for Richard Hood

I’m cooking a pizza in the oven.

Every bit of steam’s frolicking.

Snug on my high bed, the sheets listen.

From dawn to dusk the barnyard lights glisten

When I crease my covers whiter than snow,


For I am loving no flakes this Christmas.

With every yellow daisy popping up,

The meadow turning even more golden,

And the full moon, coming up now, blossoms

To let the elephants and flocks go by.


They flop out of sight like exclamations,

Arriving in wonder, McGee’s Crossroads,

To prep and string popcorn in rows of clouds.

There is no snow on Paul’s Hill this Christmas,

Just dollops of dewy lichens on posts.


May sweaters spring red, blue, white, brown, lacey,

Minds lift away from neutrally racy

Swears to mark the weather this morn.

I put suet out for the woodpeckers.

Not a one in sight will leave me undone.


All my button-holes I keep unbuttoned

For breezes to make my lashes whistle,

This merry Christmas day, Cricket snores.

The front door’s purposefully half-open,

My heart singing a sprig in awe of spring.

— Shelby Stephenson

Shelby Stephenson was North Carolina’s poet laureate from 2015-2018.

The Naturalist

Snow Days

North Carolina’s greatest wildlife spectacle

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

They appear like clockwork each November, arriving by the tens of thousands from their breeding grounds in the far north of Alaska and Canada, settling in for the winter in scattered locations across northeastern North Carolina, many in federal wildlife refuges created, in large part, for them and their kin. Possessing stark white feathers, weights of more than 5 pounds, and wings that stretch over 28 inches from tip to tip, snow geese are among our state’s most spectacular waterfowl. Aesthetics aside, what makes snow geese so remarkable is their tendency to form enormous flocks on their wintering grounds.

Containing as many as 40,000 individual birds, these cacophonous flocks provide the state’s greatest wildlife spectacle and can be seen in many of our coastal wildlife refuges such as MacKay Island, Pea Island and Lake Mattamuskeet. However, the largest flocks tend to aggregate in the vast fields and lakes of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in rural Tyrell County, which is exactly where I found myself one winter’s day.

I had timed my arrival for late afternoon, just as the sun was starting to dip in the bright blue western sky. Experience had taught me that the geese spend much of the day roosting in the shallow waters of the refuge’s Pungo Lake, only to leave in unison in early evening to forage in nearby agricultural fields.

Turning down a refuge dirt road, a northern harrier, a large, white-tailed hawk, arched gracefully above a hedgerow that bordered a shallow irrigation ditch, its long wings barely flapping in the gentle breeze as it attentively searched the grasses for an unsuspecting rodent or bird. Up ahead in the road, a pair of white-tailed deer ambled into an immense field of corn, their brown bodies quietly disappearing among the golden stalks.

Rounding a sharp bend in the road, I slow my car. Stretched out to my right, in a recently plowed field, are hundreds of tundra swans, their large white bodies aglow in the late afternoon light. Like the snow geese I have come to see, they, too, are recent migrants from the far North.

Both the geese and swans are attracted to this area for the immense wetlands surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans, crops that provide a high-energy food resource that sustains the gregarious flocks through the long winter days. The refuge allows local farmers to plant crops on its lands as part of a cooperative farming program. Instead of paying the refuge rent, farmers are encouraged to leave a portion of their crop in the field for the migratory waterfowl.

I put my car in park, roll down my window and turn off the engine. Pointing a long telephoto lens in the swans’ direction, I frame a small group standing at attention, carefully monitoring a predatory red-tailed hawk flying above the tree line at the far end of the field. Suddenly, I hear them, the roar of thousands of wings launching simultaneously from the surface of nearby Pungo Lake nearly a half-mile away. Despite the distance, the booming voices of the snow geese echo through the trees and across the vast expanse of the soybean field.

Before long, immense V-shaped lines of geese approach, high up in the sky from the east, and begin to circle above the tundra swans. Great swirling currents of snow-white wings, all beating in unison, descend, tornado-like, to the ground just a hundred yards from my parked car. Their synchronous movements are provocative. No other waterfowl are as gregarious, and I marvel at how the large birds fly so skillfully in such large aggregations. At no time do I see two birds so much as brush wing tips.

The geese snowstorm lasts for a full 20 minutes, and the open, plowed field, once a drab brown landscape of crop stubble, morphs into an enormous living white carpet full of frenetic energy. The noise is deafening.

