Joshua Gilbert’s car sputtered to a stop in front of the Wilson’s Corner Bible Believing Congregation. He didn’t notice it at first. He hadn’t passed another building for several miles. The road was narrow without the usual yellow or broken white lines running down the middle. Evergreen trees flanked the sides of the road. For a bit, he felt lost in a Christmas tree farm, but he wasn’t an expert on trees, so that notion may have been as far off the beaten path as his car.
He’d been driving for 500 miles – putting as much distance as possible between himself and his father – and he’d exited the interstate for gas. The symbols on the sign had been a knife and fork, a gas tank, and a building. Even as he pulled sharply on the steering wheel to navigate the S curve of the exit ramp, he noticed the signs again with arrows pointing to the right, the same direction as the Christmas tree farm road.
He’d driven three miles without seeing another sign or any building fit to sleep, pump gas, or have a bite to eat.
Joshua groaned in disgust at his own actions. He should have gotten off at the last exit before the yellow “out of gas” light came on. He should have eaten lunch so he’d be thinking more clearly. He should have worn warm socks. His stockingless feet were freezing inside his scuffed burgundy loafers.
Nothing to do but get out. Hitchhike back. Maybe he had missed something. After all, he was quite sure the sign pointed in this direction.
He stepped out of his pitted pea green Chevy Nova into a half inch of snow that bit into his ankles with its cold – a cold he hadn’t anticipated in November in Tennessee. Tennessee was, after all, considered the south. Maybe he should re-think his intended destination of Boston. Maybe his body wasn’t ready for that.
It was then that he noticed the hand-carved sign pointing down a dirt road all but hidden by the evergreens.
“Wilson’s Corner Bible-Believing Congregation,” he read under his breath. “Hmph.” He shrugged his shoulders, pushed aside the branches, and began walking down the dirt road despite the fact he didn’t see a building. He could only hope this sign was more truthful than the one that had led him off the highway.
It was dusk where he’d left his Nova. Here under the canopy of trees, night had already descended. A slight breeze picked up, carrying the minty aroma of pines and a sense of peace. Peace. . .a feeling he hadn’t experienced in quite some time. A feeling he had run away seeking. A feeling he hadn’t anticipated discovering before driving at least a thousand miles.
Joshua shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans jacket. A movement off to the left caught his eye. He stopped walking, stopped breathing, turned his head in millimeter increments. At first he didn’t see anything, thought it was only his imagination dreaming up a reason to be frightened. Then he saw it again – a flicker, a flick, a twitch of a white tail. He squinted and made out the silhouette of a deer. Her jaw moved back and forth, up and down, without opening her mouth.
For a full minute he stared at her until the wind changed direction and blew his nearly shoulder length hair straight up in back and over his eyes in front. When he shook the hair back into place, she leapt away. He caught occasional glimpses of her upward bounds, and then she was gone.
“Must be good luck,” he whispered.
He turned back and noticed lights through the trees – lots of lights. Had to be the Whatever Bible Believing Whatever. When he started down the dirt road, he’d only half expected to see the place open on a Saturday night. Thought maybe a few men would be there readying the place for tomorrow. As he drew closer, shadowed humps of cars materialized in the darkness. The whole building was ablaze – floodlights outside, lights glowing through stained glass windows casting a kaleidoscope of color onto a neatly manicured lawn, fluorescent lights in a large side room illuminating dozens of people milling around. Some stood noses to the window, raising a hand to their eyebrows, scanning the parking lot and sidewalk leading to the door.
Joshua stepped from the shadows of the trees between a rusted red truck jacked high off its chassis and a yellow mini Cooper. He crossed the lot as the door to the large room opened. A man with a shaved head poked his head out and scanned the premises. He wore a red and black flannel shirt and jeans. He raised a clear plastic cup to his lips and then locked eyes with Joshua.
Joshua raised a hand in greeting. “Hey, my car –”
The man whipped the cup away from his lips, spilling pink liquid onto his chest. “He’s here!” he called into the room.
The next thing Joshua knew, people swarmed the door as though the flannel-shirt man had shouted, “Bomb scare!”
