published Monday, July 25th, 2011

Cook: From barbed-wire words to hugs, the beauty of forgiveness

Diane Tinker spent two nights and three days praying trying to work out what to do with the pain in her heart. It was a Bible verse -- the one in which Jesus tells his friends to confront anyone who trespasses against them -- that made her pick up the phone and call the person who had hurt her so badly.

Me.

"Your column made me sick to my stomach," Tinker told me. "Reading it felt like I was being hit between the eyes."

Tinker owns Allure Beauty Salon, a five-chair shop tucked a few doors down from Baskin-Robbins on Highway 58. One of her best hairdressers is Rhonda Thurman, the District 1 representative on the Hamilton County Board of Education and source of much attention recently.

Like this column's.

"It shouldn't matter if Rhonda Thurman ... works in a pigpen," I wrote in a column two weeks ago. "Intelligence is not exclusive to those with doctorate degrees, and common sense is as blue collar as it is white. Sometimes more so."

As Chattanooga watched one school superintendent leave and another take his place, I wrote those sentences trying to usher us past the insults -- hairdressers aren't smart enough to serve on school boards -- and instead talk about deeper issues.

Yet it was that six-letter compound word -- pigpen -- that stung Tinker like barbed wire.

"It hit home," she said. "I come from the worst poverty. We lived in what felt like a pigpen. We could literally see the chickens scratching in the dirt under the floorboards."

Growing up in North Georgia with seven siblings, Tinker was betrayed by an alcoholic father yet anchored by her hard-working mother. Memories of those days still hang like moss in trees: biscuits thinner than the tines on a pitchfork, slaughtered hogs bleeding in the backyard, being so poor the only thing she owned was her name.

Yet shining above them all like a sun remained her mother's long-ago advice: You can choose to wallow with hogs, or get up and do something about it.

Tinker left the Georgia hills to live the American Dream: Entering college as a single mom, she worked hard enough to graduate early. As she mailed in her last student loan payment, she enclosed a picture of her brand-new business: Allure Beauty Salon.

Decades later, she has created that sacred space -- you find it near rocking chairs or front stoops, as old men play checkers, or perhaps in your grandmother's kitchen -- where people talk in honest ways, listen with gentle ears and pass around homemade breads that turn strangers into friends.

Despite 13-hour days and 40-mile one-way commutes, Tinker still finds time to be a grandmother, attend Woodlawn Baptist Church and can 70 quarts of green beans. Already. This season.

The last thing she ever wanted was for a columnist to insult her salon.

"My name means a lot to me," she said. "And it felt like you called my salon a pigpen."

Of course -- of course! -- that is not what I meant. But sometimes words -- misinterpreted or not -- fall like anvils from the sky, wounding worse than sticks or stones.

Hat in hand, I drove out to apologize to Tinker, and explain the meaning behind that pigpen sentence. And when I left that day, a wonderful thing happened: We hugged, and called each other friends.

That happened because Tinker confronted me with love. On the phone, she told me -- having to stop once because she was too choked up -- how I had hurt her, yet never was there a trace of malice or rudeness in her voice.

She could have yelled at me in an email, TELLING ME HOW STUPID I WAS. Or she could have posted something to Facebook. Lined the birdfeeder with Monday's Metro section. Or just have dogged my name for years at her salon.

But she didn't. A woman of equal parts grace and grit, Tinker approached me in a way that felt like a screen door being left open, inviting and easy for me to walk through.

Giving and receiving forgiveness feels like working in the garden. Good things grow, and something sweet and green is in the air. As I apologized, I felt something in me open and shut. Like flying and landing on the ground, all at once.

"I'm so happy I could cry," she said. "I feel like a 50,000-pound weight has been lifted from my chest."

Scientific studies show the health benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation. Tinker, who hung a cross on her salon wall next to her cosmetology license and most recent inspection score (she made a 100), credits Someone Else.

"Without God, I am nothing. Everything I have is because of God," she said.

Like I have been trying to say: Alluring wisdom can be found anywhere.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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