The Girl Who Summons Owls

When I was a young man I read a love story in which the boy exclaims “…a girl who loves owls!”.  They’d go out on the lake in the canoe and she’d be all wistful at the sound of owls and his soul would leave his body at the thought that he’d finally found Her, after assuming there was no-one else like that.    He knew he had found THE one.   I was years away from finding you, and had thought alot about how to know the One Girl, but the owl test seemed better than anything I had heard so far.   I held it for awhile.  I, too, was weird, liking not just owls but many odd things, and assuming I’d never meet someone just as weird.  But maybe.  But then, such romantic dreams seem to die too often under the weight of real life.

I don’t know what test of yours I was lucky enough to pass, but years later we met and married, you and I, and I had somehow forgotten to apply the owl test.   I forgot it completely.  When I did remember that book, I just thought of it as somebody else’s romance, not for me.

We had a son and got engrossed in raising him.  A decade on and I discovered the municipal naturalists and their nature walks.   I took Isaac on the February owl walk, at night.   Zero degrees, dark, a small huddle of nerdy citizens clumped around the naturalist in the woods, and a recording of the Barred Owl to draw the birds in to the invisible trees above our heads.   We got one!   An answering call came drifting over the suburban noises from a mile away, then closer, then silent as a midnight cloud, he settled on a branch and glared down at us,  clearly miffed that the call was not actually a girl owl but just a tape and a speaker.   With red cellophane covering the flashlight beam, we could just see his bulk and his eyes up in the beech branches.   I wondered how often could you fake a Barred Owl’s friend before they got wise and disappeared forever from naturalists’ itineraries.

When I took you back, later, another night, to share the spot and the story with you, and you wanted to try, I was afraid we’d get caught by the authorities daring to call the owls without a license.   But, we’re wild like that, so I thought, what the heck, it won’t work anyway.

“Who cooks for you?  Who? Who?”  You learned the Barred Owl’s call quickly and hooted it out into the woods and the night.  (We’re going to jail, I thought, for nothing.)  Listen.  Dogs bark a mile away.  Faint hum of traffic somewhere.   Then,  far away but unmistakably, the echo back: “Who cooks for you?”  I catch my breath.  It can’t be.  You hoot again.  He answers again, closer.

Then the shadow in the moon overhead and movement through the branches but without sound, the Owl settles directly over our heads.  We don’t move, we don’t talk.  Before I can quite muster my marvel, though, another shadow crosses the moon and another dark silhouette settles a few feet away from the first.

I had never imagined that we’d get both Mr. and Mrs. Owl together!  You did, in one try, what the practiced professionals hadn’t done.

We stood like stones and watched them watch us from their imperial perch, maybe peeved to find neither mice nor wizards but a suburban middle-aged couple.  Maybe  embarrassed to be tricked by a suburban house wife who hoots like their own kin.

For me, it was the night I knew I had the Girl Who Summons Owls –  two at once.  Better than the girl in the book.

Rockhouse Holler

You should know by now that hollers (hollows) are the little valleys, here in Appalachia,.where creeks run.  When the roads first came into these hills they followed the creeks up and up, from the large creek in the deep valley up to the feeder creeks coming down from the hilltops.

We crossed some sort of boundary in the years from my parents to me, because I never said “holler”, except as a part of a place name.   Or maybe it was snobbery;  only twenty miles away from this spot, in the town of 3,000 where I grew up as the city cousin, “holler” was a hillbilly word, mocked by teenagers and other cruel people. But those who live on this road still say “holler”.   Everybody “in the holler” either lives up the creek or down the creek, up the holler or down the holler.

Now that we’ve driven up the creek to the top of the first ridge, the next holler winds down there below.  Look down through the car window at the tops of trees.  And a half-mile off the road, back under those farther trees, is the Rockhouse,  a smooth cave, scooped back into the hillside rock.   I do want to take you to see the cave, but the walk there and the walk back are just as important,  beside and beyond the cemetery where my mom and dad are buried.  It’s all coming into view out your side of the road.  We are starting down now.

The gravestones dot that little hill,  popping up out of those tree-tops.   We have to drive slow here, because if we meet another car on the one-lane, somebody has to pull off the gravel into the ditch to let pass.

I don’t really know the people who live on this road now, though the last names on the mailboxes are familiar. Their houses are still spaced far enough apart that each one is around a bend from his neighbor, and usually separated by cow-pastures.    We’ll turn in – nobody can quite see you from their nosy window – and slip down this even smaller road, just a grass path with tire tracks, that ends at the graves.

The neighbors really do care who drives along the road. They peer out their windows at the sound of gravel under tires.  You’d care too, if you lived somewhere where all cars had better have a reason to be there.

Though the cemetery road is just car-ruts through the field, the drive gear will move us fast enough with no gas pedal.   I always imagine the car has remembered where we’re going, like it is an insensate machine in the city but out here it gradually awakens – or maybe it’s just that at this spot there is literally no-where else we can possibly drive.  At any rate, I can let go of the wheel and take my foot off the gas.

Dip down for a hundred yards then back up, through golden rod and high alfalfa.  Then out into the mowed grass.   We can park anywhere.   The grass is mowed a couple times in the warm months, out far enough around the hill’s foot to make enough parking space for all the out-of-town cousins at once.   Cousins of anyone buried here.

My mom and dad and my sister are sleeping on this hill, but let’s skip that for now, I want you to see the woods.  We’ll walk around the bottom of the hill and down into the trees toward the creek.   Further down and further back.

Down here into the forest rooms, the green ceiling of maples blocks even the mean August sun, but occasional lights dapple our feet and freckle the may-apple leaves (which always made me think of fairy parachutes).   Leaves underfoot are spongy, decades deep.  Moss climbs the grey rocks and the grey beech trunks.  Each time I return, the green of the moss is always a surprise. There are colors in the woods that exist only on the retina but the memory can’t store them. Jack-in-the-pulpit nods in the slight wind, sleepy from his own sermon.

