Archive | April, 2014

Birding and serving

29 Apr
Mom, right, and Charlotte make their Meals on Wheels run Easter morn.

Mom, right, and Charlotte make their Meals on Wheels run Easter morn.

 

NOTE: Serving the Story is currently on a cross-country road trip, looking at the role service plays in people’s lives and, when I’m lucky enough, getting to volunteer alongside some of those folks.

As almost anyone who knows me will tell you – probably with a roll of the eyes – a few years ago I became obsessed with birds.

Normally not the type for nomenclatures or collectibles, I was so filled with a desire to find out as much as possible about these feathered creatures, you’d think I’d never looked up into the sky before. Gradually, I learned how to learn, from the shapes and colors to beaks and movement – I even wondered if I might overcome my tone-deafness and learn some birdsongs. But in my zeal, I made the mistake of stopping by the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, where I wandered into a room filled with stuffed birds. Turned out that even though I was sure I knew what an eider it was, it turned out there were several kinds of eiders.

Back to square one.

The next morning, my last in town, I shared my discouragement with the most avid birdwatcher I knew on the Central California Coast. A Quaker who had been jailed for civil disobedience, Nancy is a painter with a wry sense of humor: A sign in her kitchen warns her many guests: “This is a Quaker household: In case of emergency, please be quiet.”

But when I shared my despair, she glowed in an almost beatific way.

“Yes,” she said, “but now that you’re into birds, doesn’t every place you go feel like the first time you’ve ever been there? And isn’t that wonderful?”

She was right, of course. Now, almost three years later, I’m noticing the same effect on this road trip.

Only, it’s not just birds now. It’s people. Particularly people who go out of their way for others, people involved in volunteer work or in service to others that’s so low-paying, it might as well be volunteer work. As was the case with birds, these acts of unselfishness have always been there – only now they’ve been brought from background to foreground.

And while I didn’t exactly feel like I was visiting my hometown of Tuscaloosa for the first time last week, I was more aware than ever of just how many acts of service were going on around me. This was hardly surprising given the nature of my service road trip – but I rolled into Tuscaloosa determined to put family time – as well as writing time – ahead of even more material.

But still, here was Mom doing her Friday morning gig as a greeter at Druid City Hospital. The only visitor who walked in the hospital door smiling that day was the Easter Bunny – and his smile seemed, well, forced. But the cheerful help of Mom and her fellow volunteers got smiles out of a few of them. Two days later, I tagged along as Mom and her friend Charlotte played Easter Bunny themselves, delivering Meals on Wheels on Easter morning, my mother again making conversation with those who seemed to desire that. Before the drive, I’d watched folks at Covenant Presbyterian prepare those meals – they arrived as early as 4:30, one person said, then rushed home to change into their Easter finery.

Even though a deluge would keep me from volunteering for Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa, when the rain cleared I at least found a couple of Habitat volunteers, staring at a ridge of sod perhaps three feet high, surrounded by that familiar Alabama red clay. One told me they were trying to hurry things up; the future home-owner was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and, understandably, “in a hurry to move in.” And of course my father and I talked informally about his wide range of volunteer work; the local Chamber of Commerce named its Member of the Year Award after my father.

When my last full day in Tuscaloosa rolled around, I had to decide between community service and family. Do I go to the Habitat site to work with one of our friends, Peter Salemme, or join my mother and sister on what was a once-in-our-adult lifetime foray to Mound State Park, a series of Native American mounds that, by extraordinary coincidence, are located in Moundville. (I guess the town’s folks were feeling rather literal when they voted on the name.)

Seven Habitat homes on Seventh, each with slightly different look.

Seven Habitat homes on Seventh, each with slightly different look.

Driving down, though, I realized the choice was a false distinction. Mom’s retiree group was led by volunteers, of course, and Mound State Park would have it’s share of volunteers. Sure enough, a volunteer docent gave a very detailed talk on a wide variety of tools used by Native Americans — while an AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteer was supervising volunteers in maintaining a medicinal garden, designed to be seen as an arrow from Google Earth – and featuring only, near as historians can guess, what pre-Columbian Native Americans would have planted. I caught up with Jordan Bannister as she came back from lunch and began clearing away tools for the day. She graciously gave me a task – grabbing all the clumps of plants that had been weeded into the garden and hauling them off. (Since the plants weren’t crops I was used to, I was grateful someone else had distinguished what had to go and what would live to see another day.)

Jordan, a 22-year-old Alabama graduate, had come across Mound State Park as a member of the university’s Anthropology Club. Like many students, that early group experience turned into an individual commitment – she volunteered for two years. Then, once finished with her journalism and anthropology double-major, she eagerly applied for AmeriCorps to keep working at the park. She directs the garden project, but soaks in knowledge from her volunteers, most of whom have gardened for far longer than herself.

She agreed that service deepened her learning. “Oh, I learn things every day. When you’re invested in a place like this, you invest your time and your own personal readings, someone will saym ‘Did you know this?’, and you’ll say, ‘No, that’s interesting.’ Then that becomes part of the information you share with still other people.”

Does this stepping into the ongoing chain of oral and written tradition make her feel like part of something larger?

“Absolutely! I’ll swear by volunteering for the rest of my life.”

Walking back to the car, I suddenly remembered that I’d seen an eagle an hour ago.

Somehow, I’d totally forgotten.

Bannister with her favorite plant, a young peach tree to whom she gives pep talks.

Bannister with her favorite plant, a young peach tree to whom she gives pep talks.

 

The Unintentional Protestor?

25 Apr
Casey regards the statues honoring participants in the Children's March, of which he was one.

Casey regards the statues honoring participants in the Children’s March, of which he was one.

Clifton Casey and I walk across the grass of Kelly Ingram Park, toward a sculpture he can identify with – one commemorating the Children’s March, a key event in the civil rights protests here in 1963.

A sidewalk bisects the sculpture, sandwiching the pedestrian between, on one side, statues of a boy and girl elevated on steps, and, on the other, the barred window of a jail cell on the other. Step around onto the grass, you see the children as if behind the bars of the jail cell.

Casey has helped pick out the spot – but now that we’re standing outside the cell, metaphorical cell, he asks to be photographed looking at the children from inside the cell, no bars in sight.

“Sorry,” he says. “I don’t like standing next to those bars.”

Normally I wouldn’t be surprised at this. Normally, I wouldn’t have suggested this sculpture as a place to pose. Casey, after all, spent nine days in jail after participating in the first day of the Children’s March.

So why am I slight surprised? Because, for the last hour, Casey has done everything in his rhetorical power to convince me that what he did was no big thing. That, to me, is a staggering achievement of humility, even if Casey’s own humility wouldn’t allow him to say that, either. For nine years I worked at a newspaper down the road in Montgomery, another legendary civil rights community. That was more than two decades ago, so even more people from the movement were alive and willing to tell their stories.

They are in a sense the uber-volunteers, the ones who got to be a part of something that made a dramatic difference in the world – to the point that many of us envy that opportunity, if not their hardships. Yet, many of them go out of their way to deflect any and all praise for their role.

I tell him people must want to romanticize his role, projecting upon him every imagined trait of an inspirational protestor.

“No, I don’t allow this,” he said emphatically. “I was just one of a much bigger number. Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, all those others, they were the heroes. I was just sitting in jail with all my high school friends. I had three cousins in the same cell as me.”

Casey’s also relentlessly honest about another aspect of his participation – while the protestors were clearly in the right, his own actions are more morally ambiguous.

