Sunday, May 17, 2015

...intersections and forks in the road

ACT I - Breakfast with the lady in the pink spa robe

The beautiful young woman was clad in a thick, pink robe...not so unusual at a B&B which features a spa just up the hall. I crossed to an empty table in the corner where I hung my red jacket on the back of a chair and placed my phone by the window. Then I headed for a large cup of cappuccino. When I turned, I saw her, reading and taking notes at the corner table, leaning against my jacket.

I took a deep breath and walked over. Smiling, I said, "Excuse me, let me grab that jacket. I dared not carry it and a full cup at the same time."

"Were you sitting here? I didn't notice the coat. I'm sorry." We were both polite in that way that strangers are in awkward moments.

"No problem. Don't get up." I retrieved my jacket and phone and crossed to an empty table for two where Bill joined me for a leisurely breakfast. He returned to the room to write a progress note and I lingered over the view. Beyond the lawn and flower beds, the azure water of the Pacific sparkled in the morning light. The window frames transformed the scene into a series of pictures. I took a couple of photos, then screwed up my courage and once again walked to the corner table from where, during breakfast, the young woman had glanced at me a couple of times.

She looked up with a pleasant expression and I said, "Excuse me for this intrusion but I hope the episode of the red jacket didn't diminish your experience. Could we have a do-over? You again?"

She was beautiful, with flawless light brown skin and big dark eyes that lit up when she smiled. "Of course. I'm sorry about the mix-up. I wasn't paying attention."

Paler-Than-Ivory and More-Caramel-Than-Ebony met and quickly discovered that both of us were born in the south and now live a few miles apart by the bay. She described her birthplace in West Virginia as home to "3,500 people including those in the surrounding area. And I don't mean suburbs but the folks who live in the hills." Then she added, "From as early as I can remember, I thought the stork had dropped me in the wrong place." Now fully engaged, the minutes flew by as we connected. As I thanked her for the chat, I added, "We should've pushed two tables together." She laughed and agreed.

ACT II - Turn left at the stump with the Blessed Mother holding a bass clarinet

We headed once again to the unique home deep in the big woods. The dwelling is a series of small buildings connected with stairs and walkways, built incrementally over a number of years by its owner, Bill's patient, now unable to ride long distances due to a back damaged more by sitting (he's a master bridge player) than by the heavy lifting. This time I met his wife, same age as I am, dressed in jeans and a sweater. She moved with a natural ease. Her long, straight hair, equal parts light brown and gray, escaped from behind her ears with every breeze and whipped across her face, iconic and warm. Each time the strands were tucked once more with an unconsciously elegant gesture. Is there any better company than  a woman comfortable in her own skin?  (Or a man...but our men were nowhere to be seen at the moment...gone temporarily but not forgotten.)

We sat outside on the porch and looked out over the valley and mountains beyond, surrounded by beautiful trees and flowers...and a single, curious, eavesdropping lizard.  I confessed to having described their home - a blend of art and whimsy - as "the hobbit house". She replied that they call it "the house that acid built", adding with a smile, "That was a long time ago." 

The conversation turned substantive. For a couple of disparate women - The Art Major and The Forest Ranger - we hold similar views. Never apolitical, we have been quiet for a very long time...not so much now. The morning passed in a nanosecond but I left with a longer reading list and gratitude.

ACT III - Homecoming

The journeys of three women intersected that morning. Our roads had carried us out of West Virginia, south Georgia, and California's central valley to new vistas, not so much "away from" as "toward". More importantly, "into"...the interior journey of choices, assimilation, experience that is the road to authenticity, to a home that is not place but belonging. Along the way is a learning.  The journey is sometimes rocky, filled with chinks, slick in places. And we never know when we'll come upon some sisters (and brothers) and a few eternal moments around the next bend.