I am sitting in a pavilion in a nature preserve overlooking Lake Apopka from the south side. It is a beautiful February day in Florida -- a tad nippy for true Floridians, but for me, a transplanted Yankee, this is a glorious spring-like day. I parked my car in the dirt lot between two silver convertibles and walked 2/3's of a mile down a boardwalk through jungle-like terrain. Spanish moss engulfs bushes like giant spider webs and dangles from tree branches like limp witch's hair. I passed an enormous tree tipped over, revealing the private underbelly of its root system. Every so often signs identified the plants and trees growing under, around, and over the boardwalk -- Pickerelweed, Swamp Dogwood, Downy Maiden Fern, Cabbage Palm, Bandanna-of-the-Everglades, Saltmarsh Mallow. The shades of green range from olive to lime to Christmas tree to forest to shades I cannot describe. An osprey flies overhead, chirping, with a fish, glinting silver in the sunlight, dangling from its talons.
I have sat in the homes of the former African American farmworkers on the north shore of the lake many times -- homes without screens or air conditioning; homes with blue tarps covering roofs that need repair; homes with families living on the edge. This is only my third time on the south side of the lake. I peer across the choppy green waters, barely able to make out the shoreline on the northside -- both literally and figuratively.
This side is so sanitized. This side is all about looking ahead; about distancing itself from the past; about curb appeal, about being white. Everyone I passed along the boardwalk was Caucasian with North Face jackets, fancy straw hats to protect their white skin from the sun, telescope-size lenses on their cameras, powerful binoculars dangling from their necks.
A white film ripples around the water hibiscus growing along the edge of the lake. Two great blue herons flap their wings and fly in unison not too far from where I sit. One squawks like something you'd hear in Jurassic Park. It is quiet here. Peaceful. A place to come and commune with nature. A place to rejuvenate.
The first time I came to the south shore was for a program entitled "5,000 years of History of Lake Apopka." It was held in a brand new community center overlooking the lake. "Take Me Home, Country Roads," set the upbeat tone as I entered the room. Nearly a hundred people chatted amicably before taking seats in padded chairs -- all attendees were white.
I sat through the program remembering my interviews with African Americans whose families walked or paddled hundreds of miles three-quarters of a century ago to work in the muck farms, and I waited for their stories to be told. In fact, farmworkers on the north shore were skipped altogether in the historical story telling. We learned of the Seminole Indians, of the 1842 settling of the land by the white man, of the1845 Indian Removal Committee, of the beginning of the citrus farms in 1870, of the fish camps and the building of the canal and the algae bloom and the bird deaths. Oh yes, I almost forgot. African Americans did get mentioned. In 1922, one white man brought two slaves.
The attendees were a proud group as they mingled before and after the program to chit-chat. They were proud of the progress of the lake clean up; proud of their new subdivisions of houses with lanais and pools and lake views; proud of the nature preserve where I now sit.
A white egret rises from the eelgrass, hovers over the lake, fights with the wind to stay in one place, peers into the water for fish. For a moment, I spot the black snakelike neck of an anhinga bobbing above the water; it plunges under and resurfaces again ten feet away. I spy a brick mansion in a cut-out of trees, one-quarter of the way up the left side of the lake.
The second time I came to the south end of the lake was two months ago for the First Annual Lake Apopka Restoration Summit. State Senators and Representatives, Commissioners of Water and Directors of environmental agencies, academics and friends of the lake gathered to report on what they have accomplished over the last fifteen years and to discuss future plans. It was very scientific for me. I took fourteen pages of notes, but at one point became so overwhelmed with the technical language, I opened a game of solitaire on my i-Pad. Within seconds, an armed sheriff squatted by my side. "That isn't very nice, Ma'am," he said, so I put it away.
Nonetheless, my notes include words like limnology, cultural eutrophication, feasibility studies, alum treatment, flocculation, hydraulic dredging, biomanipulation, and a lot about phosphorous load. Reduction of phosphorous load, it seems, is the biggest goal. Through the fall of 2011, 18.5 million pounds of shad have been removed from the lake. This equates to removing 19,000 pounds of phosphorous and 387,000 pounds of nitrogen via fish tissue. The budget for shad removal for 2012 was $300,000.
As for remediation of the land, a plan called "soil inversion" has been put into place. Organochlorine pesticides remain in the soil; however, a modified farm plow has flipped over the top 30 centimeters of soil.
I recently walked on that land on the north shore, which is being marketed as a bird watching area. A sign states: "Warning: Visitors must stay on road. No fishing is allowed on this property. These lands are former agricultural lands that were subjected to regular use of agricultural chemicals, some of which, such as DDT, are persistent in the environment and may present a risk to human health."
This, fifteen years after the last farmworker left the fields; this, after the top layer of soil has been buried.
