In addition to the other insults of 2020, we lost Smooch. He was our little rescue Schnauzer. Boon companion. Sleeping buddy. Brought to us through tragedy, he gave us love and companionship with few requirements.
He died this summer. A lesion on his spine took his legs. He went quickly and with just a few hours of pain and confusion. It broke our hearts.
After a decent interval, we decided to find another dog. Not to replace Smooch, but to fill the hole in our hearts.
Karl appeared. Another rescue. Another Schnauzer. Maybe with a little hound or beagle mixed in. He weighs 36 pounds. Compared to Smooch’s 19 pounds, Karl is a load. Bigger and wider head. Bigger and wider butt. Big feet.
Unlike Smooch, who never wanted to be outside more than five minutes, Karl demands long, rambling walks in East Nashville four to five times a day. Smooch was always Ruby’s dog. He had bonded with Ruby as I filled out the paperwork to adopt him. From that first moment, he stayed by her side day and night. Karl is loving to both of us but he is, most assuredly, my dog.
I’ve always wanted a dog that sat at my feet while I worked or jumped in my lap for ear scratches. Karl is that dog. When I lie down to enjoy a football game, he snuggles between my legs and goes to sleep.
Karl also loves riding in the car. Karl Trips we call them. He bustles over into my lap and when he turns around his big butt blows the horn.
Karl cannot fill the hole in our hearts left by Smooch, but he is carving out his own place in our lives. A source of constant love and companionship. In these dire times, we could ask for nothing more.
We got him ten years ago today. His eyes were heavy, haunted and full of pain. He was so afraid. Steeling himself against the next horror. Then Ruby came into his life. I wanted a dog. She was less interested but got excited when we started looking.
Smooch bonded with her in the first moments and, for a decade now, he has been at her heel, by her side, in her lap and showered with love and attention. At first, he wouldn’t make a sound but slowly he found his voice which is now comprised of a wide variety of whines, grunts, groans and barks. He practically talks.
His eyes are now bright and beautiful. He is full of life. He greets us with excitement when we return home and, sometimes, when we have just briefly left the room.
We rescued him but, in many ways, he rescued us.
We went to a mosque today. The kindness of the people of Islam is unsurpassed.
We were guests and treated as family. We prayed with them. We ate with them. We sat quietly and shared stories of our hopes and dreams.
Wordless understandings were reached. We were at peace.
In sha Allah.
As a creature of the night, I have enjoyed a long and indiscreet love affair with the moon. I was reminded of that today when that orb briefly blocked the sun. I was also reminded of something I wrote for the woman who became my wife just a few days after I met her.
I have walked these streets
Day and Night
Night and Day
Alone but for that moon
I have seen that moon
And slender as
A wind-bent reed
I have walked with that moon
As my only companion
A shadow of light
And big and red and low
Even in daylight
Tonight that moon hung fat
Full of possibilities
And even love
You see that moon tonight?
Her voice hopeful
She had other questions
But the urgent one
Was about that moon
She spoke of that moon
Like it was a friend
I saw that moon
I walked with her
Down these hard city streets
Not alone at all
October 26, 2007
There have been times in my life when I felt strange. A stranger in a strange land. I felt this way a lot when I achieved consciousness in my middle teens. I loved my family and where I grew up but I felt disassociated, like I didn’t belong.
I have traveled around the world and have, on many occasions, felt the same way. Last week, due to circumstances beyond my control, I went to a mall. Not just any mall. It was the “big nice mall where the rich people go” in Nashville. From the moment I arrived, until I left with my newly installed cell phone battery some three hours later, I felt as if I were a voyeur from another time and place.
Going to a mall isn’t that strange to me. I’ve gone to malls since malls became a thing in my youth. I am, however, an early adapter to technology and have moved almost all of my shopping and bill-paying life to the online world. In the last several days, on several different occasions, I have thought of something I needed and with a few clicks of my mouse a vast yet invisible machine was galvanized to action and I shortly had the thing in hand. On the other end of the spectrum, my wife and I love patronizing local businesses and restaurants and cafes. They are, for the most part, authentic places run by authentic people in our neighborhood. We often make the conscious decision to patronize these businesses because we know it is good for our neighborhood and hour community.
I guess it has been a while since I wandered aimlessly around a mall because I was gobsmacked by the opulence of it … the vastness … the amazing beauty of it … chrome and glass and elegant wood and beautiful tiles. It was an afternoon of a weekday so I guess it should come as no surprise that there weren’t many people there, except in the restaurants and the phone store where my phone was undergoing emergency surgery. That probably contributed to my vague sense of unease.
