I have not looked at “Boys’s Life” magazine since I was a Cub Scout many decades ago. But waiting at the dentist’s office, I glanced at the rack of magazines by the couch and saw the cover article on the current issue of “Boy’s Life”, “How to Be Prepared for a Last Minute Change in Weather.”
Always in search of an apt metaphor and advice to help me navigate my way into my own change of plans, I picked up the magazine.
All year long the Scouts had been looking forward to a trip to go winter camping in Montana. Alas, they never made it. Instead, a record breaking snowfall the day before they were to leave made the roads impassable and they had to cancel that trip. While they could have unpacked their bags of gear, put away their tents, axes, shovels and dreams. Instead they kept the car packed and headed off in a different direction for a wonderful weekend camping trip in the snow – and only an hour away.
Today as I head out, I am inspired by these Scouts. Keep all that you have prepared for the journey you didn’t take. Don’t unpack all that you had spent such time putting together, most especially your dreams. Take a look at the map and head off in that other direction and see what you discover. Perhaps like the Scouts, you too will find what you were looking for a lot closer to home.
“The rejection and disappointment are critical training modules for you…Embrace it. Take detailed notes on the cycles of emotion, the kinds of stories you tell yourself, how you are reacting to others ‘kind words’, openness (or not) to other ideas and connections, how you are diminishing yourself, etc. Bottom line: get curious!”
And so in these Advent days I’ve been trying to follow my coach’s invitation.
I’ve watched how grief comes in waves. I see how much I really do want the grief to be over on a day like Saturday, for example. I see how elated I am when on Sunday I feel better and I believe the sadness is gone for good and I am moving on…..only to wake early Monday morning in a familiar cold dread.
I’ve noticed how just the other day I again was convinced that I was done with the grief and wondered where it had gone hiding….until I received a simple note from a friend,
“Grief is about what we hoped would be. Often when we loose a relationship, we are grieving more for the future which will not come, our hopes, dreams and aspirations than the aspects of the relationship which have already passed into memory.”
Something about that naming of “the loss of a future which will not come” opens me again to the wellspring of grief.
I’ve watched my familiar pattern of dealing with grief by getting stuck in the endless loop of seeking to change the past. Fidgeting in my mind with the possibilities of what might have happened if only I had said this, asked this, showed this. Fussing with myself if only I had been a different person, learned some other skills.
I’ve watched myself step back a little bit from the exhaustion of this “fix-it” mode, this fussing to change what cannot be changed. I have recognized that I do this to try to control what I can’t control and to distract me from what is real – this not-knowing, this grief, this fear.
I know that I have a deeper understanding of what it might be like for those who have faced a lifetime of “not this” in rejections, refusals, closed doors. I have a deeper empathy for how it wears a soul down, can so easily lead to feeling helpless and hopeless.
I have watched myself get mired in this place and I have wondered at noticing how I have responded in other ways as well.
On the day I received the news of “not this”, I wrote a list of all the things I imagined finding in a place like this – all the things I longed and hoped for. All the things that I wanted. I realized I had a clearer sense of my call. I wrote up and sent out that day the news of “not this” along with the list of what I had discovered and longed for. I realized it was helpful to me to share this news right away and not sit on it. I realized it was helpful to put myself out there to trusted friends and share what I wanted and longed to find.
I was rather awed to see how I responded to my grief not by my familiar pattern of isolating myself (as much as I sometimes wanted to do that – as if the word of “not this” and grief is something to be ashamed of and needs to be hidden) and reached out to connect instead. I was gifted with not only empathy for not getting the position I hoped for but encouragement and reflections on what I shared about what I know more clearly I want and am called to do.
Throughout this journey this year I have returned to finding and remembering the “verb” to guide my days. If my verb is “looking for a job” or “losing my way” that calls for certain kinds of actions. Instead, my guiding verb this season has been “discover” which recalls me to that text from my coach reminding me that this season, this day is a time for such discovery. Now is the time to get curious, take notes, watch. In other words, to be in this Advent season – to keep at the walk of discovering because of the anticipation that there really is something here and now and out there to be discovered.
