Day 24 Part One: Knoxville to Maggie Valley, N.C.; It Should Have Been an Easy Ride; Dale; Gratitude; Angels.

Technically, it was an easy ride. The route was clear, the sky was Carolina blue and Big Red was doing her happy thing. Then I got hungry and decided to stop at a Wendy’s this time. I pulled off the exit and saw a man walking with a sign beside the road. I passed him and went up to the restaurant. The place was crowded so it took a while before I got my food. Because Big Red’s carries my luggage bag and laptop I always sit so I can keep an eye on her. After I had just gotten my food I watched as the man with the sign sat down a short distance away from my bike. I kept glancing at him. It didn’t look like he was going to mess with the bike. When I finished I walked over to him and asked him how he was doing.
He sat there and told me a long story about his life, how he’d just gotten out of the military, had come home and his wife of 20 years had filed for divorce and wouldn’t let him in the house because she was afraid of him, because he had PTSD. He suddenly didn’t have anywhere to go. The VA (Veteran’s Hospital) would take him but all they wanted to do was put him in a bed and drug him. He was trying to get back to where he grew up in Montana. He said he had stopped at a nearby church. When the pastor came to the door he asked if there was any work he could do for a peanut butter sandwich. He claimed the pastor asked him if he was on drugs or had been drinking. He asked the pastor to show him in the Bible where Jesus had asked that question, or any question like that had been asked before help was given. He just wanted to know could he do some work for a peanut butter sandwich. The minister closed the door on him. Later, while he was walking down the road, probably just before I had seen him, the police showed up and asked him had he been at the church. He explained that he had been, that he was just trying to do some work for some food. He said a police man threw a napkin down on the ground and said: Pick that up. He did and the policeman said: Here’s a dollar. Go get yourself something and then get out of town.
So he walked over here and bought himself a can of iced tea. He said the people in the store didn’t want him panhandling so he sat way over here. (in the hot sun). Come the first of the month he’d get some money put into his account. (It was June 1oth.)
He told me that some people come up to him and say: Thanks for your service. He said why do they thank me. I’m just doing a regular 9-5 job and getting paid for it like everyone else. The people that should get thanked are the ones that died over there. And he started to cry. They were the friends I had and they’re not coming back. He mentioned the various places that he had been stationed and started to choke up. Then he showed me where he had had surgery on both of his ankles because of an explosion. He said he had been born again, quoted a Bible verse and took a card out of his wallet that had reminders of important verses. He said he took it out and looked at it often when he needed it. He said he was thankful; that he felt blessed. It could be worse. I could be lying in a ditch or been killed like those boys who are never coming back. Then he started to stutter. I don’t like talking about it. I’ve been lucky. I’m very thankful.
We talked a bit more and then it was time to leave. Though he never once asked, I gave him some money. He looked at it. Are you sure? I nodded. Thanks man. He hugged me. We shook hands and I introduced myself.
He said: “I’m Dale. Bless you. I’ll pray for you and your family.”
“Thanks, I need every prayer I can get. I’ll pray for you too.”
So, what do you think? Was he genuine or did he con me? Who knows? I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. Maybe he was one of the Lamed Vav; one of the 36 hidden and humble saints the very continuation of the world rests upon? (You can search my blog for more references I’ve made to them). Maybe he was Elijah the prophet? According to an old Hasidic story Elijah often comes to us in disguise: someone ill mannered, a poor person, a beggar. And woe to us if we judge this person harshly and withhold assistance!
Maybe he was an angel? Hebrews says: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb. 13:4).
To be honest, I don’t know. I’m quick to judge others at times on very superficial things and I have to catch myself. Mother Teresa said that if we’re busy judging people we can’t be busy loving them. Which is more important?
All I know for sure is that I cried the rest of the way to Maggie Valley.

Autumn is Coming, Pirates, Hungry kids, Random Acts of Kindness

Autumn is coming. Trees on the hills are gossiping about their changing colors.

Despite having put 10, 000 miles on the bike this summer I can’t stop riding Big Red, my 2004 Harley Road King Classic. I enjoy it so much. We’ve been having a drought here in Georgia so every day’s been dry. And hot too. So hot that chickens have been laying boiled eggs; men have been proposing to tall women just for the shade. You get the idea.

