Learning Dracula

Hey there, friends and fans! I hope things are going well for you as we speed through spring and rapidly approach another glorious summer. Personally, I have had quite an eventful first handful of months, which came to a new climax last weekend.

Saturday I had the awesome opportunity to attend an event that I’ve been eager to be a part of for quite some time. Author Dacre Stoker, great grand-nephew of the infamous Bram Stoker, held his Stoker on Stoker lecture in Sevierville, Tennessee – and naturally I made it my mission to attend.

I have been in touch with Dacre on and off for a little more than a decade and I leapt at the chance to finally attend his discussion on all things Dracula. In addition to that, I reached out to Dacre, and we arranged a lunch meeting to discuss things that much deeper.

Dacre and I dove right in after meeting, discussing his family history, his involvement with 2009’s Dracula; the Undead, and last year’s prequel Dracul, and vampires in modern culture. Many of the details of our discussion will be used for various blog posts and more to come, but there was one thing that stuck out that I wanted to discuss here. That is the presence of connection and rediscovery of Bram’s work – essentially learning who Bram was after all this time.

Dacre told me from the start that growing up with the Stoker name had been an interesting experience in its own right. The Canadian-born author said that, until the Gothic text became a classic in 1962, it was primarily movie and literature buffs that knew a lot about it. It was ten years after that, when the infamous text In Search of Dracula: the History of Dracula and Vampires, by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally hit shelves before Dacre really questioned his family’s connection with the Irishman who single-handedly helped make vampires a household legend.

“I finally asked my dad, ‘what is all this,'” Stoker told me with a laugh. His first experience with the novel came when his father pulled a family heirloom from the shelf – a first edition copy of Dracula Bram had signed to his mother.

From there, Dacre said, it was life as usual. Apart from the occasional Halloween related joke from friends, he sought his own way in life, knowing his connection with Bram, but not seeing it have much of an effect on his day-to-day experiences. Aside from a term paper written on his great grand-uncle, Dacre said he was aware of the interesting impact Bram had on the world, but he didn’t dwell on it.

“I would think about it from time to time, but it didn’t really determine my path in life or change the way I behaved, “Stoker said.

His focus changed when he was contacted by Ian Holt in 2003 to discuss the possibility of a sequel to Dracula.

Dacre told me the decision wasn’t an easy one to make, but after talking with his family members, they all decided he would be the one to pursue the opportunity. The next six years saw Dacre diving into family records, museum records and talking to scholars who “knew more {about Bram} than I did” until the official release of Dracula: the Undead in 2009.

From there, Dacre saw a world that accepted and appreciated Dracula. The character, now having appeared in thousands of cinematic and literary locations in some way, shape, or form, is one of the most well-known figures in horror history. The 2009 novel explored the possibility of what may have come after the events of the original. Personally I find the tale filled with amazing possibilities and a great continuation of Bram’s text.

But, Dacre told me, he felt there was more. His mind had started working around the idea of what might have come before Jonathan Harker set foot in the Borgo Pass. He pondered the idea for a while, eventually realizing he wanted to tell the story, so he got in touch with co-author J.D. Barker to start the recently-released prequel, Dracul.

This tale is set before the events of Dracula, told once again in the infamous epistolary style that allows the reader insight into the characters own mind. This time, however, Bram himself, is one of our main characters. Dacre said that is important to him.

“It allows me to really let the world know what Bram Stoker is like.”

Dacre and I went on to discuss much of the research he has done for the books and the uncle he never knew. Since starting researching Dracula in 2003, Stoker has visited many places significant to the novel and his great grand-uncle’s life. He told me of walking the beaches Bram used to walk, sitting on rock outcroppings where Bram used to write, connecting with the memory of his uncle in new ways. Stoker discussed many of his discoveries about his family with an interest, his lecture going into detail in ways even my own mind didn’t anticipate.

If you ever have the opportunity to see the Stoker on Stoker lecture, absolutely treat yourself. If you are a fan of Dracula, you will absolutely love the lecture. Dacre is an amazing speaker, with a great mind and a love of his family’s history. Even if you aren’t familiar with the story of the novel’s author or either of the subsequent works the lecture will open new worlds of horror and interest. You can find more information about Dacre and his works, as well as tour information and bits of Stoker history at his website: http://dacrestoker.com/.

Being a lifelong fan of Dracula with an obsession with vampires, this was an opportunity I’ll never forget. I appreciate the chance to sit down with Dacre and discuss his family history and learn more about the Stoker legacy. I plan to analyze the information I have and have more discussions with you all about it! Keep your eyes open for more posts about Dracula, vampires, and literature! Have you had an experience with someone like this? Have you been able to discuss your literary idol with someone who can truly understand? Let me know!

