‘We have to turn our sails to catch it and let them fill’
By John Darling
I get to talk to people every day and find out some amazing thing they’re doing, building or journeying to, and then I get write about it for the newspaper. I’ve been a journalist since age 16 and, though I’ve gone off to many other endeavors, I can’t seem to shake this one. I’ve been given this present — being allowed to walk in and sit down with strangers and have them start telling me their most closely-held visions, joys or tragedies.
At times when I didn’t need the money or was interested in other things, I would miss this life and it would come back to me. If I won the lottery, I would still have to do it. It’s like Walter Cronkite said, the cycle of talking to so many interesting people, the information flow, the endless learning — the words — it’s like a farmer with his dirt, hoe, corn and chickens. You can’t leave it.
Fate and intention have now given me a life of freelancing, where I seem no longer to do stories on the red meat of journalism — crime, accidents and government — but hang out with people, writing feature stories or public TV documentaries about their lives or their ancestors’ lives — or about the business they’re trying to run or the house they’re trying to restore.
Almost always in these interviews, there comes a moment when they pull back the curtain and say something about themselves, about how they understand life, about what it all might mean.
I was doing a story with D., who makes sports braces at the factory he created here in Ashland. He pulls out an anatomy book to show me how carpal tunnel pain works. The book’s pictures are photos of a real corpse. We start turning the pages. It shows a whole human back opened up, the spine and nerves laid bare. We look at each other. “Amazing, isn’t it?” he says. “All those nerves inside us. So beautiful and intricate.”
I ask him why he moved here from Arizona. He just points out his office window at the spring sun playing across the sweep of the Grizzly Range. There it is again, the pulling back of the curtain. We nod. We both know.
I pick up an old book at Goodwill for 50 cents. Idly, flipping to a random page, I invite the book to serve as oracle, to supply me with the perfect thought for this moment. The author, W.K.C. Guthrie, tells me the founders of our Western thought, the Greeks, looked at things differently than we do. While we assert there is a God, then define his qualities, the Greeks would be “so impressed or awed by the things in life or nature remarkable either for joy or fear that they said ‘this is a god.’” They called this phenomenon “theos” and, to them, it meant “things more than human, not subject to death and that would be here after we’re gone.”
So it was in the moment with the anatomy book or D. pointing at the mountain. We are touched constantly. We seldom feel it. It’s like a wind; we have to turn our sails to catch it and let them fill. And it’s usually a breeze, not a gale. A god goes here.
So it was in W’s double-wide in Phoenix. We talk of his grandfather, who, in a 1905 poker game, won this apparently genuine Charles Russell painting in front of us. Our talk is all about art and authenticators. I’ve got my story and want to leave and meet deadline. Then I ask him what he might do with the several million dollars he could sell this for. He’ll use it to help market a blade he invented to cut blackberry bushes. He wouldn’t stop his work with blackberries. Here’s that curtain pulling back again. And he wants to use it to help his dear friend, a woman who’s been there for him all his life, when he went through really hard times and he takes care of her every day and she’s 100 years old now.
So it was in talking to B., out in the Applegate. Healthy, active, positive, organic, loved, she still got breast cancer in her mid-50s. It spread. She tells me she asked her friends and kin from all over the country to send her special totems — a stone, a shell, a picture. She spread them in a circle around her on the floor and thanked them all for their love. She wept. And, yes, a god went there. And from then on her life became about missing nothing, letting the sail fill with these incessant, divine breezes moving about us.
She says, “One day the earth opens up and things are never the same. You realize life is terribly fragile. My relationship with my children and husband is all different. No one can tell you how sweet life is until you’ve faced this.”
Cancer does this and I cannot help but sense the theos of it — a god walks with cancer, a god who sometimes demands your life, but always invites your love of life.
Guthrie tells me of another old Greek word, dike (DEE-kay) — a path or way of being what you are and were destined to be, of “following the way which is properly your own and not mixing yourself up in the ways of others and trying to do their jobs.” How direct and clear were the Greeks. In one word, they create a concept and a value, to be sought for, lived and fulfilled. No matter if you’re serf or warrior, Guthrie says of the Greek way, do that and do it with “arete” — utmost skill and efficiency.
From a life of endless freedoms and choices in be-all-you-can-be America, I come home like a farmer to my dike, my earth and tools, my desk and keyboard. My children all their lives will remember the image of me with my back to them, plowing the fertile land of my keyboard. It’s all right here, theos tells us. One dike contains all dike, no matter how mundane or heroic. The face of the beloved contains all love. One day contains all days. And one story contains all stories.
John Darling lived in Ashland from 1971 until he died at age 77 in January 2021. A US Marine Corps journalist, he went on to write for the Oregonian, Mail Tribune, Daily Tidings, and United Press International, among others, along with stints as a news anchor at KOBI, executive assistant to the Oregon Senate President and press secretary of campaigns for Oregon governor and U.S. Senate. Ashland.news is, with permission, publishing monthly excerpts from his collection “The Divine Addiction: Essays Out of Oregon.”