This paper was prepared for a graduate level introductory course on integrating theology and hope into psychotherapeutic work. As a student I was asked to read the memoir The Earth is Enough and then engage the main character, Harry Middleton, in a fictional conversation about hope- without, the assignment indicated, using the word hope.
A Conversation with Harry Middleton
Harry: [truck door slams behind him] Thanks for stopping, the old truck just gave out on me.
Lindsay: No problem. Where’re you headed?
Harry: No place in particular. Though if you’d drop me at the nearest town that’d be just fine.
Lindsay: The nearest town worth stopping for is Mansfield and that’s 15 miles. I’m afraid I don’t drive too fast in these hills when I’ve got this stock trailer loaded, but if you are patient I can get you there.
Harry: Yep. That’d be fine. I’m kind of glad that rusted heap broke down. These roads are better observed than navigated.
Lindsay: Agreed. You from here?
Harry: Here and there.
Lindsay: I’m Lindsay. What’s your name?
Harry: Harry. Harry Middleton.
Lindsay: Really? The author Harry Middleton?
Harry: Yes… yes I have been accused of the authorship of several books. Bought a nice rod or two with the money from those poor souls deceived into taking a journey into these mountains through my words instead of their own eyes.
Lindsay: These mountains are really something, aren’t they? As someone who has called this place home for a season, I appreciated how you were able to translate this place- the mountains, the light, the water- into words.
Harry: Mm hmm…
Lindsay: The first time I came to these mountains I came to escape, too. I was 17 and it was my first time away from the endlessness of the plains and all that landscape held for me. When you described Ozark mountains I knew the contours of those hills. When you described morning dawning on those rocks I knew…
Harry: …how these ancient wooded valleys look when they are bathed in thick golden light of humid mornings. [leaning his head back and closing his eyes] The heavy sweltering summers.
Lindsay: …and how the woods fall silent and asleep at the first hard freeze.
Harry: …and the cool touch of weeping limestone bluffs…
Lindsay: …and the way they become ghostly slow-motion waterfalls in January.
[silence for a few miles]
Lindsay: Do you hate being recognized?
Harry: Not hate… [pauses]
Lindsay: You said a lot in that book. I wonder if being recognized is difficult for you because I feel like I know a lot about you and you know nothing about me. But really, you told me just enough to make me curious. Would it be okay if we talked about the book? There’s so much I’d like to know.
Lindsay: I don’t know what that means. I figured you wouldn’t talk to me…
Harry: [mildly intrigued] Why might that be?
Lindsay: Well, I’m a woman that just saved your ass on the side of the road. I can handle my own with this rig and the load of steers I’m hauling, and I’m sharp enough to ask the kind of questions that make me not fit in your box.
Harry: [smirks] My box?
Lindsay: The box you put women in: crazy or close-minded, superstitious or stupid.
Harry: Hmm. I haven’t come across too many women who deserved to be outside that box.
Lindsay: Would you let them out of the box if they deserved it?
Harry: You know, Lindsay, letting something loose is the easy part. The beauty is in the catching.
Lindsay: [chuckles] When you talked about the woman on the bus, when you were traveling from Vietnam to the Ozarks, I thought maybe you encountered her differently. I mean, your words colored her as absolutely crazy, but you seemed wistful too.
Harry: Oh yeah? The time traveler. I think about her from time to time… wonder where she found herself… and if she ever found rest in death.
Lindsay: That’s right, that seemed to be all she wanted, wasn’t it? What was it like to share a seat with a woman in such despair?
Harry: I guess I didn’t think too much about it.
Lindsay: You thought about it enough to share it in the book, this precious story about yourself and a woman on the edge of reality- the edge of death, in a book where you often focus on your uncles and the land.
Harry: Yeah, I think my uncle Albert and her would have gotten along- I think if she caught him on the right day, after the chickens were fed and the rods oiled and hung for the day, he might have talked for hours with her, asking questions about the worlds she visited.
Lindsay: I really liked your uncles. What an odd pairing you made. Do you think your father had any idea what he was sending you off to?