The Holiday Season

It is officially the Holiday Season, guys! Halloween has passed us by and we’re well into the second week of November. Less than three weeks stand between us and Thanksgiving, and just over a month and a half await before Saint Nick makes his way around the world to visit us all in jolly peace. As I’ve stated before, the holiday season is my absolute favorite time of year. Of course, if I’m considering every holiday that I love, that means my favorite time of year is from October through the first week of July, but that’s beside the point. The typical holiday season is the focus of this post. The glorious time of year that brings us from All Hallows’ Eve, through Thanksgiving and Christmas, right into the start of a brand new year – which is really just a reset so we can do it all again, right?

Of course. Many people share my love of this time of year, with decorations galore and festivity so thick you can cut it with a knife, but are we celebrating quite like we should? It’s no secret to many of you that it seems like the older you get, the faster the years go by. It seems like just yesterday I was a senior in high school, when realistically my ten year reunion is next year. Yeah, that reminder hit me today. Talk about feeling old, but that’s life. In all it’s fast-paced glory. And what more could we ask for? We’re a species that is always looking to tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. But is that really a good thing? Our holidays can be great for us, but often we find ourselves thinking of the cleanup while everyone is tearing into gifts, instead of just letting the paper build up. We think about how to improve next year’s celebration before this year is even over. But, what’s the best way to improve the moment?

Be in it.

Slow down. Take it all in. Let the magnificent fun of the celebration seep into your very bones, and just … be there. I’ve always been one to enjoy the present, look to the future and remember the past. I’ve also, unfortunately, been known to compare present celebrations to those past, which can be dangerous and vastly unproductive. As much as I would like to caution everyone against this behavior, I can’t pretend I won’t likely be doing the same thing this year. This will be my family’s first holiday season without my grandmother. No matter what was going on in the world, she was the first person to make sure the holidays were planned for, often going above and beyond in every way she could, regardless of her own health or situation. My family has always been one that doesn’t always find it easy for everyone to get together at once, but the holidays always gave us that. My grandmother would plan for weeks on end to hold our celebrations on a day that would see as many of us as possible under the same roof. It meant the world to her.

As the holidays she loved most approach us with an ever-quickening pace, I want to hold on to the spirit of the season, the reason for the season, and the amazing way I always felt during this time of year growing up. Thay is the best way, in my opinion, to really enjoy the season.

The main reason I wanted to present this post goes back to what I said earlier – slow down. We are all guilty of that “tomorrow” attitude, being so worried about what the future holds that we can’t stop to take a breath and enjoy things right where we are. I’m quite guilty of this myself at times. Whenever I start to slide into that habit, I try to remind myself of the bible verse:

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” – Matthew 6:34

Of course, there, Jesus was cautioning us about worrying about money, food, and the like. He was telling us that God will provide these things for us, because we are his beloved children. I know that was the meaning behind this verse, but I do believe it can be applied to everything. Don’t spend your day off wondering what the following day of work will bring you. Don’t keep yourself up at night worrying about the morning commute. Don’t squander the opportunity to love and celebrate with your family this holiday season, worrying about things that are or are not going to come regardless of your concern.

When your family is right in front of your face, put aside everything else. Live in the moment. Make memories, instead of comparisons or regrets. As the holidays approach us, I think we should all take a moment to prepare ourselves for the amazing time we can have this year if we just celebrate the moment. Personally, I plan to take every moment in stride, enjoying my family, friends, and loved ones with every second. I do hope you’ll all join me in that resolution (oh no, it’s almost time for those again, too!) and make an effort to live in the moment this holiday season. There will never be another today, but there may be any number of tomorrows. Let them deal with themselves. Instead of wondering about that hypothetical future moment, let’s keep our brains trained on the moment we’re in. After all, it’s the only one we’re certain we’re going to have.

In light of the holiday season, I’d love to hear about the traditions you guys hold dear. I think as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach I’m going to write a post or record a podcast talking about the traditions that have helped make my own holidays so memorable. In the meantime, I thank each and every one of you all for reading my blog and listening to my podcast. If you can think of anyone that would enjoy either or both of them, I invite you to share away. I’m always happy to reach a new mind and enjoy new ideas, as well. Feel free to share this post, and share your ideas and traditions with me, either in the comments or by going to my contact or social media pages. I love hearing from you guys, and I appreciate the feedback more than you all know. I hope you had an amazingly spooky Halloween, and I hope you have a wonderful holiday season. Until next time, friends and fans.

The featured image for this post is one of the dual Christmas trees in Bristol, Virginia from 2016.

The Sublime Nature of Grief

Since the loss of my grandmother my life has been full of a lot of conflicting emotions. I’ve dealt with the loss as best I can, trying hard to honor her memory and move forward. One thing that is always painfully obvious when we lose someone close to us is that everyone deals with loss in their own way. What works for one person may not work for another, and one loss may not affect us the same as another. No matter how you handle the situation, sooner or later you will come to a time when you have to not only face the loss, but yourself.