My feelings are mixed as I sit here. Had I found this nature preserve back when I was just an environmentalist, before I understood environmental (in)justice, I would have been thrilled with the efforts to restore the land for future generations, to save the habitat for the birds and snakes and alligators and every other creepy, crawly thing that wends its way through the underbrush I have just walked over. Back when I took my middleclass whiteness for granted.
Along the inside beam of the roof of the pavilion are 40 signs documenting the history of Lake Apopka. 1513, Ponce de Leon discovers Florida; 1845, Florida is admitted as the 27th state of the union; 1880, Beauclair Canal is created; 1922, sewage treatment plant is built; 1941, Zellowood Drainage and Water Control District created; 1956, 21 Fish Camps operating on lake; 1972, Bacterial disease kills thousands of fish, and many birds, alligators, snakes and turtles; 1991, Friends of Lake Apopka organize; 1998, $100 million buyout of 15,000 acres of muck farms.
Can I be at peace in this peaceful place? Can I go back to where I once was, seeing only the beauty of the world the way it was first created and now, after it has been sanitized, forgetting all that came between? Can I forget the heartaches of the people on the north shore? I hope not. To do so, would be to dump my own injustice upon the heap the farmworkers have already experienced.
Dignity. That has been one of my goals in caring for my 88-year old father. Treat him with dignity. Be honest even if the news is not good. Ask for his opinion. Keep his clothes clean. Dignity. He has lost so much. There is no need that this be lost in the final days.
This week we sat in his van by the Wekiva River in Longwood, Florida, and each ate half of a vegetarian sub. He chewed slowly. "Mm," he kept saying. "Isn't this good. Mmmm." Silence for a bit. Then he said, "Isn't this beautiful. What if I were only here on vacation? What if I had to leave this now and go back to the slums of New York where I grew up?"
He brings up his childhood a lot these days. "It was tough," he'll say. "My brother John was the pet. I guess because my father was really my stepfather. I was a burden to them."
We arrive back home. I open the side door of the van. Take out his walker. Wheel it to the passenger door. Lock the wheels. He grabs the bar above the side passenger door. It takes a few tries before he gets his feet around. He is fearful of letting go of the bar to grab the walker. "I'm weak," he says. "I think I'll ride."
He is standing holding the walker so must now switch hands so that he can sit in it. He is bent over. His knees are trembling. He gains courage, grabs the car door. Slowly turns around, plops into the seat of the walker in a sort of halfway slant.
I wonder if the neighbor has been watching this procedure. He once said we were crazy. It takes four or five people managing their own schedules, Dad's doctor appointments, Dad's meds, Dad's daily laundry, Dad's desire to eat out lunch every day.
"He should be in a nursing home," the neighbor says.
I prefer to extend dignity to a man who rose up from the slums, built a business, established a stable home, paid for a college education for four children, and every night, whenever I returned home, turned off the t.v. to listen to my stories even if it was the last five minutes of a mystery he'd been watching for the last two hours.
I wheel him slowly to the house, needing to turn backwards over the bump in the sidewalk.
Our daughter Laurel needed help. Due to a snarl of circumstances beyond her control, she needed to move. Immediately. Exactly how does one accomplish such a feat in the middle of second semester of medical school? She spent every waking hour in class, in lab, studying for an exam, taking an exam, or coordinating her schedule to accommodate other required activities.
She had worked her way through several degrees and careers to get where she was. The sacrifice hadn’t been easy, and I felt heartsick that after coming so far, she might fall behind. So. . .Mom to the rescue (which, of course, meant involvement from Dad, my husband David).
I flew to from Orlando to Baltimore to mastermind the move.
My seatmate boarded the plane moments before the door closed. Sighing and gasping, she made her way down the aisle, plopped into her seat, and poured out her woes. A sick sister. A hospitalized daughter. A missed flight the day before.
For quite a bit of the flight, I gave her eye contact, listened with a caring heart, offered encouraging words. But I napped a little – shortly after my purse slipped from beneath the seat in front of me and I placed it on the empty seat between us.
When we parted upon arrival, I watched her head for the nearest store to purchase a gift for her grandchild and I headed for the Super Shuttle. I gave my daughter’s address to the attendant and opened my wallet. My debit card and cash were missing.
My wallet went out of focus, came back into focus. My face flushed. “My money is gone,” I said to the attendant. “My debit card is gone.”
“Next,” he said.
I stepped aside, and the person in line moved forward.
I checked every crevice of my wallet, disbelieving. No cash. No card. Stranded. What was I to do?
