On: Rethinking “Provincial”

If we’re lucky, we receive a kind of grace—a mercy or blessing you might say—that helps us let go of old, limited views, so that we can see how our biased loyalties harm ourselves as well as others. Today, I feel lucky.

I’ve ranted for years about insular communities spawning folk whose blind loyalties to narrow ideologies cause harm, exploit people, and breed hatred. I once wrote in these pages, “The provincial promises safety, but there is no reality in it.”

I’m not even sure what I meant by that, outside of understanding that I’ve vehemently disliked insular communities. Now, I’m changing my view. The fact that many parochial, narrow-minded communities are pariahs of the human race does not cancel out the fact that other small communities provide safety from exploitation and bigotry. The kind of thinking that led to the massacre of nine people in a South Carolina church this month is an example of the first; the openhearted warmth traditionally found in Southern black churches is an example of the second.

This morning, as I sip tea and watch hawks circle the air in search of something that died in the night, I’m reflecting on my limited understanding of provincialism. My perceived open-mindedness of urban sophistication is gone.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a condition that developed into chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, most commonly known as CIDP. I was unable to walk, hold anything in my hands, or go to the bathroom unassisted. My community became a closed world of doctors and medical practitioners, hospitals and rehab facilities, and friends as I learned that only one to eight in a million are diagnosed with CIDP. The insular nature of a serious illness can offer new perspectives.

Provincial in space

A parochial mind can exist anywhere—in a family, among school friends, even in the heart of New York City—and, while I’m embarrassed to admit it, my own ideas about insular communities provided a false sense of security that, over time, became bricks in my wall of arrogance.

It’s been almost two years since my last serious relapse. I’m stable and a little wiser. I’ve had time for reflection.  Not too long ago, I met a woman who is a talented needlework artist. She’d been working at the same job for 52 years, something I was never able to imagine for myself. In contrast to my life of weaving in and out of communities on this or that coast, she’d remained planted in the community where she grew up. She married well, and looking at her needlework it was clear that she was inspired by a broader outlook on the world. Yet, she was still connected to her community. She knew the people and their families, their histories, and I would not call her provincial.

Who are the provincial? Is it the uneducated hill woman in the mountains of West Virginia who saved me from bleeding all over the countryside? Is it the “sophisticated” urban professional who, as a supervisor, makes work life impossible for a subordinate? Are they the bluegrass and blues musicians hidden away in a back woods holler, welcoming everyone attending their gatherings with openhearted acceptance, or are they the religious zealots who insist at all costs that every person live as they live?

I can no longer paint the provincial with a single brush stroke. It’s become a heart-to-heart negotiation.

I think I’m finding an answer.

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Cowgirls

Stagecoach Mary (Fields)

Stagecoach Mary (Fields)

 

 

 

So. I was thinking about cowgirls. Whaaat?

 

 

Yep, cowgirls.

I was thinking about cowgirls and remembering a picture I found of my father as a young man. He was dressed, all six feet plus of him, in full cowboy regalia.He had on the fringe shirt, the pants, the boots, and a holster with two fake six guns at his hips. He had on a cowboy hat, and his hands were at his hips with both thumbs hooked onto the holster. Tough guy.

Cowboys. A symbol for me, at that age anyway, of tough goodness. Righteous goodness. The courage to take on the bad guys and make the world a better place.

That was a theme in our household. Make the world a better place. It came from the cowboy. As a child, I wanted—so badly—to take on the bad guys. And in our world of make-believe, we did just that.

My sister and I were among the few girls in our neighborhood who pretended to be cowgirls. If our brothers got cap guns, my sister and I got cap guns. If our brothers got cowboy hats…You betcha.  My sister and I got cowboy hats.

Now, for sure, we were pretty feminine girls, schooled in many of the traditional tasks girls with southern roots were expected to  learn.  We embroidered. We crocheted. We made dresses with crinolines and large brimmed hats for the dolls that Mom sold to make extra money. We learned to cook — and I mean cook:  perfect pies and cakes, succulent roast beef with biscuits and gravy. We put up vegetables and fruit in big Mason jars. There wasn’t a lack of things for good girls to learn.