The holler is actually the ancient flood-bed of the creek, 50 yards across.   But the creekwater normally is just as wide as my dad’s stride, and it runs an inch thin on slimy rock.   Broken cliffs, veined with roots as thick as an old man’s thigh,  rise on both sides of the little holler.  From the road we drove in on, you can never see that there’s a rock canyon back in here, and as we look back where we came from here, on foot, we can’t see the road or any houses.

We used to follow the path beside the stream on summer nights.   And sometimes step the flat stones. Down from the graveyard, into the woods, back into the holler, back again beneath the rock face where the creek had long since cut under the upper forest at a bend.  This sensation of down and back and more down and back, deeper into the womb of the countryside, is what I’d feel when I was small and my mother would take us back to her home on weekends.

One cut in the rock in particular is deep enough to call a Rockhouse.   It will shelter a couple dozen cattle in a storm.   The rock overhead is higher than a small maple  and is rippled like water, and blackened by the smoke of a thousand fires like the ones we were sure the Indians built, and the ones we built, for roasting marshmallows.   I’d lean back on the log where I’d sit, away from the fire on my face,  and strain my neck to watch the sparks shoot up into the black night.  They’d streak red and yellow as they tracked the rock face out and up to where the crickets sing in the root balls of trees above our faces.

It may have been there one night I first felt that, simply by not knowing, I was a carrier of injustice.   I’ll say I was 10.  It was a feeling that I’d be able to name only years later….something like embarrassed at being in a place without knowing those who had been there before.   If I came to their place, didn’t their feelings and memories also remain there?  And who would carry those on if it wasn’t me?

We were always told the Indians had lived there a century before, but it wasn’t the romance of war whoops and war paint that drew me to picture them in the back of the cave beyond the light.  I’d think of a 10 year old Indian boy, and of his mother, and of the day he died, and of how his mother felt, and how could I pull her sorrow out of the sandstone where it had soaked in and…do what with it?

Sentimental.   All my life I’ve been secretly worried about all the laughs and deaths hidden under the bushes and in the weeds at the side of the roads.  Even in the deep hollers far off the road, in the woods beyond the graveyards.   Sentimental is as good a word as any, I won’t argue with you, but then again I don’t seem to use it for this feeling when I look inside at the feeling.   It doesn’t seem quite accurate.

I would look across the fire and see my mother, young and pretty,  laughing with her brothers.   We were the city cousins, come back here to the country many weekends in the summer and this cave was as deep in this country as she could burrow.   30 years before that night, before she ever thought of me, she would have been right there as a young girl, sitting at a fire.

So there, there is one connection:  she watched the sparks go to heaven when she was 10, and she led me there when I was 10 and I leaned my face back into the dark at the same spot, at the same age.   Before her?  After me?

More than one broken chain.  Many.


Have you walked in the woods at night with no flashlight?  I mean the deep woods, not a thicket beside the road where you can still hear the rumble and swoosh of traffic or trains.  The woods, where you can stand without motion, close your eyes in order to point every neuron toward your ears, but still get no sound that is not a forest sound.

You have to be this deep in the woods to be free of the compass.  Our ears are powerful:  the slightest sound of civilization always comes from one direction more than others and so it orders the circle around you into one safe direction and then the others.  But in the quiet of Appalachian woods there is no order.  There is no safe direction unless you learned it from your folks.

Near to midnight we would put out the fire (usually by peeing on it; this was more practicality than mischief) and walk out of the holler without lights.  Out of the Rockhouse onto the old footpath, which could only be felt but not seen.  Overhead, no stars or moon, only thick summer canopy.   No sound, no light.  Even the breeze couldn’t find its way into the holler.   Along the path and across the trickling stream which made silvery sounds dropping off the little sandstone steps.  A chipmunk skitters, unseen.   Frogs burp, unseen.

Now, on the right, the rise of the cemetery knoll, though it was still too dark to see the jagged teeth of the headstones against the sky, like you saw in the daylight when you walked in.

The old ones were perfectly comfortable walking in the woods at night past the cemetery which they all believed exhaled will’o’wisp and apparitions.  No light, no sound, and the haunted graves.  As comfortable as sitting at the kitchen table playing cards.

I’ve written about their ghost-ology.   Yes, they told stories of late night appearances of dead ladies in flowing white dress, standing beside the road needing a ride, let’s say, or walking down a stairwell formal-like (ghosts never hurry).  They told stories of the sounds of weeping babies among the graves, or flaming crosses a head high above the far field which does not illuminate, by its blue light, anything around.  Like all cultures do, they told these stories: around the card table, or while walking at night.

But an anthropologist who grew up in the city could easily project his disdain for other elements of the culture and falsify the entire matter for a Ph.D.   Supernatural activity in this culture is not explaining the unknown, is not scaffolding a religious worldview — the ghosts who drift across these fields in fact do not fit into the religious worldview, but contradict it.

It is affection.   People do not see the landscape inhabited by the spirits of their elders unless they love it, love the old ones, love the places, love the night as much as the day, love the earth which gives potatoes and takes back mother and father.

It is not fear or need for order which writes those stories, but affection, and that’s why the old ones were never even slightly chilled those midnights as we found our way back to the cars, where they’d turn a moment, hand on the car door, and glance back at the graves for movement, not wishing to be elsewhere.

Scenes From My Father

Scenes From My Father

Fathers, seek out your children every day and give them a gift. Here are some gifts from my father.

