Almanac December 2023

Almanac December 2023

December is a waltz with what’s still here; a slowing down; warmth from new directions.

These frigid mornings, dawn lingers.

Through the kitchen window, soft light unveils a council of leafless trees, silhouettes of cottontails, a frost-laced landscape.

As steam rises from the mug in your hands, you feel the sudden swell of loss. The sting of what’s not here. The emptiness of winter.

You deepen your breath, allowing the wave of grief to pass almost as quickly as it arrived.

Unexpectedly, a surge of joy follows.

When resident birds pierce the rose-pink silence with their silvery warbles and trills, you look toward the swinging feeders, eager to honor your end of the deal.

The agreement is simple: You offer sustenance; they offer life. You set down the mug for the bundling ritual.

Outside, the cold air enlivens you. Toting the bag of seed, you follow your breath to the wee, suspended altars. The winged ones disperse.

Despite the crunch of frozen earth, the starkness of the skyline, the withering garden, a softness cradles these early winter days.

Nature doesn’t mourn what’s gone like we do.

As you refill the feeders, a cardinal whistles from a nearby holly; chickadees sing among towering pines.

Winter isn’t empty, you remember. Nor is it quiet. It simply offers space for deeper listening.


In a way Winter is the real Spring — the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature. 

— Edna O’Brien

River in the Sky

The winter sky is a stargazer’s dream. These crystalline nights, don’t let the cold air stop you from getting intimate with Orion and company.

Among the best-seen constellations this month — Aries (the ram), Triangulum (the triangle), Fornax (the furnace), Horologium (the clock) and Perseus — is a vast celestial river that begins at the footstool of the Hunter and meanders down, down, down to the southern horizon and Achernar, the constellation’s brightest star.

Among the 48 original constellations catalogued by Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, Eridanus requires a dark sky. It may be faint, but if you’re able to spot this massive star cluster — home to the so-called Eridanus supervoid and the Witch Head Nebula — surely you won’t regret the extra effort.

Light of Arthur

Days are getting shorter. On December 21, the winter solstice marks the shortest day — and longest night — of the year.

Ancient cultures birthed countless myths and legends about the solstice. Scots attributed the darkening days to a giant hag-goddess named Cailleach, queen of winter. Finnish myth tells of a shape-shifting witch who steals the sun and moon. Nordic people called the solstice “Mother’s Night,” believing that their goddesses gave birth at the season’s darkest hour to offer more light.

In Druidic tradition, the Wheel of the Year now revolves to Alban Arthan, a winter solstice festival that celebrates the light of King Arthur, symbolically reborn as the Mabon (sun child).

This much is true: From darkness comes light. May we trust the grand unfolding, honoring the journey from winter to spring again and again.  PS

Simple Life

Simple Life

Let It Snow

Remembrance of a small Christmas miracle

By Jim Dodson

It’s December and, without fail, I’m thinking about snow.

Thanks to Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin’s Oscar-winning song from the 1942 musical film Holiday Inn, the idea of a “White Christmas” is deeply ingrained in the psyche of anyone who loves the holidays.

I’m no different. I dig everything about Christmas from the ancient story of a savior’s birth to the faux snow of sappy Hallmark holiday movies.

But my love affair with the white stuff goes much deeper than that.

My first taste of snow came in South Carolina in 1959, where my dad worked for a year at a small-town newspaper after he’d lost his own weekly newspaper in Mississippi. Shortly before Christmas, a freak snowstorm shut down the entire town for a couple days. 

My mother, who grew up in the Allegheny Mountains of western Maryland where it snowed heavily every winter, allowed my brother and me to take a large antique serving tray to the nearby golf course, where we would slide down the hill, along with every kid in town. All through town, snowballs flew through the air and snow angels spread their wings. The snow barely lasted a day, but it was nothing short of magical to this wide-eyed kid of 6.

Better yet, we spent that New Year (and many thereafter) in snowy Cumberland, among my mother’s people, a wintry clan of  big, blond, German aunts and uncles who seemed to celebrate the snowy season with roaring fires and lively gatherings. I remember going outside during a rowdy family New Year’s Eve party just to stand in the knee-deep snow outside my Aunt Fanny’s house, marveling at the beauty and still silence of the falling snow.

