My childhood best friend, Donna, and I spent most of our time on the high ridge that overlooked the little town of Lily. Atop this ridge was a clearing, enclosed on all four sides by thick woods. Spread out below us was the elementary school we attended, the winding Laurel River, the Lily Holiness Church, the Lily Baptist Church, Hoskins’ Grocery, the big sprawling nastiness of the coal mine. Also in our eye-range were about fifty homes, all of them populated by people were either kin to or knew well enough to consider them kin. We studied the homes, imagining what was going on inside each one. Often we guessed, plotting out elaborate soap operas for each household that were, in hindsight, most likely not too far from the truth. Or we lay back in the clover and watched for shapes in the clouds. More than once we were sure we had seen a UFO, and twice meteorites. Donna was prone to see falling stars in the dimming of the day, just as she was always able to spot a four-leafed clover without even having to look for one. Some people possess such talents naturally; they’re born that way.
Down in the woods on the far side of the ridge from our houses were the big woods. Here there lived stoic hickories and oaks, kind and good-natured dogwoods and redbuds, and comforting beech and poplar trees. There were also a thousand song birds, lots of squirrels, lizards, chipmunks, beetles, worms, centipedes, and all manners of little live things that went about their various jobs and joys and sadnesses without paying much attention at all to us.
Most of all there lived in those woods the little body of water known as God’s Creek, the good little stream that provided us with so many hours of entertainment. The creek’s banks were crowded with ivy and ferns and moss, all of which always seemed to be damp and cool, even on the hottest days. There were high banks in some places, a big pool bottomed with limestone that was perfect to sit in when we needed cooling off, a narrow stretch where we built a bridge, a wide place where we built a dam.
These woods were also occupied by various items of great curiosity. Often we found empty whisky bottles or crushed Budweiser cans, always situated close to where someone had built a little fire. There was the old hog lot that sat right in the middle of the forest, not far from where shoots of jonquils made their ways up through the brown leaves in the early spring. It took us a long time to figure out that this was an old house-seat, that people had actually lived here ages ago (probably fifty years before). We were children and therefore sure that the world really hadn’t existed much without us, despite what the Bible or the history books said. Best of all there were two Model T car-hulls in the forest, both riddled by bullet holes. We made up elaborate stories about these cars. They had belonged to Bonnie and Clyde. They had belonged to moonshiners. Perhaps there had been a road nearby and these cars had been in a fierce gun battle and had both plummeted off the road and into these woods, never to be found by search parties. The bodies had rotted away to nothing in the cabs of the cars.
We played with the cars, jumped the creek, waded, climbed trees, gathered rocks, collected leaves, dug for lost treasure, played Vietnam War, played Iran Hostages, played Olympics. We made up stories and told them to each other, spent long periods trying to read each other’s minds or having staring contests. Donna always won.
But most of all, amazingly, we were still.
I recall long bouts of lying up there on that ridge, listening to the wind moving down the field. Or sitting in the woods, listening to how simultaneously quiet and loud a place of trees can be. Below the silence there are the sounds that people forget about: birdcall, the creak of wood, scampering in leaves, the bubble of a spring that has popped up unnoticed. There is so much beauty that goes on in hiding. All the world is a secret.
Donna and I were strange little children. We were not what you would call normal, I suppose, which is why I grew up to be a writer, and Donna grew up to be a social worker. We both grew up to be what you might call artists. As I said, I’m a writer (and a musician) and Donna does the most artful thing of all in her job: she helps people, and often in very creative ways. Besides that, she’s a great painter and often her emails are better written than most short stories you’ll find in the New Yorker these days.
After those passages of stillness that we both found at some point in the day, we would eventually meet back up and talk. Looking back, it seems to me that our serious talks were most often about God, and religion. It’s easy to guess why: we were both Pentecostal children confused because we were actually feeling something of the spirit down there in the woods even though we felt pretty miserable in the church-house (maybe because we were going three or four times a week).
Donna, nine months my senior (a fact I hated then and am very pleased by nowadays), was years wiser than me. I once remember asking her if it was enough to just believe in God. Such a question bordered on blasphemy to my mind. After all, I was raised in a church that discouraged any sort of questioning of God and religion at all. But I swallowed hard and turned to her and said it: “Do you think that maybe that’s all it takes to get into Heaven, to just believe?”