My first memory of dad. I’m not yet 4 years old. Dad lost his mother and younger brother in a terrible accident, which he witnessed. Strong hands are under my arms from behind and they hold me up to look down through glass at my grandmother and my uncle in their caskets. His voice is in my ear, explaining to me that they had an accident, and what the bruise on their foreheads meant. Something bad had happened, but my dad was stronger than the bad. It was a calm, matter-of-fact voice, and it felt like, in the middle of a house full of whispering adults, he was thinking of me, and had the confidence in me that I would be able to understand and process it. He treated me like a big person. No moral, no lecture, but years later I realized what he gave me that day: Bad things happen, and you can face them straight on.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward…I’m 6 or 7 now. I’ve apparently thrown a rock through the window of the dentist office down the street, and dad tells me we’re going to have to go make it right. He knows the dentist and has talked to him and we have a meeting scheduled (he knows everybody.) We walk together down the street. I apologize and offer to pay for the window glass out of my allowance, on an installment schedule. The dentist thinks for a minute, and decides the offer is acceptable. He shakes my hand and says he is impressed that I did the right thing. A long time later, I understood that day’s gift: you sometimes do bad things, but you make them right.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward, I’m 10 or 11. It’s my birthday. Dad comes home with a present for me – a pair of boxing gloves. I hadn’t asked for them. I still don’t know where he got the idea, but he had boxed in high school and I’d heard him talk about it. He put the gloves on with me and taught me how to stand, move my feet, and jab with the lead hand. I can still see his lead glove, I can still feel my head snap back from his jab. The neighborhood kids boxed in the backyard that summer. What were the gifts of that day? Where to look, where not to look. That it’s not going to kill you to get hit. Never start a fight, but if he won’t have it any other way, hit first, hard, straight, and watch his feet.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward…I’m in my late teens. Dad seeks me out and says “come with me, I want to show you something.” We load into his car and drive quite ways to an old rundown hotel. I follow him up dark, smelly stairs, to a dark room, and he goes in and fishes out someone we knew who had gotten into a dark, dark place. We loaded the prodigal into the car and off to a safe, warm place. It was clear to me that wasn’t the first time Dad had rescued him. As we drove home, not many words, just “Son, I wanted you to see that.” Just like that. Just like when I was four, he had the confidence to show me something ugly and how one does the right thing, and trust me to grasp it. What was the gift that day? Men go into the dark to save the weak, even if the weak one is at fault.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward, to about a month ago. Dad is in the nursing home, and I’m visiting. Some of the aides had not kept to a schedule of medication or something, and he had cornered one of them and was giving her a hard time. He never liked it when anyone made a commitment but didn’t keep it. This aide was gracious and apologetic but he just wouldn’t let it go. He made her and everyone else in the room uncomfortable. She was able to work her way out with promises to do better. I was bothered, and thinking about what to say to him, but before I could, and after she was gone for a few minutes, he turned to me and said “Was i too hard on her?” If you knew Dad, you know that wasn’t easy for him. But I could see in his eyes he was sincere. So I said “Yes, you were rude, and you hurt her feelings, and you should make that right.” I expected a fight. But he thought for a minute, then said “You’re right, I was wrong. I’ll make it up to her when she comes back.” And he did. And that, in all fairness, was probably hard for him. The gift that day? Sometimes we fight when we don’t need to.

Sometimes I’ve fought when I didn’t need to.

There is so much more to tell if I had more time. He gave me a love for the names of plants, flowers and trees and somehow that became a playing in the sounds of words and a love of poetry. He taught me how to sharpen a knife, make a whistle from a twig. i saw him suffer through sickness for years, unable to eat most foods, to work to support his family. He noticed and greeted everybody, especially the waitress, the clerk at the counter, the janitor, the old men sitting on the courthouse steps. He picked up hitchhikers and brought sketchy characters home to live in the spare room. He taught us, I hope, there are no little people.

Fathers give gifts.

Fast forward…to about a week ago. We moved him into the hospice house and got him settled in bed. He had a minute here and there when his thoughts were clear but mostly, not. As evening wore on and we just sat with him, just being together, he began to talk, stronger than we had seen in days. We realized he was preaching. Not quite clear-headed; he wasn’t with us, he was somewhere else, leading a service, complete with special music and some sort of dedication of the church building. We thought it was a momentary confusion, but he leaned forward, looking off and up, gesturing, and building to a conclusion, like we had heard in his sermons all our lives. He hadn’t had that strength for a long time, and he went on and on and on — Dad could go on. We didn’t know what to do with him. But he wasn’t upset and didn’t seem to be hurting himself, he was just…elsewhere. Then, the invitation. In a loud, clear, impassioned voice – “come to Jesus!” “Come to Jesus!” His voice was bright, clear, urgent, and he was looking out over the congregation back to the distant pews where the preachers’ kids and other sinners hide. It’s a custom for teachers, at the end of their careers, to give The Final Lecture. We were hearing Dad’s Final Sermon.

After that, he settled back, and his strength failed quickly. He would lapse into silence, and sleep the next few days, until he woke this last Monday into the arms of his Savior. The last earthly sentences he would ever speak were an invitation to come to Jesus. Because, in his heart of hearts, dad was: an evangelist. If you knew Dad longer than 5 minutes, you knew that.

Who are we, really? When reason fails, when youth and strength are gone, what is left? Isn’t that when the undisguised heart shows its passions? What does your heart really, really want?

What Dad really, really wanted, wants tonight, is for each and every heart to hear the voice of a loving father. Come to Jesus. Come to Jesus.

Thank you Dad, for all these gifts.

Note: Written to honor my father, and read at his funeral.


The hawk on the wire faces away from the road, but looks back at me over his shoulder.  That posture is, by now, an icon of the large raptors:  the curved neck, the eye and beak somehow more forceful because twisted back toward us.   “I will regard you, but not seriously enough to turn my body.   I point my glorious beak in your general direction.  I may turn toward you but I may not.  I can see more of you than you can of me, and I am studying your nostrils for any quiver of fear.  I am Hawk.”


