Chervis Isom, Photographed in the Norwood neighborhood where he grew up and had his paper route.
I begin our conversation by explaining how the Obama 2008 election campaign of Hope and Change had inspired my desire to understand what Hope means. His face drops immediately, and he says that it is such a shame that Obama has had the struggle he has had, and suggests that there may be a racial component to the adversity. It is apparent that Chervis has been surprised by the massive negative reaction in the country to Obama’s presidency. “This thing with Obama has been so nasty and bitter that it makes me ill. I thought we were gonna leap ahead to a better place concerning race in America, but I am afraid we have fallen behind. I’ve still got a lot of Hope, but it has been tempered by a lot of reality.” When it comes to this subject, Chervis is a walking contradiction. He is on the one hand frustrated with the way things are in the world, and at the same time hopeful about the possibilities for change.
Chervis is an attorney, husband, father, grandfather, author and as a boy had a thriving newspaper delivery business that taught him many lessons. He has written a book called “The Newspaper Boy” that is the story of his transformation from a young white boy in the Jim Crow south who, as a result of his surrounding culture, was then a racist. His story is about the encounters with a diverse group of people on his newspaper route. But the transformative lesson of tolerance and acceptance he learned through weekly conversations with one gentle couple on his route is an allegory of Hope for better race and cultural relations around the world. They patiently taught him, by discussion and example, that all men are created equal. He says, “As a boy, I had fixed ideas about black people because I never knew one. The Jim Crow laws separated whites and blacks so effectively that we could never get to know someone of a different color. But once you get to know them, how can you dislike them?”
I tell Chervis that many I talk with believe I should instead be talking about Faith because Hope is just wishful thinking. He says that “Faith is unavoidably replete with doubt. Some people will say that Faith is certitude, but the flip-side of Faith is doubt. I think that Hope is something that has no doubt. Doubt is the enemy. Hope is what you dream will be fulfilled.”
He is reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. “Coelho has written that if you hope hard enough to make something come true, the Universe will conspire to make that happen,” he tells me. Then he says, “I don’t know about that, but if one hopes it will be achieved, then you’ve gotta do something to make it happen. It’s not wishful thinking, it’s wishful doing. We gotta have meaning in our lives.”
“Walker Percy in “The Movie Goer” said we are caught up in the everydayness of life and it paralyzes us”, says Chervis. “I think about Walker Percy a lot, and he was always about the search. Percy said, “If you are on to something (meaning you are involved in the search) there is Hope. But if you are not on to something, there is only despair.” Because that’s the meaning of life…the search.”
Chervis continues talking about meaning in our lives and, more specifically, Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Frankl wrote about his experience of surviving the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and how his attitude sustained him. I mention the first phrase that I discovered when beginning the Hope Project, “Hope is an Attitude”. He suggests that one major premise in Frankl’s book was that people tended to survive if they maintained a hopeful attitude. But he adds again, that is is not enough to have attitude, but one must “do something to make things happen.”
I ask Chervis if I gave him the day off to write, what would he write about? He says, “A personal essay about where did memory go.” I am in awe of his ability to write a book about his childhood. How could he remember those things from his past with such clarity and emotion? He explains that “it comes in bits and pieces to begin with, and then more begins to surface.” Then he describes a scene from his childhood. One day as a boy he has difficulty cutting the high grass with a push mower. In frustration, he moves the mower to the sidewalk where it whirs without effort, and, assuming it will pass harmlessly above, proceeds to run over a cricket. “The cricket went up in a hundred fluttering pieces, and I can remember those fluttering pieces like it was yesterday. I was just horror stricken that I had chopped this poor little innocent cricket all to pieces, and I felt so bad. It was a cricket for God’s sake, how do I remember that and why have I forgotten so many other things—things of substance which should have been remembered?” He suggests it may be early stages of Alzheimer’s. Judging from our insightful long conversation, his bright demeanor and the fact that he has mined so much of his past to produce such a great book, I say bring on the dementia!
Thank you Chervis!
As a postscript, and as a result of his comment in this piece about writing a personal essay on memory, Chervis has written a poem. With Mr. Isom’s permission and blessing, please enjoy!
The Small Black Cricket
The fog rises this morning,
a thin diaphanous veil
floating among the high rise buildings
then quietly drifting away
I watch in profound silence,
reminded of the thin, sparse
quality of my remembrances
and how they too have drifted away.
But then I think of that day so long ago,
which should not have been remembered
and would not have been remembered, but . . .
for a small black cricket.
So strange how the mind works—
all those many memories lost; the good
advice my Dad gave me, time and
time again—all plunged into the abyss.
The things my brother did and said,
my roommate for all those years we lived at home
walking the railroad rails, delivering newspapers,
tinkering on motorcycles—so little I recall.
And my sister, seven years younger,
yet she recalls more of my childhood
than I; and my mother, beautiful woman,
with dark, dark hair and
piercing green eyes—so little left of what she said beyond
her desperate yearnings for me and her church.
And my first girlfriend—
the girl on the Boulevard—
her shining black hair, her luminous hazel eyes.
Holding her hand in my uncertain grip, my hopeless longing, her warm kiss,
I remember all this so well—but what
in God’s name did we speak of,
she and I?
But that single moment is vivid. I was a
small boy, maybe eight or nine years old,
and I was told to cut the grass out front,
a small lawn falling into a sidewalk,
grass between there and the street.
It was a push mower, the kind with
two wheels that rotate the curving
The handle was as high as my head and I
could not get my body weight behind
I amused myself by pushing the mower on the
sidewalk where the blade whirred
enthusiastically, as if I were making progress.
There on the sidewalk perched a small
black cricket, harmless and minding its own business. I whirred on, thinking
surely the lawnmower would pass harmlessly overhead.
It had not yet cut a single weed.
And then—to my surprise a thousand small remnants rose from the whirring blade
like a black cloud, hovered a moment before my startled eyes,
and then settled on the sidewalk before my planted feet.
My heart sank . . . ; and I grieve the poor cricket
as if it had been a pet.
Chervis Isom 2014