April 24, 2020

The Tree

The Tree

When Robert was young, no one seemed to care that he didn’t know how to read. As he got older, lack of literacy affected his life in devastating ways no one could have predicted. Now at Age 55, he’s learning a new skill and awakening the poet within.

When a Nashville man named Robert was young, no one seemed to care that he didn’t know how to read. As he got older, lack of literacy affected his life in devastating ways no one could have predicted. Now at Age 55, he’s learning a new skill and awakening the poet within.

You can find out more about the Nashville Adult Literacy Council here: http://nashvilleliteracy.org/

As has become our custom this episode also contains YOUR voices from the Neighbors “Reverse Complaint” Line sharing one thing that’s difficult right now and one things that you’re grateful for—for some that’s getting a moment to brush their teeth.

If you would like to share the ways you’re staying sane and connected with your community during the COVID-19 crisis, give the Neighbors “Reverse Complaint” Line a call: record a voice memo on your phone and email it to **neighborspodcast@gmail.com **or call 615-601-1411 and leave us a message.

You can join “The Neighborhood” along with these wonderful, thoughtful, generous people by becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/neighbors

Who’s in “The Neighborhood”: Allison Sebastian, Adrian Cobb, Nathalie Stewart, Ben Lehman, Caroline Martin, Clark Buckner, Cody Spriggs, Dan Burns, Em Vo, Eric Detweiler, Gina, Griffin Bonham, Heather Price, John Kesling, Landon Rives, Marc Kochamba, Patrick Black, Patrick Gillis, Ray Ware, Ryan Arnett, Samuel Adams, Tom and Rachel Kraft, Nikki Black, Hunter and Bonnie Moore, Newton Dominey, Bea Troxel, Craig and Brenda Burns, Laurel Dean and my mom Tonya Lewis (thanks mom!)

Visit our website at www.neighborspodcast.com

Music from the Blue Dot Sessions and Dan Burns https://danburns.bandcamp.com/music

Our sonic logo at the beginning of the episode is by Dallas Taylor’s company Defacto Sound. Dallas makes a podcast about sound called Twenty Thousand Hertz listen at www.20k.org

Stay Home. Save Lives.

Cover Art features photo by Sean Brown on Unsplash



Cariad Harmon: [00:00:00] It's now been 24 days since governor Bill Lee signed a stay at home order here in Tennessee. 

Jakob Lewis: [00:00:11] Yeah. Businesses all over the state have closed and Broadway, which is basically Nashville's Times Square has been eerily empty for several weeks. 

Cariad Harmon: [00:00:20] The tourists and music lovers that keep our economy going are no longer buying drinks.

And so bartenders, restaurant workers, and all of the musicians that Nashville is so famous for have been wrestling with unemployment applications in record numbers. 

Teacher: [00:00:36] X.  Yeah. X. It somehow trips you up. You've never liked that letter. 

Jakob Lewis: [00:00:41] But over in West Nashville, several miles from the honkytonks and music venues, there's a nonprofit who serves the community who has also had to close their doors.

Robert, reading: [00:00:50] We want to thank you for the pancake. 

Cariad Harmon: [00:00:57] The Nashville Adult Literacy Council has been teaching adults to read here in Nashville since 1982. They help around 700 students a year with a rotating staff of about 500 volunteers. The most recent numbers show that a staggering one in eight english-speaking adults do not read at a functional level here in Nashville.

Jakob Lewis: [00:01:19] And there's also another 17% of the population who don't speak English very well.

Cariad Harmon: [00:01:26] If you add those numbers together, that means that almost a quarter of our Nashville neighbors may not have the basic literacy skills they need to navigate things like unemployment and the healthcare system. 

Jakob Lewis: [00:01:37] As you can imagine, these skills are more vital than ever during Covid-19. 

Cariad Harmon: [00:01:42] The NALC closed their doors on March 13th. Since then, they've focus their efforts on making sure that vulnerable students are able to connect with the services they need.

This is a very tall order of when many of those same students are also living without reliable access to the internet. Last year, I went to visit the literacy council and I spoke with a student there who has wanted to learn how to read ever since he was a kid.

Robert, reading: [00:02:10] ...anyone who does...nope...

Teacher: [00:02:14] Cares.

Jakob Lewis: [00:02:15] And given the situation that many of his classmates now find themselves in, we thought that now might be a good time to revisit this story. So without further ado, I'm Jacob Lewis. 

Cariad Harmon: [00:02:25] And I'm Cariad Harmon.

Jakob Lewis: [00:02:26] And you are listening to Neighbors.

Cariad Harmon: [00:02:28] A show about what connects us. 

