July 27, 2018

Notes From The Broken Road…

Category: News — admin @ 5:32 pm

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I wish Mom could see me now,
And how I’ve turned it all around.
Lately I’ve been going down
The right road.

Life’s a picture that you paint,
With blues and grays, and cans of canvas.
Heaven knows I’m not a saint,
But I know.

Jesus and Mama always loved me.
Even when the devil took control.
Jesus and Mama always loved me.
This I know.

–Confederate Railroad: Jesus and Mama
____________________________

An ordinary morning at work, the other week. Things were going on, about like they always do. I engaged a customer at the front counter, and then another. The phone rang. And a call came from a guy who asked for me. Well, I was on the line when he called, so I got a note to call him back. I glanced at the number, then the name. Jack, a hard-bitten old farmer from south Jersey. I’ve known him for a few years. Well, more than ten. I guess that’s a few, when you’re talking about random people who wander through your life. That’s how it was with Jack. We’ve done business. We know each other pretty well. I just hadn’t thought about the man in a while, because I hadn’t seen him in a while.

That morning, I figured. Jack’s probably looking for some materials, maybe some metal roofing. He’s always fixing something on his farm. Might as well get back to him right away, before I get hung up somewhere else and forget. I dialed the number he had left to call him back. In my headset, I heard the clatter of the ringing on the other end. Come on, Jack. Answer. The phone rang again. And again. He’s probably on his tractor and can’t hear. Soon it’ll go to voicemail. Come on, Jack. Answer.

About right then, he did. “Hello.” Jack. Ira here. Returning your call. “Oh, hi, Ira. Thanks for calling back. How you been?” I’m good. And you? And back and forth, like that. Just your normal interaction when doing business. And it was about what I figured, when we got to his reason for calling. He needed some advice about how to fix a big sliding door on his barn. I listened as he told me the problem. And as we talked it through, my mind drifted to another place. I was about half there, at my desk, chatting with Jack about his sliding door, and what I reckoned would take care of his problem. And I was about half out there, remembering the last time we had seen each other.

It was last summer. And it was a strange time in a lot of ways, last summer was. I mentioned that little fact as it was coming down. Or right after it came down. A major stressor was draining a lot of energy from my life. The whiskey. It all hinged back to the whiskey. I had reached a place where a decision had to be made, where something different had to be done. Well. I was reaching that place, late last summer. I’m on the wrong road, here. I’m not young, anymore. Looking back, a few things are clear in retrospect. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I was overweight, bloated like a fatted hog. My face was swollen, my eyes were puffy. It was a hard and relentless slog, every day. There had to be a better way.

And I was hedging around, looking at the situation from every angle. Near as I could, anyway. Kind of poking at it with a sharp stick, to see if any sleeping monsters would wake up. You calculate the cost, you make a choice. And this was a new door. That’s what it was. A new door to a new road. And I could turn from it or walk through. It takes a while, to get to what you know is the right choice when you’re standing in a place like that. At least, it does for me.

It was just so hard, to think about giving it all up. I had been close friends with the whiskey for a lot of years. Twenty-five, at least. It’s in my blood, it’s in my genes, to crave that soothing amber fire. To strain to hear, to absorb all the whiskey lullabies that amber fire can sing. Much of my genetic attraction to alcohol comes from Mom’s side of the family, that I always knew. We heard the stories about uncle Joe and how hard he drank. And I remember when he died, at about my age. He drank himself to death. That was pretty much the accepted narrative. The Yoder blood was strong in a lot of ways, but it was flawed and weak in others. This I always knew, because it never was a closely guarded secret.

But it wasn’t only from the Yoders that the insatiable drive to drink came from. There was a strong pull from the Wagler side, too. Just not out in the open. The Yoders were honest about who they were. They had few pretensions. The Waglers, not so much. We never knew it, growing up, but there was a time when Dad nipped at the bottle, too. Way back in his younger days there in Daviess, he did. His older brother, Ezra, was always saddled with the burden and the shame of being the wild child, the renegade drinker in the family. Dad told me once that when Ezra came home from the singing late on Sunday nights, he always threw his empty whiskey bottle onto a little threshold above the barn door when he took his horse in. (I can only imagine what kind of terrible rotgut it was that Ezra bought and drank. I’m sure it wasn’t the single malt scotch I got used to, a generation later. I always thought it would be fun to knock back a few with the young Ezra of long ago. He could tell me lots of things I never knew.) There was a big pile of those empty bottles up there on that ledge, Dad told me. And I never thought to ask. What about you? Were some of those bottles yours? He’d tell you yay or nay if you asked in the right spirit. He’d also sense it in a second if you were asking, trying to nail him, trying to trap him. And he wouldn’t tell you, then.