There are few spots on the planet where one can witness such a gathering of animals, and it is remarkable to think that a spectacle such as this occurs so close to home. Even more astounding, I have this phenomenon all to myself. Nary another car is in sight.

As the sun dips toward the western horizon, late afternoon light washes over the flock, casting a golden hue over the sea of white feathers. The incessant chorus continues as the geese, mixed among the taller tundra swans, eagerly gobble mouthfuls of nourishment, pausing occasionally to crane their necks upward looking around for potential predators.

After nearly an hour, the dark silhouette of a flapping eagle appears just over the tree line along the far corner of the field. The entire flock instantly takes notice and, for just a split second, their honking and cackling stops. Then, blastoff! Thousands of birds launch simultaneously in a furious explosion of flapping wings.

The flock rises into the early evening sky in a white shimmering wave and circles back toward the lake, leaving nothing but a few scattered feathers strewn across an empty field, and silence. PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

Story of a House

Christmas and Beyond

Seasoned with a light touch

By Deborah Salomon     Photographs by John Gessner

Minimalist. Christmas. Opposites.

Decorating a home for Christmas suggests tinsel, paper chains, gingerbread villages, candles, holly wreathes, mangers, Santas, angels, lights-lights-lights.

Not necessarily. A few absolutely perfect — in scale and taste — Yuletide arrangements can make a house glow. Especially when the house itself is tailored to its occupants’ lifestyle, where decorations lean toward the elegant, the traditional, the spare.

Garlands. Ribbons. Wreaths.

This happens at the Country Club of North Carolina home of Teresa Marshall and Rick Kline, who married in their new living room last December. Accommodations for the COVID-19 pandemic limited them to 10 guests sitting on white sofas arranged like pews.

Framing the scene were miles of moldings: crown, window, door. High ceilings completed the effect — airy and calm — which, all things considered, also provides the ideal stage for Christmas decorations.

No snowmen. No reindeer. No elves. Santa survived the cut.

“We just wanted a little bit of Christmas in all the main rooms,” Teresa says.

Helping to realize the effect was Matthew Hollyfield of Hollyfield Design. He was tasked with creating arrangements that could be augmented with red roses for the wedding on Dec. 27. In Teresa’s childhood home, the tree, decorated by her mother, was the focus. “I felt strongly about that,” she says. All Rick remembers is “just a tree and a lot of toys.” And butter cookies. Their wish was simple. “We wanted to establish our own traditions, carry over decorations and add to them every year,” she says.

Teresa wanted the main tree in the living room, in front of a window, and a tabletop tree visible from the bottom of a high staircase, festooned with greenery — the very staircase she descended in her wedding gown. Partial to large glass ball ornaments, she sat back, turned on the music and watched Hollyfield hang them. A tray of succulents extended over the kitchen countertop; a small arrangement centered the dining room table. Understated, but a presence.

Outside, more garlands of pine and fir, to be augmented this year by lighted trees. Teresa and Rick decorate immediately after Thanksgiving. Otherwise, there’s hardly time to enjoy. Greenery must be best-quality manmade, and reusable. Spray-on piney scents are optional.

Hollyfield confirmed the house was an excellent backdrop. The decorations didn’t have to compete with “a lot of heavy oil paintings,” he says. Rick and Teresa prefer landscapes by local artists, including one by Jessie Mackay, who lives just down the road. Otherwise, expanses of white walls, framed by those amazing moldings, beg seasonal adornment.

Ah, the house: White-painted brick stretches asymmetrically across a knoll overlooking the Dogwood Course and lake beyond. A circular driveway surrounds close-cropped grass, green enough for putting. Tall pines dominate the background, where a pair of eagles nest.

Location. Location. Location.

Teresa and Rick were living within sight of this prime property, conveniently vacant. Their house needed renovations. Why not start over, build their dream home on the lot with the million-dollar view?

Rick, an attorney, and Teresa, a retired banker, negotiated the purchase. They drew a layout suited to their needs, where the pool (with hot tub and sun shelf) is close enough to the living room — with its interesting tray ceiling — and adjoining screened porch to seem part of it. The dining room with built-in bar serves as a passageway into a large kitchen, all white and stainless steel, with miles of natural quartzite countertops, a chevron tile backsplash, and paned windows with nothing to obscure the vista — all for Teresa. She prepares Thanksgiving dinner for a multitude of relatives.