Yesterday, as I headed home from work the rain started falling. It wasn’t too bad at first but then it became heavier. At this point bikers usually look for an overpass they can park under to either wait it out or put on their rain gear. Or maybe they start looking for a gasoline/petrol station where they can hunker down for a while until it lets up. That’s what I did. I knew there was a station just a few miles down the road so I kept going. While riding there, rainbows started to almost crowd the sky. It was like they had been waiting for the damn drought to be over so they could show off their beautiful colors. Rainbows to me are always harbingers of hope, reminding me that we all can learn to be at home with insecurity. Leaving the gas station a drizzle continued and I watched the mist, rising off the hot asphalt and the fields near the road, and watched it kissing the low lying clouds. Romance is everywhere.

Rode Big Red up to work to teach my class, and since it was International Talk Like a Pirate Day I dressed up. Hopefully, I can get a picture attached.

I also rode it up to the free meal program I volunteer at and enjoyed the excitement of the little kids who climbed up on it and tried on my helmet. I don’t do much at that program other than read books, make paper airplanes, talk to folks and mop up. I can swing a mean mop. I offer my students extra credit if they’ll go to the program, not tell folks they’re students or what they’re doing, mingle a little, have a meal and write a paper about it. I usually only get a few students who’ll do it but they always find it a profound and humbling experience. It’s one thing to read about poverty and see it and another to feel what it’s like. No one wants to ask for help, or be seen receiving it.

Big Red brought me over to the river the other day so I could walk on the tree lined path that accompanies it. It was hot and I got pretty sweaty. I had a Harley shirt on and some jeans but I must have looked a little rough when I stumbled into a barbecue joint to get some ice water. After sitting there munching on ice for a while a man walked up to me and said in a low, gentle voice: “Excuse me sir. My family and I are were talking and we wondered if we could buy you a meal?” I was surprised, smiled and told him thanks, that I was alright. What would you have said?

They must have thought I was homeless. That’s fine with me. But heartfelt, courageous, random acts of kindness are so beautiful they fill me with hope, just like rainbows.     wp_20160919_15_08_51_pro

Falling in Love with Hate. Motorcycling Meditations.

It’s December, and cold, but I’m still getting a ride on my bike every chance I get. Heated gloves help and so does layering up. We year round bikers are forever optimistic and try and make the best of things. So I’m still riding, reflecting and meditating. I’ve been going to the free meal program I help out at and talking with the poor and homeless I meet there. I make paper airplanes for the kids that read books to me and for the younger ones who will let me read to them. I mop floors and I’ll tell you right now: I swing a mean mop. Last night at the program the troubles and violence of recent events in the world were very far away from the normal trouble and violence experienced there by the poor and homeless every day. There were people sleeping in tents in nearby woods, others trying to get enough money to stay the night at a Motel 6, a man worrying about traffic fines and the jail time he’d get if he couldn’t pay them, and he knew he couldn’t. What was going to happen to the grandkids he was taking care of? Foster care? I spoke with a couple who used to ride Harleys but had to sell them to cover medical expenses. One man told me he wants to give me his old Harley gloves because, he says, “I’ll never get to ride again.” Some folks talked about last week’s football games, upcoming games, and coaches hired or fired. I watched laughing kids run past me to the playground and listened to their happy, screaming voices. And I witnessed small kindnesses – a man who has a car will give someone a ride to visit a loved one in the hospital; when the donated milk runs out a man gives his to a woman who didn’t get any; folks help with sweeping the floors, cleaning tables and taking the garbage out. And I have to say that the beauty of the children, their smiles and high fives, always melts this biker’s heart.
What with all the shootings around the world recently it’s easy and understandable to feel anger, even hatred at the individuals and organizations that have committed these horrific crimes. Beyond the compassion we feel for others, we worry about our own family and friends. Rippling out from these feelings can be a sense of helplessness, vulnerability and an angry determination not to have these events ever happen again on our watch. So we look for quick solutions. Gun control advocates hurl their angry comments. Gun possession advocates fire back with their claims of defense. Some people get angry at all Muslims. Others get angry at the people who stereotype all Muslims as killers, all refugees as evil. Regardless of the “side” we take in our words and writings (postings etc.) we can all too easily move beyond any sincere questioning of our own views, any honest searching for the truth, any engaging in rational analysis and argument. We can come to take pleasure in making fun of others, ridiculing them and their beliefs. Sometimes it seems like we have reached the point where we have fallen in love with hate.

