The Encourager

I have an unpaid debt.  It is long overdue, and I am going to try and pay it now.

I started writing when I was a child.  Mostly scraps of poetry.  Truthfully, I was a little embarrassed by it.  I spent most of my youth trying to prove I was a “tough guy.”  Just hit home runs, strike batters out, and bust somebody’s head every now and then for good measure.  Writing didn’t fit the persona I was trying so hard to create, so I kept it to myself.  To paraphrase the late William Gay, “you don’t spend two hours at football practice trying to crack open someone’s skull, then come back into the locker room and say ‘Any of you guys want to hear the sonnet I wrote this weekend?’”

Being a writer wouldn’t put the fear in the boys and more importantly, it wouldn’t impress the girls.

Then one day I was exposed.

I was in a ninth grade English class when I first met a “real” writer.  He was our “Poet in Residence” for a few months.  I still don’t know how he got a gig like that.  Probably some sort of Federal Endowment to Enlighten the poor art-deprived kids in a little central Alabama town.

Now he was the image I had of a writer.  A kind of funny-looking little man dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, and one of those coats with the elbow patches.  He didn’t look like he’d ever been in a fight, unless of course someone had beaten him up.

He talked to our class about poetry, then asked us to write one.  In the next few minutes, I scratched one off.  I looked around.  Almost everyone else just sat staring at their blank piece of paper.

“Now who’s got something for me to read?”

One thing for certain, it wasn’t me.  Not only due to my secret, but also because my first line was “A short, funny-looking man in a flannel shirt asked me to write a poem about writing a poem.”

What I didn’t know was that the girl sitting behind me had been peeking over my shoulder.  She reached around me, snatched the paper off my desk and said ‘’Here’s one!”

I was mortified, but it was too late to stop it.

The poet came over.  He took it from her, read it to himself, and smiled.

“Listen.  This is just what I’ve been talking about.”

He read it.  I looked around.  The teacher was smiling.  A few of my classmates were smiling.  I think I might have even heard a “Hey, that’s pretty good.”

Now everybody knew my secret.  I felt like a circus freak.

But the thing was, I kind of liked it.  I had written something that somebody thought was pretty good.  That made me feel good.

Now I won’t say that girl completely changed the entire course of my life.  I didn’t go on to become the next Great American Writer.  You won’t find me in the bookstore, unless I’m browsing.  I wrote off and on over the years, but I still kept most of it to myself.

Then about ten years ago, I started writing this little blog.  It isn’t easy, because I am my own harshest critic.  I spend hours at it, but I am never completely satisfied with the result.  It could always be better.  It should be better.  A word more here – a word less there.  Why am I doing this?

But now and then I get a little note from that girl who sat behind me all those years ago.  It’s always something like “Hey, that was good.  I really enjoyed it.  Keep it up.”  Then that feeling I had in the ninth grade returns, and I sit down and try to do it again.  To do it better this time.

I’ve never repaid that debt to her, but I am now.

Thank you, Leslie. You are the one who gave me the courage to be a writer.  If it wasn’t for you way back then, no one would be reading this now.

You didn’t know?  Well now you do, and so does everyone else.

The Preacher

moonstruck

He used to call me on nights like tonight.

Before caller ID.  Before cell phones.  Back in the day when an eleven o’clock phone call made you jump out of bed because you knew something bad had happened.  It was THE FEAR.  A call that late meant someone in the family was dead, or at least well on their way.

He’d ramble.  Slurred speech.  Random topics.  More drunk than high, but probably a little of both.

I just listened in silence because I never knew what to say. I was raised white bread teetotalling Southern Baptist.  I had no common ground to stand on, no experience that allowed me to understand.  I was twenty-five years old.  Never smoked a joint, never drank a beer.

Just silent.  No damned help at all.  Useless to him.  Useless to me.  Useless to God.

He was my best friend.  Still is, though he’s been dead for quite a while now.