The problem was simple. Not only had he flatly disobeyed his mother’s orders “not to go down there and get mixed up that,” he’d done it for no better reason than the reason most high school kids do things – because his friends were doing it. At Carver High School that fateful day, “Teachers did not encourage us, which they could not do under thereat of being terminated, but didn’t make no large effort to discourage us either.” So Casey went with his friends down to 16th Street Baptist Church – perhaps a hundred yards from where we took our photo. Did he know he was going to be marching? “To be honest, I had no idea. I got to church and there was an orientation, and it became clear what I was becoming involved in. Then I started thinking, ‘what are my parents going to say?’ I was more concerned about that than going to jail that day.”

Two or three blocks into the march, the police stopped the children, led by infamous Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety during the movement.  “Bull Connor came up and said, ‘Get them into the paddy wagons,’ and they hauled us to jail. It was only three or four blocks.”

Water cannon sculpture depicts what children faced on the second day of the march.

Water cannon sculpture depicts what children faced on the second day of the march.

By being in the early waves of the first march, Casey avoided being threatened by the police dogs or sprayed with the fire hoses, which escalated the second day the children marched. But it was Casey and his peers filling the jail to overflowing that helped set the stage for the disturbing images that helped turn the tide nationally. Meanwhile, while Casey sees his actions as lacking intentionality, he extended his jail stay because of a profound act of conscience. Back at the church, organizers had told the children that their parents would be fired from their jobs if they allowed their kids to participate in the protests; already worried about having defied his parents, he wasn’t going to multiply his transgressions by revealing his identity. He said “no comment” when interrogators asked his name; hence when parents could not determine if their children were in jail.

Nevertheless, his mother was sure, if only because someone saw him being hustled into the paddy wagon on footage. Ironically, his mother – actually his half-sister, who raised Casey and his siblings after their parents died when he was six – was up in Cincinnati, closing the deal on a house, determined to get the kids to safety after a bomb went off at a neighborhood church. She hopped on the next train and headed south to find her adoptive son.

“Looking back, I know now she was petrified,” he said. “Thinking about it now, I just feel sorry for her that I put her through that.”

As it turned out, when he was released and found a ride home, she only asked if they had harmed him. “And then we never talked about it. I mean that was the only time I actually defied her. And thinking back now, being black in Birmingham, Alabama, in those days, a lot of people went intro jail and never came out.”

However, she did give permission for him to take a train for the demonstration in Washington, when King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech to the thousands on the Mall. He then had to decide; a relative was more enthusiastic than him, since he was the one who had done jail time. But finally he went.

Since part of my job back in Massachusetts is requiring students who have chosen Community Service Learning courses to go out into the community, I’ve seen my share of less than enthused “volunteers” going out into the world. Of course, Casey did make a choice, but if one believes his depiction of his teenage self, he wasn’t particularly passionate about it. The hope is that even in those with mixed feelings, seeds are planted that sprout later in life.

That was true for Casey, although in an ironic fashion. Being in jail once was quite enough for him, so he tended to stay out of trouble, even when friends seemed determined to find some.

But he also came to be proud he was part of something so important, something that helped change so much. “I guess what we did was effective, that it did serve its purpose, but I was just one of much larger numbers. But it took those numbers to create the change that happened.”

Casey knows his numbers: After his military career, including serving in Vietnam, he became an accountant. In fact, I couldn’t interview him two days ago – when I was passing through Birmingham originally – because that was April 15th: Even now, he volunteers his accounting skills to the United Way, helping roughly 50 lower-income folks file their returns. This, on top of his frequently speaking engagements here at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Casey’s past seems to make his appearances at the Institute a no-brainer; the BCRI volunteer coordinator, Yvonne Williams, told me that their many volunteer docents work at BCRI precisely because they lived through that time. “They believe in what happened here and what it achieved, and think it’s important.”

Yet for those same people, that very act means overcoming some lingering trauma. Even for me, a generation younger, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a deeply emotional experience: After a short film gives some deeper context, the screen lifts and walls part to reveal black and white facilities; visitors find their way through exhibit about exhibit about the separation of races, the collision of hate and love, moral depravity and profound courage. One absorbs the voice of Martin Luther King, but also the voice of George Wallace.

“I can walk through galleries now easier than could before… but certain things … I can remember when those girls got killed like it was yesterday. I was on a ladder at my aunt’s house, putting up drapes for her and I had a little transistor radio, and I heard a bomb had gone off at 16th Street Baptist, and someone came running down the street and said ‘they killed all the kids.’”

Still, Casey keeps volunteering.

“I’m on a fixed income now, so I can’t donate as much, but I can help in other ways. You know, it just makes me feel good to help people. I’d rather give a dollar to you than take a dollar from you.”

A good trait to have in an accountant. And one of the few times Casey acknowledges any virtue in anything he’s done, from the volunteer work he does now (he’s quick to remind me he’s not a regular docent) to the decision he made, however impulsively, to march alongside his friends against forces that, deep down, they knew enough to fear.

16th Street Baptist Tells the Story

23 Apr


One of the "four spirits" releases doves into air across intersection from 16th Street Baptist.

One of the “four spirits” releases doves into air across intersection from 16th Street Baptist.

16th Street Baptist Church stands not far from what folks in Birmingham call Malfunction Junction, the intersection of Interstates 65 and 20/59. Yet much of the land around the church is open space – well-maintained, but open, and with spring much farther along down here than up north, lushly green. The surroundings seem tranquil compared to the interstate of the present – and the turbulence of the past.

But if the church itself isn’t enough to reinforce the importance of what transpired here, ext door stands the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. In front of the institute, catty corner to the church, is Kelley Ingram Park, site of some of the nation’s most important civil rights protests in the 1960s. In the park are metal sculptures depicting events such as a leashed police dog lunging at a protestor or two children being hosed down by a water cannon. A woman sleeps on a bench, another man hits me up for a fe3w dollars. As I start to take a photo of the children being hosed down, one of the shabbily dressed ole men on the bench holler at me and I brace to be hit up again – but he only wants to point out a better angle for my picture, one from behind the water cannon, providing the policeman’s view of the children he was gunning down.

Then, heading back toward the church, I see 16th Street Baptist close to the way the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would see it, if only statues had the gift of sight. And, just beyond that statue, the sculpture of the four little girls killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. One girl releases doves into the air while another kneels behind, tying the bow on her friend’s dress – at the time the bomb went off, the girls were in the basement, preparing to be in the service.

Lost in thought, I crossed the intersection diagonally, enter one of the street level doors. It’s a Thursday, not Sunday, but 16th Street Baptist is humming – tours come through here constantly in the mornings and into the afternoon. Some of them are scheduled, some not. They strive to accommodate all.

Church administrator Washington on steps of 16th Street Baptist.

Church administrator Washington on steps of 16th Street Baptist.

Back in January, a group of students from my own college came down to help Habitat for Humanity in Tuscaloosa rebuild my hometown after its April 27, 2011 tornado that killed 54 residents. The Sunday educational component was a visit to the Institute, but a 16th Street Baptist member had suggested it would be OK to poke our heads into the sanctuary if it were still open after we were done at BCRI. Since the door to the sanctuary was open, I had led our group into the back so they could see the historic stained glass windows – including the one in which Jesus’s face, and only his face, was blown out by the bomb.

Even though the doors were open, the alarm had been set – so a surprised church member, Tara Walton, came up the stairs. We apologized and started to head out the door when she’d said, “Well, as long as you’re here, you’d may as well have the tour.” She stopped short of showing the video, but the shrine downstairs – the photos of the girls and the rubble, the clock that stopped at the time of the blast – was enough to make the point. Later my students had marveled at the hospitality and generosity of our impromptu guide – but today, sitting down in the basement with church administrator Lamarese Washington, I hear a convincing rationale for why members, even so many years later, feel called to tell the story.

