There is a special way the light hits the Smoky Mountains at sundown. I’m looking at mountain grandeur right now. The view is nothing short of cinematic.
I am on a vacation, here in the arresting glory of Appalachia, and I’m wondering about where our country is going.
I wonder things about our nation. Such as, why, in America, do hotdogs come in packs of eight but hotdog buns come in packs of 12?
Why do Americans leave expensive cars parked outside, but use their garages to store worthless junk?
Why does Walgreens make sick people walk to the back of the store to buy prescriptions, while healthy people can buy cigarettes up front?
Why do Americans insist on calling them “apartments,” when they’re all stuck together?
Why does my American wife have to open her mouth to put on mascara?
These are just a few of the pressing issues facing this nation that I’m wondering about.
I’m also wondering about an old man, from Sacramento, who was in the grocery store one afternoon, buying—of all things—bananas.
Whereupon he noticed a young Latina woman in line ahead of him. The woman’s name was Isla. Isla emailed me this story.
Isla had her four kids in tow. She was still wearing her maid’s uniform. She was counting exact change. Crumpled dollars. Loose nickels. But Isla came up short.
So the old man paid for her groceries.
Isla thanked him and began to cry. The man followed her into the parking lot and loaded her groceries. She asked if she could repay his kindness.
He smiled. “Don’t worry about it.”
But Isla insisted. She invited him for supper. He arrived at her house. He wore a nice shirt. She was welcomed into her home, which was a glorified shack. She introduced him to her dying father whom she was caregiving for. And her elderly mother, who had dementia.
That night, Isla made tamales. Red and green. After supper, the old man gave Isla three plastic cards. They were Visa gift cards. Each card was worth $1000 bucks.
She never saw him again.
“That man changed how I look at other people,” she said in an email to me.
I’m also wondering about the letter I got from 81-year-old Charles. He lives in Idaho. I’ve never met anyone who lives in Idaho before. All I know about Idaho is something I saw on TV, which said Idaho’s state fruit is the huckleberry. I didn’t even know we had state fruits.
So anyway, Charles was shuffling through a snowy parking lot when he had a bad fall. He lay on the pavement, moaning in pain. He knew he’d broken something. Something important. Within moments, there was a young woman by his side, wearing a cashier’s uniform. She couldn’t have been more than 18.
The slight young woman somehow lifted his 174-pound frame into the back of her SUV, she drove him to the nearest hospital. When he awoke, the young woman was seated at his bedside, her infant son on her lap.
“You’re still here,” he said.
“I didn’t want to leave you alone,” she replied. “I was worried. So I told the nurses you were my dad. I hope you don’t mind.”
Mind? As it happened, Charles had no family. And the young woman had no father figure. Although, as of now, neither of them can say that anymore. They remain best friends.
I also wonder about the email I got from the guy who would only identify himself as “Dude.”
Dude was driving down the highway in eastern Kentucky when he saw a plastic garbage bag floating in the icy river. He pulled over. Dude saw the bag was “flopping around with movement.” Something inside the bag was alive.
So Dude plunged into the icy water until his entire body was nearly paralyzed with pain. He retrieved the sack.
Inside were nine newborn puppies. Eight were living. One was dead.
Dude brought them home. He and his wife conducted a funeral service for the one deceased puppy. They buried him in a cigar box. They raised the others.
Today, Dude has eight grown dogs running around his homestead.
“My dog-food bill is out of this world,” said Dude. “But I wouldn’t trade my dogs for all the gold in the world.”
So I don’t know where you are tonight or what you’re doing. I don’t know whether you are happy or sad or neither.
But as I look at these Purple Mountains Majesty, above the Amber Waves and Fruited Plains, I think the old song was right. Despite the problems in this country, despite our many conflicts with each other, this place is crowned with good. And brotherhood.
And a lot of Grace has been shed on thee.