But there was something exciting—creative—about things the boys got to do. Things like building model airplanes and navy aircraft carriers; things like putting together trains and train tracks. I loved that stuff. And for a moment— just a moment—I thought I would join the Armed Forces when I grew up. I can still feel the tiny pieces of gray plastic and the cellophane numbers for the ships beneath my fingers.

I can still smell the powder from the cap guns. Do they still sell cap guns, I wonder. Do children today know how to pretend? It seems like so many children who should be pretending are shooting for real these days. Where is the power of imagination and make-believe?

I wanted to be a cowgirl. A cowgirl had righteous business to take care of, and she took care of her business: Annie Oakley and Stagecoach Mary (one of the few historically documented black women of the old west). I’d bet my cowgirl holster and two cap guns that neither of those women ever picked up an embroidery hoop.

Today, I don’t own, nor do I want to own, a pistol—not even a cap gun.

I, my sister, and so many others still have a cowgirl’s heart. We want to make the world a better place. And while we may not actually be cowgirls, we are heroines in our ordinary lives, changing things daily and making the world a safer, kinder place. There is righteous business to take care of, and we can take care of business.

Yeah.  A cowgirl’s heart.

 

 

This Is What We Do. Be Responsible. Vote.

Jimmie Lee Jackson: December 16, 1938–February 26, 1965

Ensuring our freedom in a democracy. This is what we do.

Selma 2

Selma 4

On June 26, 2013 in a 5 to 4 decision, United States Supreme Court justices ruled that nine states with a history of racial discrimination no longer have to obtain federal approval for changes to voting rules.

Our work never, ever stops.  For every citizen — a vote.

Rev James Reeb: January 1, 1927, March 11, 1965

Viola Liuzzo: April 11, 1925, : March 25, 1965

A Valentine’s Day Contemplation

Love. That’s what February is about. Black history month. Valentine’s Day. I’m willing to bet that 60 years from now Valentine’s Day will still exist. Should I place bets on black history month? Maybe. Should I bet that any particular cultural monthly celebration will still exist? Probably not.

However, there is something that I feel compelled to write about because the consequences of unconsciously using words that devastate pull me further and further away from love. I am guilty of what I’m about to address: hate speech.  It’s so subtle, a stealth bomb. Words that dehumanize become habits, even within the race. We use them unconsciously. Of course this discussion has been going on since before rap music. They become so familiar that we don’t hear ourselves using them. But once we hear ourselves, the warm blanket of ignorance slips away and we’re exposed to the cold musings of our own minds.

First, I want to say that this is not about you, the invisible you reader who may happen to find these pages. It’s about me. Brrrr. How terrifyingly cold, these glacial waters of public self revelation.

I was talking with a friend about a Republican political figure. My friend, with great vehemence, stated her opinion:  the man is an “oreo.” To my horror and subsequent shame, I felt my mouth open and the words, “Yeah, you have that right…!” came flying out. There was a tug inside, something I chose to ignore; “You know this is wrong” was the tug. But I continued my chat about how this man was no longer a part of the race because he thought differently.

I’ve heard it said that you’re part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. Divisiveness is never part of the solution. With all of our brilliant optimism, historic commitment to unity, rainbow colors, boundless activism, diverse dialects, shining intelligence and creativity, and so forth and so on, we had nothing better to do than criticize this man and summarily write him out of the race.

Ain’t we humans somethin’?

The universe has a way of balancing things. After some time had passed, I was speaking with another friend about another issue. This person’s anger about a public political figure that I had concluded was on “our side” was so explosive that in the person’s description of the politician I heard a description of myself.

