Strong Enough To Bend
Once upon a time, way back when I was in middle school, our family was living “downhome.” Downhome is in West Tennessee, in the “boondocks,” where houses are separated by acres and everybody knows everybody. The gas station is two miles or more away.
My great grandparents’ house sat on a corner and, behind the house, was a path that led to a pond. Us kids would trek to the pond nearly every time we visited, to see frogs and get eaten alive by mosquitoes. Mama Nora loved buttermilk, so the smell of it, and of fresh, garden-picked vegetables cooking, was ever present. So was the sweet smell of tobacco from W.A’s (my great grandfather) pipe. A CB radio lived in the house; I remember Papa (my grand father) and W.A talking to truckers.
The world was different. Back then, you only knew what you could gather when the radio people, the newspapers or the local news’ anchor could report it. Instant knowledge, the Internet, cell phones and pandemics were as unimaginable as an entire human population actually living and commuting from Earth to Mars is today. Time moved slower, it seemed.
In the midst of this landscape, I was a young girl. Blonde hair, blue eyed, chunky kid who loved to read and write, was quick to tears and generally quiet, I was a dreamer. I dreamed of meeting Tanya Tucker. I dreamed the girls of the baby Sitters Club were real. I dreamed of meeting a boy who might like me. Mostly, I dreamed of stability.
One day, I came home from school with a sapling. A baby tree. And I don’t know why, but I loved this sapling. It seemed very fragile to me, maybe part of the reason I loved it. I wanted it to grow. And I remember thinking that it could grow up at the same time I did. The only problem was that my family moved a lot; I didn’t know where to plant it so that I could come back and check on its progress.
W.A. told me to plant it in the front yard. They’d lived in the same house for literally generations; they weren’t going anywhere. It was a safe place to plant my sapling. We moved from downhome but W.A knew I loved that tree and so, one night, when a storm came, he went out in the rain and tied a stick to the sapling so that it wouldn’t be crushed under the weight of the downpour. He made it strong enough to withstand the rain.
Moving was our family’s trademark. We did it a lot. We lived in the cities, in the country, by the beach and in the mountains; we lived in rich neighborhoods and we stayed in a tent without a house for weeks. And while that digs holes in the heart, it also built narrow bridges, havens that gave me the foundation to healing. For example, when we lived in that tent for weeks—I don’t remember being scared or lonely (my father was in one of his prison visits); I remember laughing as my mother and I tried to set up a tent in the dark with only the car’s headlights for a guide. I remember playing cards every day, and writing. A boring, quiet existence… but a safe one. When we lived in a new, strange house by the beach, I don’t remember feeling disheartened or overwhelmed; I remember dancing in the Florida heat and squeaking over a garden snake. Even in places where my memories are painful and traumatic, alongside those memories are ones of strength: my sister and I fighting over the front seat of the car or collecting old soda cans that we then fed to the machine outside the laundromat for coins (we were fascinated by the baskets on wheels at the laundromat and would frequently play with them by racing them up and down and around the rows of washing machines and dryers). Going door to door with all of my beloved, treasured BabySitter Club books to try to sell them so I could get money to go to Fan Fair, a yearly Country Music festival I lived for (a lady with a daughter just a couple years younger than me bought the entire collection for some $50. I thought I was rich). My point is that these aren’t just “good memories,” these were infusions of strength, beacons of hope that got me through the nights where I’d lay shaking in fear.
One poignant memory that I vividly remember is of laying in a room with a window without shades; the walls are wood paneled, and I am young. My father has just left the room, and I am convinced my body is torn. My legs clamped tightly together, I lay there for what seems like eternity, terrified of moving my legs, scared that, if I do, blood will pour out. My whole body started shaking—violently shaking—-and I ground my teeth together; I was crying, of course. But what got me through that night, what finally helped me go to sleep, was singing a very, very old Gospel song my Mama said was my other great grandmother’s favorite. Mama teaching it to me was a lifeline. See, each positive experience, every optimistic event—each one was the stick that kept me from being crushed by the torrential, overwhelming downpour.
Today, I’ll listen to anything with a good beat and clean lyrics. I’ll even tolerate rap because my daughters enjoy it. But, growing up, I listened to only Michael W. Smith and Country Music. I knew every song on 98 WSIX Nashville. Hoss Burns and Gerry House were constant companions; I even went to meet Hoss. Above all artists, though, my favorite was Tanya Tucker. My mother introduced me to her music by playing Delta Dawn and telling me that this lady sang story songs. Happiest Girl in the USA, What’s Your Mama‘s Name, Child, Jamestown Ferry, Spring, Blood Red and Goin’ Down, Down to My Last Teardrop and pretty much every other song I heard, I loved. But there was one that struck a nerve.
Strong Enough to Bend.
It’s my ringtone today and it is never far from my head. I used to sing it to myself riding the bus home from school, scared to be that close to other kids. Once, in Pine Mountain, GA, when I had really terrible things happening that were compounded by emotionally charged book I was writing about the Holocaust, I remember being on the porch swing, singing that song. Isn’t it weird how a place where such bad memories lurk is also one of my favorite places in the country? Pretty sure it’s because the smell of pine was thick, the deer we saw in the morning mist, playing board games, driving daily two miles down a terrifyingly curvy road for ice cream sandwiches and my sister and and I checking on each other in the middle of the night. The strength sewn from those memories keeps the nightmarish memories from drowning me, and from ruining a picturesque backdrop.
Those personal and simple pleasures were the stick holding us upright, the grace God lent us to bend, but not break, under the weight of trauma.
Tonight, I’m remembering something important:
Though I haven’t seen it in awhile, my sapling is still there, and still growing.
While in the thick of something heartbreaking, it’s easy to see the world as grey, to bend a little more than I want to, a little more than is comfortable. But that doesn’t mean the world is grey or that I’ve been crushed. While I’ve grieved the loss of dreams, Breathe dances and sings daily; Alight hangs calendars of a boy band and chases dreams by doing terrifying things like ridiculous roller coasters. The littlest of things like Alight and I soaking wet, trying to give an 18 pound dog a bath or Breathe and I chatting about how we wish we could trademark baby names show me flickering signs of light at the end of the tunnel. Playing silly games like Guess the character or planning summer vacations—these things keep me moving. Today’s greatest gift was Alight saying she thought it would be cool if me, Breathe and herself all dressed in the same color for a fancy dinner; that simple sentence from my precious Light Light told me I was wanted. They are my stick.
There’s a tree / out in the backyard / that never has been broken by the wind / and the reason it’s still standing / it is was strong enough to bend
If you don’t bend, the pressure, the strain, will make you eventually collapse. Sometimes bending means giving yourself permission to go out or to buy a dress; sometimes bending means writing 20,000 words a day; sometimes bending means listening to music, praying or losing an hour or two on your phone; sometimes bending means crying and sometimes it means shouting; sometimes bending means asking for help. And sometimes, in order to bend, you have to remember the times you’ve done it before, the times when the trauma and the stress and the pain of life stole your breath and squeezed your heart…but you chose to not give up. Every time that choice is made, every time I choose tomorrow, not only am I saying yes to life, I’m also saying that I remember when hope overcome the shadows, when light cast out fear, when I was strong enough to bend.