The Courage to Look

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

In 1970’s Mississippi, when the average home had no more than one television and none of us had ever seen a TV show in color, there was only one channel—two on a cloudy day, but only if you were lucky enough to have a rooftop antenna and committed enough to keep fiddling with the control knob ‘til you managed to set the angle just right.

TV viewing was very much a one-dimensional activity in those days. We didn’t have cable or satellite service or even a remote control, so we’d just walk up to the big cabinet with a screen and a few knobs on it in the living room, press the power button and then sit on the floor to wait for it to warm up. Slowly the scenes playing on that one channel came to life, and it didn’t occur to us to question what would be on. We were delighted to watch, whatever it was.

Often that was a John Wayne movie, a frontier story, some classic American tale of westward expansion. John Wayne’s territorial lifestyle was such a prominent thread in the fabric of my childhood that, as kids, we regularly played Cowboys and Indians. We shot toy pistols and rode broomstick horses around outside while we whooped and hollered and mimicked the battle cries we’d heard on those old westerns.

We wore cowboy hats and boots, bands of feathers, plastic gunslinger belts and red handkerchiefs, plastic bows with rubber arrows, and I don't remember having any kind of preference at all for Cowboy or Indian, but I do remember that none of us ever played Settler or Wagon Train.

We never re-enacted anything like the scenes from our favorite shoot-em up westerns when, out of nowhere, deer-skinned warriors on horseback were all at once bearing down on a vulnerable group of wagons. Armed warriors with tomahawks and spears wailing battle cries from every direction, charging forward in a thunder of hooves, pounding the ground around helpless settlers. Those scenes both terrified and mesmerized me.

The obvious peril, the panicked looks of the men, the cries of the women and children—I’m not sure if it was good acting on their part or just good old fashioned common sense on mine, but they didn’t appear to me to have a shred of hope for survival. And how could they?

People traveling in wagon trains weren’t trained soldiers, warriors outfitted for battle. They didn’t take up some formation of armed combat when they were under siege or defend their positions from inside a fortified stronghold.

They were just regular folks who struck out together, farmers and merchants and men with families who’d packed up their lives and headed for unknown territories, hoping to make new lives and find their fortunes. Ordinary folks who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances, caught totally unawares, exposed and trapped out in the open when the gates of hell were suddenly bursting open all around them.

I don’t know enough about history to know if circles of wagons were actually enough to save anyone on the frontier, but in those old westerns, and on our living room floor in front of a black and white TV when I was a girl, settlers inside circles of wagons were still upright when the dust settled. Safely inside a circle of protective barriers when facing the enemy, they survived.

I’d guess some of those settlers didn’t know if they’d survive or not, at least not until it turned out they did. And I didn’t immediately know I was even in a wagon when hell rained down all around me on the last day of July in 2011.

A full-throttle siege took hold of everything I knew, shook the foundations under the Me I thought I was.

An unknown enemy crashed into my reality without warning, muscled in on me from every direction, made a swift attack against the only safe place I ever really had that I didn’t mostly created for myself. Fiery arrows rained down all around on the inside of me until finally, on a Sunday evening in September, the active siege subsided.

Emotionally I was in shambles. I was a woefully unprepared settler in a landscape I didn’t recognize, held down under fire with a wagon train, somehow still upright when the attack subsided, and brave enough to look up and watch the enemy ride off from the scene of the fight when it was ending.

In the first long silence after it was over, I was stunned as much by the fact that I was still conscious as I was by what I’d seen, by what had happened around me and inside me.

And in the days and weeks that followed, as the dust began to settle in the life I had left, somehow I had the good sense to take some time off from all of my professional obligations (and more than a few of my personal ones).

I stepped outside the rubble for a few months and into a place where my only responsibilities were feeding myself something whole and nutritious, nourishing my Soul with counseling, church and group therapy, and creating the space I needed to sit in the wake of my hell, to be a witness to my own life under siege, to try to live with and in a new reality I didn’t choose.

