Jeff Shearer—Hunters and Gatherers

Jeff Shearer tell us a delightful story of when he was young for our November 2017 collaboration with One Voice Nashville. 

Outside of Portland, Oregon there’s a town called Beaverton.  And within the town of 51- When I Was YoungBeaverton there’s a group of 400 houses in a place called Marlene Village.  That’s where I was born.  It was a community built to provide homes to all the veterans who had returned from World War II.   For a six year old kid – Marlene Village had everything.   Three doors down was a neighbor who built boats in his garage and would let us watch, which was safe, because he used no power tools.   There were trees to climb when the neighborhood German Shepherd chased me on my bike because our Cocker Spaniel back home was in heat, and the German Shepherd’s hormones couldn’t detect that I didn’t look anything like a Cocker Spaniel.

In the summer, after the road patching crew made their yearly pass down our street, we took off our shoes and socks and popped hot tar bubbles with our big toes.  When a house on the corner caught on fire, the neighborhood moms herded all of us down the street to stand on the curb and watch the flames until a single firetruck arrived just in time to save the last standing wall.

Marlene Village had everything a six year old could want.  And on Saturdays, that was important, since every kid was expelled from the house after breakfast with a single command:   Go Play.    Followed by a reminder:   And be home by supper.

On one particular Saturday, I led a group of kids across the creek that separated our backyard and the wheat field that bordered our village.  I was six. They were younger, mostly four and five.  This meant that I automatically was the leader.   I showed them the rocks to step on to avoid getting bit by the crawdads in the creek.   I led them tromping through the wheat fields to a place we called the woods, a stand of pine trees that could provide hours of entertainment in games of hiding or in random discovery.

I had climbed the thickest tree I could find while the others played. I must have been about ten feet off the ground when looking down, I spotted what looked like a deer.   It was perfectly still.  I have since learned that thanks to our primitive ancestors, as humans we have what anthropologists call Attention Bias.  If there is anything that looks like prey or predator in our line of sight, we have an incredible ability to pick it out, while an inanimate object, even a precious one, will go undetected.    I stared harder.     It was a deer!   A very silent deer.    It had antlers, a nose like a chunk of coal, long  reddish brown ears, and eyes that were so intent they looked frozen.  I took inventory.  Antlers, nose, ears, eyes.   But there the similarities stopped.   Wasn’t there supposed to be a neck?   And legs?  And a tail?    This deer had none of those.   I remember thinking.   This is my lucky day.   There is no way this deer can run away.    My family were not hunters, so I had no idea how a deer’s head suddenly would appear in the woods without the rest of its torso.  But I did know that I had to scramble out of that tree and claim my prize before any of the younger kids stumbled upon it.

The feeling of discovery was intoxicating. The smaller kids ran up to me as I lifted up my finding.  They all wanted to pet the deer.  They wanted to know what all the flies were excited about.   They asked me what I was going to do with it.  I thought about that.   But there was only one answer: Take it home to mom.

The journey home was a lot longer than that morning’s trip to the woods.    For the next half hour we trekked over fallen trunks and through clumps of pine needles.  We stomped across the furrowed wheat field, the deer looking like it nodded each time it bumped from one furrow to the next.  I dragged it by the antlers, first the left, then the right, then the left again, a single vacant eye constantly looking heavenward.    My small army followed me, swatting at the flies with their sticks.    I had a single thought: Now I know what it feels like to provide for the family.  It had to be in my genes. This was some vestigial urge from a distant Neanderthal ancestor: “Take this home. This is  supper.”  The feeling was exhilarating.   To know that we weren’t the descendants of some ancient group of mambly pambly foragers and gatherers.  No berries and nuts for this tribe. No — we came from solid stock.  We were hunters!

During the trek home, I imagined the surprise on my mom’s face when I presented her with this trophy.   It would be a look of joy, followed by what –  yes — an announcement of a family celebration.    I pictured the envy on my older brother’s face and the stunned look of awe from my younger brother. My sister would say this is just like the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving.    My dad would then march us all down the hall to help me weigh the deer on the bathroom scale.

I had reached the creek.   My arms ached from all the dragging, but there was no way I was letting the blood thirsty crawdads get anywhere close to my deer.  I hoisted the head up until its ears touched my shoulders, and found the best rocks to ford the creek.  It took three attempts to climb the far bank that led up to our back yard.   On my third attempt  I figured out that turning the head upside down allowed me to dig into the crumbling dirt with the antlers, letting me  move up the bank in small six inch steps, like climbing a glacier with an ice ax.

I crossed the yard and pulled the deer up the two steps to our back door.  I tried not to let the screen door slam.     I looked around the corner.   My mom’s back was turned to me as she stirred something in a boiling pot of water. I pulled the deer across the linoleum floor and set it right in front of our chrome and formica breakfast table.   I knelt down on both knees and pulled back on the antlers to make sure the eyes were looking up at my mom.

“Hey mom. Look what I brought home.”

Her reaction will be forever imprinted in my mind.   I remember hearing the spoon bounce off the ceiling.  She threw both hands into the air.    I stared as her mouth lost the last trace of her smile and morphed into an O that kept growing into a bigger and bigger O, until it looked identical to the mouth of the deer, and from her mouth came a long,  low primordial groan.   The bigger her mouth got, the bigger my eyes got.    But then the groan gurgled to the top and formed a word.     GET… and then another word… THAT……followed by THING  followed by  OUT… OF…MY…KITCHEN!