Not long after we moved to Greensboro in January 1960, it snowed there, too. My dad took me to Western Auto and bought me a Flexible Flyer sled. Our hilly neighborhood street got blocked off and briefly turned into a miniature Olympic bobsled run.

In those days, long before global warming was a concern, it seemed to snow at least two or three times every winter across North Carolina’s Piedmont. This fact was confirmed at my recent 50th high school reunion, where the shared memory of several deep snows during the 1960s and ’70s seemed to be a popular topic of discussion. “I remember how exciting it was to go to bed when a snowstorm was predicted,” remembered my friend, Cindy. “Waking up to find it had snowed and school was cancelled was like Christmas morning all over again.”

It was during those years that I made a silent vow to someday live in snow country. This idea was probably put into my head by my English teacher, Miss Elizabeth Smith, who gave me the Collected Poems of Robert Frost for winning the city’s O.Henry Award for short-story writing. The poet’s very name said winter and whispered to me like a siren call from Homer. Whose woods these are I think I know / His house is in the village though / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Someday, I told myself, that fellow will be me.

After six years in Atlanta covering crime, politics and social mayhem for the oldest Sunday magazine in the nation, I turned down a job as a reporter in Washington, D.C., that for years I yearned for and took a job as the first senior writer for Yankee Magazine, moving to a bend of the Green River outside of Brattleboro, Vermont. The snow was already falling when I got there in late November 1983, taking possession of a tidy two-room cabin heated only by a wood stove. I promptly got myself a retriever pup from the Windham County Humane Society and spent a glorious winter reading every poem, philosopher and piece of literature I could lay hands on. Walking with my dog in the blue dusk of an arctic evening, I came to love the brilliance of the winter stars and finally got to see the Northern lights.

It was the most solitary and wonderful winter of my life.

No surprise, I suppose, that my first wife and I eventually built a post-and-beam house on a forested hilltop near the coast of Maine, where we raised our babies to be outdoor adventurers, especially in winter when the deep snows came. My daughter, Maggie, was born at dawn after an overnight blizzard. I remember driving home to feed the dogs at our cottage on Bailey Island as the sun came out, illuminating a world made pure and peaceful by blankets of snow. I’d never been happier.

On particularly clear and frigid nights, I would put on my red wool Elmer Fudd jacket and tote a large bag of sorghum pellets though the knee-deep snow to the edge of the forest where a family of whitetail deer and other forest creatures could often be seen feeding in the moonlight. That became the source of many bedtime stories I made up for my young adventurers. They still mention those silly winter tales to this day.

One year, however, there was no snow on the ground right up to Christmas Eve. Our Episcopal church decided to hold its evening service in the Settlemeyer family’s barn. Maggie and her brother Jack played a sheep and a cow, respectively, in the annual Christmas Pageant and I was asked to bring along my guitar and play “Silent Night” to conclude the service.

A large crowd in parkas and snowsuits turned out to fill the barn, shivering among the sheep pens as the ancient story of a savior’s birth was retold. At one point Maggie asked with a whisper if I thought it might snow that night. I assured her it probably would because Santa needed snow for his sleigh.

The candles were lit and I played the beloved Christmas hymn, first performed in Austria on Christmas Eve 1818, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Since that time, the hymn has been translated into 300 languages.

That night, as we all huddled together with the barn door firmly shut against a sharp northern wind, a Christmas miracle of sorts took place outside.

When the doors were opened and we all filed out, pausing to exchange hugs and wish each other “Merry Christmas,” someone suddenly cried with a voice of pure childlike wonder: “Oh, look . . . it’s snowing!”

Indeed it was — big, dreamy flakes floating down as if on cue from either Bing Crosby or Heaven itself, like an answered prayer.

Whichever it was, by the time we reached our wooded hilltop, the world was pure white and the night was very silent indeed. We woke to two feet of fresh snow the next morning.

