Try Getting a Little Lost

Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” is part personal memoir, part history lesson, and part perceptive reflection, which those of you who are familiar with her work know she does very well.

“The word lost,” she says, “comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” As is often the case when I’m reading her work, that stopped me cold, and in this case set me thinking of the people and organizations and informal groups that I know of who never lay down their arms, who in some cases are positively spoiling for a fight about their favorite issue. It would be beneficial, I think, if we all occasionally considered the possibility that what we know about an issue is not everything, or even every important thing.

Early in the book she tells of an incident at Passover when she was eight and ended up in a chair next to the one left empty to welcome the prophet Elijah. Mistakenly picking up his cup of wine instead of her own cup of juice, she got drunk for the first time in her life. The significance of the empty chair is the point, of course, and the practice of leaving the door open for the arrival of the prophet. I was not raised in the Jewish faith, but in the Christian, and we were taught differently, but maybe not all that differently. Maybe the important thing for all of us, Jew or Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or secular humanist, is not when Elijah or Jesus comes, or indeed if he comes at all, but whether or not the door is open. Something to think about in this time of walls and locked doors and jail visits that provide video contact from separate rooms instead of face-to-face, eliminating any possibility of a friendly or healing touch.

I posted a few days ago about being out on my back deck early one morning listening to the birds singing and realizing that what they were doing was delineating territory, and if I tried to navigate that landscape (or airspace) I would be completely lost. I was not far enough along in “Field Guide” at that time to know that there have been groups of people that navigated by song. The Chemehuevi of the American Southwest did, and the songs mentioned places in geographical order. “How does that song go?”  meant what route does it travel, and an inherited song gave you hunting rights to the terrain it described. It turns out songs are useful in ways I never imagined.

We share the same terrain, but each of our lives traces its own map. The person ahead of me in line at the market maps the Knoxville area in a different way than I do, and might very well be lost or at least confused in places where I am very comfortable. Certainly the reverse is also true. What gives rise to conflict, but also to the possibility of shared insight, is in the area of overlapping maps, and our stories are contained in each other to a greater degree than most of us realize. And as Ms. Solnit says, our individual stories are like Russian nesting dolls, contained in larger and larger stories.

Toward the end of the book she relates the story of the Turtle Man, who traveled the streets of San Fransisco selling boxes of candy shaped like little turtles. He would go from place to place, selling a box here, two boxes there. The intriguing fact about the Turtle Man was that he was blind. When he came to a barrier of some kind, an intersection for example, he would stop and begin calling for help. He did this until someone came to him and helped him navigate the barrier, at which time he would resume his journey.

The message of the story is that it’s okay to be a little bit like the Turtle Man, to realize that life is mysterious and uncertain and that sometimes we need to call out for help. Sometimes we can receive help and other times we can provide it, and when we do those things, the world becomes a very different place, a more generous place, and in that world maybe we can begin to disband our armies. 

Lost in Birdsong

To the east the sky is white through the trees, the sun still just behind the mountain. I’m out on the back deck, my cup of tea is hot, the air is barely moving, and the birds are going at it, staking claims and laying out boundaries that I can’t begin to recognize, much less navigate.

I’m reminded of a phrase from “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” by Rebecca Solnit, that getting lost means “. . . the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.” I like that take on getting lost a lot, and it seems to me that we could all use a touch of that now and then. I know I need it, the reminder that there are fields and areas and layers that I’m not even dimly aware of, that might at any time offer me a glimpse. I look forward to that unanticipated widening or deepening of my world. Keeps things interesting, and makes it easier to stay open to the next surprise. 

Equivalent Insults

Half a dozen of us were in the AGT tent at the Lenoir City Crafts Festival today when a man came up to our front table.

He was a large man and had an American flag on a dowel, maybe stuck through his belt, maybe carried in his hand. I’m not sure.

I was seated toward the back of the area and didn’t pay much attention until I heard him say, “That’s a racist book.” 

He repeated it, pointing to one of the books on display that had the word redneck in the title. “You wouldn’t use the n-word in that title, would you? No, you wouldn’t. No, you wouldn’t.”

He continued, “I’m done with you.” His glance swept the area. “I’m done with all of you.”

“Racist bigots,” he said, and walked away, repeating that phrase over and over.