I know a lot of folks’ mommas, like mine, used to tell us that if you can’t say anything good about anyone, then keep your mouth closed. The opposite now seems to be true. Don’t say anything good about others, just share your anger and ridicule for them. Falling in love with hate is a terrible path to head down. It’s not going to take you to any good place, to where your religion or beliefs want you to go.

I think of the children smiling and playing at the free meal program and it gives me hope. On all of our parts it’s going to take some deep soul searching, compassion, compromise and cooperation to solve the problems our world faces, both in the random suffering and violence we hear about in the shootings and in the ongoing suffering and violence of the poor and homeless, who are constantly in our midst. Compassion, mine and yours, and the spiritual and practical beauty it can create when it’s combined, is our only way out. Otherwise, our only choice is to fall in love with hate.

Ride safely. Ride with compassion.

Rain, Luckiness and the Great Tree of Sorrow

This week, as I ducked around the rain and potholes and tire gators and other detritus tossed about on the highway, I started thinking about luckiness and unluckiness and the Great Tree of Sorrow. I was lucky that I didn’t have an accident riding this week, lucky that for three days I dodged all the rain that was predicted. Well, you can guess what happened. On the fourth day I got soaked. It couldn’t be helped. I had been helping out at a free meal program Thursday evening doing my usual things, reading books, making paper airplanes for some of the 39 kids I counted that night. One kid, maybe three years old, wouldn’t let me read to him and instead kept sticking these rubber animals in my face: dinosaurs, tigers, hippos etc. and pretended they were biting me. After the meal, after chaperoning the kids while they were playing on the swings in the backyard and helping them get on the right van to go home, I was talking to some of the adults who come to the program. Some I know well, but there are always new ones. A few weeks ago I helped a man in a wheelchair get out of the building and back to his car. He loved motorcycles and we talked about them for quite a while. When we got back to his car he gave me a new baseball cap and thanked me. This time I was talking to a man who I had talked to before, a well-meaning, but easily confused and often cantankerous individual. I was sighing because it was dark and starting to rain and I had an hour’s ride home on Big Red. He told me that, yeah, the rain was bad and that he was sleeping in the woods that night. “Got a tent?” I asked. “Nope,” he replied. “I’ll find a cubbyhole somewhere.” Maybe needless to say, but I felt lucky that night riding home in the rain, knowing I had a warm, dry bed at the end of the trail. It got me thinking about happiness and unhappiness, the sorrows we all go through and it reminded me of the story of the Great Tree of Sorrow.
It’s an old story that I heard years ago. It goes something like this. God had been listening to all the prayers of all the people from around the world and had gotten plum tuckered out listening to them all. Finally, God spoke to everyone at once and said: “What am I going to do with all of you? (Depending on where you live that last word might have sounded different: y’all, youse, yousens). I gave you this beautiful world with all its joys and sorrows and every day you pray to me to take the sorrows and the pains back, that you can’t handle them, or don’t want to. So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to write down on a sheet of paper all the sufferings that you have and meet me in the morning over at that huge oak tree over there. (Over yonder). Everyone agreed.
They worked hard on their list, writing down all the aches and pains, losses, griefs, sufferings and fears they had. The next morning they were all there with their lists. Little children, grannies, folks in wheel chairs, some missing limbs, teachers, butchers, car salesfolks- everybody. Some lists were long and some were short but the shorter ones often bore more tragic, tear stained tales.
God eventually appeared the next morning, as God always does. God said: “Okay folks, go hang your sorrows on that tree. You can leave them there if you want to.” Well the people nearly climbed over each other, eager as they were to get rid of their sorrows. Afterwards they stood back and stared at the tree waiting to see what was going to happen next.
Then God spoke again. “Now, here’s the second part. (It was a good news/bad news kind of thing.) Before sunset today you must pick a sorrow to take away with you when you leave.” The folks went back to the tree and walked around it again reading all the sorrows. There were gasps and tears and moans and groans as they read the sheets of paper.
But as sunset approached people began to grab pieces of paper from the tree and put them in their pockets or pursues or backpacks. Soon the tree was empty again and as the last sunlight scattered so did all of the people back to their homes, carrying their chosen sorrows.
God smiled, in that sad, compassionate way that only God can pull off with a straight face. Why? Because God already new the result. Each person, no matter what horrible things they had written on their list, had chosen to take home their own sufferings.
Ride safely my friends.