No Christmas since has come without remembering that magical Christmas Eve.

And that’s why I still hold out hope for snow every December.   PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Golftown Journal

Golftown Journal

Sensory Overload

The work of artist and architect Mike Strantz

By Lee Pace

Just over 170 golfers from 14 states as far away as Nebraska traveled to Asheboro the last week in October to play golf at Tot Hill Farm, a daily fee course designed by Mike Strantz. The event is called The Iron Maverick and is a conclave of avid golfers devoted to the quirky, renegade style of Strantz, who designed eight courses over a decade before succumbing to cancer in 2005.

“Everyone here will tell you they are Mike Strantz’ biggest fan,” says Brett McNamara, one of the event’s founders and organizers. “I grew up in Rochester, where the best courses are Donald Ross designs. I saw Tot Hill 21 years ago and was just flabbergasted. I’d never seen anything like it.”

Adds his lifelong golf buddy and fellow Iron Maverick organizer Landon Owen: “I was fascinated by the place. I said, ‘Who builds these preposterous courses?’ I thought, ‘This guy is going to be huge.’ I have played more prestigious golf courses, but Tot Hill is my favorite.”

Which begs the question: If Strantz hadn’t died from tongue cancer in 2005 at the young age of 50, would he ever have made it to Pinehurst proper to design a golf course? 

We’ll never know, of course, but at least 25 percent of his remarkable but all too limited design portfolio was built within 45 miles of the village of Pinehurst. 

Twenty-five miles to the northeast is Tobacco Road, which opened in 1998 with craggy edges, blind shots and dramatic ups and downs whittled from the site of an old sand quarry.

And 45 miles to the northwest is Tot Hill Farm, which opened in 2000 on a rocky site in the Uwharrie Mountains near Asheboro, with an ever-present creek running through the course and an 1800s farmhouse converted into a clubhouse and golf shop. The course in the last year has had an ownership change and reopened in September after a significant operations and agronomic overhaul.

“I have always been fascinated with Mike Strantz’ work and how he went about designing a course — he actually set up shop and lived on-site for every job he did,” says Pat Barber, who owns two courses in the Charleston area and bought Tot Hill in December 2022. “I’ve always enjoyed a good renovation, whether it’s an old house on the Charleston Battery or a golf course that has some potential. This is a special piece of property, has a unique story and is just one of a very few courses that Mike produced. All those things made it an appealing opportunity. We fell in love with the golf course, the land and the old farmhouse. The idea of bringing it back to life was exciting.” 

Tot Hill was built on part of a 400-acre parcel that had been in the family of Asheboro native Ogburn Yates since 1943. The family lived there during the summers, and Yates later raised cattle. In the 1990s, Yates said the family was faced with three options. One was to sell it, but “there were too many memories,” he says. Another was to let it sit idle. A third was to jump on the health of golf and residential markets, build a golf course and develop a neighborhood. 

Yates owned a condominium at Pawleys Island on the South Carolina coast, and through a church there made friends with Doc Lachicotte, a prominent area businessman who was a partner in the mid-1980s creation of the Wachesaw Plantation golf community in Murrells Inlet and the subsequent idea to build a daily-fee course on land along the Intracoastal Waterway used as a fishing club. Lachicotte hired Strantz to design what would become the highly decorated Caledonia Golf & Fish Club. 

“I told Doc we were thinking of doing a golf course on an old family farm, and he said I should talk to Mike,” Yates says. “Doc said he’d bring Mike up here one weekend and let him look at the property. They got here and Mike said, ‘Let me walk around an hour or so.’ He came back and said, ‘You need to build a golf course here. This is a great piece of land.’”

Strantz lived in the farmhouse for 18 months while drawing sketches of the holes during the evenings, and wandering the property by horseback and jumping on earth-moving machines during the day. The course opened in May 2000, and golfers from the beginning were wowed by the tee area of the par-3 third hole cobbled amid enormous rock outcroppings; the teardrop shaped green of the fifth hole set in another rocky and sandy setting; the “cave” built under the ground connecting the 10th and 12th greens; and the waterfall cascading down from behind the 15th green. 