Epilogue - Musing in Gualala

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year,
and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going,
for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone
for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.
But again and again we avoid the long thoughts.
We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all?
We get confused. We need such escape as we can find.
But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need
...not all the time, surely, but from time to time...
to enter that still room within us all 
where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again,
where we are most alive ourselves to turnings
and to where our journeys have brought us.
The name of the room is Remember,
the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart,
we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember

Monday, May 11, 2015

...the seat of wisdom

The Chair

I took the photo because of a memory. Fourteen months ago we sat here at the outside corner of a small restaurant in Sausalito. My son, his wife, their Ukranian exchange student and my granddaughter huddled with Bill and me as the wind shifted directions, blowing cool off the bay. Five year old Ciara, a kinetic creature, sat uncommonly still as she soaked up the sights. She was a long way from Tuscaloosa. The food arrived and talk subsided a bit. As I tucked into my gnocchi, I glanced at a group of twenty-somethings who crossed the street toward us. Most were Asian. All were laughing. Ciara watched as they drew near us. In a moment stripped of all vanity, as pure as any I've seen in her young life, she waved her hand and said with utter delight, "Hello, California people!" I will treasure that moment forever and speak of it a bit too often. But it was special, see? Wise. A double helping of joy, of love.

Just after I took this shot yesterday, a couple sat down beside us. With the respect we afford our neighbors in tight spaces, I didn't stare. But I recall a drift of Rastafarian hair and baggy shorts as the tall, thirty-ish man passed my chair. The woman was slight. Sated by the breakfast, as we lingered over coffee in the warm silence of familiarity, the soft, thoughtful voice of the raggedy young man behind me drifted my way. In one of those "and then he said" moments, I could hear nothing else. A teacher, he related a conversation he'd had with a colleague. "Religion is a personal choice, a way to relate, to order. But when it becomes dogmatic..." He paused and I thought, 'Don't stop there.'

He continued, simply, as unconscious of self as Ciara had been that night in March 2014. "I told him that I love the walk of Jesus. He was about love for all people, not some select few." After a pause, he went on. "If  religion keeps us from loving another person, Jesus isn't present. It's not enough to say the words 'I love you but...'. That's equivocation." He repeated, "if religion comes between me and another, if it keeps me from caring for, loving, reaching out to others, then Jesus is no where to be found."

We left after this. I fought the urge to walk over, confess to deeply conscious eavesdropping, and thank the man for the best sermon I've heard in a long time. But I would've probably ended up hugging him and this was no Kumbaya moment. I'd been present once again for a proclamation from the seat of wisdom at a little cafe in Sausalito. Love. Double and triple helpings heaped upon all. May the peace that passes all understanding be with us. Before we blow this good earth - and all who call it home - to bits. Amen.

Friday, February 6, 2015

...of ghosts and mockingbirds and Miss Nelle Harper Lee

I lived in Alabama for thirty years. Yet, when people asked where I was "from", I inevitably answered "Georgia". The reason is complex as any discussion of home can be. Many of my ancestors, as well as the settlers of Dublin, Georgia, where I grew up, were Irish. A six-month stint in Ireland was an immersion into the etymology of my southern vocabulary. Words and phrases from my past came to life in conversations there. Ask an Irishman for directions and he'll tell you to "turn left past the fillin' station". Actually he'll tell you to walk past "where Lianna's used to be", then add, "See the "fillin' station down there?" When you nod, he'll say, "Don't go there." Fifteen statements later, he's invited you to drop by his pub, suggested a side trip or three, and told you about the woman who lives across the street ("It's a sad story, for sure, Mary's life is. She's a drinker, you know. As we speak, she's in the church, confessin'."). You may not be any closer to finding the B&B but somehow you don't care.

If I had a potato for every time we encountered that popular southern query, "Where are your people from?", I'd make a big salad and invite you to dinner.  Jane would answer that her grandmother hailed from County Clare and her grandfather from Waterford. Then I would say that I wasn't sure where my grandmother's people lived in Ireland. Heads would cock slightly, an eyebrow would lift a bit. And I would quickly add that they immigrated in the 1820's and records were scarce. Heads would nod in sympathy. "Well, what was the family name?" "Day," I'd reply. The Days, I would learn again and again, were originally O'Days, "but they dropped the "O", don't you know, because of the British." [Insert scowl. At this point, I made a mental note not to call attention to my English ancestors.]

This brings me to To Kill A Mockingbird and the uproar over Harper Lee's to-be-published, Go Set the Watchman. I suppose those who live outside the south see this as either a non-issue or the latest conspiracy theory. But for those of us who grew up in TKAM country, this story is personal at many levels, from racism and poverty to Bear Bryant and Atticus Finch. This is a tale of who we were and who we have become,  a walk through a familiar, personal wilderness that both discomfits and affirms.