Here is what happened inside my body: My mouth became dry, and then an odd taste covered my tongue. My heart beat faster and I felt cold inside. My eyes seemed to lose their focus as sorrow caused me to stop speaking. I was silent. And I was silent for the next week — shell-shocked as it were. In his description of the politician was a description of myself. I had been written out of the race.

Oreo: a disparaging term, used to define someone as not being a part of the black race, i.e., dark on the outside, but white on the inside. Like the cookie.

Some black children learn this term early from the people around them; they don’t realize it’s power to dehumanize. And some of us grown-ups use the term out of habit, without thinking. This is the scary part for me — the familiarity; the not thinking.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

“Oreo!” There was a push from behind and someone disappeared.

As I made my way back to my locker, head down to hide my mortification, I felt an arm around my shoulder. The vice principal of the middle school — a gloriously dark woman, almost 6 feet tall, and who wore her hair in a short Afro — long before it was fashionable — smiled at me and looked me in the eyes.

“Keep studying. Do your best. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

To this day, Mrs. Jessup (not her real name) is one of my icons. When I think of positive school experiences, she is at the top. As a dark skinned woman, she’d faced her own struggles growing up during segregation and within the black community. She had probably been written out of the race many times. Some of my classmates, at their peril, would call her names and run around the corner thinking (stupidly, I must add) that she didn’t recognize voices. They would yell, “Godzilla” or “King Kong.” Of course, she was well-equipped to handle racism head on — within and outside of the race.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that hate speech reveals more about the speaker then the person targeted. Hate speech begins within. Whatever one sees in another is a reflection of what one sees in herself. This is what I was thinking about several days after I found myself disparaging that public figure. I don’t like his politics one bit, but he is still an African American. He is human.

Many, many years ago, a dear friend said to me, “We’re the only people to write someone out of the race because we don’t like how they think, dress, speak, or who they marry.” Although we are not the only people to do so, I got the message. Then I forgot the message. But in remembering the message I’m reconnected with a global truth.

Once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity. Nazism. White supremacy. Gang wars. In Rwanda, the Tutsi and moderate Hutus were called “cockroaches.”

In big and small ways, once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity.

I’m not naive or unrealistic. Hate speech will be around for a long, long while. And perhaps, as subsequent Valentine’s Day generations are born and die, we human beings will get the message of love quite profoundly. In the meantime, however, I can do my part. I can be vigilant about the words circling my insides and vet them before they reach the air.

No more oreos or agreeing to labeling someone as such. Oreos only belong on the grocery shelf.

Cat Valentine

My bad

I sent out a post that leads to nowhere.  It was sent in error as I worked out a technical issue.  Please excuse it.  Thanks, and real post coming.

Holiday mercies: memories and miracles

Holiday mercies-Gratitude

 

“Mommy!”

“Mommy!”

My mother turned over in her bed.

“What is it?”

It was Christmas; I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, and the sounds I heard assured me that I was going to witness the miracle — Santa over the roof. I heard them. Sleigh bells. Santa was arriving at our humble two-bedroom city apartment for seven.

How would he get in? There was no chimney. The door? The window? Hopefully no one would call the police.

“Did you hear it, Mommy?”

Glory be. She was tired, and I was treading dangerous waters. It was early, early morning, dark and still. I didn’t have a fever, so sickness could not be my excuse. My mother’s patience for what she considered stupidity — well, no matter.  For better or worse, I’ve inherited this trait.

Anyway, today I am remembering the good stuff. I’m feeling gratitude for the good stuff. Gratitude is a mercy. Gratitude is a belief in miracles. I remember a discussion with a girlfriend, oh, about 20 years ago; she was a young Catholic who angrily did not believe in the miracle of the Annunciation.

“That’s strange,” I said to her. “I’m not even Catholic and I believe the story.”

She could not know that she was speaking to a woman who, as a child, woke her mother in the middle of the night to share the magic of sleigh bells overhead in the night sky. I’ve lost track of the girlfriend, but not my belief in miracles. I am witness to magic. I am witness to miracles. Every day.