“It’s important to bring them in because of the history of the church and it’s our responsibility as a church to keep the doors open every day,” said Washington, who administrates a team of 10 guides in the church’s tour ministry. Many of the tours are scheduled, but many more are impromptu walk-ins who wander over from the Civil Rights Institute. “We could lock the doors every day, but we get an average of 75 to 80 thousand visitors a year because of the history of the church, so it’s our obligation to keep open.”

The four girls projected on wall of their church, part of video visitors see.

The four girls projected on wall of their church, part of video visitors see.

Why is it important for people to see the church?

“The people determine why it’s important to go,” he said, prompting me to laugh at the intelligent spin he puts on the question. “They go for the same reason they need to go to Washington D.C., the same reason they decide important to know the history of the civil rights movement.

“And we decide that we as church decided to keep important because it’s our responsibility.”

What does he suspect is going on in the visitors’ psyches as they take in both the tragedy and inspiration of the 16th Street Baptist story?

“Everything.” He paused as if that was it, but then elaborates. “Everything from the visible emotional response when they walk in and think of water hoses and dogs and agony of all that and realizing that they are here at that spot. From there a young visitor, someone 8 or 10 years old, might ask, ‘Why did those people do that?’

“You never get that question from adult. Been doing this five years and been part of church for 20, and I don’t recall an older person asking why. I think you know why and I know why, but that’s hard to answer. … I ask same question about the Jewish community attack two or three days ago. I ask, ‘Why?’”

The "Wales Window" donated by people from Wales after bombing.

The “Wales Window” donated by people from Wales after bombing.

So it is that what happened here 51 years ago is still inextricably woven to the present. Sometimes it seems as if much of the population has learned nothing at all – or at least taken nothing to heart. Just today the Atlantic Monthly has published an article about how my hometown school system had in a little more than 40 years gone from segregation to integration to resegregation. Making me feel both better and worse, the reporter noted that the Midwest and Northeast were still even more segregated than my hometown. Five days from now, the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold a law prohibiting the University of Michigan from using affirmative action as a criterion in admitting students.

Thus it seems perfectly logical when Washington notes that the nation as a whole hasn’t apologized for it’s racist past – and that the people who don’t feel that sorry aren’t going to come to 16th Street Baptist. But of course the church reaches a lot of school children from across the political spectrum – and meanwhile provides the chance for older people who do remember those times to bear witness. He notes that the older white visitors do the crying.

“I’ve seen people physically crying because of empathy they are feeling — and it’s always a white person who has memory of 1963. There are a whole lot of people crying, and a lot of verbal apologies.”

Black visitors from the same generation have, of course, carried this burden for so much longer, and so much more intimately.

“They lived with it, they understand, they know.”

Because of the importance of having lived through it, the guides are all 65 or older; some of them were members when the bomb went off on Sept. 15, 1963. Washington himself grew up in Gainesville, Florida; before settling here, he had traveled the world in the military, where he’d worked his way up from enlisted private to colonel. He remembered where he was when he heard about the bomb at 16th Street Baptist – and how his Southern white roommate never brought up the topic with him after the announcement. “Of course, in the military, the philosophy was that we weren’t black and white, we were green.”

We talk a bit about the funky stages of racial dialogue, how in a racist world one often has to sell the notion of the ways we are the same before we can have that healthy dialogue about the ways we are not.

We also reminisce about U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson, who handed down landmark civil rights rulings from the 1950s onward in a state where lawmakers tended to “punt” politically unpopular decisions to the federal government. I once was lucky enough to interview Judge Johnson and asked him how it felt to be viewed as a civil rights hero. The judge simply stared, then said firmly, “A man isn’t a hero for fulfilling his oath.”

Of course, that’s what the tour guides of 16th Street Baptist are doing – fulfilling an oath. Or at least a sense of obligation to something larger than themselves – to the Christian commitment to keeping a church’s doors open, or, more likely, to telling story of the sacrifice four unsuspecting little girls made on a Sunday morning back in troubled 1963. The sun is shining as Washington and I walk outside, but as our time together reminds me, there is so much more work to be done. The volunteers of 16th Street Baptist are doing their share.

washington picture

Washington with basement rendering of four spirits in heaven.

Truly Living Well

22 Apr
The skyline beyond the garden.

The skyline beyond the garden.

NOTE: From April 11th, to, well, sometime in July, Serving the Story is taking a road trip from coast to coast, exploring the role of service in people’s lives. Below is the fourth post from the trip so far.

The four of us sink our blades into the dark topsoil piled waist high near the garden’s edge. Some of us forget that, unlike the mulch we’ve been carting for the last hour, the finer soil stands to be far more dense, and thus far more weighty. I do remember this – but it doesn’t stop me from overloading, out of sheer stubborn investment in the task. This might be altruistic – I want to give as much as I can to the endeavor in the few hours I have here – but it’s also plain out-and-out macho stupidity. When my supervisor starts to push his wheelbarrow away, I follow him with my own; 13 years my junior, and in far better shape, he lopes along easily, abundant dreadlocks bouncing behind him.

He exits one garden plot and starts angling downhill to the other; I feel my belt slip, pause to readjust and take in the scene – only to feel a whoosh off my right hip; I twist, expecting to find a large dog, only instead it’s a sleek and shiny black sedan, its driver staring with annoyance.

She was entitled. Who stands in the middle of a street in downtown Atlanta with a wheelbarrow full of topsoil?

The answer, of course, are the volunteers and staff of Truly Living Well, an organization devoted to the promotion of organic urban gardening. The non-profit operates gardens in various spots around Atlanta, but this one is deemed the most dramatic – ahead of me is a deteriorating graffiti-splattered brick building; behind me, just one block away, the rush hour traffic on I-85. Only a block or two beyond the interstate, the big convention hotels of downtown Atlanta thrust upward into the grey late-afternoon sky.

If I wasn’t refocused on avoiding getting clobbered by downtown drivers, I could pick out my hotel, the Sheraton – opulent by my standards, twice what I usually pay for a hotel. Ironically, I shelled out the bucks for a little luxury because of its very proximity to an inner city urban garden. Since the relative rootedness of my 36 hours in Wilmington, I’ve blown through city after city at far too past a pace, reduced to being a typical tourist, only able to speculate at what interesting people I might meet volunteering in Baltimore, in D.C., in Greensboro and Charlotte. In Richmond VA I stared wistfully at the city’s food bank, in another city I glimpsed the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. But instead I had to sit through traffic jam after traffic jam, forced to make up for lost time. So when I finally reached Atlanta late Monday afternoon, I was determined to (1) garden and (2) get to said garden without sitting in morning rush hour. Despite being located near broken-down buildings and the occasional worn-down person pushing carts overloaded with recyclables, the garden’s only nearby hotels were among the most expensive – the ones people flock to for mega-conventions on the corporate dime. The conference taking up much of the Sheraton was called Vision 2014; the logo was a guitar, the slogan “Bank Like A Rock Star.” In 15 minutes, the bankers could stroll up to the nice restaurants up on Peachtree Street; in the same amount of time, I could walk in the opposite direction, pass beneath I-85, and wind up here at this garden, ready to work.

This was the dream.

Then, as is often the case with dreams, I woke up.

