Finding hope in the hollows

November 25, 2015  

image courtesy of photo

image courtesy of photo

I remember hearing an old Thanksgiving story first told to me in the dim past of the 1970s, back when most everyone here was poor but didn’t care because if you were rich you were crooked in some way, and at least we were honest. It was a tale of the mountains, and how there was once the Childresses and the Campbells and you were on one side or the other.

Theirs was never a famous feud on par with the Hatfields and McCoys, nor did their disagreement involve gunfire and murder. Mostly, it was a war of words. This in no way means the situation was any less dire. You will never know a hate more pure and powerful than the sort that burned for a Childress in the heart of a Campbell. Unless, of course, it was the enmity for a Campbell in the mind of a Childress. A whole generation was raised up in it, kids taught from birth that whichever family across whichever holler was an abomination to the Lord and all goodness.

I never did hear back then how it all started. In fact, I doubted then (and still do) that anyone knew. The Hatfields and McCoys went to war over a stolen pig. I expect it was something similar in this case, a small thing that got twisted into something large either through an abundance of boredom or the brokenness of the human heart. Really, that’s about what all wars come down to, isn’t it?

Anyway. About that Thanksgiving:

Right along with turkey and pumpkin pie here is the tradition of the Thanksgiving hunt, when most of the men and not a few of the women take to the woods in the early dawn to shoot something they can brag about at the table. Being good mountain folk, the Childresses and Campbells were much the same. And so it was on that long ago Thursday morning that a Campbell tracking a buck came across the distant shape of a man who had fallen from his tree stand. Thinking the injured was either kin or Christian, he ran to offer aid. It was only upon turning the man over that he realized the victim was neither. He’d done caught himself a Childress.

Yet rather than leave him there to limp out of the cold wood alone, the Campbell gathered the Childress up and piggy-backed him all the way to his truck, nearly four miles off. Once safe, there was no invitation from either for anything further. No request to come eat, certainly no offer of prayer and blessing. Still, the story was told and told again by both parties. There were a few dissimilarities, but both parties involved managed to say the same thing: “Shoot, he looked like kin.”

I’ve been thinking about that story a lot lately. Not whether it was true or not (it was a tale told by an old man, after all, and old men are never so interested in truth as they are in Truth), but how it applies all these years later. As I wake this Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, I find country and a world that hasn’t been more divided in my memory. People are scared, and because we’re scared we’re mad, and because we’re mad we’re saying all manner of crazy things and spotting all manner of lurking monsters. We’re not speaking to each other more as much as shouting. More than anything else, we see one another as set in boxes not of gender or race or religion, but ideology, and in so doing we lose a great deal of the empathy so lacking in our public discourse. People are a lot easier to hate when they’re not seen as people at all, but the sum of their opinions.

Which is why if I have one Thanksgiving wish this year (and if there is even such a thing), it would be that all of us could go out in the woods or a little while. Walk among the ridges and trees and see that this old world is still a pretty nice and peaceful place. And especially to run into each other out in the hollers, stripped of all that anger and fear, and see that shoot, we all look like kin.

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The lost art of snail mail

November 20, 2015  

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 6.33.49 PM“Can you help me?”

A common enough question in the course of my workday as a college mailman. Asked by the old and the young alike, but mostly the young. And I am generally in a well enough mood to reply Yes, I certainly can help you, even if I am generally not in a well enough mood to be excited about the prospect. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned in my long and storied career of postal delivery to a bunch of 18-21 year-olds, it’s that they often need a lot of help. A LOT.

So, just a bit ago—“Can you help me?”


Young lady, nineteen-ish. I pegged her as a junior. Not because I knew anything at all about her, but because I’ve been here long enough to be able to guess such things with a modicum of accuracy. It was the way she dressed—pajama bottoms and a raggedy sweatshirt, which told me she’d been here long enough to not care anymore but no so long that she understood it just may be time to start growing up a little—and the way she addressed me—in the eye. She’d laid the envelope, pen, and stamp on the counter in front of her. When I walked up, she was staring at all three as if they were all pieces to some exotic puzzle.