This week I took some time on a particularly hard day and tried to do that. In an attempt to connect with myself, God, nature, and my grandmother I went to a local dam and nature area for some peace and quiet. If you’re unfamiliar with the summer season in the Appalachian mountains, we often have very hot days in the month of August. A number of summer afternoons often see some good thunderstorms or at least a nice passing shower or two. This, of course, can lead to amazingly beautiful foggy conditions. So much so that there is an old wives’ tale my grandmother used to remind me of often; if you count the foggy mornings in August that’s the amount of big snow events you’ll have that winter.

One of my favorite things in life is to find myself in the midst of a heavy fog, pondering the sublime mystery of the shrouded world around me. Is anyone else in the fog? Am I completely and utterly alone? What do the shadowy figures in the thick cloud represent? The feeling of floating in a cloud, the world around me oblivious of my own ideas and presence is marvelous. One of the best moments of my life has been in conditions like this. To say it has a special place in my heart and soul is a definite understatement.

When I arrived at my destination that evening, I had no idea the fantastic occurrence that awaited me. As soon as I rounded a curve in the road and my eyes fell on the river I was greeted with an amazingly thick, ghostly fog floating about a foot above the water. It snaked across the surface of the river like a living, breathing cloud. It rolled and swirled with the breeze, twisting like the spirit of the river itself. After a quick visit to top of the dam, I returned to the riverside and crossed a bridge to an island in the river, an island surrounded by fog.

I found a bench in the midst of this beauty and sat by the riverside, letting the sublime consume me. I communed with nature, God, my grandmother, and myself. I spent probably just under an hour there by the riverside, fog rising and rolling around me, taking photos and trying to find relief from my own strained internal presence. By the time I was ready to leave the fog had risen higher and was rolling over the top of the bridge that was my pathway.

Crossing this bridge, I was able to stand in the middle of the fog and feel the cool moisture settle on my skin. I breathed in the earthy mist and watched the world around me become veiled and reemerge anew over and over as the cloud rolled by. A sense of peace settled on me as this happened, bringing me some relief and allowing me to just enjoy the cool evening. It was a superb experience, and one that I won’t soon forget.

Before the loss of my grandmother, it had been years since I lost someone close to me. I haven’t dealt with loss in a way that other people do, depression and stress affecting me in a serious way. Because of this I feel like being able to express those issues and have experiences like I had this week are very important. If it has taught me anything it is that we all must find what works for us. Avoiding the mourning process and not allowing ourselves to grieve the way we need to is not helpful. It isn’t healthy. One thing that we have to admit and be aware of is that we may sometimes need more time than others to get over a loss. We may need time alone, or time with others, or even a mix. Whatever it is that you need in order to cope, you have to figure it out.

Embrace yourself, the world around you, and whatever helps make you more you. The things that bring you back to feeling like yourself are the things you need to cope with the loss. Don’t allow anyone, especially yourself, keep you from that healing magic. It can truly be life-changing. Honestly, it can be the difference between your own life and death.

Reach out to someone. Never be ashamed of your feelings, your hardships, your needs. Find the relief you need and make sure you are getting enough of whatever it is to help you return to the you you want to be. Accept yourself, accept your loss, but don’t let the grief and mourning consume you. Life can go on, if you find out how to let it. Happiness can return. Even if it’s just one step at a time.

Although I will never truly be over the loss of my grandmother, I now have an idea of what I can do to help me cope when things get tough. I will do what I can to make sure I am allowing myself the proper time and space to be able to let myself, and my grandmother’s memory, continue on.

If you are mourning, grieving, or otherwise in any emotional need, reach out to someone. I’d be more than happy to listen to anything you need. Find your method and make sure you’re returning your soul to its necessary health.

Goodbyes and the Road Ahead

This week has been one of the hardest of my entire life. Monday night/early Tuesday morning I got word that my grandmother had gone on to her Heavenly reward after a long struggle with her health. Phyllis C. Mathews was a woman like no other. I can’t think of anyone who has ever been so amazing and lovely.

She lived a life many would call laid back, quaint, and old-fashioned, spending a good portion of her life raising my mom and uncles while my grandfather worked as a farmhand. As her children grew up, Mamaw decided she was going to get a job and became a CNA. With her loving and giving nature, she worked in a nursing home for about 25 years, using her great personality and nurturing abilities to help countless people.

Throughout my life, my grandmother was always someone I knew I could count on, no matter what was happening in my life. If at all possible she would drop everything she was doing to help me, or anyone else, any way she could. She absolutely loved life, she loved her family, and she loved living in the Appalachian Mountains.

One of the hardest parts of the whole thing for me is knowing how different things are going to be now. My grandmother has always been a huge part of my life. From family vacations, to weekly visits when I was a kid, to holidays – we even lived with her for a while – my grandmother was a part of most of the significant parts of my life. I have so many memories of her that I can call on that it’s almost hard to find many where she wasn’t present, or at least thought about.

