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Writing Challenge: The Story of John

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John had been here before, a long time ago. I watch as his eyes follow the train tracks into a copse of trees. His chocolate brown pupils have turned milky with age and look almost purple against the bloodshot whites.

“That was almost sixty years ago,” he says dreamily.

Then he straightens his shoulders, hitches up his belted black dress pants shiny with wear, and looks directly at me. “That’s when God put his hand on me and called me back,” he says with a vigorous nod.

John knows the moment he left God. He was fourteen, living in a small town in North Carolina not far from where his family had been enslaved a few generations before. One Sunday after church, John opined to his mama that he didn’t think he believed in the God that Granny’s pastor talked about, “the one who sends people to Hell and tells us we are despicable creatures. No sir, I didn’t know that God.”

“Mama whipped me good that time,” he said. But he was used to it. His mother often disappeared, going on drinking binges and leaving him alone for days at a time, only to beat him when she returned.

A few days later, still sore from the thrashing, John stepped out of a movie theater into the bright afternoon sunlight. His guilt-ridden mama had treated him to the show. “All the white folks were on the ground floor and all us blacks were up above. I decided it should not be like that. Things were wrong. That’s when I decided to go where the train goes.”

Going where the train goes...

Going where the train goes…

That’s also when John told his first lie. He asked a man outside the theater to give him a lift to the depot, and told him he had permission from his mother.

Then John hopped a train.

“Just like that,” he said. “My mama kept disappearing, so I disappeared.”

Enslavement and Liberation

By the time I noticed we were walking, we were some distance down the tracks. John was striding from tie to tie as if his feet had rediscovered an old familiar pathway, like fingers recalling a musical instrument after a lifetime away. I trailed behind.

“I had to lie again when I got to Raleigh,” John said over his shoulder. “I told the man at the depot I was sixteen and that my parents had died.” The man helped John find a job on one condition: that he go back to school. “Yes sir, God had his hand on me all along.” John shakes his head in wonder.

He stayed in school and worked afternoons at a hot dog stand. On Sundays, he would make good money selling wine and whiskey from behind his stand. “Soon enough I couldn’t do without the stuff; I was an alcoholic just like Mama.”

John slows his gait and looks up and down the tracks and over at the copse of trees. “Right about here,” he says, stopping,”right here.”

“One night I was sitting by the tracks — here — with another wino, wondering where we were going to find the money for more booze. All of a sudden, I see he’s crying. I asked him, ‘What’s the matter, Pokey? Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get more wine before we go to sleep.’

‘It’s not that,’ Pokey answered. ‘It’s you I’m worried about — you’re not going to make it.'”

John is silent for a while, as if reliving that conversation.

“That was my low point, yes it was,” he says finally. He toes the dust with his black lace-up shoe. “I thought about it all night. After that I went to an AA meeting and had a miracle. God took away my desire for alcohol. It’s more than drinking, it’s liberation . . . that’s where I found the true God.”

Pokey went to a few meetings with John, but he’s the one who didn’t make it. “He died of alcoholism in his forties,” John says, “but he saved my life.”

* * * * * *

Based on a true story (John’s name has been changed) and in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, which this week offered a selection of photographs and introductory lines to kick off a story. I chose the train tracks and a variation of “I had been here before, a long time ago.” Photo credit: Cheri Lucas Rowlands/The Daily Post.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Illumination on the Porch

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I am not supposed to be blogging during this weekend writer’s retreat in the hills of Virginia.

The Porches Writing Retreat

The Porches
Writing Retreat

Seeking Focus and Illumination

I won’t say that blogging is not “real” writing, because I do not want to be drawn and quartered. But for me, personally, blogging is a different kind of writing. I do not spend time in mental and emotional preparation; I do not write and rewrite and revise and fuss. Blogging is more like journaling with (it is to be hoped) less navel-gazing. I don’t have to make myself sit down and focus on it – I have to drag myself away from it.

This weekend I’m to be focused on my “real” writing.

This weekend is about illumination. Finding my truth through the fog of everyday life.

Through the Fog

Through the Fog

So when I saw the Weekly Photo Challenge was Illumination, well, I just had to tap out a few words.

This morning I was up before dawn, sitting on the porch drinking black tea and watching the light break through the mist.

Sunrise at The Porches

Sunrise on the Porch

Illumination

Illumination

My friends and I arrived at The Porches last night and sequestered ourselves for several writing hours before coming back together in the kitchen to share a supper of soup and salad. We read some of our writing aloud, about Sylvia Plath, a guy masturbating in a movie theater, and the magic of a perfect sentence.

But I’m not supposed to be writing all this. Focus, Mel. I just wanted to share my photos and a bit of illumination that I had this morning.

Divine Dissatisfaction

I wrote once about a bittersweet elemental longing I find is brought on by the calls of migrating geese and migrating trains. This morning, I found this wonderful phrase that describes it:

Divine Dissatisfaction — don’t you love it?

Here is the full quote, which actually has nothing to do with geese or trains. It is included in the welcome packet at The Porches:

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and (will) be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” 

Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille

Sitting on the porch, I pondered the idea of divine dissatisfaction and gazed at the brightening horizon. I heard a flock of geese approaching, their melancholy yet hopeful calls reaching me through the fog. In the distance, I could hear a train approaching, leaving behind and going towards.

And I must get to writing! May you be illuminated!

Chapel in the Fog

Chapel in the Fog

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