"Pay It Forward" Knoxville-Style

"Pay it forward" does not mean that the people who owe you will ever pay you back. It means when the tables turn in your life, your pay back may come from all sorts of different places, people, and circumstances you least expect. Furthermore, we cannot selflessly give while expecting something in return. Having been on the "paying" end most of my life, I thought I understood what "pay it forward" meant, until I found myself on the receiving end this last year. This is where my understanding of "pay it forward" began.

In the fall of 2008, I left Knoxville for a temporary blacksmithing job in Mountain City to escape some unpleasant circumstances in my life in Knoxville. Unable to get out of my lease, I filled my house up with roommates and left for the mountains. Though it was a temporary fix, I needed time to regroup, grieve, and plan a new path towards my dreams.

To begin my journey in the mountains, I bartered a free place to stay in exchange for hand crafting a metal railing for a woman's home. This was no small trade. My main obstacle was finding time and space to create 12 plus feet of decorative railing. Thanks to extraordinary blacksmiths Daniel Miller, John Winer, and Charleston Forge Furniture Company, I was allowed the use of their shops to produce this work of art. With the help of their hands, expertise, facilities, and moral support, they began the process of "paying it forward" to me.

While I was there, I stood on a mountain top next to a billy goat named Gloria and watched the sun set. I felt a deep sense of trust that the universe would guide my path and provide for me. I gave gratitude to God for a feeling of autonomy, realizing everything I was going through was temporary and eventually things would work out, even this hand crafted railing.

Upon successfully installing the railing in Sandy Cranford's home, I was ready to move back to Knoxville and pick up the slack where I left off. Sandy told me before I left, "it's easy to stand alone on top of a mountain and feel autonomous, but it's difficult to maintain that sense of autonomy amongst many in the valley." She was trying to warn me that things would get harder once I returned home to Knoxville. Thank you Sandy for your time, space, grace, and wisdom.

Since I had been in the mountains without cell service or access to news, I wasn't aware of the country's economic collapse, Knoxville included. Nor was I prepared for the number of financial fires I would have to extinguish upon my return to the city.

Tennessee Technical Center called to inform me I had been accepted into welding school. Though unsure of how I would pay for school, I jumped on the opportunity. The Knoxville Career Center awarded me the Empowerment Zone Grant and the Tennessee Lottery paid my tuition, books, and put gas in my car. It was like money had fallen out of the sky and my prayer to God and trust in the universe was coming true. Thank you Michelle Love, my case worker, and the Knoxville Career Center for your assistance in getting me through school.

I still needed money for rent and food. I did not qualify for food stamps because I didn't have a job!Now you tell me how backwards that is?I went door to door looking for work, but there was no work to be found.

During that dry spell, I swept floors for John McGillivray at Ironwood Studios, painted houses, sold my furniture, tools, just to keep petty cash in my pocket. My father paid my cell phone bill so that I could be reached and continue looking for a job. My mother and aunt sent a small amount of cash monthly, which was more than helpful, but not enough to pay rent and eat. Thank you Mom, Dad, and Aunt Sue.

Soon my roommates and I were evicted from our home because we couldn't come up with rent. One by one, I went back to all the people to whom I'd loaned money, but none could pay me back. Soon I became resentful towards all the people I had "paid it forward" to in the past. I did not understand why they couldn't come up with a little dough to help me through my current situation. For crying out loud, I was trying to better myself by going to school and put my life together!

And then to top it off my house was robbed. I discovered this shortly after a near death experience on the Clinch River where my friend Kristina Kirkland saved me from drowning and hypothermia. Bitter sweet, but I was thankful for my life, and the experience helped put things into perspective. Thank you Kristina for saving my life!

It seemed like my situation was continuing to take a turn for the worst. Although grateful to be living, I wasn't sure if I could stay in school because I was so broke many of my belongings had been sold or stolen. I began to lose sight of my trust in the universe, that sense of autonomy I felt on the mountain top in East Tennessee. My ability to make sound decisions was blurring and anxiety was growing upon losing my home, and nearly losing my life.

I began putting feelers out to all my friends that I needed a job and a home. People started coming out of the woodworks to assist me. Friends I never imagined offered me odd jobs or a place to stay. Friends cooked for me, bought me beers at the pub, and helped distract me from the pains of my situation. Someone even picked up the tab for my health insurance premiums unbeknown to me. Thank you to all those people.

In the midst of all this chaos, I pulled together two art shows that couldn't have been successful without the help of friends, Burning Arts Studio, Ironwood Studios, Aspyre Metals, McGillivray Woodworks, Augusta Lawn & Turf, Southland Books, Edible Revolutions, LOX Salon, the Knoxville News Sentinel, and many more. I was beginning to turn something ugly in my life into something beautiful. Yet another important piece of advice someone gave me. Thank you Olivier Odom.

Gifts began to appear in abundance. Someone sent me a laptop. I discovered Angel Food Ministries. Clothing came, checks came from old hospital bills I'd over paid, a construction worker left ten bucks on my windshield, Mrs. Rigsby at Tenn. Tech gave me twenty bucks to buy some food, I swept floors for cash, etc, etc… The list goes on and on, until finally I landed a part time job at Veg-o-Rama thanks to Laura Purvis and the successful opening of her restaurant.

Steve Linn, my instructor at Tennessee Technical Center, went beyond the call of duty to be sure I didn't fall on my face or drop out of school.Dr. Natalie at Gypsy Hands worked with me on a sliding scale to fix a minor neck injury that was preventing me from welding. There were so many gifts that fell from the universe; I was overwhelmed with all the help I received. It seemed like every time I ran out of something, it was provided. I realized it would be impossible to write thank you notes to every single person who encouraged my success by "paying it forward" throughout the last year and a half of my journey. Thank you Steve and Natalie.

Now how could I continue to be resentful of the people who owed me when all these gifts appeared exactly when I needed them? My parents taught me at a very young age to"pay it forward" by helping others because I can. Someone once identified this as a character flaw by saying I only give to others to feel better about myself. I had to examine whether or not that was true, and consider the source. Since I have not been able to pay it forward to my friends and family this year, that theory has been tested. My conclusion is, of course helping other people helps us feel good about ourselves, but that doesn't mean it's the motivating factor. I believe most people do it because they can, and feeling good about helping others is part of the reward of "paying it forward." Who wouldn't want to feel good about helping someone?

More importantly, going back to the concept of "pay it forward;" it is true that I genuinely thought I fully understood the concept. However, I didn't fully understand what it meant to "pay it forward" until I was on the receiving side. Most of my life I have been on the giving side and even wondered if the tables were turned whether or not someone would be there for me.I finally get it now; "pay it forward" does not mean that the people who owe you will ever pay you back. It means that other people will "pay it forward" to you when you need it most. It reminds me of that Rolling Stones song "you can't always get what you want but you get what you need." Such faith was restored in humanity and forgiveness became much easier.

Recently, I attended the Tabernacle Gospel Church on King Jr. Drive. My soul was thirsty for inspiration, forgiveness, and gratitude. The preacher said not to worry about how strong your faith is. He said you just have to "Go" and do the things you believe you should do. God will take care of the rest. This motivational speech along with some incredible gospel music encouraged me to write this letter that I have been on the fence about writing for some time. This is a letter about "paying it forward" and I hope someone will benefit from the lesson I have learned. I will not forget the acts of kindness the universe has provided me through the help of many friends. Did I mention I graduated after moving seven times in one year? Thank you universe and thank you God.

Heather Hutton