Sunday Morning ~ Finding the Way
Khote-khote wa njoka, usata rumene kwaloza mutu. ~ Crooked is the way the snake moves, but follow where the head points.
~ Chewa proverb
November 3, 2019
I drove over 4,000 miles the past three weeks, south to the Gulf of Mexico then north to Frenchman’s Bay again, crossing eighteen states. I just counted them. When we were kids on our big cross country camping trips (a book I need to write some day) my father would read a map laid out on the front seat of the car and navigate as he drove. My father was known for driving long distances at a time without looking at the road. It was terrifying. I’ve often thought that the only reason we are alive is that God wasn’t ready to take us yet. My mother would scream at him and he’d berate her for being scared, then point out he’d never been in an accident, as if that was logic for driving dangerously. We kids would huddle in the back seat and laugh as if his dangerous driving was an exciting family joke. It did become a sort of legend and whenever people joked about his driving, he’d point out he’d never been in an accident. Until the day he drove off the road after he retired, someplace in western Massachusetts. He had to call my mother to tell her. I never knew the whole story. He was supposedly blueberry picking (I do remember that because his new galvanized bucket had been smashed). By then he was driving a smaller car and would take off for weekends without telling anyone where he was going. I always suspected he was with another woman, but never said that out loud. I was smugly congratulating myself for being right when that truth came out, but I so wanted to rub his face in that accident. I wanted to ask him if he was still so proud of the way he drove? What was his rationale now that the past record was ruined? By then none of us would get in a car with him; I guess as we got older all our suicidal tendencies took on a more independent nature. It’s terrible, but as I write this I can remember thinking, “Figures he’d be ok but the bucket was smashed.” sort of disappointed I still had to deal with him. Wow! Big introduction to say I don’t read maps while driving! Lots of unpacked baggage there! To be fair it is more dangerous than it used to be. My car is tiny whereas the front seat of our Chevrolet was the size of our living room couch. And there are zillions more cars on the road now. But still. All this brings me to how I think GPS is a wonderful invention. Me who rails against the overuse of technology, who loves paper maps, who rarely buys things on line––– I love GPS. I love having that nice lady tell me where to turn and give me a ten and two mile heads up. Love it. Now, if someone else is in the car, I’m happy to do it the old way. My friend Chris is a very good navigator and sat with the map on his lap as we traveled the Natchez Trace. He’d read the map and point out all the historical points of interest. I’m all for that. But when I’m driving alone in unfamiliar surroundings, it’s just quicker and more streamlined to hit the “Go” button and be magically navigated. It takes hours off my arrival time since I don’t have to keep pulling over to see where I am, never mind ask directions.
Last Monday morning I left Chris and Sarah in New Orleans and headed for Montgomery, Alabama where I wanted to visit the Legacy Museum. Having just read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, I really wanted to see the tribute to his efforts to fight for justice in our modern day slavery of mass incarceration. He takes us through the history of slavery, emancipation, lynching, Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration of minorities, mostly black, in a for-profit system. The museum was…I still struggle to find the words to describe it… haunting? shocking? depressing? paralyzing? It was the same with the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Just gutting. Facing our sordid history with such nakedness. And both places have done it with a kind of grace. Not a (completely understandable) anger or fury. Grace is the only way I can describe it. The reality is plenty enough to be shocking. I felt such shame for my race but came away with a better understanding of what’s needed to start a healing process. In our midwifery organization we are confronting the institutionalized racism within and we are told not to come to the table out of a sense of shame or guilt. I wonder how we can feel anything else? I’m grappling with this.
From the museum a bus took us to the Lynching Memorial. I handed my ticket at the entrance and was told I could take photographs as long as they were respectful. I didn’t understand what I was about to see. I’d only just learned of this memorial. I was confused and thought the glass jars labeled with the lynching victim’s name, filled with dirt, dug from beneath the lynching site, by families hoping to capture some of the DNA of a loved one, victims who had been strung up before a crowd of spectators without trial or burial… I thought this harrowing representation on this way-too-huge wall in the museum, was the memorial. But there is another. It is a six acre site on a hill overlooking the city. As you enter and walk along the walkway, you pass sculptures of slaves in chains. As you continue along, there are large, standing metal rectangles with names of lynching victims and the county they came from. Each rectangle, maybe twelve feet tall, has the name of the county and the names of the victims that could be found in the archives. As inscribed on the way along the path, these are the names that could be found, 4,400 of them. There are many more whose names could not be found. The path descends and the rectangles are hung from the huge ceiling until you are walking underneath hundreds of these heavy metal rectangles inscribed with names of people who were hung without trial or evidence. As I passed underneath my knees started giving out. They have benches to sit on. A few people were sitting down looking up. I wondered if they also felt they couldn’t walk. I didn’t ask. Speaking aloud felt sacrilege.
I first heard of Bryan Stevenson when I was watching every TED talk I could as I was getting ready to do my own. He is one of those people who was born to do great things. A pied piper, almost holy. I sit in the great shadows of people like him and wonder what I should be doing? I need to find a job. The one I really wanted doesn’t seem to be coming through for me and I need to figure out how to make a simple living with a meaningful purpose. I was looking for inspiration on this trip. I had a long drive home to think about it.
