Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tragedy, prayer, and blame. Who's to blame anyway?

What is this world coming to? How could this possibly happen? What can we do to insure this never happens again? These are the questions filling the minds of many Americans today. It’s these questions that have been rattling around in my head since I learned of the horrific incidents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday. How does someone look into the faces of innocence and be so blinded by rage, or illness, or whatever it was that drove Adam Lanza’s finger to the trigger a few days ago, and cut down children and teachers in the prime of their lives? The truth is we will probably never really know. That is a terrifying truth and it is so discomfiting that most of us simply cannot accept it. So we begin the blame game. The news and my facebook feed are replete with examples. We blame gun laws, bad parenting, health care, and most recently a lack of God in the schools. As I read and watched the influx of blame I shook my head, yes gun laws must be reformed. Yes, parents with troubled kids should think long and hard before stockpiling an arsenal of weapons in their home. Yes, parity of care for the mentally ill is long overdue. It’s when I got to the God in schools posts that I began to pause. Which version of God? Whose God? Which doctrine? Whose dogma? That, for me, is where the answer gets a bit tricky. Not all my students are Christian so who am I to say which version of God we ought to bring through the doors of the building? As I pondered this I realized something, God is already in the every school in America, and it’s the dogma we close the doors to. We don’t preach a religion, though our students are free to, but God, he’s there daily.
How do I know? Actions. I was raised Christian, more specifically Catholic, and for me the Golden rule has always carried quite a bit of weight. I believe strongly in the concept of ‘doing unto others as you’d have done to you’ and there is no shortage of that lesson in public schools. How? This week alone students at my school have gathered coats for the cold, food for the hungry, and relief items for those devastated by Superstorm Sandy. This year they’ve brought supplies to the homeless in a local tent city, they are planning yet another fundraiser for cancer victims, in the spring teachers will organize a dress donation closet so their students who may not be able to afford a prom dress can get one for free. Maybe we never use the scripture verse “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me” or mention the Quran’s call to give alms to the poor, or the Hindu principle of unity of existence through love , but all those ‘religious’ and humanistic truths are at work in American education every day. They simply aren’t labeled as such.
After events like what took place in Connecticut it is tempting to look for an easy solution but there simply isn’t one and that, more than an absence of religion, is at the heart of the problem. Students know that every school in America establishes a disciplinary system meant to insure their safety. Adults must accept that no system of rules or procedures is foolproof. A crazy person with a gun can shoot through security and no form of religious doctrine will ever be able to stop that. If you look around the planet right now there is no shortage of evil committed in the name of God and we do not (generally) blame belief for the wars and violence perpetrated by believers. Is it God that flew those planes into the World Trade Center, is it God raining bombs back and forth over the Gaza strip? No, it’s people. People do horrific things, even when they practice religion daily.
So what of letting God back in school? Again, he’s there. Every school in America has an established system of rules meant to keep students safe and these rules find their origins in various religions. Injunctions against violence, theft, cruelty, as well as a bevy of other precepts stem from Judeo-Christian commandments like those received by Moses all those years ago. They reflect Hindu disciplines like Satya (truth), Ahimsa (non-violence), and Asteya (no desire to possess or steal). The fundamental concepts of the world’s religions are the basis of the rules and ideologies that schools use to mold student behaviors. What schools do not, and in my opinion, should not do is advocate one specific form of religion over another. America was founded by people fleeing religious oppression, what they wanted (if the ideas expressed in the Constitution are to be trusted) is a home that did not dictate dogma and doctrine but instead embodied it. They were clear about the separation of church and state. Why? Because they, far more than we, understood the dangers of theocracy. They lived in countries that actively imposed one religion over the other and they, unlike us, knew the dangers of that kind of power in the hands of one group of people who believed they had cornered truth.
How can the same news anchors who condemn Sharia law with so much vitriol not see the hypocrisy of their calls to impose Christian sensibilities and practices on those whose ideas are not in keeping with ours? Therein lies the problem. Whose God do we usher through the front doors? Which prayers and traditions must be enacted in order to say God is in the building? Why, when the American student life is so replete with examples of the concepts embraced by the world’s religions, must we choose just one doctrine and elevate it to ‘best’? Why do so many of us want to stake our flag in the American school system as if we, more than any other religion, owned the truth. As if we, more than any other philosophy, had all the right answers to complex problems.
We will never know if a lack of religion that drove Adam Lanza through the doors of Sandy Hook elementary school three days ago. We can be sure, however, that it wasn’t a lack of dogma that afforded him entry. Adam Lanza is that thing we fear the most, enigma. If the ability to openly pray in a building were all it took to keep out evil no priest would ever have molested a child, no terrorist plot would ever have been hatched in a mosque; no rabbi would ever have murdered his wife in their home. No, it isn’t the ostensible acts of faith that shield us. It isn’t that simple. The problems in American society aren’t that simple. Neither, I’m afraid, are the answers.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tis the Season