During this the woman sitting at the table where the book was displayed did not say a word. Probably she was dumfounded, blindsided by this very angry man who came up to our table, labeled us all racist bigots, and then walked away.

To me it’s obvious that the words redneck and nigger are not equivalent insults; I can start or stop behaving like a redneck (although it might not be easy). I can’t change my DNA, any more than anyone else can. The fact that this man saw them as equivalent and expected us to accept his assertion of their equivalence is one issue, and not an insignificant one.

But not the most important, at least for me at this time in my life. Uppermost in my mind while I was sitting there was fear, wondering if this guy was getting ready to pull a gun. I’m coming up on ten years after the church shooting and still the gut reactions are there. Intellectually I know that what happened to us then was an aberration and is extremely unlikely to recur.

Emotionally that doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.

A Job Well Done

Suzanne just left for her last day at work for KCS. This week she’s been the recipient of “happy retirement” cards as well as gifts, accolades, and good wishes from co-workers and supervisors alike, which comes as no surprise to me. During the several decades I’ve known her, she has always put the kids first, done her work well and without dramatics or otherwise calling attention to herself, and consistently done more than what has been asked of her. In my opinion, the system won’t know the full extent of her contribution until a month or so into next school year, when she’s not around. I will admit to a certain bias, since we’ve been married for quite a few years now, but I don’t think I’m overstating when I talk about the quality of her work.

Those of us who have spent time in the field know the amount of time, energy, and commitment that are required to do even an adequate job. To do a superlative job is rare. She has certainly earned the right to relax, but I don’t expect her to do much sitting around. My guess is she’ll soon find a new way to make a contribution, unless the role of grandparent becomes too time-consuming.

Of course, it is also possible that she will discover things about the house and grounds that require significant attention, in which case this may be my last post for a while.

How we end up in the profession we do is sometimes a matter of tradition (like my friend who was born into a railroad family), sometimes an early decision (like a person who knows from grade school what she wants to do with her life), and sometimes a matter of chance. In my case, a right turn in a fork in a gravel road led to a more focused interest in music, which led indirectly to a job working with young people in a treatment facility, which led to a lifelong career. That first job was where I met Suzanne, which also turned out pretty well.

Congratulations, honey, for a job well done. 

Hesitating to Help

When I got to the church tonight for the regular rehearsal with the Old Time Band, the person who sits in the entry hall to direct folks to whatever room their meeting is in was sitting next to a young teenager, who was leaned over, elbows on his thighs, talking into a cell. “Momma, can you come and get me? Please?”

I went into the LCF room and set up my hammered dulcimer. I was the first one there. so I checked to see if I was out of tune (I wasn’t, fortunately), and came back out to get some water before everyone else arrived. He was still there, still on the phone. He handed it to the sexton, who started giving the address of the church, and then he looked up at me. “Can you take me home?”

I hesitated, and he returned to the phone. “There’s a guy here. If he’ll bring me home, will you pay him?”

Immediately regretting my hesitation, I said, “I don’t want your money. Where do you live?” He told me and then said, “You don’t have to take me all the way in if you don’t want to.” Where he lived was a public housing project, and I guess he was anticipating my probable reaction.

“Let me get my hat,” I said, and we went out into the parking lot. We were headed to the car and I said, “Do I need to know what’s going on here or do you just want a ride?”

“Just a ride,” he said.

We made small talk on the way there, about school and how he liked football and was trying to get a summer job, and when we arrived he directed me down a dead end street, saying, “You can just let me out at the end here.” When I stopped the car, he offered me his hand, said thanks, and was gone.

I’ve been thinking about this incident ever since. 

It saddens me that I felt that hesitation when I learned where he lived. And concerns me that he didn’t want to say what was going on, how he ended up at our church early this Monday evening.

It shouldn’t have been any kind of big deal at all, should have been just like I told him when I said I didn’t want any money. “We’re supposed to help each other out. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”

But there, standing in the church lobby, just for a moment what I was thinking was whether or not to help out a kid who needed a ride. Should have been a no-brainer, but it wasn’t.

Going Home (Or Just Passing Through)

Yesterday I called my mother and told her I’d probably come down to see her for the Mother’s Day weekend on Saturday. She, of course, said come on anytime, so I baked a gift loaf of rosemary bread and started out about mid-morning today. 

