My grandfather lived in a run-down shotgun shack. He wasn’t my real grandfather but that’s what I called him. He was my mother’s step-father. He lived far away from us in the Deep South where life was very difficult, where the ground wasn’t dirt at all but just hard-packed red clay and nothing grew but tall thistles, poverty, and weeds.
My father bought an old run-down farm for next to nothing. Even though there wasn’t anything there to steal he worried someone might break in to the tiny cabin perched precariously on a hilltop so together he and my mother talked the old man into coming there to live and to watch over the place.
I was a less than ideal child. I could never get along with my mother; my father was always gone working. But when we visited her step-father way down there in Alabama I got along splendidly with the old man. So one day my father decided in order to ameliorate peace in the household that I should go and live with grandfather. I jumped at the chance.
The old man didn’t much care whether I went to school or not, so most days I didn’t bother going. We spent our time together smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking moonshine whiskey he bought at the local pool hall and cutting posts to sell at the lumber yard. Each post had to be a certain length; each post had to be de-barked with a sharp blade, otherwise we wouldn’t get full price, which didn’t amount to much more than a few pennies each anyhow.
The lumberyard where we sold our posts sat just outside of a little town no one ever heard of called Finger. The town had one store, a general store, where all the old men gathered around the wood stove in both summer and winter. The cans lining the shelves were dusty as were the dry goods. The proprietor always watched me when we stopped there as if he was sure I had come there to shoplift what I could. While he watched me, grandfather filled his bib overall pockets with tins of beans and sardines and sacks of tobacco and packets of rolling papers.
Returning home in his rickety pickup truck that he let me drive the old man would laugh a toothless cackle as he pulled out the loot he had garnered while I distracted the store owner. Looking back I suppose it wasn’t right us doing what we did but we did it to survive. Cutting posts was a poor day’s pay. It barely kept us in gas and whiskey. And I suppose you could say the old man was half-loony by that time anyway. He probably belonged in a home but that would have killed him quicker than the whiskey and the cold.
The old man liked to tell stories of the days when he had been young and I liked to listen. I suppose all old people enjoy remembering the exploits of their youth. I often wondered if the fact of their memories was different than the memories themselves. Though I would never accuse the old man of lying it seemed as if he was apt to embellish the good while neglecting the terrible.
I remember that even though it was in the deep south of Alabama the winters were very cold at times. The shack where we lived had no furnace; we had an old rusted-iron wood stove in the living room that served to warm the house as well as to cook our food and boil up water for us to get up to our necks in when we had a mind to.
The front door consisted of an aluminum screen tacked onto a wooden frame. In an effort to keep the cold winter winds at bay we’d tape cardboard over the screen but it only served to lessen the freezing grip that the cold took on that old house.
Just as the cold began fading during my second winter there the old man began coughing up gray goop that he spit into a spittoon that he kept in the living room. From the rattling sounds of his breathing I knew he wasn’t feeling well but when I walked to the nearest neighbor to call my folks my father said the old man would be fine, not to worry about him.
A couple mornings later my grandfather didn’t come out of his bedroom. He always went to bed when the sun went down and rose when it came up. So by noon when he still hadn’t emerged I peeked into his room. I could tell by the lack of movement under the covers that the old man had passed on during the night.
I walked across the hollow on a dirt road to call my folks again. At that time there was only forest and grasslands; the people who lived thereabouts were very poor. They looked out for one another though in a way that was foreign to me being raised in the north. When I got to the door of the neighbor’s house to use their phone I broke down crying. I had loved the old man in my own way. I knew I would have to go back north to live in a place for which I had no love.
It was in the returning that I came to know myself better, however. I went back to my lessons. I graduated from high school with honors. I had grown determined not to end up the same way as my folks; though I loved my grandfather I had no inclination to become like him either. I entered a university out east; later I went to law school; I became a busy attorney working out of New York City with clients who trusted me with their livelihoods as well as their lives.
I grew wealthy beyond measure—counted upon for advice by both politicians in high places and judges sitting in high courts—yet something nagged at the edges of my psyche, like an itch that try as I might I couldn’t quite seem to reach to scratch. I thought about what bothered me and then I thought about it some more. The more I thought about it the farther away a solution seemed.
Finally after many years had passed I gave up the thinking, left my law practice, and buying an old pick up truck I set out for destinations unknown in an effort to capture the freedom of my youth. I thought if I left all my certainties behind I could find the answers that had so far eluded all my efforts at uncovering.
At first I though I was too late. I’d grown fat and full of knowing. I had waited too long to act. The tentacles of the city of dreadful night had wormed their way into my very being. As I headed west into high mountain places I felt like a man returning to the place of his birth. I missed many meals wandering the mountain trails. As my mind stilled the troubles ebbed along with my weight. I became light upon my feet once again; my mind became as clear as the cold streams from which I drank.
I found myself returning to the mystery.
Years later I returned to Alabama passing through on my way somewhere else. I saw how the old shack had been torn down. An immaculate brick home stood there instead. The old hollow once full of trees was now full of new homes. The dirt road was a highway. The old town that once sported a single general store now had a dozen fast food restaurants and a big hotel and neon-lighted casinos dotting its edges.
I thought how all the glitter of the money rolling into the old town had covered up something important, something no one else seemed to notice but me. It was all a lie intended to make the people happy. The real truth of living is in the suffering and in the poverty of pain.
I thought how it is better to live with a sad truth than to live with a happy lie. That which holds a person together is the values in their life. When a person desires happiness they overlook the sorrow that makes up the world. No one desires sorrow but it is the way of things to lose that which we love.
The mystery comes before happiness and sorrow, good and evil; the mystery has never been born; it waits neither patiently nor impatiently for everything to return to it. The wise seek out higher knowing but the mystery is unknown and unborn. The fool seeks to take what is not theirs but the mystery gives freely and asks nothing in return.
Returning is the motion of the mystery. I know by letting go of this, it will return. By curbing my desires and stilling my mind I know all I need will be provided.
Yielding is the way of the mystery. Rather than forcing my way through life I yield to the mystery. Taking and never giving is the way of the fool. Giving and never taking is the way of the wise. The mystery comes before it all.
The names of all things are born of being. Being is born of not-being. Returning to the mystery is the way of the universe.