We heard the furtive, whispered stories somewhere along the way. Long after we were adults and had left home, the first such whispers came. At least the first such whispers that I remember. And we poked and prodded and dug around a bit. Were the stories true? Looking back from where I am today, there is little question in my mind that there was a time when Dad was no stranger to the bottle. Way back, in his younger years. The thing is, back in those days, I don’t think it was all that big a deal if you drank a little. I think it was more of an accepted thing in the Amish church, at least the Amish church in Daviess County, for there to be whiskey in the house. So it wouldn’t have been all that uncommon, for a man like Dad to imbibe. He sure would have been predisposed to, if the whiskey sang to him even remotely like it sings to me.

Waglers and whiskey. It’s a little startling for me to recognize that I’m not the first one of my blood to reach this door, to give it up. Because there is also no question that my father quit drinking, cold, long before I was ever born. He always talked against alcohol. Always wrote about how bad it was. Bad for your health, and bad for your soul, too. That’s what Dad would have believed. Maybe he was writing to himself as much as he was writing to his readers. I look at his life and his life’s work, and I get some small grasp of the man’s astonishing drive and strength. What he believed, he proclaimed boldly to his people, as no one had ever done before. He strode forward, confident and forceful and unafraid. What his hand found to do, he did with all his might. Such a man as that is who my father was.

That’s where I come from, a place like that. None of it is any excuse for how far I went with the whiskey, of course. And I’m not making any. It’s all about choices, whether you drink or don’t. I don’t judge it as a moral issue, even. It’s simply a choice. As it was always a choice for me during those last twenty-five years when I hit the bottle hard. A choice I never felt much inclined to change. Sure. There were a few dry blurps in there, but those were aberrations. Mostly, I was content to hold it close, to embrace my good friend. To invite the brooding spirits in. I pretty much had to, I believed, after I started writing. I had to keep the bottle close, or the writing wouldn’t come. Way down, I sure used that as an excuse to drink. And it didn’t take much to fool myself into believing it was actually true.

And so it went. Until last summer. I talked to a few close friends about it. That was the first step, looking back. Opening up to one or two friends I trusted enough to confide in. But I still don’t know where the drive came from to go there in my head, to consider seriously what it might take to walk away. Maybe I was getting old and tired. Or maybe the Lord was nudging me along. He moves in mysterious ways, like the hymn says, His wonders to perform. I don’t know why the resolve came to approach that door, let alone walk right up and step through. I just know it did.

It’s always hard, when you’re addicted to anything, to even think about giving it up. Doesn’t matter what it is. Food. Cigarettes. Whiskey. Work. (Oh, and drugs, of course. Still. Real addictions are about so much more than just drugs.) It’s scary and unnerving to force your mind to consider an alternative universe that doesn’t include the thing you treasure so deeply in your heart. That idol you can’t quite let go. And this wasn’t the first time for me, to quit a habit that seemed impossible to break. I remember years and years ago, when I was in a similar place. Only it was cigarettes I was trying to shake off, back then.

I remember the monsters of fear that snarled from the darkness. Don’t even try. You’re not strong enough. It wasn’t the thought of not smoking for a day, or a week, or even a month. That’s wasn’t what seemed so hopeless and overwhelming. It was the thought of not ever smoking again. Of giving it up forever. That’s what was so brutally hard to look at in the face. Of never again waking up and sipping that first hot cup of strong black coffee, and lighting a moist cigarette, dragging great draughts of delicious smoke deep into your lungs. Don Williams immortalized the ritual in his signature song. Coffee, black. Cigarette. Start this day, like all the rest…

The nice thing about bunny trails is, they’re all connected, and you can always circle around to where you started. So back to last summer, when I saw Jack last. I was in a strange place, in my head. A strange road. Unfamiliar. I don’t remember being scared, much. Quietly desperate, I’d say, would be more like it. It was a strange place. Large and fearful shadows loomed on every side, close and closing in. A jungle. That’s what it was like walking through. Or maybe wilderness would be a better word. It was a desolate place, and dark, in my head.