I decided to make a detour and swing through Greenback, where I had lived for most of my youth and had gone to school from second grade through graduation, so I turned right at Maryville and headed down Morganton Road. It’s been a long time since I’ve made that trip.

The road used to cut through farms; now houses, churches, and subdivisions stretch almost all the way from Maryville to Greenback. The feel of the road was the same, but the view was completely different. I pulled up next to my grandmother’s old place, at the flashing yellow light, and then drove into town.

If my memory serves, fifty years ago there was a bank with a public library on the second floor, a farmer’s co-op, a post office, a grocery, a drug store, a small department store, and a gas station. I don’t remember the flashing yellow light, but there was a set of railroad tracks at the end of the business section, which was two blocks long. Today there is a bank (not the same one), a museum(!), a post office, a secondhand store, and the drug store. The railroad track is gone. I didn’t check on the co-op; back then it was on a side street. 

There was an empty slot in front of the museum, so I parked there and got out. As soon as I looked across the street to the post office I remembered the Wagon Train. Every year we would close off the main street and have a huge square dance the night before the horses and wagons made the trip to Glendale the next day. I went into the museum and had a quick look around, seeing lots of familiar names on the labels identifying the clothing, farm equipment, school and soldier memorabilia, newspaper headlines, and photographs. 

The drug store was barely recognizable; gone were the standing shelves in the center of the store, the book and magazine rack on the left, and the drugstore section in the back. It had been transformed into a diner. They had burgers and fries and wings and salads and stuff like that. But more importantly, they had fried honey buns with ice cream on top, just like fifty years ago. Now, on the menu, it’s listed as their signature item.

Later, on my way out of town, I found the new library location just past the turn to Lenoir City in a building that also houses the community center. It was closed. By two o’clock, about the time I made it to the family farm in Lenoir City, the drug store/diner and the museum would be closed, too. It was good that I came through town when I did. 

Mostly I was just passing through my old home town; I didn’t see anyone I recognized (which would have been surprising, given the passage of time) and as far as I know no one recognized me. For a couple of minutes, though, sitting at the counter, savoring that honey bun hot off the griddle with the ice cream melting over it, I was awash in memory.

Out in Public

I spent the day at an elementary school reading two of my books to groups of children:

One of the groups was arranging itself on the carpet in the library and a second grader looked up at me and said, “I Googled you.”  I must admit I was taken aback, and all I could manage was, “Oh, really?” Not exactly a snappy comeback.

I didn’t know that my voice would last; altogether there were 13 groups of children, and I read “The Box of Toys,” “Father and Sister Radish and the Rose-Colored Glasses,” or both, to each of them.

One little girl was wearing a tee shirt with a saying on the front I thought was amusing. When she looked my way I pointed at her and said, “Nice shirt.” She didn’t smile, just stared at me for a second and then dropped her eyes, and had such a look of sadness and resignation on her face that I thought, oh, boy, I know that look. I’ve seen it a thousand times in my career. What really struck me today was that during my professional life most of the young people I worked with had that look as a normal feature, and here, in this place, it stood out as unusual. I can’t help but wonder if I did the young people under my care a disservice by seeing that look as normal. Not that I could have fixed anything; I am under few delusions about how much power and influence I had. The fact that my view of normal life had ended up mirroring theirs is the real point here.

One of the teachers had her class write next chapters to “The Box of Toys” after they went back to their classroom to make space for the next group. I was given their efforts by the end of the day and spent a delightful hour or so going over them. They ranged from extensions of the central message of the book, that of generosity, to one student who took the idea to NASA and extended the notion to outer space, one who uncovered a scam on the part of one of the recipients, one who was clearly taken with the word “very,” one who got a real loaves and fishes thing going, and several other variations on their starting point, which was the ending of my story. It was a pleasure to read them.

The staff and administration of the school did a great job moving the children in and out of the library, maintaining order during the readings, and generally making me feel welcome. My thanks to them.

And to my friend Doug, who helped me with my presentations for the entire day and was great with the kids and as an active co-presenter, impressive considering we had not planned anything out in advance.