It used to be that weeks before Christmas, the air was filled with sacred hymns and choral music. That’s not the tradition so much anymore. Now, in November, the secular music begins. Good stuff, but not so much of miracles.

Back to my story.

In spite of being awakened by her daughter, my mother arose a couple of hours later to make sure that Santa had placed things correctly under the tree, breakfast was started, and the electricity was still on—just in case the payment was late. Today, my mother is recovering from an illness. She is 92. Perhaps that’s why, this Christmas, I am especially moved to remember our little miracles.

Daddy brought the tree home and we decorated the tree before Christmas Eve. We sucked on peppermint canes and ripped open bags of Christmas candy. How did we get all of these things? Where was the money? I am moved to remember the graces that make the Christmas holidays Christmas.  Memories, like the comfort of a sauna, warm my body and spirit. There! In that portion of the brain are aromas of ham, turkey, and baking bread. And there are boxes of fruit, nuts, and candy, gifts from the grandparents. There are the aunts, uncles, cousins. Magic. Where did all the people come from? How did our little apartment hold them?

Gosh. I’m sentimental this morning. Friends are coming. I need to get up and have at it.

Let’s see. New Year’s resolution? Hmm. After an absolutely challenging 2 1/2 years, I resolve to keep discovering the magic in life, health, and spirituality. I am stronger. I cook. I sing. I laugh. I have the faith and ability to express gratitude. I keep learning how to forgive. What does it mean to give and receive mercy?

I could easily get hung up on the scarier memories and depressing media news. The heavier the language, the darker the view. But I’m continually making different choices. I am continually choosing magic and miracles. It’s work.

Today, I choose to remember the word “Merry” in our Christmas greetings and “Happy” in our wishes for the new year. There is magic in this world.

Happy New Year.

 

Truth. Apathy.

Truth-ApathyThe other day I contributed comments to a political blog. It’s kind of out of character for me and something I rarely do. I prefer story telling. But I was moved to address the apathy, yes apathy, of some Americans and  the lack of participation in our political process. Of course, being a Democrat, I was addressing my disappointment in the last election. But it’s so much deeper than any particular political party and so much bigger than money.

 

Now. (Yes, “now” with a period. It’s a complete statement. I learned it from my mother and it has infinite meaning. More on that another time.)

Now. (again) These are the things I am passionate about.

Optimism. Compassion and loving kindness. Service. Food (always.) And — owning the political process. Speaking truth to power. WE are the power.

I can’t help but wonder how an astonishingly astute population can languish in such an astoundingly apathetic civic consciousness (Nope. that was not a two syllable sentence). Not until the current demonstrations — extraordinary in the tens of thousands — about police shootings of unarmed black men have I seen such a conscious unified movement. Folks are actually protesting for human rights issues in the United States. It reminds me of my own coming of age in the 60’s and, by God, it makes my heart glad!

Now let’s see…

Apathy: Indifference. Lack of concern. Lack of interest.

Truth: Webster defines it as a case or idea accepted as true or a statement of fact.

Well. Here is a statement of fact. We have become a nation filled with pitifully apathetic people who do not or cannot understand that our participation in the political process is as necessary as breath is for life. Eating, sleeping or, er um, copulating is not required for political freedom; showing up is the requirement. We vote. We try to educate other voters. We help build a free and democratic society brick by intentional brick.

All this talk — blah, blah, blah — about speaking truth to power can be so much wasted oxygen. We help speak truth to power by being a part of the process.

Sigh.

City Council, Mayor, and elected local leadership; County leadership; State leadership; national representation; president. Brick by effing brick. It’s not enough just to vote for the president.

What we have to understand is that folks are ignorant of how democracy works. Over decades, folks have come to believe that all they need to do is vote for the top.

Sigh. The presidential vote is not the sum total of our responsibility for living in a democracy. No matter what barriers are erected (district redistribution, voter ID laws, etc. –and folks will try to stop you) to negatively impact potential nonwhite and non wealthy voters, we who care about the quality of the political process and how that process affects our lives on a daily basis cannot underestimate the importance of participating in local to national elections of our legislators.