The water must have come up high in the drainage ditch – nearly flooding over the blacktop – then froze at the surface, then went back down, fast.  As the stream dropped away, the icey surface layer stayed, suspended in mid-air by the weed-stalks.  From my car, at slow country speed, I notice the glass sheet hovering mystically above the empty ditch.  As if some waterskin had been molted, in place, by the creek, before it slithered into the river.


Four or five deer in the headlights, walking away from the road into the pasture.   They all crane necks to glance back toward the light.   Hooves lift lightly over corn stubble.  A hint of blowing snow in the headlight.

I remember some scene from a Christmas card:  deer and other creatures from the wild wander into the frame where the Nativity has for a moment caught their attention,  taught them to talk, and lightened their hearts from all fears.   They’re in Narnia and the King is finally walking the land.

Memory shifts.  I’m a teenager, running through backyards after dark on vacation, in mischief but only slight mischief.   That year, that last year when my daily bread simply appeared, by magic, as it always had.

Back to now.  The deer look together at me, look away, together, then move together out of frame away into the treeline.   I wish for them that life is not sudden death on the highway, or the bullet tearing arteries in mid-chew, but rather heart failure in sleep.   Lord, let their hearts just stop in your time, in a dream of clover, an hour before the herd stirs at dawn, and take them one by one to decorate your creche.



The fox sat in the middle of the clearing as if he had nothing to do.   I’m used to thinking of zoo animals as bored, but not wild animals, and this fox on the mile-wide Outer Banks should be feeling pressure to hunt for supper, since there can’t be many rabbits on this spit of land.  But he sat still, gazing over the tops of the scrub, bored.

He must have heard our tour-jeep before we saw him, yet as we slowed down to look for horses he glanced over at us as if we were the zoo animals.   The jeep stopped, to our cries of “fox!  fox!”.   Tourists yells didn’t startle him.   Foxes are notoriously furtive, but this one could have been hired for the Disney Outer Banks theme park.

Which, come to think of it, is what these “wilderness” jeep tours are.


The Tea-Table is a giant rock on top of the hill which looms over my Great-Grandfather’s West Virginia farm.   The Table is the size of a small barn, and the bottom is smaller than the top – like a table.   It looks like a giant child has stacked flat rocks, large on small, in a balancing game, and now we’re all watching to see if it will topple.  It’s not toppled for about a million years.  The flat room on top is as high above the farm as you could have imagined yourself in 1910, before flight, when Wade and Ethel were young marrieds.

From the farm in the valley, near the creek, the hillside leading up to the Tea-Table is steep.  The fat, lumbering cows could never have walked straight up or down, so they terraced their diagonal paths deep into the slope when they would toil up at dawn and scuff down every dusk.   We, the two-legged, are grateful for their graveled and efficient steps.

The hike is steep, so the quest has two parts:  conquer the hill and conquer the rock.  The hillclimb alone stops casual attempts, because by the time you see the rock, you are sucking air and you are invested.  You wouldn’t turn back 20 feet from the summit of Everest.   And as soon as you can see the Tea-table you must sit on the top.

You must also leave your initials carved atop the rock.

I say this, and instantly know it was only true until about 1967.   Boys who carried pocket knives and shot squirrels were capable of sitting for hours and gripping some tool hard and chipping entire phrases into quartzite.  After the Summer of Love they all grew their hair long and lost their calluses and no longer vandalize things that require exertion.   No, the newest names on the flat of the Tea-Table are names of grandfathers, and the letters are now calligraphic moss.

Your father would take you for the first time.   Your mother would worry aloud if he should, and after she had postponed your climb till the end of summer, she would give in and let him take you up,  right when you had grown big enough to climb the hill on your own legs (nobody gets carried up the hill),  but not before you could climb the actual rock alone.  He would need to show you the footholds on the one possible path up the rock.  He would need to say “Now grab right here, it’s ok”.  “Don’t look down, just listen to my voice.”  “See there?  Now stay away from the edge.  Look at these names over here.”  Your father took you, you’d take your little ones.  I say “boys” – I was one – but the girls would go up the hill as well and climb to the table top just as fast.   But she’d sit and admire as a boy chipped her name in the rock.   She could do it herself, but that was before she was taught to need to.

From that day on, you could go to the Tea-Table without him.  You could go alone, you could go in groups, you could fight battles on that 20 foot high rock.  None of the adults worried about you, and nobody fell off the Tea-Table.

There’s that moment when you realize the climb is too hard for your old legs, and the shock of admitting you’ll never sit on the Tea-Table again.   You’ve taken your seat among the old ones.

I have to admit I don’t know if boys still climb to the Tea-Table.  The farm was sold after my Great-Grandfather died.  The new owner didn’t actually farm, of course.   And the one lane gravel road to the farm is not dotted with outside children like it once was.   It’s not just that boys now are fighting digital orcs on digital table rocks; I’m not sure they’re even growing up in the country now.

While I’m in my old person voice, nostalgic over a childhood place….many now worry that the woods are empty.  I agree;  I don’t see children outdoors.   I live now in a beige suburb of a large city.  I walk at dusk, when the porch lights are just coming on.   I stopped the other night, a summer night, in the street lined on both sides by large houses, within earshot of a hundred homes.   I stood still for minutes, listening.   I could not hear a single human voice.  Nobody on porches, no sound of children playing outdoors.

I look across the landscape as I drive and my boyhood eyes still will catch on woods and fields where I know I would have trekked among a gang.   There is no-one there.   No kids in the streets, no kids in the fields, no one to sit on the top of the Tea-Table and look down on the backs of sweating cows.

Coyote, January, Ohio.