I then understood why a recent report estimated that 20 to 25 percent of malls in America will close in the next 5 years. No wonder. The mall felt like a temple erected to the minor gods of consumption. But these minor gods have fallen out of favor. Now we worship the minor gods of convenience and efficiency. If I need blue jeans or shoes I don’t need them to be artfully arranged on a shelf crafted of the finest old growth timber hauled out of a rain forest in South America. I felt uncomfortable with the unapologetic sense of luxury, of exclusivity. There was also a sense of waste. A false sense of choice. I had a feeling that is just the opposite of the feeling I have when I walk into a little store or cafe and am greeted by name by the owner. It was nothing like the feeling I had while walking through Rome, or Florence, or Lianyungang, or Bangalore or any of the actual temples I have visited around the world.
The disruptions and upheavals in our world and our economy will continue and a New World will be born. Whether or not it will be a new and better New World will be up to us. Because all of this is being done by humans it will be imperfect. Some good. Some bad. I honestly don’t think anybody will miss the malls.
Snake In The Barn: The Lazy Man’s Way
Our family lived on a small farm in East Tennessee. We had a garden where we grew vegetables and we always raised a few calves to sell at the market and a cow for fresh milk.
My father built an electric fence around our property to keep the livestock from getting out. He put the controls for the electric fence in the top of the barn far enough up to keep kids and cows from getting tangled up in them. We also kept calves in the barn.
One day, a tree fell onto the electric fence. My father told me to go to the barn and turn off the electric fence so he could remove the tree and fix the fence.
I ran to the barn. Instead of going to get a ladder I decided to climb up the wall of the barn. I did this by putting my fingers in the spaces between the boards that made up the walls of the barn and pulling myself up until I could stand on the wooden cross pieces.
There were three small calves in the stall of the barn where the electric fence controls were located. They had made quite a mess in the floor of the barn. The dirt floor of the stall was a delightful combination of mud, cow manure, urine and hay. On a hot day the smell of ammonia would knock you down. The calves stood placidly in the muck watching me curiously as I climbed up the wall of the barn.
I put my feet on a board that ran sideways about halfway up the wall of the barn. I didn’t realize how far from the wall of the barn my father had put the electric fence control. To reach it, I had to put my left hand on top of the barn wall and lean way, way, way back. The first time I leaned back I couldn’t reach the control. So, I leaned back close to the barn wall, moved my left hand a little and leaned back out again. I had almost reached the switch for the electric fence when I felt something move by my left hand.
I pulled myself toward the barn wall and came face to face with the head of a large black snake. I had put my hand right by a snake that was making himself comfortable near the warm tin of the barn roof. The snake’s tongue flicked out near my nose. I was very afraid of snakes so I let go with my left hand and, before I knew it, I was lying on my back on the muddy barn floor with three calves looking down at me.
Those calves had seen a lot in their lives but they had never seen a boy come diving down from the roof. Those calves started running and bawling and bucking and kicking all around that stall. When I went outside the barn my dad and my brother and my sister saw that I was covered with mud and cow manure from the floor of the barn. They laughed and laughed and laughed. Years later a friend of mine said something that made me remember that day. It would have a taken me a little longer to go get a ladder and climb up there and flip that switch on the electric fence. I tried to save a few steps by climbing up the barn wall.
My friend said, “A lazy man will work himself to death.”
Where I grew up, newspapers arrived like urgent messages from the outside world. A local newspaper, the Kingsport Times-News, arrived daily and was taken apart and read in sections by the entire family. As a teen, because my parents aided and abetted my thirst for knowing, I discovered newspapers from New York and even London in the Kingsport Public Library. I devoured them and felt deprived when I could not get to them.
For a decade, I made a living writing and taking photographs for newspapers. Never mind I started when I was 14, my profession felt vital and real. I left that life behind long ago, helped along by a publisher who employed me but did not share my craving for the truth at any cost, but I’ve never lost the habit of reading several newspapers a day.
My strange little family and I are “between houses” right now and living in an apartment with 350 units, about 500 people. Four newspapers get delivered here, two of them are ours. (A third one comes in the mail from Shelbyville for the mother-in-law.) The plastic-wrapped papers lie against the front doors of the apartment, huddling together as if for warmth. The staff brings them inside. Half of the newspapers that get delivered here don’t get picked up. The staff keeps them for a few days and then they throw them away.
There are televisions everywhere. Always on, usually muted. I would like to think that people are reading their newspapers online but I doubt that is the case. Maybe they read a story or two that shows up in their social media feed. I wonder, do they know about the two humanitarian aid workers who were murdered and buried in a shallow grave in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week? Do they know about the judge who resigned in this city yesterday? Do they know how much money the President’s daughter and son-in-law are raking off the table while supposedly serving our country? Do they know there are American soldiers in the Middle East who have stayed behind, unwilling or unable to stop fighting an abandoned war? Are they aware of the epidemic of opioid abuse that is killing whole communities in rural America? Do they realize that a foreign power, our oldest and most reliable enemy, has its hooks deep in several of the President’s men? Do they understand how important those stories are and how they are connected? Do they realize most of the stories in their news feeds were created just for them and delivered there for a fee? No, they don’t know.
The greatest threat to our nation is not common criminals we call terrorists, it is chemically assisted, entertainment enabled ignorance.
