October 8, 2015
I see him raise a hand out of the open passenger window and think he’s shooing a bee at first. He’s allergic to bees and swears the little buggers can smell that in a person. But no, that’s not what he’s doing. He’s instead waving to the bum who has taken up residence at the guardrail abutting the interstate onramp. That isn’t so surprising. Neither is the fact that the bum waves back, flittering his cardboard sign (HUNGRY, LONELY, TIRED is printed in black Sharpie on the front) and grinning back.
“That’s Eddie,” he tells me.
I keep my eyes to the windshield and nod. “And you know this because—”
“—I stopped to talk to him the other day—”
“—Of course you did,” I say. Because that’s what the man beside me does. He talks to people. Talks to anyone. Anywhere. He’s a property owner by day, running a mini-kingdom of rented homes and apartments. I think he’s secretly a combination of St. Paul and Andy Griffith. To him, there are no strangers, there are simply people he isn’t friends with yet.
“And he’s Eddie?” I ask.
He turns and sticks his head out the window. I look in the rearview. Eddie’s still looking, still shaking his sign. A blue SUV stops beside him. The driver hands him something that might be a dollar bill.
“Did you give him something?”
I’m nodding even before he says, “I bought him lunch,” because that’s what the man beside me does, too. The HUNGRY and LONELY and TIRED are the people he tries to love most because those are the ones he says Jesus loves most. We both love Jesus, my friend and I. Sometimes I think he might love Him a little more.
I smile and ask, “What’d you get in return?”
“What I always get.”
And here is my favorite part, it always is. Some say no act is truly altruistic, that there is a bit of selfishness in everything. That might be true, even with my friend. Because he wants to help and he wants to love just as Jesus said we all should, but he always asks for something in return. He always asks for their story. They all have one—we all have one.
“Did you know Eddie’s been to every state?” is how he begins. I just drive and listen. “Born in Cleveland, but he didn’t stay there long. Parents were awful, that’s usually how it goes. Drunks that beat on him. He ran when he was sixteen. That was twenty years ago.”
“So what’s he do?”
He shrugs and says, “Just drifts. Went west first, all up and down the coast, then made his way east slow. Even went to Thailand once. Worked on a steamer. Only job he’s ever had.”
I don’t say anything to this and wonder for a moment if it’s a trap. We’ve had this discussion many times, my friend and I. I’ll start by saying people like Eddie really could find work. Menial work will still bring money. There’s help out there if Eddie wants it, I’d say, but a lot of people like him live the way they do through choice rather than necessity. My friend agrees in principle. He also doesn’t think that matters much.
“He was married once,” he continues. “She died. Had cancer while they stood in front of a justice of the peace. Eddie knew it and married her anyway. Told me he loved her, and that was reason enough. That was eight years ago. He came east after that. I think he’s trying to run from the memory.”
“I think we all do that,” I say.
“Eddie’s smart. Not with that,” he’s quick to add, “I mean smart like other people are smart. He has dreams.”
That’s the last my friend says of Eddie—“He has dreams.” We end up at the Lowe’s to get what we’ve driven to town for. By the time we head back, Eddie’s gone. I don’t know where he’s gone. My friend probably does, but he doesn’t offer.
I’ve told him many times I wish I could do what he does—stop someone, notice them, help them. Ask them their story. I guess such a thing just isn’t in me. I’m a shy person. Maybe I don’t have enough Jesus.
Still, I think we all need the reminder that all those lost souls we see and read about—those people we sometimes lie to ourselves and think aren’t like us at all—really are. They’ve loved and lost. They’re still searching. We’re all people, and in many ways we’re all hungry and lonely and tired. It’s such an obvious statement, and maybe that’s why it escapes us so often.
September 29, 2015
That dry season I told you about a couple weeks back is nothing more than a memory now. It’s been raining here for so long that people can’t even remember when it began. Days upon days, one long and soggy line. The creeks are full and the grass is back; everywhere you walk makes a squishy sound. No downpours, at least not yet. Just that steady sort of falling water that starts out making you feel comfortable and ends up sinking into your bones. The ground is saturated now. I hear more rain is coming, the kind that keeps interrupting the radio with screeches and buzzes and warnings of rising rivers and washed out back roads.
