Tuesday, February 24, 2009
The Day I Saw Jesus
When I was a small child and lived in Roseland I saw Jesus Christ driving a tractor down the road one day, followed by children and dogs.
He was a dark-haired man and his hair and beard were so long that the only thing I had to compare him to were pictures of Jesus Christ I'd seen in the Bible. This was in the early sixties and men did not have long hair. Never. Ever. I mean, when the Beatles arrived on the scene, years later, they almost brought the world to a complete stop with their collar-brushing locks, but this man on the tractor had hair down past his shoulders and his beard never stopped.
It had to be Jesus.
I ran screaming into the house for my mother. My religious knowledge was slim but I was quite certain that the appearance of Jesus was a sign of some great importance and I needed an adult to be aware of the situation.
Turned out it wasn't Jesus at all. It was a man named Chester who had lived in the woods in a shack he'd built since he'd been (as the story went) a child.
My fears were calmed but I remained fascinated with Chester. He lived alone with his dog and I saw him off and on throughout the years when he'd come to "town" to buy Cokes and Moonpies to supplement his diet which was probably heavily fish and squirrel-based. My grandfather hired him once to clean up the construction site after he'd had our house built and I watched Chester share his soda and Moonpie with his dog. A sip for him, a sip for the dog. A bite for him, a bite for the dog. I'd never seen a dog drink from a bottle. I didn't know they could.
Sometimes Chester would come to the door with a big bundle of turnip greens to sell. Granny always bought them and I always felt as if we'd been visited by a celebrity. He was just so odd, so different from anyone I'd ever seen, much less met. I don't think I ever talked to him. I was too afraid. I didn't really like the turnip greens so much, cooked with the peeled and diced white turnips, but I ate them because Chester had grown them. They were a sort of holy food, grown by a Jesus man who walked or drove a tractor down the dirt roads of the tiny village where I lived, trailed by dogs and children, always barefoot.
I still think about Chester now and then, especially when I cook turnips, which I now like a lot. I grow them myself and I wonder what ever happened to Chester. Joy Holtzclaw, the proprietor of the tiny story where Chester bought his Moonpies and we kids bought our popsickles, said that he'd moved to South America because Roseland had gotten too big with too many people and that he'd died of starvation.
This did not seem likely for a man who'd lived off the land his entire life, but perhaps it's true. Looking back, it seems likely he suffered from some mental illness, schizophrenia, perhaps. He did not need people and he did not like them, I think, preferring the company of his dog, the sounds of the woods and the wind to the sound of human voices.
To me, a child then, he was a most romantic figure, resembling someone who had lived long, long before. If not Jesus, then some contemporary of Jesus. I really had no real frame of reference besides what I saw in the Bible or the art book my mother had with famous paintings from the old masters.
And I'm not sure why I'm thinking of Chester today, but I am. Perhaps it's because I made some soup last night with turnips and their greens in it. It was good soup.
But perhaps I'm thinking about Chester because I, too, so often feel outside of society, a loner, someone who never has fit in and doesn't know whether she wants to or not, but who seems to have lost whatever skills she may have had in order to do that. To be a member of a club, a part of a cause, a regular human with a regular haircut, regular clothes, a job, a mission, a purpose beyond scratching something out of the dirt (or scratching words out of the air) always yearning for something...what?
I don't want to be Chester, as fascinating as he was.
I know I need to stay engaged. I need to be part of my community (what community is that?) and I need to step outside of myself and not to run away to parts unknown where I might find myself without the knowledge to keep myself alive. No man is an island; no woman is either and even Thoreau didn't hang out at that pond for too long.
And I wish I had something funny to end with here today, something that would say, "Hey! Just kidding! I'm not really crazy."
And I don't think I'm really crazy. I was last year for awhile but now I'm just a little bit crazy. I don't hear voices. I am not walking around in a panic.
I'm just wondering how to slip back into society now that I don't have children around to force me into it. Kids will keep you engaged whether it's with other mothers at karate or with the folks at the PTA.
I have play rehearsal tonight and that's good. I'm going to take Kathleen some turnips. I'm going to remember I do have friends and that occasionally I do leave my tiny circle of safeness to be a part of something else.
That will be good.
Because some days (today, for instance) I feel like I know a little too well what happened to Chester. He didn't die from a lack of food. He died, I think, starving for what we all need, which is to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to love others and to be loved by others.
Which is perhaps, what Jesus was saying, although if so, that message got a bit twisted over the years.
And that's it. I have no sweet ending, I have no wit or wisdom. Just that sometimes you think you see Jesus but really, it's just a crazy man who is afraid of people who eventually dies from loneliness.
Which is a message worth thinking about, even if it didn't come from Jesus but from Chester, who grew turnip greens and lived alone.