He was a preacher.

You can make all the arguments you want about theology.  You can try to talk to me about “once saved, always saved” or “election versus free will.”  I’m not interested in anything you or any of the theologians have to say.  I know he was touched by God.  I saw it.  I felt it.  I stood beside it.   If it wasn’t real, then it’s all a lie.  The biggest lie ever told.

I wish he could call me tonight.  I’d say “where you at brother?  Hang in there with me and I’ll come over.  You need me to stop off somewhere on my way?”

Because now I can see the darkness he saw.

I would go and sit beside him.  Put my arm around him.  I’d tell him “yeah I see it too, but if we both just sit here together maybe we can still see the light.  I know it is dim sometimes, but look hard, it’s still there.  Just sit a little longer.”

I’d tell him that today is darkness.  Tomorrow, darker still.  But if we can just sit here and hold on ‘til that Easter Sunday, there’s still hope.

That’s the Gospel, as far as I can tell.

Rest easy preacher.  In all this darkness, I can still see that little light you carried.  It won’t go out.  I won’t let it.

Faraway (So Close)

Over the last couple of days the news has been dominated by the death of a famous athlete who was killed (along with his daughter and several other people) in a helicopter crash. There will be tributes, candlelight vigils and ribbons over the next few months.  It was a tragic loss of life, to be sure, but it’s a celebrity story and Americans are enamored with celebrity.

I read further down the page until I see the photo above.

Angel also died this weekend, when she was shot and killed by the police in a small Alabama town.  I don’t blame the cop who pulled the trigger, because she started firing as soon as the cruisers rolled up in the driveway at the trailer park.

Almost like she wanted to get shot.

The story indicated that Angel had one previous arrest for “obstructing governmental operations.”  Neighbors said that she had “mental problems.”  Others alleged drug use.  One neighbor was quoted as saying that he “hoped this meant peace and quiet would return to the neighborhood.”

I read each of the 35 comments below the electronic news story.  All political.  Bad cops.  Racial  implications.  Alabama politicians.  The mental health system. President Trump(?!?).  I read on, expecting someone to try and weave the Alabama and Auburn football rivalry into the commentary, but no one figured out how.  This the back-and-forth irrelevant nonsense of electronic anonymity.  The downfall of civility in America.

Just one comment:  “So sad.”

Indeed.

I know nothing of Angel’s story, but I cannot get that photo out of my mind.  She was younger than she looked, but still very pretty.  I am drawn to her eyes.  I magnify the photo as large as the computer will allow.

I see it.  Loneliness.  Darkness.  Hopelessness.  Sadness.  A brokenness that I am not sure can be fixed.  It’s a long, slow death spiral into the ground.  I see it because I’ve looked into eyes like that before, up close.

I’ve heard it said that things aren’t remembered if they aren’t written down.  I think that refers to people too.

Here are a few lines about Angel.  May she rest in peace.

 

 

 

Tender Things

I once helped a friend mark timber on his client’s small ownership near Auburn, Alabama.  Timber marking is forester lingo for painting a mark on each tree to be cut from a designated area of a forest.  It is a select cut or partial harvest, as opposed to a clear cut in which all trees are removed before reforestation.

The middle-aged landowner lived alone in a rustic cabin that he had designed and built himself.  He was a factory worker by day and a musician in a local band by night.  I would describe him as an “artsy” type, but I could just say he was an old hippie.  He gave us a quick tour of the cabin’s interior which was decorated with framed concert posters from the ’60’s and ’70’s, some of his own original paintings, and even handmade furniture.  I thought it was all pretty amazing, but I excused myself to walk the woods while my friend discussed business with his client.

Against my friend’s counsel, this nice man insisted that he wanted to sell only the largest, most valuable pine trees on his land.  He wanted none of the other trees cut or damaged in any way.

I suppose he was a gentle spirit with an empty wallet.

My friend chuckled a little as he gave me my instructions. “He wants you to mark the pines so that they can be cut tenderly. Those were his exact words. “I’d like it cut tenderly.'”

Now I am a forester by profession but I’m also a word-man, and though I wasn’t a part of the conversation with the owner, I would been compelled to teach a brief lesson in semantics.

Allow me to explain, dear reader.

Some tender things:

  • a mother’s touch;
  • a baby’s bottom;
  • a lover’s caress;
  • a butterfly kiss;
  • a nice filet;
  • a sprained ankle;
  • a broken heart.

Some things that are not so tender:

  • a cockfight;
  • a right uppercut to the chin;
  • a grizzly bear with cubs;
  • a T-bone steak at Waffle House;
  • a hornet’s nest;
  • a half-time speech when you’re down by three touchdowns;
  • a hickory switch;

And most importantly, a 90 foot tall pine tree when it is severed from the stump.

A pine tree this large will break, smash, cripple, maim, annihilate, or otherwise destroy anything it touches as it proceeds from the vertical to horizontal.  Don’t blame the logger, blame gravity — it’s the law, you know?

I have a feeling the musician sang the blues when his trees were cut.

I, however, sang a little tune as I marked them.  It went:

“Softly and tenderly
timber is falling,
Falling for you and for me…”

You have to be an old Baptist to get that joke.

 

A version of this story appeared here in 2009.

A Christmas Day

One Christmas stuck forever in a man’s mind, a memory like an old Polaroid in faded sepia tones.

It was ’65 or ’66.  Small living room in a little white clapboard house on Spring Street.  Hemmed-in by a hospital parking lot on one side and a creek ditch deep enough to hold a train car on the other.

A red cedar Christmas tree in the corner, cut from somebody’s fence row out in the country in a time when folks didn’t mind you doing things like that.  Decorated with a string of popcorn, a lot of tinsel, and some of those big colored lights that appear to be back in fashion.  A few store-bought ornaments, but mostly construction-paper Christmas shapes and candy canes.

Presents under the tree, some wrapped in fancy printed paper, others in simple colored tissue.  A hand-made Christmas stocking hanging from the mantel, just below a wooden Nativity scene.

A boy got up about 4:30, because he could no longer lie still and listen to the mantel clock strike the hour and half hour.  Presents from Santa arranged on the oak floor in front of the tree.  Cowboy hat, gun belt, and two shiny cap-gun six shooters.  A Jellystone Park set complete with Yogi, Boo Boo, and Ranger Smith.  A bag of plastic army soldiers, enough to have his own little Vietnam just like the one he could see on a 12-inch black and white every evening at six.  Other small items, now forgotten.  The Christmas stocking yielded an orange, a few pecans, and a roll of Life Savers.

It was a great year. A BIG haul. Important to a boy in a working-class family in Alabama in the ’60’s.

Why?  Because that was pretty much it for that year, with the exception of a couple of presents on his birthday.

That’s what made a boy think about Christmas all year.

“No’s” and “put it backs” filled the rest of the year.  The boy was a man before he realized the reason — there wasn’t any extra money back then.  Money kept the lights on.  Kept gas in the car to get to work and back.  Kept food in the refrigerator.  Kept up hope that the refrigerator held out another year or two.  Christmas required sacrifice.

Different world now.  A man’s kids never understood.  A man’s grand kids have no chance of understanding.  A single trip to Target can trump that ’60’s Christmas.

But then again, that ’60’s boy had more in his stocking than his parents had on their Christmases.

Don’t misunderstand this little tale.  The man isn’t complaining about his childhood, or bemoaning the prosperity that allowed him to buy gifts for his grandchildren this year that cost more than his daddy made in a month back in ’66.

It’s just a memory a man will replay tonight, as he does every year.  All lights off except for the tree.  Aware of the time going by.  Trying to get that ’66 feeling back.

Here’s to your Christmas memory.  If you don’t have one, make it this year.