I asked what sort of help she needed, which could have been anything from needing a zip code to how much postage was needed to mail something to China. But no, neither of those.

Instead, she said, “I don’t know how to mail this.”

“Just fill it out,” I told her. “I’ll mail it for you when you’re done.”

“No. I mean, I don’t know . . . how.”

“How to what?”

“You know. Like, fill this out.”

She pointed to the envelope and stared at it. I stared at it, too. Because I had no idea what she was talking about.

“You mean,” I asked, “you don’t know how to address an envelope?”


“You mean, No, that’s not it? Or do you mean, No, I don’t know how to address an envelope?”

Now she looked at me. Her brow scrunched. I got the image of her seated in some classroom desk, trying to split the atom.

“I don’t know how to address an envelope,” she said.

I’ll be honest—it took me a while. Not to show her how to address an envelope (which, as it turned out, took much, much longer than a while, took what felt like an eternity), but for what this young woman told me to finally sink in. She really didn’t know how to address an envelope. Had no idea where to put the stamp, where to write her home address (it was a card, she said, to her mother) and not only where to write the return address, but what a return address was.

Nineteen years old. Junior in college. I can assume this young lady was bright, or else she wouldn’t be in college. And resourceful. And driven. Capable, too—she whipped out her iPhone and danced through so many apps to find her mother’s address that it nearly gave me a seizure. But when it came to something as commonplace as sending a letter? Nothing.

“Nobody sends letters anymore,” she told me. “It’s so 1800s.”

She finished her envelope and affixed the stamp (after being told where that went, too). I had to sit down for a bit afterward. My head was killing me.

Now I’m thinking:

Is this really where we’ve come? Have we really raised a generation of children who are so dependent upon technology that anything without a button is an unsolvable mystery?

But there’s something more as well, something far worse. In our instant world of texts and emails and Facebook posts and tweets, that poor girl has missed out on one of the true pleasures of life. She has never sat at a quiet desk with paper and pen to write a letter. She has never pondered over the words that have leaked through her hand and fingers, never slowed enough to find the rhythm of her words and her heart. She has never felt the trepidation of folding those words (and her heart) into thirds and stuffing them in an envelope sealed with her own saliva—her own DNA—and placing it in a mailbox. Never worried that her letter maybe wouldn’t get to where it was meant to go. Never felt the exhilaration of finding a sealed reply waiting for her days or weeks later.

Give me the new, the world says. Give me the shiny and the bright. I say take it. I’ll keep my paper and pen.

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A day’s work

November 13, 2015  

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

Though I’ve never been one to engage in talk both detrimental and salacious, I will say this: There is trouble down at the Howard farm. That in itself is not gossip, but fact; things between Clive Howard and his son Darrell have been spoiling for years now, ever since Darrell proclaimed his intent to leave, and you don’t have to be a farmer to understand what spoils eventually rots, and what rots will inevitably die.

Way it was told to me, Darrell knew long before high school that farming would not be his future. His first trip to the cemetery guaranteed it. The Howard farm rests along two hundred acres of bottomland, in a holler just off the ridge road in the western part of town. Beautiful place, that farm. Wish you could see it, the way the willows curl up along the riverbanks and how the wood there carry the scents of cedar and pine in the winter and honeysuckle come summer, the deer that gather in the fields just as the sun dips over the ridges, the barn, a red so bright it looks slick. And at the border between corn fields and pasture, the four oaks rising like thick fingers into an empty sky and the white gravestones beneath them. Nearly twenty of them all told.

The Howards have farmed this land for generations; most of them are buried beneath those oaks, from Nathaniel Howard (“b. Dec 3, 1758 d. Mar 20, 1819,” reads the stone) to Robert Howard, Darrell’s own grandfather, who passed from this life to the next the summer Darrell turned ten. There are moments in all of our lives that come with a kind of slow focus that will define all the moments after. That’s what happened with Darrell that day. Standing there with his momma and daddy, tugging at his Sunday suit under a hot morning sun as the preacher read the Psalms and they all cried and sang, Darrell looking out upon all those bleached stones set against hard earth, knowing there would one day be others. There would be his daddy’s and his momma’s. One day, there would be his own. That’s when Darrell made the quiet promise that he would never be a farmer. He would break free of that hollow, make himself a life.

