Truer Stories and a Better America

You know this story already: A young black man named Ahmaud Arbery went for a run in Brunswick, Georgia this past February, and two men chased him down and shot him in broad daylight. The white men weren’t arrested or charged with a crime until May, after a video of their crime went viral on the Internet.

You have already heard this story. You have heard stories like it, over and over again. And there are thousands more such stories in America’s history that you and I haven’t heard.

There’s another story I’ve been wondering about since I first heard about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and that’s the story those white men were telling themselves as they fetched their guns and chased down an unarmed man and shot him dead. What story did they believe themselves to be living in? What did they believe their role in that story to be? What was Ahmaud Arbery’s role in this story of theirs? I wonder if they were the heroes of their story, defending the Satilla Shores neighborhood from the shadowy evil incarnated in the black body of Ahmaud Arbery.

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The Leaf-Mould of the Mind: On Influence, Conscious and Unconscious

Speaking of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote,

 it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps.

I think of this remark whenever people ask writers about their “influences.” Writers aren’t always aware of their most important influences. Their answer will always be incomplete because they can only speak to their conscious influences–to the writers that they are trying to be influenced by, that they hopeto be influenced by. As Tolkien says, everything you observe, think, or read goes onto the compost heap that decomposes into a humus that ultimately nourishes new life. 

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The Man Who Planted Trees

My father-in-law died yesterday after a long and courageous fight with cancer. He was a man of remarkable imagination and vision, and his sanguine attitude toward long-term projects is an example to writers and to anyone else who might feel called to bite off more than they can chew. In his honor, here’s a piece I wrote about him a few years ago.

Until recently, my in-laws had a farm in South Georgia. When they bought the place, its charms weren’t altogether obvious to the casual observer. It was scrubby where it wasn’t planted in pines and swampy where it wasn’t scrubby. But my father-in-law made it the work of twenty years to beautify the place.

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The Stories We Live In

Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell makes the case that vague, abstract, usually Latinate language is an important tool in the dishonest politician’s tool-belt. 

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

If you’ve read more than two or three issues of The Habit, you are probably aware of my ongoing campaign against vague, abstract language. I agree with Orwell that fuzzy, imprecise language fosters the kind of fuzzy, imprecise thought that allows the worst kind of politician to flourish. 

But lately it has occurred to me that my exhortations to clear, concrete storytelling are incomplete. If storytelling is the most effective vehicle of truth (and I believe it is), it is also, and for the same reasons, the most effective vehicle of falsehood. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. True enough. But that doesn’t mean that all clear, concrete, specific language is sincere.

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In Which I Shape Young Minds

I once gave a class of creative writers an assignment that required them to write about their hometowns. There was some groaning, so I reminded them that while many of us tend to think of our hometowns as ordinary places not worth writing about, in truth there are no ordinary places, and every place, if you just pay attention, will give you more than enough to write about. I don’t remember specifically, but I probably quoted Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”

It wasn’t long before one of my students raised her hand: “But what if you’re from a place that actually is just a stereotypical little town?”

I thought on that one for a minute. Then, in a moment of pedagogical inspiration, I said, “Why don’t you tell us about your hometown, and we’ll tell you whether it’s stereotypical or not.”

“Okay,” my student said. “It’s a farm town in Montana. One stoplight. One high school. One Catholic church. One Protestant.”

I had to hand it to her; things were sounding pretty stereotypical so far. 

“Everybody rides around in muddy pickup trucks,” she said.

I started to sweat. Maybe this girl actually did grow up in a stereotypical Montana town.

“Let’s see…” she continued. “The tallest building in town is the grain elevator.”

I saw smirks on two or three of my students’ faces. Let’s see you talk your way out of this one, the smirks seemed to say. This felt like it was about to get out of hand.

“We do have traffic jams sometimes,” the Montanan said. 

I straightened up a little in my seat. “Yes? Go on…”

“When the train comes through on an auction day, I’ve seen as many as three cattle trucks backed up at the crossing near the sale barn.”

I slouched back down. Somebody snapped their gum and snickered.

“And at Christmas,” my student continued, “everybody goes to the grocery store to sing Christmas carols.” 

I straightened up again. The smirks dropped from every face, and all eyes turned to the Montanan. “Everybody goes to the grocery store to do what?” one of the other students asked. 

“You know, to sing Christmas carols. The whole town goes down to the grocery store, and there’s hot chocolate and hot cider. And we sing Christmas carols. Just like every other small town…Right?”

