A place is more than a dot on a map. Any writer worth his salt, and some worth considerably less, can tell you that. A place is a setting, it can act like a character, and it shapes the story around itself. A place has a soul.
I hit the ground on Saturday night, and knew I was halfway there. Houston is not exactly East Texas, just the messy front lawn that leads up to it. It’s filled with people from a hundred backgrounds, doing a hundred things, packed into a hundred locations that sprawl out in a tangled web of concrete and asphalt. All the cars are big, and in the pick-up line at the airport, the drivers were all a bit jovial, with a comic edge. The workers directing traffic were laughing and calling across the lanes, smiling as they shouted at drivers and blew sharp whistle blasts. Up the sidewalk from me a couple of little girls ran squealing towards their pawpaw, and down from me a couple of fashionably dressed young women were doing the “hey girlfriend!” routine.
The road north of Houston stretches on for quite a ways. I spent those long miles and winding hours making conversation, slipping quickly and easily back into Henry family life. There’s lots of joking there, lots of poking fun, a little intellectual conversation, lots of eating, bluntness, laughing, and when we stop for dinner, distraction by means of football. By the time the night had faded and we entered the old Nacogdoches city limits, I already felt at home.
After three days without a full night’s sleep, exhaustion fell on me like a heavy blanket, and kept me down. The morning came quicker than I would have liked, but there was family there, an excited dog with self-esteem issues, and a whole green wooded hill that hadn’t gotten the memo about Fall. We hopped in the truck, which was parked by our own private jungle complete with vines and monkey grass and a creek, all beneath a canopy of Southern pine. Up we sped through nicer neighborhoods, onto the loop with the trees right up by the shoulder, over the creek and around town past gas stations and watermelon stands and well-kept businesses. Ahead rose a newly built wooden white church, the chapel my people have come to call home. The post-construction ground around it is still dusty and muddy, not yet covered in a carpet of green, but the building itself and its immediate surroundings are beautiful.
How do you capture holiness? Is it a well-told Sunday school lesson by a humble man with a thick accent? Is it the people that greet you with warm smiles and ask about your life whether you’ve been gone three weeks or six months? Maybe it’s a worship service with people who visit from sister churches just for fun. Maybe it’s Scripture spoken on all sides, or God’s sovereignty and mercy towards sinners poured out with eloquence. It could be a fellowship meal where families sit mixed together, blended into one household beneath the Messiah’s roof. Then again, it could be the kids that help clean up, unbidden. Whatever it is, you can find it in my church.
The sun-drenched skies of East Texas are beautiful, and ever acre of earth below is filled with activity. We visited a friend’s property in a nice subdivision. Here, as at the church, the ground around the slowly forming edifice was torn up and devoid of grass. But the house rising above the red dirt and white sand was worth it. The living room is brilliant, high-roofed and with an open kitchen separated only by a bar. Beyond a broad doorway there is a high-roofed porch bigger than some houses, looking down a hill into trees and another house. The homes of East Texas are all like this, sprawling things made at least partly of brick, always ranch style with some personal twist. And always with big trees and gardens so fruitful they require constant taming.
Later, when we managed to pull my brother away from the Cowboy’s game, we took Dad’s truck down to the theater. As we made it out of the neighborhood and a down a hill covered in old pasture land, Queen rocked on the radio. The song ended quickly, and by the time we turned onto University Drive, Stevie Ray Vaughan was cranking out “Pride and Joy.” Texas Blues right there, a soul in music.
It’s hard to capture the soul of a place. It’s got so many facets, so much shifting ground. To me, East Texas just seems alive. There are colleges, big and small. Restaurants spring up, get popular, and become chains. Neighborhoods are crowded with newcomers, and factories, small farms, and small businesses are always hiring. On every corner there’s a church, and though every one is different, despite the rough patches, we all get along surprisingly well. From the woods to the gardens, from the to kids to the towns, everything is growing. It’s a place of life, a place I’m proud to call home.
It’s good to be back.