But folks don’t know how our political process works. I love this website: https://www.icivics.org/

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the chairperson of the board of this organization that helps folks understand the way our system works. Please pass it on.

“Speak truth to power” is a great principle. But a great principle is only great when the folks living by that principle make it so. Speak truth to power. We are the power, folks.  The truth shall set us free.

That’s my story and I’m stickin to it.

 

 

Sanguine

An apple. A cup of grapes. A banana. Pineapple chunks. Flax seed and kale. There’s nothing remarkable about blending fruit and vegetables. What’s remarkable is the power of these drinks in my healing. I am gaining strength and experiencing so much more vitality each day. Raw, blended food seems to be reducing my body’s inflammation. The experience keeps me quite optimistic. I remain sanguine with CIDP.

Sanguine. As an adjective: “Optimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation.”

Sanguine.

In the middle of one of the most challenging segments of my life, I wake up optimistic. In the middle of one of the most challenging times in American history, a new “Reconstruction,” we must remain sanguine.

Americans are being intellectually and physically terrorized by Americans. From Florida to Ferguson, Missouri to Congress, extremist thought has infiltrated the political process in a frightening way.

We cannot allow ourselves to be frightened.

The inevitability of a shift in demographics in this country has led some citizens and lawmakers to lose their minds. Now, the only way elected Tea Party/Republican officials advance their agenda is by spreading the poison of ethnic hatred. Fascism is a very nasty word.

When we are complacent–and you know who you are–about voting, we get what we got. The deaths in American history, all to ensure the right to vote, are the colors we wear (did I mention sanguine is also a color: blood red?). It’s beyond stupid. It’s dangerously dumb to not vote. I remain sanguine and angry with folks who do not vote.

Yet. Despite it all (and African and Native Americans in this country have seen it all), people of good heart continue to fall in love, plan families, raise children, vote, complete educations, play sports, work hard, create music and art and–like Michelangelo with his blocks of marble–see the potential in the ordinary. We live socially just, compassionate, and joyful lives. We are sanguine about the future. Yes, today’s America still holds more than a splash of optimism.

Once again, summer has surrendered to a shiny autumn moon. Meteorologists forecast a hard winter. But we always expect the best outcomes.

Home 001

There is an ancient potency, a fertile, tender marriage between Spirit and optimism. Spring will come again. It’s guaranteed. We will survive autumn rains, the inevitable snow, and a neo-fascist Tea Party/Republican majority in Congress.

We are sanguine.

Oh, oh. It’s 6 am.  Time to think about blended smoothies and juicing. I’m optimistic that more and more folks will examine the long held beliefs that keep them from becoming truly authentic, love based, socially responsible people. Because, in the final analysis, we are responsible to each other, and Love–that’s right–is supremely present. Enya sings, “When Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

Sanguine.

I come by it honestly.  The book under my elbows is The Little Red Caboose.  

“I think I can, I think I can…”

Yours truly,

All rights reserved Sala G. Wyman

All rights reserved Sala G. Wyman

P.S.  Sorry to be late with the post this month…I will be better.  I remain sanguine.

 

 

In Search of Balance

Yin-Yang

 

 

Yin: feminine, shadowy, receptive, compassionate.

 

At this moment, slicing pears for a vinaigrette dressing, I think that cooking is yin. I feel like I am receiving the grace of Annapurna, the goddess of kitchens and food. Kitchen wisdom has traditionally been thought of as feminine.

Not being a scholar, I don’t thoroughly understand the concepts of yin and yang. Years ago, a therapist told me I was too yang, that I needed to be or have more yin, more feminine energy. I did not tell her to go to Hades. That would have been too yang. But when a boyfriend told me that the only time I was soft was in the bedroom, I did not bite my tongue. Is it yin to express my personal thoughts, or is it aggressively yang?

