|The “Tour de Wolf” Trail, Shelby Farms, Memphis, Tennessee|
People have always been afraid of what is different. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s a “chicken and egg” conversation: which came first, the fear or the stereotypes?
I’m living in Memphis now. But I’m not living in the same Memphis I grew up in, and sometimes, I feel really ashamed that I never knew my current Memphis when I was young. My Memphis is Black; 60 percent African American to be precise. But that’s not the Memphis I knew growing up, which evidences the other reality of my current Memphis. My Memphis is segregated as hell.
Why didn’t I see it before? On some level I think I knew, but I never thought deeply about it, nor cared enough to do so. My school was white, my family was white, we were all middle class, we were all the same. So what did I have to be afraid of?
Injustice hit me like a brick to the face the first time I saw the terrible cement wall separating Israel from the West Bank. That’s injustice, I thought. A cement wall. Well, we don’t have one cement wall in Memphis, but we have a lot of little walls. They’re called neighborhoods. They’re called schools. They’re called 201 Poplar.
It’s not fair that I got to go to a great school and get in to college, when the average ACT score for this city is 17 and the percentage of those in poverty is almost 30 percent, with 45 percent of all children in Memphis living in poverty. Memphis’ poverty statistics are shocking. Why didn’t I learn this in school? Maybe I did. I just wasn’t paying attention.
What do we do about it? What did I do in Israel? What did I do in Thailand? What do I do here?
Of course there is injustice everywhere. But knowing that, accepting that, and letting that pass unaffected is only perpetuating that injustice. Compassion necessitates action.
Why am I struggling so much with this right now? I think because suddenly I feel responsible. I know I’m not personally responsible for the systemic racism in this city, but I feel a sense of responsibility towards my city and everyone in it. It’s easy, when you’re living abroad, to pick and choose what injustices to invest your time in, because there is so much that is unfamiliar. You can use that barrier as an excuse to hide away. And as I’m learning, there is still so much that is unfamiliar to me about this city, this city I grew up in and so arrogantly thought I had figured out. I don’t. I don’t. I can’t.
But I can try. I can get outside my comfort zone, like I’ve done before in other places. I can keep going outside of my own yard to see new things, experience knew events, meet new people from different backgrounds. Isn’t that life, anyway?
My goals for my time in Memphis (however long that may be) are these: first, to learn more about the social injustices in the city and to get involved in active solutions. My current job is a great place to start, but that’s only a little of myself. We can always go deeper. We just can’t ever give up. Second, I want to explore. Build a bike, ride the MATA bus, and get out and about. There is a lot of beauty in this city.
Just because I’m back in the same place doesn’t mean I’m the same person I was when I was last here. I’m not. I hope I’m not. I’m still only one person with no answers and irritating questions, but I’m still going. I hope you’ll help me along.
And once again, boxes are packed and suitcases are standing in my bedroom. Where I am going this time? It’s tempting to say “nowhere,” but that isn’t true. I’m moving back home.
Such a short sentence carries with it so much weight and societal pressure, doesn’t it?
I’ve been blessed to spend some time with my wonderful college friends this weekend in New Jersey, where I’ve been for the past week, packing boxes, visiting family and tying up loose ends before I move back to Memphis. One of the things we talked a lot about is how odd it is not to have that structure of school looming over us. This time of year is when students move back to campus, start planning their courses and their extra-curriculars, and begin that carousel dance of “what ifs” and wishes for their still mostly ethereal futures.
Only this time, and for the first time (since I graduated college and then went straight to teaching at a university), there is no class schedule to pick! No courses to look forward to, no projects to plan, no books to check out or social events to make. I try and tell myself that I’ll still be as studious, reading for pleasure and edification and cross referencing everything I see on paper. But the truth is, even in the month and a half since I’ve been jobless in America, it’s been really difficult to create any sort of routine that challenges me.
All of my caring older adult friends and family will smile and shrug and say encouraging things like “you don’t need to know what you’re doing forever; you just need to know what you’re doing next.” And this is true, and I’m very grateful for their understanding and support. Yet I’m wondering if this is the part of life, that dreaded post-college part, that people don’t really explain in detail because it’s different for everyone, and maybe uncomfortable as well.
And so I’ve been spending this last week living a bit in nostalgia-land, which I believe every person is entitled to at some points in life. I visited my old college and church, had lots of lunches and coffees and lots of talks, and started going through my old belongings, at which point I realized that I’m a book hoarder. I also discovered this insert from my old environmental biology book, which explains a lot:
|A fold out map I found under my bed today.|
I also found some old travel pieces from The Inquirer, old essays I wrote for school and lots of notes about random ideas in life. My brain, it seems, has always been running overtime.