Jakob Lewis: [00:02:30] Today's story, The Tree. One man learns to read late in life and gives voice to the poet within.

Robert, reading: [00:02:47] There was...

Teacher: [00:02:48] Words.

Robert, reading: [00:02:49] There are words like freedom, sweet, and won...wondet?



Teacher: [00:03:00] Won-D-E-R . Won...

Robert, reading: [00:03:03] ...der...full. Wonderful.

Teacher: [00:03:06] Great.

Robert, reading: [00:03:07] There is...

Robert: [00:03:08] My name is Robert. We at Nashville Adult Literacy Program. And I'm 55.

Teacher: [00:03:19] Look at that part first.

Robert: [00:03:20] It's a little, like, hard.

Teacher: [00:03:22] Mmm. hmm.

Robert: [00:03:23] Through the fourth and sixth grade, I really, yes, went to school and just sitted in class.

My teacher really didn't pay me no attention. But when I got into seventh grade, my teachers then noticed that I couldn't read. So they did the reading on the test for me and I gave them the answer. So that's how I ended up making it through high school. But when I graduated, I still couldn't read and write.

So that's why I'm here at, uh, this school right now -- trying to get my reading and writing. Because it always bothered me

Robert, reading: [00:04:01] Like...like...so it'd be...that's long "i".

Teacher: [00:04:05] Short "i".

Robert: [00:04:06] I learned a long time ago my father couldn't read and write because when, uh, we went to the store and, uh, he couldn't even sign his own check. I didn't find out that my mom couldn't read until I was an adult.

I brought her to the eye doctor here in Nashville. And I was sitting in there and she was going over the letters. And I knows that she can see the letter, but she was calling them something else. And so after she got done, the girl that was giving her the test, she said, "she need help with her letters". She can see she just need help with her letters.

I said, I noticed that, and I never did see my siblings with books, so I guess they had trouble too.

When I graduated from school, I already had a job waiting on me. Because, um, the teacher in food service, she made sure that I had a job at this place called The Smorgasboard. It was a restaurant that just opened up. As soon as I graduated, I went there and started work. After that, I just felled off.

I got affected with, uh, the HIV virus and that turned my whole world around.

Yeah, I found out on Christmas Eve. I, I already done went and did the test. And, uh, I got a phone call on Christmas Eve and this man talk and told me to come down to the health department -- that he had, uh, some news that he had to tell me. I said, "look, man, I ain't got no time to coming to no health departments or whatever. You can tell me. You can take me on phone." And so he talk and told me my tests came back positive. And I said, "well, that's a...christmas present for me." I really didn't tell hardly nobody in  my family. The only thing I knowed about HIV and AIDS but what you saw on the TV. People wasting away and just die.

After that, I just got hooked to crack cocaine and I tried my best to kill myself with crack cocaine. My sister Dougherty came over. And she sit down in front of me. She asked me, "what is you doing that?" You know, because that's, that's not like me. I'm not the kind of person to sit there and do hard drugs. And, uh, so I told her, I said, "I'm trying to kill myself because I'm HIV positive." And, you know, when I told her that she just started crying.

I lost everything that I worked for, everything that I loved. I lost it all.

It was about 14, 15 years. And I was just tired. See, I couldn't read to find out about, um, HIV. And so I started going to groups at Nashville Cares. And then this lady named Rudy...she was telling us about HIV. And, you know, more and more, I learned about it, more and more I know I can live with it.

It took a lot off of me cause I know that I'm just not going to die like that. You know? So that made me want to live. So I went to treatment and I got 15 years clean today.

I was doing drugs when I met him, but, uh, I met him on a retreat. A church retreat, matter of fact. My mom...I went to visit my mom one day. Me and him both went and visited my mom. She was sitting on the side of the bed and she said, "Rob, when you gonna give me a grandchild?" I said, "mom, you won't get no grandchild from me because that's my mate right there." She said, "I thought it was!"

She say, "I thought it was!" I mean...she had bust out laughing. "I though so!"

I wouldn't throw him away for nothing. I've seen him, uh, put me before him a lot. You know, he, he'd take his shirt off his back and give to me if I need it. And I seen him do it a lot for me. And, you know...I couldn't throw him away for nothing.

Robert, reading: [00:08:49] The Tree.

I wonder what it would be like to be a tree. I would stand tall and wide. My root will run deep down into the earth. My leaf would stretch...

Robert: [00:09:13] Well, when you first come in here, she'll give you a test to see where you at. My reading levels was down to first grade. I think I'm up to third now.

Robert, reading: [00:09:27] And when the sunlight hit them, they would glow in the sunlight.

Robert: [00:09:36] Auntie Eina assigns me homework to write 20 minutes a night. So I just make up things and write.