I've got a cold, not a bad one but as I listen to my own voice disappearing slowly I can't help but find its warbling echo amusing. I sound silly and though my head is full and my throat and body ache I can't help but feel like a kid again. I've degenerated into a whiny, sniveling mess who's curled up beneath her comforter sipping a cup of tea and sucking on a cough drop. My husband is a horrible nursemaid, but in fairness I am a horrible patient. I cry when I'm sick, for no apparent reason shedding tears makes me feel better. I want my mommy. It seems appropriate for this time of year to find myself receding back to childlike behaviors and since I'm in full kid mode I'd like Santa back too. I'd like to believe again in a benevolent universe where a jolly, corpulent old man lives to bring magic into our lives. I want a list of who's good and who's bad and I want someone who is fundamentally kind monitoring it. I want villains to fear finding coal in their stockings, to believe in something today the way I once believed that a generous old man who flew around the world every December 24th.

So, how exactly does one find that kind of magic in middle age when you are bombarded daily with a barrage of bills, bad news, and other stressors?  The search itself seems exhausting but even from my perch on the couch I feel certain it must be worth the work. In my house most of the 'magic' of Christmas has faded. We have no 'believers' here and 2011 has been, in some ways, a horrible year. My child struggled to find himself, made mistakes that were painful to watch, I've had a falling out with someone I dearly love, I am about to have surgery and we have been dealing, like many Americans, with financial stresses. These things pale in comparison with what many of our friends have faced this year, one friend has been raising four children as a widow, one has been dealing with the needs of two handicapped children, another faced (and defeated) cancer and the list goes on. Life, it seems, has been anything but fair this year.

So what is there to celebrate? What is there to believe in? Why shouldn't I curl into my couch and enjoy a heaping serving of cynicism with my tea and cough drops? I want to, it's a vice of mine to wallow, but I've learned something over the years. Things are never as bad as they seem.
Thankfully, I learned this lesson early when, in my teens and early twenties, I struggled with an eating disorder. My disorder was, to put it mildly, resistant to treatment. The details of the ten years I spent battling are still difficult to discuss and I admit I gave up more times than I can count during that period. Mostly, I didn't want to stop abusing myself. I had power over food if nothing else. I was good at starving. I loved the feel of my bones protruding through my skin because that made me feel powerful. I could flirt with my own disappearance and then pull back far enough to cheat death. I had been disappointed and I was protesting. Like so many protests, mine turned violent, the violence turned inward instead of outward and that kind of violence is much more difficult to quash. I wonder now if there wasn't some part of me that was refusing to grow up.

Growing up sucks, kids get Santa and bunnies, and they don't worry about salaries or bills, even at twelve I must have known this. For children belief comes easy, of course there is magic in the universe, reindeer fly, elves labor joyously to make toys for children they don't know, altruism is strong enough to get one man to every child's home in just one night. Adults, on the other hand, often argue over the mistreatment of animals, laborers are often overworked and under-compensated, and the existence of altruism is highly questionable in a world were everyone seems to be out for themselves. Still, I can't help it, I believe.