I was sent to my room without supper that night.   Which gave me time to try to figure out what had happened.   I had come home a provider.  The highest tribute that you can make to your family.  And my gift, by offering, had been rejected.   Was my own family, after all, descendants of a tribe that had never developed into hunters?     Was I the only one who not only could see a wild animal camouflaged in the woods, but also the only one who appreciated the significance of that discovery?

I was still up when my dad came in to explain to me why we don’t bring deer heads home.   I had heard my mother’s voice earlier that night as she relayed the story to him.  Every sentence was punctuated by “What was he thinking?”   Toward the end I had caught the words “Bury it.”  Then her voice grew softer.  I couldn’t hear her final command to my dad.

So, now, as my dad finished tucking me in, he asked me if I knew what a souvenir was.  No, I said.  “Oh, he said.  Well you’ll find out in the morning.  There will be one on top of your dresser.” He turned out the light. I heard his footsteps as he moved down the hall.   He knew I wasn’t going to wait until morning.  I slipped out of bed.

For the rest of the night,  a pair of sawed off antlers lay next to my pillow, and I dreamed of the look on my classmates faces when the teacher called on me for Show and Tell.

 

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When I Was Young – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory for our November 2017 collaboration with One Voice Nashville on “When I Was Young.” 

Tonight, we remembered when we were young.

We remembered life as a Neanderthal hunter, chased by mating German Shepherds, and dragging home a decapitated deer—where we expected a family celebration, but instead got solitary confinement.

We remembered the day Poseidon died on Easter Sunday, and we led black-clad funeral goers in a deeply meaningful memorial—despite the rib-cracking laughter of the Wicked Witch of the West!

We remembered growing up in the One True Church in the universe of Texas. Then we discovered that people existed elsewhere, that filmstrips were not the source of undeniable truth, and that mother was right—we might be wrong.

We remembered the tough love of Coach Dad—and the life lessons learned from the agony of scoring the losing goal, and the ecstasy of scoring the winning goal.

We remembered visits to Papa Donny’s house, and touching toes on the tree swings, and fireflies in a mason jar, and delivering gingerbread boys—and the origin of a Christmas tradition with the aroma of a childhood where you know everyone’s name.

We remembered the year of opportunity, when we crossed the wood-plank bridge one step at a time through eternity, and Mr. Mittens taught us we need help to reach our dreams.

We remembered with gratitude her long walk on Christmas Eve to swap four chickens for a few groceries, a little red truck, and a small doll—when it was too cold to sing, “Hard times come again no more.”

We remembered a lesson learned from a girl long ago—and now we are Moises’ super-hero—and he helped us recover the brick from the depth of our fear.

We remembered a hard summer mixing mortar with a perfectionist father, and guilty trips to the V.A., and a special gift full of pictures…and stuff…and the story—and you have to remember the story.


Thanks to all the storytellers–Richard, Qu’ana, Kathleen, Michael, Annette, Kathy, Gabby, Jan, and Jeff! Join us December 11 for our theme “That Was Awkward.” Got a story? Let us know here!

52 - That Was Awkward

Sally Amkoa – When In Nashville

Here’s Tenx9 newcomer Sally Amkoa’s wonderful story from our October 2017 theme “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”

There’s a pretty big difference between a music teacher and a private guitar instructor, 50-Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Timewho delivers sandwiches on his bike half the week. I sat across from the man, seething in annoyance. At war with his perfect, pleading, pale green eyes, his natural tan, that head full of thick, shiny brown hair and his beautiful body, as he explained that he had only lied to get a date with me. In my defense, the brilliant, Ivy League graduate (and real teacher!) whom I’d wanted to marry and have a family with had just dumped me by text. I needed this exquisite musician to happen to me for a little while as I recalibrated.

What he lacked in disposable income, he made up for in intrigue.

Here was a white man from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who was so well versed in racial issues that his conversation oozed with nuance. I once bumped into him on the street, with a copy of Between the World and Me peeping out of his jacket pocket. When he watched I am not your Negro, he sought out every piece of literature written by James Baldwin. He didn’t say dumb things like “I don’t see color”.  He saw my color, and he loved it.

He was one of two guys in his entire friend group, who showed up for the Women’s March. He held my hand, and proudly raised a sign that read ‘I’m With Meryl!’, as we chanted passionately with the crowd.

He was a hot nerd. When I told him I had never read Salinger, he promptly got me Franny & Zooey, and then briefed me on the order in which I was to read the rest of Salinger’s works for maximum effect.

We’d spend hours in his room, listening to “real music” on his vinyl player. His eyes would glow with excitement as he gave me tidbits of information about the artistes he was playing: from the heartbreak that inspired one Bob Dylan song, to the time Duke Ellington told Charles Mingus that his music was crap! He loved that I was an eager student. At the end of every lesson, he would turn up the volume to max so we wouldn’t disturb his housemates.

Whenever I asked what he was thinking, he’d also tell me how what he was thinking made him feel. And he could always tell how I was feeling, sometimes even before I’d processed my own emotions. We opened up to each other, uninhibited, like a blooming flower greeting the sun on the first day of spring. It felt like he’d walked into me and set up camp.

Then first the crack appeared.

We were relaxing in bed one night, when he casually mentioned that his dad had taken him to renew his car registration that morning. That kind of stuff was just too complicated for him. I sat up involuntarily, quite puzzled. I’d moved to the US on my own at 19, applied for a social security card, put myself through graduate school, got a job, moved to a new city, got an apartment, a driver’s license, bought a car, registered said car all on my own. And I was younger than him.