One article I had saved was a piece by Rick Steves on the relative simplicity of backpacking in the age of technology, with which I wholeheartedly agree. His last bit of advice was to always keep a travel journal. He observes:
One of my favorite discoveries is that the journal entries I wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate with the…20-year-old American exploring Europe in the 21st century.
I find this encouraging and inspiring. There’s something so liberating and magical about being your own Robinson Crusoe or Sherlock Holmes in a foreign land, even if you can now follow that land on twitter. There’s nothing like being there in person.
And this is why, as a newly jobless post-grad, joining the ranks of the wandering millennials, I feel hopeful about my future. Yes, it is so much more challenging to make things happen now. In college, everything is arranged neatly for you; you have endless options from which to choose. You see your friends all the time. You have access to databases, free Zumba classes, trips to the beach, and all the ice cream you can eat. Those things still exist in life (maybe not the free Zumba); you just have to find them for yourself now.
Look at the map. Look at Rick Steves. We have a whole world still to explore, and even in our own backyard or old college town, we can find uncharted territory. Everything and everyone has a story, and since human beings are naturally curious, it is only fitting that we seek to uncover those stories, no matter where we are physically. If you’re looking for a place to start, try your old journals, essays, or random scraps of paper stuffed under your bed.
Rick Steves, “It’s Easier to be a Backpacker,” for the Inquirer, Sunday July 28, 2013. Inquirer.com
I won’t pretend I’m a sophisticated northerner. I speak more slowly than many people I know; I don’t own any Ray-Bands or black high heels or know all the subway lines in Manhattan. Still, I’m noticing some stark differences between the vast, expansive south and the busy, densely populous northeast. For one, in the drive from Memphis to Kentucky, I saw more trees than people. More trees, more leaves on the trees, more blades of grass, more fish in the lakes, even more clouds in the sky. There is somehow more sky.
When the only thing you have to contest your existence against is something that’s existed for hundred of years, like a tree, you suddenly feel very, very small. It’s almost impossible be existential in a city! There are too many people telling you you’re wonderful, and not enough reminding you that the trees were here first.
Also down south, people…are just so friendly. I always thought this was a myth, that people in the south are friendlier than in the north. “Just because people down south smile and wave and say ‘hello’ as if they mean it doesn’t make them more friendly.” Perhaps I will test this some time and see how long I can talk to a stranger in Memphis or Bowling-Green before he or she gets bored or scared of me. But at least when people greet me with a boisterous “hello,” I know they really mean it. You know that awkward semi-acknowledgement of a stranger’s presence, where you’re too shy and too busy to be genuinely interested in someone else’s day, but you don’t want that person to think a bad thought about you so you smile and eek out a timid “hi,” and the other person blurts out, “Hihow’sitgoin’?” and then just keeps walking? Yeah. In the south, strangers greet strangers with genuineness. And they separate their words.
Perhaps what I’m experiencing is a bit of rose colored glasses syndrome, that feeling you get when you’re in a new place, when you’re exhausted from what you’ve left behind, and you look at your present surroundings with admiration and bliss. To tell the truth, I never thought so rosily about the south when I lived there.
In fact, all I remember dreaming of (aside from other planets) was my fantasized, grown up life in New York City. So perhaps now as a young adult, I’ve begun to reverse the fantasy and trade skyscrapers for landscapes and subway lines for tractors. Or haystacks…
Our time in Kentucky was full of farms, animals, fresh air and Mennonites markets. I overheard the boy pictured at left (click to see the detail) speaking Dutch with his father, owner of the first Mennonite farm we visited, where my own father proceeded to buy over a hundred dollars worth of squash! Seriously.
I watched this boy, about ten, grab a basket and pluck a few leaves of kale from the stalk and then mosey on back up to his house, to sell it or to eat it.
I admit I was jealous. When I want to cook kale, I need a car, a shopper of the month card, cash, car keys, a wallet, and the patience to walk under halogen lights and stand in line at a conveyor belt while trying to ignore all the celebrity gossip and “HOW TO LOSE TWENTY POUNDS IN TWO DAYS!” advertisements.
Perhaps this trip was exactly what I needed. Blue skies and sunshine. Apple pie, baseball games, harmonicas and dogs on my lap. I had no idea I was so…American.
“Country rooooad, take me hoooome, to the place I beloooong!”