No, not right. Nobody in the class had ever heard of such a thing.

“Why don’t you tell us some more about your hometown?” I suggested, not gloating at all.

It soon came out that the students in this girl’s hometown often rode their horses to school (this was around 2013, mind you), and that it was the principal’s responsibility to take care of the horses during school hours. The student didn’t seem to have any idea there was anything unusual about this arrangement. 

I find it distasteful when a storyteller becomes the hero of his own story, so I should probably end the story here. Suffice it to say that everyone in my class learned a valuable lesson that day. And while it is true that all my students resisted the urge to stand on their desks and say “O Captain, my Captain,” I suspect it taxed all their reserves of restraint and self-discipline to do so.

In Which I Pay Attention

public computers

public computers

This is a re-post from five years ago. I’ve been thinking about the importance of paying attention, and this story came to mind…

A while back I was in the library checking my email on the public computers. The patrons of the library’s public computers constitute what may politely be called a cross-section of humanity. At my library, they don’t just let you sit at whichever computer you like. They assign you one, and it’s right next to the person who sat down just before you did. Which is to say, there isn’t any of that natural spacing of the discreet whereby two people in an elevator stand in the back corners and the third person stands in the middle right by the door. No, at the library computers you’re spang up against the next fellow. The fellow I was spang up against was managing his account at an online dating site. He was a white-haired, paunchy old boy with a long, straight nose that ran bulged off to the left just at the tip-end, putting me in mind of a train that derailed right before pulling into the station. Every half-minute or so, he chuckled at something some dating prospect or other had written in her profile, wagging his head each time and cutting his eyes over toward me. Clearly he hoped I would ask him what he was laughing about or otherwise engage him in conversation. I was determined not to. I was in a bit of a hurry–just trying to check my email and get out of there–and I wasn’t up to it anyway.

Soon my neighbor wandered away from the dating site and to a medical self-diagnosis site. He stopped chuckling and instead made little murmurs of interest–or maybe it was concern. I didn’t take the bait. I was locked on to that email. At last the man nudged me with his elbow. He pointed at his screen. “How would you pronounce that word?” he asked.

I looked at his screen. “Splanchnoptosis, I guess.” I went back to my email.

“Splanchnoptosis,” he repeated. “Prolapse or backward displacement of an organ in the abdomen.” He rubbed his ample belly. “I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ve got,” he said. I glanced in his direction and gave a quick, sympathetic nod, then looked off, hoping he would get the message.

The man turned his chair to face me. “You probably didn’t know that you can cure cancer with baking soda, did you?”

It finally occurred to me that whatever my email said, it wasn’t going to be nearly as interesting as the things this old boy had to say. I turned my chair too, and we were face to face.

“That’s right,” he said. “Some doctors in Italy taped pouches of baking soda under the armpits of women with breast cancer. Six weeks later, the tumors were gone. No surgery. No chemo. No radiation. I saw it on YouTube.” He crossed his arms triumphantly, as if he had been one of the Italian doctors who made the discovery. “It’s all about the pH levels.”

He extended a thick right hand in my direction. “I’m David,” he said.

I shook his hand. If I told him my name, I’m quite sure he didn’t hear it. He was off again. “But there’s no money in baking soda, is there? Where would the medical-industrial complex be if everybody was controlling their pH levels with baking soda and wasn’t getting cancer? What would the doctors do? You can’t make the mortgage on one of those doctor houses by selling baking powder, can you?”

David looked behind him as if to be sure nobody was eavesdropping, though he was speaking so excitedly now that I suppose everybody in the computer room could hear every word, unless they were wearing foam earplugs. He leaned in close. “You know who built all the hospitals, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“The Rockerfellers. That’s who. The same Rockerfellers that are in charge of everything else. You think that’s a coincidence, that the Rockerfellers built all those hospitals and the Rockerfellers are in charge of our health policy? You want to know why you didn’t know baking soda is the cure for cancer?” He snorted disdainfully. “Ask the Rockerfellers. Only they won’t tell you.”

David gestured toward the people who were lined up outside the computer room for early voting. “It’s like I told one of the women out there,” he said. “I said, ‘Do you really think you’re smart enough to vote? Do you think you can outwit the military-medical-industrial complex? Because that’s who runs things around here. Do you think you’re smarter than the Rockerfellers?'”