Lying on a poolside lounge chair this morning, I stared in denial for a few minutes before coming out of denial – those were definitely raindrops, and lots of them, spattering the atrium’s transparent roof. I meditated on my agenda – family was awaiting my arrival three hours west, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama – but I couldn’t let myself leave without doing some gardening. And the first rule of any gardener, I reckon, is to set aside human arrogance of my personal agenda and instead respect the schedule set by Mother Nature. Never mind that three hours west waited my mother’s banana pudding with my name on it – not to mention a sister and a father, who would entirely understand not being mentioned until after the banana pudding. Confined to apartment living in a frigid New England climate, I now had a jones for gardening – a task that might require more brawn than making those palm crosses in Wilmington, but hopefully a lot less manual dexterity.

Mind made up, I dried off, and walked straight from pool to registration desk in my absurdly flowered swimsuit, extended my stay. Then I dressed for breakfast, sat down in the hotel restaurant, eager to step back from interviewing long enough to type up notes from the road trip so far.

Only, once you start noticing others’ acts of kindness, it’s hard to shut it out. Even in the hotel restaurant, talking with my attractive waitress, a black woman a little on the tall side with close-cropped hair, my eye drifted from the name on her silver tag to the words beneath it: “Connected to: Volunteering.”

Of course, I had to ask. She explained that the hotel asks them to list interests, and since she takes her daughter to volunteer at a couple of agencies, one an animal rescue shelter, she had listed volunteering as a hobby. I, of course, explained my mission; the rest of the meal, she rotates through my area ever so often, feeding me yet another tidbit of background or asking another question. I’m guessed she was good at volunteering, if only because of how well she served others in the restaurant – she never lingered so long that she neglected other customers, yet she had a flair for connecting and joking, making folks feel welcome. Turned out she grew up in Haiti and the Bahamas; in the Carribean, her family was often on the receiving end of charity, so now she wants her daughter to grasp that reality.

“Instead of take, take, taking all the time,” she told me as she moved toward another hungry customer, “it’s important to give something back.”

A couple of hours later, I caught another break – the rain cleared out early, the sun started to poke through. Despite my walking dream, I drove, as I was going to visit more than one spot. Wheat Street garden is one of several urban gardens Truly Living Well operates in the Atlanta are; because of the sharp juxtaposition of city and country, it receives the most attention. Friday is normally the volunteer day, Tuesday a day more for trainees in its urban gardening program. The first person I noticed was the dreadlocked man; wearing cargo shorts, t-shirt and a camouflage jacket (the better for hiding among the collards and kale?), he seemed to be pruninga fruit tree with a small blade, while nearby a woman dressed for the unseasonably cool air seemed busy raking up loose mulch back into the enormous pile at the edge of the parking Based on the specialized nature of his task – I was not even sure exactly what he was up to with the tree – I guessed the man was faculty, and I was right.

The man’s name was Kurt Reinhardt, but he went by Chin; he was happy to take a break long enough to share his thoughts on the enterprise. He’d gone to one of the elite black universities, Howard in D.C., where his classmates seemed far from the organic gardening, sustainable living types. (Then again, how many undergrads at any college are?) “A lot of people went to school with didn’t wear Birkenstocks, didn’t know anything about kayaking, weren’t exposed to long-distance bicycling or swimming or hiking or rock-climbing – the things I was exposed to because of family I was raised in.”

Chin working with old senior apartments beyond.

Chin working with old senior apartments beyond.

But in studying anthropology and sociology at Howard, Chin came across the work of architect and urban designer Paulo Saleiri, who championed the philosophy “arcology” – a dynamic combining of ecology and architecture. According to the website ­Arcosanti, Saleiri encouraged an “evolutionary journey of aesthetic, equity and compassion.” The elegance of the idea seized Chin’s imagination; even though didn’t finish college – in class he learned enough about finance to decide he didn’t want to owe the established system with student loan debt – what he had learned became the foundation for the life he wanted to live. This lead to his desire to help transform urban environments through gardens, as well as educating the younger generations about the importance of fresh food and organic gardening; now 43, he said he’s been a vegetarian since college.

I observed that he seemed to need work driven more by ideas and ideals than making large amounts of money. “As long as you’re building someone else’s dream, you’re not building yours. So I’m on twofold path. But without service I’d feel empty. There has to be a giveback.

“What makes me feel good? As young person I wanted to be a ranger. This is about as close as I can get to being a ranger while living the urban life – teaching people about gardening and plants and rotating crops.”

One of Chin’s early service projects was working in an inner-city rap effort; the goal was to use hip-hop, then in vogue, as a way to connect with and teach young people. As with many careers fueled by social vision, the pedagogy of rap has found his way into how he teaches kids.

When I ask to hear the rap, he launches into it.

 

This is my garden, this is my garden

Food that grows in the garden, year round and longer

Will help make me and my community stronger.

This is my, this is my, this is my garden.

 

He pauses and I laugh, but there’s more – he has yet to get to the specifics of the lesson, after all.

 

Happy in the dark, covered in the vale,

so plant more spinach, collards, legumes and kale,

too many trees, a shade garden no doubt,

so set aside greens and grow some Brussel sprouts,

broccoli, cauliflower, beets, and beans,

even in the shade I can grow my leafy greens

lettuce, arugula, endive and cress,

grow local with the veggies that past the shade test.

 

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

No sun don’t matter gotta grow in the shade.

He grinned. “Basically anything where you can get them clapping or bopping their heads helps,” he said. “They may not remember all 16 of the vegetables, but they gotta remember something.” But in addition to the sound teaching technique, it seemed apt for this garden, in the shadow of the city, reminding folks of a bigger, better world.

Ford-Hawse in front of the Truly Living Well office in East Point.

Ford-Hawse in front of the Truly Living Well office in East Point.

I’m tempted to get to work now, but the founder, Rashid Nuri, had suggested I also see the East Point central office. This, of course, was setting me for just what I’d hoped to avoid today – a rush hour traffic jam. But “they also serve who sit and wait.” I’m not sure the poet who wrote that line was thinking of I-85, but it seems as good a rationalization as any. The route took me past the massive Atlanta airport, but the rumble of 737s lifting off the runway does little to take away from the lush, green suburban neighborhoods. A different world. Amid that world, I found a small house bearing the sign for “Truly Living Well” – behind the building, the gardens stretch away from the road.

Inside, I found not Rashid – despite all our phone conversations, it seemed we were not fated to meet – but a woman with short hair and glasses, appropriately green blouse and coat. Smiling, she introduced herself as Amakasu Ford-Howze, the organization’s camp director and garden educator. While Chin hailed from Kentucky, Amakiasu came from even more northerly climes – growing up in Pontiac, Michigan, she finished her undergraduate degree at Fisk in Nashville, then went home to earn a social work degree at the University of Michigan. But it only took one year of interpersonal family practice for her to decide her true calling was in organizing communities.

Not that the communities are any less imperfect than the standard dysfunctional family.

“Conventional communities are sort of geographical locations that don’t have anything to do with the people who live in them,” she told me. “The people aren’t living in community, they aren’t making decisions together, often they don’t know their neighbors. I’m interested in people working together, creating bonds.

“Now there are these intentional communities, I think that they could solve some of our problems, reduce some of stress we undergo, some of the isolation we feel.” When I offered that gardens could be part of that, she of course agreed, but didn’t claim victory just yet. “Well, I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we are able to embody that as part of our work. But I think that gardens are a central organizing points and can help facilitate that kind of connection, by woreking together in a garden, having more of relationship – I think that’s why people love coming to our gardens – particularly the one downtown, that’s the one that gets the most attention. We have tour groups and schools and city officials and all those kind of things, and people are excited about the beautiful green space and the food that we’re growing, but also think there’s room for structural changes in communities.”

She told me that while the upper and middle class is attuned to the benefits of fresh organic food, the lower-income community near the downtown garden may need more of a values shift. “There’s an educational gap,” she said. “People in the community know we’re there, but they haven’t come to check it out, don’t realize, No. 1, the benefit of fresh organic food or, NO. 2, the detriment of the current food system we’re participating in.”