“I make Sunday breakfast,” Rick says.

Adjoining the kitchen is a small “keeping room.” Teresa adopted this New England designation that refers to a small area where family gathers around the fireplace in an unheated cabin come winter. More sitting room than den, this fireplace and TV are still the draw, especially when guests congregate in the kitchen. That leaves the dining room for contrast, painted a deep sea blue with teal overtones on the walls, ceiling, even the moldings.

The master suite is off the kitchen-keeping area, enabling an entrance from pool deck to bedroom. Here, again, a splash of wall color. Not mint. Not lime or avocado. Maybe celery. “It’s called Teresa green,” she says, therefore pre-ordained.

Area rugs over stained white oak floors throughout are colorful, but muted. The furnishings are in the comfort/contemporary mode, excepting several antiques from Rick’s family.

Upstairs the scale changes. Two comparatively small bedrooms, each with a bathroom, accommodate family and guests. Yet, citing the careful design, they use each room, almost every day.

We have been very blessed,” Teresa says. “I had the ability to retire, and we’re both healthy.” Their decision to marry in December ensured that Christmas will always be doubly special. As for the house they built for their wedding and beyond:

Serene. Beautiful. Absolutely perfect.  PS

Character Study

Tuned In to the Generations

Gary Brown’s musical legacy

By Jenna Biter

Mount the steps to The Carolina Hotel, walk the lobby to the dining room, and sit down to a fine breakfast under crystal chandeliers. Five mornings out of seven, Gary Brown Jr. will be in the corner tinkling the keys of the shiny baby grand just like his grandfather Robert L. Murphy did for 30 years before him.

Veterans of the hotel staff, and even some guests, watched Brown grow up playing music. At first it was strictly after school. He debuted alongside his grandfather and uncle, Rev. Dr. Paul Murphy, when he was only 14 years old. “My grandfather or uncle would be on the piano. Sometimes my uncle would be on the upright bass or the saxophone, and I would be on the drums,” says Brown. “That makes me the third generation.” He flashes a smile.

Eventually he shared his grandfather’s breakfast gig, penciled into the schedule more and more often, especially after he graduated from Pinecrest High School in 2007. Grandfather was preparing grandson to continue the family’s legacy. “I wanted to,” Brown says. “It was never forced on me.”

In 2022 he’ll have been at it for 19 years. It’s a legacy that spans more than music. Gary’s father, Gary Brown Sr., has been working as a chef at the resort for 42 years, cooking now at Fairwoods on 7.

From a rocking chair on the wide, wraparound porch outside the hotel’s dining room, Brown motions to the grounds. “To be in this atmosphere, you definitely have to make sure you are professional,” he says. When he was a teenager, Brown remembers being nervous that patrons would approach him to chat while he played. “I asked my grandfather, ‘What if somebody comes up to me?’” His grandfather explained it was a part of the job, part of being an entertainer, not just background noise.

Nearly two decades later, Brown’s fingers scale the black and white keys on autopilot while he small-talks with guests. He raises his eyebrows and affectionately impersonates their wide-eyed awe, “‘Woooo, you’re not even looking at your hands!’”

For Brown, playing the piano is like blinking — he can focus on the action but doesn’t have to. “I’ve literally been so tired that I could rest and play the piano,” he says. “One time, I almost fell off.” He drops his head, slumps to one side in imitation. “You know, how your body drops off? I nodded off, but it’s weird because my fingers kept playing.” He folds into laughter, remembering the waitstaff’s amusement at his expense.

Brown can read sheet music but usually plays without it. “I gauge the crowd, see who’s there, see who’s into it,” he says. He’ll sprinkle in pop songs for younger guests. “I love music. I like hymns. I like jazz. I like regular music that people hear on the radio. Either way I put my own touch to it.”

He’s been playing — well, trying to play — the piano since before he can remember. As a toddler, he would crawl to the piano and pull himself onto the bench to hammer at the keys. Then, in the second grade, he entered an art contest with the assignment to draw what you want to be when you grow up. His picture depicted the adult Gary seated at a baby grand. “I didn’t know how to draw hair, so I just drew a mohawk,” he says, running a hand over his tightly cropped haircut.

Even without the mohawk, his elementary artwork was prescient. “I not only play piano, I tune pianos,” he says. “And my grandfather tuned pianos, and my uncle tunes pianos.”

