Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (12/19) — Chapter Twelve, Forsythia (2/3)

THOUGH THEY WERE DYING, our forsythia bushes still bore a few living branches and buds. What used to be healthy and beautiful “yellow bells” lining our driveway were basically killed by a wet-weather spring that had inundated a section of our yard.


MORGANTON, N.C. (March 22, 2020) – On the first day of spring this past Thursday, Timberley and I cut down the row of dead and dying forsythia bushes at our Boone house and burned them in the fire pit we bought four years ago but have lit only a few times. We bought it the weekend after we retired, with visions of bonfires and Blue Moons dancing in our heads. But it’s been used mainly to burn brush.

Now we drink mainly LaCroix, though there is an aging, unopened 12-pack of Belgian White ale in the fridge. It’s waiting for a special occasion, I guess, like living from one weekend to the next.


WHAT A DIFFERENCE can be made by a little warmth and patience. At left, the dying forsythia branches we brought from Boone last weekend; and, at right, those same branches this weekend.

Last weekend we brought some bud-bearing twigs from those bushes down the mountain, and I forced them to bloom by slitting the ends and putting them in a vase of warm water. This weekend they’re still beautiful sitting in the kitchen window. I’ve expected the small yellow blossoms to wilt and fall into the sink, but they haven’t yet. They’re fine for now, so long as they have water and warmth.

I feel like God.

Gosh, that’s an odd feeling for someone sitting out a pandemic. In times like these, we wonder about God, but we don’t feel like him much, if at all—like maybe when we think we control our world or when we succeed in influencing something or someone else to do what we want, like those branches of forsythia.

After my dad died in 2001, I was feeling kind of weird because he and I had never really gotten along, but I was the one who, as a child, had been forced to be his little helper. If he was working on the car, I had to drop everything—well, my toys, anyway—and stand by to hand him wrenches and oil filters and assorted other auto parts. If he was burning brush, I had to forget watching Bonanza or The Mod Squad and grab a rake to help him contain the blaze (actually, I enjoyed doing that). And if he was driving an elderly church member to visit her dying husband at a Charlotte hospital a couple of hours away on a school night, I had to push my math homework aside and ride along as their “chaperone.” Well, maybe it wasn’t the homework I didn’t want to miss. Maybe it was TV again.

But TV sure is a godsend now, huh?

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT — Reynolds Price’s “Letter”; our fire pit this past Thursday; two very different editions of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; and one of our dying forsythia bushes in our yard, what was once part of the historic Boone Fish Hatchery at Rutherwood. One of the hatchery’s original buildings appears in the background.

Anyway, after Dad died, I wrote to an unlikely father figure for advice—something my real father had never hesitated to give, whether I agreed with it or not. I wrote to “outlaw Christian” Reynolds Price, a North Carolina native, respected author and longtime literature professor at Duke University. A prolific writer, especially after radiation therapy for a tumor on his spine left him paraplegic, Mr. Price wrote in most genres—fiction, poetry, drama, criticism, radio commentaries, essays and books on religion, even children’s literature. The first time I’d written to him was after I read his novel The Tongues of Angels. I’d told him how much I liked that story set at a ’50s-era summer camp in the North Carolina mountains and that Timberley and I were moving back to the mountains after having spent 10 years at the beach.

“Thrive on!” was Mr. Price’s prompt emailed reply.

When I wrote to him four years later after Dad’s death, I noted that he might have made too much of an assumption about our circumstances in making the move from the coast. We were poor school teachers, I explained, not rich folks with fancy homes on opposite ends of the state. We’d been renters at Ocean Isle Beach, and our canal cottage had been an old party house that the absentee owner hadn’t wanted to fix up before leasing it to us at a low rate ($400 per month). As I’ve said before, we weren’t even going to think about buying a beach house until we could afford to lose it, and that never happened. Also, we moved back to the mountains because both of our fathers were ill, and because we’d both been offered jobs at Watauga High School. Back then, WHS had the reputation of employing only the best teachers.