My grandmother was, in many ways, my rock. She supported me in all my endeavors, and was especially proud of my writing. She would share it with everyone she could and often asked me how it was going. Her encouragement got me through more than a few rough patches, and I owe my progress, in part at least, to the encouragement and love she gave me. She was laid to rest beside of my grandfather, the pair of them overlooking an area of the mountains where they used to live. Over the last few days, I know she has been looking down on us all, trying to comfort us any way she can. After myself and five other family members carried her to her final resting place, she even made sure to send us one more bit of comfort. A solid black cat wandered through the crowd that gathered by her grave and stayed with us through the service. Without a doubt, this was meant to make sure we all knew she would be with us in the future to comfort and support us any way she could. That is a thought that comforts me greatly.

As I move into the post-funeral portion of my life, I have to admit that I am not at all sure how to handle things knowing Mamaw isn’t going to just be on the other side of the phone line when I call. Looking ahead, I honestly can’t imagine the holidays without her. Every year for the last 27 years I have been able to celebrate with her. As many of you know, the time of year between October and January is my absolute favorite. My grandmother shared that love as well. We shared many of the same interests, and we both especially loved celebrating Christmas. As I look ahead to the upcoming season, I just don’t know how things will work this year. I can only hope our family will be able to continue working together in love and remember fondly the matriarch that we lost this week.

Beyond anything else I could even try to say here, I just want to express that my life will not be the same without my grandmother. I know she is happy and pain-free alongside my grandfather in Heaven now, and the fact that she isn’t suffering anymore is of great comfort to me. I will always remember the great times we had, and I will strive to keep the loving and caring nature of my grandmother alive. I hope to be an inspiration to others like she has been. I hope to be able to improve the lives of those around me in the way that she did. Above all, I hope that I make her, my grandfather, my mother – and especially God – proud of the man their influence has molded me into.

As I trudge forward through life, I will be sure to keep the memories of those I have lost alive. I will strive to succeed in all I do, and continue to reach for the stars. Mamaw, I love you, and I miss you. I will never forget you. Enjoy your Heavenly reward, and be sure to tell Papaw we all miss and love him, too. We’ll see you again one day.

The image attached to this post is one of the images of my grandmother I’ve always loved. Taken at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in 2012, it depicts just a hint of the fun-loving nature of the woman I knew. This was taken before her health began to decline much, as well, which makes the memory even better.

God bless you all, and thank you for reading this. Be sure to tell your loved ones how much they mean to you, and keep your eyes open. Don’t let life pass you by. Enjoy every minute of it.

Every Day

Happy Friday! I hope this week went by swimmingly for you all. This is rather unexpected, as it came to me on a whim, but here is a surprise, mid-month book review! Recently I’ve been seeing the movie trailer for the upcoming release “Every Day,” and it has intrigued me in a major way. The concept as laid out in the trailer, of a person who wakes up every morning in a new body, a new person, with no solid life and no link to the rest of the world beyond that of their current host, called to me like crazy. I immediately knew I had to go see it. Needless to say, when I realized it was based on a book , I obviously had to read it.

As I’m on a strict reading schedule for the year (an idea my wife never ceases to giggle at when I fret about throwing an additional text into the mix) I wasn’t sure when the opportunity would arise. Yesterday afternoon I saw the trailer again and was once more convinced I had to read the book, preferably before the movie’s February 23 release. On a whim I decided to check the OverDrive app, a free app that allows you to check out ebooks from hundreds of participating libraries (an app that I’ve obviously fallen in love with) for the book. When I saw it was available the choice was made before I even realized it.

I was immersed in the story from the first word. David Levithan’s story of this person, this genderless, identityless, familyless, homeless person bouncing from consciousness to consciousness every single day, never able to control the transition, the destination, is incredible. Obviously, if you haven’t read it, you may want to put a pin in this post and do that. As you can tell, it’s pretty easy to read the book quickly, since I completed it in probably a combined reading time of 6 or 8 hours. So, go read. I’ll wait.

Now, I’m assuming you completed the book and are ready for discussion? Good, let’s!

The first thing I have to say about this book is that it is incredible. I do like my YA novels as well as most other forms of literature, and this book is a YA novel that reads like both classic and modern fiction. It is something that feels so natural that you sometimes find it easy to forget you’re reading a book and not just directly connecting with the thoughts of the main character, a loving but mysterious soul whose only identifier is the self-prescribed moniker of “A,” set up early in A’s 16-year life to give them (the most suiting pronoun) something to hang on to, something to anchor to to prevent themselves from going mad while bouncing from life to life with no control.

