Where All Light Tends To Go

As many of you know, I am a proud Appalachian man with a serious love of literature and of my region. I try, on occasion, to immerse myself in regional pieces, and see my culture from the eyes of other local authors. I recently had the pleasure of diving into the incredible novel “Where All Light Tends To Go,” by David Joy. This amazing piece of Appalachian Literature, or Appalachian Noir as Joy considers it, explores the life of Jacob McNeely, the son of a drug addict and what passes for a drug kingpin in the small mountain town.

I’ve read several Appalachian works, and know several regional authors, and this tale stands at the pinnacle of Appalachian literature for me. I immediately felt drawn in by Jacob’s story. He is an outcast in his life, largely forgotten by a mother who spends most of her time riding her current high or pursuing the next one, and pushed aside by a father who finds him to be weak and useless. A dropout, Jacob can’t even rely on his peers for comfort.

Being from a small town myself, I related to Jacob’s plight as a young Applachian man, living in a town where opportunities aren’t exactly aplenty. Jacob feels he is limited in many ways, not the least being that, as a McNeely, he is almost instantly branded a failure. He talks several times throughout the first person narrative of being trash, nothing but trash, pure McNeely trash. Our main character perhaps it explains it best by saying;

“A name like Jacob McNeely raised eyebrows and questions. In a town this small all eyes were prying eyes.”

Joy’s writing explores the depth of the Appalachian region, while tugging the heart strings in an attempt to show the truth of the struggle some feel growing up in these beautiful mountains. The McNeelys are a family that has been condemned by their choices, their actions, and the unfortunate judgement of others. Jacob, who some say has a chance to become more, struggles throughout the entire book with the penalties associated with being a McNeely and the decisions he makes because of it.

An underlying, but interesting element of the text is the repeated conflict Jacob has with religion. From his early childhood Jacob was encouraged to go to church, his mother and grandfather religious individuals for a time. His father, whom he ends up living with, however, is not the religious type. Jacob says more than once that he doesn’t believe in God, but follows that up by saying that God doesn’t answer McNeely prayers. I found this element to be very interesting, as most Appalachian literature brings religion into the text by presenting us with the heavily (if not overly) religious individuals who do nothing but judge others based on their beliefs. We get none of that from Jacob.

Jacob’s relationship with the woman he loves, his childhood best friend, Maggie, is nothing short of remarkable. We enter Jacob’s life to see him watching Maggie graduate high school (from a distance, granted), and throughout his story he is insistent that Maggie has everything it takes to get be more, to escape their small town prison and do incredible things. In essence, Jacob puts everything into Maggie that he refuses to give to himself. She becomes romanticized and placed on a pedestal that I never could quite tell if she deserves.

I think the most heart-wrenching part of Jacob’s life is the strained relationship he has with his father. Charles McNeely is, in essence, the worst kind of person. A drug pushing, abusive, womanizing fiend with no regard for life, he neglects his child and causes pain to everyone he knows. Between his father’s treatment of him, his mother’s abandonment, and his own inability to break free of the burdens placed on him, Jacob is haunted by the pain of a broken life. His pain bleeds from the pages in places, particularly during one of the hardest hitting lines in the text, which has Jacob mentioning how funny it is that it only takes one person taking the time to show you they care for the bad things in life to not seem so bad anymore.

I have no shame in admitting that I didn’t have any idea how this book would end, but, after reading it, I don’t think any other ending would have sufficed. Although not bogged down with the supernatural, or with the inescapable horror I usually seek out, this text has quickly risen to my top ten books right now. Jacob’s journey is not necessarily one for the faint of heart, but I feel like this is a book most anyone can enjoy. Fans of Appalachian literature in particular will love this representation of the difficulties of life in a small North Carolina town.

I’m the kind of reader who loves marking passages that I enjoy so I can go back and look at them later and explore their meaning and depth. Usually I try to do this with sticky tabs that I can slap on the page right beside of my preferred quote. I have no shame admitting that I used an entire stack of sticky notes for this novel, as the featured image above shows. I will absolutely be seeking out more of Joy’s writing in the near future, and will be keeping my eyes open for a chance to meet this fantastic author and delve into his creative genius. If any of you pick up this masterpiece, I would love to know what you think. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments or send me a message. As always, if you have any suggestions for a future review, or even just a book recommendation feel free to let me know!