“What other things do your parents do for you?” I prodded.

He suddenly sank into himself, like a child who’d just realized he was in trouble. Turns out his parents paid for his health insurance, gave him a car…you know, things like that.

He was 28 for God’s sake! What would he do if his parents weren’t there to help him out?

“I just wouldn’t get health insurance,” he said.

But what about when he had a family and kids?

He didn’t want kids.

I was rattled by that jolt of reality. He held me tightly, trying to reassure me: we just started dating, he said; it was too early to be talking about kids; who knew what we’d want in 5 years; maybe he’d change his mind.

Sometime later, I discovered the Dave Ramsey podcast. I was so excited that I couldn’t stop talking about all the cool things I was learning about saving, budgeting and having financial goals. “Honestly, I find this topic very boring,” he said in exasperation. The tune he had been playing on his guitar suddenly turned into emphatic dissonant chords, before a tense silence staged a coup. He knew he was never going to make any money, he said finally. And he was okay with that, as long as he had his music.

We had just got back to my apartment after a quiet hike a few weeks later, when I told him our relationship had no future. He was confused. Why would I want to end it when we clearly loved each other? If you loved someone, you made things work.

“I think about marrying you,” he pleaded.

“We want very different things,” I asserted, amid painful sobs.

After he left, I knew I was in trouble. I felt like I was punishing myself by letting him go. So what if he didn’t ever make any money? Plenty of people lived very happily with very little. I was an emotional mess. I couldn’t really confide in my girlfriends because as far as they knew, I was only dating him for fun. So I resorted to crying in my car during my lunch breaks, feeling like the biggest idiot alive for giving him up. He rebounded on someone, I rebounded on someone, and two months later, we were back together.

He invited me meet his family that Christmas.

His parents were wonderful, welcoming people who lived in a gorgeous Murfreesboro suburb. He gave me a tour of his home, a little embarrassed by the size of it, and the numerous photos of him and his siblings at every awkward childhood phase.

His parents had been very involved in his childhood: they took him all over the country to see his favorite musicians in concert, to watch various World Series games, even to watch tennis at Wimbledon. When he was admitted to study jazz at a top music program in Boston, they fully funded his college education. Their gifts to him that year included multiple paid trips to exotic locations abroad. I couldn’t blame him for thinking budgeting was boring.

I built him a website for Christmas. Now he had a platform to share his original music with a wider audience. He could use it to connect with other musicians, and maybe even build a fanbase. Eventually, he’d be able to make money playing his music. He loved the website! He had lots of great ideas for sprucing it up. He just never got around to doing it.

On the drive back to Nashville, I was torn. I wanted to give my children the same things his parents had given him, but that was the opportunity cost of his love.

Last month, he moved to New York City to pursue his dream of being a struggling musician, and to be with a new girl. I cried and cried until, eventually, he only came to the verge of overflowing from me, teetering on the edge adamantly. In those moments, I wished for tears, convinced that each one was a piece of him, and if I could just shed him, the pain would stop. I often imagine him out and about, exploring obscure New York neighborhoods, arm in arm with another free spirit, happily living from paycheck to paycheck in a tiny, and maybe crappy New York apartment. And I’m slightly comforted by the fact that I really don’t want that.

After our breakup, another striking musician asked me out. My dreamy date played guitar in a local band. He too had studied jazz in college. He wasn’t a spoiled rich kid, but he didn’t like to think about money, or the massive college debt he was in. He only cared about the music.

This time, I ran.


Sally Amkoa is a business analyst at eviCore healthcare by day and an avid Swing dancer by night. She is from Kenya, but lived in Cincinnati, OH for five years before moving to Nashville 1.5 years ago. She believes that if your twenties don’t chew you up and spit you out, you are not doing them right. 

 

 

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from October 2017’s “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”

Tonight, we had very good ideas.50-Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

We went on a church retreat where we engaged in eye-language and observed flies in the disco ball, while bug-eyed from the grass-green banana bread.

We rebounded to an overly-dependent rich-kid musician, who saw our color. And we spent evenings with loud volume, until he fulfilled his dream…and we moved on to find our own.

In Louisiana we enjoyed a swamp tour and ate at a genuine crawfish joint, where a personal crawfish tutor failed to warn us of the danger of a Cajun-contaminated crotch!

Our friend got creative with scissors, and then persuaded us that a pillow would fix everything—but the angels were busy, and neither glue nor pencils could hide it from Mom.

We attempted to spend the night in a Bath-and-Body-Works factory, where we sought weapons of opportunity to defend against maniacal Milo—the Spawn of Satan!

In high school we wrote about teetering the wire of indecency and tried to persuade our friends of the greatness of a song about being pooped on. Despite our different tastes, we grew up and grew together.

We worked the wedding reception in cool clothes from the craft store, where tossing table cloths led to confessions about crashing chandeliers.

We made a sleepy road trip to Hueytown and back, where we watched  the sun rise over the golden gopher and had a shocking encounter with a Talladega pit crew.

We rented a room with Red, who like to talk and talk about cartels and construction. And after secret clicking codes and White House correspondence, we escaped—only to have to break back in.

Well, they all seemed like good ideas at the time!


Thanks to all our storytellers–Wendell, Leah, Shana, Alex, Lily, Sally, Lizzy, Kate, and Deepa! Join us for our November 13th night, in collaboration with One Voice Nashville. Four slots will feature people under 20, and five slots will feature folks over 65. Join us!