As the mercury approaches zero all movement stops.  Where starlings had squabbled over the leavings of the big corn threshers, now the very air squats on furrows.  Maybe tomorrow the wind won’t fang the mouse, who just wants to glean the corners of the field.   He peeps, then pulls back.   White is the color of waiting.

Except for that coyote.  I look twice to be sure; they’re rarely spotted from the road in Ohio.  Though there’s an open acre between us,  I don’t need to be closer to see that he is no dog.  Coyotes move with the visible intentionality of wild things, whose hunts must succeed or they die.  Dogs meander, even when they’re curious, because they don’t have be serious as close as they are to the table scraps that appear on suburban porches.

The coyote trots, straight.  His sharp nose and his sharp tail pull his frame into a long straight line, and he doesn’t glance to the side.  I think of one of my pencils sharpened on both ends and drawn along a ruler.

But he’s not tracking a rabbit or mole.  He seems to stare at an internal map.  It’s as if he’s just graphed this wide corn field into a mental grid and he’s focused on working it square by square.

I have to pull my own eyes back to the actual road.  At zero degrees even the asphalt crouches, refusing  to grab my tires.

Walnuts In The Road

My car’s tires tear soft green husks off the walnuts in the dirt road.  Decades ago packs of farm boys would scavenge the brown nuts from where they roll to the bottoms of the ruts, and take them off to a flat rock to crack them.  They thought of carts and trucks as walnut preparation machines.   That rock is still within sight somewhere if I knew where to look from the road, but it’s covered with moss now.  The moss hasn’t been scruffed by boys’ shoes since the web browser was invented.

Torn walnut husks bleed brown, sticky oil that is hard to clean from hands and pants, but especially stubborn on cuticles and nails.  Young boys would have suffered that lesson from their moms, one time only, and would, ever after, know the art of cracking walnuts with white shirts and hands.

Lost country lore, and all that.  But lost knowledge means more than just lost mental content.  As we lose lore, we lose chunks of our sensorium.  I only see the green balls in the road and feel them thump under the rubber tires because my dad was one of those country boys once.  And once, with me the little boy in tow,  he walked over to a rut to check on how the nuts were getting de-hulled by the traffic.   That moment, he painted his boyhood walnuts into my future roads where I would have never seen them, and made me able to feel the shudders in my car’s suspension where my backside would have otherwise felt nothing. Tradition doesn’t veil the world from the artist; tradition paints the world for the artist.

Back Mountain Road

Somewhere between Snowshoe Mountain and Cass Railroad in the West Virginia mountains is a two lane paved road you’ll miss unless you know what you’re looking for.   “Back Mountain Road” winds for miles along the side of the ridge, looking down on red barns and gold hayricks.

I drove it one August day looking for art.   Nobody seemed to believe that a 25 year old man would take 2 weeks to be alone in the country but I was in heaven.

I sat for a day, a beginning watercolorist,  trying to find the color of  shadows on the abandoned white church.   When I look at those paintings now I barely see any color at all.  I was so timid, needing a teacher who would slap my hand and make me sin boldly.

 I found the split-rail fence which seemed to belongto no-one, and it was overgrown with orange day-lilies.  Cameras used film then,  and I felt extravagent spending a dozen snaps of Kodachrome on the flowers, but I was bohemian.  I  was in my 20’s and innocently trying to be an artist.   Like everyone young I didn’t realize how I had so much life ahead of me.   If I knew then what I know now, I’d have wasted all the film on one stamen.     

I got so discouraged with painting I trailed a heron back into the wilderness as if it were a shaman redeeming me from maps.  I wanted only to stand close, on one leg, motionless, unblinking, and know the dart of the minnow the way the bird knew it.   It watched me with one eye and parsed minnows with the other, never letting me close, and did not miss a meal on behalf of my silly vision quest.

October 1961: The Wreck

October 1961: The Wreck

I am five years old and looking down on my grandmother in her open and brightly-lit coffin.   My father holds me up; I feel his strong hands in my armpits, and from behind me I hear him whisper “She died from a fractured skull.”   He wants me to see her and to see death, though many in the crowded parlor probably thought he was, as usual, too blunt.

Her son David, 12, lies beside her.   A single glass dome shields Granny and David — one glass chamber, not two, so they are together beyond the glass and not alone.   Every time I recall the image, now, I’m fascinated at how bright the glare is on the glass.   As Dad talks I have to look around the flare to see that their foreheads are similarly bruised.   I wouldn’t have noticed the dark splotches but dad points them out as the signs of the skull-fractures.   The twin marks and the phrase “skull-fracture”  intrigue me like new information, though I feel nothing.   New information; it is new that a skull-fracture could kill you, and that it had killed two people at the same time, and that it left a bruise on your forehead.   The bruise was not in the middle but on one side.    Later, much later, I would imagine them turning their faces away in their final instinct.

Dad says they had a wreck.

It was October 1961.   A sunny evening, and the family piled into the car for the half-hour drive to a gospel sing.  At the last minute, Dad decided to take his own car, so he followed the one Granny drove.   She had two sons with her and a neighbor boy, David’s friend of his own age.   Mother and grown son in the front, two boys in the back.   One from each seat would die.

The caravan rounded a long curve, known locally as “all-day curve”.   As the road straightened again in front of them, dad could see perhaps a half-mile to the speeding car coming on fast and all over the road.   She must have seen him, too, because she pulled way over to her side to escape him.   Yet the drunk hit her full on; Dad said he saw what seemed like an explosion in front of him and cars spinning backwards past him, one on either side.

He made it to the driver’s side first and she was over in the seat, still holding the wheel.   He pulled his mother out onto the pavement and into his lap, where he thinks she died before the ambulance came.

David was alive and talking in the emergency room, and even in his room later that night.  “We thought he was out of danger”, Dad would say.  Minutes after Dad left his little brother to walk down the hall, around midnight, David died suddenly.  He had asked for the 23rd Psalm.   Once, when Dad told this story, he mentioned how bad he felt that he had yelled at David days before for spilling some milk.

