Monday, February 5, 2018

Fall in Love

Well, it's been a while. I've been off celebrating Christmas, and continuing my education, and having the flu, and whole bunch of other things. One of those things included preaching at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I'll leave most of my reflections for some other time. Y'all might appreciate my sermon from that day, though. It's a little break from Jesus and not at all a break from Jesus at the same time. They were in the midst of a series, "Called to Justice, Equity, and Compassion."

Here you go:
Since their daddy owned the sawmill, all the boys ended up nicknamed after saws. They had real names, of course, but no one knew them anymore. Instead, they knew Hacksaw, Chainsaw, and Buzzsaw. There was a year or two in between each son, but by adulthood, they all sort of blended together. Each of them was crazy in his own way—long before crazy had anything to do with diagnosed mental illness. In a different place or if they were wealthy, they all would have likely been dubbed eccentric instead.

It was Buzzsaw who took the cake, though. For two weeks out of the year, he rented a tent. It was one of those big white ones like people use for wedding receptions. His remained mostly empty, wedged as it was between two hills up a holler, with little parking and no clear driveway. Still, for those two weeks, he fervently preached a revival every single night, calling people to repentance. The first year, people thought it might take off. By the third year, word got out that he’d spent the month before dressed as a caricature of a Native American, living in a teepee on a hill back of his daddy’s sawmill, so no one showed up.

Truth is always stranger than fiction.

I rode past the tent that third year, which I think was his last to hold his ill-attended revivals. My best friend lived up that long, narrow, winding road, and I went to her house at least a couple days a week after school. Her family lived in an old, white two-story house, more than a hundred years old. The wood stove had been replaced with a heat pump. A narrow kitchen had been added, along with a single bathroom. Her parents no longer wanted to be married, but a kid still at home meant they had to be. The steel mill where her dad worked had layoffs every year. Once tobacco season was over, a cash crop grown to supplement the income not earned at the mill, her father would spend his days drinking until he was called back to work. He cussed like a sailor, starting most sentences with, “Well, hell…” and smoked Camel cigarettes, no filter. After school, we’d watch Oprah or The Cosby Show, switching the channel when he walked in, always ready with a racist rant. Occasionally, he’d run through the house, then back out with a rifle in his hand. “Starling!” he’d shout on his way out the door, and then we’d hear shots fired at the birds that were pests on the farm.

Those were the good days—the ones where he was fun and amicable and not drinking. He was a mean drunk. Once and only once, he raised his fist to punch his wife. She told him to wait right there, and went to the kitchen, returning with her large iron skillet. “Go ahead,” she said, “but it’ll be the last punch you ever throw.”

They divorced the year after we graduated from high school. The house burned a few years later, and Charlie ended up living in a trailer in the same place. Long before, they’d given up on home insurance. Other bills were more pressing.

To outsiders, they sound like white trash. That phrase isn’t used in Appalachia, though, at least not to the best of my memory. I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in northeastern Kentucky. Coalmines were hours away.  The town there had boomed when coal was loaded onto trains and hauled up to the shores of the Ohio River, where it was loaded on to barges and floated farther down the river. Economic decline began in the 1960s, as railroads began to disappear, and industry with them.

In that place, people were and are judged by their cleanliness, paying their bills, and being decent neighbors. Being a mess was just that, and looked down on. That family I mentioned was, for the most part, considered decent people. You could eat off the floor in the kitchen any day of the week and they’d gladly show up to help a neighbor in need. No one was mixed up with illegal drugs of any sort.

The signs of white trash to outsiders aren’t the same as they are to insiders. Moving a trailer on the family land was every bit as respectable as building a house, and far more so than living in the handful of section 8 apartments in town. People like me, who left, who earned bachelors degrees and masters degrees, learned to narrate things differently. We’ve learned of the coal mined, timber cut, and people left behind, exploited by the empire that no longer needs their resources. “Appalachia,” the empire calls that place, proving they can never be trusted by Appalachians. “Appalachia” implies everything of the ruder “white trash.” (Note: in the outsider version, it is pronounced "lay" not "latch" as is correct.)

The stories we tell among ourselves never get told outside, the stories that have nothing to do with white trash.

My grandfather, Pappaw Ted, was born in 1917 or 1918. We never knew for sure, since the courthouse with the birth records burned down. He enlisted in the army when he was 18, though he may have been 16 or 17 instead. By then, he had been grown a long time. He was the oldest of 9 kids. He dropped out of school after 5th grade, able to read, write, and do math that would be more than sufficient for him to raise a family, help manage a household, and work building bridges. His first job was for a Swedish immigrant, doing odd jobs around the farm. There, he learned to drive on the red truck the Swede had, a rarity in eastern Kentucky.

