Recently I spent a few days of solitude on Edisto Island, trying to make headway on a novel I’m writing and a keynote address I’d soon deliver at a writers’ conference in Tennessee. I’ve lived in the Upstate nearly three decades, but the Lowcountry is the land of my people and the place of my birth, so a trip “home” for a writing sabbatical always includes spending time with my father, one of life’s greatest joys.
I’d begun to scratch a few notes for that speech, not finding a trajectory, when my favorite T-shirt came to mind, the one with a William Faulkner quote: “I write when inspiration hits me. Fortunately it hits me each day at 10 a.m.”
Ol’ Will wasn’t just whistling Dixie.
My one steadfast piece of advice to beginning writers has always been this: Write. I was reminded yet again that that pearl of wisdom is easier said than done as I stared at the fits and starts on my note pad. Why write anyway? What is the point? I was still mulling these questions as I drove to meet my dad for church on Sunday morning.
A few years ago my father had begun attending the Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island, founded in 1685. There’s something special in the timbers of that historic, beautiful structure. Plus, Dad liked the people, the pastor, the quality and brevity of her services (always over in one hour!), and the parish’s renowned covered-dish luncheons. For years my father worked around heavy equipment and also spent much of his leisure time in duck blinds and dove fields in close proximity to shotgun blasts, so his running commentary that particular morning on every parishioner, while endearing, was slightly louder than I’d have preferred.
“Well, that lady there sure has a good suntan!” He said, his voice a few decibels above a whisper. I nodded, looking at the bronze woman, likely a vacationer from nearby Edisto Beach.
“See that fellow?” Dad jutted his chin toward an elderly man across the aisle. “Your Grandmama once told me that that man’s future father-in-law asked her out on a date in high school, but an old woman on the island advised your grandmother she’d find higher bush and better berry elsewhere.”
What the . . . ?
“What?” I had to ask.
“It means she married your Granddaddy instead,” he said with a chuckle. I shushed him. “You’re loud,” I whispered, though I was still mulling that berry and bush thing.
The opening hymn was followed by “Words of Welcome and Hospitality,” during which first-time visitors were asked to raise their hands to receive welcome gifts. A few hands went up and the usher delivered small, lavender-colored paper goody bags to each guest. Except he missed a lady in the front right pew. A dozen or so helpful parishioners’ arms shot up, pointing toward the neglected guest who clearly desired one of those bags. My dad and I were seated in the back pew, which happened to be just in front of the small stash of gift bags. As the usher returned to grab one more bag for the woman, he leaned in between my dad and me and whispered, “Lord, have mercy. Everybody wants something for free.” The usher and my dad were friends, and, of course, he was joking to get a rise out of my dad, but Dad, (loud equipment, shot guns) didn’t hear the joke and wondered why I had begun giggling.
“What?” he said.
“Later,” I mouthed.
With haste the usher graciously delivered the visitor the small sack of Presbyterian swag. As the pastor made her way to the pulpit I noticed a high-pitch whining which, at first, I thought must be the air-conditioning system struggling to keep up with the already steamy morning. The irritating sound increased to the point that heads began to turn in various directions, seeking its source. The wise pastor stopped the service, put her hands to her ears and said, “Everyone. Please. Check your ears. Someone’s hearing aid is BUZZING.” After about ten more seconds of necks craning, the usher tweaked his ears and the church was again silent, except for a few lingering giggles, mine among them.
What I’m getting at here is that the mood was light in that cool, sun-filled ancient church, nestled among mammoth oaks, on that hot morning. My mind was far away from novels and speeches; I was just enjoying spending a pleasant hour with my dad. As soon as church let out, I would return to my desk for my date with inspiration.
When the time came for the sermon, the pastor summoned all children to the sanctuary. She lifted a large sack from behind the pulpit and before she could explain its purpose, a child I suspect was the pastor’s son shouted, “I know what’s in there!” More chuckling from the congregation. The pastor explained the bag contained large toy bricks. She split the excited little congregants into two groups, telling them she planned to spill the bricks between them. She emptied the bag, and on her command the children were to construct a wall using all the bricks. She would time them. “Ready, set, go! One . . . two . . . ”
In thirty-three seconds, the children constructed a perfect wall. Thirty-three seconds is fast for most things in this life, but in church, where the only voice is the pastor’s slow, methodical counting, Thirty. Three. Seconds. Takes. A. While.
Once the job was done, she praised their well-constructed wall and asked them, “What would be necessary if all you children wanted to gather together to play a game? What if your friend is on the opposite side of the bricks? What would you do then?”
“We’d punch it down!” a little one shouted, clearly excited at the prospect. “I’ll time you again,” the pastor said. “Let’s see how long it’ll take you to do that. Ready, set, go! One.”
And the wall came down.
The modest demonstration hit me like, well, a ton of bricks. Children take a concept to basic, essential terms. If we want to play together we’ll knock down any wall standing between us and we’ll squeal with delight as we do it.
The pastor sent the kids out the side door for children’s chapel with the usher’s wife, and then she began her sermon based on Ephesians 2:11–22, Scripture with which I was unfamiliar. Scripture about walls—both physical and metaphysical, about divisions among God’s people, and ultimately about unity. The deceptively simple message snuck up on me, striking me solidly in the heart. As a novelist I often consider the ways human beings are more alike than we are different. And as the pastor said, “When we construct walls, divisions are counted and unity is lost.” Tears I’d not expected blurred my view of her. That’s what happens to me when I’m feeling lighthearted and suddenly something unexpectedly profound jolts me. I reached over and held my dad’s hand. He gave it a warm squeeze.
If we ignore the walls and the divisions we institute among ourselves, we are dismissing Christ’s peace, the pastor said. She expounded on the morning’s Scripture, then finished her sermon saying, “Here’s the challenge. Consider this: How many walls that divide us are we building? How many walls that divide us are we destroying?”
Louisiana-born author Walker Percy said, “Bad books lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” My dad’s pastor didn’t expound on hot-button politics that Sunday morning. Hers was a message involving kids’ building blocks, friendship, unity, and the human condition.
If bad books lie about the human condition, then good books must do the opposite. They speak truth and shine a light on our connectedness. I think all good stories should do that. As the service ended and I headed out the door into the bright morning, water-colored memories of my childhood Sunday school lessons came to me. In those old memories, Jesus stands, surrounded by captivated children, engrossed in story. I imagine what good stories those must have been.
Sometimes we just need to get out of our own way. I knew exactly what I needed to say in my keynote. I thought of the little boy who shouted with glee that he’d “punch that wall down” in order to get to his friends on the other side. I’d tell those writers not to shy from hard truths about the condition we share, to strive to evoke our common humanity, to illuminate the ways we as human beings are connected, despite the complexities of the human heart, despite our differences.
I’d read them the Percy quote and tell them not to lie.
And I’d tell them to get to their writing desks and make sure inspiration struck them, even if they had to throw the first punch