Mountain Mama Musings

A few weeks back I was asked by the cool kids of Seersucker Live, Savannah’s no-pretension literary group, to write a little something based on the illustration at left. And read it. In front of people.

The event was “An Evening of Jazz to Benefit Adult Literacy sponsored by Royce Learning Center,” and the idea was that three literary people (me plus the very funny Joseph Schwartzburt and DEEP executive director Catherine Killingsworth) and our interpretations of this picture would be the warm-up act to Ricardo Ochoa and some seriously smokin’ gypsy jazz.

I had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately, Zach Powers provided whiskey backstage, so I didn’t care. Enjoy.


Far up into the mountains, in a tiny hamlet we would never remember the name of, back when families were close-knit by necessity and personal problems were handled without the benefit of clinical analysis or prescription medication, there was once a recipe for an elixir that could heal a fractured heart, rocket-jump a lazy intellect and vivificate a marriage gone inert.

It likely originated with a woman, a mother probably—a grandmother, actually. Already schooled in the medicinal uses of the plants growing up off the forest floor and forever encroaching on the homestead, she would have had a highly developed intuition that comes only with years of spending time among the leaves and flowers growing outside her door.

This woman would have had a specific condition to address, as hard mountain living rarely leaves spare time for random experimentation, invention only arising out of need. Maybe she had a daughter rendered catatonic by the loss of a lover or a neighbor’s son who spent too much time dozing behind the barn; perhaps her aim was to spice up her own husband’s ardor after decades of waning. Whatever the case, a cure for any lassitude was probably motivated as much by compassion as the strong urge to get everybody back to work.

She must have foraged for the herbs known to energize, like ginseng, a five-leaved low-growing shrub known in those parts as “sang,” as well as the ones to have a swirling, enervating effect on the libido and the part of the mind that governs it, maybe damiana, with its pretty white flowers. To improve a mood and activate brain power, perhaps she plucked a few passionflowers off the vine strangling an abandoned outhouse.

Once she settled on a prescriptive combination, she would have had to cure them in some type of fermented grain. Magical tinctures always, inevitably, involve alcohol. It draws out the medicine and preserves it, allowing the messy lumps of foliage to be thrown away, the essence retained in a clear, smooth medium. Of course, alcohol unarguably contributes to the medicinal quality of the recipe itself.

Our mountain grandma would have stuffed the picked plants into earthenware jars, poured moonshine over them, sealed them up tight and left them in a dark corner for a few weeks to steep. (Where she obtained the moonshine is a whole other story, but surely we can all agree that its fabrication arose out of a need to soften the edges of survival in the mountains.)

To cut the bitterness of the herbs and the eye-searing fumes of the hooch, she would have added precious honey bravely collected from hives overseen by protective stinging minions, not to mention possessive bears. If she was the kind of woman who believed medicine should be sweet since life was so bitter already—and don’t we think she was?—she would have added even more honey, and depending on the season and the generosity of the harvest, added ripe blueberries or blackberries or cherries or pears and let the flavors mix and mellow. Every few days, in between the weeding and cooking and scrubbing and tending and mending, she would shake the jars to make sure the magic was still awake and working, just like everyone else needed to be if they didn’t want to starve to death.

She did believe in a certain kind of magic, after all. Her father had taught her how to fiddle and she could work her way up to a sizzle on nights when the neighbors gathered with someone’s new barrel of fermented juniper berries and everyone forgot their age and their troubles and everything seemed downright immortal. Some kind of benevolent truth in the first silent snow. The clear voice that spoke through the flowers.

Finally, the jars would be decanted and drained into smaller bottles, a clear, amber liquid not as thick as syrup but glowing warmly in a ray of sunlight coming through a small window of a cabin built with logs felled less than a hundred yards away. Grandmother—who was probably not much older than me but stooped and gnarled by the work, the work!—would deliver her medicinal elixir to those in need, hopefully reserving a bottle or two to invigorate herself on long afternoons or before a barn dance.

If its recipients sat up and returned to their chores with a renewed energy, she’d become known in her parts—even famous—as a medicine woman, someone on whom a community would depend to get them through the toughest times in a hard life. Sometimes she’d get a dozen eggs in return for her talents, or a scarf knitted from wool spun from raggedy sheep, but rarely money.