As I said, the concept is great. I was immediately drawn to feel sympathy for this character. As someone that puts a lot of stock in the protective and loving character of family, reading this tale of someone who has never been able to feel that solidity really made me invested in the book. A’s story is something that holds incredible strength, purpose, possibility, and much sadness. I loved the absolute unpredictability of the story as the reader is brought along with A to enter the lives of numerous individuals from all races, genders, levels of health, and family situations.

I enjoyed that we are brought in after A has lived this way for 16 years, no explanation of how or why they are living this life, and no certain answers of whether it is possible to stop or slow it down. We come into the story on day 5,994 in the body of Justin, who the reader is quickly ready to dislike. Before long we are introduced to shy, timid Rhiannon, who is the reason for everything that happens in the book. One thing I was drawn to throughout this novel is the undeniable feeling of love that A feels for Rhiannon almost instantly. As someone who has never spent more than 24 hours with any one person or group of people, the idea that such a powerful connection can be made almost instantly with Rhiannon is incredibly intense. Levithan throws A and the reader into this tale head first and keeps at it through the entire text, presenting a love story so complete, so without boundaries, so without restriction and full of possibility that it can literally leave you reeling.

I was enamored with A’s immediate connection with Rhiannon, their undeniable infatuation that even transcended Rhiannon’s connection with A’s host of the day, Justin. The description of A’s life being turned completely upside down by something as common as love is a concept that really put the world into incredible perspective. Knowing that this character, who has never had the time to experience something the rest of us take for granted and consider normal, is thrown completely through a loop by this one thing is extremely powerful. A running theme through this book that is lying just below the surface is that something as unbelievably thrilling as being able to bounce from life to life consistently, never having to worry about tomorrow, never having to face responsibility and knowing that no matter how good or bad your situation is, a change is literally less than 24 hours away is nothing compared to the unpredictability of falling in love. It’s something that you can get lost in.

I love the repeated mentions A makes of the experience they have had. Multiple times while speaking with Rhiannon as well as just reflecting on their own A talks about how they may not have had many consistent and average life experiences that a 16-year-old  would normally get, but that they have had countless experiences that are typically lost on individuals. The concept of getting to experience life from more than 6,000 sets of eyes in more than 6,000 settings and more than 6,000 family situations is both liberating and exhausting to me. I like to live my life thinking that every day brings us something new, but this expands on that concept to a point that I feel like I have trouble wrapping my head around it. It is just another of the many reminders of how small we all truly are.

Levithan touches many times on the concept of homosexuality and love, repeatedly speaking through A’s point of view while living in the bodies of males, females, transgender individuals all of varying sexuality. Here he touches heavily on the concept of humanity versus gender and identity. A feels just as much love for Rhiannon while in the body of a female as they do a male, just as much passion for this one girl while in the body of someone she’s never met as they do while in the body of her boyfriend of over a year. This speaks volumes to me. Many people in the world today have very differing ideas when it comes to sexuality and ‘normality’, right and wrong, and average and ‘weird.’ But A knew none of that. They knew just as much as they felt from day to day, minute to minute, and what they knew above all else was a love so intense that it literally transcended all else.

In my opinion anyone who reads this book can learn invaluable lessons from it. As a straight, white male born into a middle class Christian family I admittedly haven’t had to face much adversity on the forefront of my love life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize it. Having friends of different sexual preferences, different identities, from different backgrounds, I do my best to be understanding of every situation that can present itself to my peers, but nothing could have prepared me for the raw description in this book. Levithan doesn’t stand up and turn this book into an in-your-face statement about love and life and acceptance, but I feel like it can definitely serve as one. A repeatedly tells Rhiannon that they have never felt like a boy or a girl themselves, they’ve only taken on the identity of the body they inhabited that day. Even with that explanation we see Rhiannon’s hesitation to consider anything beyond the standard she understands, reminding us all of the classic view of the world’s typical attitude toward anything that doesn’t seem “cookie cutter” and average.

With this book so fresh on my mind and so high on my list of must-reads, I’m hard pressed to find much about it that I wasn’t impressed with. I would have liked a lot more explanation, or at least possibility about who or what A is, and how their life is possible. Of course, that could well be coming in the follow-up text this October. Throughout the book there are hints of possibility that A is not the only person with this gift/curse of freedom and experience. I would love more of an explanation about that. I would also love a first-hand account of someone who wakes up the day after A has lived in them. We get Nathan and Rhiannon’s explanations, as different as they are, but I feel like I need more. I would also be interested in a first hand POV of the experience the person has while A is running the show. I imagine we may get something of this during the follow up text “Another Day” that is out now. But since it’s not on OverDrive, I’ll have to make a trip to the library to find out.

