I am a redheaded fool, driving around the Peach State. I’ve spent the day exploring Georgia’s backroads. And I’m lost, going in circles.
I get lost easily. Namely, because I refuse to use a GPS. I hate them. I prefer Rand McNally. My wife has threatened to lodge all Rand McNally products into remote crevices of my body if I don’t use a GPS.
But the Georgia countryside is a great place to get lost. It’s a laid back, sleepy world of kudzu, longleaf pines, and incredible heat. My car thermometer reads 107 degrees from sitting in the sun.
I pass vegetable stands, Spanish moss, rusty pickups, and side-of-the-road handmade signs that read: “Eggs 4 sal.”
Nothing better than a good sal.
I drive past 13,239 churches. Almost every denomination is represented. Presbyterian, A.M.E., Baptist, Methodist, and that one denomination that outlaws pianos. Take your pick.
Ahead is a Catholic church. It’s a small building in the distance with white siding, small porch, and a modest steeple.
I pull into an empty parking lot beneath large trees because I need to use the restroom, and Catholics are very clean people. My wife tells me she’ll wait in the car. That way she can set fire to all my Rand McNally products.
I meander into the vacant building to find the chapel is unlocked, and heavily air-conditioned.
After using their pristine lavatory, I enter the sanctuary to see what it’s like.
It’s quiet. And it’s empty. For the first time in days, I remove my surgical mask in a public place.
I take a knee, briefly, then cross myself. I’m not Catholic, but I watch professional sports. I sit in the front pew. I bow my head. It is so silent in this room that my ears are ringing to beat the band.
My ears always ring. I have moderate tinnitus. I’ve had it since childhood. As a boy I had bad ear infections and would sometimes wake up in a world of cricket screams.
My mother noticed I was hard of hearing. One day I was watching Captain Kangaroo on a console television when she called my name. I didn’t answer. So the doctors shoved tubes in my ears.
And let me tell you, that sucked. Ever since then I haven’t had the greatest hearing. My hearing got worse during my youth, playing music in establishments that sold five-dollar pitchers each Friday.
I stare at the altar. I’m thinking about how difficult these last months of pandemic have been. Not just for me, but for the world. I’m not going to complain because you’ve been through the same thing.
In my time as a writer, I’ve interviewed old-timers who endured Depressions, Dust Bowls, world wars, polio, gas shortages, senseless acts of politics, and devastating internet outages. But these people were all strong. And I’m not.
The hardest part of COVID-19 has been I don’t know how to act normal. For example, some people wear masks, while others won’t. Some people can’t leave their houses. Other people do, and would visit Six Flags if it were open for business.
Earlier today, I was in a roadside flea market. Behind the counter was a sweet woman on the phone, wearing a plastic face shield. When she finished her call, she was a mess. I could tell because those clear plastic face-shields don’t hide your face.
I asked if everything was okay. And that was all it took. She unloaded. Her mother is in her nineties, living in a coastal South Carolina nursing home. Her mother just contracted COVID-19. Which is bad enough, except that her story gets worse. Due to Hurricane Isaias in the Atlantic, her mother’s nursing home is kicking out all residents.
This woman was beside herself.
“I can’t bring Mama home,” said the cashier. “And if we have to evacuate, where does Mama go?”
Me. She was sincerely asking me. A stranger. A no-name guy, wearing facial protective gear. We were separated by six feet and hand sanitizer bottles. Confused. Worried. Lost.
This has been the worst spring and summer of our lives, and the hits just keep coming. It’s not going to just go away, either. You don’t stay trapped inside for six months, devoid of all human contact, then (snap!) go back to eating at potlucks. Society has undergone a few changes.
The ringing in my ears is all I hear now.
I open my eyes to see beautiful Catholic statues. Candles flicker in the corner. The stained glass windows depict peaceful scenes from Sunday school class. The same scenes that matronly Baptist teachers in beehive hairdos once horsewhipped into me.
The Loaves and the Fishes. The Miracle of the Fishing Nets. The Calming of the Stormy Seas. I know these stories by heart, but I rarely think about them because I was a pitiful Sunday school student. I had trouble hearing from the back row. Also, I liked launching spitballs.
Even so, this undisturbed place is doing something to me. I feel refreshed, just having a few moments to think, reflect, remember, and breathe without my mask.
Before I leave, I take a knee at the altar once more. Just out of respect. Then I make the Sign of the Cross. Not because I’m religious, but because it’s one of the oldest human rituals in existence, predating the Catholic church itself. And it’s lasted through history’s worst epidemics. And I like that.
I exit the chapel. Outside it’s still one-hundred-some degrees. The world is still a mess. People are still pent up. And I’m still a half-deaf redheaded fool who worries too much.
But I don’t feel lost anymore.