It’s a strange new world, so far from where I began. I understand it, I live in it, but it does not live inside of me.
Releasing well-loved books into the wild
One of the best things my parents ever bought me was a $3 library card. I grew up in Mount Carmel, Tennessee and after I read all the books in the library there (it was a very, very small library) my Mom and Dad scraped together three precious dollars and let me get a card for the Kingsport, Tennessee library.
It was a magnificent place. A temple to reading. They would allow me to check out 12 books at a time. It was there I discovered that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were not the best books Mark Twain wrote. Not even close. I read them all, including Letters from the Earth, the book his estate would not allow to be published until all of his friends and family died. After plowing through Twain, I would find an author I liked, start with his or her first book, and read them all.
I didn’t know that in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, there was a young woman doing the same thing.
Long before we met we engaged in the same passions. We are readers. Challenging books. Travel books. Art histories. I read contemporary American fiction. She reads books about the great world religions and art history. We both take pleasure in reading. The sacred ceremonial art of it. A cup of coffee or tea. A cocktail or a glass of wine or port. A comfortable chair. Good light. On many mornings, long before we found each other, we would wake in empty beds with only the book we were reading the night before splayed out on the covers. Ravaged.
We were both farm-raised. These books have been our constant companions. Before we actually traveled the world, we traveled the universe in our own minds with books in our hands. She moved her library to college, Los Angeles and back and then to the home we share in Nashville. I moved my library to college, then to Nashville and from home to home to home there and finally to reside with her books.
Three years ago, we got married and combined our libraries. We didn’t go through the books then but, because we are moving, we decided to give away most of the books.
We read electronic books now, access quotes and do research online, listen to audio books. We both hate clutter. We kept about 200 books. Books we love. Family Bibles. The best Quran we had out of the multiple ones we had collected separately. Some classics. Thoughtful gifts from friends and family. We found two copies of several books we had both read before we met. I kept hardbacks by Hemingway, Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Ayn Rand and a few more authors. She kept books by her favorite writers and books that were particularly important to her.
Today, I took 580 of them to a place that buys and sells used books.
It occurs to me that because we have each other now, perhaps we are not as reliant on these silent companions as we once were. Maybe that’s why we were able to let them go. We didn’t discard them. We set them free.
Perhaps they will be a comfort to others. Those books need to go live out their lives as we will, in the company of good people, good books, good conversation and with the occasional glass of wine. We hope those books are loved by their new owners as we loved them and as we now love each other.
My people are from the rough and lovely mountains of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee. Up in those hollows, where you hail from matters. Who your people are is also of considerable import. Some of my ancestors were from a place called Fletcher Ridge.
One Sunday afternoon, my Dad and I decided to try to find Fletcher Ridge. In the days before Google mapped the world, finding a place was more difficult that hitting a button on your phone. There were few street signs and vast swaths of unmapped area.
Directions offered by store keeps and gas station attendants usually involved phrases like “that big oak” or “a big red barn set back from the road” or “Junior Johnson’s place” or “where that big Chestnut used to stand.” If you didn’t understand those directions then, truth is, you probably shouldn’t be up in the mountains to start with and you might want to go back home before somebody gets the idea you are from the federal government and decides to run you in a ditch, or worse.
We drove from Mount Carmel, through Kingsport and on through the known world. We passed through Gate City, then up the valley toward Nickelsville, then a quick right up Big Moccasin, then up, up, up into the mountains. Unmarked roads. Some paved. Some with shot gravel. Some plain dirt.
We went up and down ridges, into dark hollows and through vast stands of virgin timber. We did not find Fletcher Ridge. We were both disappointed. As I drove, I said to my Dad, “Well, it’s not like we are going to come around a corner and there’s going to be a big sign that says ‘Welcome to Fletcher Ridge.’
He agreed and we decided to head home and in that moment, in that exact instant, we came around a curve and there, up in a guy’s yard, was a homemade wooden sign.
I got on the brakes hard and pulled over. We were stunned to silence. Then we started laughing. Fletcher’s love to laugh. I got out and took some pictures. We admired the guy’s handiwork including the wooden dog he carved with its own sign – Bad Dog.
A photo of that sign and dog has been on the wall of my office for some 20 years. It doesn’t mean much these days, except to me and a handful of Fletchers, Owens, Blevins, Cortners, Herndons and Jesses.
Fletcher Ridge. Perhaps now it only exists in my imagination. A high place in the mountains. A place where the truth matters. A place where people keep their word. A place of honor and justice. A place where you are expected to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. A place where almost everybody can tell a good story, or play a guitar or sing a pretty good acapella version of Amazing Grace.
One day soon I’m going to go looking for Fletcher Ridge again. Maybe Google found it. Maybe my brother will go with me, or my Mom. Maybe we will take some ham biscuits with us and have lunch by a creek. Maybe we will find it. Maybe we won’t. It will make a good story either way.