I must leave you with this final line, that I am convinced will go down in history right alongside “So we beat on…” Though it gives nothing away, I have to admit it literally gave me chills. It is only a part of the power this text holds, and I’m sure everyone will love it.

“Only the middle ground of this wicked world mattered, the vast gap that stretched between, and those who were born with enough grit to brave it.”

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.

Freedom reigns

Greetings friends and fans! I know some of you are in the U.S. and some aren’t, and I apologize to anyone who finds this post irrelevant – but Happy Independence Day!

We’ve circled the sun one more time and we have arrived back at July 4th, celebrating the Independence of the United States and the freedom that grants me the ability to sit here tapping away at the keyboard. Thanks to the amazing sacrifices the masses have made to provide this country with its independence I can wake up in the morning and put on whatever clothes I choose. I can sit down and write my novels about whatever topic I want. I can listen to whatever music I choose to listen to, watch what I choose, sleep when I choose. I can be a part of whatever religion I feel most drawn to, and it is my absolute right.

Independence Day is, for those of you that haven’t thought about it, an incredible opportunity for us, as U.S. citizens, to just enjoy the country we live in. I’ve always been fascinated by the feeling surrounding the 4th of July. It’s always a great surge of patriotic movies, music and ideas. Barbecues dot the backyards and fireworks blaze through the air, painting the sky a myriad of colors to stun the eye.

I can remember the huge town gatherings when I was growing up. We would eat a great “all-American” dinner of burgers and hot dogs and gather near the town high school with family and friends and wait for the show to begin. The summer evening would grow cooler as the darkness spread over the sky, chasing the last of the sun’s rays across the world. Great conversations would ensue as we all prepared to enjoy a genuine display of aerial explosions. And it rarely disappointed.

Even now, as a 27 year-old man, those memories stand out in my mind as being great inspirations to me. I’ve always found myself feeling an exceeding passion for the written word around this time of year. Summer is such an amazing time for me. It’s a time to get out and explore the world around you, to embrace the extended daylight hours and enjoy the warmer nights. I’ve always been a traveler at heart. I love getting myself out there and experiencing the world in new ways, feeling the loving touch of nature as much as possible. One thing that I will never be able to get enough of is just the feeling of being in the fresh air, the amazing comfort that I feel just walking outside.

Some of you who have read my work know that I often try to convey that in my writing. Many of my characters feel that same connection with nature, some yearning the touch of a cool breeze above all else. To be able to put my work out there and put myself and my love of nature into it is one of my greatest desires. Obviously, I connect quite a bit with music and the night. These are things that make my words flow in all new ways, and recently I’ve found myself in a situation where I can’t always embrace those things. Working a night shift can definitely keep you from being able to celebrate the night. As much as I hate to admit it, I have felt it change my writing and my life as a whole. It’s something that I, so far, have had difficulty adjusting to.

This Independence Day, though, I want to work on changing that. I want to bring the word independence full circle and apply it to my life in new ways. I have allowed my mind to be too occupied with things that are not my writing, my purpose, my destiny. And it’s time to bring it back. I think I let myself disconnect for a time after sending out my first round of queries (which, honestly, may not have been terrible), but no author has ever gotten his or her work out there by not writing. So this independence day, I’ll move away from the things that hinder me and I will set my writing free once more.

I’m going to embrace summer and move back into the realm of my own creation as often as possible. After all, in a world known for the terrible bits of reality we have to face every day, a little fiction is exactly what we need sometimes to brighten things, right?

So that’s that, guys. I hope you all have an awesome Independence Day, with great family, friends, food, and fireworks. The best 4 f’s out there, right? What sort of memories do you cherish on the 4th of July? What plans do you have this year? Feel free to reach out and leave your comments, no matter where you’re from. Even if you don’t celebrate U.S. Independence Day, do you still find the same inspiration from those awesome summer nights? I’d love to hear what the warm season means to everyone else.