Posted by: MC | February 24, 2009

Two Things

A Starbucks near Jamaica Drive, Jackson, MS

In Atoka, OK unleaded plus is selling for $1.89 a gallon. A bit farther down the road in Savanna, OK there’s an exit off OK65 for the US Army Ammunition Plant, followed immediately by an exit for Indian Nation Turnpike. In Savanna, I pass the John Deer place. It’s on the same side of the road as Country Quilts. By the time I get to McAlester, OK the main roads are named Peaceable and Electric. 

Between Atoka and Savanna I pulled off the highway, turned on my emergency flashers, rolled down my window and took a photo of the sky. In front of the sky were two billboards. One read, “Got Choctaw?” Just below, the other read, “Sitting on top of the world: David’s Trading Yard.” The first billboard had a huge photo of a child in traditional regalia and gave the url: The second sported a big green tractor. I liked them. So I stopped – proving, by the way, that going off the road south of Klamath Falls, OR did teach me a little about responsible highway photography. 

The highway left Oklahoma and dumped me into Arkansas. With a strategic left, I made my way into the Ozarks hills around the Buffalo River and contained in the rural county of Searcy. 

In keeping with the range of Americana evident through eastern Oklahoma, Searcy County has its own personality. The land was Indian Country – specifically, Osage – until 1808. Now, the population here reports itself as 97.26 white. One local mentioned, “There are lots of people with Indian ancestors here – Osage, Choctaw, Cherokee,” but except for some of the handshakes, that heritage was not much in evidence. 

Later in our conversation, the same citizen of Searcy County pointed out the deserted lumber yard and cattle yards lining the narrow roads of Marshall, the county seat. He gestured toward modest one-story buildings and said, “This used to be a place of farms, ranches and timber. Now our most thriving economic force is Medicaid.” 

As in much of rural America, the population of Searcy County is aging and the infrastructure is suffering from a small and shrinking tax base. Many roads remain unpaved, schools are under-funded, and there’s too little cushion for responding to the effects of destructive weather. 

In the face of these realities, Randy, the high school teacher turned librarian who was raised in a family with generations of history farming and later ranching the Arkansas hills, emphasized again and again an obvious solution for his rural community. “We have to learn how to sustain ourselves on this land again – right here, with the families in this community. Our hope is in planting and eating with the seasons, turning off our TVs and looking around to see what our kids and neighbors need.” 

Only days earlier, I’d sat in a Behavioral Economics class at the Hockaday School in Dallas, TX. The young women in the class were seniors – all of them anticipating college. Their instructor spoke of diminishing marginal utility, of saving and dis-saving. He referred to the assigned reading — Thorstein Veblen. 

These women will be leaders in the coming decades. They can have influence on economies – rural and urban. In a conversation with three of the Hockaday seniors after class, their honesty about their lack of exposure to the everyday concerns of many Americans was as striking as their anxiety about college applications. Consistently and without bait, they came back to wondering about, and really to challenging themselves to find ways to use their privilege to help solve the problems pressing on our country and our world. Their access to education hummed in the background – an invitation, even a mandate in their young consciousness to find ways to give back. 

Pretty regularly I find myself writing about the “one thing” I’m noticing from day to day. The “one thing” from Highland Park in Dallas, TX to Marshall, AR in Searcy County is really two things. For every person I talk with life is very real. Circumstances vary radically but pain and joy, moments of confidence and moments of confusion are no less present. 

Here’s the second thing. The Americans I’m talking with are concerned for the wellbeing of people beyond their families and communities. Everyone so far is talking about the relief, dialogue and sharing they want to see for and among everyone. This is new to me. Maybe it’s always been here. Maybe it’s newly being revived and spoken. For sure the media version of the American people can’t hold a candle to the large hearted essentially optimistic spirit I’ve been hearing down the west coast and on east from AZ to AR. 

My friend Anthony has taken to sending daily inspirational quote from his current home in LA, CA. Today he sent this. I thought I’d pass it on.
If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.
Meister Eckhart

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