I was twelve when I read The Book - the experience a string of Aha! moments and shame - and met my people. The Ewells represented everything I detested about my birthplace. I encounteed Tom Robinson in those pages, knew him more intimately than I could have in real life. Scout and Jem were familiar characters in my world. Almost everyone I knew loved a Boo. Mine was an older distant cousin, a gentle wisp of a woman, brilliant but hidden away in a dark house filled with old history books and newspapers. I loved her sweet, quiet voice, her bookish ways, and knew that most around me missed the essence of her. But not my Daddy. My Atticus. He loved her and taught me to respect her before I'd ever met her. She was set apart in that small community. Depending on the speaker, she was either crazy or a witch. My father said, "She's from another time." Then he added, "And you're going to love each other." He was right. For too few precious meetings, we did. She remains fresh in my memory and even now, in quiet moments, I can see her pale blue eyes and long grey hair pulled loosely back into a chignon of sorts. She wore long, soft dresses of voile and fine lawn and white cotton gowns and told me stories of history and places I longed to see. The bookish nature in me met the bookish nature in her and I felt less alone.

Perhaps southerners are in a stew over this latest book news because this is, for us, a family thing. We've seen our old people taken advantage of by those who prosper from their misfortune and weakness. For every Atticus, there is a wheeler-dealer whose public face and private actions don't match. And then there's Bear Bryant. When we moved to Birmingham, Patrick was fifteen months old. I remember a conversation with his pediatrician who talked about the economic contrast between Georgia and Alabama. With the exception of the bigger cities - Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville - much of the state had long offered little in the way of a living wage for the majority of its citizens. This, he said, explained the draw of Bear Bryant. Pride. Countless Bama fans never attended university. Many never finished high school. But Bear, the southern Everyman with a good-old-boy swagger, gave Alabama bragging rights. Fans who claimed allegiance to a school they had never attended were lifted from the realm of poor white trash to the ranks of The Elected by association.

For others, Miss Lee's book shouted, "See! We're not all racists." But prejudice exists in all of us, sometimes in dangerously subtle ways. And anger abides in those who yet hold dear the Confederacy. We southerners are, to a degree, the Middle East with a drawl. I've often thought of the significance of the assassination of President Lincoln and wondered how he would have structured Reconstruction. I'll never know but I have my suspicions.

So why did I claim Georgia thirty years after leaving? Why, for all those years, did I feel a bit of an outsider in a state where so many good friends live?  Part of the answer rests in my own story and has little to do with geography. An uglier admission is that I wanted to distance myself from the front-page bombings and Bull Connor brutality even though my home state was every bit as dead-set on matters of race and segregation. [Vs. 2, "Hear me, o children: do NOT be prideful." I do not always take my own advice first time around.]

This latest news is an amalgamation of contradictions and pride, much like Miss Harper Lee, she of New York City and Monroeville, Alabama. Not a recluse but private, she mirrors the Boo in each of us, the ghostly wounded soul. She has chosen not to air her hurts but to live honestly...and all whose frailty remains masked feel less alone in their vulnerability. She modeled Atticus after her own father and her heart is found in these words: "Miss Jean Louise...Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father is passing." Southern girls who love their daddies are apt to quote this at the drop of a hat and shed a tear.

We may never know the truth of how this new/old book was launched. But for those of us who met ourselves in the pages of her classic book, the events are personal. We are in the wilderness with her. With the death of Alice, Harper Lee's fiercely protective sister and attorney, and the sudden, coincidental discovery of a long-lost manuscript, the timing seems suspect. Because we fear that, with Alice's death, another Atticus has departed and no one is left to keep Miss Lee - or us - safe. We are all vulnerable, never more so than as infants and then again in old age, and we fill our in-between years with dread. We borrow trouble and foolishly mourn in advance the loss of dignity and independence. We, not so foolishly but perhaps prematurely, declare a pox on those who would profit from another's infirmity. And the whispers gather, calling us to remember and cry out. It's a sin to kill a mockingbird.