Aug 072012
 

I am walking along the wide leafy green street of suburban Chicago when the sign outside a grey building catches my eye. I cannot remember its exact words, but it may as well have said ‘we will have the land once called Palestine, whatever it takes’.

I feel ill, as if all the air has been sucked out of my day. It is one thing to build a place of worship, it is completely another to dedicated that holy place to an endless war.

I am catapulted back to a childhood memory. I am standing on wide stone steps outside a synagogue. It is a familiar place to me. I am dressed in white, as are the men around me. It is a loving memory, a gentle memory, a warm winds of childhood memory.

One day, a long time ago in easy chatter, I mentioned the synagogue to my mother, a ‘remember when . . .’ conversation. She stared at me blankly. I stared back, stupidly. There was no synagogue. As common sense would have told me, had I thought about it at all – I am an Australian with no Jewish heritage whatsoever. There was no question that my mother was right. Yet, even allowing for the flawed and corruptible memories of children, I remember that synagogue. It is a memory now categorised under the possibility of ‘past life’, for want of a simple explanation.

I am jolted back to the present by a car horn playing Yankee Doodle Dandy. I walk on, pondering my response to the sign, for I am one among the host of people outside the USA for whom blind defence of a land called Israel is not just untenable, it is shameful.

What is deeply pleasing to me, and delightfully surprising, is not a single Jewish person I have met in the USA supports Israeli aggression against the people of Palestine – pretty amazing, huh?

This pleases me because it is outside our story about the people of the USA. And it pleases me because it signals hope for the people of Palestine, who still wear the keys to their grandparents’ homes around their neck – the homes they left just for a few days while the new settlers blasted their way into homes and land that were not theirs for the taking, fueled with the bloodlust of glorified entitlement sanctioned by a blue banner blazing the Star of David.

I have had only one conversation in the USA with a man who supported the land we currently call Israel and that was with Bill, born ‘n bred Jackson, Mississippi. I met Bill on the bus to Meridien. He said, and I’m sharing this by way of placing Bill in the broader scheme of things, that there used to be three classes in America – rich, poor and middle class. A union man, he pointed out to me that the unions created the middle class. Before that, he said, there was rich and poor. And now, he said, there are four classes: educated, not educated, ignorant and rich.

Bill hasn’t flown in a plane since 9/11. I tell him ‘y’know where the safest place on Earth is these days?’ He looks at me, interested. ‘The airport,’ I say. He says ‘you’re kiddin’.’ And I have not forgotten the light in his eyes when I told him how I spent time among the people of Palestine. ‘You’re kiddin’,’ he said again. I tell him how helpful and respectful they were to me. ‘You’re kiddin’,’ he said.

Bill points to the insignia on his baseball cap. Somewhere on that silver circle is the name of America’s 42nd president.

‘William Clinton’ he says, ‘best president America ever had . . . stooped, dang stoopid, but a good president. He was a man of the American people, he was one of us. Why didn’t he just say heck yeah when he got caught with Monica? Then we got Bush, Bush embarrassed us all over the world. Every time he opened his mouth on tv I thought it may as well be me talkin’.’

Bill tells me that a while back, he went to Arkansas to see Bill Clinton’s museum.

‘It’s a library actually,” he said. ‘A redneck library, but a library just the same. It looks just like the trailer homes across the river.’

I tell him I heard Mississippi was last in everything, except teenage pregnancy. He nodded. ‘Yep, that’s us,’ he says. ‘That and fat. We’re the fattest people in America. Two things you can count on in Mississippi: poverty and mosquitoes.’

From here we segueway into feminism.

‘Let me tell yer about feminism,’ he said. ‘Okay Bill,’ I laughed, ‘you tell me about feminism.’

‘My grandmother was the biggest feminist ever. She divorced in 1939 with three kids and accordin’ to everyone else she was the biggest whore in Mississippi. She worked tables and bars and did dry cleaning, then WW2 came and she was the original Rosie the Riveter, building airplanes in Memphis. One day when I was about eight years old I was at her house when the power company men came to clip the trees under the lines near her house. My grandmother met them at the door.