To think my natural inclination was to ignore this guy.

“But there’s no telling what women want, is there?” David said. I wasn’t sure if that was a rhetorical question. “I know what women want,” he said, “and I know how to give it to them.” He leaned in even closer than before assumed a confidential tone. “They just want somebody who will listen.”

The Origins of The Charlatan’s Boy


The other day my sister, a teacher, was trying to help a student fill out some form or other. The form asked for Date of Birth. The girl knew her birthday, but the idea of a birth date, a specific day of a specific year, had her baffled. “The day you were born,” my sister said, a little exasperated, “what year was that?”
The little girl was exasperated herself. She gave my sister a squint and, teeth clenched, said, “A little baby don’t know what year it is.”

When I sat down to write The Charlatan’s Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: “I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born.” Grady, the narrator, is grappling with the same epistemological dilemma that was troubling my sister’s student. Anything you think you know about your birth, your origins, is something you got second-hand. Somebody has to tell you where you came from and how you got here. Grady’s troubles stem from the fact that the one person he knows who might be able to tell him anything about his origins is a liar and a fraud.

The seed from which The Charlatan’s Boy grew was a story a friend told me some twenty years ago. His grandmother grew up in California to a Scots father and a German mother. She was pretty typical California girl, but there was one unusual thing about her: she dreamed of kangaroos. She had never seen one in her waking life. There were no kangaroos in the wilds of California, of course, and there was no zoo in her little town. Did she see them in books? Perhaps–except that the first time she saw a kangaroo in a book, she recognized it from her dreams.

When the girl had grown into a woman, she learned some secrets about herself. She wasn’t a California native. As it turned out, she was born in Australia. And her mother wasn’t her mother. The “mother” had been the girl’s nanny in Australia. When the little girl was only two or three, the nanny ran off her employer (a Scotsman who had immigrated to Australia with his wife), and they took the girl with them. They started over in California, telling the girl nothing about her origins. She dreamt of kangaroos because she had seen kangaroos in an earlier life she couldn’t remember.

That story fascinated me from the first day I heard it. The girl had a clue to her origins, but in the end she couldn’t really know where she came from unless somebody told her. Identity isn’t just something that comes from inside us. We get our names from somebody else. I pondered this business for many years, and eventually my ponderings became The Charlatan’s Boy.

Bonus Story: My grandfather, Abe Ross, Jr., used to say that his parents didn’t name him. They called him Abe Junior until he was old enough to talk, then they asked him what he wanted to be named. “Abe Junior’s fine,” the toddler said. “I’ve been answering to it all my life anyway.”

On Ash Wednesday


Recycling from a couple of years ago…
It’s Ash Wednesday. Yesterday my friend Father Thomas, an Anglican priest, burned the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes to rub on people’s foreheads today. “Remember that you are dust,” he will say to them, “and to dust you shall return.”

I didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I have to say, at this age it helps to be reminded that I am dust and returning to dust. It’s not just a help, but a comfort. This world is forever demanding that we take it as seriously as it takes itself, and it tempts us to take ourselves too seriously too. Ash Wednesday says, “No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.”

I love the prayer in the Anglican Ash Wednesday liturgy:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wickedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

I used to associate Ash Wednesday–when I considered it at all–with self-flagellation. But, as the apostle Paul said, it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance–the confidence that God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.

For all my ambivalence about T.S. Eliot, there are passages in his poem “Ash Wednesday” that I just love. The lines I love the most in that poem, the lines that most perfectly capture the spirit of the day, are these:

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

“I’m not worthy.” True enough. But not the truest thing. The Lord speaks truer things into being every day.

So happy Ash Wednesday, you old sinner. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. And God loves you anyway.

Wendell Berry and the Romanians: Story and Place, Part 1

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

At Hutchmoot 2011, Andrew Peterson and I hosted a session about story and place. This post is the first half of the talk I gave at that session. The second half, which concerns itself mostly with Flannery O’Connor and a little bit of Marilynne Robinson, will come in the not-too-distant future.
In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade tells the true story of a folklorist who schlepped around Romania collecting ballads and folk stories in the 1930s. He was especially taken by a ballad about a young shepherd who had the misfortune of having a mountain fairy fall in love with him. He was already betrothed to a village girl, however, and had no interest in the fairy. The fairy was insanely jealous, but the young man would not be moved; he loved his village girl and was determined to marry her. So the day before his wedding, the fairy pushed him off a cliff.