His Uncle Paul also plays at the resort at least once a week, as he has for the past 37 years. And his mother, the daughter of Robert and Paul’s sister, Cathy Murphy, is a piano technician, able to regulate and repair pianos.

The family’s musical legacy began when Robert opened Murphy’s Music Center, a piano store, in Aberdeen in 1972, at the time one of the few Blacks to own a Sandhills business. He shuttered the store in 1980 because of the recession, but his misfortune had an upside.

During the economic downturn, Murphy couldn’t afford to pay tuners to maintain the pianos he had in stock, so he learned to tune the instruments himself. That led to a new business, Murphy’s Music Service. When he started playing at the resort in 1982, the combination launched the family’s musical arc.

“My grandfather taught me how to tune by ear first,” Brown says. “Then, after I learned to tune by ear, he allowed me to use a device as an aid. If the device is broken, you still need to be able to tune the piano.”

He dives into a masterclass on the process. “For most of the keys on the piano, there are three strings,” he says. “I use the felt to mute the left and right string, so then it only exposes the middle string.” Brown describes the tedious process with hand motions as if a piano were in front of him. With only the middle string exposed, he sets the note before individually tuning the right and left strings until all three are in tune.

“That’s pretty much what I do all the way down the whole piano, and the piano has over 260 knobs and tuning pins I have to turn,” he says. “A lot of times, I go through it twice.”

Patience was the first skill Brown learned from his grandfather. “I used to look at him and say, ‘What is he doing?’ I’m like, ‘He’ll never get done doing that.’”

But wisdom comes from experience. “You just focus on one string at a time,” he says. He points to a decorative retaining wall on the grounds, “It’s like somebody building that brick wall right there
. . . one brick at a time.”

At first, Brown learned the tuning trade in his grandfather’s shop. When his grandfather decided he was ready, Brown accompanied him to tune in customers’ homes. Then he graduated to tuning pianos solo with only pickup and drop-off by Grandpa.

When his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, Brown stepped up. “He was tuning the piano, and I was right beside him. But he didn’t have enough strength to do it. So, I said, ‘I got it, Grandpa, I got it,’” Brown says. “Then he’d hand me the tuning hammer, and I’d tune the piano.” When Murphy’s condition worsened and he had home hospice, Brown would service pianos and bring checks back to his grandfather until he passed away in 2012.

Nearly a decade later, Brown still shows up for his grandfather’s clientele. He helps to support Murphy’s Music Service, run by his grandmother, Thomasina, but also has his own tuning business, Murphy and Brown’s Moving Music. “Call either or, and I’ll still show up,” Brown says and cracks a smile.

After Robert Murphy died, Brown was upset he didn’t play the piano for his grandfather while he was in hospice care, so he added a third, compassionate, leg to his business. “It just opened my eyes to the opportunity. You know, since you didn’t do it for your grandfather, you can do it for other people.

“I’m the last person they hear before they pass away,” he says with sober gratitude. “A lot of family members are mourning, don’t know what to say, don’t know what to do. Then when I come with the music, the music fills the gaps.”

Sometimes Brown brings his sons, Gary Brown III and Jayce, just shy of their ninth and fifth birthdays respectively, with him when he plays for hospice patients, so they can witness the gift that music can be.

Like their dad, the boys gravitated toward the piano as toddlers. “I would see them going to the piano and doing the same exact thing I did,” he says. But like Murphy didn’t force the piano on his grandson, Brown doesn’t force it on yet another generation. “A lot of people that come up to me, they say they used to take lessons when they were young, but they don’t play anymore. Maybe they had a strict teacher, or they just didn’t practice when they were supposed to,” he says. “But when they hear me play, they say they wish they would have kept playing.” Brown knows the next generation will get there on its own, if that’s where it wants to go.

“My grandpa always told me, ‘If you find something you love to do, you never work a day in your life.’ That’s why I learned how to play and I learned how to tune,” he says. “I love it.”  PS

Jenna Biter is a writer, entrepreneur, and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jennabiter@protonmail.com. Contact Brown for any of his piano services by calling him at (910) 315-1362 or emailing him at garybrown1362@gmail.com.


O Christmas Tree

Poor, rusted Christmas tree

By Ruth Moose

When water is up to your waist, the last thing you think about is Christmas. And certainly not Christmas trees. You rescue what you can at hand. You bless sump pumps and those who make them. Same goes for wet vacuums. You are amazed that sofas can swim, but armchairs cannot. And you cry over books. Thousands of pages, sodden wads of pages, glued together, their backs forever warped and bucked in humps and waves. How heavy they are as you cart them to the curb. How wasted their lives.