I believe that people are fundamentally good despite the Jerry Sandusky's and the Bernie Madoff's of this world. I think kindness and generosity are gifts given every day in small, often silent, ways. Today my son's car broke down and his cousin came and helped him get it towed home. My friend offered to drive me to work next week if I need to loan my son the car. These are little things, silly things maybe but no one had to help us, they chose to. No one really owes anyone else those small gestures but they do it anyway. These things are, in my view, simple magic.

What of the larger magic? The thing that will save us all from ourselves? All week I've been teaching Crime and Punishment to my seniors, we've been talking about the advantages and dangers of intellectualism. The benefits and pitfalls of philosophies like Nietzsche's Uberman theory. How far, exactly, should be follow our own ideologies? How much can we trust logic? In theory the concept of an intellectual superman is appealing, logical, even comforting. The precept that if one person's death can benefit thousands then it is rational, even required, that that person be sacrificed makes a kind of mathematical sense. If, somewhere out there, there are these exceptional individuals whose intellectual capacity distinguishes them from the masses, can't they become our new Santas? Can't they give us the gift of a more advanced peace? A more enlightened understanding? Lead the way like the protagonist of Dostoevsky's novel is hoping to do? Isn't intelligence a sort of magic?

Trouble is human intelligence is hopelessly tied to human emotion. Do we really want it any other way? Do we want to make completely rational decisions? In the opening scene of the movie I, Robot Will Smith plays a character whose car is submerged in water.In the passenger seat is a small child. The robot, having calculated the mathematical likelihoods of survival of the two victims, saves the adult because it is the logical thing to do. Thus begins the character's essential mistrust of logic that is devoid of emotion.

Raskolnikov suffers a similar conundrum, try as he might to separate himself from emotion, it keeps creeping in on him. Drunkards and usurers are bad for society. Poverty dehumanizes, someone must step in to save the peasants from their own simplicity. Who better than a young intellectual with a plan? Ah, but the plan falls apart quickly when the protagonist cannot overcome his own humanity. He is, inherently an emotional creature and despite his best efforts, he fails to separate emotion and logic. Of course Dostoevsky had an agenda, I suppose we all do but he tackles Hegel, Nietzsche and other philosophers admirably and wrestles a respectable match.

So, why can't I have my Santa back? Why can't I say someone sold me a bill of goods when they told me to abandon magical thinking? Someone stole Santa, and maybe it was me. I wanted to grow up. I love thinking about things, I want to know as much as I can in the short time I'm on this planet but I can't help but realize, especially at this time of year that without some magic, some belief in the preposterous, I'll shrink somehow. So I'm going to embrace mystery, I'm going to believe. It doesn't matter if I believe in Santa, Buddha, God, or just the fundamental magic of having the ability to feel emotions, as long as I find something to believe in, my life will be enhanced. So guess what? I'm going to sit on my couch on December 24th and watch Christmas specials, I'm going to pretend reindeer and a fat guy in a suit are trekking around the world. I'm going to believe in the power of the human spirit to create magic. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Land of Enchantment

I have begun my trek back to the east coast and despite my pledge to blog daily I found myself too much under New Mexico's spell to sit down and write each night. New Mexico touts itself as The Land of Enchantment and I admit when I read the slogan as I passed under the gateway that welcomes visitors into New Mexico, I thought it was a huge claim to make. I visited Las Vegas several years ago and though I loved it, I was not impressed at all with the surrounding landscape. Coming from an area of the country that has a great diversity in its landscape I found the arid, desolate landscape of the west a bit depressing really. The mountains looked, to me at least, lifeless and hostile. I expected to feel the same way about the landscape of New Mexico with its red rock and a nearly barren horizon that seemed to stretch out infinitely in front of me.

The first two days we were in New Mexico were the sort of days that Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Less Traveled" talks about. The poem's main assertion about how much difference the path we choose can make in our lives became very clear to me as Carolyn and I ventured into the hills of New Mexico. For most of this trip the GPS has been my best friend, when I wasn't sure where I was going the voice inside that little box offered me the security that no matter how many wrong turns I made, someone (or something) knew how to save me from myself. So when, on our first full day, we met a friendly local man at the gas station I was a bit nervous to take his advice and stray from the path the GPS had laid out for me but if this trip has been about anything it's been about exploration and so we decided to follow his advice and take a back-road through the mountains to see an old ghost town and a few locales where movies like Young Guns, Wild Hogs, and Cowboys versus Aliens were filmed.

