Monthly Archives: June 2010

People Helping People

Ten years ago this month, I went to the mountains of western North Carolina to report for on the search for suspected bomber Eric Rudolph. After two and a half years futile years in the gloomy Nantahala National Forest, the mammoth federal task force had dwindled to a few FBI agents in a small office in a national guard armory.

While the Rudolph story was interesting— the search ended a few months later, and Rudolph wasn’t caught for another two and a half years —  it was the town of Andrews that captured my imagination.

Andrews was a struggling community of 700 families with a median income of about $20,000 a year. Half the storefronts were empty, and only a handful of businesses employed more than two or three people. There was competition 10 miles down the four-lane in Murphy, the bustling county seat, where a new Walmart had just opened, and you couldn’t help but think that Andrews was on life-support.

And yet there was something about the place that struck a chord in my heart. The town is tucked into a valley framed by massive, tree-covered ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains that humble human pretensions with their steadfast strength. The rolling farmland is picturesque and so peaceful that late one afternoon I parked next to a pasture and sat in stillness so immense I swear I could feel the earth breathe.

One evening after dinner I drove slowly past a skinny, bearded man peddling a bike lazily down a side street while cradling a baby in his left arm.

“He’s asleep,” I said.

He grinned, a gap showing where his front teeth should be, and said, “Works ever’ time.”

Cutting Horses

There was a coffee shop in the hotel where I stayed, and a handful of locals gathered there every morning for coffee and conversation. They invited me to join them, and I discovered that they were proud of their town and resentful that the international media had portrayed them as toothless rubes with tobacco juice on their chins.

One of the mainstays of the group was Scott Freel, a lanky, laconic redhead with a goatee whose hobby was riding and training cutting horses.  Freel ran the biggest business in town, a builders’ supply store, and was a member of the town’s “first family.”

A sign on a bridge west of town read, “Margaret Freel Bridge.” The Margaret in this case was Freel’s mother, but he was also married to a woman named Margaret. The latter was from Alabama, and their family room was festooned with Crimson Tide memorabilia.  

‘Everyone knows your business’

Freel and I were sitting in his office one afternoon discussing small town life, and he admitted it was a mixed blessing.

“The thing about a town like this,” he said in a long, slow drawl, “is that everyone here knows your business, or thinks they do. But if you have a problem, you wouldn’t believe how many friends you’ve got.”

That conversation came to mind this morning when I got an email from my friend Barbara. Barbara was responding to an email I forwarded to those who are praying for my daughter, Kiersten. Kiersten had cancer surgery recently and must undergo chemotherapy. She had commented in the email I had forwarded about the prospect of losing her hair and having to find a wig.

Barbara wrote to say that Raquel Welch has a nice line of wigs, and that occasionally she wears one herself.

Human Nature Finds a Way

A few hours later, my friend Fran, who recently had a double mastectomy herself, emailed that her plastic surgeon recommends the herb arnica montana for swelling.

These are the kind of things one woman would tell another if they ran into each other at the post office in Andrews, because people in Andrews always have time to stop and visit. But Barbara and Fran live in suburban Atlanta, Kiersten lives in suburban Boston, and in the city we’re all too busy to stop and visit.

Through the internet, however, we have created a network of people who pray for Kiersten and send her suggestions. That network stretches from Massachusetts to California, and from Michigan to Georgia.

It’s not the same as Andrews, of course, where the way of life — at least to an outsider — has a simplicity and continuity that city life cannot duplicate. But no matter where we are and no matter how difficult the circumstances, human nature prevails and people find a way to help people. 

The Mask

“Take off your mask. You say you’re not wearing one? But you are. The muscles of your face are so accustomed to displaying your familiar emotions they’ve gotten stuck. Raw new emotions are aching to show themselves, but can’t dislodge the incumbents.”

The quote is from Rob Brezsny’s “Pronoia Is the Antidote to Paranoia,” a book I’ve been reading for the past couple of weeks. It’s a big, loopy trade paperback with quirky graphics and lots of space for doodling and rumination. It’s a manifesto inviting readers to throw off the chains of what Brezsny calls “the culture of the living dead,” a/k/a the world as we know it.

There’s a library branch at the end of my street, so I don’t buy many books. I bought Brezsny’s because he’s a man after my own heart. Which is to say, he doesn’t buy into conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom pisses him off in a rowdy, good-natured way, and he’s made it his life’s work to undermine it and expose it for the fraud that it is.

Brezsny is also the author of “Free Will Astrology,” which is syndicated in publications around the country, and I’ll confess I don’t get much out of it. But what he’s trying to do with “Pronoia” is get people to turn off the auto-pilot and wake up to the truth. If you’re really paying attention, he says, you’ll see that, “All of creation is conspiring to shower us with blessings.”

Stranger in the Mirror

Take that paragraph about the mask. It sounds like a theoretical statement, an abstract way of characterizing human behavior. But it is literally and factually true.

Several years ago, I went to a Mexican restaurant in midtown Atlanta with a woman I didn’t know well who was — in my mind, at least — auditioning as a possible romantic partner.

After ordering drinks, I went to the men’s room, and as I entered I caught a glimpse of my face in a mirror that was hanging not over the sink, but on a column inside the door. It was an odd place for a mirror, and the face reflected back to me was even more surprising. In fact, it was  startling.

Rather than the mild, somewhat quizzical look I was accustomed to seeing in the mirror, I saw a set jaw, watchful eyes and a look that might best be called guarded. It was the face of someone who didn’t trust the world and who was poised to jump when the other shoe was in mid-air.

Wary and Distrustful

I had never seen that face before, and I was furious. Fifty plus years on the planet had not prepared me for a surprise of that magnitude. Who the hell was that jerk?

Obviously I hadn’t long to ponder it, and by the time I got back to the table the mask was back in place. For that’s what it was, muscle memory composed in the form of a mask that I wore in public. It got me through the day, but it wasn’t the real me, and neither was the one I was accustomed to seeing in the mirror at home.

I’d had been through some hard patches in life that made me wary and distrustful, and the mask reflected that. And it was several more years before I found a way to begin the process of removing it. It involved a searching self-examination, which wasn’t always pleasant. But I hated what I’d seen in that restaurant mirror, and self-loathing is no place to live.

A Magical World

Life is about choices. I can’t change the past, but I can make new choices and create a different present, and that’s Brezsney’s point. You can buy into the “life’s a bitch and then you die,” or you can opt for a quote that Brezsney lifts from Bertrand Russell: “The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

Ridding myself of the mask and letting go of resentment and the self-justifying rubbish I’ve been dragging around is opening me up to the truth about myself and the world around me. It also means challenging lies I’ve been telling myself for years and welcoming a life-affirming reality that doesn’t get much notice from mainstream media.

This re-tooling is a process. It takes time and patience. There are no overnight changes, no “road to Damascus” transformations. Even insights — and there are many — must be re-visited often untiul lthey become part of a new reality. Because when it comes to kicking the ass of that guy in the mask, the only person who can do it is me.