For sure, I prefer the image of “discovery” that’s about coming up over a hard rocky climb and the mountain peak opening in a beautiful sunrise before me. Or the sea tossed sailing ship that spots the sunny island ahead. And this internal journey of witnessing a much more turbulent emotional journey with no clear end in sight is part of this walk of discovery as well.
For here’s the thing – When I am out there in “discovery” I find that I am discovered as well. I am seen, I am found and met by nod and a smile, an encouraging word, a call or a text, a full moon in a dark sky this early morning, a sunrise over the lake on this clear cold day. This day of discovery. This Advent.
The last two months since I have written have been wrapped up in a lot of fuss and fury. Learning about a job…writing the application…submitting the application…waiting to hear….a phone interview….waiting to hear….an invitation for an in-person interview….a marathon interview….waiting to hear….waiting to hear….and not wanting to hear that alas, the job did not come through.
A month of sleepless nights and restless imagining of what if…if only…. As a friend wrote, “When you hear about an opportunity like this you have to jump all in. Imagine that new life, the transitions, change, possibilities.” All the imagination that leads to a swirl of excitement and anxiety – and those sleepless nights.
And in the waiting, the in-between and not knowing of a process of possibility like this, all the stories. The endless stories to fill in the not-knowing. What they must be thinking or not thinking…..Why they will call and why they have not….All the stories after being told “no, not this.” If only I had done this… said this…been this… anything other than who I am….
And so my sailing Adventure this year has turned to an “ADVENTure”. An Advent season of dislocation and waiting. A season of waves of fear and anxiety in this time of not-knowing.
At the heart of my job search was a longing for a story. A longing for a story that would be a capstone to this year of dislocation and discovery. A story that made “sense” and a fitting completion to the story of this year. A story I’d be proud to share and others would celebrate.
But the story of my life this Advent is not that story.
Neither does the story of the walk to Christmas go as expected and planned, not as we thought it “should” have gone.
Instead the story of the journey to Bethlehem is a story born from dislocation and fear. A story of a struggle to find home a long way from home. A story that the way God comes is not the way we expect or believe God “should.
As with the characters in the Bible story, this Advent can both thrust me and you into fear and open us to wonder.
What I already know is that the story promises only this: If we are open to being in this season of dislocation and things not being as they “should”, if we really stay open to what this season is offering us, what this coming of God looks like, we too will be surprised and forever changed.
Last week I had a chance to say thank you one more time for a conversation and an invitation that led to my summer-turning-to-fall-trip-of-discovery.
It was back in February when one drizzly Seattle afternoon I called Aram to introduce myself and talk with him about my passion for sailing as a practice and metaphor to reflect on the work of transition. During that phone call Aram invited me to join himself and his Dad and John Lionberger, the founder of the non-profit Aram now runs, Renewal in the Wilderness, for a three day canoe trip on the Wisconsin River.
I’d never heard of the Wisconsin River.
I didn’t have a clue how in the world I’d get there in the middle of June.
But there was something about Aram’s invitation that made me say yes.
Maybe it was talking to a friend that week who had told me he and his wife were practicing saying Yes to invitations that year.
Maybe it was something about the outrageousness of a canoe trip with people I didn’t know in a place I’d never heard of.
Maybe because it just felt right.
Whatever the reason, I waded into the river that day in February and said YES to Aram’s invitation.
I could never have anticipated that saying YES to a canoe trip would become the first of a series of connections that led to the beginning itinerary of my summer adventure.
Aram put me in touch with Abby Lynn Haskell who with her husband Bob leads BroadReach Ministries in Biddeford, Maine. AbbyLynn not only invited me to lead two sailing retreats with them this summer but also referred me to the Pilgrim Lodge camp where I served as the co-sailing instructor for Camp Pride.
And yes, it was AbbyLynn and Bob who this month gifted me with a place to stay for two weeks of October this month.
Aram’s work with Renewal in the Wilderness is rooted in a mission to “guide wilderness encounters that cultivate and sustain cultures of compassion.”
I had the privilege of going on an amazing canoe trip with Aram, John and Larry that did just that.
And months before that, a phone call invitation that got me out onto the river and into a discovery. So many rivers I’ve had the chance to encounter this summer.