‘We’re here to clip the trees ma’am,’ they said.

‘No y’ain’t’ she replied.

‘Well yes ma’am we are.’

‘Billy – she called me Billy – Billy go get ma rifle. So ah did. I went and got her rifle. Those power men went away and my grandmother went to see a lawyer and she got the whole power line rerouted away from her trees.’

I’m digressing, I know. I’m tellin’ you all this because in the USA talking about Israel publicly is like walking on proverbial eggshells. Let’s talk about anything but this. The possibility of backlash – and there will be a backlash – is as terrifying . . . as . . . well . . . the razor sharp bitterness causing uproar in a Zionist heart.

Or a synagogue dedicated to ‘whatever it takes’.

May 062012
 

JACKSON – MERIDIAN – ATLANTA

 

Aboard the only home I know these days, the Amtrak trains rattling around the United States of America, I remembered I had The Help as an audio book on my phone.

I remembered this ‘cos of a comment made by the man I sat next to on the bus from Jackson to Meridien.

He was born and bred Jackson.

He said all his friends were talkin’ ’bout this new movie and he wasn’t gonna see it, ‘cos it dissed his home town.

‘The way they tell it,’ he said, ‘it wasn’t like that. Maybe itty bitty bits, but me and the black kids all played together, we was all po’ together.’

And I thought, yes, poverty is a leveller.

And I thought it must be quite sumthin’ when folks thinks they know all about you – what you do, what you think, what you believe – just ‘cos they saw a movie.

Meridian.

Just across the line and a little south-west of Meridian is Lillian, the red dirt girl from a red dirt world.

And the dirt is red. Which surprised me. The colour of the dirt from home.

I had to get the bus to Meridian, the only way I was gonna to get to Atlanta without goin’ all the way back to New Orleans. In Meridian I could meet the train.

Meridien. I have loved that word since Alice Walker wrote a book with the same title. And I’ve been singin’ Emmylou’s song since I learned I was headin’ to the US of A.

The bus was packed with America’s down, but not out. And Bill, born n bred Jackson, Mississippi.

He said there used to be three classes in America – rich, poor and middle class. A union man, he pointed out that the unions created the middle class. Before that there was rich and poor. And now, he said, there are four classes: educated, not educated, ignorant and rich.

In Meridian I boarded that train, settled in with my audiobook and rattled my way across three states – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia – listenin’ to Southern voices tell me a story.

I laughed out loud with the book’s opening – it’s set in Jackson, Mississippi, right where I just came from, and she wonders out loud about 200,000 people livin’ in Jackson and where are they all?

I had the same thought myself. In a city carved up by big roads, it is impossible to see where that many people are livin’ – and I’m sure there’s more there now than there was in 1962.

Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia.

What a world.

Here are the lyrics to Red Dirt Girl – as a picture, the song is utterly brilliant.

Me and my best friend Lillian
And her blue tick hound dog Gideon,
Sittin on the front porch cooling in the shade
Singin every song the radio played
Waitin for the Alabama sun to go down
Two red dirt girls in a red dirt town
Me and Lillian
Just across the line and a little southeast of Meridian.

She loved her brother I remember back when
He was fixin up a ’49 Indian
He told her ‘Little sister, gonna ride the wind
Up around the moon and back again”
He never got farther than Vietnam,
I was standin there with her when the telegram come
For Lillian.
Now he’s lyin somewhere about a million miles from Meridian.

