Sunday, February 24, 2013
As adventures go, it wasn’t a particularly exciting, frightening, or life-changing one. In fact, most people wouldn’t call it an adventure at all. I do because I define adventure as anything that requires me to do something risky or that interrupts my plans or even that I will at some point in the future have the opportunity to recount to some unsuspecting soul by uttering the words, “Oh, that reminds me of the day I ...”
It happened like this: I’m leaving town for a couple of days, headed to Tallahassee to speak about and read from the book I wrote. I’ve gotten as far as Reidsville and stopped for gas. Tank full and iPod buds back in my ears, I turn the key. The Escape (a/k/a the Bradley Fighting Vehicle) doesn’t start. I try again. Nothing. Again. Still nothing.
I look around to make sure that no one is waiting for my pump. Deep breath. One more try. Failure.
That’s okay. No need to panic. I have Triple-A. I walk around to take a look at the rear windshield where my Triple-A decal is barely visible underneath the road dust. I read off the 800 number and repeat it to myself as I walk back to get my phone. Triple-A answers on the first ring and a young woman who was obviously hired because her voice is as soothing as a mother’s hand on a fevered brow says, “First of all, are you in a safe location?”
Within two minutes a wrecker has been dispatched to a location whose address I do not know and which I can describe only by saying, “It’s a Clyde’s Market across the street from the courthouse.” I notice that I am not nervous. My palms are not sweating. I am not imagining the horrible inconvenience it is going to be if I don’t make it to the speaking engagement tomorrow. I am surprised at this.
The wrecker is going to tow the Escape back to Sandhill and I need to locate other transportation, so I pull out the telephone book I keep in the sliding drawer beneath the passenger seat and open the Yellow Pages to Automobile Rental. I call four places. No one has a car.
I take a deep breath. And before I am consciously aware of what I am doing, I turn the key. It cranks! The Escape is running! And before it has time to change its mind I buckle my seatbelt, throw the phone book to the side, and pull out into the highway. I’m headed to Tallahassee. I won’t stop along the way and if the thing doesn’t start in the morning I can call a cab!
I re-dial Triple-A. Another young lady with the same kind of voice answers. I explain that I no longer need a tow, that I appreciate very much their help, and that I hope she has a nice day. She returns the favor.
It is 196 miles to Tallahassee. That’s a lot of driving time, a lot of time to think about what happened in the Clyde’s parking lot. A lot of time to figure out exactly what it was that made a situation (“car trouble”) that is usually so aggravating, exasperating, and frustrating such a non-event. I consider the possibility that perhaps I have finally reached an optimum level of maturity, enlightenment, or detachment. I discard that possibility when I get behind an RV going 45 miles per hour.
I discard a few other possibilities before I light on the theory that feels exactly right: I managed the situation rather than allowing it to manage me because of one thing, that first question the Triple-A operator asked: “Are you in a safe location?”
When the answer to that question is yes, whether the safe location is a well-lit parking lot, a contented state of mind, or a trustworthy relationship, you are free to give your best efforts to solving the problem, formulating the new idea, creating something that has never existed before. There is no waste of energy looking over your shoulder or erecting barriers. There is no reason to hold things or people at arms’ length and every reason to embrace them without hesitation. When the answer is yes, everything is an adventure.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
The sign over my head identified it as the Express Lane. The crowd pressing around me suggested that the designation might be a bit optimistic. I wondered for not the first time what exactly had made me think that I could not live one more day without banana bread yogurt and that, because I’d just left the gym, I was aptly armed to brave the Saturday afternoon mob of shoppers. There were, though, only two people ahead of me, so it was entirely possible that my good humor might actually survive the expedition.
The first of those two people ahead of me was an older woman, probably 75, her short white hair sculpted into layers of wide apostrophes at a weekly beauty shop appointment. Pale pink powder had collected in the wrinkles on her cheeks. She was paying with cash. There was probably a checkbook somewhere in her pocketbook, but there would never be a debit card.
Behind her was a young woman, probably 20, her shiny black hair smoothed flat against her skull, her profile making me think immediately of those Egyptian coins with the images of Nefertiti. Her cheeks were smooth, the color of rich chocolate. She was purchasing one item, a box of Lemonheads.
The clerk handed the older woman her change, some bills and quite a few coins. Her hand, deeply-veined and wrinkled, shook with the involuntariness of age as she reached out to take it. With her other hand, equally contrary, she attempted to open her billfold. She struggled. “I’m sorry,” she said to no one in particular and anyone who might be inconvenienced by her difficulty. She was embarrassed and anxious and angry at her inability to make her hands obey.
“Here,” I heard the Lemonheads girl say, “let me help you.” She gently reached forward to catch the money that was about to spill on the floor, to hold open the billfold so that it could be dropped safely inside.
“Oh, thank you. Thank you,” the woman sighed as she accepted the help.
She put the billfold back into the pocketbook, grasped the handle of the buggy with both trembling hands, and turned to look at the girl again, “Thank you, sweetheart.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am.”
Before I’d gone into the store, I’d been listening to a radio broadcast about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the racially motivated attack that killed four little girls. I was not quite seven in September, 1963. I don’t remember the bombing, but I do remember, if only vaguely, a world of separate water fountains, separate entrances to the county health department, separate schools. And I remember the first black child to ride my school bus, how the older boys tried to bully him, how it made my nine-year-old blood boil, and how I invited him, a shy and quiet little first-grader, to sit up front with me.
Maybe it was the radio broadcast. Maybe it was the memories it conjured. Probably it was both that caused me to be so aware of what I’d witnessed in the Express Lane – the old white hands and the young black ones working together.
It has been nearly 50 years since Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair went to church one Sunday morning and never went home. It has been nearly 50 years since this country and each of her citizens were forced to reexamine the meanings of equality and justice. It has been nearly 50 years and work remains to be done, but no one can deny that 200 million Americans don’t remember “separate,” not even vaguely, because they were not even born.
The sermon that was to have been given at the 16th Street Baptist Church on the morning of September 15, 1963, was titled “The Love That Forgives.” I don’t know if Rev. John Cross ever got a chance to deliver that sermon from a pulpit, but I have seen it preached over and over, most recently in the Express Lane.