Shepherds from the village found him at the bottom of the ravine and carried his broken, lifeless body back to the village. When his fiancée saw them, she burst into a long, emotional lament full of mythological references reaching back before the beginnings of history, as if her sorrow were the oldest sorrow in the world. That lamentation forms the main body of the ballad.

Part of the folklorist’s job, of course, is to try to figure out where such stories and ballads come from. This one, the villagers told him, was very old, passed down for who knew how many generations. But the folklorist kept asking, and somebody remembered that the fiancée in the ballad—the one who sang the original lament—was still living in the next village up the road. So maybe it wasn’t as old as all that, the villagers agreed.

“Wait a minute,” I can picture the folklorist saying. “You’re saying that the whole thing with the mountain fairy happened just up the road?”

“That’s right.”

“And it happened recently enough that the fiancée in the story is still alive?”

“That’s right,” said the villagers. “She’s the one you ought to talk to if you want to know more about the ballad.”

So the folklorist did. He traveled to the next village and there he found a woman in her late fifties or early sixties who said, yes, she was the fiancée from the ballad.

“So what happened?” the folklorist asked.

“Well, it was about forty years ago,” the woman said. “I was engaged to be married, but the day before the wedding, my fiancé fell off a cliff and died.”

“Fell off a cliff?” the folklorist said. “You mean was pushed off a cliff? By a mountain fairy?”

“Oh, I don’t know about any fairy,” the woman said. “I’ve heard about her in the ballad, but before that, all I knew was that he fell off a cliff and died the day before we were supposed to get married.”

“But what about the long, soulful lament with all the mythological references?”

“I mourned him,” the woman said. “It was a sad thing, losing a fiancé the day before the wedding. But I couldn’t have made up all that business that’s in the ballad. I was a simple village girl. I did the regular mourning that you would expect, but then I tried to get on with my life.”

After talking with the woman, the folklorist headed back to the first village. “Hey, I talked to the woman in the ballad,” he told the villagers. “She said there wasn’t any fairy. She said her fiancé just had an accidental fall the day before their wedding.”

“Pitiful, isn’t it?” said one of the villagers, shaking his head and clucking his tongue. “The poor woman was so crazed with grief that she couldn’t even remember the fairy who pushed her fiancé to a horrible death.”

There are about fifteen things I love about that story. One of the biggest is the villagers’ vision of the world they inhabited. “You think these are podunk villages?” they seemed to be saying to the folklorist. “Oh no, friend, there are big things afoot here in these villages—more than meets the eye. And these peasants here—they’re full participants in the eternal.” They believed that their mundane world interpenetrated with a world of transcendence.

In his Port William novels, Wendell Berry is doing something very similar to what those Romanian villagers were doing with their story of the jilted fairy. Berry writes of a forgotten little place, and in so doing demonstrates that there are vast things afoot—much more than meets the eye.

Certain religious traditions speak of “thin places”—places on earth where the veil between the seen and the unseen is particularly thin, where mortals are more likely to see the goings-on of the spirit world. Perhaps those Romanians viewed the fairy’s cliff as a thin place. The point of Wendell Berry’s whole project, it seems to me, is that every place, if you settle down and look at it, if you pay attention, is a thin place. After he finished his education in California, Wendell Berry moved back to the Kentucky County where both sides of his family had lived for five generations, and he said, “I’m going to keep looking at and listening to this place—this landscape, these voices, these folkways, these old stories—until it gives up its secrets.”

I’m not trying to be especially mystical here. I think I’m talking about a pretty straightforward truth that Christians claim to believe. C.S. Lewis put it this way in an oft-quoted passage from “The Weight of Glory”:

It is a serious thing to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people.

You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilization these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

The job of a storyteller, you might say, is to make thin places, places where we can see truer things than we normally see in the world around us. To do that requires that we pay attention to the world as we find it. We need to look and keep looking, confident that the truth will tell itself.

Big, eternal truths are pulsing and surging just below the surface of things, forever threatening to bust through. And the surface of things is scarcely adequate to conceal them.

Original Music: Branko’s Love Song

If you’ve read The Secret of the Swamp King, you might remember Branko’s love song. Heretofore, the “song” has actually been a poem. Enter Jonathan Barnes of Nashville, a man with feechie tendencies of his own. He set Branko’s words to music. Here he is performing Branko’s Love Song:

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