I back out of my driveway, turn down Courtland and slide onto Tuttle in 3:45 a.m. solitude. Sky is dark, roads barren on this first cross country trip since parting with my boyfriend, Andrew.
A solid presence slips in beside my vehicle — a deputy sheriff surveying Sarasota’s silent streets. His windows tinted, I only see his shadowed silhouette, yet am warmed by his caring charge. He’s watching out for me, I sense, like a lantern probing shadows. I nod in gratitude as we travel through night then part.
I merge onto I-75 and insert the cd my friend, Jessica, made me for Christmas — a collection of her favorite songs. A sensuous guitar intro of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujiah laced with Jeff Buckley‘s breathless inflections threads through my car’s chilly cabin. Andrew sang this, I recall, as tears of grief dormant in daylight spill from my chest.
Eddie Vedder laments that society wants to have more than we need. Ray LaMontagne suggests the answers are within us. Singer after singer delves his or her soul’s depths, bearing light for me to enter mine. Fellow travelers brave the night, helping me release a portion of sadness. Miles later, purged, I sit in silence and watch shadow and street light alternate on the road ahead.
At 4:30 am, the Skyway Bridge toll lay before me in an orange ball of light piercing gray. As I stop, a middle-aged, blonde woman reaches for my dollar twenty five, beaming, cheering my heart. “Is this early or late for you?” I ask.
“Late”, she bounces back.
“Thanks,” I smile, knowing she sleeps days so folks like me can pay our passage and cross the bridge. She’s a candle in the night. I think, driving on. With Andrew’s absence, I notice the many folks helping me on my way.
As I gaze down on Tampa Bay, silken and lulling, I push the radio knob on my dashboard. British accents drum out BBC’s report, chopping through the calm. Across the Atlantic, day’s activities are in motion. Refugees are still fleeing Syria. A 19 year old’s body is found under rubble of an earthquake. Climatologists report increased sea level rises. Bloody scenes, cries for help, flooded coastlines fill my mind. As I inhale damage and despair, my grief is replaced by others’. And when filled to brim with images of destruction, I utter a prayer, press off the news and turn my thoughts to deeds of good people working in shadows, bringing in light.
I remember a war reporter telling there’s always another side to tragedy. An elderly woman harboring orphans in her home, a mother handing her baby to a stranger on a bus leaving battle, formerly distant neighbors sharing remnants of food and shelter. Virtuous acts of courage and caring emerge amidst unimaginable suffering. There is much brilliance in ordinary folks, she says.
I think of the sheriff deputy who escorted me. So much bad news about cops, I forget there are good police doing good work. News of drought, wildfire and tornadoes flood the air waves. Yet searching the internet, I’ve found communities cropping up all over of folks living simply, cooperatively and sustainably. It’s so easy to forget if I don’t keep it in view, I think. Much light is hidden.
At 4:45 a.m., I pull into A-1 Express’s glowing parking lot where I’ll leave my car during my trip to Berkeley. Once checked in, I stand in line then step into the dimly lit mini bus that will drive me to the airport. A gritty driver greets me and each entering passenger through stillness, “Good morning. Happy Holidays.”
“Happy Holidays to you,” I reply.
He asks us for flight information then darts dutifully through Tampa’s cloaked, pre-dawn traffic to deliver us to our planes on time. A load lifted, I sit in the lull of his carriage. On the seat across the aisle, a young couple, neatly groomed with fur lined boots and tautly packed bags huddle, whispering. I sense their softness in the night, reminding me we are vulnerable, can be broken.
At the airport, I thank the driver and step from his lit carriage into black. As I walk through the brightly lit terminal to gate A20, I glance into faces of folks coming toward me, thinking, you and you and you, such brave souls on this planet, facing such turmoil.
At the gate, I line up with others to board. Once called to enter the plane, folks surge forward. I leave space for those standing in line before me but to the side. They shuffle in ahead along with a brisk woman jutting from behind. Stunned, I wince, then realize, she’s unusual. Most folks are taking their turn. I join their ranks.