Hurricane Florence got all the publicity, but the hurricane after got us. In Albemarle, our usually sunny (and the site of my artist husband’s studio) daylight basement ended up with nearly 3 feet of water. At least it was clear, cold and clean water, but still a frightening sight. Here were my husband’s sketches and paintings, art books, art supplies and frames. His working easels and drawing board, paints and brushes. It’s a sickening feeling to pull open a drawer of paint tubes and water pours out. Not to mention a lifetime collection of art books with glorious color reproductions of paintings he’d used for study and inspiration. In other sections of the basement he also had a woodworking shop furnished with years of accumulated equipment and tools.

Then there was the household part of the basement with the water heater, furnace and 35-year-old food freezer, all standing in water. Plus various assorted items we’d stored over the years. Never had water, four sump pumps going simultaneously, receded so slowly. You can only haul furniture out to dry, watch the skies and wait. Pray. And when the water is gone, you wet vac and wet vac and wet vac. You hear the roar of the motor in your sleep.

Then you begin to dry out sketches and wipe off oil paintings and cry over lost watercolors who went to meet their medium. You open cabinet doors, and drawers and water pours out.

Somewhere in the flood I heard my librarian aunt’s voice when she said, more than once, she never trusted basements. Neither did she like attics. “Basements are too wet,” she said, “and attics are too dry.” At least I thought what we had stored in the attic was dry and better dry any day than wet, wet and wetter.

But, miracle of miracles, after the water went, the air conditioner came back on, the water heater began to purr and the ancient food freezer hummed its heart out. So I emptied and cleaned it and began all over again. Thirty-five years old, hauled through four complete household moves, the freezer kept going and going and going. Gave one heart and hope.

In all that water and wetness, nobody thought about the Christmas tree until months later. We were too busy mopping and drying out and saving what could be saved. When it came time to do the tree, we remember what had been in some of those sodden boxes in the basement. That artificial tree I’d argued and fought against and finally been persuaded (for ecological reasons) to tolerate. Not accept. All our married life my husband and I had fought the real vs. artificial Christmas tree fight. And for years I’d won. Real was a cedar tree that permeated the whole house with the smell of Christmas. No artificial tree had ever come close to that. For years we’d had the advantage of family land to tromp as a family, choose and cut a tree. We never found the perfect tree. Just ones that could be trimmed or branches spliced to suffice. It didn’t matter, as long as they were real. All Christmas trees when trimmed and lighted are beautiful.

When family lands were no longer available, I had no choice but an artificial tree. Somehow the picture of my husband assembling those branches that still look and feel — to me — like giant green bottle brushes, never matched the one in my memory of tramping through the woods on a winter Sunday, kids and dog ahead, ax and saw in hand, to bring home bundled and tied atop the station wagon, this year’s Christmas tree.

Thankfully, the tree ornaments and decorations were in the attic. The tree itself had been stored in boxes too big to go through the crawl space and had to go to the basement. The basement flooded. So we had dry ornaments and a rusty tree. We dried out the branches, shook the rust out, stuck them back into a shape that still looked like a pyramid of green bottle brushes and said, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a working sump pump.”  PS

Ruth Moose taught creative writing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for 15 years and tacked on 10 more at Chatham County Community College.

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker: Land of Sweets

A fantastical journey through the Four Realms

Producer: Nicole Stein, Angela Robb

Karma Spa Lounge and Beauty Bar

Hair: Angela Robb

Karma Spa Lounge and Beauty Bar

Makeup: Laura Sykes, Jessica Biegger

Wine and Design

Artists: Jennifer Campuzano, Tika Worthon, Kate McDonald, Grace Harjung, Nicole Torres, Celina Torres

Costumes by: Showboat Costumes

Photographs by Tim Sayer

Valerie Herman

Manager of C Cups

Katie McIntire

K.Mac Athletics and Arts

Leslie Habets

Jack Hadden Floral and Events, the dress was designed and built by  Leslie Habets

Jennifer Boer

TWS Technology

In the Spirit

Ho, Ho, Ho

And a bottle of your choosing

By Tony Cross

This time of year, the pains of my job are real: I’m forced to order many different spirits, ranging from industry standards to eclectic, and sample them — just so I can give you a recommendation for the holidays. What a drag.