It seemed like I was out there, stumbling through unfamiliar terrain. There was a new door, up there ahead. Beckoning. Calling. Beckoning. I knew a choice had to be made soon. And I knew the right one would be hard. Still. I was drawn to the new door by some magnetic force. Come. Step through. Make this choice. Do it. There had to be a resting place, there had to be. I could shield my eyes from the sun with my hand and see. Way out there on that other mountain, there it was. That place of peace I was looking for. I could see it. Out there, over the valley. Which could mean only one thing. That valley had to be walked through. I could see it and sense it. But still. What you know has to be done is the hardest thing to do. Often, that’s how it is. And there I stood in the wilderness, in the jungle. Alone. Well, I sure felt alone.

And I thought about the last time we had seen each other, me and Jack, as we talked on the phone that day. A Saturday, when I was working. It was always sporadic, on a Saturday. Feast or famine. And right when they got there, Jack and his lady friend, not much was going on. I greeted them cheerfully. Jack. Pauline. What’s up today? It’s great to see you. Been a while. I hugged her. Jack’s handshake was firm and steady, like it always is. It’s so great to see you, I said. And we stood there and caught up. I think they’re officially just dating. They both were married before, and they had connected later in life. Salt of the earth people. They really are. They always tell me. When we’re going past on a Saturday, we look for your blue truck. Big Blue. If it’s not there, we don’t stop. This was back before the days of Amish Black, of course.

Over the years, since my book came out, they have bought at least a dozen copies to give as gifts to friends. I always made a big fuss, signing the books. Jack is an old ex-marine who saw action in the Korean war, I think it was. Or the Korean conflict. Whatever it’s called. He can tell you stories that make your blood run cold, of things he has seen. Over the years, we got to be good friends, me and Jack and Pauline.

And that morning, we connected like we always do. It’s so good to see you. What can I get for you today? And we talked about Pauline’s work at the township office and Jack’s work on the farm and my work at Graber. They told me. From here, they were heading to Gid King’s Farm Store over on the other side of White Horse. You can find tools and stuff there for better prices than you’ll ever see at any English store. I had told Jack about the place years ago, and now he’s a regular when he gets up here. I should hit old Gid up for a commission, I guess, for all the business I’ve sent his way.

They asked how the writing is going. I had told them I was fixing to work on the second book. I didn’t have a contract, yet. I was working on getting one. So they knew to ask. It’s really sporadic, I said. I got some good stuff coming, but it’s not real connected, yet. And then Pauline looked at me sharply. “How are you doing?” She asked. I guess she wouldn’t have had to ask. She could tell. I was swollen and heavy, my face was bloated, my eyes were puffy. Maybe she was just being polite. Or maybe she genuinely wanted to know. I figure she did. I’m not doing all that great, I told them. And I didn’t shrink from why. The whiskey. It’s getting to me. I love my scotch. And my vodka. Not an evening goes by that I don’t drink. And yeah, I’m still taking my Superfood vitamins. That’s probably one reason I’m still standing. But I’m kind of lost, here. I have to do something about the whiskey. I’m not sure what or how. I’ve tried quitting before. Nothing has ever worked. You asked, so I’m telling you. That’s how I am, right now.

They stood there and looked at me, and something lit up in their eyes. And then they told me their stories. They had both been exactly where I was, way back when. Hard-drinking bar hounds. And they had both quit, cold, decades and decades ago. Independently, before they even knew each other. Neither of them had touched a drop of alcohol since the time they swore it off. And standing there talking to me that morning, they didn’t spout wise, trite things like people do when they’re preaching at you. They just spoke the stories of what they had seen and lived. What had happened and how. I listened and I heard. Even at that moment, I sensed it was pretty amazing that two people such as this would show up in my life and tell me what they were telling me. These people had actually done what I knew I needed to do. Still. It sounded scary and a little hopeless. It would be a hard road. I listened as they talked. And I pondered their words in my heart.

It wasn’t magic, the things my friends told me that day about how they quit drinking. It didn’t go like it always does in those nice stories that end with a sweet little moral lesson. I didn’t swear anything by my Mother’s grave, and I didn’t go home that night and never touch another drop. I simply absorbed their stories and thought over what they had said. Processed. Calculated. They had done a hard thing and made it stick. I wondered if I could do that hard thing, too.

That little incident made such an impression that I couldn’t shake it from my mind. In the next week or so, I mentioned it to a few close friends. And at some point, I told the guys at Bible Study. It was just wild to me, that Jack and Pauline showed up out of nowhere and told me their stories when they did. I mean, I had known them both for years. And I had never heard these things before. We had never gone there, in our talk. I guess there wasn’t really any reason to.

