I've never been to West Virginia.
In the many years I have travelled; I have read about and passed through the state, my girlfriend is even from there, but I have never been to West Virginia truly. You begin to wonder about the places you have never spent time in; the wonder that comes when you know a place has so much to teach you yet never know if you will be there to learn. It's a human condition, for we live in a massive world with only limited time; a thing both wondrous and terrifying at the same time.
Brenda Rakes calls West Virginia home. Her family has deep roots there and, if she is any reflection of the state I can't wait to visit.
We take some time and meet over a video call, a technology that both enables us to connect, but also seems to create a distinct separation in the form of a glass screen. Brenda conveys such a warm presence, even over distance and fiber optic cables, it warms the room as we talk, separated by hundreds of miles. Her eyes have an almost catlike quality, but on the side of comfort more so than mischief. It's easy to see how she has become so close to Mary Ann over the years, you can't help but feel good around her, like everything is going to work out, no matter how bad it may seem.
Brenda's ties to her home run deep. She tells me about her father, and I am instantly riveted. Men like her father are not so common anymore, or so it seems. He was the type of person who lived, loved and followed his heart, all while providing for his family and, brilliantly, living the life he was given.
She tells me about his work as a historian, a historian we would probably refer to as "amatuer" and yet he became a deep scholar of Fayette County, WV, spending his life in retirement studying, writing and chronicling that history. Brenda's father was also a writer. He loved to write poetry and, as I read a piece he gave to his daughters on Christmas I am truly moved. This man knew his art, applied a craft, all without a formal education beyond the eighth grade. Perhaps the paper on his walls, or lack thereof, tells one story, but the words from the heart and hand of this man, words I was gifted to read, show a brilliance and a wonder that make me marvel. As I write this, I hope my words are half as good.
Brenda freely shares her smiles and her cries, the stories that represent the only real currency we have, the currency of experience and our willingness to share it with others. Her stories and her manner show one of two truths I know; Brenda is beautiful, as are all people. She also shows me the other truth I know, and shines light on it in a wondrous way.
All people have baggage, the collected tragedy of life lived for any length of time. You can't escape it, loss, the ultimate equalizer of the rich and poor; all will lose. I've heard a lot of takes on loss. To some it is just a part of life, to others it is part of a curse, something they have earned because of some perceived sleight they have made against God or the world. For Brenda these tragedies are the greatest teacher. The hardships, the suffering, the sad stories that bring the tears up in our eyes are the things that teach us the most wondrous of human qualities; compassion.
Loving each other is at once the simplest and most difficult thing to do as human beings. It's an incredible paradox. Some days it feels like the single hardest thing for us to do, to put our stuff on hold and love others as we love ourselves. Yet, in the midst of all of that day to day noise, and the way in which it clouds our ability to love openly, it is our own tragedies that teach us how to love more deeply so often.
Brenda shares her stories with me, her accumulated smiles and cries, and it becomes so much more clear that she loves so deeply because she has hurt, and her heart has grown stronger from it. We tend to look at those things that hurt us as leaving scars, indelible wounds unable to fully heal, but these wounds do heal, they just make us stronger as they do. I have faced my own tragedies and I know this to be true. I have seen the smile, felt the warm gaze and welcoming spirit of Brenda Rakes, and I know it to be even more true.
My new friend Brenda is wise.
My new friend Brenda is loving.
My new friend Brenda is a wonder.
Our time together draws to a close, though I know it is not the last time we will spend together. Brenda and I have more roads to walk together. Eventually I will make it to West Virginia, this place that has so much to teach me, and I will be able to hug Brenda, to thank her for her stories and to feel the difference in her smile, how much warmer it must be, when there is no screen to separate us.
Favorite Dinosaur: Pterodactyl
Why: It flies and Brenda wants to fly, to spread her wings.