A Proposed Solution to Fake News

After careful reflection, I believe I have the solution to the epidemic of fake news ravaging our fair nation from all across the political and social spectrum. All prospective news releases, internet memes, headlines, etc. should be vetted by the teams in charge of evaluating the answers displayed and the subsequent questions posed on Jeopardy. As a long time viewer I feel certain that they would not dare risk the wrath of the faithful by getting even the smallest detail wrong and thus have the principles of accuracy so deeply ingrained that we could rest assured that we were receiving the real deal, the straight poop, the absolute unvarnished truth. 

It would, of course, slow down the news cycle to a noticeable degree, which I personally think would be a real plus. Also, if we were very lucky, we might have Mr. Trebeck, possibly the only public figure untouched by scandal, serve as Secretary of Truth, or at least put in an occasional appearance if the occasion demands a public statement. He is, after all, fluent in many accents, if not the languages themselves. 

And to those who would argue that the river of knowledge on Jeopardy is often a mile wide and an inch deep, I would agree, and point out that that is a vast improvement over what we are confronted with today.

Hot Tea and Vinyl

“Well you know, she still laughs with me

But she waits just a second too long.”

John Prine’s self-titled 1971 album was how I started my day this morning, and, as usual, I was struck by how very good a writer he is. Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore, Sam Stone, Hello in There, Paradise, Illegal Smile, Quiet Man, Donald and Lydia, Spanish Pipedream, Far From Me, Angel From Montgomery, and more. I mean, really. On one album.

Songwriting, like poetry, is a genre I have great respect for, largely because I can’t pull it off myself. In the best examples of both, the writer is trying to show us a little glimpse of truth and there is no waste. All the words, all the phrases matter. I have read paragraphs of prose and felt that same thing, that everything worked and every word was necessary. If I get a few of those over the course of a book, I think I’ve found a real gem. A songwriter, a poet, does nothing but that. It’s a rare and wonderful thing, a gift of that caliber. 

Art for the People

It’s raining this morning, which means that the art on Market Square is probably already gone, washed off the concrete. I would like to have been there to watch the pictures turn into rivulets and puddles of color as the portraits, landscapes, and fanciful scenes disappeared. Walking the Square this weekend was a wonder-full experience, watching artists of all ages at work and seeing what they brought to this year’s Chalk Walk.

Here are just a few images:


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What they brought included Pat Summitt, and Stephan Curry, and a pipe-smoking bear, and a little girl with a flower, and a woman’s face and hands pressed against a window, and a pond full of fish, and Rosetti’s muse, and a trombone player, and a toucan with a gigantic beak, and a woman’s face framed in dogwood blossoms, and dozens more, some whimsical, some serious, filling the Square and extending into Krutch Park. There was also an area marked off with more than a hundred small squares just for young children to let their imaginations go, and in many places not set aside for the Chalk Walk there was spontaneous art of all kinds, quick sketches and messages to no one and everyone.

The weather was perfect and the art was free, my favorite daughter and son-in-law were in town and joined us for a while, and Suzanne and I made it to Yassin’s Falafel House just before the lunch rush. All in all, Saturday was a very good day.

When I was a young man I took pleasure in making fun of Knoxville, with its moribund downtown area, uncontrolled sprawl to the west, and single-minded emphasis on college football. I feel differently now, partly because as I get older I see less and less purpose in passing judgment on most things, and partly because Knoxville is changing (as all cities do). Perhaps the most hopeful change I have seen is the making of art available to the people.

I have come to believe that art is essential to the life of a society; it helps define us, shows us beauty in both expected and unexpected places, pokes and prods us and makes us uncomfortable, and gives us a glimpse into things that only artists see clearly. One of the reasons that art can save a society from itself when it turns rigid and lifeless is that it cannot be contained. It can and sometimes has been driven underground, but the artist is always there, always offering us things that otherwise would escape our notice. While it is true that there are pompous, self-centered artists (as is some small part of every group I’ve ever been associated with), when they get it right, artists of all kinds – painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, and all the others – give us something no one else can. They show us what we need to see.

So when Knoxville does things like Chalk Walk, and WDVX’s Blue Plate Special, and the sculptures in Krutch Park and other places in the city, and Shakespeare on the Square, and the summer concert series, the city is doing more than entertaining us. It is feeding us.