Whenever these parts are hit with this much rain, invariably someone will mention 1969. Usually it’s an old timer, like the ones who hang around down at the hardware store or on the benches outside the 7-11. You’ll say hello to them and keep going for your new hammer or a bottle of Mountain Dew, and they’ll draw you in. Old timers like that have all the hours in the world to talk. And since so many of them have spent their lives coaxing food from the black dirt on their farms, weather is their specialty. Weather and memory.
“You think it’s wet,” they’ll say, “you don’t know nothing. You shoulda been here in ’69.”
I wasn’t, of course. I missed what happened here back then by three years. But I know many who were not so fortunate.
In August of that year, a tropical wave formed off the coast of Africa and swept westward along the 15th parallel into the lesser Antilles, where it became a hurricane south of Cuba. The National Weather Service named it Camille. It made landfall on August 18, crushing Waveland, Mississippi. From there Camille tracked north, through Tennessee and Kentucky. Then it veered hard right through West Virginia and into the Appalachias, where it ran smack into Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
That was August 19, 1969.
Nelson County, just over the mountain from us, suffered worst. The rains came so hard and so utterly fast that it defied human reason and nearly touched the Divine. Some even called it judgment for a people who had strayed from the Lord. Houses were swept away, cars tossed like playthings. Whole towns and families lost, disappeared. The very contours of the mountains were shifted and changed by walls of mud. In the end, twenty-seven inches of rain fell in less than five hours. The National Weather Service stated it was “the maximum rainfall which meteorologists compute to be theoretically possible.”
One hundred and twenty-three people perished. Many more were never found. To this day, their bones lie somewhere among the fields and vales. It was estimated that 1 percent of the county’s population were killed that day. Most perished not by drowning but by blunt force trauma, the water throwing them into the nearest immovable object.
The destruction and loss of life was so complete that Camille was stricken from any further use as the name for a hurricane. People here won’t even utter the word. It’s always The Flood. Nothing more than that needs saying.
Then again, maybe I’ll say a little. Because what gets added on the end of that nightmare across the mountain was the grace and kindness shown after. The government appeared en masse in the days and weeks following the storm to clean up and rebuild, but it was the untold thousands of volunteers who did most—the farmers and mountain folk and more church groups than anyone could count, people who knew those mountaintops and hollers well. My daddy and granddaddy were among them. They moved slow through all those shattered homes and marked the ones that had become tombs. They carried pistols in their hands because of the million snakes that had been washed from their dens.
For years Grandma kept a picture she’d taken of the sky on the day the Camille left on her mantle. It was black and white instead of color, but you could still see how black the sky looked, how evil. But you could also see as plain as day how in the middle of that picture the clouds had parted in the perfect shape of an angel to let the sunshine through.
It wasn’t the first time tragedy and hardship had visited this part of our world. It won’t be the last. But if there is any comfort to be had in such times, it is the same comfort that was found in the late summer of ’69—God is still there, still watching, and there will always be good people who will rush to your aid and help you repair what life has born asunder.
September 23, 2015
I’ve seen him off and on for the past three weeks, a Monday morning here and a Thursday afternoon there. From what I can tell, there is no set schedule. Maybe it only happens when the mood strikes—when the anger grows too hot or the despair sinks too deep. I’m not sure. But I’ll give him this: he’s dedicated, despite it all.
He was standing on the corner the first time I saw him. Technically speaking, it was still the gas company’s property, though the spot he’d chosen was on the outermost edge where two main roads converge. To be more visible, I thought. To make sure he was seen.
Older gentleman, dressed in pressed khakis and a brown button-up. Thin, white hair swept to the side in the front, trying but not managing to cover a bald spot. The breeze whipped it, giving the appearance of snow falling up. The sign he held was as large as himself. Scrawled on both sides was a long list of grievances against the gas company itself.
Racism, discrimination, and greed were the only three I could make out that first day. Since then, I’ve managed to catch sight of price gouging and lying as well. The rest are jumbled together and slanted along the big piece of cardboard, as though the charges came so quick and numerous that he feared space and memory would run out.