If you’re stuck in the gift-giving department this year, I have you covered. I’ve picked five different spirits that may be foreign to you, or the recipient of your choosing. Please keep in mind that I ordered these online. If you’d like to do the same, I suggest doing it sooner rather than later. While I’m at it, I’d also like to suggest grabbing a bottle from one of North Carolina’s many distilleries. We’re fortunate to have some great hooch from the folks over at TOPO, Sutler’s and InStill Distillery, just to name a few.

Chateau de Montifaud VSOP Petite Champagne Cognac

If you are buying for someone who enjoys Rémy Martin, or even just enjoys their spirits neat (Scotch whisky or bourbon whiskey, for example), then I bring you this elegant cognac. The Montifaud estate and the Vallet family have been producing cognac for six generations spanning more than 150 years. Their cognac is aged for one year in new casks and then several more in French Limousine oak. With some depth and notes of pear and apricot, it’s great on its own, or even in cocktails.

Angel’s Envy Finished Rye

This whiskey has been seen in our local ABC stores, but only once in a blue moon, so act fast. You may be familiar with Angel’s Envy bourbon. I confess, while it’s pretty popular, it has never been one of my favorites. This rye, on the other hand, is a showstopper. I had my first taste last year right when the leaves were turning color and hitting the ground. I remember thinking how it tastes like fall. The folks over at AE start with a 95 percent rye mash bill, aging it in charred white oak barrels. Then, they transfer the whiskey into rum casks — adding a sweetness to the rye, balancing the spiciness with notes of toasted oak, caramel and nuttiness. This whiskey is an ideal gift for any bourbon or rye fan.

Clairin le Rocher

This style of rum from Haiti got my attention at first sip. If you’re in the market for a gift for anyone with an affinity for rum, look no further. I’ve enjoyed the different bottles of clairin over ice, or as a Ti’ Punch. Per the website’s tasting notes on this particular bottle: “Le Rocher is a distillery at a higher elevation, creating their Clairin in the style of Jamaican single pot still by boiling wild sugar cane juice into syrup.” This rum is a little funky (in a good way) and there are notes of butterscotch and bananas. There are other clairins on the market, too, and any of them would be a great addition to that special someone’s home bar.

The Kyoto Distillery Ki No Tea, Green Tea Flavored Gin

The team over at Kyoto Distillery only makes gin, and that dedication shows. Though this may seem like a boutique buy to some, the flavor of the gin is uncanny — I have never tasted a gin so clean and balanced, with different notes of green tea to boot. It’s described this way on the website: “Ki No Tea is a product created in collaboration with tea-grower and blender, Hori-Shichimeien, founded in the Meiji era in 1879 and based in the famous Uji region to the south of Kyoto city. A number of super-premium Uji teas have been specially selected to form the heart of Ki No Tea. Tencha and gyokuro provide intense aromas and depth of flavour with a wonderful sweetness that occurs naturally in the distillation of these superior teas. These teas are blended carefully with a secret botanical recipe used only in Ki No Tea.” Tencha is the tea used for matcha, and gyokuro (which means, “Jade dew”) is very rich and robust. Bottom line: this gin is outstanding on its own, and I cannot think of a gin that could go toe-to-toe with Ki No Tea without needing a modifier. If anything, buy this for a martini lover.

123 Organic Tequila Reposado (Dos)

Buy this for yourself. Founder and tequilero David Ravandi’s attention to detail with his line at 123 Organic Tequila is unparalleled. From its certified organic source (the agave is grown on USDA and EU certified organic estates without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides) to the sustainability of its packaging (100 percent recycled glass; the label is printed on recycled paper; the labeling is made from vegetable-based inks), 123 Organic Tequila Reposado captures the finest expression of 100 percent organic blue agave. I’ve had their anejo “Tres,” and, now, their “Dos” reposado. Only distilling twice, this agave has notes of lemon and, on the palate, you’re treated to salted caramel and a touch of vanilla but not in an overpowering, vanilla-bomb way. This agave is great on its own, but man, oh man, it is my personal favorite for margaritas.   PS

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.


By Ashley Walshe

December is a bed of ash and embers, an ancient ritual, a deep and permeating warmth.

The songbirds are stirring. You slip on your work gloves, slip out the back door, fade into the arms of the dark and wintry morning.

On the walk to the woodshed, the cold air stings your lungs. You gather the kindling and hardwood. You gather yourself for the long journey inward. The leaves crunch gently underfoot.