One thing James (the local's name) didn't mention to us was that 8 miles of that road was unpaved and often steep. Though at first I was having a hard time turning off my cynicism,  I even turned to Carolyn and said "Bet he's calling his friend right now telling him he sent two 'victims' out to the old ghost town and that he should meet and (insert a variety of bad things here) the two of us", eventually we laughed and kept right on driving that mountain road. What a difference that made.

The road, lined by cattle and barbed wire was surrounded by rocks that rose up dwarfing us. As a rule I am terrified of heights and I am not known for being outdoorsy but Carolyn and I stopped on that road and climbed up those rocks. I walked at first tentatively then slowly gained a sureness of foot. Some rocks crumbled beneath my feet but most held steady and allowed me passage. I was, however, always aware that nature was in the driver's seat as I made my way down the road. I suppose this is when I first found myself genuinely enchanted with the land because as I stood there I realized the land exists despite us and the harshness of the terrain reminds me that I borrow my sustenance from the land but the relationship is not reciprocal. If anything, the earth would be better off without us. To become acutely aware of your own position in nature is truly mystifying. 

The unpaved road ended in a small town called Cerrillos, when we rounded the corner I felt sure we'd reached a long-abandoned town. The roads, unpaved, were unpopulated but when we parked the car suddenly there stood a local shop owner, Lori. Lori was an invaluable historian for her town and she was quick to inform us of its place on The Turquoise Trail and how the land and the people suffered as a result of industry and its exploitation of the land. In addition to explaining the impact of mining she was excited to tell us about her experience when she witnessed the first Young Guns movie shooting several scenes in town. Lori, like most of the people we've met here, was a kind and talkative soul who worked both as a shop keeper and as a visual artist. I have been surprised by how openly and eagerly New Mexico embraces art of all kinds. The place seems to pulse with creative energy and I began quickly to see why it provided so much inspiration for DH Lawrence, Georgia O'Keefe, and countless other artists. 

After leaving Cerillos, we drove on to Madrid (pronounced Mad Rid) an abandoned mining town that was reestablished by hippies in the 60's who began squatting in the abandoned mine housing. The town is now a haven for artists and full of funky little shops and strange characters wandering the streets selling homemade jewelry. The town's newest claim to fame is that the movie Wild Hogs was shot there and the 'diner' (really a biker shop) featured in the movie is right on its main street. We met some interesting locals while dining at The Hollar. Saul, a self-described flower child, lived in a local hotel and paid his rent by selling earth watches.  I admit I have no idea what an earth watch is and though Saul tried to explain it to me, it looked to me like a rock wrapped in leather. Though what he was selling was lost on me his enthusiasm for living with the encumbrance of a job or a wealth of material goods was something I admired (but could not emulate).  
The creativity that abounds in New Mexico combined with the generous spirit of the people I met that first day cast the initial spell on me, a spell that would only be strengthened by the events of the next few days. I wanted, as I said, to write daily but I find myself needed time to 'digest' the events of each day and I suppose that slowly, as I speed across the stern spine of each American highway I will have the time I need to explain each of the enchantments New Mexico had to offer me. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Flies, Lightning & The Difference a Minute Can Make