51- When I Was Young

Rachel Gladstone – The Murdering Exterminator

Rachel Gladstone shares a story about a neighbor who asked her out…and then it got weird. Or maybe it started weird. From September 2017’s theme “Nashville”. 

The exterminator who lives down the street asked me out last spring. I’d said hello to him on occasion, the way one does with neighbors in a passing sort of way. Then, one morning, while I was walking my enormous pair of dogs, he took a left turn from the far right lane of our acquaintanceship and veered towards me. Pretending I hadn’t seen him, I crossed the street, but that did nothing to deter him. He was oblivious. He was also missing some teeth. And as he closed in, so did an aroma reminiscent of 9th grade biology class, the semester we were dissecting frogs. This is not a smell you want to encounter twice in your lifetime.

Trying to smile through my gag reflex, I corralled my dogs as he shuffled ever-closer in 49-Nashvillehis ill-fitting jeans. He drawled his opening line in an accent so thick he should have come with subtitles.

“Do you live alone?” He leaned in for punctuation. I leaned back.

Was this his idea of a logical segue from our previous conversations about the weather?  Before I could even take a breath, or turn tail and run, I answered with a resounding “NO!” Actually, I did live alone but I couldn’t be too careful. I didn’t know this guy. Maybe he just wanted to invite me over for an innocent beer, but there was always the possibility that he wanted to invite me over and make a suit out of my skin.

“Well,” he replied looking down at his bright orange trainers; a color even a dead mouse could see at forty paces. I guessed ‘surprise attack’ was not in this exterminator’s handbook.  “I just thought we might could have lunch sometime,” he drawled, spittle escaping his lips; a by-product of the missing teeth, I think.

My first reaction was to shout “NO!” again. But maybe I was being too picky, I chided myself. Who was I to say no to this guy? If I squinted, he almost looked jaunty in his stained trucker ball cap. He was a man wasn’t he? He was breathing. He was upright. And he’d approached me. What more did I want?

Luckily, this momentary brain freeze was followed by an absolute certainly that this redneck that smelled like the inside of a raid can was not the peanut butter to my Reese’s, so I swallowed hard, trying not to fidget and said, “Oh… well…I have a boyfriend,” which I absolutely did not.  But I sounded so convincing I believed it myself for a second.

“Well,” he said again.

Just then Tank, my neighbor’s chunky Chihuahua, saved the day by escaping his yard. My girls had a running feud with that dog and thinking this was just the moment to settle the score they gave chase, yanking me from the uncomfortable exchange at break neck speed. “Thanks anyway!” I yelled over my shoulder, as I sped away.

As my 200 pounds of hound continued to charge ahead, I realized that I had escaped a moment of lunacy. I’d just considered going out with some dude who possessed the breath of a moose and teeth the color of a Burnt Siena Crayola crayon. I felt like such a fool. What was wrong with me? Evidently, I had reached a new pinnacle of self-loathing. I hadn’t felt this embarrassed for myself since that time my boyfriend’s cat had left her bowl of wet food half-eaten and I, being on a starvation diet, looked at that bowl and wondered to myself, ‘Is she gonna finish that?’ But in my defense, this guy had been the first guy to ask me out in a really long time; we’re talking Game of Thrones, the winter is coming, really long time.

I didn’t think of this embarrassing encounter again until the middle of summer when I was faced with the Great Flea Invasion of 2009. Upon finding them everywhere, I immediately Googled fleas and discovered two things. First of all, when you magnify a flea to 1,000 times its size, it looks just like the creature that bursts out of that guy’s stomach in Alien. Second, those suckers can procreate faster than a couple of born-again virgins on their wedding night. I knew it was time to call in a professional. And I knew just who I was gonna call.

It wasn’t hard to track down the exterminator as his number was painted on the side of his beat-to-shit pickup in what was clearly red house paint. At least I didn’t have to Google him too.

“This is your neighbor from down the street,” I told him as he answered the phone. “I live in the light green Victorian?” He said nothing but I could hear him breathing so I plowed ahead. “You remember,” I said, praying to God that he didn’t. “You asked me out?”

“I only asked you to lunch,” his whined at last. Crap, I thought, he remembered. Still wishing for subtitles, I pressed on; explaining my plight. “Well…so, about the fleas…”

“Sure,” he said. “I can come by tomorrow. I’ll even give you the neighbor discount.” I was almost afraid to ask what that meant.

The next day, the Exterminator drove the 200 yards from his house to mine in his bondoed blue pickup, a large opaque, plastic barrel  fitted with a hose perched in the well, his liquid, lethal-tender, sloshing with abandon inside. He lumbered from the cab, pulling the hose into place and as he sprayed the perimeter of my house, with abandon and without a face mask, I wondered how many brain cells this guy could possibly have left.  As he sprayed, he regaled me with a host of fun fumigation facts, and I could tell he was really trying to impress me when he began to explain the life-cycle of the flea, like he was the Stephen Hawking of the Exterminator set. But all I could think about was that old commercial where this Raid can comes slamming down on top of a cartoon ant while the voiceover says “KILLS. BUGS. DEAD.”

The fleas met their maker and before long the exterminator was, once again, just a distant memory. I noticed he had taken up with a woman who, interestingly enough, had about as many teeth as he did and I thought how true it is that there’s a lid for every pot. And then, one cold, windy November night, I was driving home when I rounded my street corner and almost ran head-on into a slew of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. As I pulled up to my house I could hear raised voices coming from the direction of the exterminator’s and there he was, holding a shotgun, a dead man at his feet, screaming at the police, at the top of his lungs and gesticulating wildly.