Not long after, his mother died of a heart attack. She’d gotten up that morning, cooked sausage, eggs, biscuits, and gravy for breakfast, sent the kids off to school, then started laundry. She keeled over the washboard that morning, where she was found later, dead at not much more than 50 years old. Pappaw always said it was partly a broken heart; her husband cheated on her at every chance he got.

Every now and then, we’d drive by the house they lived in then. It was a small white house, set back on a hill, with steps up from the road. Even then, a fence cut across the walk. Soon after his mom’s death, his dad showed up at the house with his girlfriend, ready to move her in to take care of the kids. Pappaw met him at the fence with his rifle, and offered to shoot her, instead. He began caring for his 8 younger siblings.

That summer, he planted a garden. They ate  from it and canned vegetables for the winter. They bought chickens and kept them for eggs and occasional meat. Their family was together, but it was hard, and short-lived.

Their dad came and took the two girls to town one day. He bought them new shoes while they were there, and other treats. When he took them back home, as they started to get out of the wagon, he said, “Oh no, leave your shoes here. Those stay with me.” They ended up going home with him, instead, to keep their new shoes.

One by one, all of the young kids ended up back with their dad, the youngest of them, Tommy, wanting to stay with his brother most of all.

By that time, Pappaw was working at a sawmill. His dad was living in a house in the next town over. The back yard of the house backed up to the railroad tracks and eventually, they let the little boy out to play. When Pappaw figured out he was there, he jumped the train and kidnapped his little brother out of the backyard. For the next months, Tommy went to work with him at the sawmill every single day. He hid out of danger in a toolshed, until the work was done.

Eventually, the whole matter ended up in court. At 16, my papaw was given custody of his little brother, now 6 years old. When he got married a couple of years later, the little boy moved in with him and his new wife. By the time I was a child, little Tommy was Big Tom, and lived at the mouth of the holler where my grandparents’ home was. On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, he always came to them with a card, the only parents he really remembered. The day Tom died is the only time in my life I remember my Pappaw crying.

Maybe you hear all that and you think, “Yeah, white trash.” Maybe you’re right. But the stories Appalachians tell are told to convey strength, self-reliance, community, and trust. They are stories of people forgotten about by the outside world—or never cared about to begin with. Like so many places where money has dried up, drugs have become one of the primary industries. Painkillers are dubbed “hillbilly heroin.” Pharmacies appear and disappear in a month’s time or less, just ahead of any law enforcement agency catching up with them. Young men without other jobs make drugs runs, to Miami, most often.

My own cousin is disabled following a massive stroke caused by drug use. He used dirty needles, which led to an infection, which led to a stroke. The right side of his body is mostly paralyzed. Like me, he’s 33. His mother died late last year. Her cancer was dubbed a “lifestyle cancer.” In this case, it was code for prostitution, the profession by which she supported her drug habit. She was 56 years old.

Those hard stories are not as rare as they should be. Communities of all sorts outside the privileged groups can tell them. White trash communities would be surprised, I imagine, by how much they have in common with the brown and black communities they look down upon. These are the people who heard the promise of jobs like they remember and voted for Trump, hopeful, and certain that nothing in Washington would make its way to the hills of Appalachia any way.

I could tell you stories all day. I could tell you beautiful stories from the cemeteries where I played as a child, and my churches, and my schools. We could sing the songs of Appalachia, “Down in the Valley,” and “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and “Pretty Polly.” I could bring out my grandmother’s quilts, made lovingly and with great skill. I could teach y’all how to make cream candy and to churn butter. We could eat biscuits and fried chicken and talk all afternoon.

But what I want you to remember is this: you have to let yourself fall in love.

If you want to do justice, if you want to fight for equity, if you want to show compassion, first you have to fall in love. You have to fall in love with this neighbor who voted for Trump, against all their best interests. You have to fall in love with the person ripping their life apart. You have to fall in love with the people clinging to the old ways of doing things. You have to fall in love with the people who spend commodities like time and money in different ways than you do.

You have to fall in love, because otherwise, you’ll never see like they do. You have to fall in love to see beauty where your neighbor does. You have to fall in love to see strength where your neighbor does. You have to fall in love to see life where your neighbor does. You have to fall in love.

And if, if you let yourself fall in love, you might just find yourself a partner in justice, equity, and compassion in ways you never imagined possible.

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