I passed him by that first day and have done the same all the days after. When the light is red and the radio station is fixed, I’ll look over. Check on him. He’ll see me and raise his sign a little higher, and then the light will turn green and I’ll move along. That seems to be what everyone else does, as well. They just pass him by. We’re all busy, you see. We’re all just trying to get through our days. One old man with a sign that may or may not offer a window into his fragile state isn’t enough to give us pause, at least not enough pause to stop and ask what exactly he’s trying to accomplish. Even the folks at the gas company don’t seem to care. They haven’t even given the man enough thought to ask him to leave.
He was back yesterday, but not at the edge of the road. A few weeks of protesting without raising either sympathy or scorn has convinced him to change his tactics. He was now standing on the sidewalk, directly at the front door.
From what I could tell, it hadn’t made a difference.
To be honest, it’s funny in a way. Also sad. I don’t know what has driven him there and I don’t know if I would agree with his reasons, but a part of me is proud of him. Right or wrong, he’s stood up. He’s making his voice known. Of all the freedoms we enjoy, I can’t think of many more important—more necessary—than that.
Maybe that’s why I feel so much pity for him as pride. Because no matter what it is, it takes courage to stand up and speak. I know this. And all that courage can melt in a moment when you utter those first words and find only silence and apathy in return.
He was there again today, fighting the power. Standing up to The Man. Still with that determined look on his face. The light turned yellow and then red. I fixed the radio station and looked. He met my eyes and raised his sign a little, wiggling it. I gave him a thumbs up. He returned the same. Just two guys giving one another the same encouragement:
September 15, 2015
I write these words some dozen feet from the soft earth of the Virginia mountains, my feet dangling from the thick willow branch that also supports my butt and my back, because rain has been scant here of late. Everything that was bright and green at the turn of August has now gone a rusty brown. Leaves are falling brittle and dead. The deer and the bear are coming out of the woods to forage what they can. Those you meet in town shake their heads and shrug (“What you gonna do?”) and cock their heads up to a cloudless sky the color of the sea.
The dry season is here. And that’s why I’m here, in my willow tree.
It happens every year around this time, usually between the start of school and the beginning of harvest. There will be a few showers here and there, thunderstorms that blow over the mountain and dump inches of rain in minutes, the water unable to pierce the hard ground and so floods the streets and lowlands. Water, but the sort that nourishes little and helps nothing. The kind of water that only makes the weeds grow.
Though it’s a little more difficult to rummage around in the woods this time of year, I still do. You have to mind the snakes and grouchy critters, and you have to understand that going along quiet will be impossible with all the dry wood and hard leaves. But it’s still the woods, still the quiet wilderness and the open sky and the mountains all around you, and that’s where I went a little while ago and where I’ve always gone with things get a little rough.
Dry seasons don’t just happen in the world. They happen in us, too.
Have you ever noticed that? There are seasons right outside your door and there are seasons right inside you, and both can blow cold gales or steady rain or bright sun, and both can make you happy for life and make you dread it.
Whenever it’s dry both inside and out of my own days, I’ll take a walk along a path through the woods across the street and listen for the sound of the bold stream that winds and dips its way from the deep mountain to the South River, and I’ll come here. In all my years, I’ve never known this stream to dry. No matter how parched the summers get or how long the snow doesn’t fall, the water here always runs. I’ll weave my way between all these dying and thirsty trees and follow the near bank, ease myself over the moss and slippery rocks, to the spot where the stream bends toward town. To where my willow sits.
It is an ancient one, tall and thick of trunk, with a canopy that rises and falls with a gentle grace of perfect symmetry. My tree is a marvel; I’ve never seen another quite like it. I’ll stand in its shadow and feel the cool of the air beneath its branches, rub my fingers over the long, slender leaves. Let it all fill my sight. And then I’ll leave my hat in the soft earth and slither up the trunk, my hands groping more by memory than sight, for the upward path to the first sturdy branch. There, I’ll sit and look and listen.