In my window seat, shade down to cold dark, I flip through American Airlines Magazine to the flight destination maps. There’s Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay. My eyes scan up to the right, Norway, Sweden, Denmark. Despite ISIS attacks a week earlier, folks the world round came to the Paris Climate Conference to face our common destiny, sort interests, find agreement and go home to do their part. This thought lightens me.
I reach for my water. Ordinarily, I carry a glass jar from home, not to use plastic, but unable to carry fluids on flight, I bought a liter at the terminal. Its label claims, “Earth’s finest water”. I grimace, take a sip, then pull on my head phones to hear one of the Fleet Foxes singing he was brought up to believe he was unique, like a snowflake distinct among others. But, has decided he’d rather be a cog in a machine serving the greater good. My heart glows, joining his parade.
Above the clouds and hustle of day, my vision’s enlightened. What if we have no Grammy Awards, no vying to be on top of the chart, to get the record deal? What if each singer and songwriter is seen as an offering in a banquet of muses nourishing our souls?
I think about Zach, a third grade boy I tutor. We begin each lesson with his drawing side-ways eights with beeswax crayons, building pathways between left and right hemispheres. Each time he asks, “Is this the best?”
“It’s beautiful. It’s lovely.” I reply week after week.
“No, is this the best?” he insists.
Last Saturday, wanting to save him from a lifetime of useless striving, I say, “There is no best, Zach. There are many beautiful ways to draw. You could never know or count or love them all.”
I realize he’s impressed with this notion of “THE BEST” at school, on TV. I need to explain. “Sometimes, if you want to pick a crayon to color the sun or a shirt to wear with pants, you can find what fits best in that case, but other colors and shirts might do better another time. So, there’s no one, all-time best.”
His shoulders settle. He stops striving like a salmon upstream and relaxes as a member of a family.
I think of the woman pushing ahead at the gate. We’re so compelled to ‘be first’, but what’s the point? We had assigned seats. Perhaps in life we do too, each of us preparing and being prepared a place ahead.
I recall hearing on the radio that ants have no hierarchy. Each sees a need and fits it. And of a small town devastated by a hurricane where folks flocked to a church. And two teenage sisters just started organizing, setting up an online list of needs and resources like food, clothing, and shelter. The community worked together and pulled themselves out of the wreckage. We each play our part, lightening the load.
I notice Chuck Brodsky singing we’re each other’s angels, meeting when it is time. Yes, I muse, glancing at the family beside me – a mom passing around sliced apples and walnuts, a teenage daughter brushing her little sister’s lustery brown hair, a young boy leaning on dad’s shoulder, thumb in mouth, watching pages flip as a story is spun in a familiar Long Island accent. Gentle breaths, easy smiles, and warm touches brighten my lonesome heart.
A stewardess approaches with her cart. I flip through the airline magazine to choose a drink. Tomato juice, I decide. It comes in a recyclable can, but she’ll pour it into a plastic cup. I crook my neck to see whether coffee is served in paper cups. Yes. I’ll ask for tomato juice, no ice, paper cup, please. She smiles and nods pleasantly at my request and hands me a paper napkin. Shoot, I think. I don’t need this, but it’s too complicated to give it back. I’ll use it as a tissue. I shake my head at my mental shenanigans, but realize, this is me, doing my part.
When our plane lands in Oakland’s late morning haze, I grab my overhead luggage and find my way through the bustling terminal to the sidewalk. There, my nephew, Ari, jumps from his dusty red truck. Smiling brightly, he embraces me, warming my heart. He lifts my luggage to the space behind our seats, jumps in the cabin, clicks on the ignition and turns to the road.
“What you been up to?” I ask.
He tells of his volunteering with a nonprofit which helps renters in disadvantaged communities. “Social equity builds better cities!” he states. His passion radiates through Oakland’s morning traffic’s din in telling of folks teaching each other to organize, speak up and work to meet needs. Enveloped in his glow, I bow in gratitude, knowing my nephew is bringing in light, as the voices of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young stream through the speakers that we’re stardust and we’re golden and we have to find our way back to the garden.