Today, a pause, a thank you, to Aram, to invitation, to the wonder and grace of just what can happen when we say YES to the river.
It’s the first time on my fall adventure that I’ve had to scrape off an icy windshield. It was almost as cold last night as the familiar icy panic that gripped me in the middle of the night – 2:21 a.m. to be exact – when I reached over and flicked on the light. I’d been awake for a while by then sunk in a cold pit of self-doubt that all my thinking and solving, my breathing and frustration could not shake off. A wordless sinking despair. Will anything come of this journey? Am I going to make it? Am I going to be alright?
In the middle of the night, awakened by the “gremlins”, the answer is a most resounding “no” and “you are delusional to think you will!”
The next morning I mentioned my struggles with the middle of the night gremlins to Janis, the yoga teacher at the Y.
She smiled, “Spiritual leaders have have those too?”
She reminded me that there is something in our psyche that just isn’t done with that old argument from years or decades ago. Some part of our “fix-it” brain that wants to pick at the wound one more time, the regrets, the mistakes, still seeking to “make sense of it all.”
Elizabeth, my host in Winthrop on this frosty Wednesday morning, knew all about them too. She had her own technique to “deal” with the gremlins – to embrace them. To reach out and pull them close and hold them. Instead of doing all I do to try to think or solve, wiggle out of the way of them, to reach out and grab hold of the ice cold gremlin of fear and watch it melt.
Against everything that continued to want to run or hide, I tried last night to reach out and hold my middle of the night fear. And as I breathed and continued to hold the gremlin of fear, I could feel it melting. On the other side this clarity. I do know what I’m doing. I am clear about my call. I am doing this.
It’s like sitting here and writing this morning, the verbs changing from what the gremlins say I “will never do” or “can’t do” but the reminder that I “am” doing this. I am not just thinking about it but doing it. I am.
Perhaps the gremlins are that part of ourselves that wants to keep everything the same, that part of us that is scared to death of this new life we are living. It’s not bad to be afraid. It’s just not what we need to keep moving forward.
So maybe tonight an experiment. When the gremlins appear, reach out and embrace the fear, the confusion, the anxiety or anger. Don’t turn away but bring your love and attention to it and watch it melt.
Last week I took my cousin and his wife to see Stephen Jenkinson’s “performance” here in Portland, Maine called “Nights of Grief and Mystery.” I warned them that it would be a really out-of-the box kind of experience and that they might not like it at all. However, I also know that there is something about what Jenkinson is about that’s been shaping and provocative for me. In fact, just last week, someone suggested I read him because of my own interest in marking endings.
I read both of Jenkinson’s books or at least most of the second Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble before I got lost in his run on sentences and the incomprehensibility that is part of his writing. I stood in line after the performance in which Jenkinson read stories of his experiences working with others in the “death trade” as a palliative care social worker interspersed with dark, loud, odd and beautiful music.
I didn’t have a book for him to sign or a need for him to do so. Instead, I just wanted to kneel down as I did before his little card table in the dark, cavernous sanctuary of what had once been a Catholic Church, put out my hand and say “thank you.”
I told him I am grateful for what he is about. I told him I gave twenty copies of his book Die Wise away to people at my former church most of whom never finished it. That wasn’t the point I said, but that it provoked us to talk more openly and directly about death. Because of that book I started a men’s group for men who were terminally ill. That’s what Jenkinson does – provoke. Questions all the assumptions and phrases we use to talk about the process of dying and open it up to something that is much more uncontainable, incomprehensible, mysterious as dying is, as life is. Instead of focusing on “going into the light” or other ways we might choose to talk about dying, Stephen blows out the candle and has us look starkly into the dark, the grief, the pain, the agony, truth and yes beauty of it that we are mortal and it somehow makes life all the more precious and worth living because we are.
All week long here along the Saco River the great tree on the bank has been shedding its golden leaves across the lawn. On the left branch of the tree the remaining leaves now a rusty brown, tanned leather. The branch on the right now completely stripped of leaves. I have loved the fall colors these past weeks, the brilliant red, gold and orange. And today loving the bare limbed branches as well. That part of me wanting and not wanting to be stripped bare to what is essential, to what is revealed when the covers are thrown back, to this mysterious darkness descending into winter.