“Your journey has molded you for your greater good, and it was exactly what it needed to be. Don’t think you’ve lost time. There is no short-cutting to life. It took each and every situation you have encountered to bring you to the now. And now is right on time.”
― Asha Tyson

Searching for Angels: Part Two

In my last entry I wrote about looking for angels in the ordinary people that we meet. I used a quote from Hebrews to underline the fact that they may come to us in disguise. It reminded me of a Celtic Rune that I managed to track down.
A Celtic Rune of Hospitality
We saw a stranger yesterday.
We put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place.
And with the sacred name of the triune God
He blessed us and our house,
Our cattle and our dear ones.
As the lark says in her song:
Often, often, often, goes the Christ
In the stranger’s guise.

It’s been a busy week so far looking for angels. Instead of getting up in the morning with only one thought – coffee, I have to get up with two –coffee and angels. It means, after my coffee, I hop on the Harley and ride down the road not complaining about the drivers but instead wondering if they might be angels? It was a huge shift in my way of thinking. Have you tried it?
My first stop on the way to work was by this meal program that feeds homeless people. The door to their small roadside shop was open and so I pulled Big Red into the parking lot. The helpers were inside getting things ready for their meal that would be happening in about an hour. They were also packing up bags of take home food and water for the folks camping in the woods. I’ve come to know these helpers fairly well and we talked and joked for a while. Five of them, ages 18-65, are all certifiable angels, without a doubt, disguised as normal people.
I went to teach my class. I teach college students and, having been one a few times myself, I know that angelic behavior, at least in my case, can be rare. Not as rare as sighting “The Lost Camellia”, last seen in the wild, in Georgia back in 1790, but pretty darn close. I bet there were a few angels in my classes that day, but as a teacher you don’t want to stare at anyone for too long.
What about the man that keeps the place clean? Our secretary, who I know has done some angelic things in her life? God forbid, could my fellow faculty be angels?! (I add that one in particular because one of them reads this blog!). This was proving more difficult than I had imagined. What about the woman mopping the floor at McDonalds I spoke with? The polite, respectful young man at Krystal who helped a frail older man who was of a different color with getting coffee and taking his tray away? A funny aside here- the same guy was in line behind me and was edging forward. He said to me: “I hope you weren’t thinking I was trying to cut in front of you. I don’t want to get my butt whipped by a biker today.” I laughed and remembered I was wearing my “Willie G.” Harley vest with the skull and crossbones on the back. I assured him that he had no worries.
Tuesday night I went looking for angels in downtown Rome, Georgia where I live. I ran into two former girlfriends. Could they be angels? I’ll just say that for the record both of them are wonderful women and I’ll respectfully leave it at that. I could be wrong but I don’t think either of them would describe me as angelic!

Thursday, I definitely saw angels at this different free meal program that I sometimes visit. Big Red and I rode over there after work. The two women running the place are amazing. So friendly, helpful, supportive and loving to everyone. No doubt that they’re angels. Then there are the helpers –ones who bring and prepare the food, pass it out, clean up afterwards, help the children, the adults and older people. But were there any angels amongst the folks that ate the food? When I think about that quote from Hebrews and the Celtic Rune it seems more and more obvious to me that angels often travel around in disguise, as people in need of basic food, shelter, and clothing.
This was going to be tougher than I expected. On the way home Thursday I stopped at McDonald’s to get some iced tea. The woman was there again, mopping up. I said: “Are you still mopping? Have you been doing this since I last saw you?!” We had a good laugh at that. When I was leaving I saw a skinny man walking by the road. I knew I could get my helmet on and Big Red cranked before he got there but I thought: Hell, he might just be an angel. So I stopped and talked with him. He was limping because he had hurt his foot. He was homeless and camping in the woods and asked if I knew somewhere he could take a shower. I didn’t know. He told me the shelter he goes to in that town told him that this was the last time they’d let him have a shower there. I told him about the free meal place that I had visited on Tuesday. He said he would check them out. I gave him some money for some food and he thanked me and we shook hands.
Friday, I’m pretty sure I spotted one angel. This one was disguised as a man who walked up behind me and a friend when we were at a gas (petrol) station. He was pulling a wagon with his stuff in it and used the outdoor faucet to wash his face and hands. My friend and I decided to give him a few dollars and I took it over to him and chatted with him a while. When I gave him the money he smiled a toothless grin and thanked me again and again. He looked at me and pointed at me and then the sky. He said: “God always gives me what I need when I need it.” He said. “God bless you.” And smiled again. Now, I know for sure he was an angel. But Big Red and I are gonna keep looking and we’ll report back to you. You keep looking too!