“The piece of property is tremendous,” Strantz said. “I was brought in pretty much as a consultant at the beginning by Ogburn. We walked out on the property and looked at a few places. It kept getting better and better. I got across the road and I kept hearing this sound. I had to go see what it was. It was a waterfall and some big rock. I said, ‘Ogburn, you gotta do it.’ There was no question in my mind at that point.”

Tot Hill has survived two recessions, the occasional flood like the one in 2003 where Betty McGee’s Creek washed out one green entirely and parts of two others, and the always evolving golf economy. By 2018, Yates and his partners were getting along in age and thought it time to find someone who would continue the Tot Hill vision. They met with a half dozen potential buyers before reaching a comfort level with Barber, who has been in the golf business for more than 20 years with Stono Ferry Golf Club and the Plantation Course at Edisto, both in the Charleston area.

The course closed in May 2023 and reopened on Labor Day. All of the greens and bunkers were rebuilt, some drainage issues addressed, many of the cart paths resurfaced, and vast swaths of trees culled out to improve sunlight and airflow. The motor operating the waterfall on 15 was replaced, and the farmhouse restored for golf operations, a snack bar and a room dedicated to Strantz memorabilia. 

“Sensory overload is a phrase you hear often where Strantz courses are concerned,” says Greg Wood, the club’s director of operations. “Mike was at the height of his career when he was here, just coming off the accolades for Tobacco Road and before he did Bulls Bay.” 

Wood points to some of the drawings from Strantz’ pen that are hanging on the clubhouse walls and marvels at how closely the finished construction matched the illustrations. Also displayed are several sketches of potential logos for the club that Strantz drew, the eventual one featuring a horseshoe surrounding an animal skull and horns. When the new owners took over, they modified the logo in a rebranding effort using another Strantz option.

“The exciting part is that Strantz the artist gave us several options to use,” Wood says. 

Mike Strantz the artist and Mike Strantz the golf architect — they are one and the same and on full display in today’s Sandhills golf landscape.   PS

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has been writing about golf in North Carolina and the Sandhills for four decades. His latest book is Good Walks—Rediscovering the Soul of Golf at Eighteen Top Carolinas Courses, available from UNC Press.



The Third Wheel

Keeping up with the big kids

By Emilee Phillips

“Don’t cry! Don’t cry! Shhhhhhhh,” my siblings would plead while glancing over their shoulders for a looming parent. This was the phrase commonly panic-whispered in our household after one of their “brilliant” ideas. 

“Hey, kid,” my older sister would say, “have you ever tried riding a laundry basket down the stairs?” The house we grew up in had sturdy wooden walls, impervious to laundry baskets. This was good for the walls. Not so good for me.

Siblings are handy for all sorts of things, like teaching you words you didn’t know and weren’t supposed to use, or how to ride a bike — a learning experience that could combine both injury and vocabulary.

I have two siblings, a brother and a sister. They are 10 and 11 years older than me, respectively, which made playtime a bit challenging. I was the laboratory rat used to test their theories, such as: How long was it possible to play hide-and-seek before realizing they weren’t seeking me at all? Or how long could they tickle me before I screamed? I don’t know what this training was for, but at least I developed strong lungs.

Like all who share blood, we messed with each other often. The games frequently involved seeing which two siblings wanted to team up against the other one on any given day, for no particular reason. Who got the last Life Saver would spur an entire wrestling match in the living room. Perks of being so much younger and smaller than them included being able to wriggle into small spaces where they couldn’t reach me. Cons were that all they had to do was sit on me and I was conquered. On the weekends, my cardio was running through the house between my sister’s group of friends and my brother’s group of friends, acting as carrier pigeon for the top-secret messages.

After they went to college, I had to entertain myself. I played dress-up with all the things they left behind until summer break. Making Halloween costumes out of my sister’s dance recital outfits was better than any Spirit Halloween store. My brother’s room was where I went for props.