Yesterday, here in Portland, Maine, I ran a road race.
Although my long runs preparing for this race had often been exhausting, yesterdays was different. I learned again how much easier it is to run a race together.
Every mile or two someone is standing with a smile and an outstretched hand with a cup of gatorade or water.
Families at the end of their driveways ring cowbells and cheer you on. Others blast fun, bopping music to keep you swinging your arms down the road.
Especially, there are those other runners, plodding beside you, keeping you going when you might have well stopped if you were on your own.
And there at the end of the race, leaning over as a medal is passed over your head. That little weight and tug at your neck showing that you have accomplished something you didn’t know that you had in you before. You kept at it. You kept on going when everything in you wanted to stop.
All those those dark and lonely early morning miles plodding down yet another road alone. It all amounted to something. You did this thing you never thought you could do. So YES! and thanks be for the slice of hot pizza and sports massage. YES! to the bagel, banana and box of raisins. You need to recover, you need to rest to prepare for the next race before you.
Last night I hobbled off to sit with the Peaceful Harbor Sangha at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in downtown Portland. Last night they read Thich Nhat Hahn’s “Five Mindfulness Trainings”, his rendition of the five Buddhist precepts for living an ethical life. The long lists can sound like an impossible proscription of should’s, do’s and don’ts about the necessity of compassionate listening, open hearted generosity, loving speech and a commitment not to zone out or numb out when the going gets rough. At least that was my take.
But it wasn’t the experience of the woman across the circle from me who shared that this time hearing the Trainings, she understood that they were her – that they expressed what she believed and how she was committed to live. The difference was that she had been sitting here with this group on folding chairs in a cavernous dark sanctuary on each Sunday night for the past year, practicing together, holding each other to this present, heart-opening way together.
Having a community of fellow practitioners be it in the heat at the road race or in a church sanctuary in a circle of chairs, makes a difference.
It’s not you alone, its us supporting each other, doing this impossible thing together.
Sure, you still need to put one foot in front of the other. You need to come back to finding compassion for yourself when yet one more time you have put your foot or mouth in a puddle of missteps. But its a community stumbling, supporting each other that helps you find your way there.
After the race, I stood in line with a college Junior who had run his first half marathon. He was having a hard time at the start of the semester, worried he might not make it through. I asked him what it takes to succeed in school. He said two things, organization and a willingness to ask for help.
There’s the wisdom – to make it through the race we have set before ourselves this day or this life, we are helped by having a structure, a form, a boat as it were to take you to where you want to go – and a willingness to admit that we all need others to help get us there – and yes, its easier when we do.
In my work of running alongside those going through times of deep challenge and change, I am struck by how often we want to find and figure out our own way through. How hard it is to say, I could use some help. It’s hard for me too.
But today, I’m committed to asking a few people for their support as I step into my next challenge on the road ahead.
Running together, I learned again yesterday, is so much better.
It’s half way through my “planned” summer of discovery – Two months in and a week here in Columbus, Ohio to catch up including writing some scenes of the summer to share. May 22 – July 24, 2019
3 am, State Park outside Salt Lake City…It’s my second night out after leaving Seattle. Steady rain. I love the sound of rain on the tent…..5 am – I roll over and see the lake formed at the side of my tent, and my phone floating. What most surprises me is how I respond. Not mad, not beating up on myself for not setting up the tent properly or wrapping my phone in a plastic bag or despairing but instead just curious – how do you find a phone store without a phone?
8 am, Trainer Hill, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York….The small group of us lined up on the grass half way up the ski hill for the Colgate Alumni 5k Fun Run. The Track and Field Director jokes that we could set our PR if we would like to. I think, why not? As we round the bend into the woods, I’m surprised that I’m in the lead when the white golf cart pulls out in front to guide our way through the cross country trails up and down the slope through the trees. So instead of slowing down half way through, I keep up, steadily following my own pace car up curving through the trails, rounding the bend into the open field, keeping going – I can’t believe I’m still in the lead – I could actually win this I think – and across the finish line. My first and only athletic achievement at the “jock school” I attended.