'Haste is good only for catching flies' or so the Russian proverb says so needless to say I did not catch any of flies that seemed intent on being my travel companions yesterday. It seemed they were drawn to us all day, those minor annoyances buzzing by our ears, landing on our food, intent on proximity for reasons I can never know. I spent the morning trying to escape them and, admittedly, allowing them to alter my mood. Silly but true. 
Oklahoma City was sweltering even at 8 a.m. and so Carolyn and I decided to head downtown early to see the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial before the sun became too oppressive. The city itself felt abandoned with few people walking about and only minimal traffic. The city streets stretched before us almost void of other vehicles and the heat seemed to rise off of them in sullen waves. The people we did see were friendly and eager to offer assistance and moved with a slow assurance that is becoming increasingly admirable to me. 
The remains of Murrah Federal building are flanked by churches and as you explore the memorial, the steeples hover in the distance. I was struck first by the entrance and it's simplicity. The staunch black wall stands against the city skyline broken only by the light that flows through the egress and the quote about the door reminds those who enter not only of the people who died there but also of the people who lived and of the survivor's struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of an act of explosive violence. 
One of the many things I loved about this memorial was that it honored survivors as much as it honored those who lost their lives and in doing so recognized that wounds inflicted by violence are enduring and while we may physically walk away from violence the emotional scars are far often more difficult to manage than the ones visible to the outside world.

As I walked the grounds of the memorial I was struck by the beauty that has risen from the ashes. A place once soaked in blood and littered with twisted metal and concrete has emerged a verdant field where empty chairs face a reflecting pool as an homage to all those families who will forever have empty seats at their tables as a result of a few radicals and their twisted ideological war against the government. The chairs line the footprint of the Murrah building and among them are nineteen smaller chairs, a striking reminder that among the casualties where nineteen children. It is a moving sight and as spectacular as it is saddening.  

The memorial itself is flanked by two doorways, one marked 9:01 and the other 9:03, the space between marks the moment the bomb exploded, the instance when the world changed forever for the people in that building, their families and the consciousness of America. In the immediate wake of the bombing, as people and dogs dug for survivors the speculation was that a foreign terrorist group had done this but in time the terrible truth that the extremism was homegrown became clear. As I stood there I could not help but consider the current political climate, its divisiveness and heightened rhetoric and wonder if we've forgotten the dangers from within. 

There was one part of the site that I found particularly powerful and it was not designed by an artist but a spontaneous proclamation by a someone working in the rubble of the building and it reads like a despairing call to salvage some sense of order and justice. Even in the midst of chaos human beings are driven to create order and understanding. 

Leaving Oklahoma City I felt the repercussions of that one minute when the world changed and I could not help but think of the scars closer to my home and how 10 years after 9/11 New York City has yet to physically turn Ground Zero into a monument to human bravery and a testament to the American will to survive. 

While Oklahoma City was struck by man-made lightning, as we drove through New Mexico its horizon was ablaze with the kind I am at least a bit more familiar with. All through New Mexico Carolyn and I struggled to capture in a photograph those moments when the horizon would ignite with singular strikes that were both awe-inspiring and frightening. Between us we must have snapped over a hundred photos but we were never able to capture a single strike on 'film'. The combination of the open plains, the clouds that came down in streams and seemed to tether themselves to the terrain and the explosive presence of the rumbling heavens made me feel tiny and yet offered me a largess that was enchanting. Like Alice I grew and shrunk in only a few instants. Eventually we turned, as humans do, to a simpler solution that was available and overlooked the entire time and captured it on video.

We ended our day driving through across the desert chasing lightning, beneath the open sky raging in the distance, the brush of tragedy still stinging our skin, we arrived in Santa Fe with an understanding of how much a difference a minute can make, the power of place and how silly it is to raise a sword to battle a fly. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Heat and History