Like some of the stories in these books is something I has on my mind and it stays there until I put it on the paper, you know? And putting it on paper, it helps my mind release it. They always said it's, uh, poems or rhymes. Whatever they call it. But that's just my homework.

Robert, reading: [00:10:04] ...sitting under me, or just sit and read a book.

I would be...I would ...I would block the sun from you.

In the fall, my leaves will change...

Cariad Harmon: [00:10:30] I checked in with Robert this week to see how he's doing, and you'll be glad to know that he's still studying and writing poetry. Since our interview, he's moved up a grade and is currently reading at a fourth grade level. Lately he's been studying online, which he really likes, but he is looking forward to getting back to work with his tutors once all this is over

 if you'd like to learn more about the Nashville Adult Literacy Council, you can find them online at nashvilleliteracy.org. They are currently unable to accept new volunteers, but they are gladly taking donations and you can find all the details right on their homepage.

Jakob Lewis: [00:11:06] All right, we're going to take a quick break and then we will be back to check in on our neighbors. Stay with us.

 All right, welcome back. So before we hear from our neighbors about how they're doing on the reverse complaint line, Oh, we wanted to give you a little update. Um, Carriad has a little news for you.

Cariad Harmon: [00:11:32] Yes. So, um, last week I went running. I was trying to stay sane and connected and healthy.

Jakob Lewis: [00:11:38] As you do. 

Cariad Harmon: [00:11:39] And I was maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask and somehow I tripped and I managed to not only break my ankle, but I also broke my wrist as well. And I don't know how I did it.

Jakob Lewis: [00:11:53] Oh man, it sucks so much because like not only did you hurt yourself, but I, I , I haven't even seen you. Like this just happened, and I heard about it, and we talked on the phone, and then you had to like go somewhere to get it taken care of.

Like, what, what was that like?

Cariad Harmon: [00:12:09] As you can imagine, I was pretty nervous about going to the hospital at the moment.

Jakob Lewis: [00:12:13] Yeah, I bet.

Cariad Harmon: [00:12:13] And this was two weeks ago now. Um, but I have to say the emergency room was very quiet. There were maybe three other people there. Um, and I spoke to the doctors and nurses about Covid, um, and they all assured me, um, that social distancing is working and, if anything, um, they are quieter than usual.

So I felt very safe. I got such great treatment, even though I felt like such a douche bag for taking up their time right now. So, uh, I had surgery on my wrist a week ago today. And, um, it's been pretty painful recovering from that, I have to say. Um, but I am now feeling much better.

Luckily, I still have my right hand. And to be honest, the worst thing about it is really my ankle, which is not broken quite as badly as my wrist, but it really is so hard not to be able to just go out for a stroll. Um, I'm really, really stuck inside, mostly in my bed at the moment, and I'm hoping that that will change very soon.

Jakob Lewis: [00:13:17] Yeah, because, like, walks are like my saving grace right now. Like I, I can't imagine. I'm so sorry.

Cariad Harmon: [00:13:23] Oh, thank you.

Jakob Lewis: [00:13:24] Yeah, of course. And like, what would you say is like getting you through right now?

Cariad Harmon: [00:13:28] So while obviously it's been a difficult couple of weeks, I've also been focusing a lot on all of the things that I am grateful for right now. Um, one of those things is the amazing, uh, doctors and nurses who I have seen. How kind and understanding everybody has been. I am so happy that those essential workers are doing their essential work. And I am so sorry that I took up their time.

Um, I also am so grateful for my partner who is really being a total champ right now.

Jakob Lewis: [00:13:59] Good job, John.

Cariad Harmon: [00:14:00] Um, he has been waiting on me hand and foot and he is much nicer and more patient than I am. So I'm going to have to think of all kinds of nice things to do for him once I am more mobile.

Jakob Lewis: [00:14:12] Thank you Cariad for sharing all that.

Cariad Harmon: [00:14:13] Thank you. 

Jakob Lewis: [00:14:14] Yeah, absolutely. And you know, in light of this, we wanted to ask you this week, like what is one thing that is difficult? Because we want to acknowledge, you know, hard things, uh, but also what's one thing that you're grateful for? So I will go second here.

I think one thing that's been difficult for me is, like, just consumption in general. Like I want to eat all the food and I just have caught myself eating when I am not hungry. And so I think, like, just self control kind of in general this week has been difficult for me.

And one thing I'm really grateful for right now is I used to write a lot of songs. Um, that was a part of my life. Not like professionally or anything, but just, like, as a hobby. And, one thing I've been doing is writing songs and then sharing them with my friend Travis on Marco Polo, just like, as a way to keep me accountable and document that, uh, for posterity. Um, and also, like, I just think he, like, likes it and that makes me feel really good. Like, and I think some of them songs, like, songs are okay. So that's really cool.