Perhaps word spread even beyond the mountain about this particular batch, that it had a spark that spread from the belly to warm the heart and flood a bad mood with cheer, to lubricate aching joints and some swore, thickened thinning hair. Our mountain grandma would work to reproduce the recipe as best she could to keep up with demand, but the efficacy of the blend would vary, depending on the strength of the liquor and the potency of the herbs, which both have minds of their own.

Eventually collecting the plants and procuring the moonshine got to be too much for her old bones, and finally, her life of work and giving and getting through the day was over. Let’s imagine that she finally sat down in her favorite chair after the supper dishes had been cleaned, took a great big swig of her own elixir from a bottle she had stashed in her sewing basket, let out a cozy belch and fell fast asleep forever.

Since she didn’t write it down—never did learn how—the recipe for her marvelous remedy disappeared. They say you can’t miss what you never knew, but I can’t help feeling called to recreate a similar panacea. In this age when work means not so much physical labor but hours upon hours logged in front of a small electrical box, our wrists and shoulders tight from typing and our backsides and legs soft from disuse, our medicants for the accompanying ennui and sense of disconnection from the natural world only furthering a sense of anxiety we just can’t shake, I have long been fascinated with this imaginary mountain grandma and her simple medicinal wisdom for making life tolerable.

However, having been raised in a giant suburb where the only accessible flora was the pesticide-soaked turf of the golf course adjacent to my house, it’s been a challenge. My own grandmothers were good for costume jewelry and bawdy jokes, but I have not even a recipe for rugelach from either. Encyclopedic descriptions of plants copied from the little electric box aren’t real knowledge, and I can never seem to recognize anything from the photos with the forest floor in front of me.
So I go out seeking in the woods, touching this plant and that, smelling, tasting, until I understand that being outside is half the cure for any negative condition of the soul, that lying on a bed of pine needles and listening to the birds washes away discontent to reveal an allowing of life’s unfolding, even if it’s hard.

Still, I experiment with the plants, soaking out their medicine, tracking down artisanal honey and fresh, sweet berries. Though I may never get it right, I sense the root of grandmother’s recipe is doing it all with joy. And that the true effect of her magical elixir is, that with a sweet spark, is to remind the psyche what joy is so that it can perhaps reestablish its capacity to generate it on its own.

A little moonshine never hurts, either.

Literary Yenta

I normally try to abstain from mixing writing gigs (and metaphors), but this piece appeared a few months ago in the literary edition of the awesome art journal OUTLET and I wanted to share it with a bigger audience. I’m real proud to be a part of such a stellar issue—you can download it for free!

Morning Commute of a Misanthrope

By Jessica Leigh Lebos

When I was much younger than this, I had a bad habit of hating my life. Fortunately, the more of it I lived, the more miraculous I understood it to be—that I, along with every other animate creature in this world, am moved along by a common pulse that drives every heartbeat and breath. Compared to the majesty of this force, even my most existential frustrations are ridiculously insignificant. Falling in love and becoming a mother practically cured me of my cynical navelgazing, and rather than despising myself and others for all the things we are not, I mostly view humankind as a collection of mentally-challenged pets, worthy of compassion and usually in need of help.
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The Flower Power Hour Is Upon Us

Oooh, y’all known I love me some flowers, and azalea season in full riot in Savannah: Please read my article on “Azaleashock” in the Savannah Morning News!

(Here’s the original version below—the online version had some typos…)

The Flower Power Hour Is Upon Us
By Jessica Leigh Lebos
Spring has sprung forward and I’m waiting in my front yard. The air holds a vague promise of the months of warmth to come, but this morning it still stings cold, and I tuck my cheeks into the collar of my jacket. Now, it’s not unusual for me to stand vigil in front of my house so I can shake my fist at drivers peeling past at unacceptable speeds. But today I’m not minding the street—only the line of dark green shrubs underneath the living room window.

These bushes, festooned with tightly-spiraled buds, are about to transform my yard into a magical wonderland of color. I’m determined to witness the exact moment these buds, sleeping like hundreds of tiny baby dolls, hear the clarion call sent silently through roots and stems that signals them to swivel open and show their full faces to the world.

It happens every year in Savannah: One day everything is its usual ho-hum green, and the next morning it’s pinks and reds and purples and white in every yard, down every block, along every square—like heaven had a pep rally while we were sleeping and forgot to clean up the confetti. Continue reading

Shvitzin’ My Prayers

I recently survived my 36th Bikram yoga class — and if you know Bikram, you understand that this is an accomplishment.

