Published Asheville Citizen-Times, August 29, 2005
Carla and I rushed down the street past the laundromat, entered one of the two cheap restaurants on the edge of the college campus, and settled into a booth with unpadded wooden seats. We preferred to eat at the drug store lunch counter, but because it was 1964 in Memphis, Tennessee, and Carla was Black, our appearance would have been a highly charged political event in a store that was resisting integration. Besides we had a little over an hour to eat before reporting to rehearsal on a reader’s theatre production.
Carla’s dark eyes and hair and café au lait complexion contrasted my reddish-brown hair, blue eyes and ivory skin, but we shared delicate features and slender frames. Living in the dorm, though not near each other, and not particularly close friends, our working on this performance had melded our relationship in some intangible way. This was evident when we each stood on opposite sides of the stage, our backs to each other where it was impossible to see what the other was doing. Perfectly synchronized, we kneeled slowly, pantomimed gently plucking a flower, and as we stood up, slowly brought it up to our faces as if to smell it. There was no count or music to cue us. From the first rehearsals, we were somehow able to sense the other’s movement, and act in unison. We never talked about how to do it; we simply fell into it easily as if we were two parts of a whole.
We had just ordered dinner when an African-American student I didn’t know rushed over to Carla and whispered in her ear.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Carla said with an exasperated expression and followed the girl out.
She was gone for at least thirty minutes. Our food arrived and I was half through with the meal when she rushed back in and plopped into the booth.
“How late is it?” she asked.
“Six forty. So what’s going on?”
“The attendant at the laundromat wouldn’t let Sheila use it.”
“Are they usually like that?”
“Sometimes. I think he realized he could scare her, so he did. I’ve told her a dozen times to call the NAACP, and they’ll tell her what to do, but she saw me walk by. Everybody comes to me and expects me to handle their problems, but they need to learn to do this for themselves. I can’t always be there. I’m so frustrated.”
“I can imagine.”
She stopped with her fork halfway to her mouth and looked me straight in the eye, “No you can’t.”
There was a long silence. I didn’t know what to say. I’d said what I would have said to any friend.
I half-murmured, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean….”
Her mouth was full, but she nodded an acceptance of my apology. We quickly finished our meal in silence and hurriedly walked back to the theatre. Her words still echoed in my mind.
Growing up in the segregated South, I’d never gone to school with Black people until now; Carla was my first Black friend. I wanted to discuss our exchange, but I was afraid of offending her, so I never mentioned it. I had always thought my color-blindness was a good thing. Or was it? Was I really a friend if I didn’t see her as she truly was? I’d never known what it was like to be Black in this time and place or know what burdens Carla carried because of her color. Although I had to fight for my rights as a woman, she had to break the double bondage of race and gender discrimination. I admired her for standing up for herself and others, making the world a better place for us all.
Each night, as we took our places on stage in the darkness, I could hear her nervous breathing as she could hear mine. Each night as we bent, in perfect unison, to pick and smell the imaginary blossom, I felt her presence. For a while we were one, apart from politics, where nothing mattered except that we were human beings, actors in someone else’s story.
A Different Perspective
Published in Pure Inspiration Magazine Online, December 2007
Looking out my kitchen window as I prepare breakfast, a sparrow lights on a dark bare branch only a few feet away. For a few seconds, we look directly at each other before it flits to another branch. A second bird I’ve never noticed before gracefully navigates the numerous maple branches to land on the larger arms of an oak tree. This bird has a red patch on the back of its head and white and black stripes beneath that. I remind myself again that I must get a bird book so I can learn the names of my feathery neighbors.
This activity has pleasantly distracted me from what I like least about looking out the kitchen window in winter. It gives me a more pleasant perspective than the large, steel cylinders of the factory that stands on the top of the next hill. At night its spotlights from several blocks away flood the kitchen and spill into the living room and through the window of my bedroom, so every time I look out, I am irritated by it. The birds cause me to focus on the beauty in front of me rather than the ugliness in the distance.
During the other three seasons of the year, the window frames a profusion of maple leaves, bright green or gold, orange and red, depending on the season. The sharp designs of the maple leaves overlap, creating a fascinating density of light, shadow and color. Sometimes, as I enter the living room and look through it to the kitchen window, I catch my breath, awed by the patchwork of brilliant yellow leaves framed there.
So, what I see is a matter of perspective. During a disaster, I may see on the news only devastation and death; yet, when photographs of it appear in magazines and newspapers, there are always pictures of stunning beauty and heroism. The eye of the photographer went deeper than the obvious destruction and captured what I could not see through the pain.
Shifting one’s perspective is like looking through a kaleidoscope. The colors and materials don’t change, only their arrangement. What was a circle before becomes a diamond, what was linear becomes vertical. A different perspective can completely change an experience. When the bird landed on the branch in front of me, my heart leapt with joy – literally. If an unexpected event can shift my mental state so quickly, then surely, I can intentionally choose to shift my consciousness that quickly.
Years ago when I studied Buddhism, I became aware that I hated standing in the grocery store line because I was always focused on somewhere else I preferred to be instead of enjoying where I was. This awareness came to me again on a day when I was particularly tired and anxious to get home. It occurred to me that I could rest right there, so I began to breathe deeply. After a few breaths, I noticed the smell of roasting chicken, the patchouli the woman next to me wore, and the sharp citric fragrance of the tangerine a child was unpeeling. I noticed the light pouring through the front windows, the clean white clouds in the sky, and the blue highlights that appeared in a woman’s dark hair as the sunlight struck it. By the time I reached the register, I was calm and refreshed. It’s amazing what just being in the moment can do.
At one point in my life, I realized I needed to cut back on my spending and that depressed me, for I saw being more frugal as “having less” and having to deny myself things that I enjoyed in life. After a while, I became disgusted with my whining self, and it occurred to me that this experience could become a practice in simplifying my life. Making a pledge to buy nothing I absolutely did not have to have, I discovered a wonderful freedom.
When I needed more soap, I discovered two bars in the back of the drawer that I’d bought for some special purpose and never used. Sitting the body lotion or dishwasher liquid on its end so I could use all its contents created another week’s supply. Clearing clothes out of the closet that didn’t fit or that I no longer liked resulted in my making some “spending money” at the consignment shop. Instead of buying more food while a can of soup or box of pasta sat indefinitely on the shelf, I used those items first. I stopped buying books and started going to the library. I cleaned out old things from drawers. I stopped going out unless it was something I really wanted to do, and it was free or reasonably priced.
I literally created more space in my life – in my cabinets, closet and drawers. I spent less money because I used what I had before buying more. With more space available, I could arrange things in a more orderly fashion. The energy in my life changed to something softer and gentler. I felt more worthwhile because I had developed more responsible habits. Simplifying my life made space for more peace of mind, and not going out as often gave me the solitude to become reacquainted with who I really was. I felt free of clutter at all levels. More space and clearer energy created a feeling of abundance instead of scarcity.
Every time I go to the kitchen window now, I look for a bird or playful squirrel in the trees. If none appears, I notice the beautiful design in the knarled oak branches or the slant of the sun through the window. I choose to see the beauty, and this perspective makes all the difference.