The Nature of Things

Straight from the Heart

The great fortune and mystery of meeting Jim

 

By Ashley Wahl

When Jim Dodson tells the story of how we met, I always get goosebumps.

In his version, he has just interviewed a stream of recent journalism grads for what would be his first editorial hire at PineStraw magazine, the elder sister of O.Henry, based in Southern Pines. Many asked him probing questions like, “What are your hours?” and, more frequently, “What’s the pay?” Each wielded a sizable list of his or her credentials and requirements.

And then, he says, I walked through the door.

Now, allow me to interject. This was 2009, eleven long years ago. I was 22 years old and knew as much about journalism as I knew about life, which is to say not much. And yet there was a burning inside of me — an inner knowing that writing was a part of my destiny, even if the path was unmarked. 

I had just graduated from UNCG, where having a couple of poems published in the undergraduate arts magazine, Coraddi, was the extent of my literary credentials. I was back in Southern Pines, living with my parents, befuddled, and wondering if I should go off to grad school to learn how to write.

Enter PineStraw, the local arts magazine that was suddenly the hottest thing in my hometown.

When I picked up my first copy, I could tell by the arresting cover that I had stumbled upon something extraordinary. And when I read editor Jim Dodson’s column, a vision of my future began to clarify.

Jim’s writing was, in a word, transcendent. Not only did it reveal his almost spiritual observance of the human experience, but it somehow celebrated all of the tender, sacred, beautiful, ordinary moments that remind us we aren’t alone, that maybe we aren’t so lost and that, perhaps, there is a larger mystery at play — a benevolent force ever guiding us along our journey.

Truth be told, I wasn’t in Jim’s office to land a job. I didn’t even know PineStraw was hiring. I was there because Jim’s words moved me to the core. I wanted to write like that — straight from the heart — and I wanted to hear his story.

So there I was, standing in Jim’s office, thinking I was interviewing him.

When Jim tells our story, he paints me in a way that feels almost mythic: a bright-eyed young poet as green as a shoot and open as the sky. It’s all very flattering, but here’s the point: Jim recognized something in me that can’t be taught. He saw a kindred spirit, a student of life and the cosmos with an old soul and a natural connection to the language of the heart. And while he speaks as eloquently as he writes — which is to say that his storytelling is like poetry — it’s the transcendental notion behind Jim’s words that continues to strike me with the kind of awe you might feel in the presence of a devotee in prayer. He spoke of a Hand of Providence and the great fortune and mystery of our intersecting paths.

Although I couldn’t yet see it, I was standing in the presence of my greatest mentor, the soulful visionary who would teach me everything I know about writing simply by giving me a chance.

I’d been working at PineStraw for over a year when talk of launching a magazine in Greensboro began to take shape. Jim was wild about Greensboro, often reeling into stories from his high school days at Grimsley and dreaming of some day moving back. I recall him sitting in his favorite club chair, sharing with me the inexplicable: how this magazine, like PineStraw, would come together each month. Of course, it would take great storytellers. Brilliant design. Support from local advertisers. But the element of surprise would be the golden key. When you allow space for miracles, he told me, “things usually have a way of working out far better than you could ever have imagined.”

Under Jim’s guidance, I moved back to Greensboro in 2011 to help launch O.Henry, an alternative to grad school and yet just down the road from UNCG. In 2013, I relocated to Wilmington, where we launched another sister magazine, Salt. And when I approached Jim in 2016 to tell him that my heart was guiding me to Asheville, he encouraged me to follow it. 

“I knew this day would come,” he said, smiling.

I promised him I’d write.

Jim and I stayed in touch over the course of the next four years, during which I began to understand and trust the grand, mysterious unfolding of life on a deeper level.

Last summer, in the midst of this global pandemic, I found myself wondering what was next, where the unseen path might lead me from Asheville. And then I got a call from David Woronoff, O.Henry’s publisher. Jim Dodson was ready to step into semi-retirement, he told me. He’d still write his monthly column and contribute his soulful visions to the magazine, but Jim was ready to pass the editor’s torch — to me if I was ready. 

It was a plot twist I hadn’t seen coming, and yet, to paraphrase an old friend, sometimes life has a way of working out better than you could have imagined.

I phoned Jim and told him the good news.

“I knew this day would come,” he confessed from his garden in Starmount. I could almost feel his blue eyes gleaming through the phone as he talked about O.Henry, our intersecting paths and his own future — the books he wants to write and where his heart and the unseen path were leading him next.

I couldn’t be happier to return to Greensboro’s beloved O.Henry, which continues to sparkle with the kinds of stories that celebrate this sacred, beautiful life and, thankfully, will still have Jim Dodson’s signature all over it. 

And I couldn’t be happier for Jim. Thanks for believing in me, dear friend. Thanks for sharing your soulful visions with this magazine. And on behalf of our readers, thanks for continuing to write.   OH

Contact editor Ashley Wahl at awahl@ohenrymag.com

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