Driving back downtown, my mind drifted to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota – there the population of Lakota have depended so long on processed food doled out by the government, it almost seemed I saw more diabetes-related clinics than I saw casinos. Horrific. But I reminded myself that for all my book learning and financial resources, my own diet isn’t much better. By the time I pulled back in at the Wheat Street Garden, I was beginning to wonder if I had any right to be there. Sure, I was 6-foot-5, but easily 50 pounds overweight – pounds you probably don’t gain if you root your life in vegetarian principles. Forget about race or age – it’s my sheer bulk that tells them that, in very many ways, I’m not one of them.

But the mark of a great volunteer site is the ability to take in willing workers at whatever level they’re at, perhaps in hope that, in the inevitable pun, they’ll have planted a seed that’ll later sprout into, if not a mighty oak, a nice head of collards – which I will then choose NOT to boil with bacon.

Maybe so. That’s certainly one hope for the trip. For now, it’s enough to give whatever I can, and learn some things in the process. Of course, as always, I learn about the people – if you ask me about dinner with a friend, I’m likely to remember almost everything she said, but have totally forgotten what we ate. In this case, I stay on task, but I pick up details nonetheless.

Joya and Kelley show off the biceps of veteran gardeners.

Joya Green and Kelley Lockman show off the biceps of veteran gardeners.

For instance, Joya Green , 31, grew up black in Atlanta; her family’s participation in volunteering through Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church was one factor in her choosing a life of service, but as a student at Cornell, she also suspects coming from a relatively privileged life also gave her the confidence. Classmates from poorer background, she noted, had more pressure to make money with that Cornell education. Then came AmeriCorps back in Atlanta, followed by the Peace Corps in Costa Rica.

“The Peace Corps helped me see that it’s not about how much money you make, it’s’ about your life choices and how they makes you feel. I’m always glad to say that I’ve still gotten to do what I wanted to do. That’s been about faith. I thank God for that.”

One thing she wants to do, and is doing, is applying the ideals of Truly Living Well to HEARTH, the shelter for homeless boys where she works part-time. Joya’s helping the boys there create a raised garden bed atop the asphalt.

What strikes me, again, is that in the Truly Living Well universe, it’s not enough just to feed people – it’s to feed them with the right food, while teaching them to know the difference. There’s an elegance to the design, to the idea, to the way that, for my fellow volunteers, the very basic choice of what you put in your mouth connects to your philosophy of life, even to the manner in which they serve others. They have a way of life they believe in, and they want to spread the word. With the garden next door to crumbling buildings in one direction and an interstate clogged with people in too much of a hurry to eat anything more than a drive-through burger, the impact of Truly Living Well might seem intangible. But even here, amid the raised boxes of vegetables that might hide old porches or concrete foundations or asphalt, we have to trust that roots are still running under the ground.

So we keep working, and laughing, Chin and Joya and Kelley and, unlikeliest of all, this lumbering old carnivore, putting my bad back at risk as I keep loading and unloading the topsoil and mulch, bending over to power the wheelbarrow through the aisles between raised beds of kale and tomatoes, collards and green garlic, and more plants I can’t even name. We keep filling the furrows while Chin explains why we’re doing what we’re doing.

His reasons sound good enough to me.

Maybe some day I’ll make them my own.

Chin and me parody the Green Acres parody of American Gothic.

Chin and I parody the Green Acres parody of American Gothic.

I

Facing the Storm

21 Apr
This home in Union Beach belonged to one of Murphy's relatives.

This Union Beach home belonged to one of Murphy’s relatives.

NOTE: From April 11th, to, well, sometime in July, Serving the Story is taking a road trip from coast to coast, exploring the role of service in people’s lives. Below is the third post from the trip so far — although actually it’s about the first day of the trip, when I visited north Jersey Shore.

Stacey Murphy looks back on the beach and the cottages of Jersey Shore. If she were to turn her gaze to the right, she could easily see the skyline of New York City.

But her attention, and mine, is drawn to matters closer to home – the pretty but malicious lady bugs, which, at least along the Jersey Shore, bite.

“Gosh, the ladybugs of New Jersey have attitude!” I proclaim, swatting as we hurry down the walk toward her black sports utility vehicle.

“In New Jersey everything has attitude!” she jokes.

Her observation seems to be undermined by her example – by which I mean the example of Stacey Murphy herself. The mother of one of my students back at Assumption College, she was quick to offer to meet, and continued to offer even as my plans kept on shifting and I gave her every out I could offer.

My plan was to ask about her work with the Run for the Fallen, a race held in tribute to military veterans; only when I asked if we’d be close to damage from Super Storm Sandy did I discover yet another compelling contribution Murphy makes to New Jersey – working for the state’s Director of Risk Management, she handles mitigation between people who’ve lost their homes after natural catastrophes and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In other words, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Murphy helped determine who gets relief money, a job that means telling some people good news and other people bad. Even though the storm ashore a year-and-a-half ago, on October 29, 2012, she’s still working to help folks get their FEMA aid, among other things. Even though it ultimately came ashore as a subtropical storm, Sandy pushed high seas inland to the north of the eye, causing, in addition to wind damage, massive flooding in New Jersey and New York.

When I tell her how a 2011 tornado in my hometown almost seemed to target those least able to afford to rebuild, she only says, “Well, this storm did not discriminate.”

As we drive through Union Beach, she points out the homes still not repaired, the water lines still visible … and the empty lots where homes once stood. One of the most famous – a house cut almost in half by either winds or floods – belonged to one of her relatives.

“Some people lost everything,” she told me as we drove along Union Beach, a mostly blue-collar area. “There was nothing salvageable for most of them on the waterfront, Some of them are still living at a [closed military base in Monmouth County, they only have a couple of more months and they have to be out. It’s horrible. They can’t go back to their own homes; FEMA money isn’t coming in fast enough for them.

“I can’t imagine it. I was displaced for two weeks, no gas, no electric, but I still had my house, I still had my stuff.”

In her work, she’s in the middle between FEMA and those who can’t go back home – as well as those scared to approach the government.

“They’re angry, they’re scared – some of them are not here legally, so they’re reluctant to come forward, and they’re renters, but they lost stuff, too. It took a lot of work to persuade them that we weren’t about deporting, we were about helping. They wouldn’t come to shelters. A lot of them went back to damaged houses. They were breaking in and living there because they didn’t have anywhere to go. Sad.”

Murphy looks back at Union Beach shoreline.

Murphy looks back at Union Beach shoreline.

Because of environmental regulations designed to help with future storms, some properties – many of them small – wind up designated as parks that allow water to flow through easily. She gestures at a couple such properties, noting that the towns don’t always approve of this – the town has to pay to maintain the lot, and meanwhile no money is being made from the property, eroding the tax base. That’s just a couple of the dilemmas: In a storm-related simulation the agencies just ran, one situation involved a grocery store offering to donate its perishables before they spoiled. The knee-jerk response is to say yes, of course folks can use the food. But the correct answer is usually the opposite. You have take into account that with power out, there is no way to refrigerate the perishables, and with workers scrambling elsewhere, there would be no one to pick it up.

She’s long accepted that people aren’t always going to like the answers they get from governmental agencies, even though the government is obviously in better position to coordinate than individual charities. “They see the government as very bureaucratic; they think that we’re all paid really well, that we’ve got these huge pensions and we’re just there to put in our eight hours and go home. And emergency management doesn’t work that way – you HAVE to care, you spend every waking moment on the job, sometimes for weeks, sleeping on a cot, sleeping on the floor, eating emergency rations, which are gross!”

