My writing has been sporadic for the last six months, not because I have nothing to say, but because I felt no was listening. The more I hear blatant lies coming out of the people responsible for leading this country out of the wilderness, the deeper the ideological divide among Americans. This divide is calculated and purposeful. As evil plots go, it’s working flawlessly. There would be beauty in its simplicity were it not for the toxic cesspool left behind. This country has been driven into an ideological ditch and no one appreciates who’s been doing the driving.
Literally, no matter where I’ve gone of late, my ears have been regaled with stories of how Barry Obummer and the ‘Dumbocrat” party have destroyed freedom as we know it and the Republic is in eminent danger of falling unless he is taken down by any means. The effort it has taken me to debunk those false beliefs has not resulted in even breaking a sweat. In the end, it’s not how badly the lie is told, but the persistence with which the lie is told making them so effective. We are a country with real problems that require serious people to resolve them but Congress and state legislatures look more like a clown car than a haven for solutions. Case in point: the Texas Senate.
Governor Rick Perry and Texas Republicans love life so much, they’ve called several special sessions to stop abortion and those murderous women who commit them. We’re not supposed to notice that within 24 hours of the infamous filibuster by Wendy Davis, the procedural stalling by Senate Democrats and raucous protesters in the gallery defeating their mission, Governor Perry did nothing to stop the 500th execution of a death row prisoner since 1982. Texas Republicans base their objection to abortion primarily on their religious beliefs rooted in the Commandment that says “Thou Shalt Not Kill” but it never seems to apply to them.
My neighbor, Cletus T. Gunhumper waxes poetic about the “nigger thug” in Florida that got what he deserved when Mr. Zimmerman was merely ‘standing his ground’. Doesn’t matter that Trayvon Martin was running away from George Zimmerman, that he was unarmed or that he was committing no crime when Zimmerman decided he didn’t like the looks of this kid. If I point out those inconvenient facts to Cletus, he whines that white kids get shot every day, but let one black thug get shot, and ‘you Lib’ruls go apeshit”. Now, I don’t actually watch Fox News, but this was a pretty fair indication that their coverage of the Newtown murders was thin to non-existent. Couldn’t be that Cletus just loves his guns and hates black people. Naaaah.
Pick a news story, any news story, and this is the type of chasm that exists. It explains in large part why I ditched my satellite television service and am cultivating my news from other sources. The voices from both sides are becoming more shrill and therefor less cogent and I have a problem with that. Turning off the television was a means of quieting the fighting forces in my head, though it’s only marginally better through other outlets.
This last Friday afternoon came and I had an errand I absolutely had to run. I was grateful for it because I’d been having a morning of these conversations, none of which had gone well and my faith in the human race was in the toilet. So off I went across the countryside. Mission accomplished, a conscious decision was made to drive back more slowly and drink in the beauty around me. The Midwest may not be the most visually breathtaking when compared to mountains and oceans and jaw-dropping canyons, but there is a quiet beauty to endless fields of corn and soybeans blowing in the wind. The landscape is neatly divided by a maze of gravel roads that take you past farms and fields and pastures and animals and an appreciation of the very hard work that it takes to make all that happen. Off in the distance I could see a dilapidated vine covered shack looking long abandoned. I love taking photos of quiet scenes like this, so I detoured down a remote country road. One could not help but be immediately struck by the orange lilies that grow wild along the roadside ditches – not just a lily here or there – they carpet the roadsides, sometimes for miles at a stretch. I had no more than gotten off my first shot with the camera, when I heard footsteps crunching on the gravel behind me. I turned to peer into the steely, bright blue eyes of a very old man with a darkly tanned and deeply lined smiling face. “Ya’ like it?” he asked. “It has character”, I replied, “like you.” My honesty was rewarded with a broad toothless grin that made him seem somehow beautiful. Having been so fixated on the shack, I hadn’t noticed my car had stopped in front of his tiny farm house with an overgrown lawn that consisted more of weeds than grass. A rusted wagon wheel leaned against the post of a mailbox that bored teens had long ago shot up. The paint on the porch had peeled away, but the old yellow dog sleeping peacefully on the stoop didn’t care. Hung from the branches of a pine tree, were clear glass jars, some empty and some filled with snow white candles. The front of his house reflected the same combination of homeliness and beauty I recognized in him. The slight breeze that made the jars in the trees sway gently in the wind revealed that bathing was only an occasional reference in his routine, though at the moment I didn’t seem to mind.