Mid-Afternoon, Somewhere along the Wisconsin River…. A hard few hours of paddling a relentless headwind, white capped waves. Finally, around the bend, at last a sandbar where we can camp tonight. The four of us sitting on sand in our camp chairs, a cold beer in hand, facing north, into the wind. Broken white turtle shells curled in the hot sand. Our tents lined in a row filled with air and tossing in the wind like great green and red balloons. There is nothing else to do, no where else to go, no better place to be.
Noon, Ithaca, New York, DeWitt Mall…..a small white table in the brick lined lower level of the former school, around the corner from the Moosewood Restaurant. We haven’t seen each other in thirty years. Before we leave, I tell him that there is one thing I wanted to ask about.
“I remember you saying….”
“Really? That doesn’t sound like anything I would ever say, does it? It does however sound like something you were thinking.”
I am reminded again that the memories I hold are all a good deal of fiction – a mixture of what “really” happened and what I have always believed did.
We both laugh.
Mid-afternoon, the Belgian Diner, on the way to Door County, Wisconsin….. At last a place to stop for a snack that’s not a fast food joint. We pull off the highway into the gravel parking lot. My sister Nancy and I are sitting at the lime green bar stools at the counter looking over the one page plastic sheet menu.
“What’s cheese curds?” I ask.
“You’ve never heard of cheese curds?” the waitress, a rising high school senior, replies. “You have to try them.”
“Do we want them with BBQ or Ranch Dipping sauce?” Nancy asks.
“If this is your first time, I’d start with plain.”
The waitress, her grandmother (the cook), her brother sitting beside us on a neighboring stool lean in to watch as we take our first bite of the hot crispy oh so delicious melt in your mouth Wisconsin cheese curds.
Late morning, the Exhibit Hall at the Milwaukee Conference Center, last morning of General Synod, the national United Church of Christ gathering….. I’m standing behind my little table wearing my Center for Wooden Boats ball cap, the table covered with paper sailboats holding my business cards, the last of my sailboat cookies my friend Sheila made. It’s been a fun and exhausting week – so many people I’ve talked to, connections I’ve made. A person who looks vaguely familiar comes by the table and I launch into my spiel about what “Navigating Through Change” is all about –
He interrupts me, “Peter, it’s John. I’ve already heard all this. We had dinner together a week and a half ago. I didn’t know how long to wait for you to go on before stopping to tell you!”
We both laugh!
Mid-morning, sitting at the outdoor little table at the coffee shop, Lawrence Kansas….
“I can’t believe you’re camping – it’s so hot!”
“Yes, it is,” I admit, “But sometime around 2am it finally cools off – and to hear the coyotes in the middle of the night – or the owls talking back and forth to each other, it makes it all worth it.”
Noon, Little Rock, Arkansas, Central High School. National Park Ranger Tour…. The park ranger stands by the reflecting pool outside the grand entrance to the biggest, most expensive high school built at the time. He walks us down the street and through the story – where the 9 African American students gathered – and where the 10th, Elizabeth, got off the bus. She’d come to school that day alone – didn’t receive the phone call about where to meet up with the other students. Turned away again and again by the angry crowds, the National Guard…here where the picture was taken of her, head bowed, a young girl screaming at her….Elizabeth headed down the street, the pharmacy that locked the door on her, the bench where she sat for half an hour waiting for the bus surrounded by screams and taunts. The journalist who sat beside her, told her not to let them see her cry.
And the park ranger tells us the story from earlier this year about taking a mom and her daughter through the school on a tour and finding the mom huddled on the bathroom floor sobbing. “I didn’t want to come here – I didn’t want to come here at all,” she said. “I was a student here in 1957. I watched while others like me attacked the Little Rock 9 all year at school. I was right here when they pulled this girl out of the stall, pulled her dress up over her head, hit her and threw her into the hallway. I watched. Did nothing. I am so ashamed of what I did not do.”
“Never doubt that one moment can’t change your life,” the ranger reminded us. “If you look for an excuse not to act you’ll always find one.”