My neighbors came running towards me, frantically shouting that the exterminator had shot some guy in self-defense, a point that would later be proven in court. Everyone was freaked out and shaken to their core and we stood in the chilly evening breeze trying to make sense of it all and clinging to one another for warmth and reassurance. And in that moment, three thoughts ran abreast through my horror-stricken mind. First of all, someone had been shot to death just three doors from my own. Second, not only did I know the guy who pulled the trigger but he had asked me out! And last, but certainly not least, I thought, Damn! I miss all the good ones!

 

Nashville – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory for our 4 year anniversary theme “Nashville”. 

Tonight, we experienced Nashville.

One day in Nashville, despite the dissected frog smell, we briefly considered going out 49-Nashvillewith the upright breathing suitor—and after the mass destruction of fleas and the death of a stranger, we lamented letting a good one get away.

On night in a Nashville park, at a candlelight vigil for peace, we broke up a fight over Jesus between two guys named moth-…well, one of them was named Tommy—and his story helped us understand.

We wanted to make it in the Big Apple, so we left Music City. But after struggling to shave, we returned to cry…and despite a new look at the old places, sometimes we miss the magic.

We began creative writing in Nashville, which took us from the “ass-end of Appalachia” to lightening haiku. But listening to a friend’s funeral story brought us from a lack of faith to an unexpected place of comfort.

At Nashville’s Tennessee Pride, we learned of sausage and sewers, and heard watermelon sounds through the flapping doors. And after a day of the tired owl’s silent signals, we succeeded—and dreamed all of night of sausage patties.

We attended a convention in Nashville where the crowd stood, and we paused—and we were grateful for a lunch in the yard.

We saw the Nashville skyline and it amazed a small-town girl. We roomed with a fellow Jack Johnson lover, and discovered new people and new ideas. And a view of the skyline through the clouds led to negotiating a separation…and staying.

We left home in Oklahoma to come to Nashville, but texts from a no-good husband sent us back home to file for divorce. But after a breakdown by a broken car, and some time with family, we came back to Nashville—and were glad to be home.

In Nashville, we found polite Publix shoppers…and body-slammed a disabled employee…and Music City alchemy eased the chain around our neck.

That was our night in Nashville.


Thanks to all the storytellers–Brittany, Elisa, Matt, Rachel, Rob, Amberly, Jeff, Sarah, and Dana! Join us October 23 for our next theme: “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” Got a story? Pitch it here!

50-Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Jeff Shearer – Tennessee Pride

Here’s Jeff Shearer’s funny story about the day he worked in a sausage factory. He told this story for September 2017’s theme “Nashville”. 

I received a call from the temp agency the first week I arrived in Nashville. Until I found a teaching job, I told them I’d take anything they could offer me. I scribbled on a notepad:

Job category: General Labor.

Job location: Tennessee Pride.

49-NashvilleThey had actually said Odom’s Tennessee Pride, but the name Odom meant nothing to me. I was headed to Tennessee Pride. Maybe it was a Cultural Event. Tennessee Pride. Maybe it connected to football.

Instead, when I walked through the doors of Odom’s Tennessee Pride, I was met with the sounds of grinders, tumblers, stuffers, linkers, emulsifiers, and macerators. All the sounds heard in the process of making sausage.  I had never before or since heard of a macerator. It’s unique to 2 industries:   sausage making, and sewage management.

My first indication that this was not a job sweeping floors was when the supervisor handed each of us first timers a steel gauntlet and said, “Try this on for size.” I was still trying to figure out why we would need only one metal mesh glove, when he then asked: “Any of you have a problem with the sight of blood?”

We were told to count off by twos. I will forever be indebted to the number two. The number ones were sent to the delivery room. I thought he meant delivery from the plant.   He meant delivery to the plant, where the live product becomes a no longer live product.

I was spared the delivery room.  I was sent to the cutting room. There I was given a five minute lesson on how to use an electric knife that looked like an ice cream scoop. A constant line of huge femur and scapula bones rolled toward me. The meat on these bones was gone. My job was to remove anything remaining from the bone.  Anything.  When my 10 gallon tub filled up, I was to then empty my carvings onto a high speed conveyor belt that sent all the product through a set of flapping plastic doors. Whatever happened on the other side of those doors I will never know, but the sound was a cross between a bowling alley and a room full of bouncing rubber watermelons.

I lasted one hour and 5 minutes in the cutting room. After failing a remedial lesson, it was decided that I was not cut out to be a deboner. A virtuoso deboner can roll 10 pounds of fat per minute onto the conveyor belt. I was averaging — just under two.

Over the next two hours I also failed to make the cut as both a seasoning blender and a cold salvage operator. Three strikes before lunch usually means you don’t get to stay for lunch. But Tennessee Pride was determined to provide me one more opportunity to prove that I had what it took to succeed in the world of sausage. I felt like I was back in junior high on the football sideline. “We’re going to send you in, son. Now don’t blow it. We believe in you.”

And that’s how I made it to the packaging room. The final step in production. Here, I was given the task of climbing several feet above a slow moving conveyor belt with twenty pound casings of frozen sausage.  I then loaded each roll of sausage into one of 4 metal cylinders that sliced each roll.  This process produced perfectly round quarter inch thick sausage patties. I was shown how to adjust the speed. Below me, two lines of women faced the conveyor belt, 6 on each side.  And each woman had the task of shuffling 12 patties into little white boxes marked “Ready to Cook. Real Country Breakfast Sausage.” As fast as they completed a pallet, it would be whisked off to a refrigerated truck bound for distribution. The whole operation was seamless.  This was the epitome of a well-defined process.  The timing was crucial.  And I discovered I had a key role in that timing.

