milkshake. Moderation is the key for me. But if you don’t eat meat or dairy and most recently wheat (after reading Wheat Belly by William Davis), coming up with healthy meals means you need to research extensively to learn about what to eat. What Thrive offers that is most helpful for me right now is an array of menu choices and recipes. The meal preparation is a bit time consuming, but it’s worth it. This book is about how to develop a long-term eating plan with a plant-based diet. It also has information about what and how to eat to sustain a good exercise routine.

The Gift of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You Are Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown (Recommended by my friend as we drove to a conference where we spoke on a panel to college girls about leadership.)

I have read so many self help books delving into emotional and psychological issues by folks like Ingrid Bacci, John Bradshaw and Harriet Lerner. This one, however, is already a favorite. I’ve arrived at the point in my life where Brown’s research and stories about how shame erodes our quality of life and love ring true. She explains that being worthy in the present moment is the basis of our emotional health. And she gives a road map to clearing the shame—a simple yet courageous call to speak the truth, not wallow in the swampland of shame, but be authentic by speaking from the heart to combat the shame dumpers in your life and hold people accountable with a compassionate but firm voice.

Poetry: American Primitive by Mary Oliver

(Given to me many years ago by a good friend who is now a marriage counselor living in San Francisco)

I read poetry to remind myself how powerful and beautiful language is. How amazing it is that a poem contains worlds! Reading poetry I experience so much with so few words. I read Oliver’s poems to remind me how to use a language of economy in my own writing.

The American Way of Death: A Checklist

Posted in Alabama Living on August 13th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

Obsessive compulsive by nature, I’m the queen of lists. I am so OCD that even when I entertain, my friend’s son remarks as I prepare dinner, fuss over the table and urge him for the fifth time to serve himself plenty of food, “Thank you for being so obsessive compulsive about feeding us.”

But the other day when I got a checklist in the mail from my retirement fund in reference to being my husband’s beneficiary in the event of his death—something that actually hit too close to home recently with his Recession-induced heart palpitations—I was mortified by the oh-so-casual checklist. The only other time I truly feared my husband’s impending demise was when I was still sore from childbirth, holding a newborn, sleep deprived, full of such intense love I could barely breathe, suffocated by the imaginary prospect of raising this child I’d just introduced to the world without a father.

Unsettled, rereading the checklist, I realized even this queen of organization has some limits. I mean I’m all about being prepared, but jeez, are you kidding me? First on the list is the death certificate. Great. Exactly what I have in mind in the throes of grief. I suppose that’s the point, though. Better to know what to expect and have a list filed away so you can go on autopilot.

Okay, so I do get  the point. I’ve even been so bold as to advise someone dealing with a beloved one receiving hospice care to go ahead and write the obituary. Ugh. I actually said that, and they did. So how can I be so repulsed by this checklist? Aren’t I the one who nags my mother about having her affairs in order, asking her over lunch when she’s discussing her lifelong friend’s ailing health, what song she wants played at her funeral?  I have even asked her what she’s going to come back as so I know when she’s around. “A black crow,” she snapped. Hmm. Not the answer I wanted.

Strangely, I’ve always read the obituaries. Now that I’m hitting midlife and funerals are cropping up like mushrooms after a hard rain, I read them daily, that is until our local newspaper is only delivered three times a week. Reading the obituaries is a tactile experience, not an online one. I’ve always assumed studying the obituaries was simply the writer in me, scanning the horizon for a good story, intrigued by how we’ve lived our lives, how you sum it up in a few paragraphs. No, it’s more than that: my interest is partly due to how I, as an American, frame death.

How we do or don’t relate to death makes me think about about the essay, “The American Way of Death,” by Jessica Mitford that I read in my freshman reader in college, in which she describes the sterile business we Americans have made of funerals. We have quite an industry dealing with death after the fact, but we don’t prepare for it beforehand. Checklists notwithstanding.

Americans lack proper respect for death. We lack a unifying mythology of guides to take us across the river Styx and explain the process. We don’t have a Day of the Dead. In fact, it seems we do everything—spend too much, eat too much, drink too much—to numb ourselves to the fact of the matter that we are all on a boat in the ocean headed to that place on the horizon where it suddenly drops off and we’re plunged into the unknown. We acknowledge death only by our frenzied attempts to deny its ultimate power over us.

As my father was struggling with his last breaths, two nurses came in the hospital room to take him to his scheduled afternoon procedure. What that was now I’ve forgotten. My family was huddled around him, overcome with tears and shock, waves of powerlessness washing over us. I’m not a nurse but it was clear what we were experiencing, death rattle and all. However, one nurse kept trying to get him situated and ready to be wheeled down the hall for his procedure. It was time, darn it, and she had a schedule to keep. Death was staring her right in the eye and she didn’t see it. Finally, the other nurse caught this woman’s attention and gestured her hand across her throat. It’s over she signaled frantically before they left us in peace.

Before my father’s death, my greatest lessons about death came from my dogs. Seriously. With Samson, my husband and I were unable to face it and when we finally did, we were so stressed we didn’t create a calm environment for him to go, rushing him to the vet after work one day. When Delilah’s liver shut down, we couldn’t deny it was time, and we knew enough to insist the vet come to our house. Same with Chad who taught us when a dog lacks the will to get up from his bed to  do his business, it’s time. Our dog Max had a strange glint I would catch in his eye sometimes. We discovered he had a brain tumor. I learned then not to dismiss the odd things you notice.

When we first brought Sophie home, a full grown dog who’d lived in a cage her entire two years of life, I thought to myself as I watched her interact with the other dogs, I will have to bury her one day. Then I thought what a strange thought. We lost her a few months ago, but she gave us the gift of a beautiful, peaceful death. She showed us the best way to go: eat  your dinner and then crawl on your dog bed in your favorite spot in the kitchen and go to sleep surrounded by your family going about their evening as usual.