What did that therapist mean? Was I too aggressive in my desire to be liked? Was it my anger (and at that time I was quite the angry woman)? Too pushy in my efforts to participate in an unbalanced culture while looking for work? I did not see myself as having such an overabundance of male energy. I thought I was pretty soft. Truth is, it seemed like I was unhappy a lot of the time. Ah. Shadowy.

I’ve thought about her words over the past couple of years. A serious illness puts a certain spin on things. Thanks to my overabundance of aggressive energy, I have been able to stay afloat emotionally and physically. (Lord knows, the health teams in the nursing facilities I experienced were not capable of helping folks to really heal.) Thanks to my compassion, a yin quality, I was able to help make things better for other patients.

I think this therapist meant to say, “you are out of balance.” She saw my aggression in my efforts to not have people take advantage of me. I went overboard and gave up my ability to receive the good that was being offered. The world appeared to be all or nothing, a flip-flop between angry defensiveness and tearful resignation.

Ah. Desperately seeking balance. I’m following the foggy path, pushing aside emotional weeds, and looking for the bright clearing. Yin and yang are the male and female of all things:  light and dark, positive and negative, sunny and cloudy. We exist in a world of opposites; sometimes opposites attract, sometimes they repel. But we cannot exist without both.

If we are to survive and thrive, we must be balanced. It seems to me that balance is an inside out proposition. There can’t be balance on the outside if it doesn’t exist within.

I once left a retreat pissed off at the expressions of unconscious racism. Things were out of balance. There were only a few African-Americans present, and I have always been impatient with the fact that white people assumed we all lived the same kind of lives in the mid-20th century. We did not, oh, we did not; our lives were very different. Things were not equal. Communities were separate. And so, I lost my patience, not only with the expressions of yet more unconscious assumptions, but with trying to be an educator.

So. I drove to a spot near the bay and screamed at the sea, the rocks, and the trees that had bent almost to the ground from surrender to the wind. Surrender. The trees were able to surrender, and they bore their evidence of — beautiful, too — survival. There was balance in that surrender. But to what would I surrender?

I could not scream at people and achieve what I wanted to achieve, so I screamed and cursed at the sea. I got out of my car. I got back in my car. I got out of my car. There were a million stars in the black sky. The mist wetting my face was cold. The night was both scary and lovely.

I was fed up with trying to please everyone around me. I was tired of trying to replace people’s ignorance with information. I was angry and wanted to receive — something. What? Everyone around me seemed aggressive, and hard — filled with what I identified as male energy.

“I just want softness around me.”

That was my voice. It wasn’t the first time I heard my voice and those words. “…softness around me.”  Softness, compassion, the ability to receive and accept love. A little more yin. Perhaps that’s what the therapist was saying.

The night provided a quiet opening, a soft space wherein I recognized both my power and my surrender. As the ocean was both yang and yin, so was I. Balance. Before that night, I loved the ocean. Now, I swore to worship her.

Ours is a society of pushing and aggression, an amazing hermetically sealed bubble in which we are prone to swing to extremes: prohibition or uncontrolled excess; compassionate sharing or the complete hoarding of resources so that only the wealthy thrive. We have not been raised to live in balance. It is a concept as foreign as yin or yang.

I, for one, am of the opinion that in the stillness of making pear vinaigrette dressing lies surrender to the softness of balance.

 

Fecund

The word means fertile, fruitful, abundant. Ours is a fecund world of 7 billion — old, young, and all in between — giving birth to new life in all forms: a child, a poem, a work of fiction or history, music. Somewhere, someone is giving birth to secular or spiritual knowledge. More often than not— no matter the opinions of the chicken little doom and gloomers — our experiences, even the negative ones, and productivity serve to enrich and enliven the heart.

Take the writers who choose to birth memoir for example. Forged from a lot of work and soul searching, good memoir is rich with life experiences that, with any luck and grace, make our paths in this world a little bit — or a lot — brighter. How do they do it, these writers? How do they dip so deeply into the well of their own fertility to transform lives?