So what we wanted to do now is hear from you, our neighbors. Check in with you and hear one thing that's difficult and one thing that you're grateful for. All right. Here we go.

Caller Montage: [00:15:28] Hi Jakob. Um. Right now I'm grateful for, um, having access to my parents' Netflix account so that my son could watch Mickey Mouse Club. I could brush my teeth without him asking me to explain something to him.

This is Cooper Breeden reporting to Neighbors via voice memo to talk about what has been difficult and what I'm thankful for in the times of coronavirus.

What's up neighbors.

Hey Jakob, it's Steve.

Hey. Neighbors it's Em. Um, you know what's been really hard for me is not getting to simply, like, be with my friends. My people.

Not being able to see friends and family as much as I'd like.

If you know me, you know that proximity is one of my favorite words and social proximating is like my philosophy on life. So when you've oriented your entire world around being close to everything that you love, it's been strange to feel socially distanced from that which geographically hasn't changed.

You know, my dad always says that, you know, now that my sister and I are out of the house, and we have been for a while, and he misses the pitter patter of our feet upstairs and our loud singing in the kitchen. I guess really my loud singing in the kitchen. And I really get how he feels because loving at a distance is hard.

Motivation has gotta be the most difficult thing right now for me. Outside of work or projects or anything. Just replying a text message from a friend can take days. And the act of going to bed or getting out of bed are both terrible to just think about.

Um, it's really hard to not have time and space for my big feelings. 'Cause it turns out I have a lot of really big feelings.

So one thing that has been difficult for me, um, is that I've been furloughed from my job.

I'm with my son all the time, pretty much. Oh, and he probably needs me right now. I'm hiding in the bathroom to do this. I get really edgy if I don't have a place to put my big feelings cause I'm normalizing for him all day long. Even though we talk about how crazy the world is right now and how the libraries aren't gonna be open for a while and... I'll be right there, Bubba!

But they are good things, too. I'm in quarantine with my girlfriend. And that's provided an amazing sense of stability, comfort, normalcy, and I want to at least pretend to do human things when she's around -- like cook or clean.

I've gotten to spend a little bit more time on my side hustle making cupcakes.

It's spring time. Hallalujah. I am so thankful that the trees and the grass and the flowers are coming to life.

The simplicity of it. Basically being told that I can't go anywhere. I can't do anything. I can't aspire for something. I can't, like, this is not the time to, like, grow my career. Um, all these things, like, it's, it's so refreshing to just surrender it.

Should I stop brushing? I'm supposed to brush two minutes, aren't I? That's what I told my son, thank you for giving me this space in the bathroom to tell you how I'm feeling.

Cariad Harmon: [00:19:37] If you want to call in and share how you're doing, please do.

Jakob Lewis: [00:19:40] You can record a voice memo on your phone and email it to neighborspodcast@gmail.com. If that is a little, like, technologically beyond you, you can just call (615) 601-1411. They're just not as great of a, like, quality. That's the deal. But, uh, it'll, it'll get the job done.

Cariad Harmon: [00:19:59] Make sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, because sometimes we post a specific question like we did this week.

Jakob Lewis: [00:20:06] We'd like to give a special thank you to one of our new patrons, Laurel Dean. Thank you, Laurel, for joining the ranks of our thoughtful and generous patrons. Our community, which we call the neighborhood, like, it's the best. Like, we're so incredibly grateful for you. Like, we've been able to hire a social media manager because of the money you've given. So, like, thank you.

Cariad Harmon: [00:20:25] Yes. If you want to join the likes of the wonderful Laurel Dean, you can do so at patreon.com/neighbors You'll get an ad-free version of the show and access to a lot of behind-the-scenes  stuff as well.

Jakob Lewis: [00:20:38] And you'll support making the show.

Our Sonic logo is from Dallas Taylor and Defacto Sound. I highly recommend you check out his podcast about sound, famous sounds, the story behind sounds. It's called Twenty Thousand Hertz.

Cariad Harmon: [00:20:50] Neighbors is hosted and produced by me.

Jakob Lewis: [00:20:52] And me.

Cariad Harmon: [00:20:53] Music is from the Blue Dot Sessions.

Jakob Lewis: [00:20:55] This song is by Dan Burns.

I'm Jakob Lewis.

Cariad Harmon: [00:20:58] And I'm Cariad Harmon.

Jakob Lewis: [00:20:59] And we're reminding you to get to know your neighbors.

Good jam. Dan.