Why do I hate this checklist if I think we need to acknowledge death in a more thoughtful, ritualistic manner? Because it has no heart. It doesn’t reflect the magnitude of accepting the loss of someone we love. It doesn’t include what we will need most: a way to find ourselves again as we’re lost in our grief. When my father died, I tried to find books about grief. I found plenty of clinical studies but not any nonfiction about personal experiences. It’s sort of like childbirth in that way or even miscarriages. So many people go through this, but so few really tell their stories.

One book I read was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I’ve recently  read a wonderful memoir, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, with incredible resources listed at the end. Both books are ones I’d recommend at anytime to read. A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis is also a beautiful classic about his spiritual  journey following his wife’s tragic death.

Maybe if we are able to acknowledge and honor death in a more mindful, respectful manner that has nothing to do with checklists, we can accept it with more grace when we experience the inevitable losses in our own lives.

Saucesito Verde

Posted in Alabama Living on August 8th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Comments Off on Saucesito Verde

The best part about teaching school in my former life is seeing the incredible lives my former students create for themselves. So many have crafted a life dedicated to service, helping communities and individuals in need. Saving children from the sex trade in Thailand, holding citizens and lawmakers accountable for keeping Alabama’s rivers clean and safe, and providing an opportunity for Peruvian women to support themselves are just a few of the noble paths some of my former students have chosen.

Check out what Carrie Campbell is doing with Saucesito Verde, a cooperative of textile artisans made up of 15 women in the northern Peruvian Andes. These women prepare their own natural dyes and hand-craft woven, knitted and crocheted fabrics. Carrie has been working hard to connect these women to a market for their textiles. What began as a small idea to find retailers has grown, and last fall the group had the unique opportunity to make custom bags for a U.S. designer. This year Carrie has been working to grow a sustainable business model, secure supply chains, create and market new designs, and develop business connections. You can read about this cooperative and their progress at

April’s Epic Tornado Outbreak

Posted in Alabama Living on April 27th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

Today, one year ago, my family huddled and prayed in the basement as tornadoes ripped across our state and many others throughout the Southeast. We were lucky. Since then, when I walk out the door in the morning, I acknowledge the piece of gray roofing still stuck at the top of our cherry tree, blown by the brutal winds off someone’s house. Below is my journal entry a few days following this epic outbreak last year.

Hundreds of lives have been lost, people are missing, homes destroyed and entire communities gone. Not because we weren’t warned or didn’t heed the sirens. We were helpless in the face of EF5 tornadoes with 166-200 mile per hour winds. The satellite image from space shows the path of an almost two-mile wide twister stretching from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, AL, a distance of sixty miles, a whisper of a white chalk line from a bird’s eye view. From the ground, utter devastation.

This monster  storm ultimately stretched across Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. This is our Katrina, and the loss and sadness are overwhelming. Parts of Alabama are now Ground Zero, miles and miles of towns splintered into a million pieces. Reporters weep on TV, surveying  the damage, traumatized as if they are covering a war.

Growing up in tornado alley, I was riveted by The Wizard of Oz, and every time it came on TV, I watched, horrified, as Dorothy and Toto swirled past Aunt M in black and white. As a child, in the middle of a storm we’d measure the wind speed with a funny little instrument hanging on the sunporch wall. The prospect of a real tornado always terrified me and, a naturally anxious child, I often had nightmares about it. (Honestly, I still do.)

Then years later came meteorologist James Spann and the advent of Doppler radar, and I could track and agonize over every possible scenario. I need and want to control this situation or at least be prepared, but as many times as I’ve stared at the map of storms in red moving across the screen each time a warning is issued, I’ve never mastered the art of seeing the strange hooks and bow echoes James targets when he’s on the air during a tornado warning. But that’s the thing. A hurricane gives you enough warning to leave. A tornado warning just means the conditions are ripe for one to form. And even with all of the unbelievable technology, the science still boils down to something as mysterious as reading tea leaves.

As I was reading the weather blog the first time before this historic outbreak, I became alarmed as James pointed out the helicity index (had to look it up) was a ten, a “rare” occurrence. The warm moist jet stream from the Gulf Coast was “shooting like a firehose” above the state as the cold front moved our way. James wrote he’d never heard the forecasters say the things they were predicting in reference to the potential for theses long track tornadoes.

The kids came home early from school, we got our flashlights, took some blankets and camp chairs to the basement, and waited. Then came the sirens again along with the dark clouds streaming across the sky and the trees s bending like rubber limbs on a doll. As we headed to the basement  my son said, “The birds have stopped singing.”

We were more than lucky and escaped any damage as a supercell outbreak  decimated parts of north Birmingham. Now we must help rebuild, but where to start in a process that will take months and even years? Why is it that often the most vulnerable are the storm victims? Some of the places hit hardest in north Birmingham are equivalent to the lower ninth ward in New Orleans. It’s not fair.

I can not imagine my house and life completely being blown away. I can’t fathom holding my child and having her ripped from my arms by 200 mph winds. I cannot imagine finding a rabbit in my yard who has been skinned by the winds. I can’t comprehend a body being blown over 100 miles away form his home. I see the images of destruction as a viewer from the outside looking at the TV, but this scene is another matter altogether for someone standing among the rubble, having crawled out from what was once his or her house. The difference in experience is the difference between reading about childbirth and birthing a child. One is glazed over by distance; the other is the visceral understanding. I am grateful we were lucky this time, saddened by so much loss, and hopeful communities and families can rebuild.

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