He’d seen enough of the future Clive had for him already. The early mornings spent milking the cows and feeding the hogs, the slop and the mud, the cold, the heat. Planting in spring and praying for rain and warm weather, only to watch as God said No and sent nothing but a scorching sun that turned the green corn a withered brown. The calloused hands, the aching back. Sunburn in August, windburn in January. All of it to scrape by as the prices of beef and corn plummeted, the only security what Darrell’s momma had canned to store in the pantry. For Darrell Howard, that was no sort of life. He wanted more from the world, and that’s why he’s leaving come summer. The university first, and then a proper job. Someplace in the city. Downtown, with a view of the skyline instead of the ridgeline. Suits instead of coveralls. Early retirement. The country club.

In Darrell’s own words, “An easy life, because that’s what living should be.”

Thus far, Clive Howard has not taken well to this news.

It isn’t that he views his son’s goals as less than the life Darrell had been born into. Whether sitting in a corner office or plowing the back forty, so long as Darrell works, Clive will be happy. And yet Darrell’s decision cuts deeper than mere employment, deeper than even carrying on the generations who have farmed the bottomland. It is work itself, and the place it will have in the life of Clive Howard’s son.

We are meant for toil, that’s what Clive would say. He would say the land is in his son’s blood, the fields and pasture as much of Darrell as the marrow to his bones. He would say the sweat that stains his brow and dirt packed hard beneath his nails, that ailing back and those calloused, hardened hands, are not the mark of a life spent in hardship, but one spent with purpose.

The Howards have always worked their acres believing such. They have been raised up in that same bricked farmhouse and laid down beneath those same towering oaks since the Revolution, and in all those long and lean years between, saw little more of this world than what lay between the ridgetops. None of them enjoyed what Darrell would call an easy life, and yet they each found this one truth: This world is not meant to be easy and our work in it is not meant to be short, because that work becomes a living prayer.

(This post originally appeared on the High Calling Blog, November, 2014.)

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Missing me

November 6, 2015  

image courtesy of photo

image courtesy of photo

It was laying in an old box marked BILLY’S STUFF in a forgotten corner of the attic, near where the insulation had been bitten and chewed by a family of long-ago mice. The words were faded and the cardboard brittle. When I pulled the top off, both one corner and a cloud of dust flew.

Normally, I would have moved on. It was only one box among dozens in my parents’ attic and one that was not marked CHRISTMAS, and thus not of interest. Normally, I would have gone on to the wreaths wrapped in trash bags and the candles that have gone in their windows every year since I was a child and the other boxes of ornaments and decorations and pushed them to the door, into my father’s hands.

Normally. But I didn’t this time, not with that box. Because this one said BILLY’S STUFF.

There is a kind of magic in such situations, as though time is blurred such that the past and present become the same in one small tick of life. That’s what I felt right then, crouched down under the eaves. This was the Me I once was tapping the Me I am now on the shoulder, wanting to sit for a while. Wanting to talk. Given all that, I had to open the box. Even if Dad was hollering into the attic, wanting to know where I was.

So I reached down and folded back the remaining sides, feeling like I had just discovered some long lost tomb. Inside were memories long forgotten—notebooks and newspaper clippings, an old T shirt gifted to me by someone who must have been important but whom I’d forgotten, an old fountain pen. And buried beneath it all, a single cassette tape with the word LIFE written on the label.

Dad hollered again, telling me Christmas would be over by the time I got all the decorations down. I felt the stuff in the box. I took the tape. Partly because it was the only thing I could fit in my pocket. Mostly because it intrigued me. I had no idea what was on there, and I wanted to know what LIFE meant to a seventeen-year-old me who believed the world lay at his feet.