Christmastime was magical because it meant we were all together. They would make me hot chocolate, snuggle up with me and tell me tales of Santa. “Listen closely and maybe we’ll hear sleighbells,” my sister would say on Christmas Eve. What I didn’t know was that, more than once, my brother climbed up on the roof, bells in hand, just to keep that magic alive. I was in denial about Santa quite a bit longer than my peers because of it.

You must be thinking, “Ah, that’s so sweet!” And it was, but it balances out with the year my sister made me wrap my own Christmas present. She even told me I had to act surprised in front of Mom. I suppose we can chalk that one up to acting lessons.

It could be lonely at times, growing up with siblings who were so much older, but it also gave me a built-in advice panel, tutors (for real subjects), great taste in movies and a sense of adventure from trying to keep up with them. That last bit only added to my mother’s gray hairs.

I’ll admit, it’s hard feeling so far behind them in so many ways. Sometimes it’s like I’m in a race where I can never catch up. Forever the annoying little sister, I’m always looking for ways to be “part of the club.”

We don’t see each other very often anymore, though we have a group text for important things like proving each other wrong, arranging the next gathering, or determining who has the honor of getting Mom socks for Christmas — a happy family tradition.

To my mother’s dismay, my sister and I still occasionally throw ourselves down the stairs aboard various objects. We most recently upgraded to mattress surfing. The walls of her current house don’t hold up quite as well as those of our childhood home. Or perhaps the payload is a bit bigger.

The good news is, these days if tears are shed, it’s because we’re crying with laughter, though we probably still don’t want our parents to know.  PS

Emilee Phillips is PineStraw’s director of social media and digital content.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Tales to Tell

The journey of a lifetime

By Anne Blythe

Kelley Shinn spent a long afternoon in a bar with poet Eric Trethewey some years back and told him a story that made him grab her by the shoulders and implore her to write it down.

Shinn had recently returned to the United States from a years-long trip abroad, a nomadic journey she organized to bring attention to the predicament of landmine survivors. As noble an undertaking as that might be, it was not the typical goodwill mission highlighting the plight of amputees whose limbs were blown off in war-torn lands.

A single mother at the time, Shinn — who has prosthetic legs below her knees — was still recovering from her own physical and emotional wounds when she embarked on her global expedition in a tricked-out Land Rover with her whip-smart 3-year-old, Celie. The Wounds That Bind Us, her story chronicling that journey, went through many renditions before becoming the memoir published this year by West Virginia University Press.

Shinn tried a series of short stories first. Next she rewrote it as a novel. “Then I had an agent from New York that was interested in it,” Shinn, now an Ocracoke resident, recounted at a reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. “And she said, ‘You say it’s based on autobiography. Give me a percentage.’ So I wrote her back and said at this point, it’s 75 percent true. She goes, ‘Here’s my problem. It’s too unbelievable for fiction. You need to rewrite it as memoir.’”

The narrative that came together over the next decade is a phenomenal adventure story that will pull you to the edge of your seat while marveling at Shinn’s candor, steely backbone, vulnerability and wisdom. She takes readers on this emotional ride with self-deprecating humor, artistic prose and a welcome hopefulness that oozes throughout the pages. There are times you want to sit her down, stop her from doing what she’s about to do and tell her the danger’s not worth it — think climbing onto wreckage of a bombed-out bridge in Bosnia high above the Neretva River to get the perfect photo. After all, there’s Celie to think about, the child she brought into the world after 52 hours of labor. Her daughter is her sidekick, a worldly little girl who loves her “to the moon and back.” Who will respond “I love you the whole universe” if Shinn succumbs to unnecessary risks?

Overwhelmingly, readers are more likely to be cheering for Shinn, engrossed in a story that keeps them hungering for the next escapade while also hoping that any one of the many interesting people she encounters along the way can keep her in check.

Shinn was a promising cross-country runner at 16 years old, when her body and life were forever changed by a rare form of bacterial meningitis initially misdiagnosed as flu. Although that’s not how she starts the memoir, she flashes back to that time in the hospital while thinking about landmine victims in Bosnia.