I feel like I could ramble on if I wanted to, but I’d love to have more discussion with you all about your thoughts. Leave your comments about this book below and be sure to tell me what you think about the ideas in the text. Have you read the follow up from Rhiannon’s point of view? If so, how does it hold up? Did this book open your eyes in any way or make you think about the world? I hope so. A book that can make us think can change the world, right? I think that’s one of the most special things about this book. It reveals the importance of true, raw love. It shows us that nothing but love matters. Of course, if the world focused more on love than the anger and prejudice we are faced with daily, we wouldn’t have to have books expressing its importance, would we? Leave your comments, share your thoughts and tell me what other books you’d like me to review. Look for the series review of the Harry Potter books in April, and keep reading along with me!

Looking back

Sometimes in life we find ourselves so wrapped up in the “right now” that we find it nearly impossible to look at the past. We tend to put our heads down and pay no attention to the world around us, barely even looking up to see where we’re going, much less where we’ve been. I was granted a prime view of my own past as I found myself riding around in the town I grew up in yesterday. It was very eye-opening. I saw things that I remember from my past, and new things that weren’t there before.

It has been about 6 years since I lived in Tazewell, Virginia full time and about three years since I moved away altogether, but I can still smell the air, still see the first stars piercing the deepening blue veil of the night sky. I can remember so much without even trying, but the flood of memories that came back to me while I was riding around shocked even me. From seeing the old high school, to the first place I ever worked- Grant’s Supermarket, where I served just under two years as a bagger and cashier during high school –  my childhood was nearly tangible to me in those moments. Just riding the roads helped bring me back through the years to memories that I’d even forgotten I had. I saw things I’d enjoyed as a child and things that I’d never seen there before. Despite the years since my residence, little has changed in the old place. The roads are a little wider in places, the storefronts a little more modern, but the thing that struck me most was that the shape of the town is still the same. The mountains that looked over my youth, shaped my adolescence, sheltered me when the world around me threatened to press in too tightly, are still the same. They are the same mountains that looked over generations before me, are currently looking over my friends and family that remain there, and will look over the generations of future residents.

Isn’t that a comforting thought? Once upon a time I might not have thought so. I can remember, as I’m sure many of us do (perhaps particularly those of us who grew up in Tazewell, where sometimes you could literally just sit and watch the grass grow) I wanted nothing more than to put my hometown behind me and move on to bigger and better things. Now I’m a little older and, I like to think, a little wiser, and I do miss it. I miss the way the sun rises over the mountains in the winter, the fresh, hot rays pulling steam from the icy roadways and frigid waters. I miss the sounds of summer rolling through the fairground as the town prepared for the demolition derby – because who doesn’t like a bit of destruction, right? I miss the quiet that settled down over the town at night. I used to have bonfires with my friends in my backyard, and sometimes we would be laughing and talking and joking until sunrise, but even on the most raucous nights there would be times that we would just grow quiet and be in awe of the silence, the world seeming to end at the edge of the light produced by our tiny fire. Those were times of peace.

Of course, I thought my life was hard sometimes. I went to school, I worked, I did chores, and I maintained a social life. I was a regular marathon man. Looking back on it now, after graduating college twice, being a regular part of the full-time workforce and paying bills for years, I wish things could go back to being that simple. I wish I hadn’t taken the small town life for granted. Riding through the old park, below the lake where my grandfather and I used to go fishing, I saw a glimpse of the old town theater through the trees. I used to live within walking distance of the place, and memories of countless movies came flooding back. Midnight releases of the latest Harry Potter movie, watching “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” there no less than six times, seeing Toy Story there for the first time. Granted I remember the trip to the theater to see that more than I remember the full movie, but it’s the memories that brought me back to who I was in those days, who I still am, who I occasionally lose sight of when the bills seem too expensive or the days seem too short.

My experiences really inspired me to think about my life and who I am, and it hit me that I owe so much of my own life to where I came from. I can pinpoint so much of Tazewell and the surrounding areas that played crucial parts in helping create the man I am today. Most importantly I can look back at that life and remember the things that led to me being a writer, a lover of literature, a lover of music, a lover of family and laughter and happiness. Those things that I hold dear, the things that I was always sure would get me out of that small town life, are things that I can directly attribute to being part of that very thing. If I hadn’t had Larry Hypes as a teacher in high school I may not have such a love of “The Great Gatsby.” If I hadn’t had Jill Vogel (then Rhudy) as a teacher, I may not have been given the right nudge toward my writing. If I hadn’t had the friends I did, I may not have the lust for life that lets me know waking up in the morning is one of the most crucial and rewarding things I can do.

My point is that sometimes in life we have to look back on our past to appreciate where we are in the present, and remind us where we want to go in the future. Life is a huge and multi-faceted thing. Sometimes you’re on the top, sometimes you aren’t. Sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield. But no matter where you are or where you go, there are memories that you hold dear that keep you going when times are tough. The older I get, the more I appreciate the place I came from. I told myself for years that I wanted nothing more than to get out of the town and never look back, but now I’m more than grateful for the things it gave me, for the person it made me. More importantly I’m beyond thankful to God for putting me there and giving me the life I’ve had.