Others, of course, let her know they’re grateful.

“People do say thank you; people do send letters and cards. After they scream at you, they are thankful later.” But because the process means that they are then referred to others for the next step, “you don’t always see end product. You do your part, then you have to let them go. It’s like raising a child: You hope you’ve done the best job you can, then send them off to college and hope they’re OK.”

She wishes she could do more. “You can’t make everyone happy, but you try little by little to chop away, to get people the money they feel their homes are valued for, and keep them safe, that’s really what we do.”

Along the Union Beach shoreline.

Along the Union Beach shoreline.

It was partly through her work connections that Murphy, having proven herself a networker extraordinaire, was approached to help with another heart-rending effort – the Run for the Fallen, a race along most of the length of Jersey Shore, from Cape May to Homedel, a distance of roughly 120 miles.

The run isn’t a garden-variety fundraiser, in which people pledge donations per mile; in fact, it’s open only to select members of the military and, on a limited basis, family members of New Jersey soldiers who have died in action during what the organization website calls the War on Terror, including Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn.

The participants run from one “hero marker” to the next; at each marker, there is a tribute to a fallen soldier, including a flag that the participants salute. At most stops the runners meet the family members of the fallen soldier.

“Most of time the families of soldiers are there at that hero marker, we do make sure that one of the groups honor soldiers when families aren’t there. They have pictures and flags that fly, we line the streets with fire trucks and flags and people.” Her tone becomes more emotional as she describes it. “It’s amazing, really amazing.”

Held every fall, the run has expanded to a three-day event, even though the distance is more or less the same. “We don’t want to grow,” she says. “Each marker is added because another soldier is passed.”

The event pulls on Murphy’s abilities as a networker, a coordinator and, being in emergency management, her ability to solve problems on the spot when reality interferes with her well-laid plans. But one of the biggest challenges is how much the event taxes her emotions.

“It’s probably the most emotional thing I’ve ever been a part of, because you spend your entire day with these families. You hear the stories they tell, the pictures they show you, You can go on-line [at www.njrunforthefallen.org] and see pictures and bios, but unless you meet the families, then the soldier is just a picture. If you have lunch with them or have a drink with them or see their hero marker, that brings a whole different perspective.

“To lose a child … I can’t imagine anything worse.”

The participants inspire strong feelings as well.

“We’ve had wounded soldiers participate. One lives in Union Beach; both of his legs were severed. We worked to get him better prostheses. He was in a crank chair and he did the entire race. He was in front of our runners, and they said, ‘hey, you’re making us look bad.’ “

How does Murphy feel afterward?

“Exhausted. You don’t get over it, [but] you appreciate everything a lot more. You appreciate your family a lot more, you hug your kid a lot more. There’s a lot of crying; it takes a couple of days for the eyes to stop swelling. But you do it because you can.”

War dog memorial in Homedel.

War dog memorial in Homedel.

Even though it exposes Murphy to sadness, she feels it’s important to remember the loss of others. She doesn’t hide from the storm of emotions; she faces into it. She got her first experience with deeply emotional volunteer work as a student at Syracuse, when she helped prepare young swimmers with disabilities to participate in the Special Olympics.

“They didn’t know they were different: They were who they were and they worked within their handicap and they kicked butt,” she said, smiling. “One child from a very, very poor family made me a [model of a] diving board and painted it purple, because purple was my favorite color, and put together with wood and glue.”

“That was in 1973, and I still have that model.”

She laughed. “It’s broken into 16 different pieces, but I still have that diving board, and I’ll never throw it out, because that child touched me so deeply. Would I do that again? I probably wouldn’t do that again, because that was so heart-wrenching, but this has just gotten under my skin and this is just absolutely amazing.”

As if to drive the point home, we pull in at the Homedel Vietnam Memorial. She shows me a plaque her organization placed on the lawn to acknowledge more recent soldiers that gave their lives, the war dog memorial on the sidewalk, the rotunda in which you can step down to study a heartbreaking sculpture: The body of a dying male soldier splayed on the ground, while a female soldier, perhaps a nurse, kneels over him. A second male soldier looks on anxiously. This is where the three-day Run for the Fallen concludes.

We ponder the curved wall with the names of the soldiers, the displays inside the building. I ask her if there’s one exhibit she tends to linger over; the truth is that she’s usually too busy to take them in.

“We get 40-50 volunteers here, I’ll use them and take time to kid around a little bit and start working with them to find out where we can put them. I’m never going to say no, don’t volunteer, because there’s always a way to use people.”

Before we leave she notes the odd contrast, the natural setting of the park in which she’s seen deer and raccoons, vs. the Garden State Parkway, plainly visible. We can hear the whoosh of traffic as rush hour approaches. On the way back to my car, she tells me I should take the time to drive the length of Jersey Shore, down to the run’s start in Cape May. “It’s beautiful down there.”

I take my new friend’s advice, drive the length of Jersey Shore, and walk a quiet beach near Cape May in Wildwoods. I press my hand into the cold Atlantic surf, then gather a few seashells; I tell myself I’ll relocate them to the Pacific Coast a couple of months from now.

Driving back to the Parkway, I pass the sign for another Vietnam Memorial. It never really ends.

The rotunda sculpture at the Homedel Vietnam Memorial.

The rotunda sculpture at the Homedel Vietnam Memorial.

 

From the Heart

21 Apr

NOTE: From April 11th, to, well, sometime in July, Serving the Story is taking a road trip from coast to coast, exploring the role of service in people’s lives. Below is the second post from the trip so far.

After crosses and coffee, Betsy and I cruise from Wilmington into Newark – spelled like the city in New Jersey, but spoken as “New Ark.” The hopeful pronunciation fits the mood of the day – along Main Street scores of college students and other folks are dressed for the warm weather that’s finally come the Northeast’s way. They all stroll a Main Street filled with restaurants and bars, galleries and shops; it reminds me of Northampton, Mass., only flatter.

Inside a café, Joe McDonough radiates that same springtime energy. Relatively lean and athletic for a man in his 50s, he answers my questions with both passion and concentration, going beyond the superficial response to deeper implications. His ring seems to fit his attitude; when the light catches his right hand mid-gesture, its message flashes – “B+.”

As in “Be Positive.” It’s the name of McDonough’s non-profit foundation – and the blood type of his son Andrew, who died of leukemia seven years ago, at age 14.

McDonogh's ring conveys his message for him.

McDonogh’s ring conveys his message for him.

In the years since, the foundation has raised more than $500,000 for either research or for support of individual families dealing with childhood cancers. The B+ website lists stories of those helped; they’re from all over the country. Both parents, as well as Andrew’s sister, pour their energy into the foundation; appropriately, they still operate out of the family home, where Joe McDonough still visits his son’s bedroom on a daily basis.

I’ve looked him up because of the remarkable work that B+ does – and because I wonder about the role of serving others in healing one’s self. But when I try this notion out on him, he resists.

“People have said this must be good for your grieving or healing – honestly, I don’t know. Because my family never stepped into this because this is going to help us cope. This is 100 percent for other people; this is so you don’t have to hear your child has cancer, or that lady doesn’t have to hear, ‘Your child has two days left.’ We’re at a point in our lives where we could go off and start this foundation and this is what I do seven days a week, so the planets were kind of aligned for that. I’m not saying there’s not a benefit to my grief process, but if there is, it’s an unexpected consequence we were not looking for.”

He pauses, then proceeds.

“Because there are a lot of days, to be honest with you, when I’d like to go back to my anonymous old life and go work at Chase, where the biggest thing was some credit card issue, and not have to deal with me having to tell the story of my son’s death hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.”

