the Lumineers, the band that may have started that whole ho! hey! thing a few years ago, tell pretty good stories in their songs. i had heard Cleopatra and was confused about what the song was about until I heard this.
Every year about this time we go to the cemeteries and clean the graves of those who have gone before. It makes you realize how fast time flies. Has it really been that long? And then there are all those forgotten graves. What was their story? Maybe this.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. up the steep gravel road, through the woods to the clearing where the old grey headstones were covered in moss and leaned toward the earth as if they were too tired to stand up straight, for so long they had stood in testament to the forgotten lives of those whose names were were worn from the stone by the unrelenting and unforgiving passage of time.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. because there were snakes and yellow jackets and maybe bears. and at night across the hollows voices and laughter and music and now and then a gunshot would echo from neighbors unknown, and though the graveyard was close it was no place for a young girl alone.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. but along with the grey, rough tablets of ancient men and their wives and their children, were smooth slabs of curved and polished marble with praying hands and crosses and Bible verses written in script, and names her grandmother knew of this cousin and that uncle, and her grandmother’s husband, the grandfather she had never known.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. under the deep shade cast by towering oaks and maples where grass wouldn’t grow and moss and lichens clung easily to the old stones and left her grandfather’s headstone untouched by nature, save for the pollen in the spring that she would wipe with her finger from the smooth marble, that also promised that her grandmother would someday rest with him.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. but her grandmother worried too much. she had never seen a snake and stayed clear of the bees and the idea of bears just seemed silly, and it was peaceful always peaceful. and she would talk to God and ask why other kids teased her, though she knew it was because her clothes were old and she was poor.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and she sat beside the grandfather she knew only from photographs, and read Psalms from his old Bible and drew wisdom from the words that would stay with her all of her days, and give her comfort through her pain, and strength through her weakness, and courage through her fears.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and when she saw him she knew her grandmother had been right, and she had been foolish, and as he came toward her he took a drink from a bottle and wiped his mouth on his sleeve and laughed, and she knew that he had come from the valley of the shadow of death.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. but she would fear no evil and she always carried a staff, the old iron pipe from her grandfather’s workshop, heavy and cool, and she stood and gripped it in both hands and drew back and stepped toward him and swung, and he screamed as it struck against his ribs, and his bottle dropped, and she ran off the hill.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. she didn’t tell her grandmother and she didn’t sleep for days, and when the kids teased her because she had to tape the soles of her shoes, and because she lived in a shack with her grandmother because her mother had killed herself with a needle, she cried into her pillow softly, so her grandmother wouldn’t hear.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and it was weeks before she went back to find her staff, her grandfather’s iron pipe, which had given her comfort, and to find the peace that had left her. but it wasn’t the same. she couldn’t read she couldn’t pray she couldn’t close her eyes because he might be out there still.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and though she was afraid, she still went there by herself, because it was there she had learned of peace and strength and courage. and she would grow and live far away from the hollows, and the kids who teased her, and she would become a woman strong in her will and strong in her faith and though she was never alone she went there by herself.
copyright 2017, joseph e bird photo copyright 2017, joseph e bird
A few years ago, you became my radio station of choice. I listen to all the great story-telling shows on Saturday. On Sunday afternoons, the cooking and travel shows fill the time as I drive through the mountains of West Virginia. I even dig most of the classical music shows. We have a local DJ, Matt Jackfert, who is always playing something interesting in the genre.
My job requires a lot of time in the car, and in the mornings, I usually tune to NPR to get news and commentary. I like the seriousness with which the news is presented and the absence of hyperbole from local radio personalities.
But here’s the thing: You’ve become sooo negative.
Nobody can do anything right. It seems like all your stories are about how somebody doesn’t get it, is incompetent, or just plain mean. If only everyone were as enlightened as the good, caring souls at NPR, what a better world we would live in. Yes, we need journalists to fact check and tell us the truth and I appreciate the work you do, but I can’t take it anymore.
I’ve found myself tuning in to the local commercial stations and enduring the screaming car dealers and the bad jokes and the shallow reporting just to get a break from the prophecy of doom that NPR is becoming.
Yeah, the world is a crazy place and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. But I need a break. So NPR, can you lighten up a bit? Please?
In his book, Chronicles, Bob Dylan was looking back at the 60s and all the analysis that went with the events that were changing the world. He said this:
“All the news was bad. It was good that it didn’t have to be in your face all day. Twenty-four-hour news coverage would have been a living hell.”
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
–Genesis, Chapter 1
What evocative language. What a way to start a story. What a choice of words. The prose is so strong, it’s poetic.
Of course the original writing was Hebrew. Does the Hebrew translation have the same effect on the reader? I don’t know. The translation above is the King James Version. Here’s the New International Version.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
Basically the same meaning, and probably more grammatically correct. No sentences begin with “And”, which I know drives some people nuts. And the last two sentences have been combined into one, which modern grammar-check software would undoubtedly suggest. It may be more correct, but as literature, it loses a little of its punch, a little of its rhythm, a little of its beauty.
The choice of words matter. Subtle changes can make powerful differences.
Let’s look at another beginning.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
–The Gospel of John, Chapter 1
I find this language intriguing. If one were to pick up this story without knowing anything about it, the first two sentences would produce a shaking of the head. What??? A mystery right off the bat. Then the third sentence introduces the main character. Quite a powerful guy, it would seem. Then the talk of light and darkness. A sense of foreboding. Yeah, this would be my kind of story.
Many of my favorite books begin this way. A sense of mystery. The introduction of an intriguing figure. And you know something is going to happen.
This week we’ll take a look at beginnings, and we’ll see that words matter.