He points up at the four statues above the entrance to the school, to the third one, ‘Opportunity.’ “I hope you leave today with a better understanding of yourself and your opportunity. Take that word home with you. The speed and trajectory of change depends on people like us. We need more people willing to speak up, show up. Less people who hold back, keep silent.”
Afterwards, I ask him, “I am doing this civil rights pilgrimage – any thoughts….”
“Go with an open mind and no agenda. Listen, ask questions. Sit at the feet of people who have been there. Find a way to share with someone what you experienced.”
Later that afternoon, Little Rock, Arkansas, Mosaic Templars… Outside the brick building a marker noting that the African American History Museum here is built at the intersection where in 1927 an African American man was hung, shot 200 times, his body burned. People fought over the bones…. Inside, Theo stands by the picture of his grandfather, J.C. Knox – he and eleven other African American men were arrested following the Elaine Massacre. Though the exact number will never be known, hundreds of African American sharecroppers were killed for meeting to talk about organizing together for better working conditions. I locate Helena, Arkansas and the Elaine Massacre site on my google map. I’ll drive down that way this evening.
Evening, the Mississippi Delta….The foothills of the Ozark’s flatten out into the Mississippi Delta. Vast flatness – flatter than most anyplace I’ve been all this trip. And such humidity. I know there were plantations here, some of the biggest in the South here along the Mississippi. It seems a land built for slavery – the necessity of needing vast quantities of enslaved labor to cultivate this land and in such an inhospitable climate on summer days like this. Windows down for a few minutes to let in the hot, humid air but it is way too hot and I roll up the windows again, flip on the AC. I think of what it might have felt to look out over this land as the slave master and the power to wield at whim over other’s lives – your every mood, command, wish – to be able to do whatever you wanted to do with whomever you pleased. This too is me. Think now on the enslaved man. Such despair, hopelessness of escape of getting out of any of this. An inability to imagine anything beyond the flat exposure of this land. How could there be anything else? The despair, the hopelessness of seeing, imagining anything different. This too is me. Last month I learned that Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin that made cotton plantations so able to boom, is one of my relatives.
The middle of the night, Crown Plaza Hotel, West Helena, Arkansas…. too hot to camp and the campsite just off the side of the road with no one there. I’ll go for a hotel tonight I think. It’s been six nights of camping. An Indian mom with a child crying in the bedroom behind her. I push my credit card, ID through the slot at the bottom of the bullet proof glass. Awake now in the middle of the night – itch, scratch, look out behind the heavy red curtains to check on my car – has it been broken into? Banging on the wall behind me. Loud music. Check myself in the mirror. No bug bites. Throw back the white and purple polyester coverlet cigarette burns underneath. I have no idea where I am or if this is safe. Is it? I have no idea. I google the name of the town. The average salary – $19,000 compared to $23,00 statewide. 68% African American. Am I afraid because the people are poor or because they are Black or because I don’t belong here? Wonder if I’ll ever sleep. Do. In the morning see my night fears as just that. The room is better than I thought, families, young kids staying here as well. I want to be more than my small minded fears that taught me to hate and make excuses for horrific behavior and not know what to do with my prejudice so that I deny it – all that makes me less than I am. Reminded of the National Park ranger who called us to be more than that.
Noon, Sumner, Mississippi, sitting on the stoop of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center….. The small town square deserted, mine the only car here. An occasional passing pick up truck. Across from the county courthouse where Till’s killers were acquitted – later admitting in magazine interview that they killed him and dumped his 14 year old body wrapped in barbed wire around a rusted fan into the river. “We had to kill him,” his murderers said, “He never looked afraid.” A confederate statue to the Brave Heroes next to the flag pole – an American flag on top, Mississippi state flag below – with the confederate flag in the corner where the blue stars are on the American flag. Inside the center behind me, leaning against the wall, a bullet ridden sign marking the place where Till’s body was discovered.
“Some writers have suggested that almost every story about Mississippi returns to Till or the Delta region in which he died in some spiritual, homing way.” 51 sites in the Mississippi Delta are memorialized for their associations with Till.
Late Morning, Security Gate, Tougaloo College, Jackson Mississippi….
The security guard, pad in had, a puzzled expression, comes up to my car.
“I wanted to see if I could get in.”