And I’ve spoken it before, how it all fell into place, kind of on its own. Late next month, it will be one year since I have touched a drop of whiskey. I’m astounded at how fast the time has whooshed by. And right now, this moment, I am focused on that milestone. One year. It’s a big deal. One year on this broken new road. I have seen strange and beautiful things in that time. One year. And then, who knows? I’ll head on out for two. We’ll see how it goes, I reckon. Today is all I got, it’s all I ever had, and it’s all I will ever have.

And looking back over the long and lonely slabs of years that made up my journey to where I am today, I stand amazed at how many times it happened. How many times I have despaired because of the hard road that stretched before me as far as the eye could see. How many times I felt lost, how many times I have strayed far afield and could not find the way. And then, when it seemed like there was no door to open, here came a stranger or a friend, stepping from the shifting shadows. Here. This is the way. The right road. Walk this path. It has happened over and over. I don’t know why I even get surprised anymore. But I do, because my faith is weak. Still. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

And life flows on, as life does. I’m working on getting some writing done. Now and then, I have to go back in my head to see and relive things that would rather be left alone, if you just did what you felt like doing. I’m seeing and feeling the pain of much of the past in a new way, when my head is actually clear. And sometimes a dark memory comes knocking on the door. It’s almost impossible to describe how free it feels to open the door and meet that dark thing face to face. Oh, you got a story, too? OK, come on in. I’ll see what it looks like and we’ll go from there. If you got no reason to come knocking, I’ll kick you out. I’m just saying. You better be real.

Once in a while, as the day ends and night flows in, once in a while there comes a time when you feel pensive and your mind wanders to places it doesn’t often go because it’s just too hard. But you go there anyway and you see the blurred face of someone you cared for more than anything and you wonder why life went the way it did. And you feel it again like you mostly don’t these days because you won’t let your heart go down that path, not often, because, well, just because. Still, you sit there and absorb it one more time, the bitter sorrow of a loss so deep, you can’t express it, you can’t write it, you can’t possibly speak it like it was. And you feel it all the way down, how alone you are.

Once in a while comes such a night as that. Now that I have a clear head.

This next thing may be connected to the other bunny trails, or it may not. Either way, it’s a little story on its own. Last week, I had a rare book talk. Well, rare in that such a thing hasn’t happened all that much, lately. A good friend of mine is connected to a little group that meets at the DuPont estate, down in Wilmington, Delaware. Winterthur, it’s called. I’ve heard of it, but I never got down there until that afternoon. We met in the Charleston Room on the third floor of the big house. The people who came were mostly retired. But they were sure engaged. All of them had read the book. We sat around in a large circle on stately chairs and it was all informal and relaxed. I opened with a brief statement of my history.

And then I just took their questions as they came. They came from all over, so there was lots of meandering down lots of bunny trails. And it came out then, the story of how I started writing on my blog way back when my marriage blew up. I gave a brief sketch of what happened without a lot of specific details. It was a failure on both sides, I said. It was as much my fault as my ex-wife’s that the marriage wasn’t what it should have been. Maybe more my fault. At this point, I can only say. It was what it was.

Off to the side, an elderly woman raised her hand. I acknowledged her. “You were so sensitive to Sarah (my Amish fiance’) in the book,” she said. “I wondered how you got there, when I read that. How you could be so sensitive to her loss. Now I see. It’s because you’ve been divorced since that all happened. You know what it is, you understand now what she went through.”

I nodded. Well, ma’am, I never really made that connection. But it makes sense, what you’re saying. You are certainly right about one thing. I know what it is to have loved and lost. Maybe that’s why I could write Sarah’s story like I did.

And back to that phone call with Jack. That morning, we talked for the first time since that day last summer when they stopped by the office. And I told my friend after we got done with business. I want to tell you. I’ve been dry since late August. I’m feeling pretty good. I’ll never forget how you and Pauline stood here and told me your stories. That helped me a lot. I have thought about it many times. It seemed like God just brought the right people into my life to point out the right way, right when I needed them.

Those hard-bitten old south Jersey farmers don’t get emotional and religious, much. But I’ve come to realize. A lot of them have a deep reserve of quiet faith such as I can only aspire to. My friend paused a bit, there on the phone, when I spoke about the right people showing up at the right time. And then he said, “Yep. That’s how God always does it. I’m glad to hear you’re doing good. I’ll tell Pauline. She’ll be glad, too. She’s mentioned you half a dozen times, since that time we talked. She was concerned about you.”

You do that, I said. And tell her I said hi. I love you guys a lot. Thanks for being there.

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