Homeless Men on Father’s Day

It’s Father’s Day and my three children are all grown and literally thousands of miles away. I miss them terribly. My own father died a few years ago, at age 93. I know it’s a contrived type of holiday but it did get me thinking about fathers and father figures. To a large degree when I was growing up father figures – coaches, uncles, scout leaders – at times had a bigger role in “raising me right” than my own father. Some had their own kids and some didn’t. Some were wise and inspiring like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and others were wilder but taught you lessons that you still needed to learn. I remember the poet Robert Bly saying something like: if you’re a grown man you should find a way to support young men and boys. Show them you care and be a role model for them. And if you are a boy or a young man you should find older men who can guide you, teach you things and who care about you. I see an example of this once a week when I gather with friends at the Pipe Smoker’s Club. The ages of men and women attending range from 18 – 92. They come from all walks of life, races, religions, political spectrums, but all of that is put aside for the pleasure of smoking a good pipe or cigar. And let me make this clear to any young people reading this: DON’T SMOKE! But what I like about the group is the caring, comradery and general bonhomie of the attenders. They welcome everyone. You don’t even have to smoke to join the group. (The second hand smoke is free.) People in the group have helped each other with getting jobs, learning new skills and information, and, I know with me, helping me when I was feeling a bit down. When my own kids were growing up I was both a good role model and a bad role model. The good is easy to guess; the bad, well, at least I could say to them: “Let this be a warning to you. Don’t do as I do.” My kids received lots of these warning while growing up; still get them. And that’s okay. I remember the Baptist Minister Will Campbell, in one of his books, has a character define Christianity in 10 words or less. I like the definition he came up with: We’re all sinners but God loves us anyway.
Which finally brings me to my motorcycle ride today. It was time to get my 2004 Harley Road King, Big Red, out of the garage. Having ridden across the country twice I’m pretty comfortable meeting strangers. Since I couldn’t hang out with my kids I decided to ride to a nearby town and visit a free meal program, a place I had visited a few times before, and maybe talk with other fathers, ones that were homeless and probably not feeling that great today. I don’t want to try and appear saintly. The two women who organize the place and serve meals 3 times a week are saints. I’m not a saint and I can give you plenty of personal references that will say that I’m not. I just thought it might be a nice thing to do. I didn’t know if anyone else would walk away feeling better after the conversation but I knew I would. So I went.
I ended up chatting with four men over plates of food and iced tea. One told me that he was a father. That one of his kids had died and the other didn’t speak to him. He was helping another older man find a suit to wear as his father had just recently died and he needed it for the funeral. He didn’t want to talk. Another man said he had kids but didn’t elaborate. His arm was in a sling due to a shoulder injury at work. He was waiting for workman’s comp to kick in. One of the women running the place gave him some information about a nearby place that helps people get the medicine they need. The man had been brought there by a woman who was staying at the same motel as he was. She was from Alabama and she and her husband had moved here looking for work. She said the price of food was more expensive here and also that the rent was so high. Her husband had finally gotten a new job and they were going to move to a nearby town if they could find a place to live. She didn’t eat anything. She had wanted to help the man in the sling out. The last person I chatted with was a young man who was maybe in his early 20’s. I had met him a number of times before. He asked me to rub some alcohol on a spot on his back where he had been stung by a bee. I did that. Then he sat back down and put his head on a table. Later on he lifted up his head to tell me that his real dad had died when he was 15. Then he put his head back down.
It was past time for the place to close and the two women there began packing up. One told me about the new water cooler and plastic capped bags they had for people who were living rough in the woods. They had hooks on them which made them easier to carry on a bike and were better than just using water bottles folks had contributed. It was 96 degrees outside. I thanked the two women for the work they were doing and said goodbye to the young man. I took off on Big Red with a lot to think and pray about.