In distancing himself from one hunch I had, he’s brought the conversation around to another concern of mine. One of my biggest fears about my three-month community service road trip is that my heart is going to be blocked by my head. The latter, after all, is the breeding ground for all the distractions blocking me from connecting with the volunteer work and the people in the here and now. The most superficial level of heady distraction are the ever-shifting logistics of booking volunteer gigs, interview subjects, places to lay my head. Then there is the distancing effect of what happens when I try to “write the trip” – imagine which opportunities would make the most interesting stories, instead of gravitating toward the most fulfilling experiences for me personally. Beneath all of the above , of course, is ego, ambition, the anxiety to publish a book out of all this. Hardly the stuff of altruism.

All that head stuff threatens to make it impossible for me to put my heart into the moment of service, lose myself in the project at hand, to experience the spiritual benefits of service. Sure, storytelling itself is an act of service – the hundreds of thousands of dollars McDonough has raised is a case for that – but I wonder if he, too, ever feels distanced from the content of what he’s describing as he strives to execute the story perfectly.

After all, even before he had the motivation of the loss of his son, McDonough was perfectionistic enough to become senior vice-president of the credit card division of J.P. Morgan and Chase, a position that he gave up after his son’s death to pour his energy into B+.

He does sense the danger of the story becoming an intellectual exercise.

“It’s like when you give a lecture – you may have another voice in your head as you speak, commenting on what you’re saying..” I nod in agreement. “Sometimes when I tell Andrew’s story, there’s sometimes this other voice saying, ‘Did this really happen? Did Andrew really die?’ I mean, it’s been seven years. It’s a long time.

“I craft it based on the audience, and I wonder if I’ve lost power, but of all the talks I’ve only had one where I put remarks in writing, because it was a graduation and the school required remarks in advance. Otherwise I pray to Andrew before every talk; if I speak from the heart you can never go wrong.

“Is there a time when I’ll get numb, when I can’t tell my son’s story? If that [numbness] doesn’t happen, then that’s really painful, but if it does, maybe it’s time to do something else. I hope that never happens.”

Andrew McDonough in eighth grade.

Andrew McDonough in eighth grade.

Despite the myriad intellectual details involved in starting a foundation, McDonough remembers little in the way of intellectual calculation.

“I’m not sure the initial decision from the head as much as from the heart, my wife and I are both Type A people and we’d have done a list of pros and cons if it were from head. With this we just knew we had to do this. Later, as we got into it, we began to see the value of what we were doing, whether it was financially helping a family, giving healthy kids chance to interact with kids with cancer, or helping fund research into kinds of cancer.”

As time passed, McDonough realized their foundation had to find its own niche. It turned out to be young people. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without people under 25. I hate it when people complain about ‘these kids today.’ The college kids now are far more philanthropic than I was at their age.”

I tell him about former student and friend Brittany Ford, whose family started its own foundation, 365Z, which is currently seeking to collect stories of kindness in tribute to Brittany’s brother Zachary, who passed away at age 20. (Go to the link above to submit a story.) The title stems from both Zachary’s name and the notion of one act of kindness a day – McDonough warms quickly to that idea. “I would submit to you that it’s more that 365 acts of kindness, that there’s a ripple effect; each of those acts leads to the person receiving the act then being kind to someone else.

Even though B+ focuses on the disease that killed Andrew, they, like the Fords, want to emphasize how he lived – the organization’s email address includes the phrase “belikeandrew.” In fact, before Andrew’s death, the McDonoughs were cognizant of the need to give. “I did the things that most men of my age do,” from coaching Little League and parish council to joining his family in serving at a soup kitchen. “Now [service] has just gone from being a component of our lives to being my life, seven days a week.”

Our hour together is almost done; McDonough has to race from the coffee shop to an event where he’ll accept a check for the foundation. I’m grateful for the time – but to him, it’s likely one more chance to tell the story. My mind goes back to the question of healing, and a different way to approach the topic. I speculate that if I faced such a huge loss, I would feel I was staring into a meaningless existence – that I would then have to work to find meaning again in life.

“Is what you do every day now,” I ask, “more meaningful than what you did every day 10 years ago?”

His response is quick.

“Oh, by a million percent. Not even close!”

A selfie with Betsy, one of many things not possible when we last saw each other.

A selfie with Betsy, something a lot harder to do when we last saw each other. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

On the way back into Wilmington, Betsy and I discuss my conversation with Joe. We agree that he’s used to interviews – but he strikes me as honest enough, particularly in his acknowledgement of the tension between head and heart. I tell Betsy about how I’ve worried about how all this clutter in my head could keep me from wholeheartedly entering the moment. What if I never experience true immediacy or real immersion, let alone spiritual growth, on the road ahead. What if I come back more or less the same?

I share how, just five days ago, I confessed these fears to a friend; my verb choice is appropriate,  since the friend in question is a nun. Sister Nuala smiled broadly. “Well, Mike, I’m going to pray for you, and have the Sisters pray for you, that you experience each day of this trip as an act of love.”

Act of love.

I’ve found myself returning to that phrase, as well as Sister Nuala’s smile, all week. After a day of making crosses and hearing moving stories, I actually feel like my heart’s in the right place as Betsy and I settle down at the bar of a cozy restaurant with an intriguing menu. Over fine wine and food, we celebrate the rekindling of a friendship after decades devoid of meaningful conversation; we even take a selfie, something not possible in the pre-cell phone era in which we last knew one another.

Then we cross the street to the concert she’s promised – featuring a local singing trio called Honey Child. But local is a deceptive distinction; as Betsy points out, the Eastern seaboard from D.C. to Boston is crawling with some of the country’s finest musicians. I gradually piece together that Nancy Josephson, one of the group’s singers, was in Angel Band – I actually have a CD of theirs. Then Betsy informs me that her husband is guitarist extraordinaire Dave Bromberg. Betsy introduces me to both of them; Nancy was there for Betsy during the final stages of her husband’s illness, including the day Frank died.

From left to right, Honey Child's Natelee Smith, Kathleen Weber, and Josephson. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

Left to right: Honey Child’s Natelee Smith, Kathleen Weber, and Josephson. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

As we settle at our table, I try to forget about my project – about doing service, or stories of service, or anything other than the surreal ease of sitting beside an important person from my past and soaking in superb harmonies in an intimate atmosphere. A trio of fine women singers, Honey Child delves deep into roots music, from old Staples Singers stuff to Carribean influences, with Nancy explaining the background behind each song, every respectful of the traditions. But the kindness of others insists on asserting itself just the same. Nancy makes a passing reference to their accompanist Jake Heck, a young bluesy guitarist; she notes with a smile that in addition to everything else, the guitarist finds time to “coach girls soccer.”

Naturally, I wonder what service the other singers do, the broader web of their off-stage lives. I gradually find out that Nancy herself has been teaching art in Haiti for roughly 20 years, long before the earthquake there.

Even the action on stage has a feeling of volunteerism about it. They’ve resisted doing a studio CD, as they don’t want this collaboration to become a business; I applaud the attitude … even as I really, really want  a CD. I guess I really am going to have to be in the moment.

Being with one of my early writing colleagues, I mention that I would love to write about this moment, too. She asks how it would fit – ever my editor – and I say that given all these soulful gospel numbers, they’re bound to serve up an altruistic lyric or two. Perhaps a quarter hour later, Nancy explains that when reggae legend Bob Marley recorded the next song, they were very likely smoking certain “herbs”, setting the audience up to laugh when they hear the title, “Pass It On.”