It isn’t a magic tree, this willow. As a boy I thought such things possible, even plentiful, but no longer. Not usually, anyway. Besides, this tree isn’t set apart from the hundreds and thousands of others surrounding it. It’s just as subjected to the seasons as any other. My tree isn’t always so green and blossoming. It doesn’t always look wonderful. It’s still in the world and so has no choice but to suffer along with the rest of its forest kin, to feel the stifling heat and the frigid cold, to be tasked with the very goal that is tasked to every other living thing everywhere—to endure, and for as long as it can.
Yet I’ve come here often in my own dry seasons (and I imagine I will continue doing so in all of my dry seasons to come) because there truly is something different about this particular tree, and advantage it possesses that the other trees here do not. And I scamper up these branches and sit and watch and listen so I will greater appreciate that difference and better apply it to my own life. Because even though this tree is planted in the same earth at the same base of the same mountain as so many untold others, this tree has also been planted along a stream that never dries. Its roots have access to a constant source of water. Even in the heat. Even in the dry season.
I sometimes fall into the trap of believing the happiness to be had in this world comes like the rain. It falls from the sky into my waiting arms and I try to gather up all I can, knowing that it will never rain for long. But here, in my willow, I know different. I know better. Real happiness is the kind that doesn’t depend on anything external, whether its rain from the sky or a cool breeze to chase the heat. It is instead found inside. Down deep, where your roots are.
It’s a lesson I’m going to try and hang onto whenever I decide to climb back down and resume my living. One I’d very much like to take home from the woods. It’s a valuable lesson, and maybe the most valuable one of all, to know that your happiness or your sorrow won’t come from whatever happens to you, but from where you’re planted.
September 9, 2015
Summer’s over. One look around our home will tell you this. There are school supplies stacked in each of my children’s rooms, and my teacher wife has been regaling me of the myriad educational ideas she’s found on Pinterest. As per usual, I’ve taken in all of this information with the appropriate amounts of nods and wows. It’s tough being a teacher. Tough being a teacher’s husband, too.
One of these ideas, however, has struck me. So much so that it slowly became one of those things that simply refused to go away until I exorcised it through writing. Which is what I’m doing now.
It’s ironic, really, because this thing that’s gotten my wife fired up (as well as my brain moving) is a writing exercise—one that’s simple on top but difficult on the bottom. It’s a child’s game called The Six Word Memoir.
I’ve heard of such things before. Through the years there have been more than one writer who’s taken up the task to tell a complete story in the shortest amount of words. Six seems to be the magic number, and to me no one did it better than Hemmingway (his six word story—“For sale: baby’s shoes, never worn.”). It’s a tough thing, trying to whittle down a hundred thousand words or so into six and still call it a story.
But as I sat down the other night and reached for my notebook and pen, I discovered shrinking down forty years of life into six words was even tougher. After twenty minutes or so of desperately trying and utterly failing, I began to think that such an exercise was not only impossible, it was pointless, too. It seemed cheap in a way, taking all of my memories and hopes and balling them up into a few simple syllables. I’ve never held a very high opinion of myself, but that opinion had never been so low as to hold that six words were sufficient to define me.
Now that I’ve had some time to ponder, though, I’ve come to believe different. I sat on my porch for a full hour and went though three pages of paper (front and back, mind you) trying to get this right. Far from making me feel cheap, this whole experience has taught me much. There’s value in whittling down your life into six words. A lot.
It forces you to realize that all those things you think are necessary really aren’t at all. And also that the things you do that seem small are actually sort of big. You only have time for important things. There isn’t space enough for anything else. And really, how often in our comings and goings do we actually stop and ask ourselves what we’re coming and going for, or whether we’re chasing after the right things, or whether the meaning we give our lives is the same as God’s?
Deep stuff for six words, huh?
I sat there for a while longer. The last thing I wrote was “Stand. Fall. Stand. Fall. Stand. Repeat.” It has a ring to it, and it’s very true, but I don’t think those words say it all. I plan to try again. I plan to try a lot. It’s always good to know where you stand in this world.
How about you? Write your six word memoir below. Or if you’d rather, write it down and keep it to yourself. Spend some time with it and let me know. Whatever you do, don’t skip it simply because it’s a child’s game. Those are the ones who often hold the most truth.