What I saw when I peered out from inside the canvas cover of my wagon and took a long look out at what unfolded around me, what I saw wasn’t what you’d expect. Bloodshed, trauma, yes, all that was in my field of vision. And at first, the horror was almost all I could see.

But there were little glimmers of light, too.

Little pieces of life hadn’t been overtaken by the wide swath death cuts through a place, and even though they didn’t seem to belong at first in the ravaged reality I woke up in every day, little morsels of evidence were everywhere that God is present on every battlefield.

Where blood is on the ground—even there—God (or whatever you call your Greater Power at work in this universe) is present there.

And I started to notice Him. 

Pretty quickly after things went to hell, I looked past the horror just enough to notice I didn’t blame the person who lit the match that set my old life on fire.

Mercifully, thankfully, I knew very early on that the only thing worse than being scorched in these awful flames would’ve been living with the knowledge that I unwittingly started such a destructive fire.

And from that seedling, something grew.

That small Mercy must've made it just a little easier to keep looking out across the devastation, because I did. I kept looking.

And the longer I looked, the more the immediately obvious horrors subsided, and the more I began to see what eventually became wide circles of wagons, encircling me and this fight, barriers that stood between me and complete destruction.

They’d staved off the enemy enough that I’d lived to draw another breath when the battle was over.

That was a victory.

It is the very nature of this life that survival is always the ultimate victory. That any life continues is the eternal sign of hope in this world.

There were losses, Sweet Jesus in Heaven what I lost. And Lord knows I would’ve never paid the awful price for this life I have now if I’d had the choice to strike some other bargain.

But if it meant I had to go back to that life before, a good life and a comfortable one, but one where I never felt the enemy bearing down, never found the courage to look outside the canvas at how much more surrounds me, if it meant I had to give up the ability to see the circles and circles of wagons all around me, all the time, every day, even now, I wouldn’t change it.

I could fill a hundred pages with examples of all the wagons that were circled around me in preparation for the unexpected strike, big gestures and small ones, each a wagon pulled up close next to me, a barrier protecting me from an enemy that, but for those wagons, would’ve devoured me.

And if I hadn’t been taught that I was strong and independent, if the parts of me that were bold and determined hadn’t been nurtured, I might’ve stayed hunkered down inside my wagon and never uncovered my eyes to peer out. 

I might have never mustered the courage to look past the chaos around me, to see all those wagons surrounding and protecting me, circles and circles and circles of wagons.

And if I hadn’t seen them, all those wagons, all the ways I was prepared and protected, all of the beautiful evidence of Good and of God that was present in the darkest hours I’ve known, the life that grew out of that fight would’ve been barren.

Mercifully, my attention rested just long enough on that first wagon that I learned to recognize the next wagon when I saw it, and another wagon and another.

And once I knew to look, there were wagons everywhere.

So whenever darkness threatens to close back in, if only I train my gaze beyond the battles that fear, division and uncertainty rage around me, if deliberately I look, I can always see wagons. Circles and circles of wagons.

One thing is always true about life, no matter how ugly its twists and turns. The one constant is … where I rest my attention is the difference between a mind that’s free and one that’s a prison.

The last true bastion of real, unfettered Freedom, after all, belongs to the human mind. So far, anyway, nobody’s figured out how to infringe on that.

So if I have the first and last word inside my own head, if I get to hand select the thoughts that guide my journey through this life, then when I tell my story, horror isn’t the main character. It’s a footnote to a story about strength and determination and Love and Mercy and Grace. And wagons. Circles and circles and ever more beautiful circles of wagons.


About the Author

Ginger Weston

Ginger is a Native of the Gulf South, a Christian and a Proud American.

She's a semi-retired lawyer / broker / salesman / editor / small business owner 

who spends most of her extra time stretched out in the shade, 

wandering around in the great outdoors, 

and experimenting with micro-homesteading and permaculture gardening 

in the little river bottom where she makes her Home.

Ginger believes in capitalizing purely according to a word's importance 

and practicing Loving Kindness in everyday life 💚



Popular posts from this blog

Six Degrees of High Pockets

Angels in Plain Clothes