From the Journal: 6 March 2020
Yesterday I met Brittainy Jones’ grandfather, David Young.
Sometimes I meet a person and I feel their life is exactly as a life should be: Not big or small. Not glamorous or non-glamorous. Not even heroic or sacrificial. Just good. Sunshine good.
When you encounter this in someone you cannot point at it and say, “There it is!” You cannot see it. It is like the color of light. The person is not even aware of it, except it keeps them warm. It is like sunlight on a face. Seeing it you are left thinking not of a face but of the sunlight and the face.
These are the impressions I came away with after meeting David Young. It was the sunshine that stayed with me. The sunshine on the man, coming out of him.
Brittainy had been trying to introduce me to her grandfather almost as soon as we began this Nashville project. She said he is a memorable man, an ocean of history. He also happens to occupy an iconic and historic house. She said a lot about the house.
You can tell when something authentic has touched a person. Good light stains them and leaves a patina on their appearance. I could tell Brittainy was telling me something true. But for some reason I never took her up on her invitation to take me to the house and to her grandfather.
I confess I had a lingering doubt. Her… Well… I never went because you can only pursue so many stories. We were already overwhelmed with directions and people we were pursuing.
Every once in a while the subject would come up when I would see her and I would decide, yes, I will meet him. But then I wouldn’t follow through and I would forget.
Then on Wednesday evening, two days after the deadly tornado ripped through Tennessee and Nashville, I received this text from Brittainy with a photograph of a man standing in front of a large house clearly damaged: “Built in 1870 and 1931 respectfully, they don’t make them like they used to! Suffered some damage but could have and should have been much worse.”
A sunlit face. A lighted countenance. I saw the man she wanted me to meet even before I really saw him and I knew I had to meet him right away!
“Can we go photograph him tomorrow?” I replied.
And so we did.
David is calm. I asked him if he ever gets excited by a situation. I asked him if he was scared when the tornado was cracking his two-foot-thick walls and tearing off his heavy chimneys? He was alone in the house. Healthy and able but 90 years old.
“Yes I was scared!” He said. But never the less he wasn’t too excited he admitted.
I am tempted to be the journalist at this point in my story. Tell you about the storm. Tell you David’s movements in the house during and right after. The walls above him collapsing, the two-hundred-year-old mesh and wood ceiling holding the broken wall back from falling on him. The heavy door imploding, but missing him. The ancient trees falling around and on the house like hammers of God, but none of them falling through the house. I am tempted to pepper my story with his clever words and maxims—though I will give you one important maxim in a second. I am tempted to reduce David to a story about a storm.
And this is my point. A man came before his storm and that man will live long after his storm has passed—long even after he has passed. A life is bigger than its storms. Every life is bigger than a headline.
But if it takes a storm to show us… if it takes a storm to reveal our lives to one another then even the storm can be embraced—despite the tragedy it brings. It must be embraced. If forgiving each other heals our hearts we must learn also to forgive the wind.
I do not want to fall into the journalist’s trap of reducing this story.
A storm may have brought me to David’s door, but it was the light reflected in him that caught me and now keeps my attention.
I believe, tell the truth and live right and you’ll get by in this life.
Here is David’s maxim. He was explaining a core value of his and saying why he has chosen a quiet, steady life: “I believe, tell the truth and live right and you’ll get by in this life.”
It is easy to say a thing. But to live it is quite another thing. David added this: “Clean living.”
Here is what I saw. I saw past broken things. I saw past the destroyed neighborhood. I saw past the storm. I saw Brittainy, her mother, Brittainy’s children. I saw steady people and kindness. I saw a depth of character and strength.
I thought, this man did not accumulate wealth as much as he grew a garden of people. I thought, is it… is there still time for me to live such a life? To build something where people grow?
David feels like a deep foundation.
I stood him in front of his house and made a portrait. His face! The absence of pride. Just as ordinary a man as he wants to be, for such men don’t appreciate praise but pride themselves with good and very secret living. Such men don’t live for opinions of others but only their own opinion of themselves. Such a man only asks himself: Did I tell the truth today? Did I live right today? Did I live clean?
But such a man cannot control the reflection of light. It is in the eyes. It is in the corners of a smile. It is in the relaxed stance. No, a man full of light shines and he has no ability to cover it up, nor should he.
Standing in front of him with my camera I felt I was taking one of the most important photographs of my life.
Whether or not it is important to anyone else doesn’t matter. It is important to me.
For a news man—even a philosopher photojournalist such as I might have become—the story ends here. Brought on by a storm and rooted in the storm.
But it doesn't end. This is important.
I am standing in a field making a portrait of a man because of the storm (though really it is because of the admiration of his granddaughter). And it is as if a giant headline is trying to form in the air above him: Man and House Survive Deadly Storm. It is my choice to accept this headline or send it away. In my mind I push them away out of the frame and out of life. I must widen my view. This is my work, to point not to designed headlines but to what is true.
I widen my view and I see the children. I see the neighbors. I see the past and the future.
I watch Brittainy’s children play on a giant tree like an unexploded bomb. It lays in front of the porch as if it just wasn’t up to fighting the house, despite its bulk and pride. The children laugh at the tree even if they do not know this. London, 10, is a stoic. And yet she is a child. She has found a xylophone and is plinking a song while her brother, Ryman, 7, climbs.
I watch Brittainy and I see how she looks at her grandfather. It is a look of admiration gained not through heroic actions but good living.
I think now of B. And I think of what this work we set out to accomplish together along with K. and D. will achieve for others. It is always more than a story unless it isn’t. In this case it is more. But I wonder, what will this work accomplish? Can we choose it’s outcome or at least cheat its direction? Yes. I think now I see the possibility. This work will mentor us. This work reveals us to one another. We suspect there is something good in the… in life and this work points to it and tries to… it says: This is the way.
Whether or not you come this way is up to you.
It is as if there is a secret fraternity, a secret society. You join it when you can live it. There is no other initiation. No dues or fees except to live it. And if you can live it you will pass it along naturally.
But it will not be something you can do by accident. This life must be chosen and it must be pursued: “Tell the truth and live right. Clean living.”
It is as if this work is a mining expedition. We dig past the headlines. We pull out the raw material and refine it not in public by in our private furnace of living. It takes a lot of digging and refining to make a gold ring. We mine the lives of Nashville and find that thing we need to live the good and humble life we hope we can deserve. Then we live it.
What I do not know is what to ask you, the reader, to do. What can we do?
There is an ancient story about The Good Samaritan who helped a man no one else would help. The point of the story is to tell us to “love your neighbor.”
Maybe it is as simple as this:
Love your neighbor.
To love someone you have to meet them. Let me introduce you. I hope you will also introduce yourselves to one another.