But it turns out to be the farthest thing from a drug song.

 

What your hands do,

It’s your own eyes that’ve seen.

So won’t you judge your actions


To make sure the results are clean?

 

It’s your own conscience


That is gonna remind you


That it’s your heart and nobody else’s


That is gonna judge.

 

Be not selfish in your doings:

Pass it on. (Pass it on, children)


Help your brothers (help them) in their needs:


Pass it on.

 

Live for yourself and you will live in vain;

Live for others, you will live again.

 

Betsy places her hand on my right shoulder and I twist back to look at her.

“There’s your ending.”

Amen.

The Road Trip Begins

20 Apr

 

Putting palm to palm. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

Putting palm to palm. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

I struggle to curl the roughly five-inch strip of palm frond into a twisting pattern, roughly the shape of the memorial ribbons people pin to their shirts, a shape seemingly simple enough until you’re recreating it with less cooperative natural fiber. When I finally get the curl at the top proportionate to the ends that flare out below, my left index finger presses the spot where they intersect to the plain wooden cross. Despite my usual shaky-handedness, I manage to hold it in place while my right hand positioned the open stapler.

Across the table, I sense the palm cross machine that is my mentor Maria suddenly come to a stop; glancing up, I catch her and an older woman to my left both staring at what I’m about to do. Realizing they’ve been caught, they glance at each other, then burst into laughter.

“You thought I was going to staple my finger to the cross, didn’t you?” They nod, grinning, and I laugh, too. Returning to the task, I move my left index finger an inch farther from the target area, bang the staple down through the bow. Miracle of miracles, it winds up perfectly placed.

Christina with one of the crosses she made (and I bought).

Christina with one of the crosses she made (and I bought).

We’re sitting in the basement of St. Paul Catholic Church in the Puerto Rican area of Wilmington, Delaware. Tall, gray, and pale, with long fumbling fingers, I am obviously neither Puerto Rican nor a fiber artisan. Back in my undergraduate days, when we wanted to imply that our peers chose easy classes, we’d accuse them of taking basket-weaving – only basket-weaving would’ve been my most nightmarish academic scenario.

Well, that or Spanish, which I avoided until doctoral studies almost 20 years later – and still fumble my way through here today, managing only an occasional “gracias.”

So there you have it: I am arts-and-crafts impaired, I don’t speak Spanish, I’m not Catholic – and, until last night, I’ve never taken so much as a nap in Delaware. How did I come to be here, on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, helping the good people of St. Paul’s with their annual Easter fundraiser?

The answer: This is the second day of a three-month, coast-to-coast road trip. My motives are mixed. At age 56, I have plotted a journey with a definite bucket-list aspect. I’m visiting old friends I haven’t seen in decades. I’m making sure I revel in the fairground scene at New Orleans Jazz Fest, spend more than a few hours hiking and meditating along the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon, wind my way up through Utah’s majestic Arches National Park, and, on the way back from California, hook my way up to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

But there is a grander purpose – at stop after stop, I hope to both volunteer in the community and interview folks about the place of service in their lives, whether it’s unpaid work or professional choices to put themselves at the service of a greater cause. This is not totally altruistic — the truth is, the journey wouldn’t be spiritually survivable, much less fulfilling, if this weren’t the goal. Without the chance to serve and interview,  driving cross-country would be a hollow exercise, a solitary expedition, a lame attempt to tell myself that this trip proves that I don’t really need other people, or to be a part of something bigger than myself, when I actually, above all, crave connection. By pulling off the road to work alongside folks and/or hear their stories of service, I hope to fill the road trip’s vast empty spaces, both the ones I drive through and the ones I sometimes feel within myself.

Christina's crosses exude an artistic flourish.

Christina’s crosses exude an artistic flourish.

This morning is a good start toward deepening my connection to something bigger than my 2007 Toyota Avalon, or even my daily life up in New England.  As I strive to bend the next strip into place, I hear, somewhere behind me, a familiar laugh. It comes from Betsy, my Delaware host. Almost 30 years ago, we worked together at a newspaper in Montgomery, Alabama; in addition to inspiring me in those early formative years as a journalist, she was one of my favorite girlfriends. We dated for two years, including a couple of pretty fabulous road trips, the crazy impromptu kind you take when you’re in your 20s and seemingly inexhaustible. (This old person’s mentality implied in the last sentence is one of the things this trip is designed to transcend.) Betsy took a job up the road in Birmingham, eventually married a former co-worker of ours, and wound up here at the Wilmington newspaper. I last saw her and her husband Frank at my 40th birthday party down in Tuscaloosa; in the 16 years since our last conversation, she has both raised a son and lost a husband. Lou Gehrig’s Disease got Frank. A horrifying end for a great guy who deserved better.

I followed the story from afar. Despite being less than five hours away, we’d drifted too far apart for me to consider coming down. Too many years – and yet, despite that, too emotionally loaded. But this is where the community service pays off. In service of the larger project, you have to, well, just get over yourself, including all your hangups and inhibitions. You have to head straight into things you might otherwise avoid. So often it turns out that the things we worry about, most of the things that divide people from one another, are, in the larger view, no big deal.

That is one of the benefits of journalism environment in which Betsy and I first knew each other: While academics can isolate themselves from one another for years over the most minor of differences, in a newsroom you just get on with the job. And when it comes to the job, if anyone knew where the service stories were in Delaware, it would be Betsy.

Of course, this revelation is also made possible because of road trip physics. Bound by the gravitational pull of my local life, the notion of a five-hour jaunt through heavily congested territory that I’m loathe to traverse, just to reunite with an old friend I haven’t spoken with in a couple of decades, would seem theoretically implausible. But the sheer length of my current quest seems to fold seemingly infinite space and time into a single neighborhood on a particular day. When I saw Betsy last night, it was as if I’d just seen her that morning. Would I be pushing it to call this folding an origami of community? (I am feeling artsy-craftsy today.)

As I work on my cross, I listen to Betsy work the room. Despite what she’s been through before, during and since her husband’s death in October of 2011, Betsy seems almost invincibly the same as the person I knew in 1985: The irreverent mirth, the insatiable curiosity, the empathetic warmth, it’s all still there. Now she banters with volunteers at another table, blending jokes and teasing with observations and questions. What the interviewees don’t suspect, but I do, is that this is still pretty much Betsy most hours of the day. The only difference is the notepad in her hand.

Stained glass DE 2

Sowing the seeds. One of dozens of stained-glass scenes in the St. Paul sanctuary.

We spend another hour or so at the church, marveling at the sanctuary and eating homemade tamales; the volunteers are so insistent that we join them for the meal, it would be rude not to. I know the journey ahead is going to include a week or so on the Mexican border, but I seriously doubt the tamales I eat in the Rio Grande Valley will taste any more authentic than what I’m sampling in Delaware. On the way out, for both unselfish and selfish reasons, I contribute $40 to the fundraiser – in the form of purchasing four crosses, including the one I made.

Despite having served two years as a Presbyterian youth director, I’m not a huge fan of the suffering side of Christianity. Even though such suffering does exist in the world, and should be engaged with compassion and vigilance, I strive to emphasize a positive commitment to certain principles that can be found in Christianity – love and grace, peace and justice, and, of course, joy – without behaving as if my commitment is a burden.

Thanks to the good people of St. Paul’s, I’ve discovered a cross I can bear joyfully – four of them, to be exact. We carefully position them in the back of her mini-van, then commence the quest for coffee.

“You could stay here for two months,” Betsy says as she drives me through her community, “and I could come up with a different story for you every day. There are so many people here doing so many great things.”

The cross I bear -- and made. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

The cross I bear — and made. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

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