She said there’s not much hope for a red dirt girl
Somewhere out there is a great big world
Thats where I’m bound
And the stars might fall on Alabama
But one of these days I’m gonna swing
My hammer down
Away from this red dirt town
I’m gonna make a joyful sound

She grew up tall and she grew up thin
Buried that old dog Gideon
By a crepe myrtle bush in the back of the yard,
Her daddy turned mean and her mama leaned hard
Got in trouble with a boy from town
Figured that she might as well settle down
So she dug right in
Across a red dirt line just a little south east from Meridian

She tried hard to love him but it never did take
It was just another way for the heart to break
So she dug right in.
But one thing they don’t tell you about the blues
When you got em
You keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom
There ain’t know end.
At least not for Lillian

Nobody knows when she started her skid,
She was only 27 and she had five kids.
Coulda’ been the whiskey,
Coulda been the pills,
Coulda been the dream she was trying to kill.
But there won’t be a mention in the news of the world
About the life and the death of a red dirt girl
Names Lillian
Who never got any farther across the line than Meridian.

Now the stars still fall on Alabama
Tonight she finally laid
That hammer down
Without a sound
In the red dirt ground

May 062012
 

JACKSON

Courage, I decide in a warm bed between clean white sheets, is conscious action. It comes with the territory of life on the edge. Courage is feeling the heart beat a little louder and holding true as it pounds harder. Courage is the ‘yes’ of life, the blood of love. It is an absolute refusal to settle for mediocrity, to barter the spirit’s longing with the desire to tell stories about why things must stay as they are. Courage is the willingness to square our shoulders and bare our breastbone to the sun, the wind, the rain and the storms of life. Courage is an open heart. And steady eyes and an open heart are the only armor we need as pilgrims of life.

From My Pilgrim’s Heart

 

There was something I forgot to tell y’all about the Cherokee Inn, the bluegrass bar in Jackson with the green checkered tablecloths where I tasted my first fried green tomatoes.

That’s tom-ay-toes, by the way.

And that’s about the toothpicks on the ceiling.

Look up at the black roof above and there’s all these little light coloured sticks with cellophane flags poked in this way and that.

I craned my neck.

You’re kiddin’ me, I thought.

Toothpicks?

Toothpicks. Apparently they blow them up there with a straw. That’s some mighty lungs they have here in Mississippi.

This afternoon, my friend Lisa and I found a small patch o’ woods in nearby Clinton and roamed around the pathways like we were walkin’ a small labyrinth carved out of all that’s left of Mississippi woodlands.

Which probably isn’t true, but I sure do wonder where the animals are these days. Although there were loads of squirrels, beetles and ticks, a few birds and butterflies, and a worm.

Lisa and I sat under a tree and chatted and laughed the way women do, about everything and nothin’, about life and families and hopes and dreams.

I’m staying in Lisa’s spare room, which is wall to wall piles of productive mess. Lisa is sorting, reducing her life to a cabin-sized backpack. She’s on her way to meet her destiny, a woman on a mission that starts in June when she surrenders just about everything she owns and everything she knows about her world, and lets life lead her who knows where. She’s been saving for four years for this trip and she’s countin’ down the days.

She’s a woman willing to square her shoulders and raise her breastbone to the sun and I salute her courage.

She’s here if you’d like to meet her: http://postcardsfromnana.weebly.com/

There are sooo many things I think about bein’ in Jackson, Mississippi.

About the Pearl River. About white lawyer faces starin’ down at me from billboards askin’ if I got birth defects from my mama takin’ depression pills. About USA-appropriate road signs demanding I ‘yeild!’, rather than ‘stop’. About a park you wouldn’t go after dark called Battlefield Park. About trees called Sparkleberry and Possumhaw. About the Natchez Trace from Nashville to Natchez, the old trail where the wagonwheel ruts have hollowed out the earth in some places to eight foot deep. About ‘outlaws and cutthroats’, which I thought a bit unnecessary when ‘outlaws’ would do just fine.

Sitting at the gas station watching the people come and go, I think about how far race relations have come, about how quickly things can move the moment somebody takes the lead. I’m not so naive to think there’s not a long way to go and there’s not some biiiig conversations still to be had.

Courage is the yes of life . . . the blood of love. And these folk have seen their fair share of both.

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