“I’ve got more wires running around and through me than an early desktop computer,” Shinn writes. “A month ago my coach was talking to me about scholarships for cross-country. Lord in heaven, how I wish I could jump off this bed right now and run, just run through the Metroparks, down the city sidewalks, run until my heart pounds in my chest, until the sweat breaks out all over my body and evaporates into thin air.”

There is a sense throughout The Wounds That Bind Us that Shinn is running. Running, running and running. She’s racing away from the pains and sorrows of her childhood and abusive relationships while, at the same time, jogging slowly toward healing and enlightenment. Shinn scratches at deep wounds from being put up for adoption by her birth mother and raised by an adoptive mother who beat her “in a quick rage, with a stick, a belt or a hand.” She explores the mindset that pushed her toward doomed romantic relationships like the one with a scheming first husband who glommed onto her after the well-publicized settlement of her malpractice lawsuit.

This is not a woe-is-me tell-all, though.

Shinn describes unforgettable scenes such as the overnight stay in a brothel with Celie; the off-road thrill rides on steep, rocky terrains; and the beautiful landscapes of Greece. Her stories are filled with memorable characters, from cab drivers to their neighbors in the United Kingdom; from her Greek classics professor turned travel companion to the soldiers, farmers and others with bodies forever altered by landmines; from the many people who care for Celie; all the way to Athena, the Land Rover (a trusted character itself) that does the transporting from England to Serbia, Bosnia and Greece.

It is well worth it to take the journey with Shinn, “that’s two Ns and no shins,” she jokes. She’s funny, daredevilish but relatable. That poet at the bar, a man she would have a relationship and son with, was right. Shinn’s story needed to be written.   PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer


(November 22 – December 21)

A little heat goes a long way. When provoked — unwittingly or otherwise — your particular brand of fire belongs on the Scoville scale, ambushing the offender with fits of nausea, abdominal pain and/or any number of unmentionable side effects. Here’s the thing: They’re not out to get you, nor are they trying to hold you back. This month, new opportunities beckon. Best not to let the petty stuff distract you from seeing them.

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Batten down the hatches.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Mind what’s on the back burner.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Just text them back already.

Aries (March 21 – April 19) 

Try fluffing your pillow.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

Salt will enhance the flavor.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

It’s time to clean the mirror.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22) 

What if the obstacle is the greatest blessing?

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Consider adding “sun lamp” to your wish list.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

You’ll get there when you get there.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Abstain from the deviled eggs.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

You must believe it to achieve it.   PS

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla.

Poem December 2023

Poem December 2023


The Latin teacher finally did retire. Her balcony now bends toward the sea. She is in a high-rise looking down at birds. Gulls scream and fly north to the next resort. All that’s left now are pigeons on the patio. They scavenge through the purpling decorative cabbage. She hasn’t seen a pelican yet, just the same birds she came here to get away from. They look like feathered cataracts in a kale eyeball. She sees a buried Titan with umbrella pectorals. It struggles to emerge from beneath the sodden November sand, beaten down by so many tenacious dog walkers. He has his eye on her. 

— Maura Way

Maura Way’s second collection of poetry, Mummery, was published by Press 53.

Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue

Identity Crisis

Losing at the name game

By Deborah Salomon

What’s in a name?

The answer, Shakespeare opines, is not much, since “that which we call a rose would by any other name smell as sweet.”

Sorry, Will, but I beg to differ.

My mother decided to name her only child Deborah, after her motherʼs Aunt Deborah, a farmer’s wife famous for her pound cake. She insisted on pronouncing all three syllables. No multi-spelling diminutives allowed, at least in her presence, not Deb or Debi or Debbie or Debby. Especially not Debra or Debora. Despite being instructed on its Biblical provenance — Deborah was a judge and prophetess in Israel — from an early age I was unwilling to assume the mantle.

In the ’40s and early ’50s, my classmates answered to Sally, Susan, Martha, Carolyn, Dorothy, Mary and Jane. I remember one Sharon. In high school there was a fittingly exotic Rachel.

How I longed to be an Ann. Three letters, no possibilities except Annie, which I would have embraced.