Today was a combination of sweltering heat, 109 degrees here in Oklahoma City, and both recent and distant (?) history. I woke up this morning in Little Rock, Arkansas and Carolyn and I decided to take a few hours to explore the city. I must admit that my idea of a city is based firmly on growing up in close proximity to New York and my trip through several southern cities has been eye-opening. Little Rock was a clean, friendly, relatively uncrowded city. The fact that the air there was not filled with peeling car horns combined with the relative emptiness of the streets caught me off guard. We started our exploration at the Little Rock Visitor's Center where a very friendly woman gave us a list of 'must-do's' given our short time frame. The first sight she recommended was the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, the second the River Market district, and the last Little Rock Central High School (a pivotal battleground in the fight to integrate public schools in the the 1950's). 
We first made our way to the Presidential Library, a bit of a misnomer since the term library evokes the idea of stodgy librarians, rows and rows of books, and a need to maintain subdued silence. The library could probably more aptly be called a museum where the Clinton's legacy is preserved. The history here is a history I clearly remember. I was an adult when Clinton ran and was elected twice and I remember the prosperity of his tenure and how starkly it contrasts to the times we are living in right now. I saw in the films and the mementos however, an idealized version of the time. Isn't this what history tends to do so often? Strip away the less-than-stellar moments and seek to preserve the best of what we were once-upon-a-time? I found myself wistful at the thought of the Clinton-era and the controversies seemed to be minor footnotes in the annals of history. I haven't decided yet if this is a good or bad thing. The library itself held replicas of both the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office and standing there in those rooms that are facsimiles of power centers it occurred to me just how glad I am to not have had to make the kinds of decisions that must have made by Clinton and his cabinet. It's fun to sit at the faux table, but I am glad that the I'll never have to confront the sorts of things that he and his cabinet confronted at the actual table. That is a heat I simply could not withstand. 

When we left the Clinton Library, Carolyn and I headed down to the River Market for lunch. The market, despite it's modern feel, reminded me in many ways of Faneuil Hall in Boston. It's most important function, at least for me today, was that it provided a safe haven from the oppressive heat of the day. For a few moments we escaped the relentless sun and it's steadfast determination to beat us down. 
Because we had very little time to waste (we needed to get to Oklahoma City) we headed to Little Rock Central High School just after lunch. The neighborhood the high school is in has seen better days but the school itself is an awe-inspiringly beautiful piece of architecture. It's difficult to stand in front of this building without feeling small. All of my concerns, physical and otherwise, seemed dwarfed there, not just by the building but also by the events that took place there. It is hard to imagine an America that openly divided along racial lines, but if I doubt the enduring nature of divisiveness in this country all I need to is watch the news coverage of the debt crisis and more broadly the coverage of the current president. I need only look in my own home to see that America has not yet reached it's stated tenet that 'all men are created equal'. In my own experience as the mother of African-American sons, I have seen prejudice up close and personal from store clerks, from teachers, from members of my sister's neighborhood association. I have seen too though the good and accepting people of the world. There are, in my experience more of the latter than the former. 
Standing in the shadow of the school, the focal point of so much of America's shortcomings, was humbling. I tried to image those nine students having to run the gambit of hatred, the angry shouts and vitriolic rhetoric from politicians that encircled these young teens must have been terrifying. The school is outwardly an impressive place but it's the knowledge of what happened there that gives it its real weight. As hot as I was standing in the shadow of that building today, I know I didn't face half the heat those nine teens did back in 1957. 
Tomorrow we're heading to downtown Oklahoma City where another chapter in American history was written. Where the heated rhetoric of militias culminated in the historic bombing of a federal building but more than that we're heading into a city that turned tragedy into strength, much the way those teens did as they walked up the steps of that Little Rock school and into the annals of history. 

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Time & Travel

I began my day in Augusta, Georgia when Carolyn packed her luggage into my car and we set off with a cooler full of water and snacks. I entered Alabama for the first time since 1989 and as the day ticked away we made our way through Mississippi, Tennessee, and finally into Arkansas, over 600 miles of American highway. One of the most surprising things for me was just how empty those highways were, as a Jersey girl I am far more accustomed to traffic jams than I am to long stretches of lonely highway. There were never more than ten cars visible to me on the highway and the long stretches of fields broke suddenly into city scapes with very little warning. The signs along these highways were few and far between and as a result I wasn't able to do what I'd planned to do, take a picture of each state's welcome sign. I'm accustomed to several warnings, constant reminders of how many miles I have before I reach a certain point, 'Newark 15 miles, Newark next 3 exits, Last Exit before toll', in New Jersey there's always something to remind you of where to get off, driving route 20 and then route 78 west, things seemed to come suddenly from nowhere and then disappear just as suddenly into nothing.
One of my favorite parts of today's trip was when we slipped across the Alabama state line I caught sight of a sign on the side of the road that read "Now entering Central Standard Time" and just like that we added an hour to our day. It's amazing to me that just by crossing that invisible threshold I gained what I am always finding myself short of, time. If only it were that easy everyday to add the hour I so often need.

