Prayers in the River

9186219783_2c482b06e7_mI stand hip-deep in a river, casting into the eddies. I am not the kind of man who routinely stands hip-deep in anything, but the kids are still asleep, and I need to pray somewhere—God knows—so here I stand. The water is frigid and it soothes my feet, sore from stumbling over stones to rescue my lure. All I’ve caught in this damned river are rocks.

I’m here mostly to pray and because I want to fish in peace. Lord Jesus Christ—cast—son of God—lock—have mercy on me—reel, reel, reel—a sinner. In his last scene in The Godfather II, Fredo tells Michael Corleone’s son his fish-catching secret is to say a “Hail Mary” when he casts. Maybe that works for Catholics; this Orthodox Jesus Prayer is getting me nothing. [Read more...]

Can’t a Dad Hug His Boy?

When I sat down to work at my computer yesterday morning, I checked my email and saw the stories on the news feed: another madman shoots random people; global warming disaster almost certain; radical politicians calling for rebellion, secession; the rich hoarding everything, the poor getting more desperate. I got off the Internet and clicked open the piece I am working on, and I stared at four pictures pinned to the cabinets in front of my writing desk.

One picture is a charcoal drawing of a human skull, my memento mori every morning as I sit down to work. The other three are curling snapshots from years ago hanging by a single thumb tack each.

The bottom one is of my boys at a cookout when Evan was not yet three and Asher was so young he could still delight himself to laughter just by running, happily unconcerned about his diaper-full of poop. The boys are in front of a picnic shelter in Kanawha Forest, and they are smudged and smeared face to bare feet with the grime of hard outdoor play. They are both squatting at a dog’s metal water bowl, splashing in it with sticks.

The middle photo is of Evan on my sister Alma’s lap. They both face the camera, her arms are wrapped around his chest and their faces are side by side—that they are related is clear by their sharp Sizemore chins.

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Zeal for Thy House

It’s January 1 and the first Mass of the year finds me slouched onto the kneeler, sleepy-headed and negligent. It’s a Holy Day of obligation and I don’t want to start off on a bad foot. Never able to get to the vigil on New Year’s Eve, I always shuffle into the pew the next morning with the same disoriented outlook. I even say the same things to myself every year: I have to start things off right; I have to think about this hard; I wish I felt better.

My mind then drifts towards the football games that will be coming on, and the Hoppin’ John that will be served for good luck, before I rebuke myself and start over again.

The tough thing about it is that all about me I see a bunch of good Christian people. There’s a couple that has a passel of their own children who also take in a passel of foster children. Every service, they spend their time pacifying babies and taking toddlers out to the bathroom. The very sight of them exhausts me. The husband is also a lector and walks with a cane.

There’s a man in the back who has brought his wheelchair-bound mother every Sunday as long as I can remember. He is a farmer, I believe, and works long hours. Today, he is alone, and I don’t know what happened to his mother, though I suspect the worst. Still, there he is.

There’s a doctor up front who gave an entire sound system to the church because the people in the back couldn’t hear the priest. Just ponied up all that cash—and it was a lot of cash—so that folks would not strain so much for an understanding.

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The Road to Dogmascus

Guest post by Tania Runyan

I’ve clearly missed some important cultural boat, for people love so many things that I just simply don’t get. Beer, Star Wars, zombies, body piercings. While my friends devote themselves to these phenomena with cultish fervor, I look on with confusion, if not a little disgust.

But the item that used to top my list? (Allow me a moment to duck.)

Dogs.

Oh, how I loathed them! Their indiscriminate, face-licking, feces-chomping ways. The agitation of approaching a friend’s door to the sounds of howls and claws on tile as she attempted to restrain the beast.

Why do people do this to themselves? I would ask. Is this just more American-dream mythology, that a stinky creature requiring overpriced squeak toys and hip replacements makes a family complete?

When I was a young girl, our family owned two aloof Afghan hounds, The Countess and The Duchess, who drifted through the yard like curtains haunted by spirits. I didn’t have a personal connection to them, and they couldn’t care less about me. It wasn’t until a stray cat wound herself around my ankles that I found myself devoted to an animal, even creating place settings for her at the table.

But dogs? We just didn’t get each other. This suspicion was solidified when my friend’s German shepherd suddenly pinned me to the door during a trigonometry study session. I wasn’t injured seriously, but the fang marks in my arm were enough. I was turned off to all dogs—and downright terrified of the big ones—for years after that event.

And let’s just say I never moved on to calculus.

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Nothing Can Stay, Gold or Not

My wife Liz and I met in a bar.

For Liz it was in defiance of her father’s admonition, “Whatever you do, don’t meet a Melungeon in a bar.” While technically she did meet a Melungeon in a bar, it wasn’t quite like that; we were both at a going-away party for a mutual friend, a poet who had taken a teaching job on the other side of the United States, in San Francisco.

Last Friday night Liz and I visited that bar for the last time. When the doors closed in the dark of Saturday morning, Bull Branch was gone. The owner Scott had closed it down the way she does everything—full throttle all the way. She swung open the doors and threw a smash-up party. Don DiLego, backed by a fantastic band, gave us a good dose of his soulful Americana. Everyone danced, and drank, and reveled in the company of old friends.

Open in 2001, Bull Branch was a restaurant and a bar, but it was more than that. It was a place to meet people interested in more than hookups and college football; it was a place to talk about art and literature and music; it was a place to hear music that ranged in the course of an hour from Willie Nelson to Morphine to Fela Kuti. If you wanted to dance, you did it between the tables. And that was fine. People did it all the time.

It feels like our town has lost another bubble of sanity, a local sanctuary from the bland corporate-store kitsch that appears to be spreading like gangrene across the city. Another place with personality goes, another Cracker Barrel or Buffalo Wild Wings—or two, or four—opens.

Friday was great fun. Saturday was sad, as if another friend had moved far away. Funny how a place has its own personality and can come to feel like a friend. Bull Branch was like that to me—a friend I hadn’t seen as much lately because I had three kids to usher through the teen years, but an old friend nonetheless.

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