Once Upon a Howl
First and foremost, you need to know that the third ‘a’ in ‘Appalachian’ sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘lack,’ not the ‘a’ in ‘lake’. Phonetically speaking, it’s pronounced app-uh-latch-uh, not app-uh-lay-shuh.
Okay. Now that we’ve squared that away, we can start.
In the middle of a slow day in the middle of a February in Philadelphia, my friend (who also happened to be my co-worker and housemate) came over to my desk. “Hey, you’ve got to check out this Kickstarter. It’s a pretty great video.” We sat down on a couch and he showed me the video on his laptop.
The video was made by a singer-songwriter who needed money to finish recording a full-length album. It was one of the more earnest, sentimental videos I’d seen. Normally, I’d be quick to critique any imperfections in the video itself. I was working for a production company at the time and had been working as an editor for several years.
I knew what a “great video” looked and sounded like. This was, by most aesthetic markers, an “okay video.” But I watched the whole video with my friend. Then, after he returned to his work, I watched the video again on my laptop.
And then I watched it again. And again.
In the middle of that slow day in the middle of February in Philadelphia, I was in the middle of a slow-motion heartbreak. Many things I’d believed in, both personally and professionally, were dissolving before my eyes. And despite my efforts, I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
In hindsight, it’s not a surprise. After all, I was broken myself. It was akin to Humpty Dumpty attempting to piece back together someone else who’d fallen off the wall, while himself still scattered across the sidewalk.
I watched John Lucas’ video in the middle of a heartbreak. I heard his overly earnest, carpe-diem words talk about the kind of man he wished to be, the kind of songs he wished to write, the kind of world he longed to contribute to. Had I watched this video a year previous, I would’ve criticized his framing, his editing, and his color grading.
But watching it at that exact moment, all I did was watch it again. And cry.
And watch it again.
“Yes,” I said, rejoicing, from the bottom of the pit in which I found myself. “Someone who believes. Someone who hopes. Someone who yearns and is unashamed in their yearning. Someone who has determined to love at all costs, no matter where that leads.”
I gave what I could, more than I’ve ever give to anything before or since. Included in the funding, I wrote to Lucas — “Much of what you hope to see, much of what you believe exists in the heart of every person — I believe and walk with you. I'm too broken to be cynical, too hurt to be angry. I'm just gonna believe every word you say and do what I can to support the howl in your heart.”
Lucas responded, surprised and grateful for the funding. We kept in casual touch since then — I’d listen to his music, and he’d read the poetry I’d post online. Last year, he interviewed me for his personal blog, which was another lovely experience. Earlier this year, I received an email from Lucas. He and his wife were backpacking in Nepal at the time, but they were looking to return Stateside soon: “It's been wild to say the least,” he wrote, “and has made me think a lot about what life could be like when we get back home. I've been thinking for awhile that I would love to finally get to spend some time with you…I wanted to extend you an invitation to come stay with us and to be one of our first guests at our new place.”
I responded hours later by forwarding my flight itinerary, the trip planned for the Fall.
I arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina late in the day. Lucas picked me up and drove the hour-plus out to Boone, located along the Appalachian Mountain Range. Though we’d only emailed for approximately three-and-a-half years, we leapt into conversation as old friends.
The next morning, we set out along the Blue Ridge Parkway. While taking on a series of hikes, we talked about — in no particular order — Jesus, the Devil, aliens, siblings, creativity, farts, music, climate change and sushi.
Over the course of my days in Boone, I learned about Wooly Worms, the Brown Mountain Lights, and the lawn game Kubb. I learned that sriracha mixed with honey tastes delicious, but that sriracha mixed with maple syrup might taste even better.
I learned the beauty of what Rosaria Butterfield calls “radical hospitality”: a generosity of home and all resource. Lucas is a thoughtful, imaginative artist who, from time to time, loves a good game of backgammon. Danielle is a heart-shaped pistol, unafraid to both speak her mind and love without reservation. They’ve backpacked together across the world and continually explore what it means to be courageous in both word and deed. My time with the both of them reaffirmed my own desire to love people, to know and be known by others. Lucas and Danielle’s constant affections for friends and family alike showed me the potential of what could happen when you intentionally pursue relationships with others.
The last hike they took me on was Snake Mountain. We began our hike at approximately 3,000 feet above sea level, and though the hike to the summit was only three miles, it also included 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The last half mile involved trudging through bits of snow slush, ducking trail overgrowth, and a small bit of rock-climbing. When we arrived at the top, Danielle took Lucas’ and my picture.
Many times during my trip, I thought back to when my friend first showed me Lucas’ video. And in those times, I smiled. I thanked God — for my friend, for Lucas and Danielle, for the heart God placed in me, and for seeing it through the breaking.
Sometimes, when a heart breaks, it shatters. Its fractures are gaping and cavernous. The heart splits open and tears apart in seismic fashion. Through its breaking, it births new territories of raw-nerve-grief-despair-confusion. Sometimes it’s hard to tell between a joyful howl, and am embittered wail. But in the midst of that volcanic ache, seeds of healing are planted, sometimes without our knowing.
Sometimes, in the midst of the dying, resurrection is already on the move.