The old man watched with mild amusement as I continued to photograph the shack and the flowers and the long road before us. Satisfied I had gotten what I came for, I turned my attention to him. Looking down at his worn out boots I heard him murmur, “You seem ta’ notice what’s important.” “What do you mean?” I asked. And with that, he gently took my hand and guided me to the edge of the road, inviting me to sit beside him. My companion cleared his throat, leaned on his cane and began to speak in a calm clear voice with the familiar cadence of a man who had seen many things over many, many years. I can only tell you what he said in precisely the way he said it to me – because to ‘clean it up’ wouldn’t honor the simplicity of his message and I owe him so much more than that. So, here goes:
“I said you seemed ta’ notice what’s important, child. You see, I don’t think I can count 2 or 3 strange cars a month go by here. If they do, they’s lost and none of ‘em stop here. You stopped. On purpose. An’ that says you’re a lady who’s looking fer somethin’. You stopped when you found it. Lookin’ at it for a minute wasn’t enough fer you, so you took out that fancy camera there so you could take a little bit of it with ya’. That house over there was where my wife ‘n I lived after we got married and that must’a been ‘bout nineteen and fitty one or so. Wasn’t much then, but it was sturdy and it was home. You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I wasn’t half bad lookin’ back then and Millie, my wife, she was a pretty little thing. We had a boy and he died over in Vi-et Nam (stress on the Nam). Millie’d always been what you call ‘frail’ and when we lost our boy, she pretty much give up on livin’ and died not too long after’n our boy. Ah couldn’t live there no more. Too many mem’ries of what was, so I moved into the old house here across the road and been here ever since. Never could seem to move away from lookin’ at that though. Ever’thing that was good ‘n happy ‘n kind about this old world was right over there and yore the first person who ever thought enough of it to stop ‘n give it a long look or take a pitcher. Sump’n in you saw sump’n worth seein’ over there ‘n the way I figger it, yore the person I been a’ waitin’ to talk to.”
Afraid to say anything, I reflexively reached over and gently placed my hand over the leathery skin leaning on the cane. I gazed at his ancient profile but he just stared ahead at the old shack and continued speaking as though I wasn’t there.
“Ever’body told me to just get rid of it and move on, but ah couldn’t. Would’a been like settin’ a match to mah world ‘n I couldn’t do it. Lookin’ at it from a distance seemed just ‘bout right. Close enough to mah good life ‘n far enough away from the bad. Farmed that plot ‘a land near on fifty more years ‘til mah author-I-tis got sa’ bad wasn’t safe no more. Now that Murray feller down the road grazes his cows over there and that’s ‘nough for me to get by. As long as I’n still look out my door ‘n see Millie’s Place I don’ need much more’n ‘at.
I’as madder’n hell at the gub’mint for a long, long time. Got even madder when Millie give up on life ‘n left me to go take care of our boy in Heaven. Was only when one of his Army buddies from Vi-et Nam come to visit right after Millie’s goin’ Home ‘n told me how he had to come ‘cause a what mah boy had told him ‘bout the farm.” He laughed a sad laugh, looked at me and said, “Kin you ‘magine nat? A New York City boy come all the way to Missouri to look at a patch a ground! Ah’l never forget him standin’ on that porch there bahind us, lookin’ over’t what we’re lookin’ at right now and talkin’ ‘bout how mah boy was right. ‘Bout how this was a piece a Heaven on earth. I ‘spect that’n ‘bout when ah stopped bein’ so mad ‘n started bein’ so grateful fer knowin’ what it meant to be loved by a good woman and have such a good boy. Realized right then ‘at most fellers ain’t ever so lucky to git twenty years a that kinda happiness. ‘At’s when ah decided ta change.
Now, I got me a teevee ‘n I see all the nonsense goin’ on in the worl’. Folk’r fussin’ over a bunch a silliness, if’n ya’ ask me. I cain’t figger how some folks is so worried ‘bout fellers who love other fellers thinkin’ it makes a damn bit a difference ‘bout how they live. Them fellers lovin’ each other don’t make nothin’ different ‘bout me ‘n Millie. Not sayin’ I git it, just know it ain’t changin’ nothin’ ‘bout me ‘n Millie, so the way I figger it, don’ make me no never mind.
An’ them fellers worryin’ ‘bout you gals wantin’ to have babies or not have babies is somewhere ‘tween stupid ‘n wrong. Women been findin’ theirselves in a family way when they didn’t wanna be in a family way since the Good Lord made this here patch a dirt, and they was men ‘at got ‘em that a way. Since men ain’t never the ones got ta carry them babies and don’t wanna be takin’ care a them there babies, I don’t see’s how it’s much ah their bidness. ‘N makin’ it ‘ginst the law ain’t gonna make them woman stop trying not to have babies when they shouldn’t have babies, so the way I figger it, they’s just bein’ mean to ya’ll.