Back inside, where the sleeping cat resembles a furled frond, the hearth becomes a sacred alter. You kneel down, offer the gifts of summer’s storms: walnut, oak and maple limbs. In a moment of deep silence, the wood speaks. The fire keeper listens close.   

Once the kindling catches, time slows. And as the logs begin to pop and crackle, the dancing flames transport you to every fire you have ever known. You are transfixed — enchanted. Here and many places, as if all timelines have merged.

At once, something breaks you from your trance: a primal knowing. It’s time again to feed the fire. You add another log, shift your focus from the flames to the glowing embers, the source of true and lasting warmth. The sleepy cat unfurls.

Soon, you’ll slip on your gloves to return to the woodshed. Back and forth you will go, all winter. The cold air will sting your lungs, but you’ll be ready for it. You’ll embrace it. An ancient fire will glow within you, will guide you through the darkest days of winter.

Gift from the Magi

Gold? We get it. But frankincense? Because the trees that produce this fragrant resin flourish only on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, in India and the Horn of Africa, there was a time when, like myrrh, this sap was as valuable as gold. Used for perfumes and incense, as well as for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, frankincense has a heavenly (yet earthy) aroma that has long made it a coveted offering for religious ceremony. Its scent is believed to reduce anxiety and stimulate the immune and respiratory systems. And did you know that, when burned, its smoke repels insects? A wise gift indeed.

Peppermint Tea

Eggnog and wassail have their place.

But peppermint tea requires no hubbub.

It’s sweet, but not too sweet.


And unlike nog, which doesn’t exactly leave you feeling light and airy, peppermint tea promotes healthy digestion.

For a ritual for one, bring a cup of purified water to a boil. Place seven peppermint leaves into a favorite teacup, then add hot water and steep with fresh tarragon leaves and a quarter-inch slice of vanilla bean. Stir in a spoonful of local honey.

Ritual for two? Double it up. 

Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.

– Edith Sitwell

Good Natured

The Power of Patience

Stay calm and carry on

By Karen Frye

The last month of the year can be a whirlwind of events and gatherings. For many, it can increase stress levels and seriously undermine the season. One way to navigate the holidays with fewer difficulties lies in the virtue of patience. While patience may sometimes be more of a goal than a reality, it is absolutely worth the effort to adopt this behavior and practice it when the occasion presents itself. How we handle challenges can make all the difference in the outcome.

Impatience is an everyday part of life. I can get very impatient with traffic backups or waiting too long in a line — convinced for strange karmic reasons that I’ve picked the “slow” one. There is a simple technique in these situations that can change the perspective and make the experience not quite so bad. I’ll take a few deep inhales through my nose and slowly exhale through my nose. Using this deep breathing technique can slow the heart rate and relax the mind in a relatively short time. 

One of the most challenging situations to test your patience is confrontation. It can come at you from nowhere. You can be having the best of days, and suddenly you find yourself engaged in an unpleasant conversation. It could be a personal attack about something you’ve done, a rant about an accident, or just a simple misunderstanding. As one person berates the other, things can get totally out of control and wind up in an adrenaline-pumping shouting match.

There’s a very simple solution. Before you even respond, stop and be silent. Take the time to be patient before you say anything to escalate a situation. Just listen. Within those moments of quiet you can take stock of the circumstances and handle your response in a peaceful, kind and gentle way. It can change the outcome.

The will to calmly wait gives us the opportunity to become more compassionate people. This is the season of love and joy. Practice patience and you will find many benefits: definitely more happiness and less stress.  PS

Karen Frye is the owner and founder of Nature’s Own and teaches yoga at the Bikram Yoga Studio.

Simple Life

Meaningful Happiness

When you think about it, the ordinary becomes extraordinary

By Jim Dodson

I bumped into a friend in the produce section at the market. We had not seen each other since the start of the pandemic — well over a year ago, if not longer — long enough for me to briefly forget her name, though maybe I was just having the proverbial senior moment.

In any case, when I asked how she’d been, she simply smiled. “Like everyone, it’s been pretty challenging. But, also kind of revealing. It may sound funny, but I discovered that picking beautiful vegetables to cook for my family makes me really happy. Previously, shopping seemed more like a necessary chore than a privilege. I guess I’ve learned that the ordinary things provide the most meaningful happiness.”

