I got asked a question today, and it surprised me how hard it was to answer.
“What do you like to write?”
I mean, I do this for a living, so you’d think that one wouldn’t have stumped me. But there I was; stalling with jokes and fumbling for an answer…
Now in my defense, the question was posed to me by one Mrs. Andrea Pendleton. As in “force of nature, former Mayor of Rainelle” Andrea Pendleton. So you can see how I was understandably a little starstruck. I had never met her before, but her reputation precedes her. I was actually surprised to learn that she wasn’t really 12 feet tall and made of steel.
So there I am, standing in front of this amazing woman, and I’m stammering like a rube and realizing that I am not as charming as I think I am. Mercifully, Mrs. Pendleton picked up on how thin my veneer is and shifted her conversation to somebody far more interesting than me.
It was at this point that I took stock of the room I was in. To my left was a Christmas tree, freshly decorated with the images of men and women who gave the last full measure of devotion for our country. To my right were their mothers, fathers and grandmothers; each one wearing the heartbreaking smile of eternal pride and profound sadness that comes with receiving a Gold Star. I decided right about then that I should talk less and listen more.
So Mrs. Pendleton, now that I’ve set the scene, if you’ll allow me a second chance to make a first impression, I’m going to take another crack at telling you what I like to write.
Today I learned about Rob. (His mom never called him Robert.) Rob was a National Guardsman who died a hero in 2018. When his mom spoke about him, she talked about the idea of “dying two deaths.” The first is the physical death. The second death is when people stop saying the name of the person who died.
Mrs. Pendleton, I like writing about Rob. I didn’t know him, but I clearly heard every word his mother said. Rob gave his life for his country, and I think we can all agree that dying for us once is more than enough. I don’t ever want people to stop saying Rob’s name.
Earlier in the week, I had a couple of really unique experiences. On Tuesday, I was in a room with the First Lady of West Virginia, the founder of Communities In Schools, and five of the most incredible women I’ve ever met. And I got to hear stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. People helping people; things that matter. I learned that day that “love goes where people are.”
Mrs. Pendleton, I like writing about people helping people, and I like writing that love goes where people are. Like where Michelle Blatt and Tina Campbell are.
Thursday night I was in White Sulphur Springs. Sarah Elkins has this really cool thing she does at Big Draft Brewing called “Talks On Tap.” Basically she gets people (also far more interesting than me) to come and talk about their experiences. So when I heard Mark Trent was going to be there, I got all fan boy’d-up, called Sarah, and said I was on my way.
Mark Trent is a photojournalist who has spent over a decade documenting West Virginia’s drug epidemic. His presentation was pretty intense and brought up more than a few bad memories. I didn’t take the time to mentally prepare myself for it, and I walked out with a knot in my stomach. I thought about how different that experience was from the one I’d had on Tuesday; the difference between those two rooms. Then I thought about all the rooms that came before. Dark rooms that I had no business walking into, and to this day have no idea how I managed to get out of. I don’t like writing about those rooms.
But in that room on Thursday was Sarah, and Max Hammer, and Clay Elkins and quite a few others. And right next door was David Bostic. And down the street was Candace and Adam Whanger. And not that far away was Lloyd Haynes. These are people who I have referred to, many times, as the “better angels” of White Sulphur Springs. These are people who devote themselves to lifting up our community.
Mrs. Pendleton, I like writing about the better angels of White Sulphur Springs.
I hope this answer gives me some small degree of redemption. When a small man stands beside a strong woman, he needs to work pretty hard to rise to her level. So I will work harder, Mrs. Pendleton. There are a lot more stories to write. And, if you’ll let me, I think I’d like to try writing yours.