That’s not the worst. I also inherited Great-Aunt Deborah’s last name: Boyles, which until I got married made me Deborah Boyles Berney. Before bullying was outlawed, once this trio appeared on a school document the boys (all named Bobby, Bill, Jim, John, Charlie and Mike) taunted me with “Deborah boils before she burns!” That wasn’t half bad compared to a classmate named Emma, who they called Enema.

Somehow I survived. Once at college, out of my mother’s earshot, I became Deb or Debbie. Whew!

But I will say one thing for the original version, which means “bee” in some ancient tongue. All Deborahs were preordained “busy bees.” Right on.

Naturally, I was determined to choose simple, non-negotiable names for my children: Jill (Dianne) and Wendy (Sue) for the girls; Daniel for the boy — an especially good choice, since little Danny morphed into grown-up Dan.

The stonecutter suggested Daniel for his headstone, Danny for the footstone. And so he shall be remembered by his sons, Foster and Cooper.

Funny how names reflect the times. Emma came back strong. The female characters in HBO’s The Gilded Age are Bertha, Gladys, Agnes and Ada, still trailing cobwebs but not for long, I predict. The same producers chose Edith and Sybil for Downton Abbey. We’ll see.

Generations of Southern gentlemen bore mother’s maiden name as their given name: Wylie, Harrison, Tyler, Reynolds, Hunter, Gibson, Sloan. I suspect an inheritance issue. Also interesting, how show biz has come to value real names, no matter how unglamorous. Roy Harold Sherer became Rock Hudson; and Norma Jean Mortensen, Marilyn Monroe. Reportedly, Donald Trump’s ancestors changed theirs from the unpronounceable Drumpf. Yet Meryl Streep’s actor/daughters remain Mamie Gummer and Louisa Jacobson.

Sometimes, a name is played just for laughs: from the Tonys, Silvios, Vitos and Salvatores populating The Sopranos emerges daughter Meadow, a nod to the Earth-child monikers (River, Sky, Forrest, Willow) of the 1990s.

Unisex (aka gender-neutral or non-binary) names continue to puzzle. They are more popular for females, and include Riley, Casey, Avery, Logan, Cameron and Hunter. The very thought would make my grandmotherʼs Aunt Deborah turn over in her Guilford County grave.

But the ultimate philosophical commentary comes from Johnny Cash, in “A Boy Named Sue,” which relates the violent consequences of a name bestowed to toughen up a fatherless kid.

I never thought about changing my name. It sounds OK, even a bit retro-fashionable on a roll call where every third female is Catelyn/Kaitlin/Catelynne. But I did adjust my signature which, except on documents is, in the mode of e e cummings, simply . . . deb.  PS

Deborah Salomon is a contributing writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She can be reached at

Art of the State

Art of the State

Earthen Vessels

From Seagrove to the world beyond, Ben Owen III shares his pottery

By Liza Roberts

The work of Ben Owen III is earthen and practical, but also brightly hued and sculptural. It fits in a hand for morning coffee, but it’s also the lofty centerpiece of elegant spaces across the world. From the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho to the Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo to The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, where his sculptural vessels fill spotlit niches and his handmade plates grace every table, Owen’s art provides beauty and function.

Pottery is one of the oldest human inventions, going back to pre-Neolithic times. Earth into clay, clay into pots, pots into fire, vessels out. Also unchanged: all hands on deck to get it done. It takes a team to keep a wood-fired kiln’s flames stoked and blazing 24 hours a day for days on end. Like farmers raising a barn, potters fire a kiln together because they need each other. It’s what they do.

Owen was born to this life, born with Seagrove clay beneath his feet. His father and grandfather, Ben Owen Sr. and Ben Owen Jr., built the foundations for Seagrove’s modern pottery community; before them, as early as the late 1700s, their forefathers arrived from England, making and selling clay vessels to early settlers. Owen III works today on the same site his grandfather did.