So, a wreck, like a hundred scenes you have passed on the road in your life.   Oh, the other driver…he was an 18 year-old soldier, home on leave, drunk.   Somebody guessed he was moving 80 miles an hour at impact.   He was decapitated.   I don’t remember his name.

The other boy, David’s friend, survived with a fractured femur, and perhaps is playing with his grandchildren tonight as I write this.

The front-seat passenger was my other uncle, young and in the military and strong, which is maybe why he survived, maybe, as he suffered two fractured ankles from bracing against the impact with those young, strong legs.   It may have been the day of the viewing when I wandered into his dark back bedroom where he sat alone, in a wheelchair, casts on both legs, staring out the window.   He was quiet and gentle with me that day but someone else hustled me out.

You can see that my memory of the two dead in their bright bed is vivid.  I see the lights and the bruises, I hear my Dad’s voice, I even taste the fudge laid out in the kitchen for the family as they received a house full of mourners.     And, as I say, my father’s bluntness about their deaths didn’t bother me.   His manner made it matter-of-fact for me, which is what I think he was trying for.

The memory is vivid, yet painless.   Painless?  I’ve felt a slight guilt about that.  But I’ve explained it to myself: I have no memory of either Granny or David alive, so their death never felt like a loss to me.    And that is why I wonder about my need to go over and over the story, to write and re-write it, for decades now.   Process trauma, you say?   No…the usual tropes about “dealing with the loss” won’t work here.  I hesitate to say it, because it seems cold, but they could have been anyone, for me, for all the sorrow I remember ever feeling (can you forgive me for that?  I was five).   Yet the image of looking down at the twin purple marks of fracture always has felt… untold.

The entire story has also sounded untold as I remember the half-century of talk within the wider family.   Those who must have been indeed traumatized were much older than me, of course, and over the decades they moved across the country, raised families and grand-families, died,  or are goldening fast.   I’ve not been close to them.   I’ve heard them talk of The Wreck a little, at reunions, but only in response to my questions, and with no apparent pain.   No, this is not what you expect: this is no story of people who careened off into divorces, suicides, or self-medicating.  Granny’s husband lived till old age took him.   The uncle with the broken ankles served a career in the Army and Dad always said he was a spy, or an accountant, or both, but successful by all accounts.   He married, once,  and had children, and they grew up, and then he died, old.   My Dad is still with us, 80 now.   There were other siblings, too: another brother, away at college, and a sister, in high school at the time of the wreck — both still alive.   Many versions of the story are untold in them.

It’s been all so normal after that October day, and the normalcy doesn’t seem quite right.   I would not have wanted them to be obsessed or maudlin, but I now realize what I wanted was to hear them talk to each other about it.  I wanted to feel them feel it alongside each other,  like an emotional triangulation that gives bearing to what lies behind.   That common feeling and the meaning they made of it are the meaning of the The Wreck, a meaning probably lost.   I heard my Father’s account many times, and I heard the old ones try to get this or that detail straightened out, but always arguing, in my family always arguing.  I never felt The Wreck built into the family mythos.   It would never be but tragedy, sure, but our tragedy, and when a tragedy is not traditionalized it doesn’t go away, but lingers like a poltergeist, troubling the living but not useful.    “Traditionalizing the tragic”, I say?   Morbid?  No, my sense is that the deeper it would have been storied into the family mythos, the more pain and joy it would have yielded.   And it deserved that.

But now, a family myth which behaves like a poltergeist.    I could have shook its hand and led it to its place in the procession and we would have known it biblically, not as many tragedies are known among the believers, as a fake divine design, ladled on,  sauce on sadness,  but rather as truth, as the bonds the living made from the amputated threads of their dead.  Bonds not of co-sentimentality, but of tradition.   Dear ones, what did you do with this absence these 50 long years?  I missed your life, not knowing that.  I’m sorry I left you alone.  I had the same absence, and we were arrogant toward each other not to work around the absence together.  The grey matriarch and her youngest child on the edge of puberty, and a son in the strength of manhood.    No one, by luck of age, was a safe distance from that death.   And it reaches even those who have no mental images of their corpses.   David was twelve when he died, the same age as my son Isaac is now.   Was he, like my own Isaac, croaking in the voice as boy changes to man, and was there a ritual of laughter that Isaac and I might just don, instead of having to make it from the void ?

Advent, Vermont, 1982.

After long hours of night driving it took a second for Tim’s eyes to wake his brain.   There was a faint light to the left, down in the ravine, and it was gone behind the moving car as soon as he saw it.    He braked to a stop on the wet blacktop.   No cars in either direction on the two-lane in the Vermont woods.   He turned to squint through the rain on the window, but the shoulder of the road was now blocking the view down the bank.    Fifty feet in reverse, then he could gradually see what looked like… headlights under weeds.  Wet gravel under the tires meant he was safely off the road.

“There’s a car down there.  I’m going over the bank.  Call 9-1-1.  ”

The slope was running with mud but the plants were big enough for hand-holds.   He scrambled and slid to the bottom.  A 15 second slog from the bottom of the slope to the dark metal mass.   Four tires stuck up like the paws of some woodland roadkill that just made it into the ditch.   Smoke came off the warm car and hung, uncertain of whether to leave or stay.

Cold, wet steel at the back of the car, but warmer as he felt toward the engine end.   By now the rain had soaked his hair and he had to rub the water from his eyes to bend over and peer beneath the superstructure.   Between the night and the rain and the shadow from the ravine and the opaquity of shattered auto glass he could see only the dull, dying dash lights.