As I continue to reach for that lofty goal, I find that, in the heat of daily life, it’s easy to overlook or miss the fertility of experience— ensuring that it will be forgotten.

Bluefield, West Virginia

In 1967 I enrolled in a small college in the picturesque town of Bluefield, West Virginia. In retrospect, my application to the school wasn’t so much about academics as it was about leaving home. My high school grades were abysmal at best, but I was young, curious, and enthusiastic with a high school counselor who worked on my behalf. Lucky to get in is an understatement. I looked forward with gratitude to my new life.

Bordered by Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia, with Bluefield at its southernmost tip, West Virginia is definitely, most definitely the south. Bluefield is less than 70 miles from North Carolina. Having spent my childhood summers in South Carolina, I was familiar, to say the least, with the South and its culture. Remember, this was 1967.

But I wasn’t really thinking about that.

I was thrilled to be attending a school that was an historically black college. Once named Bluefield Colored Institute, the college became Bluefield State Teachers College—now Bluefield State College. I did not know that, at the time, it was in the throes of a designed shift in racial demographics.  (http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/10/18/236345546/the-whitest-historically-black-college-in-america) National Public Radio.)

(I also did not know that a nemesis from high school was a student at the college, that she would steal my full-length red suede coat that I had sweated at the phone company to buy, and that I would have yet another lesson in standing up to a bully and getting my possessions back. My name was even written inside the coat. Seriously Sharon? All the way in West Virginia?)
 

Pastoral scenery. An all-black campus. These were my desires. I’d spent so much time in rural countryside that I deeply looked forward to the nature of things. I love this country landscape. But this is what I do not understand: with all of my love for the rural, how have I always resided so close to the city? More on that another time, but the fruit of my fertilization by both cultures cannot be underestimated.

 

John Denver’s Country Roads only begins to lionize the West Virginia landscape that greeted me. The hearts of the people I encountered planted within me a seed of service and understanding that continues to grow in my life.

 

On my arrival, the campus had changed. Community tension was high as black students protested, and fears were heightened by rumors of Klan activity. My alliances with community activists complicated things for me in the ultraconservative, religious African-American home where I rented a room. God bless the fate of the naïve. I had not counted on the fear-based hostility from some of the local blacks as being a part of the mix. The fear was understandable. In an historic coal mining town where, even today, the black population is only 23%, I had a lot to learn. I was asked to leave, but received a reprieve after a community action leader that the family respected approached them on my behalf.

Judaism. I knew nothing. The Diary of Anne Frank, which I read in high school, was the extent of my knowledge about the Jewish faith and culture. but when I met a young Orthodox couple who invited me to my first Seder, I began to understand things. I learned that the Klan didn’t like them either. And I remember the reverence with which they celebrated the Sabbath. They lovingly shared why and how they separated the silverware. They were not community activists, but my understanding of community expanded.

Hill people. I hate stereotypes. And although the Beverly Hillbillies was a hit on television, it did not picture the simple, heavyset white woman in the hills who stopped the bleeding after I ripped my knee on a barbed wire fence in waist deep snow. I can’t remember why we were in the hills; it wasn’t a particularly safe place to be. But she fed us buttermilk biscuits, chicken with gravy, mashed potatoes, and called the doctor — who gave me a tetanus shot, but would not stitch the wound because he didn’t want to touch black skin. I have the scar to this day.

She was a woman with an open mind and a loving heart. I cannot remember the racist doctor’s face, but I remember hers. I remember the fields surrounding her small home, the snow up to our knees, the cows in the frozen pastures, and the comfort of her living room as she asked about our intentions.

I met students and volunteers committed to making America a better place. My activities got me expelled from school at the end of my first semester, a year before the anger exploded — literally — with the bomb in the gym. But the world had become richer, a more fecund place to be. One in which I would never turn my back on service.

Note: Thank you to the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau for the lovely landscapes!