To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought. ― James Baldwin
We took a walk at day's end...a brisk unwinding up and down the hills with slower stretches along gardens filled with spring. And I thought how I had missed the humble sidewalk. None ran along the suburban street where I lived for over twenty years. I once stepped on a large acorn at the top of the hill, launched, then quickly landed at the bottom. On the way down, I watched the wheels of a car go past my face as I careened out of control. After that, my friend, Joanie, and I walked at Jameson Park with its beautiful nature trails along the little creek, a branch of the Cahaba River.
Last week, though, I re-encountered the old-fashioned sidewalk in a small northern California town. I thought of my son who once mused that air-conditioning was the beginning of all our troubles. As I listened to his theory, I recalled my own youth in south Georgia. We finally had central air installed when I was twelve. Prior to that, my father spent summer nights arranging and rearranging fans to "create draft". The man had the patience of Job with a double-helping of optimism. We'd all settle down and, after a few minutes, I'd call out, "It's really hot in here." Mother would say, "Just lie still and you'll cool off." Good advice but the damp outline of my body on the sheets each morning bore testament to the long southern night.
So, I looked at my son - who, I might add, had grown up with air conditioning, without complaint - and waited for what came next. Here's his theory: Before we had air conditioning (and television), people sat outside after dinner. Had real conversation. Waved at neighbors who passed on the sidewalk. Noticed youthful high-jinks and called out, "Billy, just wait until I see your mother. Now, you get home and behave!" With the much-welcomed arrival of arctic air into the home, we all went inside. And, according to Patrick, civilization took a giant step back.
Last week as we walked through neighborhoods, I felt a sense of connection and community although I knew none of the residents. A walk in nature is a very good thing but a walk through a small town street stirs, too. Watch people carry food to a home filled with grief. See the big pink and blue ribbons that celebrate new life. Listen to kids play in the backyards, unseen reminders of my own evenings of Red Rover and hide-and-seek. Smell roses and lilacs along the way.
Several years ago, I saw families gather nightly in the small campo near the little inn in Venice that was home for seven nights. All generations came together: the adults talked, rocked little ones, watched older children chase each other and kick soccer balls. And I thought of my son and his theory of climate change. That boy is onto something. We not only live inside walls but we bring more and more stuff inside with us. For what? An insular life built brick-by-hard brick of delusion? Some false illusion of safety? Where we not only forget our neighbors but re-invent the past to suit our self-serving notions?
There's a good reason for vernacular architecture. From the dog-trot houses with their wide central halls and detached kitchens to the large plantation homes with walk-through windows and grander halls, southern houses were built to "create draft"...to keep the air flowing. And all had front porches that urged the residents to "sit still and cool off". While I don't suggest anything as radical as the abolition of air-conditioning, I think nights are better spent outdoors whenever possible. Where stars rain light down on us and remind us of our smallness in the vast unknown universe. Where annoying neighbors give us a reason to practice what we preach: love 'em as we love ourselves, a love that says "just as I and you and them "are", just as the Great Goodness loves us. Where poppies take root in a sidewalk crack and shout "Grace". This last one gets to me. Because I am a bit cracked (the degree depends on who you ask).
This is a good spot to repeat Mr. Baldwin's elegant, oh-so-true words: To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.
The past that seemed so intolerable became a tool and all my lovely illusions broke. Thank God. I needed some cracks. Exactly one week ago, I stood in a room with my sisters. I hadn't met these ladies before but we had a family reunion all the same. I recall thinking as I looked around that I had never seen so many beautiful women gathered in a single place. Not a Barbie in the bunch. We hadn't bothered much makeup and hair...a good, brisk shower, a swipe of lipstick, and the all-time best accessories a girl can have: laughter and tears. R.E.A.L. In that cocoon, we were protected for a few days. But love took this little caterpillar and changed her into a California butterfly with flowers in her hair. Well, tinsel actually - and I'm not so little - but you get the idea. Cocoons are designed for nurture, not flying. A week later, we've scattered again. But I bet that poppies are sprouting all over the place.
Bloom, my friends. And not just where you're planted. Get out of the house. Go outside yourself. Carve out a spot if need be. Find a crack along the way and grow. Forget what or who caused the crack. Blame is a dead woman's game.
Someone else just might pass and find a little hope in your courage and bright beauty. I did.
Keep some tinsel on hand. I do. If you're in the deep south, bring a fan.