But I also discovered very quickly my innocence in production line protocol. Because in a job that to the uninitiated looks like it’s ruled by uniformity and monotony, once you are inserted into that process, you quickly see that there is unspoken dynamic at play.   I had always thought life on an assembly line must be mindless – that you could simply endure the 8 hours by listening to an internal playlist of your favorite oldie goldies. Oh, it’s five oclock already? I was just about to listen to Johnny B Goode.   I had always assumed a slow day was a good day.

The 12 women on my line relieved me of that notion. And they did that without ever saying a single word. They couldn’t. It was too loud. We all wore ear plugs. They could have all yelled at once and I never would have heard them.

No. It was the body language.

While I was happily peeling the plastic off the tubes of frozen sausage and guiding them into the metal slicers while mouthing the words to a favorite song,  I looked down to see 11 heads all turned toward one woman. She was small, much older than the rest, and had the face of a tired owl. There was a unanimous expression of “do something” in their eyes. The owl-faced woman then looked me straight in the eye. She tilted her head to the end of the line where the last two women only had 2 patties between them. Sure enough. One of my feeder tubes was empty. I quickly fed a new sausage roll into the slicer. When I glanced back at the line, all was fine. I tried to give the women a look that said “Small oversight. That won’t happen again.” But nobody looked my way.

Twenty minutes later, I noticed the youngest of the packers glancing up at me. Just for a second. Then it happened again. And again. Flirting, on a sausage line? I was trying to figure out a way to make a face that read, “Sorry, girl, I’m spoken for,” when she turned to Owl Woman and raised the same eyebrow she had raised at me. The Owl gave me a look with both eyebrows raised, shot a glance at the conveyor belt, and cocked her head as if to say, “Really?” I then saw that the patties were stacking up, and each woman was having to reach downstream for patties that were slipping by them. I found the speed adjuster and spun in down. But I went too far, and in no time the Owl was swooping her eyebrows up, up.   I split the difference on the regulator, and the 12 woman soon fell back into their regular rhythm.

For the next 5 hours, I was a nervous wreck.  I studied each move the women made, looking for any hint of annoyance or stress.  No more oldie goldies. It was like driving a car on a windy mountain road with cliffs on both sides. It took me forever to figure out that the gestures on the woman closest to my station.  Too fast.  No, too slow.   No, too fast.   I spent nearly an hour desperately trying to find a calibration that synchronized with her gestures, until I found out her gestures were the result of some sort of facial twitch.

Five minutes before the shift ended, a man with a clipboard and a red hardhat came by. He put the clipboard in front of the older woman. She took a quick look at the clipboard and then back down at parade of patties. The hard hat man raised a thumb in front of her as if to ask: “Is everything OK?” Oh-oh, I thought. All the women looked at me, and then watched  the older woman as they finished their remaining boxes. The older woman took her time in responding –as if her work was more important than the question in front of her. The man still had his thumb up. The older woman never lifted her head, but I believe there was an almost imperceptible glance in my direction. It might have been a blink, but my gut felt it was a glance. Then she nodded at the man, and he put a checkmark on his clipboard and left.  Our shift was over.  The next shift of workers slipped into place, and we all headed home.

That night I dreamed about sausages. I found myself with 11 other patties in a small white box. It was cold. And as the lid was being shut I was yelling “There’s been a mistake. I don’t belong here!  You don’t understand. It’s all a big mistake.   I’m an English major!” But my voice was drowned out by the noise of a hundred machines and belts and moving parts.

In the morning the phone rang. It was the temp agency. Back to Tennessee Pride, I asked?

“No. We’ve filled our quota there. Here’s your new assignment. Write this down.”

I grabbed a pen.

Job category: General Labor.

“Ok. Got it.”

Assignment: Event setup

“Event setup. Got it.”

“Yes, I know how to get to West End.  Say again.   A bar on West End?   Oh, I see.  I see.  A Bar Mitzvah. At West End Synagogue.”

In the back of my mind I could still hear yesterday’s endless noise of the sausage slicer.

“I’m on my way.”

Kristen Chapman Gibbons – In a Tiny Office

Here’s Kristen’s moving story from our August 2017 theme “Words.”

I was seventeen the last time he left a mark. It was the summer before I left for college48-Words and I’d been working at World Bazaar in Rivergate Mall for about a year and a half. I don’t remember how or why he hurt me that day. I can’t recall if it was his hands or a belt or a stick. I have no memory of my wrongdoing, although it could have been because I wore too much lipstick or missed curfew or “talked back.”

It doesn’t matter. I showed up for my shift at work badly shaken and unable to stop crying. It took me almost an hour to admit what was wrong to my boss Karen. It is her words that day that altered my course.

Karen and I weren’t particularly close. She was a stickler and I was conscientious, so we got on well enough. She was in her mid-40’s at the time, a thin, muscular woman, who always wore her hair in a ponytail and wore very little makeup.

When I arrived for work, she immediately took me into her office to try and find out what had happened. She told me I didn’t have to work that day, that I’d still be paid. She knew I was saving for college. She said that I didn’t have to go home, at least until the store closed that night. In that tiny office, I eventually divulged a long-hidden truth, that my father, a respected Southern Baptist minister, was violent and cruel at home. Saying it out loud for the first time felt like a dive into icy water.