“I wanted to see if I could see the chapel. I was told that it is pretty.”
The security guard looks puzzled, “It is…You want to see the chapel? It’s up on the right, you can’t miss it.”
The gate lifts.
The chapel doors locked so I go to find the Administration building. I meet Joel, a young man on the Admissions Staff who tells me all about this amazing place. He’s on his way out to a meeting, an armful of red notebooks and a bag of pens, but he talks with me on the sidewalk for half an hour about the historical Black college built on the grounds of a former plantation. The beautiful trees dripping with Spanish moss. “You know some of these trees were here back then. You know that bodies have hung from some of them…..It all happened here – ground zero for the civil rights movement in Jackson. They’ve all been there in that chapel – the leaders of the civil rights movement – King, Abernathy… Robert Kennedy came to speak here too… It’s the closest you can get to where the leaders sat. If this doesn’t give you a sense of purpose, nothing will.”
Sitting in the dark chapel, feeling that peace Joel spoke of. “Purify me of all that prevents me from doing my part.”
Sitting on the steps of the former plantation house looking out over the campus, the security guard drives by, smiles, puts down her car window, “Did you find what you were looking for?
Medgar Evers house, Jackson Mississippi… When Evers had the house built he put in no front door so that you would have to get out in the car port right by the door where it would be safer, a flat roof that wouldn’t catch on fire, high windows in the children’s room and their mattresses on the floor. Evers was shot has he closed the car trunk with an arm load of “Jim Crow Must Go!”tee shirts. The bullet that killed him came through the house – here in the wall, bounced off the refrigerator propped against the back door and rolled onto the counter. The ambulance never came and he had to be driven to the hospital where there was no blood available for a transfusion – no mixing of “colored” with “white” blood. One white doctor at the segregated hospital said, “I will work on him.” 32 years later his murderer was found guilty. “You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea,” our guide tells us.
“This is what King spoke of,” the young Black man says, motioning to our small diverse crowd gathered in Ever’s living room. “All of us here for the same purpose. United.”
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Jackson, Mississippi…..
“I was told Milwaukee is the most segregated city.”
“I don’t think so. I think Boston is. I’ve been stared at there more than any other place I’ve been and called the N word. The only place where I’ve been told to stay out of these areas at night because I won’t be safe.”
“That’s where I’m from.”
Late the next afternoon I drive back to Tougaloo to thank Joel. He’s getting out of his car as I pull in, his two young sons with their paper bags of fast food for dinner. Joel showed me yesterday a video of his son reciting King’s words as he stood in the chancel at Dexter Avenue church in Montgomery. Told me how earlier that day he had looked up at him in Selma, the picture of the police dogs attacking people falling at the bridge. “Why are they doing that Daddy?” His other son tells me about his experience at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, “I liked the church best. I didn’t like the gun shots.” “Me too.”
6pm, Natchez Trace Bike Trail…..
“Watch out here there’s a big bump here – and a huge one coming up!” 8 year old Henry speeds ahead of me blond hair sticking out the sides of his helmet, bumping along the trail he knows by heart. Chattering away all the way down the trail and back. We pause to get our picture taken to show his folks how far we road. The next evening we bike down the grassy hill to the shore of the reservoir. Look for signs of turtle tracks in the sand.
Afternoon, Peace and Justice Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama….. The green field in the courtyard, surrounded by great cylinders hanging from the roof of the open-air building, the names of African Americans inscribed on them who had been lynched. How many of these small towns, cities I have passed by – Lawrence, St. Louis, Little Rock, Memphis, Elaine…. How many of those like me who have stood in the field and watched, witnessed what has happened and done nothing or cheered the violence on? We hear that you can’t really move forward until you know and claim your history. What do I need to mark and remember here? What moves me to justice?
Montgomery, Alabama…… Banner outside the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Someday the South will recognize who its real heroes are.” Just down the street the state capitol, monuments to Jefferson Davis, doctors, confederate soldiers.
10:30pm, a grassy field sloping down the to the base of Stone Mountain, Georgia….the bare rock with the world’s largest bas relief of three confederate soldiers lit in white lights. Red, blue, green, yellow laser lights from the world’s largest laser show strafe the rock face – become Confederate soldiers springing to life. The Star Spangled Banner morphs into God Bless America and fireworks explode above us.
