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I sat in the swing on the back of the wrap around wooden porch. My eyes soaked in the mountain ridge and a smoky sky; the fragrance of spruce pine and sugar maple trees filled my nostrils; the sounds of an owl and the skittering noises of other nocturnal animals pierced my ears. A pad of paper sat in my lap and a blue Bic pen rested in my fingers as I tried to figure out a way to capture the overwhelming sense of peace that filled my heart. With the illumination of the porch light, I spent night after night on that porch, writing “Mountains of Hope,” a novel whose subject is the Holocaust. I was a teenager, and I was in deep trouble. I was not safe. Not physically, sexually or emotionally. In fact, I could not remember ever being safe. On the nights my body was left alone, I laid awake and listened to the violence of my parents’ fights instead. Stability was a completely foreign word, and concept. I shook. I cried. Peace was the absolute last emotion that I should have felt.

And yet.

Peace was exactly what permeated my heart. During the days, I’d go on “research scavenges” where I’d trek down the steep hill to the creek that lay on the edge of the cabin’s property. I’d pretend I was Alexi, the girl in my story, and my home wasn’t contained within any four walls–no, my home were the woods. It was the only place on Earth (and, by this time, I’d already lost count of the number of addresses we’d had, and the number of states in which we’d lived) where dainty Tiffini got down on the ground. I loved the texture and color of the red clay-like ground. If I got dirty, the creek cleaned my skin.

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I stared up at the thousand year old pines a million times; I’d walk between them and smile as my feet crunched leaf after leaf. Between those ancient trees, I felt so small and they were so magnificent that I also felt safe. It was here that I first dreamed of a treehouse. No one could beat a tree. The woods were so massive and mysterious and alive that it felt to me like no one could touch them. I’d walk barefoot on the ground that was littered with pebbles and fallen leaves and sticks. Rattlesnakes called those woods home, as well as bear. I didn’t care. The trees, the soil and those beautiful mountains called my name in the deepest, truest way.

One night was particularly awful. I was hurting, very badly. I eventually was left alone and fell into a very light sleep. It seemed like minutes before my mom was shaking my shoulder, urging me to get up. She told me to be quiet and we walked outside. Standing in the front yard were two deer. Embraced by the morning fog, with the backdrop of the woods and the towering pines, those deer stood for long minutes. I was sure I was in a dream. I soaked it in, engraved the image in my mind and felt its wonder and peace seal up tiny cracks in my heart. It told me that magical things, beautiful things, could happen even after horrendous wrongs.

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The cabin was 2.7 miles away from anything.. No other cabins within sight. We did not have a TV, only a radio. My sister thought that would drive her nuts—but nowhere else had ever felt more like home to me. The road to the cabin was so hair-raisingly narrow that 16 years later, I vividly remember it and yet, every day, my mom would drive us to the rickety shop at the end of that 2.7 mile journey to get an ice cream sandwich — and to speak to another living human being. We’d actually cheer when we came off the mountain and saw the store. That’s how remote the cabin was.

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Eventually, we did see more than our mountain road. We visited the magnificent Callaway Gardens, and the park. No matter where we went, there was a sense of time slowing down, of people who saw rather than just looked. We saw the white magnolias. Sunsets out my window. A Thoreau-like seclusion, one that brought comfort rather than loneliness.

I learned this past year that my home is Tennessee, Nashville in particular, and I deeply love this town. But a piece of my heart still belongs to Georgia. When I’m lonely, or tired of the city’s pace, my mind retreats to a haven of a small town and a mountaintop with hidden treasures. I’ve been to other cabins. We stay in one in Gatlinburg every year or so. Chattanooga has them too. And I’ve called other small towns home. Fort Payne, Alabama. Lexington, Tennessee. Beaufort, South Carolina. Greenville, Florida, to name a few. While all small towns have similarities, none compare to anywhere in Georgia, let alone Pine Mountain. No other cabin has ever made me feel so safe or at ease.

The thing is…

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I can play in creeks anywhere. Murfreesboro and Spring Hill are fairly close to me and are both home to excellent wading creeks. But I remember the shade in the Georgia creek and how it was wide enough for me to lay down in. I remember staring up at a blue sky, watching flocks of birds fly overhead, and escaping. I can take walks on a path anywhere. Nashville and Bellevue have some great trails. But I remember forging my own trail through those pines, pushing branches aside and stepping over logs wide enough to walk on. I’ve grown used to gardening and playing in the dirt here; I find joy in so doing–but our coarse and brown soil just can’t compare to the richness of having my hands stained by red clay.

Maybe it was timing. I used to think that. I used to think that I fell so in love with Georgia because I needed a haven so badly when we were there. I used to think that it offered me solace because I’d needed it to, to keep going. The mind is an amazingly mysterious thing–it can create make believe worlds far outside the realm of reality. I, for one, cope with difficult circumstances through story. When I was being wheeled into the operating room for my heart surgery, as an adult, I pretended I was in a cabin in Georgia and I was just going to be taking a nap. So I used to think I’d exaggerated the magical feel of Georgia as a way of getting through a really, really challenging life chapter. Until, a few years ago, we went back with the girls. We found a cabin. We passed through Atlanta and then, as we passed signs for the Chattahoochee and Altoona, I could feel my heart change… It quieted, and melted. Maybe it can’t be called home exactly, because I’m very attached to Nashville, but Georgia is definitely a haven, a sanctuary of sorts, where I feel able to go slow, and soak up the richness of a blue sky and fresh air that’s alive with fragrance. Georgia gives me permission to relax, and to see natural beauty.

I miss her tonight. I miss her very much. I imagine sitting on a wooden porch swing with picturesque mountains and melodic songbirds as my backdrop. I imagine the cool waters of her creeks rushing over my toes, as I splash about for the frog that’s leaping away. The sense of joy and peace I found in her was of such magnitude that it overshadows the sense of fear and anguish reality said I should have felt. She was a cocoon of comfort and solace and her song has not been forgotten.

Childhood memories are not really made up of events; they are instead made up of the senses. I can recall the smell of Mama O’s house more than I can recall her cooking dinner. I remember the piano in my grandparents’ home more than I remember the trip they took me on. I remember feeling proud because Mama was excited about me writing a story more than I remember what the story was about. I remember the doll I loved more than I remember the games I played with that doll. And I remember Georgia for her overwhelming feel of seclusion and peaches more than I remember tears. And, to me, that says it all.

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Once, I saw a picture of two streams of rushing water. They were separated by a rocky ledge only for a brief time before they converged together. What struck me the most about that picture was how fast the streams were flowing–quickly, quickly–until they converged. Once they met up and joined as one, the flow slowed down and the just floated along. Kind of like me. Part of me never slows down, always trying to find something to do, always worried about leaving a worthy legacy. Part of me longs of slowing down and doing nothing, remembering how a lazy day spent scavenging the woods for rocks can increase the value of a day. And then, sometimes, grace like Georgia comes into play, bringing balance and peace.

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Sometimes God gives us gifts that help us in the darkest hour. I got lucky; I have two: writing and mountains. We cherish those gifts, hold them as precious until the darkness fades and we have the blessing of enjoying the gifts in the light of unencumbered peace. At the time I first encountered the magic of Georgia, everything in my life was in such chaos that anything good was infinitely fragile, so fragile that every feeling was magnified and so intense it was hard to really enjoy. But now… Now, the light shines, and I smile as I think of the woods, the cabin. And I thank God for Georgia.

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