America the Beautiful

GIVEN THE EVENTS OF THE PAST FEW WEEKS in Boston, Oklahoma City and elsewhere in America, I thought I’d take a break from my critiques of our country to say a few words of unabashed praise.

About two and a half years ago, I was working at a job that I didn’t enjoy and was rather bad at. I did my best, but I learned that if you need someone to stay on top of the material needs of a busy office, I’m definitely not your guy.

My boss at the time was a great guy, and was almost heroically patient with me, but it was clear that the position was not for me. The only thing keeping me there was the very soft post-Great-Recession labor market and a sense of economic caution I probably got from my mother, who grew up in the last economic calamity to afflict the United States, the Great Depression.

As I settled into bed one night, I had a Moment of Clarity: I suddenly remembered that I had pretty decent savings, and that I’d always wanted to take an extended road trip. Suddenly, I knew what I needed to do.

The next day, I gave notice to my boss (he hid his relief pretty well). I spent the next two weeks in a frenzy of practical preparation — I got my car thoroughly serviced, paid a few months’ rent in advance and packed. On Oct. 8, 2010, I hit the road.

In the next few weeks, I hit more than 40 states and put almost 11,000 miles on my little car. As a result of my adventures I can say without exaggeration that we live in a rather stunning country.

I have seen some other parts of the world, but on this trip I got some sense of why the Chinese word for America means “The Beautiful Country.” Nowhere else have I encountered the scenic riches that America offers in astonishing variety and abundance.

Going through the Montana wilderness made me appreciate what made Woody Guthrie sing:

I’ve roamed and rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me

On my trip, I gained a new appreciation not just for the beauty of America’s land, but the brimming decency and generosity of her people. I met people along the way of almost every station and circumstance of life, and almost without exception the people of every region were kind, generous and happy to share their homes and lives with me.

The part of my trip I most looked forward to was the Deep South, to which I had never been.

My pre-visit image of the South was of a place that put a sort of courtly gloss on Faulknerian spiritual ruin. But while there is evidence all over the South of the sadder parts of their history,  I found myself unexpectedly and utterly charmed.

I stayed for a few days with a friend in Greenville, South Carolina, and was struck by the far slower pace of life there – in a literal sense. People there talk slow, drive slow, and generally take their time with things. Buying something at the store is not just the brisk exchange of money and goods it usually is in places like New York and San Francisco, but also a chance to pause to catch up – there were pauses in the transaction where various parties asked about the well-being of various family members and so on. In the Bay Area, you’d have people behind them tapping their feet and rolling their eyes; there, though, this was just part of the expected ritual of courtesy and sociability.

I remember going to a barber shop in Savannah, Georgia, to get my hair cut (I recalled how “Easy Rider” ended, and was taking no chances). It was a Saturday morning, and I sat among men in white, short-sleeved dress shirts talking about the things men talk about when they are out of earshot of their wives — hunting, baseball, politics and so on. There was a certain refined courtesy and gentility — an almost reflexive charm — these men had with one another that seems to be distinctive to the South.

On my way through Atlanta, I stopped at the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change, and my visit felt like the culmination of a pilgrimage. I have admired Dr. King since high school, and seeing the nearby church where he preached was overwhelming.

The words of one of his speeches came to me, and for a brief moment I caught a glimpse of the great promise of America, and a path to reach it.  Despite the real and deep divisions that beset us, we can, in fact, be reconciled with one another, if we but will it. My trip through America gave me a new appreciation of the depth of his words:

Love is a weapon that cuts without wounding, and ennobles the one who wields it. It is a sword that heals.

And I believe that it is this kind of love that can take us through this period of transition and we can come to that brighter day. This is what we’ve tried to do. In the midst of our struggle we haven’t always succeeded, but somehow in some of the dark moments we have been able to stand up before our violent oppressors and say:

We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. And so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Burn our homes and threaten our children and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Yes, send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

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  • Ronald King

    Matt, Thank you for this reminder. I have taken several road trips and have found much love circulating in unexpected places. Today’s, 6/18, readings reflect on Love.