Today I've traveled through states I've never set foot in before and watched through the car window as the countryside slid by. One thing that struck me more than what is different about each state is what is so often the same. Highways in each state were littered with gas station signs, fast food chains, department stores, things I see every day at home. There was also the insistently blue sky and the patches of clouds I found myself trying to find the hidden shapes in. In state after state I saw the things that tie us together, the flags, the car dealerships, the road signs. I think I set out looking for what is different about each state and somehow found, at least today, the things that make us similar.

We've settled into our hotel here in Little Rock for the night. I must admit I found myself enamored with the receptionist's southern drawl, with the slow, smooth surety with which he seemed to move. The world is moving more slowly here, I'm a thousand miles away from the fluster of horns I've grown accustomed to on Route 9, I've distanced myself from the 'get out of my way I'm busy' attitude I've come to accept as normal and I'm eager to press on tomorrow toward Oklahoma City toward more people who smile and chat more. I wonder if maybe the highways here are less crowded because not everyone feels as driven to 'get things done' or maybe it's just that extra hour has makes all the difference. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Places We Don't Ever Leave Behind

How hard it is to escape from places.  However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - like rags and shreds of your very life.  ~Katherine Mansfield

I just arrived in Augusta, Georgia after a week of vacationing with my family on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina all week. Hilton Head is one of my favorite place and though I haven't been there in several years, it remains a big part of my childhood because every summer my parents would take the family down for much of the summer. From the time I was 8 years old until the time I turned 20 I traveled the winding trails of Sea Pines Plantation and grew to know them in much the same way I knew my own neighborhood. 

My husband and children were eager to ride the bike trails and explore the beautiful places that surrounded us. Sea Pines has miles and miles of bike trails cut through the woods and as you ride you pass alligators sunning themselves beside lagoons, fish jumping from murky water, people on golf carts heading from one hole to the next. When I climbed back on that bike I found that the paths I had not traveled in years remain clearly ingrained in my subconscious. All week I lead them over these trails as if I'd ridden these routes all of my life. 

In some ways, I have. As we drive, walk, and bike this island I find myself collecting the shreds and rags that Mansfield is speaking of. I regale my disinterested teens with stories of the experiences I collected here. See that hotel on the right? That's where my sister's and I used to go to the beach every day.  See that bench over there? That's where I sat the first time I ate my favorite ice cream. See that treehouse? I used to climb it with your aunt all the time.
This beach is where your father and I got married twenty years ago. We had only five hundred dollars to our names, ate Taco Bell every day...  
I admit I've degenerated into a sort of tour guide pointing out the landmarks of my youth. Of course there's a lot I'm leaving out, the secret self I refuse to share with anyone. I see her lurking just behind trees draped in Spanish Moss, at the edge of the ocean where I buried a note I wrote to God when my grandmother died. I was only 12 but I felt certain that if God existed this was the place he'd chose to receive his messages. I can feel the girl I was then and in a way that is catching me off guard. 
In my own head the narrative goes more like this Down that road is where I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. here is where I met the boy who became my first 'boyfriend', the dock over there is where we snuck away to kiss. Remember the party you went to there? The boy who first broke your heart? Don't look down that road, that's the house where you made one of the biggest mistakes of your life...

I think the contrasting tour guides in me were especially noticeable because this year I had my own teenagers and somehow the sight of them wandering the twisting paths was both thrilling and terrifying. I always hoped that they'd never make the same mistakes I did. I hope my daughter never feels the need to dumb herself down in order to fit in, that she never lets a boy convince her to betray herself, that my sons don't climb into a car with someone whose been drinking or ignore that voice inside them that tells them to walk away. 
I also hope they come to love a place as much as I love that place, that the way I saw my memories gathering around me there, they will have place where theirs gather around them. I hope my sons look at the ocean and see the power of place, the way the earth wars with itself and still manages to be beautiful.