Simple, meaningful stories often overlooked
I once wrote a story about a couple in Jackson County who had been living off the grid for decades. They were college-educated professionals who made a choice to live intentionally.
They had very old, but still working, solar panels and a room dedicated to big, waist-high batteries and an inverter. In addition to a well for drinking water, they had a cistern that collected gravity-piped water, from a spring above their home that was used for toilets and washing clothes and watering plants. They had a tiny super-insulated refrigerator and a springhouse. Since they were vegetarians, the springhouse didn’t store meat but jars of vegetables from their garden. They weren’t completely self-sufficient, but they lived a life much closer to nature than the great majority of modern people.
Their kindness blew me away. Before I could get my notebook out of my pocket, they had invited me to sit down in their cozy cabin. A fire was blazing in the woodstove and I was served a hot cup of tea and some homemade cookies. That interview was more than 20 years ago, back when I was The Smoky Mountain News’ only full-time writer. Those days I hustled to collect a week’s worth of stories, but during that interview time seemed to flatten out and I had a hard time saying goodbye.
I was reminded of my time spent interviewing that couple — who remained acquaintances and a source on homesteading for years — when considering what I was thankful for as the holiday season bears down upon us. Those folks warmly invited me into their home, shared their food and lifestyle, and after talking to them for a few hours, let me tell their story to strangers.
The same happens for all of the writers who work at this newspaper and other media outlets. People allow journalists to gain a measure of intimacy in order to tell their stories. They are trusting that we won’t sensationalize or over-hype, and we don’t take that trust lightly. It’s a necessity in order for us to do our jobs well, so we treat it as something valuable that is kept protected.
Because we get involved in people’s lives, we get both fan mail and hate mail. We have a wall in our office kitchen dedicated to both, a constant reminder that we must take care with how we tell stories and report the news.
Last week, an email came to writer Garret K. Woodward that blew me away. Seems an elderly woman loves Garret’s slice-of-life column, “This must be the place,” detailing his endless adventures galivanting around Western North Carolina and the entire country as he covers arts and entertainment for The Smoky Mountain News and music for Rolling Stone magazine.
The letter to Garret came from this woman’s adult son. I’ll post a couple of paragraphs so you’ll get the gist:
Prior to her blindness, she would tell me of reading your articles in the SMN. She would tell me of your adventures traveling across the country or to local venues and the interesting tidbits you included in your column. She talked about your exploits as though you were one of her children. She always wanted to see where you were heading and if you had a girlfriend yet. On occasion, I would pick up the SMN and read your article myself just to get a sense of what she was talking about.
Since becoming blind, I have had the privilege of reading to her…. So, for the past year “we” have been going on your adventures with you. She was so excited that you finally acquired a girlfriend and for a few weeks wondered what her name was. When you mentioned “Sarah” the first time, she was genuinely happy for you! We were with you when you headed out west to do your reporting for [Rolling Stone], when you made a trip up to near the Canadian border’ to visit your family, swinging by Sarah’s childhood home, and all the local trips around the Haywood County/WNC area covering festivals, couch hunting, and the local music scene.
To close, I just want to say THANK YOU for what you do. You bring joy to my mom in a world of darkness. Your weekly article helps to keep her going. It gives her something to look forward to every Wednesday evening. (as long as I remember to stop by and grab a SMN) Thank you for sharing your adventures with “us”!
Amid the divisiveness of politics and culture wars, in between the important reports about affordable housing and education, don’t forget to enjoy the simple beauty in stories about the normal-but-meaningful lives most of us lead and the connections we try to make along the way. That, after all, is what we’re here for.