If you don’t know Bikram, it’s a form of Hatha yoga practiced in a room hot enough to cook eggs, or at least brew tea. There’s a lot of sweating involved, and not much of the quiet serenity you expect from yoga class. As I wrote about in this month’s South magazine, instead of inner peace, sometimes what arises within is more akin to murderous rage.

But I don’t go to Bikram several times a week because it’s fun—I go because it works. I’ve been managing chronic pain for over a decade now, and I’d drink camel pee if I thought it’d bring relief. I’ve tried every treatment imaginable, from chiropractic to acupuncture to big doses of turmeric (proven to be a natural inflammatory) to promising El Yenta Man all manner of sexual favors if he’ll rub my hip for hours on end. While these have all worked to a degree (especially the latter, heheheh), the effects are temporary.

Yet after three and a half months of bending my body into crazy shapes and contracting muscles I didn’t know existed, I feel better. Like, way better. The pain hasn’t disappeared completely, but it’s been tamed, like a tiger that’s been given some Xanax-laced catnip. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that I’m the one exerting the effort into the hard, painful places rather than being manipulated by a practitioner—perhaps because I am finally playing an active role in healing my pain instead of passively laying on a treatment table, it’s all the more powerful.

(This does not discount all the wonderful, talented healers who have helped me over the years. Except for that chiropractor in Corte Madera who told me I had scoliosis and then charged me $800 to lay on a machine that pulled my body in opposite directions—he can kiss my sweaty tush.)

Anyway, the fact that I’ve surpassed class #36 is significant. The kabbalistically-minded among us imbue meaning into digits: 18 traditionally means chai — “life” — in Judaic numerology and is considered the luckiest of numbers. (That’s why tzedakeh (charity) and gifts tend to be given in increments of $18.)

So “36” is “double chai” – double life. While walking home from class, sweat dripping in my eyes and my legs feeling like noodles, it struck me that I’d attended this many sessions, and I realized that practicing Bikram yoga has given me my life back.

Sounds corny, I’m sure. But I’m so grateful to be out of pain that I’m willing to take on the slings and arrows shot towards weirdos who wax poetic about yoga. And listen, I’m not saying Bikram is for everyone—I just thank God it’s for me.

Read “The South’s Guide to Breaking A Sweat” here.

Shanda-less Self-Promotion

El Yenta Man and I finally managed to get to Connect Savannah‘s Best of 2010 Bash last night after split-attending a soccer game, a piano lesson, a PTA meeting (at which Yenta Boy won a district-wide essay contest! kvell, kvell) and a walk with a constipated dog.

I missed my name called the first time, but fortunately, Connect Savannah‘s editor Jim Morekis gallantly gave me another chance to accept my “Best Local Blogger” award and show off my farpitzed* self. (*farpitzed – sounds like a bodily function, but it means “done up to the nines” in Yiddish.)

Jim also penned this mighty kind article about your Yenta for the paper, which includes my most favorite quote I’ve ever given while blathering on about myself:

“I’m just trying to make sense of the otherness I’ve always lived with and reveled in. Who wants to fit in, anyway?”

I sent it a couple of different photos for Jim to use on my bio, and even though I lurve photographer Jade McCully‘s original that’s in the paper, I think this snap taken late in the evening at a recent supersonic bat mitzvah might’ve fit better with the quote:

Thank you so much to all who voted. Read the rest of the Best of 2010 Winners here!

Sending Out the Elul Love

jewelsSo tomorrow marks the first of the month of Elul, the period when we’re all supposed to start cleaning up our respective acts for Rosh Hashanah. likens it to preparing for an important court date, but I think I like the idea of getting ready for the Prom of the soul: You have a whole month to curl your hair, paint your nails, Febreze your dress and practice dancing in those rhinestone heels for your most important date of the year. Screw this one up with halitosis or drinking too much of the spiked punch or just being self-absorbed, selfish or mean, and maybe the Big Guy decides you’re a pretty lame date after all. And you know what that means: Your days of being inscribed into the YearBook of Life are over, baby.

So, yeah, Elul; time to start thinking a little more deeply about who we’ve been this year, what we need to change, how to be better humans. The creative geniuses at CraignCo (that would be Craig “Silver Fox” Taubman and his crew of magical elves) have everything you need to end your 5767 right: There’s a soundtrack for the Holy Days, Inscribed, that you could start listening to on the iPod while mowing the lawn like your wife asked you to nicely five times already, and then there’s the Jewels of Elul, which begin posting tomorrow:

Beginning August 15, on each of the 29 days of Elul, we will post a “Jewel” of an inspiration from an amazing group of individuals. From Deepak Chopra to the Dalai Lama and Kirk Douglas to Matisyahu, these wonderful people will share their thoughts on “Hope and Healing”.