“He was a great teacher and a great mentor for me,” Owen says, “showing me the fundamentals, building all those skills.” Starting at the age of 9, Owen went out to his grandfather’s studio every day to make pots. During these sessions, his grandfather taught Owen technique and aesthetics as well as principles: how important it was to challenge oneself, to learn from mistakes, to greet change with enthusiasm, to eschew mediocrity. To “never sell his seconds.”

“I’m continually trying to find ways to refine the technique and my process,” Owen says. “How can I make the piece even better than I did last time?”

That commitment has taken his work not only all over the world but has paved the way for its inclusion in museum collections including the Smithsonian Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, and in private collections. His work, in its various manifestations, has a timelessness about it, even when glazed in crystalline turquoise or lilypad green.

“I’m always experimenting,” he says. “A lot of people know us for our red glaze, but in recent years, I’ve been making glazes from nature. Recreating things I’ve seen hiking with my son . . . looking at textures, lichen on a stone, moss on a tree. It’s interesting to think, Could I make a glaze that would create that effect?”

Some of Owen’s pieces are finished in electric or gas-fired kilns, others in his wood-fired groundhog kiln. To witness Owen firing this kiln — a gourd-shaped, 30-foot-long structure dug partway down into the earth, hence the name — is to witness a multi-day, group massive effort, only accomplished a few times a year.

One recent morning at his studio in Seagrove, Owen was busy completing a 5-foot-tall, 400-pound, bottle-shaped vessel for the Amanyara resort in Turks & Caicos, one of nine large pieces commissioned by the property. The fire in the kiln had been going for 12 hours, and it would be another 36 before it was done. Owen slid a few slats of wood into a slot in the side of the chamber, turning to laugh at a joke from his friend Stan Simmons, a fellow potter there to help keep the fire going at temperatures reaching 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit. Another potter, Fred Johnston, was also on hand. Both men had pots of their own in the kiln. They waited.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said, gesturing to his kiln, explaining how he fits 400 pots inside. Part of it is tactical: some glazes do well high up, some pots need to be closer to the fire. Some of it is logistical. “Right now,” Owen says, watching flames shoot out of a blowhole-like chimney pipe, “Right now it’s heating up fast. Right now, there’s more fuel than there is oxygen.”

Potters can’t always predict what will emerge from the fire, what that day’s particular combination of clay and heat, minerals and weather will produce. “Colors, or finishes on pots, are almost like sunsets,” Owen says. “Each day, it’s a little different, and depending on what’s present — just as the clouds, or the temperature, the atmosphere all affect the sunset, our glazes can react the same way. We learn to accept that. We try to control these things to the best of our ability, but we have to remind ourselves that our materials are constantly changing. And sometimes it can be a nice surprise.”

A few steps from this kiln, in the late 1990s, Owen built his own studio, right behind the one where his grandfather taught him. The newer spot is spacious, with separate workstations for different kinds of clay. There are pots in various stages of completion, one already 4 feet tall. When it’s complete, this pot will be glazed an earthy blue, weigh about 250 pounds, and stand in the entry of a home in Greensboro.

“In an era of instant gratification, where people can go to the big box stores or a mall for most of their daily needs, we can offer something different,” Owen says. “Especially when they can meet the maker, learn a little bit more about the process, and what makes a potter tick, and their particular style, and why they use that technique. The work becomes part of the fellowship.”

Owen pictures his blue vessel in place, mentions the conversations he’s had with the collectors who’ve commissioned the piece. He welcomes the chance to work closely with the people who collect his work — some of whom were also collectors of his grandfather’s work —  and to get to know them, just as he does with visitors to his region and his studio. The role of ambassador is another he embraces.

“When you can find a way to develop a relationship with an individual customer or just people coming out to visit the area,” he says, “that gives us a springboard to tell people more about what the past has done, and what we’ve been able to build on over the last several generations.”

He’s happy to go farther back, too, 280 or 300 million years or so, back to when the region was covered in the volcanic ash that gave birth to the clay he loves, and he’s happy to bring it back home to now, and to his legacy. “I just count my blessings that we’ve been able to support our family through the making of earthen vessels,” he says. “Really, the end product is how it is received by the people who use it.”  PS

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.