I firmly believe that Instagram was created solely to capture sunsets in the Mississippi Delta.
The Delta is unlike anywhere else in the world. There are many aspects of the endless flat fields that do remind me of somewhere in central Ohio or even southwest Ontario. There are many similar qualities, between the straight roads and the fields that stretch into the horizons. But the stark differences hit as soon as the sun starts to go down.
To quote Paul Simon, “The Mississippi Delta is shining like a National guitar”. And when the sun starts to set, it doesn’t just shine: it burns. When the sun starts to sink in the sky, those bright burning hues go shooting across the fields, making an unbelievable sight. It’s something you can’t compare to anything else in the world. It’s something you can’t explain.
You can’t explain how it burns through the atmosphere and across the fields and straight into your soul.
That’s what it does. It pierces the very core of who you are. It reminds you of where you’ve come from, both humble origins and horrible mistakes, but also how simple things really can be. Maybe it doesn’t matter what this one person wrote in a blog post. Maybe it doesn’t matter what political opinion is being shoved down your throat on Facebook. Maybe it doesn’t matter who has blocked you on Twitter. Maybe those unnecessary complications that life throws at you aren’t as important. Maybe it’s your soul that matters more.
Maybe it’s the presence of good company. Company that welcomes you even in moments of mourning. Maybe it’s just the need to look out over a sunset and be reminded of the power of looking straight into the people and places that made you who you are and brought you to this point.
We stand next to my Jeep on a cool, but not quite cold, November night. He points out Orion, which he tells me he looks for on an almost nightly basis. He had been searching since we stepped outside, wanting to make sure that on this particular night, he found what he was looking for. He looks for Orion because he looks for the hero. The image of a hero that the sky gives us.
When he was young, he was given an image of a hero to strive after. To emulate. An image of what it takes to truly make an impact. There’s a lot of it that involves stories of bravery and stories of almost superhuman strength. Most of the stories, though, are simpler than that. They’re stories about enjoying life when given the chance, and caring about others when it was needed.
When he sees Orion, he is reminded of what it means to be a hero, and of the hero that watches after him.
They offer me cake. There’s plenty of cake. I guess there’s plenty of food in general, but it’s the cake that stands out.
The abundance of food and cake give the house a feeling of celebration, not that of a funeral. Yet that’s what we’re here for. Though I guess even in the death of a hero, there is still plenty of reason to celebrate.
Funerals sometimes double as celebrations. When the life is lived well, and the life is lived heroically, it impacts things. It impacts the people who come in contact with the hero, and it is even enough to change the reactions in death. A funeral can’t be an overly sad occasion anymore. The life lived was too heroic for that much sadness.
The funeral has become more. It has become a celebration. And on that night, we gathered together to celebrate and to eat cake.
When I first stepped foot on my college campus, I was forty pounds lighter than I am now and only knew about five other students. I was wide-eyed and overly enthusiastic and was welcomed by several upperclassmen who for whatever reason liked what I had to offer.
I would sometimes draw comparisons to one particular upperclassman who I suppose I shared some qualities with. Being immaturely individualistic, I took offense to these comparisons at first. In spite of my short-sightedness, we became good friends.
Over the years, and really after the comparisons had stopped happening, I actually started to appreciate them. After all, there were moments in which I needed someone to just be around when I was down. There were moments in which I needed somebody to play Nintendo with; a Nintendo hooked up to gigantic JBL speakers so that when we played, glorious 8-bit audio would rattle the dorm we lived in. There were moments I needed somebody to encourage me to do something stupid just for the sake of doing something stupid.
When those moments came up, he was there. Not because he had to be there. Just because he had been shown a hero who took time to be with people, and he emulated that himself.
He tells a story about being a child, duck hunting with his dad. He was wearing waders when he fell into a frozen pond.
“The waders filled up with icy water and I quickly panicked. Dad pulled me out of the pond and carried me on his back to the car. He was and is my hero.”
He tells the story for the purpose of explaining why he needed and still needs to look for Orion. Why he needed and still needs to believe in heroes. He tells the story to explain why he is certain of the fact that no matter what happened in life, he had a champion that loved him and would do anything for him. His hero had a gift for making sure people knew they were loved and accepted as they are.
He tells the story for a bigger purpose. He tells it to explain why he has become the man he has become. A man who takes time to accept and to love in the same way his hero taught him to.
I sit in a diner that I find myself in quite frequently. It’s 7:30 in the morning and I don’t have to be at work until 12:30, but I’m up anyway. And I’m a little upset and I’m starting to feel the fear of uncertainty creep in and that’s the moment he’s there chatting with me.
We’re talking for an hour and I tell him he’s going to be late for work and he says that it doesn’t really matter. We can still chat. We can just talk. And we talk about optimism. And it’s at that moment that I understand and believe in The Eternal Optimist.
No matter how bad things have gotten, no matter how bad things have seemed, there’s always a chance. There’s always hope. If we’re willing to fight for it. To fight through the pain and the tears and to stand heroically and fight for that hope. And the power to fight, the power to be the Eternal Optimist, comes not from within. It comes from being surrounded by people who tell us that we are loved and accepted no matter who we are.
The power to fight, to believe, comes from being influenced by heroes.
The Mississippi Delta is full of optimism. Sometimes it seems like there isn’t much there. Sometimes it seems like there’s too much to overcome. Too many problems, too much history, too much despondent present. But the future? It is optimistic. And that optimism doesn’t come from any promise of financial gain or bright technological advancement. It is optimistic because of the people that are there. The ones who gather around to celebrate in times of mourning. The ones who offer cake to people they don’t even know.
I believe in the Eternal Optimist. I believe that there is always a chance. And I believe that there are heroes among us, and I know that I have been impacted by one. He took the time to sit down for an hour and be late for work so I could be reminded of what optimism is. He took the time so that we could talk about hope.
He tells me stories about where that hope comes from, and where it is now. He tells me stories about how his father loved cake so much that he could eat an entire one, then turn to those in the room and ask “Why would you let me do that?” He could do this just as easily as he could lift his son out of frozen water and carry him home.
The father is gone now, and his heroism has been celebrated with stories and cake and hope. The hope always remains, so long as we can look up to the sky and find Orion, the hero in the sky looking out for us.
Through that, we are certain there is hope, and that we have chances to be heroes.
This post is dedicated to my dear friends Baskin and KC Jones, and written in honor and memory of Rabun Jones: the hero that I never met.