No, I’m serious. It did.

In that second email, I also told Mr. Price that I was questioning my faith because my father, a Baptist minister, had suffered for years with cancer, heart disease, diabetes and assorted other related ailments before his death. I guess I was asking why no cosmic quid pro quo exists—the old question of why bad things happen to good people, while bad people seem to live forever and thrive on and on. I don’t think I told him about my 10-year-old brother dying of cancer 25 years earlier. I wasn’t sure about Mr. Price’s own health issues—research was much more difficult then—and I didn’t want to assume he was healed.

At that point, The Tongues of Angels was the only book of Mr. Price’s that I’d read. If I’d read some of his other books, particularly his nonfiction, I would have known more about him than the short bio at the back of the remaindered, discounted hardback I’d picked up on a whim one Sunday afternoon at the old L Bookworm on the Holden Beach Causeway years earlier but hadn’t read right away. Homesick for the foothills, I’d liked the book jacket—a layered image of the Blue Ridge mountains—and I’d noticed that the novel was dedicated to one of my musical heroes, James Taylor, and his then wife, Kathryn Walker (who was one of Mr. Price’s friends and later brought him to Boone to perform in a readers-theater play at ASU).

We went to that play. Mr. Price was Tiresias, the blind prophet.

In response to my second email, Mr. Price suggested that I look for a copy of his recent book, Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care? He wasn’t just trying to sell me a book. He said a good bookstore might still have an inexpensive paperback copy or that I might find it in a library. We did have a good bookstore in Boone then—The Book Warehouse, later called Black Bear Books—and I did find a cheap, remaindered copy of Letter. I immediately read it and, yes, I wrote back to Mr. Price.

The most enlightening passage from the book—an expanded letter to a young reader who, after being diagnosed with end-stage cancer, had written to Mr. Price—dealt with the greatest difference between God and Man: “My bred-in-the-bone conviction about you is that you’re bound toward a goodness you can’t avoid and that the amount of calendar time which lies between you and that destination is literally meaningless to God, though surely of the greatest importance to you.”

No kidding.

Until reading that sentence—the one from Mr. Price’s book, not what I just said—I’d never come close to considering that however one defines God, the Superior Being exists outside Time and Space, while we mortal beings exist within time and space. So, if the length of one human life means nothing to God, then what of that life’s content and its value—that is, what of all the places, the people, the things, and the stories connected with each individual human life? Are we just individual cells in the body of Man, like pieces of coral in a great living reef, or are we like drops of saltwater in a world-enveloping sea?

Like cellphones connected to global 4G LTE networks? Or like browsers on the World Wide Web?

Is that how we’re created in the image of God—as part and parcel of the Whole? Is that what Christians call the Holy Spirit, that Holy Ghost of Times Past, Times Present and Times to Come that is Everywhere and part of Everything Good (and Bad)? Are we part of It? If that’s the case, then maybe the deaths of all those innocent women and children in the Old Testament who were slaughtered at the whims of evil (or good) kings or other higher powers make more sense—that the loss of one, or ten, or a hundred, or a thousand, or even a million human lives means little to God, so long as Man survives. Is that the law of nature?

Wowser, it’s getting deep, ain’t it?

So, I tried to communicate that to Mr. Price in a brief email—so as not to test his patience with me, mind you—and he wrote back that I must have misunderstood his thoughts in his Letter to a Man in the Fire, that he had in no way meant to imply that our lives are meaningless. Well, okay, I thought, but what about your discussion of the passage in The Bhagavad Gita where Krishna says, as Robert Oppenheimer remembers upon seeing the first nuclear bomb test, “I am come as Time, the waster of peoples, / Ready for that hour that ripens for their ruin”? Now, what about that passage, old sport?