Druther’s Diner, Campbellsville, Kentucky. A short line to order breakfast – sausage and biscuit, biscuit and gravy, breakfast plate (eggs and bacon, biscuit, hash browns). White men in ball caps at small plastic tables, booths. Windows dripping with humidity. A few African American men come in to order, eat outside at the back of their pick ups. Everyone knows “their place.” What’s mine? Before heading out to the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived, I read about his work on civil rights.
“James Baldwin decried the interference of white liberals – incredible, abysmal, and really cowardly obtuseness. The Harlem native knew that white liberals lacked any perception of black person’s lives. They could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man. Merton gravitated to Baldwin’s affirmation, concurred that whites also needed liberation but we were clueless when we came to realizing it.”
“It makes a world of difference that you came.”
“It makes a world of difference that I did.”
“Where do you live?”
“I should say I live in my car although I have yet to spend a night sleeping in it!”
“What’ a _?” In this case a “Runza” that I’ve been told is a Nebraska thing and I must try. Ground beef inside a white bun. I’m told if it’s my first Runza – start with plain. The high school marching band tuba player is too happy to tell me all about life in his town. “It’s not like anyone is excited about moving to Nebraska but the people are really nice here.” Later it’s Brent’s Drugs in Jackson, Mississippi sitting at the counter across from the soda fountain, glass mirrors, asking what is “come back” salad dressing? The young waiter explains – it’s like 1000 Island – mayo and ketchup – So you’ll ‘come back’ for more!”
“You’re all set. Welcome!” Greeting at numerous Y’s across the country where I go to swim several days a week.
“I am so happy – I mean even in the hard stuff – I’ve just been so happy. Everything is a wonder when it’s all a discovery. So many reminders that I am doing just what I need to be doing. Whatever comes next I don’t want to give up this joy in being in time and knowing that I am following where the wind is leading.”
Here at General Synod of the United Church of Christ – our church’s national gathering every two years – this year in Milwaukee. I’m here through next Tuesday.
I have a “booth” in the exhibit area and yes, so many hands have been part of creating it. My mom who made the paper sailboats, my former colleague and friend Shelia on the left of this picture who made the sailboat cookies, Sheila’s husband Steve who made a box for business cards, my sister Nancy who helped me set up the display. So grateful for asking for asking for help – and getting it!
Alas I never did meet Mayor Pete or even make it up to the campaign headquarters.
But I did meet Pops, the security guard outside the building on the sidewalk this beautiful sunny day.
It’s Pops who tells me that no, you can’t go up without an appointment.
Pops is generous and spends some time talking with me. He thinks Mayor Pete’s done a good job for South Bend — yet his campaign should have opened that place to buy tee shirts and bumper stickers months ago for the tourists and curiousity seekers like me who’ve descended from all over! (Yes, I would have bought both!)
He has his own good thoughts of what would turn the city around – move the train station from the airport to downtown so that South Bend could be a good commuter city to Chicago.
“It’s cheaper here and we don’t have the violence like in Chicago. There were 43 shootings in Chicago last weekend, 9 here… only one person killed.”
“It’s kids raising kids,” he goes on to say and shares his ideas about how to give the responsibility back to their families.
“Some people judge Mayor Pete for being gay, I don’t,” Pops says, “That’s between him and God.”
I think of the statement from the Vatican yesterday that gender fluidity is not natural, and a “threat” to the “natural” distinctions between men and women. I wonder what that says about my gender fluid and trans friends who seem quite real and natural to me. I think about the violence and harm that such statements cause. I think of how much we need new stories and public figures like Mayor Pete who live their lives openly as who they are.
I ask Pops if I could take his picture to remember him. “I’m not photgenic” he says, “You will have to just remember me.”
Pops directs me to City Hall and I wander around downtown.
Discover parts of history I never knew.
…Got the picture I came for after the conversation I was blessed to have.
I told Pops I realized I came to South Bend to meet and talk to him. It’s true I don’t always “know” exactly what I’ve come looking for but sometimes in wandering I find out just what it is.