She then told me that lots of women are hurt by men who are supposed to love and protect them. She told me that her Assistant Manager was regularly beaten by her husband. Karen said she had given up trying to convince her to leave. She said she had prepared herself for a phone call that she knew would one day come, telling her that Tammy had been murdered. Her husband was a rich and powerful car dealership owner, who was often on television. She told me if she was ever alone in a room with him, that she would hit him so hard he wouldn’t be able to go on tv for a week.

Karen sent one of my co-workers to get me something to eat. She got me a pillow from her car. She set me up in her office, turned out the lights and encouraged me to just rest. About an hour passed before I heard banging on the back door.  I heard my father’s voice saying, “Please open up. I’m here to apologize.” Karen met him at the door. She told me later he was carrying a dozen red roses.

I couldn’t hear everything that was said, but after about ten minutes of escalating voices, I heard Karen clearly say, “She is not your property. You don’t own her. And if you ever touch her again or step one more toe in this door, I’ll have you arrested and call your church.” He left soon after, throwing the roses at her.

It was the first time in seventeen years that an adult both knew what was happening to me at home and stood up for me. My mother was not in a position, financially, emotionally or spiritually to challenge him. One time, when I was 14, I asked her why she stayed. She told me that she had only considered leaving once, when I was about five. She went to another pastor for advice. He told her that God wanted her to remain in the marriage. That it was her Christian duty to make sure he kept preaching. She then told me that if people knew too much, I’d be endangering countless people’s faith. Did I really want to be responsible for leading others off the path of righteousness? People did not need to know their shepherd was a wolf.

No one in the various churches we had served had any clue, or if they did, they chose to keep their suspicions to themselves. I learned from a very young age how to hide the evidence and keep a smile plastered on my face. I believed that was what God demanded. I also believed that if I revealed my father to anyone, he very well might kill us all in a fit. But, as long as we were there to soften him, to support and cover for him, he could continue doing the Lord’s work.

I never saw the roses. Karen had thrown them out the back door. She told me what happened and asked me who I could reach out to for help. There wasn’t anyone to call. She reminded me that my time in his home was almost over, that a new life awaited me in a few months time. Karen told me to hit back if he ever attacked me again. She told me to stand up and showed me how to hold my feet and body to maximize the impact of a punch. She told me to practice on the pillow. She said, “He’s no angel, he’s a devil wearing a suit. Just imagine his face here and let him have it.” She doted on me the whole day, even after her shift ended.

I don’t know what happened to Karen. I continued to work at the store for the next four years, every time I came home from college. She was still Manager when I worked my last shift. What she did for me that day has only grown in significance in the years that have followed.

She intervened. She probed for the truth. She got in his face. She threatened his charade. But most critical, she gave me the words I would use with him the next time he raised his hand to me. I said, “I am not your property. You don’t own me. And if you ever hurt me again, I will destroy you.”

It stopped him.  And started me.

 

Kristen Chapman Gibbons is a survivor, who knows the power of telling the truth of one’s life. She writes, teaches, and works with organizations and communities to elevate story. She is the force behind True Stories Let Loose and Story Booth Nashville. This was her 20th story at Tenx9.

Words – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from our August 2017 partnership with The Porch and Parnassus Books, “Words.” 

Tonight, Nashville, we encountered words.

We remembered breaking rules as we explored the words of Mormonism, communism, 48-Wordsand Dave Matthews, hiding banned books and forbidden CDs, and hoping that the old version of us would be as proud of the new version as we are.

We house-sat a haunted apartment with a psycho kitty, and had expensive drinks like more successful writers—and encountered a mystical moment in which our words can bring us together.

We sobbed alone in a crowd, when a red-haired stranger in 9C offered sympathetic words; and, in a conversation about family, funerals, and grief, we learned that loss is worse when it’s felt alone.

We moved from a Deliverance-like neighborhood to a Leave-It-to-Beaver household. Then one day a depression-induced death led us to a life driven by those words…and the choir on #7 confirmed that we have not lived in vain.

A prudish student reacted to “fowl” language, and then read her story about going up the Space Needle with her dying fiancé because he enjoyed it. And now we can feel something weird in our chest.

We came crying to work after the wolf in shepherd’s clothes had hurt us again. But the stickler boss with the pony-tail gave us strength and hope, and taught us the words—“I am not your property!”

Regrading silence as an invitation to blurt out hair-brained remarks, we compared a tumor-inspired necklace to shrimp cocktail, which led to an awkward volleyball game about aquariums and Blackfish and beluga whales.

We were childhood friends, and he dated the one “who used to be mine,” and we talked about kisses, and he wanted to bring mother back. And we shared many moments when we didn’t need words—because we already know.

We moved from the cuteness of “Waspberry Wipple, Pwease” to the confusion of “wunning for our wives.” But a life-changing moment on a brick patio in Spokane led us to declare that our favorite color really is blue!


Thanks to all the fantastic storytellers–River, Christy, Kristen, Michael, Jeff, Jim, Melissa, Leslie, and Elly! If you missed the event, be sure to look for the stories on our podcast (you can subscribe on iTunes).

Our 4-year anniversary theme is “Nashville” on September 25 at Douglas Corner Cafe. Got a story? Let us know here!

49-Nashville

Heather Lawrence – Pursuit of Life

Here’s first-timer Heather Lawrence’s poignant story about how questions made her different. She told this for our July 2017 theme “Different.” 