I guess, as Mr. Price had told his doomed correspondent in Letter, it all depends on one’s point of view—or One’s point of view, as the case may be. In Alamogordo or Hiroshima. New York City or Nagasaki.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT — The house near Alamogordo, N.M., where the first atomic bomb was assembled before testing at the Trinity Site near the end of World War II; the backpack given to tour members; the obelisk erected on the spot where the bomb exploded; historic marker on the obelisk. The man wearing red in the photos was the soldier who 60 years earlier had carried the bomb’s core to the house.

This past Tuesday, in the midst of the coronavirus quarantine, Mr. Price’s buddy James Taylor posted on social media “a song to lift our spirits during challenging times.” It was his 1977 tune “Secret O’ Life.” All of the song’s lyrics are meaningful, but my favorite verse is: “The thing about time is that time isn’t really real. It’s just your point of view. How does it feel for you? Einstein said you could never understand it all. Planets spinning through space. A smile upon your face. Welcome to the human race.”

Actually, J.T.’s sweet pop tune is simply a reassuring way of reiterating what the wise preacher of Ecclesiastes observed 2,500 years ago: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all” (NIV).

Do ya think? (No, I won’t quote T.S. Eliot, or Donald Trump, just yet.)

I mowed the grass here yesterday afternoon, a task I’ve always begrudgingly enjoyed because I can do some of my best thinking on or behind a lawn mower. My first paying jobs, in fact, were mowing the yards and cemeteries at two of my father’s churches—Brookwood Baptist here in Morganton and then Piney Grove Baptist in the Yadkin Valley community outside Lenoir. Every week in season, I pushed the big green hill at Brookwood. At Piney Grove, I rode the church’s Cub Cadet, even in the cemetery, and then pushed a mower around each gravestone for hours of deep thoughts and fun in the sun. Often I’d pass the time mowing by singing favorite tunes to myself and later by making up my own songs as I worked. No one could hear my crooning over the different motors and trimmers, so I didn’t worry much about singing off-key.

I don’t sing as much anymore or even whistle while I work. I didn’t yesterday, anyway. I guess that’s what happens when you’re still getting used to the idea that 60 is “elderly,” and that a new and deadly virus that’s spreading around the world prefers elderly folks like you with preexisting health conditions. What bothers me most now and, for that matter, what kept me off kilter when Timberley underwent cancer surgery three years ago were the uncertainty of the time and the lack of any real control. No one can will anything into or out of being. Appropriate actions and responses are what really matter, right?

And isn’t that also one of nature’s laws, Newton’s third law of motion, in fact—that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction? I wonder if ol’ Ike knew his law covers all the moves people make, too—you know, like moves in a chess match. Or, in my case, checkers or cards.

King me, baby! Go fish! And eat a peach! (Is that a “Prufrock” reference or what?)

Take our forsythia bushes in Boone. If we’d left them alone, they would have produced next to nothing on their dying branches. Instead, we inspected the bushes and found several branches bearing buds, cut them off, put them in warm water, and watched them bloom beautifully. We cut down and burned those near-dead bushes, and now they or, rather, their stumps and roots have a chance to grow back again and to brighten with their yellow, bell-shaped blossoms our little corner of the world.

We didn’t just think real hard about it or talk amongst ourselves. We took action. We doused those golden bell branches with lighter fluid, lit a fire under those babies, and they became burning bushes.

It’s the same way with people, whether they’re outlaw Christians or not, I guess. It’s one thing to pray. It’s another thing to act on those thoughts, especially when segments of our society are wasting away and the highest power in the land is a wannabe dictator with a maimed sense of what’s right, good and true. Let’s just hope that our fishy, wounded king gets out of his own way so that others can help us help ourselves; that what we’re seeing now in March is as bad as this pandemic gets; and that April or May or June doesn’t become the cruellest month.

On this fourth Sunday evening of Lent, I hope you find peace in this world of ours that’s making little sense right now.

Let it be so.