I got back home and dug out an old cassette player from the closet, amazed not only that I had one, but that it still worked and I’d remembered how to use one. I sat it at my desk, popped the tape in, and pushed Play. What came over the speaker wasn’t my own voice expounding upon my adolescent wants and dreams. It was music.

Of course it had to be music.

Back then, at that age, everything was music. I had so many of those cassettes back then my truck couldn’t hold them. Half were kept in the glovebox, half in my room. Mix tapes, we called them. I guess you can do the same with CDs now, but I don’t know what they’re called.
Honestly? I was a little disappointed. Was I really so shallow that long ago to think sixty minutes of spandex-pantsed, makeup wearing, hair metal music was the one thing of my past worth preserving for the future?

It wasn’t the first time the person I am shook my head at the person I was and called him an idiot.

But I kept the tape playing. One song melted into the next, and before long I wasn’t only playing air guitar and singing along, I was remembering. Where I first heard that song. Who I was with. What I was doing. What I felt.

Then I understood. And suddenly I realized it wasn’t the person I am cursing the person I was at all, it was the other way around. These weren’t songs at all. This was the background music to a former life.

I’ve just spent the last hour on iTunes, downloading every one of those songs. I miss cassette tapes (heck, I’m old enough to still miss vinyl records), but digital really is the way to go. Right now, I’m turning my past to my present and plan to enjoy the person I was while listening to those songs on my phone while I mow the yard. Listening and remembering.

Because you know what? I haven’t talked with that old me in a long while. Sometimes, I miss him.

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Catching the sun

October 29, 2015  

graphic depicting reflected sunlight in Rjukan, Norway.

graphic depicting reflected sunlight in Rjukan, Norway.

The day is gloomy as I write this, rainy and chilly and overcast—the sort of weather that makes summer feel far behind and winter just around the corner. The leaves have gone from green to bright yellows and reds, but even now there is a crunchy blanket of dead brown ones on the ground. The robins are gone, as is the garden. All that’s left of both are the empty nests in our trees and the canned vegetables in our cupboards.

You would think I’m used to it, this shifting of the seasons. Four times a year for forty-three years, that means I’ve gone through this 180 times. I should be a pro. I’m not. Aside from Christmas, I’ve never liked winter. I’ve read there are more suicides between October and March than any other time of year. I can understand that. The cold and dark can get a person down. Around here, people say winter is a season that gets inside you.

I was thinking about all this a little bit ago while digging through the stack of papers on my desk. Midway through was a story about a Norwegian town called Rjukan, whose people know all about the cold and dark. Settled deep in a valley floor, the sun moves so low across the sky in winter that it leaves the entire town in perpetual evening. The sun doesn’t shine in Rjukan at all between September and March. It gets so bad that locals take a cable car to the top of the mountains just to stand in the light.

Sounds like a pretty horrible way to spend half your year, doesn’t it? But if things go according to plan, all that is about to change.

Over the summer, helicopters hoisted three massive mirrors 450 meters above Rjukan and anchored them to the sides of the valley. Called heliostats, the mirrors are controlled by computers to follow the path of the sun and reflect a day-long beam of light that will fall directly into the center of the town square. No more cable cars to the mountains, no more endless gloom. The people of Rjukan will only have to take a short walk to the square to catch a bit of sun. They will all gather there and be together. They will all stand in the light.

I’m thinking about that little town a lot on this gloomy morning.

I’m thinking about how it really is true that winter gets inside you. It can hunch you over and make you wince, it can steal your smile, and oftentimes it doesn’t matter at all what the season is on the outside. I know people who walk around in July, but it’s still winter in their hearts. I guess that’s sometimes by choice. More often than not, though, I really don’t think it is. This world’s a tough place. It can hurt.

But I’m thinking about those three mirrors most of all, the ones now sitting high in that Norwegian valley and catching that sun. I’m thinking about how that’s what you and I should be—reflectors. Shining a light into the dark places. Bringing warmth to the cold around us. Not a light and a warmth of our own making, but ones greater and eternal.

Yes, I think so.

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