Come sit by my side, come as close as the air
And share in a memory of time
And wander in my words
Dream about the pictures that I play of changes
– Phil Ochs, from Changes
This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. And today, in these turbulent times, I am thinking about Changes. They may come suddenly or slip in over time, so quiet, and stealthy we may not even notice until it’s done. The snippet of the song I just sang was written in the middle 1960s by Phil Ochs, who was in his early 20s, as was I when I first heard it.
As a generation, we had had the dubious opportunity to reflect deeply on changes, as we had been brand new adults, so new we sparkled, when our government discovered that Mr. Khrushchev had put nuclear missiles in our back yard, close enough to easily reach any part of our yard. And more were coming. And Mr. Kennedy had ordered Khrushchev to remove them, and said out Navy would destroy their ships if they attempted to land with their lethal cargo. We were on the brink of a war that could end the earth.
I still remember vividly the day that line would or would not be crossed. Walking across campus to class wondering if there would be a world when I returned. Between that and the loss of friends in the Vietnam War, our generation had a sort of different relationship with changes than we might otherwise have had. And then, of course the president was murdered. And in short order we had also lost Malcolm, and Martin, and Bobby. And so it was that many of us came to learn very early on that change is, in fact, the only constant, and we are, every one of us, completely at its mercy.
I got an extra dose in those times when, during that same period, both my parents died and left me wandering in California, watching the flower children arrive. Today most of our fellow countrymen and women look back to the 60s and remember only the ridiculously garbed hippies who caused so much trouble and were so disrespectful. They rarely acknowledge the changes that created that generation.
But it’s not just war and politics that create life-altering changes. It’s a natural process. But Change never comes without loss, and loss is personal. Down here in my neck of the Ozarks, a good many of my neighbors and a good bit of the land we walk on have been hugely altered by the so-called “Thousand Year Flood” that took homes and ruined belongings and destroyed vital infrastructure, while it scoured riverbanks and everything on them clean, taking even the soil. Our lakes are now a danger to boaters because of the vast belt of debris stretching out for dozens of yards from every shoreline. Trees. Houses. Horses and cows, thousands of smaller lives and a huge debris field. Thankfully no human bodies.
But now a large portion of the people of the deep Ozarks, whose lives have always been fragile simply from chancing to live on a very thin bit of skin over very rocky ground, have lost even the skin. Hillsides and garden soil now residing in lakes that once were deeper, but will not be again.
This week I will finally work up the nerve to revisit the village of Thomasville, a mostly unrenowned hamlet which bore the distinction of being the first white settlement in the deep Ozarks, the place where the end of the war of 1812 wasn’t heard about until 1815. It’s nestled in the breathtakingly beautiful valley of the Eleven Point River. On April 29, in the course of one night the flood took it, lock, stock and hundred-year-old homes, gone down the river. People’s lives and livelihoods forever changed, literally overnight.
But you know, people are resilient. In locations all across the earth, on countless such mornings, people reassess, recover and rebuild after such huge incidents of change. Certainly there are people worse off in other places and other times. We have often reduced even great disasters to a single word or two – Katrina. Sandy. Chernobyl, Fukashima, Deepwater Horizon. We go on. We recover, although sometimes moving farther away from the water. But now we know that change is the only constant, the only thing we can count on. And we are completely, no matter our beliefs, our intentions, our actions or inactions, good or bad, at its blind, uncaring mercy. Life on earth. Full of changes. And sooner or later we learn we have only one real option in that ongoing maelstrom of change.
We can love one another; be kind to one another. Or not.
I am not a fan of public proselytizing, to reduce the effort to advertise one’s religious preference and how it is better than yours, whether on billboards or social media. But I do remember one dark, rainy night, wandering the freeway off-ramps of a major city, hopelessly lost, trying to reach the home of the only person I knew in that city, and coming to a T in the dark, rain-filled road. My headlights lit up a sign with a drawing of the familiar Anglo-Saxon blue eyed Jesus, along with a very short message. It was not a prediction of my likely destination, nor a sales pitch for best denomination. It simply said “Consider Your Ways.” I smiled, nodded at the image, said “Ok. I can do that. I probably should.” And I drove off into the night, into Phil Ochs’ “Circle time parade” of changes, oddly comforted that even in the maelstrom, my ways might matter. That I might sometime have the opportunity to make, by my ways, one or two small, hopefully positive changes of my own.
I would learn to be kind, I decided that night. That would be a change. Some decades later, in these forever changed but forever beautiful Ozark Hills, I’m still learning. Changes come. Our only choice lies in what we do with them. My town, and the little village that was Thomasville, is cleaning up, reassessing, deciding to rebuild. Or not. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills, asking that you wish them well, because change is always coming. And even if you can’t stop it or hold it back, you can always choose to be kind to one another.