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.)

One Response to “The Road Trip Begins”

  1. The Rev J April 20, 2014 at 10:19 pm #

    Reblogged this on Righteous Faith, Humble Reflections of Religion and commented:
    A wonderful beginning to a journey and joy and goodness. Something Mike has always supplied from deep within his soul…ride on. Be safe and well…send an intinerary…hint? I love driving too!

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