So after gathering up all these really wise, famous people, someone thought they needed a little sacreligious immaturity to balance things out, so they asked me to contribute a jewel, too. I don’t think I’ve ever been so honored to be asked to do anything. All the Jewels will be compiled in a book, too. Me and the Dalai Lama in the same book. Life is so weird.

Start checking it out tomorrow, and keep it up until 5768!

It’s up; I’m Jewel #1!

Calling All Poets and Artsy Folk

mimaMy inspiration has lain fallow this year and I haven’t produced a new poem in ages, but for those of you with time to scribble away in coffeeshops and fill up journals with spiritually-themed prose and artwork, here’s an opportunity to bring it to an audience:

, a fabulous journal of Jewish art and culture out of NYC, is seeking submissions for their 2007 journal. I’m telling you, you should totally submit something, because you need to get over being shy about your art. C’mon, break out! Even if they don’t publish it, it’s good experience for you.

The editors took last year off, but I submitted this poem in 2005. They had me do quite a bit of editing for the final version, which kind of annoyed me, but I was honored to be included for sure. Go for it!

*Painting “The Third Day” by Shlomo Rydzinski originally published at Mima’

The “Inappropriate on Yom Kippur” Poem

teaI attended a poetry slam in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Savannah’s point of poetic and fairly-traded caffienated pride, The Sentient Bean. I was so worried about not sucking in front of a new scene that I never expected to win, but so many Bay Area competitions must have sharpened my spit skills ’cause I did. More importantly, I made lots of new wordsmithy friends and have stopped feeling like a nerdy old lady amongst the artsy teenage hipsters when I go to the Bean.

This piece was written before I quit smoking, but it felt like the right one for the day. A different version was published in the Mima’amakim journal last year because the one of the editors didn’t like all the rhyming; this is the original since the published version is still in storage and I never commited it to memory. So maybe the white girl rap thing translates, maybe it doesn’t, but the coolest coffeeshop in coastal Georgia thought it kicked ass in person.

The Big You

The moon rises as a clear sharp crescent
The tea smells orange sweet
How blessed I am to have the cafe garden haven
just a few steps down my street

Sometimes I think
This is who I am!
Smoking writing biting
Off bigger ideas than I can chew
But enough about me
What about You?
Is it true God needs love too?

Is the right way to pray
To give thanks first and ask for favors later?
What if we never get earth’s shit together
And destiny murders itself along a zillion pointless ends?

I prefer to think of you as my Friend
This Presence that cares
But Y’know, sometimes it seems like You’re not really there
And we’re all traipsing around all alone

Then I think of that corny poem
The one about two sets of footprints on the beach
And I have to admit it reaches me
Even though I’d rather stand back, roll my eyes and laugh at the Jesus freaks

Even my father holds you up for ridicule
And I gather that it just ain’t cool to pray out loud
So I sit in this self-effacing cloud of smoke and I choke on the urge to share

‘Cept sometimes when I’m in a cool, stained glass synagogue
I just wanna kick back my chair and shout out
Glory Hallelujah! to the rabbi
Glory Hallelujah! to my fellow Jews who know all too well the dangers of drawing attention to themselves
Glory Hallelujah! like my heart rich soul sisters in a Southern Baptist church
Glory Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

But that would be inappropriate on, say, Yom Kippur
So my prayers takes the form of these quiet questions to You
Like, is it lonely, being the only One
While we squabble down here with money and guns?
And how do we make sense of an apparent evil so dense it creates a high shard topped fence
That shreds even the most faithful confidence in You?
And why do we suffer so hard for the perfect love, the perfect homre, the perfect poem, the perfect life
When it’s pretty much written in the plan that it can’t last?

As this present becomes past I hear no answers from You
Just two bad news teenage girls spitting on the ground
Nope, I don’t hear a sound
Oh wait, there’s someone dumping broken glass next door
Then the rustle smack
As a pack of cigarettes hits the floor

Then the wind dies down and I hear Your voice
OK, not a voice, but a hum
Coming from underneath where the trees grow
Above the moon’s glow and I know
You are what’s beyond life and death

So I sit
Sipping orange tea with You and
Remember that sound is only
And always
My breath.