Befriending a graffiti vandal in Appalachia freed me from many things, one of which was my dreams.
I dreamed of a perfect marriage. I dreamed of a good teaching job. I lived in a poor place, the poorest county in my state, in the steamy foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. But as a graduate student, I didn't really see the broken windows, the burned-out trailers, the drug arrests — all the evidence of struggle.
Then, midway through my English-degree program, my husband left me. We had a young son, and I didn't know any mothers in town, especially not any solo mothers. I barely knew the town, beyond the brick gates of the university, covered with weeds that were carefully browned with poison before I could learn their names ( jimsonweed, jewelweed). I didn't understand the poverty of where I lived. I didn't know what I was going to do.
I remember lying awake with my baby on my chest, alone with him when he woke throughout the night and early morning. At 2 a.m., I thought my life was over. At 4 a.m., I thought my career was over. At 6 a.m., I thought art was over for me.
Always I had written: stories, essays, poems. Throughout my day jobs as a high-school teacher and then as an adjunct, I had made it work; I had found the time for art. But now, I saw no way. I could summon no energy. I could find no beauty in the gray hills. I had to take a leave of absence from teaching because I had no child care. Done with coursework, I was supposed to be studying for exams, but I spent most of the time rocking the baby, who batted away the pages, who would not nap unless he was physically on my body. My days were lonely, broken with lost sleep.
Sometimes in the stroller my son would rest, so we walked. We walked places I had never been before. On the bike path that used to be a railroad, by the company town that used to house the miners, by the tornado-ravaged trailer park, by the red river. It all looked like ruin to me, if I even bothered to look at all.
It was walking by the river when I saw her: the image of a woman kneeling, a chickadee flying from her palm. It looked like she was offering the bird to me. A flurry of white wings, the woman in black and white.
It was a painting on the side of the bridge.
A three-foot-high graffiti piece, illegal — and the most beautiful thing I thought I had ever seen. A woman staring straight into me.
In the quiet by the river, my baby finally napping, I started to feel not so alone.
I began to notice more and more graffiti, down alleys, on old barns: a girl kneeling, three crows surrounding her. Her hands were handcuffed; one bird held the key.
I started to feel like these graffiti pieces were guardians, protectors.
I'm not talking about tags, which are signatures or names of graffiti artists. These were graffiti pieces, short for masterpieces. And they were masterpieces. Walking by the railroad tracks, where the highway bridge was painted with colorful tableaux six feet long, I felt like I was in the presence of something hallowed. It felt hushed and holy.
So the train tunnel rising out of the woods was a masterpiece. In a way, so was the shuttered bar, its windows bursting with goldenrod. So were the valley of ferns and rusted car parts. So was my town. And so were its people.