An’ that there Bay-rock O’Bamma who become our President, I don’t git why so many people is all up in arms ‘bout that. He seems like a nice ‘nuff feller. Anybody who says they’s mad at him fer any other thing other’n him bein’ a negro’s jest lyin’. That sum’bitch Nixon… oh, pard’n mah French Missy, but that sum’bitch Nixon was jus’ pure evil ‘n that there Bay-rock O’Bamma ain’t nothin’ like that sum’bitch Nixon, pardon mah French. Bay-rock O’Bamma cain’t help bein’ a negro but Nixon di’nt haf ta be such a sum’bitch. Way I figger it is he’s the one who killed mah boy, not some feller over in Vi-et Nam who di’nt wanna be fightin’ no boy from a farm in Missouri where his mama ‘n his daddy needed him more. ‘At’s the way ah see it.
When’d people gettin’ so worried ‘bout what other people do if’n they not hurtin’ nobody else no way? When’d people get so gosh-dern mean?”
I peered deeply into those steely blue eyes, those ancient eyes looking to me for an answer. “I think people became so mean when they forgot that not everyone was their enemy. People changed when they were convinced that what they have has more value than who they love. There are people out there who use the Bible to convince themselves that God loves them but not the other guy, not realizing that we all fall short according to The Good Book. I stopped believing in God a long time ago because no God of love would let the world look the way it does today and people who use their God as a weapon only convince me that I’m a better and kinder person without their God. I think Jesus was an okay character, but people who claim to follow Him only follow the parts that justify their hatred toward people who are different from them instead of following the parts that command them to love. They aren’t satisfied with leaving all the smiting stuff to their Lord. I think when they remember to open the Bible instead of just beat the rest of us with it, they might learn what Jesus really said and start living by it. They might stop judging people who look different and talk different and believe different things. At least, that’s what I hope for.”
The hot tears began to fall, in spite of my efforts to stop them. “And I think if people could be sitting right here, on this spot, looking at the love that still remains in that falling down shack across the road, seeing Millie’s house and everything the two of you made there, they’d find it a lot harder to hate. If they could see the carpet of orange lilies that go for miles and miles and miles, they might stop thinking about the ugliness in the world. They might appreciate a little of the beauty in it that grows wild and free. I think people have gotten lazy and stopped thinking for themselves, letting the man on the television tell them what to think. I think their brains are rotting and that rot is what is keeping them prisoners of the things they’ve been told to believe. That’s what I think.”
He reached his dirty, leathered hand up to my cheek and wiped away my tears and I didn’t mind a bit. The toothless grin returned and he softly said, “You don’ hafta’ believe in mah God fer me to think He sent ya’ to me. ‘N let me tell ya’ ‘bout them there flowers you takin’ a shine to… If you’s ‘ta dig under the dirt, you’d see the roots ah them flowers is all one. That flower I’mma pointin’ to right there’s sharin’ the same root’s ah them flowers a mile down the road. Ever’ once in a while, I see somebody stop’n try to dig some of ‘em up to take home fer they’s garden, but to do it, they have to chop out the roots ah some ah the ones next to ‘em. The ones left ain’t as strong as they was when they’s left alone ‘n they wilt fer a while, but the rains come n’ the dirt covers ‘em back up ‘n they come back the next year just as purty as ever. Them people who hate them fellers who love other fellers ‘n are mean to you girls who shouldn’t be havin’ them babies and them people who hate Bay-rock O’Bamma caus’n he’s a negro ‘r like them people who come ‘n cut out the roots ah them purty flowers. It hurts the whole thing that shares the roots but the rains come an’ the dirt covers ‘em back up and they come back. It’ll all come back. What them people took don’t even live to see the next season neither. But the roots ah these here purty flowers, they’s hurt fer a while, but they come back. Don’t you ferget that, Missy. It’ll come back. You come here and take a pitcher a’ them flowers, you don’t cut the roots. That’s what makes you diff’ernt. Don’t ferget that.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, I leaned over and wrapped my arms around the old man and I hugged him, mostly because at that moment, I felt we both needed it. And before I knew it, he had released his grip on his cane, wrapped both arms around me and hugged me back. And in my ear I heard him whisper, “‘An them tears you’s cryin’ is like rain on the roots. It help ‘em heal an’ come back real purty.”
And that’s how I came to meet The Man on The Road Less Traveled. My faith in humanity was restored there, because like me, he was broken, but our roots are interconnected and strong. He was kind and wise and it was like medicine for my soul.