He got down on his hands and knees.    This must be the driver’s side door, at the rear.   Think:  down is up.   Down.   The window is shattered in the wet weeds.   His heart raced.   He couldn’t even into the car at all and when he called “hello? hello? ” there was no answer.   A voice from the road:   “Are you O.K.?”

“I’m fine — I’m still looking.”

Past the glass, toward the place where the driver’s window had to be, but he couldn’t tell what was roadside trash and what was significant among all the cold, slimy papers and sharp metal.   He slowly and carefully tried to define shapes by feel.   When he put his right hand on the bare, warm flesh he jerked back and caught his breath.   It felt, just for a second, ill-mannered.

Quickly now, with both hands now, he patted his way in both directions: to the right – – a belt, jeans, metal. My God, the car is on him. To the left – – up the body – – the bare skin of his flank, shirt, shoulder, back of head – – both hands feeling short hair, the face is in the mud – – find a pulse. Is he breathing? He’s face down and the car is on him. How am I going to resuscitate him?  There’s the neck, warm but not very warm, and he slowed his fingers down to search with one hand for the carotid artery just inside the front neck muscle. With the other hand he went around the ear and the face was turned that way because there was his nose… no pulse at the neck. He left his hand at the nose and mouth waiting for the cool pass of air.  With the other hand he felt the back for any movement in the rib cage.

He froze, and tried to calm.   Hard to feel breath or pulse when your own is so strong.    He waited for three or four of his own breaths without moving, his own face down in the dark grass as close to the other face as he could get, listening.  A car slowed up above, and then voices, but nothing else but the low rustle of the light rain in the underbrush.   He wiggled his own fingers slowly, gently brushing the tips around the man’s nostrils and lips, as if to convince himself this really was a face.

Nothing.  Quickly again, with both hands again,   he searched all over for every pulse he could think of.   The clothes were wet in spots but still mostly dry.   A shoulder.  Out the arm  it had unnatural twists and turns.   Find the other.   Out to the wrist, to the thumb, and then on that side for a radial pulse,   sliding inside a clammy sleeve.   Adjust the fingertips.   No pulse.

This guy is dead.

The state trooper, like every one he had ever met, was as polite as a zen master.   The cop tired of the details before Tim tired of telling them.  There were a few questions, in tight logical order.   Then he took down Tim’s  name, address, and phone number and, for once, smiled:
“Thanks.  We’ll be in touch if we need you again.  You folks drive carefully, now.”

They never called.    He never heard the dead man’s name.

To Isaac, On Your Baptism Day, October 7, 2012.

To Isaac, on your baptism day, October 7, 2012.

Isaac, Hear the words of your father.

All these dear ones, your mother and I – we can never be prouder of you, since today you said, to all the world, that Jesus is your King.

Baptism doesn’t forgive your sins. Jesus did that when you trusted Him. But He gave us baptism as a picture of His death and resurrection, and all pictures connect mysteriously to what they picture. We don’t know how this works, but we know it is true. So in this picture, somehow, you were buried with Jesus and raised with Him in new life. Hallelujah. The stone table is cracked, the law worked backward and killed the witch, the one ring is dropped into the fire of Doom. The sword is pulled from the stone and the grail is found. The princess has been kissed and the dragon has been tamed. The labrador retriever has turned sane. The corpse of the Lion is missing, for He is not here, He has risen.

And you, Isaac, are in Him, like a tender branch in a great tree.

There will be dark days. Long in the future, I hope, when most of these dear ones have gone into that silent cloud of witnesses, you may feel alone. You may even feel like Jesus is far away. It may not always feel like you are in Him, but you always will be.

Take this golden cross, placed around your neck now with your mother’s kiss, as a picture of your baptism. Let it be a picture to you that you were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

It’s real gold, it’s not just a trinket. Your mother and I wanted to give you something worth treasuring the rest of your life, because this day is as important to us as any of your birthdays.

Let this be a picture to you when days are dark that He bought you with His blood, that He, the Great King, said He would be with you till the end. Touch this cross, and remind yourself that you belong to Him.

There will be dark days. Soon, I fear, you’ll feel that you’ve failed Him. Touch this cross, turn away from yourself. Tell Him freely how you failed, take His forgiveness in, and be at peace.

There will be dark days when you’ll be tempted to betray Him, like Edmund betrayed Aslan, and your mother and I will not always be here to encourage you. But your baptism will stay with you forever and will whisper to you that in Christ an old Isaac died, and in Christ the real Isaac lives. Timothy Isaac Smith, Jesus is your King, and He is stronger than Aragorn the heir, nobler than Theoden of the horse-lords, braver than Peter of Narnia.

You are baptized into this King of kings. Live in Him forever.

The word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

Vanity, All is Vanity.

At the age of 55 I have to admit how little I understand about God or the world. I have no idea what He wants me to do. I’ve been lucky enough to have fallen in, at various times, with almost any brand of believer or scoffer you can imagine. I’ve not been able to get convinced of anybody’s Version.

I’ve been reading the Bible all my life and my confidence that I understand it goes down with each passing year, not up. I’ve listened to all the theologians, preachers, pundits, bloggers, poets, and skeptics. My problem is not so much that I disbelieve them all as that I believe so many of them. They all have straightforward biblical statements to work with; they all have what they need to mitigate the rest. There’s a bunch of canons imbedded within the New Testament.

The skeptic’s sophomoric conclusion — “see, full of contradictions, therefore false” – doesn’t help, either. I don’t why a hypothetical God should be required to emit words that pass our coherence test. There’s a logical circle there that none of us can get off — the skeptic and believer alike weary me because they just wave opposite hands in the same act of self-hypnosis. That the universe should be a random occurrence makes no logical sense to me. The biblical picture of the universe also makes little logical sense to me.

