October 23, 2015
As hard as it is for someone like me to believe, there are people who would have you believe they do not like stories. They will say they have no time for books, that they are too boring and require too much effort. They will say they have no need for the imaginary things, characters born of thought rather than flesh or places conjured rather than built. It is reality in which they are most interested. So they would have you believe. In the real world, there is little time for fairy tales. Living is serious business, stories are definitely not. Those who waste their time in tales are the ones who fall behind. They are the ones who lose the game.
I suppose that means I am losing at best. At worst, I am contributing to the delinquency of otherwise good and responsible human beings. Not only do I enjoy reading stories, I enjoy writing them. I enjoy seeking them out. And what I’ve found in my seeking is something those interested in the serious business of living would perhaps find very disconcerting—stories are everywhere. They are buried in every person we meet and every conversation we overhear. They are present in the pictures that adorn our walls and the music that fills our ears. They wait in every rock and puff of wind. In everything there is a beginning, middle, and end, and nestled in the spaces between those three legs of every journey lies all the magic and knowledge any of us care to seek. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” I believe finer words have never been spoken.
There’s more to Rukeyser’s maxim than poetic truth, however. There’s a deeper meaning as well. Whether you call yourself a writer or a reader or an unbeliever in both, the truth is that you a storyteller. That fact cannot be ignored. It cannot be brushed aside. And most of all, it cannot be denied. You are the chronicler of your own tale. Your every day is but one small chapter in the larger story of your life, some part of the beginning or the middle or the end, written upon pages granted by whatever God or random chance you ascribe meaning to. Pages bound together by time itself, filled with your minutes and hours.
Perhaps that sounds a little too metaphysical for the seriously-minded. They may disagree with my notion. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t change a thing. Good people can stand on either side of a truth, but that doesn’t alter where that truth lies or what that truth means. We can deny that our lives are a story, but that will make our story one of renunciation. We can choose not to respect our place as authors of our own accounts, but that will make our accounts ones of failure. Do you see? There is no escaping it. You have no choice but to write your story, just as you have no choice but to live your life.
So I say live it for all it’s worth. I say wring every bit of beauty and truth from it. Let is drip down your hands and arms. Let it pour into your mouth and quench your every thirst. Bore down into your every moment and mine the gold you find. Scribble and scrawl on your pages. Write furious and true. Do not waste your days. Time is not a flat circle, it is an arrow that stretches from now into eternity. There is where you should look, on to that final chapter, because God put our eyes in front of us so we can see where we’re going, not where we’ve been. Whether quiet literary or screaming thriller, lustful romance or heartbreaking tragedy, bawdy comedy or uplifting inspirational, when all is finished and the final period is put to the last sentence on the end page, your life in this world will stand for something. Your tale will be set down, and that is what you will be remembered by.
October 15, 2015I didn’t know him well but I knew him enough, and I’ll tell you what he once did on those warm spring and summer nights, and why he tried to repay a debt he believed was beyond payment. I’ll tell you what he once told me, and I’ll let you decide whether what he saw was the truth or the remorse that had come to well up in him. I have never answered that question for myself. I suppose it doesn’t matter either way. Real or not, he was still haunted.
He was what we in the country call a Good Man. He shied from neither work nor church, donated annually to both the rescue squad and the fire department. He raised three kids with a wife he’d met when they were freshmen in high school. He never made trouble. Don’t listen to those who say a person must do great things in life to be known as great. This world is full of great people. They are the ones who keep their heads down and a semblance of joy on their faces, who work hard at building their lives and wish nothing more than the freedom to do so. That was him.
And yet we can all be Good when we step beyond our doors. Inside our homes, hidden from the eyes of the world by pulled curtains and drawn shades, that is where we often find our truest selves. It is a hidden tragedy of life that we save the worst parts of us for the ones we most love, giving to them the darkness we take such pains to hide from others. That was him, too. It’s hard to keep a secret in a town this small, but that was one. No one ever knew he abused his wife until she passed.
The cancer took her—not his fists, but a lump of tumor that had lodged itself inside her stomach. I didn’t go to the funeral. I heard it was fine as funerals go, sadness with hope thrown in. It was all sadness for him. They buried her at the foot of a knoll where the oaks grew tall and wide, and all he said after was that his wife would approve of such a place to rest.
I don’t know when he began spending the nights by her grave. I suppose it was gradual, daily visits that turned into once in the morning and another time in the afternoon, first minutes and then hours. Her passing became a reckoning for him, and he vowed to care for his wife in death as he should have cared for her in life. All those nights of having her there in bed, of waking to the smell of coffee and eggs, gone now and forever. He said he slept in the cemetery to feel her again for the first time in years. It isn’t often, just when he feels lonely and sorry. Sometimes, those two feelings are the same.
He told me this, too:
Deep in the night when there was only the dark and the stars, the dead would sometimes wake him. He would sit up and stare at the crest of the knoll overlooking his wife’s grave, and he would see the shadows of the lost in the midst of a long walk that never ended. Those shadows never bothered him. He said he doubted they could even see him. But he knew why they wandered. He said those were the ones who’d lived their lives burdened by the things they’d done, just like he did now. Even in death, their burdens followed them.
That was nearly twenty years ago. I don’t know that I’d call him a Good Man now, with all that I know. But I can say he’s a better one. And I can say he still sleeps at the cemetery sometimes.
We all have our shadows. They linger in our memory, haunting us in the remorse of those things we’ve done and the regrets of those things we’ve left undone. We endure our sins. We suffer their consequences. We trust that time will put enough space for forgiveness between our Then and our Now. Sometimes, that’s just what happens. Other times, those shadows rise up again. That’s when we’re left with the choice to leave our past behind as a marker that reminds us of how far we’ve come, or falling for the lie that who we once were will always be who we are now.
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: