The Good Life

for Molly

garden

If you live long enough you gain an appreciation for those who came before you.

When COVID-19 hit and everyone was advised to practice “social distancing,” I was indifferent. “Social distancing?” I invented it. Been practicing it for years.

Then came “shelter in place” and “work from home.”

Unlike most, I could not have been happier. Stay home? Well “please don’t throw me in the briar patch Br’er Fox.”  I packed my possibles and headed to our farm.

I take liberties with the word “farm.”  Not the image the word conjures. Really just woods and a few open acres. The crops are trees and wildlife, not corn and livestock.

Finally, a chance for the good life. The life of my ancestors. A life for which I was surely born.

Now to be clear, I do not have an upper-class pedigree. I did the research. My kin were Irish immigrants and poor white sharecroppers. No royal sap in the family tree. Mostly poor folks who eked out a living with whatever they had on hand.

But I had more.  The pandemic did not take me by surprise. The farmhouse was fully stocked before the initial panic hit. While many rushed to the stores, I just sat back and watched from a distance. I am, after all, a smart man (just ask the Redhead and she will tell you “oh yes, he certainly thinks he’s a smart man”). I am forward-looking. A visionary even. I was never a Boy Scout, but I lived their motto — “Be prepared.”

I had food. I had medicine. I had gas and diesel. Masks, antibacterial wipes, and toilet paper to spare.

I might have even had a gun or two.

I also had creeks for water, trees for firewood, and wild animals for meat.

But most importantly of all, I had seeds for a garden.

I was dug-in like an Alabama tick. Ready for the long haul.

The first three weeks were blissful. I was finally able to get my work done. Almost no calls, no emails, and no visits from anyone to break my chain of thought.

My plan was executed to perfection. I put in my office hours, then headed outside to take leisurely walks and tend my tomato plants.

On a gorgeous Saturday morning I climbed aboard the big John Deere and plowed and planted my garden. It was the same kind of worn-out rocky ground that my ancestors plowed with mules, but no matter.  I could coax that sorry dirt to yield more than they ever dared to dream.

Then came Sunday morning. The storms hit at sunrise. Hail. High winds. Rain by the bucket-load. The lights flickered, then went out.

No worries. I had candles and flashlights with extra batteries. Who needs television or the internet? I had shelves of good books and plenty of paper and pens with which to write.

Paradise.

That night I laid down in sweet solitude. The bedroom windows were open, and the light breeze and the dripping rain the only sounds. My sleep was deep and filled with contented, peaceful dreams.

Monday morning, I decided to take a stroll to survey my kingdom.

Trees down. Trails blocked.  Garden mostly washed away. Creeks out of the banks. Dead battery on the Deere.

Rugged independence? Gone.

That night I blew out the candles and lay in the darkness again. You know you really cannot appreciate true darkness until you are way back in the woods with no lights on a cloudy night. I struggled to find sleep with my troubled thoughts.

As my mind raced through the stillness of that long night it finally hit me. There was nothing romantic about the way my ancestors lived. They could not run to the grocery store when the crops washed away. No cash to buy more seed or supplies or even pay back their shares. No hiding from a pandemic. If the Spanish flu did not kill their children, then cholera just might.

I understand them now. Why they left the “good life” for jobs in the cotton mill towns. Why they traded idyllic farm living for a hot, dusty job where a man might lose a hand in a second or his lungs to the lint in a matter of a few years.

I have no worries. I can start again. I have the means to replant the garden, and the grocery store is only five miles away. I still have my masks and wipes, so I will probably stay untouched by the virus, at least for a while.

I added something to my supplies. Respect for my ancestors.

The “good life” is all high cotton and buttermilk cornbread when you are playing a role in the theater of your mind.  But when you live off the land to survive it is not all it is cracked-up to be.

“The Moving Finger Writes…*

keyboard

In my previous post I mentioned that it takes hours to write one of these little stories.  That’s not exactly true.  It takes minutes to write a story but hours to edit it.  Editing is the real challenge of “trying to get the words right.”

But I confess I have another reason it takes me so long to write a story.  I can’t type.

I am embarrassed to admit that I am strictly a one finger hunt-and-peck man.  Occasionally my left index finger will get involved, but it usually doesn’t get past the “D.”

Then there’s that nasty business with the “Caps lock” key.

It’s not that I am ignorant or untrained.  I took a typing class in high school.  My friend Winfred and I were unfortunate enough to sit front and center in Mrs. Kidd’s little shop of horrors.  Winfred was a great defensive tackle who played some college ball and then went on to become a preacher.  He was my salvation at the time, because he was as bad a typist as I.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager old Winfred writes his sermons by hand.

Mrs. Kidd stood directly in front of us (actually, more like over us) as she gave instructions.  I don’t remember much about her except that she was rather stern and had big nostrils.  Added pressure there.  Ever try to concentrate while looking up at the business end of a double barrel twelve-gauge shotgun?  To make matters worse, she always carried a big wooden ruler, which she regularly applied to my hands when they were in the wrong position.

I went through that entire school year with bruised knuckles.  Told my daddy I got them at football practice.

Once a week we had the dreaded “words per minute” test.  On a good day I might manage 20, and five of those would be misspelled.  But those tests were really the only reprieve I ever got from the tyranny of Mrs. Kidd.   You couldn’t cheat front and center, but a scatterling of cheaters were behind me.

The test would go something like this: “Limber up your fingers.  Type what I’ve written on the board.  We’ll start on my mark in 30 seconds.”

Then, ever so faintly, I’d hear it.  Chick.  Chick.  Chick.  Mrs. Kidd heard it too.  It sent her charging to the rear like a rhino, ready to administer a little corporal punishment to someone else for a change.

I managed to make it through the year.  Think I made a “C” by the skin of my teeth.  But I never attempted to type again.

The other night I asked the Redhead if I was too old to learn to type.  She told me that there were plenty of internet sites that might help.  I looked at a few and thought “maybe I can still do this.”

Then I remembered what a college professor once told me.  “Research has shown that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill.”

If my math is right, that’s 417 days, nonstop.  If I subtract hours for leisure activities like work and sleep, I’d be looking at about five years.

That’s a big commitment.  The way I feel most mornings when I get out of bed, I’m just hoping I live another five years.

I think I’ll just stick with hunt-and-peck typing.  With the time I save I might be able to get that left finger nimble enough to reach the “F.”

 

*and having writ, moves on.”  Omar Khayyam.

 

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.