Donna thought about it a long time, chewing on a piece of grass and looking concerned. “No,” she said, after much thought. “That’d be too easy. And life is never, ever easy.”
She was twelve at this time.
All of the above would lead one to believe that Donna and I were living blessed lives. Looking back on our childhoods, we can sometimes present it that way. But, like most people, our lives were complex, full of both joys and sorrows. I won’t speak for Donna here, but I can say that for myself, there was much in my young life that lay in contrast to the lazy days I spent up on the ridge. I was the son of a Vietnam vet who had not yet admitted to himself that he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. My mother’s brother had recently been murdered and this had marked my entire family—and me—forever, but was especially fresh when I was a child. I could go on. In short, the ridge, the trees, the sky, they were all balms that I needed, that I hadn’t been able find in the God that I was being told about in the Pentecostal church. But I was aware of something, some greater force than me—the feeling was undeniable—when I opened myself up to listen, to watch, to be still.
It took us a long while to figure out who we were, especially in the spiritual department. But we always knew that we were artists. And any kind of art is fostered by being still. By trees and creeks and skies, yes. By communities and stores and churches and schools, yes. But most of all by stillness.
This is something I am constantly trying to remind myself. We’re not a people who find it easy to be still. In fact, we’re taught that it’s downright bad to be still for even a minute. We always have to be working or watching or talking or moving.
When I was an even more naïve writer than I am today, back when I was in my early twenties, I attended the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky, where I met one of the all-time great writers, James Still, author of River of Earth, From the Mountain From the Valley, and many other treasures. Mr. Still was gruff in that charming way with which only very old men (he was in his early 90s at the time) can get away, but I knew that I had to be aggressive if I wanted to be a writer, so I asked him if he could tell me one thing to do that would make me a better writer, what would it be. He studied on this for a moment and never let his eyes light on my face, but directed his voice to me when he finally replied: “Discover something new everyday.”
Ten syllables. Four words. One sentence. Yet this simple collection of words changed my life. I still don’t ask questions unless I want to hear the answer, and that day I was prepared to take whatever advice Mr. Still offered. So, from that day forward, I did as told. I looked at the world through new eyes, challenging myself to discover something new every single day, to look at the world in a way that no one else had before, to study something: a person, a tree, an egg, a discarded gravel of chewing gum—no matter what, I would take in everything around me.
Naturally it was not possible to properly do this without learning how to be still. And the way to do that is to just make yourself stop.
The act of becoming still, of discovering something new everyday was given as advice to a writer. But I applied it to not only my life, but also to my writing. It is not too far off from one of my favorite Bible verses: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10). Whenever the preacher mentioned this verse—in between hacking yells about fire and brimstone—I didn’t get it. But when I’m looking at the world like a writer, like someone who has taken the time to pause for just long enough to see and hear and feel the world around me, I am able to see the beauty of this world, and of living, far better than the pain both those things possess.
In her beautiful book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes: “For me writing has always felt like praying…you feel that you are with someone.” (page 19). Obviously I could not agree more. In another favorite book of mine, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, her character Shug Avery says: “Everything wanna be loved. Us sing and dance, and holla just wanting to be loved. Look at them trees. Notice how the trees do everything people do to get attention... except walk?...Oh, yeah, this field feels like singing!”
It occurs to me that artists—writers, painters, musicians, anyone who observes and then creates because of the keen insights gained by their observations—all do what they do because they want to be loved, too. I don’t mean that they want widespread critical acclaim, or to be worshipped by throngs of adoring fans. I mean that many writers I know write as a way of prayer, as a way of thanks, as a way to become a child of God, in whatever shape that Being is for each person. I believe that many artists’ basic desire is to create something beautiful for the mere act of doing just that.
As a child, I was lucky to be among those singing fields, to see those trees doing everything they could to get noticed. I was lucky to have a friend like Donna, who allowed me to be still and was quiet with me as often as she was jabbering nonstop. I was lucky to be a child of the woods, where I learned about all the most important things. Listening, watching, feeling, those are the things that are of the most essential. Once we forget to do those things, we’ve lost ourselves.
So that is one of the responsibilities of the writer, to listen, to watch, to feel, and to remind the reader of the importance of doing the same. And in return, this writer arises from his desk every time feeling as if he has been to a good church. And those are hard to come by these days.