As my ten year high school reunion grows nearer, I realize a part of me has been worried of where I will be at that time in my life. Often in popular culture we see references to high school reunions that indicate it should be little more than a one-up contest. Who got old? Who got fat? Who went to jail? Who has kids? Is anyone famous? Naturally, that worries me. As someone who has been writing for more than a decade I always expected to be able to walk into that reunion with a novel or two under my belt, maybe even be able to walk into the school library and find my own title on the shelves. So far that hasn’t happened. I’m still plugging away, blogging and writing, publishing when I can. I’ve got a couple of novels complete, but for one reason or another I haven’t pushed them out to publishers yet. Maybe it’s because I’ve been afraid of NOT being able to have the pleasure of putting that on my resume for anyone interested in seeing what Damean Mathews is up to. Yesterday showed me how wasteful that is. When I go back to that place and see all the people I grew up with again, I’ll going with my amazing wife and some amazing memories to share with everyone. Sure, there will hopefully be a book or two along for the ride, but those things won’t be what makes me who I am. It’s the love and the memories I have and the ones I continue to make that contribute to who I will become.

I fully believe – and have since I first seriously put pen to paper – that God put me on this earth to write. I have stories in me that are bigger than even I understand, and I know that this is my purpose. Seeing the things that helped inspire my writing, visiting my old haunts where I used to write for hours, and seeing the places that I still associate with some of my favorite memories really showed me that I have a lot left to do to get where I want to be in that aspect. But it also showed me that my dreams have never been more attainable. I’m a happily married, hard-working, fully dedicated man with a passion and a destiny, and I see that now more than ever. The dedication and determination that helped put me through the tough times in my life were reignited with a fiery passion in those moments, and I know now that I can’t rest until I make it happen. And it’s all because I took the time to stop and revisit the past.

If you’re having a hard time in life, feeling a little lost, or even if you’re on top of the game and loving every aspect of your life, take the time to stop and revisit where you came from. Step out of your present and leap into the memories of the past. See what you saw before, put yourself in the shoes of the person you used to be and see if you’ve accomplished what you intended. See if there is anything you can do to be be truer to yourself. There’s nothing like a blast from the past to remind you what you want for your future. Looking back I would probably take the time to breathe in the night air more often, enjoy the simple things. I would spend a few more hours on the front porch, take the time to throw a few extra logs on the bonfire and ride out the sunrise one more time. I wouldn’t complain so much at the slow speed of things in town. Life will be speeding up plenty soon enough.

Have you revisited your past? When was the last time you rode through the town you grew up in? What has changed? What did you learn? I look forward to seeing if this has happened to anyone else, and if you’re out there reading this and you feel like you need a nudge to push you in the right direction in your life, I suggest taking a step backward and looking where you were and using that knowledge to help you take a step forward and go where you want to be. Trust me, it’s worth it.

I’d like to say a special thanks to my beautiful wife, my amazing friends, and my awesome family who have helped me be the man I am today. I know I sometimes let the rough patches in life make me step back from my purpose, but I think now I’ve got a great way to combat that. Thank you all for your support through the years, and thank you for helping me build the life I have, and the life I’m continuously working toward.

 

My Grandfather

I love Autumn. I love October. Leaves are changing, the spooky nature of the world is being celebrated, the weather is cooling off and nights are growing long and, most importantly, I got married in October! Tomorrow will make two years since my wife and I said “I Do.” The last two years have flown by and we’ve fallen more in love with each passing day. It definitely doesn’t seem like two years, so it’s a little hard to believe. But it’s harder to believe that it has been 13 years since my grandfather passed away.

As happy as the month makes me, October 3 is one of the hardest days of the year for me. October 3 was my grandfather’s birthday. For 13 years I’ve woken up knowing what day it is and knowing that I won’t be able to tell him to enjoy the day, or tell him how much he means to me. My grandfather was the biggest male role model I had growing up. From the time I was a little kid I can remember staying with my grandparents and knowing, if I didn’t wake up as he was leaving (or if he didn’t take me with him) that he would be gone fishing until at least breakfast time – closer to noon if he was having good luck. When he came in and ate he would immediately go outside and spend hours prepping or taking care of his garden, often while I “helped.”

The man wore hats and flannel nearly every day of his life, his white hair often sticking out below the back just a little, protecting the lightest part of his dark skin, the Native American blood in him more obvious than ever at the end of a nice long summer. In the winter he wouldn’t shave, a habit left over from the days he farmed for a living, knowing the best trick to keep the winter wind from biting too much was to keep as much body heat in as possible. I can still remember him teasing me if I got a haircut during the winter months, telling me I’d freeze if I wasn’t careful.