I spent that night in Montgomery, a city much nicer than I expected. I have so many judgements about the south. I was nervous about traveling there alone, afraid I’d see lots of confederate flags or some other signs that made me despair. But I saw none. I saw a beautiful city on a river, a city with a sordid history of injustice for sure. The museum is housed in a slave warehouse where slaves were shackled and brutalized until they could be sold. They were brought there by boat or train on a railroad the slaves were forced to build. The domestic slave trade I hadn’t really thought about. Spending time in Africa I’d always been focused on the transatlantic trade not realizing that after that was banned in 1808 we just bred our own. That kind of a history leaves it’s mark on a place. Whites were made wealthy on the backs of slaves and they did not want to give up that wealth or power. The civil war started there. I didn’t sense of anger or fear. I felt safe walking alone. I was struck with the thought that, wait a minute…all this talk about the country being divided because people feel they are being left behind is just hogwash. This culture of white supremacy is generational. Witnessing an attempt at making our country face it’s history of racial crimes and thus giving us a chance at redemption was incredibly humbling. I wondered what is being taught in schools there? Do they take field trips to this memorial? That someone had the energy and conviction to start this process in a loving and respectful way…what a model. If we can acknowledge our painful past in an honest way, maybe this country could lean a little more toward justice…what a dream.
The next day I drove back to my friends’ Kathy and Michael in Tennessee. I’m so comfortable there. I was nurtured and fed and left early the next morning with the wonderful feeling of being loved. I was heading for Pittsburgh to stay with friends from my old Peace Corps days and set Google Maps on my phone with their address. I had eight and a half hours of driving ahead and looked forward to catching up on my podcasts and finishing the book I’d been listing to. I just love road trips. I love being in motion and having some place to go. And, being alone, I find having that little voice telling me which exit to take reassuring. It had been a great trip but I was looking forward to heading north again. The weather was terrible. It poured rain through a lot of Kentucky then let up as I got into Ohio. It was slower going than I expected when my electronic traveling companion told me there was an accident on the highway ahead and I should turn off onto this country road to save thirty-one minutes. Isn’t that just amazing? How do they know that? Incredible, I thought, as I finished the book I was listening to. What incredible privilege I enjoy, smiling, now that I was on a smaller, prettier road without big trucks throwing spray in my face. I stuck an Alison Krause CD into the player thinking the last stretch of the trip would go faster as I sang along. George had made me the CD when we first got together and I’d been thinking of him a lot. Then my phone went black. The map, with it’s reassuring arrow on the blue line, disappeared. Hmm, I thought, maybe it’s tired. I know it’s charged. I’ll wait a bit. The voice just told me I’d be on this road for 68 miles so I’ve got time for her to rest. Well, the road ended and so did my phone. I could not get it to turn back on. I had another hour to Pittsburgh and had to navigate to their house with no directions. I stopped at a small gas station in a panic. I couldn’t even text to let them know I’d be late! The horror!! I ran into the little store and, thank God, there was a person under thirty at the counter. I said, “My phone died and I have no way to figure out how to get where I’m going!” The look on this girl’s face was just what I was hoping for. Sheer horror and pity. It was as if I’d told her one of my kids had died. Yes, I could read the map to get into Pittsburgh, but not to take the fifteen lefts and rights I needed to find their house. She pulled out her phone and asked for the address of where I was going. She typed it in and handed me her phone. I was incredibly relieved but my heart sunk when I saw the length of the instructions. I grabbed a sales slip out of my bag and started writing them down. I ran out of paper. Every time I touched her screen to scroll down it disappeared and she had to leave the pizza she was making to come back and fix it for me. I realized I was shaking as I was writing. I looked at the time on her phone and prayed it wouldn’t be dark by the time I got there. I would never be able to read all these road signs. And, bless goggle maps’s little heart, it doesn’t say “Take the third left” it just says “Go left on such and such street”, so how was I going to be able to do this without reading the signs or having that sweet little voice telling me how many more feet to go? Mom! I wanted my mom! (No idea why I wanted her, she was a terrible navigator, but I did.) I thought to ask this kind young person if I could use her phone to call my friend to say I’d be late, but no. I couldn’t do that because her number was on my phone, which, had betrayed me and died. Never even said goodbye.
I got into Pittsburg at rush hour in the rain. I was getting a little panicky, partly because of being late, partly because of the coffee I had so stupidly drunk at three pm, and partly because I wondered how to communicate with everyone I usually text with. Would all communication be lost? Then worried again I’d never find their house. I reminded myself that runaway slaves had to grope the trees at night to feel the moss so they’d know which way was north. You’re being a sissy, I told myself. We used to travel like this all the time. It took an hour to go about two miles through the city traffic and it was dark by the time I took my exit into the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. I could barely read my writing on the sales slip and definitely could not see the road signs until it was too late to turn. I had to stop three times and ask people directions. Every one of them pulled out their phone. I pulled up to my friends’ house an hour and a half late, which, was kind of a lot when I was only staying an evening with people I hadn’t seen in years. I considered it a miracle.
Thursday it was to Vermont, super easy with only my paper atlas and knowing the road. I had a lovely visit with my cousin and 108 year old aunt who is another inspiration. Friday, I was anxious to get home as there’d been a huge storm the night before and I was worried about what I’d find. Long country roads took me back to a house with no heat but other than that my place was pretty much undamaged. The tremendous wind and rain left many trees down but mostly in the woods around my place. I was grateful I’d had the ones near the house removed last year and for the safe, familiar welcome. And then realized I had no phone to call the plumber.
Love to all,