I was 27 years old, standing with a band I’d put together in front of a crowd of 120 people, leading them in one of my lifelong favorite hymns when I realized I couldn’t pretend anymore.

These may be my people, but I was pretty sure that once they knew everything going on49-Different inside my head, I wouldn’t be theirs anymore.

This was a Sunday morning in early May, and I was just trying to last until June in this job, but that morning I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I knew I didn’t belong.

As I led the congregation in worship with the hymn I used to call my heart song, I broke it down line-by-line inside my head, thinking, “this line is still okay,” “I definitely don’t believe that anymore,” and “I’m still not sure where this idea even came from;” and I knew my faith was on the verge of a jenga-style collapse. I told my team I only had one more week in me.

Cue: total deconstruction.

I’d already resigned from my job two months ago at this point, but my co-worker/pastor/boss (professional church relationships are very confusing) had asked me to stay until June. So like a cracked and broken vase, I held the pieces in place until I got far enough away that I could be sure my deconstruction wouldn’t hurt anyone else.

See that’s the thing about being a pastor: you sort of get paid to be right—or at least to be confident in your beliefs. I’d spent the last three years leading up to this point keeping my ever-expanding cracks in my belief systems off-limits from anyone else. I mean, sure, I could talk to other leaders about it, but I had to be careful about how candid I was with anyone who had the power to remove me from my position, because job security.

I sure as hell couldn’t talk to people I was pastoring about it, because I had about 5 verses memorized that told me exactly what happens to someone who causes problems someone else’s walk with God.

I also couldn’t really talk to any peers or friends about it, because most of my peers were either uninvolved with theological dialogue or so closed-minded that my “progressive” ideas were never even entertained. So I was left to debate both sides inside my head—which, if you’ve never been in an ongoing intellectual debate with yourself, let me tell you that it will drive you crazy. My daily bible-reading (yes, there really are people who read scripture every day) turned into an academic text analysis of multiple topics at once. I honestly made myself sick getting so stuck in my head.

And the hardest part of all of this is that I was really hoping for my understanding of Scripture and my evangelical worldview to still stand after answering my questions; which meant I had to be careful not to toy around with these ideas too much because they may well lead me down that slippery slope I’d been cautioned against all throughout seminary.

No joke: day one of class at this Southern Baptist school: the president was teaching my first class, and he walked up to the podium and after his introduction, I can still picture his weird speaking mannerisms he had as he said, “you’re going to be tempted to question your views of morality because of the world around you, but I am warning you that it’s a slippery slope from asking whether the bible really prescribes gender roles, to then asking whether the bible really condemns same-sex marriage, and before you know it, you’ll be sliding all the way to being an agnostic or atheist,” (which, to the community I was a part of, really didn’t need to be distinguished because both needed to be “saved” anyway.)

I remember sitting in my seat horrified that I might lose my faith, my community, my future plans, my whole identity and everything I knew to be true…all because I started asking questions. So I didn’t. At least until I couldn’t pretend anymore.

So back to that Sunday when I was finally honest with myself. This church I was about to leave, my coworker and I had built it from the ground up. It had been kind of my last hope for the institution of the church. When we started it, I ran headfirst into this mission because I believed in it, and I just knew it was going to be the answer to all my frustrations with the megachurch I’d been working in previously.

We were going to do it differently. We were going to be about people, not about an event on Sunday. We were going to be about community, not about numbers. We were going to be about healing, not about programs.

The drift away from all of that didn’t happen overnight, but one of the biggest problems for us was that I was a woman. See, my coworker was invited into church-planting cohorts and supportive communities of other men doing the same thing—all of which I was explicitly not invited into on account of my gender. Turns out the conversations that happen in spaces like that will really shape the direction of an organization…and if one of the two leaders of the organization isn’t involved in that, she might slowly lose her opportunity to influence the direction moving forward…

It hurt. Like hell. But I’m really grateful for it, because it sped up my deconstruction. It took heartbreak and feeling that I could no longer be proud of this church we’d started for me to let myself fall apart.

So in my disappointment with this church, I let myself re-engage with the questions.

And my questions led to more questions, and more questions, and more questions…until I couldn’t even categorize all the things I wasn’t sure if I believed anymore. By the time I left this church, I hadn’t read my Bible in 2 months. For the first time since even my youth group days, I wasn’t in a position of leadership, and I finally let go.

One of the phrases I found myself repeating in countless debates during my three years of full-time ministry was that I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

It rang through my head as I found myself pushed to the edges in conversations. I had no way of predicting how subversive this idea would be to a community claiming to follow the most compassionate person who ever lived. But as my ideas got more and more challenging, as I moved more and more into gray areas, I clung to it as though it had come from the mouth of Jesus himself.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

This phrase would escape my mouth as I was walking away from yet another debate with a biblical literalist about marriage equality or baptism or who is and isn’t allowed to become a church member, or even about what is or isn’t a sin.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

Sometimes it was loaded with anger and accusation—you just want to have everything figured out, but life isn’t always so black and white, so how about you shake up your safe little boxes of morality and make room to love the people around you.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

Sometimes it was dismissive and defeated—I know we’ll never agree, and honestly, you may never hear me because I’m not convinced by your interpretation of scripture.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

I couldn’t be a rule enforcer anymore. I couldn’t continue to drive forward an institution that was more concerned with obeying a text from two millennia ago than about loving the people right in front of them. And I couldn’t worship a God that expected that of me.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.