Harry: I don’t think he expected me to have the experience I did, but I do think he’d reached a point where he didn’t want the life he had for me. That’s something…
Lindsay: They did introduce you to a different world, that’s for sure. I’m curious if you’ve thought much about why you took so readily to their world, when most boys your age probably wouldn’t have.
Harry: I think maybe I bonded with those men because life had dealt them hard blows too. They’d survived and found meaning in those woods, made this hardscrabble earth fruitful enough to meet their needs, and as I found myself falling into their rhythm, I thought maybe if they could, I could too.
Lindsay: They were broken men who found meaning and even joy there.
Harry: Yeah. Except Elias. I don’t think he found meaning or joy, but he found a place he could be cared for in his need, and perhaps that was close as he could get. [pauses for a moment] …And he found a good trout stream. That’s really all a man needs.
Lindsay: Of course, the trout. You know what struck me?
Harry: What’s that?
Lindsay: You ascribe to the trout far more capriciousness, wisdom, and cruelty than a fish could possess- but as the trout weave through your memoir and become a theme into your adult life, I wondered if your words about trout were really about trout?
Harry: [pauses thoughtfully] Yes… I’ve had moments of wondering if the way I talk about trout is the way I see hope- about how it’s as elusive as one of my trout. Rising and falling if the conditions are right- finicky, sensitive, reclusive, and cautious…
Lindsay: It’s a stunning metaphor. Everything you saw, plus the deep wound of a childhood robbed of a sense of place left a great need- far more than a boy should have had to bear.
Harry: Yes, it is as if the people and circumstances of my life made making sense of my life impossible in its context- but easier to find it in someplace like nature- steady… cyclic… a place where even death feeds life.
Lindsay: [echos] …even death.
Harry: I think sometimes about how I can never go back to that time or place. I’ve tried. The people are gone and the place has changed.
Lindsay: It’s a very different place, now…
Harry: I catch glimpses sometimes waist deep in a good trout stream, but I’ve not been able to capture it again. Knowing that fact mutes the peace I learned to find here with my uncles. Or… was it peace? I don’t know.
Lindsay: That sounds like a question a man could spend a long time considering.
Harry: And I have… I’ve mulled over whether those years and that lifestyle were something I took as a way to cope. I wonder sometimes if I cling to those memories to sustain me. Was that piece of earth a place of comfort and solace and finding an order by which to make sense of a life that doesn’t make sense?
Lindsay: You were processing so much that didn’t make sense… and those scars haven’t healed, have they?
Harry: [thoughtfully places one hand over opposite forearm, tracing faded scars] They never will…
Lindsay: They could, Harry. You still bear the scars of Norwall. You are still covered with pieces of him. His death etches you- not just as scars on your arm- It’s in your face and in your words. He scars your nightmares.
Harry: [looking out the window into the dense, darks woods streaming past] That sounds awfully bleak.
Lindsay: Your life has been pretty bleak, hasn’t it? Except when you can numb the pain with cool, moving water. [pauses] You don’t owe him, you know. There is no way to live your life that will change the fact that you lived and he didn’t, and that makes no sense.
Harry: [sits silently still tracing trails of pale scars on his arm]
Lindsay: So this is Mansfield we’re coming up on now. I’m so glad we met today. The words you have written have touched me and I thank you deeply for them.
Harry: And your words have given me much to think about. These mountains hold many surprises, Lindsay, and meeting you today has been one of them.
Lindsay: Thank you Harry. It was an honor, really, to meet you. I don’t know if we’ll ever meet again, but I wish you well. I hope maybe someday I’ll see your latest book in a bookstore and discover that instead of returning to these mountains to apply over and over again a balm on scars that won’t heal, you’ve found something even deeper and even more beautiful in these mountains than a world of escape.
Harry: You’ve given me much to think about. Maybe one day I will write that book.
[Truck stops in front of a mechanic shop and Harry exits, nodding with a thoughtful smile as my truck pulls away.]