By Chuck Reece
This is my morning routine of late.
Wake up, slowly. Never been a morning person. Put the kettle on for my coffee and my wife’s tea. Small glass of Coca-Cola over ice to get the synapses firing until the water boils. Turn on “Morning Joe,” which these days amounts to just a bunch of smart folks recounting the same horrors we all went to bed with the night before, then asking each other, What the hell? Every morning, I think Joe, Mika, and Willie seem perilously closer to using the F-word.
Next, I pick up the phone for a quick scan of the morning’s news in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and my hometown local, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This morning, it was subpoenas dropped on the president’s inaugural committee, Virginia’s governor still vacillating on whether to resign, etc. and so forth. Then the quick check of what’s trending on Twitter. Sharp and sometimes senseless words pouring from so many mouths.
Then, I take a shower. To wash it all off.
But no matter how much Dr. Bronner’s I pour into my washrag, I never get all the dirt off. These days, seems like the only clean place is inside me. When I go in there, I can still find what matters. And what matters to me these days is the spirit moving.
Is he about to lecture us about religion — or, please no, “mindfulness”?
Well, I don’t care much about your religious practices or the meditation apps you’ve downloaded, and my own are my business. What I’m talking about is the thing that lives in us and binds us together, that force, that whatever, that something.
Lately, I find myself thinking about a story I wrote when The Bitter Southerner was only six months old. It was about a songwriter from Austin, Texas, named Jon Dee Graham. We had talked about how some people interpret his songs as religious, particularly the ones he writes about that ineffable spirit.
“I’ve had religious people come up to me,” he told me five years ago.“They’ll pick one of the songs and go, ‘Well, clearly this is a gospel or spiritual song.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, OK, it could be.’”
Then, he got specific about what he knows and what he doesn’t know, because he walks through the world with the jaundiced view common to old punk-rock kids like him and me.
“I don’t care for one second for people who believe they can tell you exactly what is going on, but only a fucking moron would take a look around in this world and not see that there is something going on. There is something happening. There is something at work in this world. I think it might be the human spirit. I don’t know. But some days, I walk out the front door and it’s as though the whole world is glowing with light. You can taste the air. Then there’s other days where you just can’t bear to get up.
“But when you pay attention and you look closely at the events going on around you and the interactions you have with your family and friends — even your interactions with total fucking strangers — something moves. It’s not me and it’s not you. What is that? What is that?”
Because Jon Dee is good at his job, he’s even got a song for that.
Something moves beneath the surface, something moves.
I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.
Yeah, it’s there, but you won’t find it on “Morning Joe” or in the news.
So, where do you find it? As for me, I found it in North Carolina last week, when I was up there working on a story you’ll see in April. Last Wednesday, in the same day, I visited the Vines sisters (the Glorifying Vines Sisters, properly), who’ve been singing amazing gospel harmonies their entire life, and their older brother, Freeman, whose business is to take wood from trees used to lynch his people and transform it into hand-carved, electric-guitar bodies. His idea is to add music to the blood at the root of those old trees.
Whatever moves through the Vines family moves through the four sisters differently than it moves through their brother, but something does move in them, through them, and it brings healing and joy.
Days like that one are rare, even in my line of work. On the regular days, which are most of the days, I have to look in smaller places for that something. I can’t tell you where to look for it, but I can tell you it’s there. If you love coffee like I do, can you tell me your first morning sip, piping hot, is not a little miracle? No, you cannot. And if you think about that cup of coffee, and you want to bless the hands that prepared it, you find yourself thanking the pickers, the roasters, the truckers, the folks who built your bean grinder. You even connect to the something when you see your old Clermont Lounge mug in the cabinet, and think, Man, that coffee is gonna be great in that cup.
I also find it in moments with brand-new acquaintances, when I discover I’ve met someone who takes joy in things that bring me joy, too. And those evenings on the couch with your family, munching popcorn and watching the tube, that something is swirling all around you.
You can’t see it, but you know it’s there.
I want to live through the rest of 2019 looking for evidence of the something that sustains me. I won’t swear off Joe and Mika, but it’ll do me good to look for the things that move before the morning clatter begins. Those things keep me sane. They keep me connected and safe with the people I love and who love me.
The first time I actually spoke to Jon Dee Graham was the night before I turned 50 years old. He was 52 then and told me that 50 was great because “your give-a-shitter stops working.” Now, I’m 58, and Jon Dee is about to turn 60. I wonder sometimes what kind of world it is when a guy who writes so beautifully still has to do crowdfunding to make his next album. But I contributed, because that’s what you do to keep the something moving. New songs, paintings, books, and photographs feed the something. They help us find new connections to whatever spirit it is that sustains us and binds us. And I try to remember another verse my buddy from Texas wrote, one that feels like a prayer that will do me good.
Make me willing, make me strong.
Make us brave as the day is long.
Open my eyes, and let me see,
And not turn away
From a world so full.
This old world is full indeed. In the clutter, I can’t see it. But if I look inside — and at y’all — I know it’s there.