This year, we made the trek back to the Outer Banks. Going "back" is complicated. Vacations on Hatteras Island are, in many ways, part of a past existence, a different life. But there is something that calls me back -- something timeless beyond any moment or series of moments in my own life, a thin slip of land caught between two different kinds of living water, buffeted by wind and rain and tides and tourists who take and take and take -- and still it remains, fragile, changing, alive, stunning.
I knew that on this visit, I wanted to visit Red Drum Pottery, the undertaking of a potter from whom I'd first purchased pottery in the autumn of 1998 -- 16 years ago. In spite of hurricanes and economic downturns, I knew I would find Rhonda and Wes selling pottery near Frisco, with the familiar trademark design -- a red drum (a local fish) in rusts and greens and browns on speckled, putty-colored vessels. I was seeking a chalice to go with a plate I already own. My hope and prayer is that his earthenware chalice and patten become my go-to communion set. The tenacious hospitality and beauty and abundance of Hatteras seem an appropriate service for an open table where we meet Christ in bread and wine and one another.
I pulled off the road at the location that housed Red Drum Pottery when I was last in the area three years ago. To my chagrin, the storefront was occupied now by a different island shop. A quick check on the smart phone confirmed that Red Drum was just a bit down the road on the other side.
When I was last in their shop, Wes promoted a live music night that they hosted each week. In the back of my mind, I hoped to join the local crowd on this visit, to experience some local, homegrown bluegrass and support the local economy. Sure enough, the new location included a performance venue and signs and posters. Rhonda still had her trademark pottery pattern. She had new shapes and finishes, and had a lot of beautiful fired wall plaques that included clay relief fish and shells and flowers and grasses that captured the local bio-diversity. Beyond all of that, there was new energy in the space.
Checking out with my chosen chalice, a young man handled the transaction while Rhonda talked about about her pottery. Soon talk shifted to music. Lucas and Rhonda were excited that their group, Banjo Island, would perform with Ricky Scaggs in late September at a bluegrass festival in Manteo. This week at their regular Wednesday night show, they were doing a demo recording for Scaggs. Wes showed up, wet from a typical island downpour, and eagerly invited us downstairs to see the theatre he had created in what had been a garage. The walls were lined with Rhonda's art. A soundboard perched at the back of the performance space. Sixty or so chairs waited for an audience.
We bought tickets. As we drove back down the beach Wednesday night, I checked my expectations. I expected good local feel and music. I would be thrilled with that.
I got so much more.
You see, Wes is a really accomplished banjo player who is writing great locally influenced lyrics. Rhonda plays the bass. Lucas appears to be a rambling guitarist seeking to learn and carve out a music career on the island. They had a great set and intermingled good humor and stories. The music was varied, and Wes looked transported while he played. Amazing stuff.
But that was just a piece of what I received.
You see, I have visited Wes and Rhonda in at least three different locations over 16 years. At first, there was a modest home on stilts off of route 12 with a screen porch that served as a storefront. I remember that I was uncomfortable with the intimacy of being at someone's home, not really sure we were going to buy something. My kids were really small - one a babe in arms and a toddler and preschooler touchy and eager. I had to worry about them breaking things. Rhonda wasn't around, and we struck up a conversation with Wes about the latest hurricane - about the way community works after days of steamy heat with no electricity or clean running water. We talked about who rigged up the generator for a washer and dryer, about who had hot water for much-needed showers, about who had a chainsaw, a wet-vac, a four-wheel drive.
At a later visit, Wes talked to the kids about clay. They were in a new location, right on 12, the main drag. They had official parking and a storefront. Again, Rhonda wasn't around, but Wes told the kids a bit about the kiln while I shopped. He gave Emma a piece of clay and promised her that if she made something and brought it back, they would fire it and mail it to her. My mommy response was a cringe...I knew the expectation he was creating, and I knew how hard it would be for all adults involved to meet those expectations. Sure enough, she pinched a pot, we took it back and left our address, then returned home and waited for a pot that never came. It is hard to convince a 6 year old not to take such things personally. Thank God for the short memory of the grudges of youth.
At an even later visit, Wes and Rhonda talked about their son who was preparing to join the military. They were worried, and they were proud. And they seemed conflicted. I knew that feeling...my own son was making strides toward his own military career.
There was a phase of life when I was getting to Hatteras at least twice a year. I collected a lot of Red Drum pottery and between visits, I used that pottery -- for coffee, soup, Thanksgiving side-dishes, pasta. Always, I thought of that wisp of land between two bodies of living water.
Then there came for me a difficult season of wilderness -- a time of sorting out rough patches in my life, of surviving. The beach was forgotten for several seasons. But the pottery was there. A touchstone.
Returning this year, seeking out Rhonda's work and Wes's hospitality seemed like homecoming. A lot of life has settled down. I have called this my jubilee year, where debts are forgotten with a certain sense of hopeful reset. I was anxious to mark time in my own life on this pilgrimage.
What I found, though, was a comforting pride in what was taking place for Rhonda and Wes. It seems that while I was wandering in wilderness, finding a stable place, getting my feet back under me, these two beautiful, talented people were finding themselves and their gifts and graces too. They were learning to survive on a barrier island, learning to run a small business, learning to diversify their talents, taking new talent under their wings. They were getting ready to play with Ricky Scaggs!
What I found was an assurance that life keeps happening, that people all around me kept moving through life just like I did. Our struggles weren't the same. Our wilderness was our own. But we were created with gifts and graces that would grow to nurture and sustain us. We were loved in community in ways that would get us through the rough spots. We were finding unconditional love that got us through each and every day.
Some of the music played by Banjo Island included a swelling, lingering bass and cello strains. They made my heart ache and swell. They were the sounds, to my ears, of amazing grace.
Leaving the beach this year, I thank God for the lives of Wes and Rhonda. They don't know me personally. And I don't really know the details of their lives. But I appreciate their trajectory. I appreciate the gifts I have watched take root and grow in them. I am grateful for amazing grace.