Posted by: MC | March 1, 2010

Change and Topography


Last year by this date, the EX:Change project had taken me, via Mini Cooper, across about 5000 miles.  That’s a lot a lot of miles…and I was only half way.

Already and more times than I can begin to recount, I’d been swept into that American road trip bonus:  The mix of surprise and awe at another unfolding of landscape – even the stretches I’d seen so many times before.  The land of this country is guaranteed to inspire. 

I remember the calm voice of my mother when on long road trips one of her four wiggly girls whined for the umpteenth time, “How much longer?”  Not every time, but often, she’d say from the front passenger seat, “Look at the scenery.  It’s beautiful.”  I never really got it then, but I do now.  There’s a prayerful ease in releasing attention into the vast variety and incomparable artistry of the land. 

Today, the topography of my writing mind is bumpy, even jarring.  At unpredictable intervals I leave a hallway of thought and find myself in the middle of the vast territory of grief.  My friend, Jenn died the morning after I wrote the last blog.  Change, indeed.  Her family and her community reel confused and aching for her weeks-ago presence.  We do what we can, rallying to provide what is needed for memorial gatherings and for the family.  And we dance together, because that’s what we do with Jenn.  That’s how we know her and always will.

Terrains shift.  Topography, circumstance, and emotion all shift.  And the varied contours of landscape have a lot to teach about change and how to move with and through it.  Sayings like, “You can’t push the river,” or “You never really know what’s around the corner,” come from the land’s lessons.  Of course, we don’t have to pay attention to them, but over time we either learn to listen, or we limp along bearing the breaks and bruises of defiance.  Change happens whether we like it or not.

The blue bonnets of my birth state will be blanketing its hills soon.  Toward the extremes in the landscape of living are changes like bluebonnet blooms and sudden deaths, like easy sighs and earthquakes.  Reliable in the middle of the continuum are circumstances in which we can have real agency. 

The 100 voices I heard at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and across plains, river valleys, cities, deserts and mountains spoke of the willingness and optimism American citizens have for taking their part of the responsibility for making it good.  In Seattle, Paris Mullen called it “the can do spirit.”  In Wilsonville, OR, Lena Baucum called it “an amazing work ethic.”  In New York City, Rose McClendon called it, “American veracity and tenaciousness.” 

In his home near the top of a hillside edged by the Guadalupe River I talked with Fred Gamble.  Fred is the CFO for Schreiner University in Kerrville, TX ( ) and one of Laura Gamble’s children (EX:C blog, “So, where do we go from here?”, 2-10-2010).  He spoke of his belief in the capacity of this country and its citizenry for positive change.  “I’m not a giddy person but I am positive about what I expect to happen.  I’m not sitting here like, ‘Please let this happen!’   I’m more like, ‘We can do this.’  I’m not burning my bra.  It’s not that kind of excitement.  I’m like, “Yeah.  We can do this.”  Stay focused, stay away from all the negativity, stay out of the pettiness and keep focused, and we can do this.  It will happen.”

A few days later in the farmland of Marshall, AR, Randy Vincent, a staff member at the Searcy County Library ( ) gave an example of action toward positive change.  “A lot of us see the nonsense on television that tells us people are too divided to work together.  But that’s not true.  I’ve seen it in our own small community, a very rural community near here.  There’s a gentleman and his wife in their late eighties who provided free art lessons for all the kids in our community that wanted to attend.  They would bring them over on a Sunday afternoon, feed them and teach them how to paint and draw.  You know these are the types of contributions that people make.”

Eddie Kemp talked with me under a bright blue late February sky in a parking lot in Jackson, MS.  “Well, I feel like America will succeed in spite of its government.  That’s a terrible thing to have to say, but if we could get them out of the way, we’d be just fine.  I think Senators and Congressmen ought to all be farmers.  They get up early in the morning.  They work until dark.  They work for nothing.  They don’t start a job that they’re not going to finish.  And they don’t blow a lot of smoke.  They just get the job done.”

Later than evening, after driving through the hills and along the rivers threading Jackson to Meridian to Selma, I sat in Michelle Browder’s living room in Montgomery, AL.  Her mother had joined us. Together with Michelle’s father, the Browder family is a major force for charitable service to the community through the work of their Montgomery Rescue Mission ( ).  Mrs. Browder spoke specifically about her confidence in the Black youth of their community and the country. 

“I’m seeing with the younger Black people, they’re just excited.  And they want to do better.  They’re encouraged. It seems like their self esteem here and across this nation has been raised.  I’ m really looking for great things not only within the Black community but, the Hispanic community.  It’s just exciting to know that.  We can go there. It’s not beyond our reach.”

Across these comments, there’s as much variation in the terrain as in the topography the Mini navigated to get from one place to the next.  That’s the nature of landscape and that’s the nature of individual worldviews.  At the same time, there’s a fundamental confidence in every comment – a confidence in the practical goodness of the American people – maybe not to a person, but in the fundamental spirit that motivates farmers and retirees, CFOs and youth.

In that spirit is a willingness to believe in resiliency, in better days ahead.  It is that spirit that gently accompanies us through grief.  It’s the spirit that opens our attention to the bluebonnets and the way they return year after year.  It is the spirit that draws its life from the land that gives ground to our everyday footsteps.

The second question in the EX:Change interview was, “In all the change, what is important to you to have remain the same or constant?”  Lots of people spoke of our shared values on things like life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness – of government for and by the people – and of our value on being in good relation. 

We want to rely on things.  We need to, so that we’ll be able to manage the inevitability of change — the positive changes we can help to bring about and those myriad other changes over which we have no say:  Changes like the coming of Spring, like losing a friend to death, and like the shifts and splendor of this generous land.

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