I have no problem believing, as a matter of faith, that the Bible is the story of God’s redemptive work. But I’m only believing; I do not actually see a coherent body of thought represented by all the words in the New Testament. I don’t understand why it should take 500 page monographs to articulate, clarify, or debate the meaning of statements God ostensibly thought were clear enough in personal letters for simple and illiterate people to grasp. (And I’ve read, and even enjoyed, plenty of those monographs.)

I don’t understand why God has said nothing for 2,000 years.

I despair of people, including myself.  I despair of peoples’ ability to communicate with each other.  I listen to politics and shake my head in disgust.  The best and brightest minds treat each other like we teach our kindergardners not to treat each other, and it is normal.  I turn, to listen to Christians and they just bite one another,  like those who have no faith.  There is no visible love among those who say they are saved from darkness. All the words of the human chatter sound to me like cacophony in a vacuum; if God does not unify the attention of humanity by saying something, we are not capable of unity.  No hope.

It apparently is not enough that the Creator might have spoken in the past. We just kill each other over what it meant.  Revelation just furnishes one more causus belli, this one with the claim to ultimacy that justifies the slaughter we already wanted to indulge.

The unrelenting chatter circles back and back upon itself. We fight over every shard of wealth. We fight over the fight. We fight over the schemas of salvation from the fight.

The one thing I am absolutely sure of, empirically sure of, as sure of as I am of this keyboard’s materiality, is that the biblical description of man is accurate down to the jot and tittle. The heart is desperately, desperately, desperately wicked.   And full of  striving after wind, and, in the end, tired.  

Why we write memoirs

It’s not just that I want you to hear my memories.   We’ve all had that experience when we were young, that boredom as the old ones tell us the same stories for the hundredth time.   I felt it with my father.   At some point you will cross the tipping point, where you will realize one day you are actually interested in the old stories.   You may be decades from that moment.   That’s ok.

It’s not exactly a need to transmit memories.  It’s not a cognitive or didactic task the old one feels, though most of them interpret it that way.  No;  I don’t want to teach you any lessons from my childhood; there are none.   I don’t want you to appreciate how much easier you have things than I did, or my father did.   That’s actually seldom true; most people have great struggles.   You are, you will.

It’s not dying memories, it’s a dying vision.   When I slow the car down on Miller’s Fork road to peer back under the sumac, I really do see less than my father saw.

Petercave Road

Most Americans think West Virginia is the middle of nowhere.   Most West Virginians, if they even know of the town of Wayne,  think it is the middle of nowhere.   Not quite in the mountains, not quite in the Ohio Valley, not quite this or that.   The people of Wayne, if they even recognize the name,  think Petercave Road wanders out of town to the middle of nowhere.    Out there, deep in those layers of nowhere,  my mother was once a girl.   It’s where she’s buried, within a walk from the house where she was born.

Drive the two lane hardtop out of town, past the funeral home, and up into the hills.   Miles out,  it sends a one-lane gravel spur off to the right.  There was never a roadsign there,  you can’t see the words “Petercave Road” anywhere.   If you needed a sign, you should be somewhere else.  You’d never make that turn unless you were looking for family.   The gravel road crosses the railroad,  then sets a stone arched bridge over the creek, and then disappears deeper yet beyond the hill.   It’s gravel or dirt from here to where the road ends in the creek.

As you drive it, you must imagine us walking it in summer,  mom and uncles and cousins and me and my siblings,  40 or more summers ago.    She’d talk about her girlhood, another 40 years further back, or she’d sing “que, sera, sera” – “whatever will be, will be”.   She’d lean across the ditch toward the hillside, into the sassafras, and come back out with the tender sprig and show me the parts to chew.    If you had been on that walk, you’d now pay attention to what overhangs a road, and what is back there in the shade.   You’d remember there is some story of hers about this wideness in the ditch, but you’d forgot the details.

This roadside is special to me, of course, because the physical spot feels thick.  And what is buried under the visual surface is of me.   No-one else, driving this road, would ever be aware of the thickness.    So, then,  everywhere is thick,  every bend in every nowhere road, every clearing in all the nowhere woods.   And almost all of the thickness is invisible to any one of us.   Every thicket has stories upon stories composting in the undergrowth.   The writers of the world are always trying to salvage them.   I’m torn over this; I imagine myself knowing them all,  seeing all the thickness around me, and I feel sick to my stomach with grief.

I imagine myself knowing them all then I remember that God does know them all, and I think it positively breaks Him, this curse of knowing all the stories.   The preachers talk about His omniscience as if that is something to shout and sing about, but it sounds to me like suffering.   Jesus asked His hapless followers how the Messiah could possibly not have to suffer…I suppose He was talking about prophetic texts there, but He could have made the same argument just from the fig trees overhanging the road.

Continue reading “Petercave Road”

And Isaac Rustled Like the Wind

Barbara and I walked in the park after dark, hand in hand. The gravel paths shimmered from the moon, and the moon’s twin floated in the flat creek. The voices of other walkers were muffled by the warm air.

The trees stood stories high in a slight wind. Long after we might have eased our hands apart to walk quicker we slowed still more and held hands tighter. I thought of Loran Helm saying: “in the Kingdom, when you feel like things are too slow, slow down.” The night felt easy in our hands and it was easy to talk.

Some summer nights say “Don’t think about the trees or the moon. Talk about small things known only to the two of you. Talk about secrets.”

Later, as we lay together at midnight, I whispered those words in her ear, and she pulled my hand down to feel the baby just then rustle like the night wind behind her belly button.

At dusk I don’t know how to live these days. What do summer nights leave behind that is permanent? All my life I’ve seen aging people hope their children will be their legacy, and I’ve pitied them, for children are so often disappointing.  The pressure of concern about a  legacy can stomp the mustard seeds from which all treasures bloom.  Slow down, slow down, feel the baby shift so slightly toward the great wide world.

There can be children and poetry on the same summer night, spoken in the same tongue.