Tag Archives: Eric Church

That Which Sustains: Art and Amazement

In May of 2018, when all was absolute bedlam–because May is always crazy for teachers, my younger daughter was graduating, and my husband was emerging from cancer #3– Abigail decided she wanted to go to prom with her Duke TIP bestie in Saluda, NC, five hundred miles away. I was game for anything that would allow me to escape my life–the further away, the better–and my younger brother knew of a place in Asheville where I could stay alone and start, again, to regroup.

It had a balcony and trees, he said with hope in his voice, knowing that trees have consistently offered me my sturdiest solace. There was a huge shower; there was good food; there was Tupelo Honey–he softly recited a coaxing litany.

He knew–as everyone knew–that I was lost and nearly dead. The third cancer had decimated us all. We could look one another in the eye and say, “I didn’t think anything could be worse than losing Stephanie Grace”–silently agreeing, disloyal though it sounded, horrific as it is even now to write, that this was worse. Our losses had already been stacked like cordwood–the third cancer set them ablaze.

We had been accustomed to powering through our various sufferings–with gallows humor (the worst: our family joke–if Greg or I die, the survivor can get married immediately after the funeral–a “weuneral”); good food (crab legs and baked goods, mainly); and mindless TV (after my mother-in-law’s heart attack, we watched Family Feud three hours a day).

But our usual formulas had failed.

Despite this, I knew that, in Asheville, I should return to my touchstones, do what the person I once had been would do. I looked on Tripadvisor for “best breakfast,” and I went where my phone told me to go. I ate a tequila donut, drank cold Dr. Pepper, made small talk. I looked at “Explore Asheville.com,” which highlighted a bread festival. I heard my late grandmother’s laughing voice saying, “That’s our kind of festival.” I went there.

Anything I write about my time at the festival is going to sound cliché–there is no way past this. But clichés exist because some human experiences are common, and that day, much of what I felt was: standing in a crowded room yet feeling alone; looking at the river and feeling left behind; envying the innocence of playing children; observing all the happy families, wondering how they stayed that way.

A certain measure of my numbness was my lack of response to the sculptures, to the bicycles in the archway to the brewery. I was in no mood to talk to the bakers about their local sourcing. I didn’t even want to pet anyone’s dog.

The word downtrodden doesn’t fit here, really–but it certainly fit me then, that day in my car. There was nothing I wanted to do, nowhere I wanted to be–I was alone in a beautiful city on a spring day, but it had nothing to offer me. It had all been too much.

Too listless to go back to the condo, I drove to a row of little art galleries, planning to wander around.

Instead, I got healed.

It happened in the third or fourth gallery of the day. There was a family shopping enthusiastically; the shopkeeper was in the back corner painting. I disinterestedly shuffled through some prints, thinking maybe I would come across something for Abigail’s dorm room.

It was on its side, a brown and white water color print–I nearly passed by it, but then, I saw the trees and lifted it up.

Bushes and trees were in line like soldiers from smallest to largest, left to right. But the painting wasn’t about them. The painting was about roots.

The small bushes had shallow roots. Just a few.

But, oh, the roots of the tallest tree.

Its roots were deeper than the tree was high. Twisted wildly, they were beautiful, deep, strong roots. There were so many, so deep in the ground.

I stood in the quiet shop, in its stillness, my tears hitting the floor, the message clear–my daughters’ roots were deep, as were mine.

If nothing else, we had roots.

In my pocket was a $100 bill a friend of my aunt sent to me months before–the accompanying note said it was good to have “pocket money” when things were hard, and I had held tightly to it.

I spent it that day, on the art that brought me back.

The thing is, when sorrow and loss swallow you wholly, you forget who you are. You forget what makes you happy, the things that make you laugh; that food is good and friends are necessary.

After the black pit of trauma and tragedy, for a long time there is a gray, emotionless space, and you are basically so relieved to have quit crying all the time that you don’t care that you are still in a void. You wander around there alone–and sometimes, on good days, you can even believe you may emerge.

You just can’t figure out how.

Art. Nature. Animals. Music. These are the things that can pull you out quickly.

(Not people with all their words–they think they have to use them–and words are not powerful enough against the void, the hopelessness. Certainly, a held hand and a touch on the cheek are helpful, but they aren’t jolting.)

A jolt helps so much. A reminder: this amazing thing is out here.

And, amazed, you find yourself somehow out there once again.

I marvel about this: the power of art and the element of the unknown it includes–think of it: W.H. Price painted some trees in 2014 and, in doing so, rescued me four years later. He will never know this.

Lately, Alexa is playing Luke Combs’ “Houston, We Got a Problem” ten times a day–because when the music swells with the first chorus, I am amazed. Every time. It’s like when those instruments come in, someone sews one more stitch into my soul, and I can take another breath.

I won’t even try to tell you about Eric Church.

It seems absurd doesn’t it? Two country singers and a painter who doesn’t even have a website got me to shore–and none of them will ever meet me or even know of their roles in my rescue.

There’s something in us that wants to thank a gift-giver–to give credit, to pay back. But art makes us unable to–because of the way it is flung into the unknown and appreciated there. That’s what makes it art–that you connect, that you share a secret with the artist. That you know what they meant–that your spirits can wink at one another.

“I see what you did there” is met with, “Thanks, I knew somebody would.”

An echo of heaven itself.