He and my grandmother raised their 3 children on a farm-hand’s wages, moving where the work took them and providing what they could for their kids. Retirement was kinder to him, my grandmother working when he was no longer able. He wasn’t a shirker by any means, working through at least one heart attack without stopping, only finding out he’d had it later on. Even after he stopped working for a living, he farmed and fished nearly every day of his life. Only the most extreme heat or cold could keep him from the water most of the time, and he always produced enough crop to feed most of the family – even just working out of his own backyard.

He saw the world much differently than others, in more ways than one. Being blind in one eye, he had to learn to do everything in his own way, but it never slowed him down. He could fix most things wrong with the family vehicles, could do basic home repair – and he could tie a hook on a fishing line as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen. He also wasn’t much for what he called ‘putting on airs.’ You are who you are, and there’s no reason to hide it. That’s one of many lessons from him I’ll never forget. From the time my grandfather opened his mouth until he closed it he was as real with you as anyone in the world, never pretending to be something he wasn’t. He loved good jokes, and loved to laugh – but he hated nonsense.

I can remember the sound of his laugh even now as I told him my lame jokes, and I remember how quickly that laughter dried up whenever someone turned on a goofy 90’s Jim Carrey movie. If he didn’t like something he made it obvious, and if he didn’t want to be somewhere he left. It was always easy to tell when he didn’t want to be around someone, because he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t be rude to them, but if someone came in a room that he didn’t want to be around he would silently stand and leave. I think he realized that life is too short to waste it doing things that don’t make you happy. Of course, I like to think he had a lot of life’s answers tucked away in his hat somewhere, so maybe I’m putting a philosophical spin where one wasn’t intended.

I could write about my memories of him and tell stories of how, as I got older, my grandfather would talk on the phone with me for hours sometimes, even though we just lived across town from each other – but when we went fishing together the talking was minimal and hushed, so as not to scare the fish away.Of his grandchildren I think I was the only one that had the connection with him I did. We had our understandings and we liked many of the same things. We could sit in a room together for hours without uttering a word and could say all we needed to say in a moment.

I could tell any number of stories of how he was so selfless that he often went without in his own ways, wearing his clothes until they were threadbare and falling apart before he would worry about trying to buy a replacement. I live for hours in these memories sometimes, wishing for just one more day, one more hour to talk to him. Granted, I understand he wasn’t perfect. He smoked, he drank, he ate food that clogged his arteries and he lived life in an antiquated fashion. He was very much a product of his generation. But I think I would be the only one who would get the full effect of all of these stories and memories.

My grandfather would have been 76 years old today. So much has changed over the last 13 years. The world is nothing like it was when he left it. Technology has taken over, racism has become breaking news again, and everywhere we look there is a fear of bombs falling. I know none of these things would have changed him, though. He wouldn’t own a cellphone, and he certainly wouldn’t pay attention to things like vegan diets and low-carb foods. If there was ever a constant in my life, it would still be Calbert Mathews. He would get up at the crack of dawn and make coffee, watch a few minutes of the local news (I’d love to hear his opinion on his favorite weatherman retiring) and would hit the river bank or lakeside. Like clockwork he’d spend his afternoons weeding, tending the garden and resting on the porch until a little after sunset. I miss knowing that if I wanted to find him, there were usually only half a dozen places I’d have to look.

I often wonder, though, what he would think of me. He wasn’t one to talk about the future much, so I can’t be sure what he had in mind for me as I grew up. I chose a very different path than he did as I went on in life, picking books over farming equipment and writing over being a full time farmer. He always encouraged me in my reading, though. He maintained an interest in my grades and never seemed to mind if I did want to pick up a novel instead of weed the garden or fish. I had not made the decision to be a writer before his death, though. I would definitely like to have gotten his opinion on that. I wish I would have been able to see his face at my high school and college graduations- although I’m sure he would have ducked out and avoided the crowd after seeing me walk across the stage for each one. I wish I could have been able to hear his reaction when I told him I got my first post-college job or hear his frustrations that his house was just outside of the delivery range of the newspaper I worked at later on.

I would have loved to have seen him at my wedding, sure his dressy flannel shirt and fresh, clean jeans would have been perfect contrast to my own suit and Chuck Taylors. I’d give nearly anything to be able to pick up the phone and tell him that I still look up to him to this day. That his hard-working nature rubbed off on me, whether it is in a different field or not. That I strive to be myself as openly as possible and that I don’t ‘put on airs’ to make people think I’m someone I’m not. I like to think that he would be proud of the man I’ve become, the way I’ve handled myself and my life through thick and thin. I know one day I’ll see him in Heaven, and I look forward to seeing what he has to say about everything we never got to talk about. Until then, I have my memories, I have my mementos, and I have the strong will and morals that he provided me with – whether he knew it or not.

Happy birthday, Papaw. I love you and I miss you every day. I’ll see you again on God’s great golden shore and we’ll go fishing, or maybe just take a walk and catch up. It will be a glad reunion day.