We wished each other safe and happy holidays and said goodbye. She went off to the organic onions and I went in search of the special spiced apple cider that only comes round during the autumn holidays — an ordinary thing, it suddenly struck me, that provides “meaningful” happiness to my taste buds. For what it’s worth, though too late to count, I also suddenly remembered my friend’s name: Donna.

Quite honestly, in all the years I’ve steeped my tin-cup soul into the works of great spiritual teachers, classical philosophers, transcendental thinkers, Lake District poets and street-corner cranks, I’d never come across the phrase meaningful happiness.

But suddenly — like an ear-burrowing TV jingle or a favorite song from the 1970s — I couldn’t get the idea of it out of my head.

Mankind’s search for happiness and meaning, of course, probably constitutes the oldest quest on Earth, beginning with a fabled naked couple in a heavenly garden, though as any ancient sage worthy of his or her plinth will tell you, true happiness is not something you can acquire from the outside world. Even a fashionable fig leaf can only cover so much.

Objects and possessions can certainly provide a shot of pleasure, but they invariably lose their power to possess us somewhere down the line as rust and dust prevail. At the end of the day, as our wise old grandmothers patiently advised, true happiness can only come from the way you think about who you are and what you choose to do. As a famous old Presbyterian preacher once remarked to me as we sat together on his porch on a golden Vermont afternoon: “What we choose to worship, dear boy, is what we eventually become.”

This curious idea of meaningful happiness, in any case, struck me as a highly useful tool — a way of defining or, better, refining — what kinds of people, things and moments in life are worthy of our close attention in a world that always seems to be beyond our control and on the verge of coming apart at the seams. For most of us, like my friend Donna’s awakening among the vegetables, the art of discovering meaningful happiness simply lies in recognizing the ordinary people, things and moments that fill up and grace an average day.

My gardening hero, Thomas Jefferson — “I’m an old man but a new gardener,” as he once wrote to a friend — was an inveterate list-maker. And so am I.

So, naturally, I began taking mental inventory of the blessedly small and ordinary people, things and moments that provide meaningful happiness in a time like no other I can recall.

I’m sure — or simply hope — you have you own list. Here’s a brief sampling of mine:

Rainy Sundays give me meaningful happiness. The heavens replenishing my private patch of Eden. No fig leaf needed.

Speaking of which, I’ve spent most of the pandemic building an ambitious Asian-inspired shade garden in my backyard, though probably more Bubba than Buddha if you want to know the Gospel. Even so, it’s granted me great peace and purpose, untold hours of pondering and planning, no small amount of dreaming while digging in the soil, delving in the soul, bringing an artist who works in red clay a little bit closer to God’s heart.

Unexpected phone calls from his far-flung children provide this papa serious meaningful happiness. They grew up in a beautiful beech forest in Maine, assured by their old man that kindness and imagination could take them anywhere in the world. Today, one lives in Los Angeles and works in film, the other is a working journalist in the Middle East. They are telling the stories of our time. This gives the old man simple joy from two directions, East and West.

Courteous strangers also make me uncommonly happy these days — people who smile, open doors for others, wear the world with an unhurried grace. Ditto people who use turn signals and don’t speed to make the light, saving lives instead of time; those who realize the journey is really the point. For this reason, I always take the back road home.

Mowing the lawn for the first time in spring makes me surprisingly happy, as does mowing it for the final time in autumn, bedding down the yard.

In summer, I love nothing better than an afternoon nap with the windows wide open; or watching the birds feed at sunset with an excellent bourbon in hand, evidence of a growing appreciation for what our Italian friends call Dolce far niente — “The sweetness of doing nothing.” Ditto golf with new friends and lunch with old ones, early church, old Baptist hymns and well-worn jeans. My late Baptist granny would be appalled.

Let me be clear, eating anything in Italy makes me wondrously happy — for a few blessed hours, at least.

Watching the winter stars before dawn makes me blessedly happy, too, along with wool blankets, the first snow, homemade eggnog, the deep quiet of Christmas Eve, the mystery of certain presents, long walks with the dogs, writing notes by hand and my wife’s incredible cinnamon crumb apple pie.

This list could go on for a while, dear friends. It’s as unfinished as its owner.

But time is precious, and you have better things to do this month — like shop, eat and be merry with the friends and family you may not have been with in years.

Let me just say that I hope December brings you true meaningful happiness.

Whatever that means to you.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at jwdauthor@gmail.com.