On the Waving of the Checkered Flag

“We were laughing and living, drinking and wishing, /And thinking as that checkered flag was waving, Sure would like to stay in Talladega.” –Eric Church, Talladega

It was a late summer evening, and although it was technically too hot to, I had cooked. My younger daughter, Abby, liked the anchor of a family meal, and my older daughter April’s boyfriend liked my cooking. Long dinners were our Thing for those last several weeks before September made us into the school-year flotsam and jetsam that we so often became.
Our family dinners were a marvel to me. My alcoholic, bipolar mother had seldom cooked. Food–whether it was greasy, lukewarm roast beef or the more standard Burger King Whopper Jr.—was swallowed quickly and our back-to-bedroom escapes were made. Dad, who dubbed himself “Fate’s Whipping Boy,” ate late and alone at the Formica-topped bar in the kitchen. Whichever child chose to emerge and join him would be treated to sardonic stories of his gray day as they swiveled on the sticky faux-leather bar stools. There was nothing warm and Ingalls-y about our mealtime; no passed potatoes, no humorous stories, and very little daily minutiae was shared with nodding and clucking adults.
I exulted in the fact that my daughters expected family dinners. Our table was the first piece of furniture we bought as newlyweds; the chairs were given one by one as Christmas gifts by relatives. The twenty-four year-old chairs, saggy, scuffed, and stained, were no longer prizes; the tabletop, faded and worn from the thousands of meals we’d enjoyed, was no longer fit for the Haverty’s showroom. My now-adult brothers, on separate occasions, each reverently stroked the tabletop and said, “You can almost see the stories that were told here,” in recognition of my treasure.
On Sunday nights, I’d holler, “Who wants what next week?” and each girl knew she could count on one favorite food—Chicken Parmesan, gluten-free pizza, chocolate-chip pancakes—at the end of each weekday. April’s boyfriend, who was hundreds of miles from his mother’s home cooking, occasionally joined in, politely requesting fried okra or red velvet cake. He would smuggle the leftover slices home past his thieving roommates, who especially favored the walnut cream cheese frosting.
The days that ended at the table were days that were bookended by laughter and long talks. We would talk about Marxism, basketball, and Eric Church—one night, as if to show just how weird their mother was, April and Abby allowed me to explain why “Talladega” was the best song ever written, discussing it line by line. Everyone laughed at my sentimental tears over “the summer before the real world started.”

The girls would tell stories of broken arms and field trips, of Camp Winshape and hikes and horseback rides. I’d clear the table as they prattled on, Abby enjoying her traditional York Peppermint Patties and milk while Greg snuck a little ice cream.
So it was this customary evening. We had eaten well and laughed hard, remembering how when we’d asked young April her dolls’ names, she would cackle, “Rubbish and Trash.” We’d recounted her cross-country airplane trip alone at age six where she’d poured Sprite–quite deliberately—down the pants of her middle-aged seatmate, a woman who’d called her a chicken. Dinner was endless, and as we sat there afterwards, I heard a clear voice within me say, “You will never have this again.

I froze. I knew the voice.

In 2001, when I’d heard Greg was in the hospital after a routine doctor’s appointment revealed iffy blood test results, as I desperately said, “Not leukemia” to myself over and over, I heard the voice say, “It is leukemia, but I will perform a miracle of peace.” And these words proved true.
To hear that voice so clearly fourteen years later, clearly and certainly bringing sad news from nowhere –I can’t emphasize enough the nowhere—shook me. I looked at each of the four of them, chortling at the latest story; I took in the dishes and the lighting and the way their smiles shone. They were all so happy. There was joy in the room, hilarity even. It had been a good meal, a great time, and, evidently, the last one, ever.

As I sat there, forty-five, haggard, prematurely gray, having endured much, I can clearly recall a desperate grasping within me, an urge to fight, to say no. I wanted to resist whatever torture was ahead, and I wanted to begin immediately. Post haste. To stand and fight and claim good things–for surely, having lost so much, we deserve to enjoy good suppers. How could that be too much to ask? For a minute, I was like my former students, who now as young new mothers, are trying to perfectly order their children’s and families’ worlds. I felt myself reverting to a time when I naively thought that I could change and save things.
But I was only there a moment.
I acknowledged the voice. I told it, “Well, then, I’m going to enjoy tonight.” I refilled their glasses, grabbed dessert, and we sat long and laughed much. So much. I watched their faces, held their hands, marveled at the blessings they were.

It was a truly beautiful night: we were so rich.

There is no explaining how quickly everything has changed. A break up, an unplanned rebound pregnancy; one move, then another. We were five, and we are now three. And supper at the table is more than this remnant can bear. My husband dines on Frosted Flakes in our bedroom, seeking his solace in Barney, Andy, and Aunt Bea; my younger daughter nibbles frozen chicken nuggets while copying AP biology notes; I eat the pork loin that I made, but no one wanted, as I play online Scrabble with Charles, a stranger in Maryland. My elder daughter is living in a maternity home two hours away; her ex-boyfriend is reduced to terse texts about items I need to mail back to him. There is nothing left of the Ingalls family here.

In the kitchen cabinet, there remain several small bottles of red food coloring. I used to buy Kroger’s entire stock since in a small town, hoarding can sometimes become a necessity. I doubt, however, that I will make red velvet cakes again. They belong in a time that has left me, with people who have as well.
I only had an hour to say my farewell—an hour after dinner in which I was allowed to look, alone, at all that God had given me, to hold it close, to see its beauty, and to bid it goodbye. At the time, I didn’t know whether we would face a car wreck, a third cancer, or an unexpected death. I knew only that the pain was coming.
I thank God that He allowed me one last look at all that joy. For what joy it was.

(What Joy!
It Was.)