A man stepped forward. “I’ll pay,” he said, ripping two tens and a five from a wad he pulled from his pocket. He scribbled his address on a piece of paper. Confused, I thanked him, but in the fog of confusion, not graciously enough.
I called my bank. The card had already been used in the airport ten minutes after we landed. Before the day was over, another attempt was made at using the card in a restaurant downtown.
David arrived the next day – with money and ready to work.
Three weeks later, I sent the random man the $25 check to reimburse him for paying my Super Shuttle ride. His address indicated he lived only a few miles from where I hold a writing retreat on an island off the coast of New Hampshire every September. “Thank you for your kindness,” I wrote. “If you have an interest in writing, I offer you a $150 discount to my writing retreat this fall. Check out my website at www.writelines.net.”
This morning, I received an e-mail. A friend of the random man was a writer. She had been through some traumatic experiences and needed a retreat. Would I extend the discount to his friend?
“Of course!” I typed back.
I believe in Divine Intervention – that God looks down from heaven, sees one of his children in need and looks for another of his children to send in to be His hands, or His feet, or His voice. Whatever is needed. Sometimes it is I who is sent in. Sometimes He sends in someone to help me.
Tonight, I wonder “In this case, at what point did God intervene?”
Did He cause Laurel’s difficult living arrangement so that she would have to move so that I would fly to Baltimore so that someone would steal my debit card so that a random man would pay my Super Shuttle bill so that I would offer him a discount to my writing workshop so that his friend in need could write in a peaceful environment? Or did God insert himself somewhere in the middle of the process as a reaction to what transpired? Did He place the random man in my path because I needed help? Or was it further down in the succession of events – did God whisper in my ear to offer a discount because He knew the random man would offer it to a friend in need?
I grapple with these thoughts. I don’t believe we are puppets – that God pulls all the strings and we act and react with actions and lines that are not our own. But I do believe He is involved. To what extent, I’m not sure.
I am sitting in a stone chapel at the pinnacle of a speck of an island a thousand miles from home feeling more at home than I have in a long time. At home in my skin. At home in my heart. At home in my soul.
A cloth embroidered with a pattern of hands sways from the pulpit in a breeze delivering foghorn mewls and slaps of waves. Candles flicker from glass lanterns dangling from arm-length crosses in an otherwise darkened room. A violinist welcomes gatherers with tunes designed to slow thoughts and heighten senses.
We hold hands and affirm the love in the hands of the others. We tiptoe forward to the bowl and pitcher below the pulpit where we wash our hands and a minister dries them and blesses us.
I feel the holiness of my hands.
I have never participated in the ceremonial washing of hands although I have washed feet many times. The first time occurred in a tiny church at the juncture of Broadway and Washington Street in Norwich, Connecticut, when I was fourteen years old. The number of female participants was uneven, and no one thought to glance up from her kneeling to ask the hesitant teen in the doorway, “Do you have a partner?” I bolted from the building, crossed the park to a phone booth, and sobbed my grief to a friend.
“What?” Pam asked, sleep from her foggy brain producing foggy words. “You were supposed to do what? But nobody asked to be your partner? Why?"
I hated the ceremony for decades, although the reason lay buried like a tick bite beneath wraps of gauze. I picked it apart one day, remembered the baffled teen-age self, and vowed to reach a hand to uncertain faces.
So now. . .now when I see the basins and towels and pitchers in front of my church, I scan the group for someone I do not know. Someone reaching for car keys when men are directed to one room, women to another, families to a third if they choose. I am at her side before the second person rises from a pew.
“Will you be my partner?” I say, and watch for the inevitable flood of relief and disbelief wash across the eyes.
“Let me explain,” I say to my new friend, for I have found many new friends this way. “Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, so we. . .”
Tonight, here in this holy foghorn breeze, I do not need a partner, nor do I seek one. I rise, one of the first to slip my hands beneath the water. I watch the wavelets caused by the motion glide across the basin. I wait for the man of God to pat my hands dry and bless me.
With these blessed hands, I will leave Star Island in two days. I will turn the sacred pages of a newbie writer’s manuscript, keenly aware of her naked trust. I will lift my sister’s load of caring for our father, her business, her children, her household. I will hug my husband and thank him for graciously using his hands for work so I can use mine for writing. I will listen to my nephew describe the colleges he’s considering for the fall, grasp a pencil and rank them by criteria he has prepared for me. I will bake a cake for my daughter’s birthday while she spends eight hours studying in the library. I will drag three suitcases on the final leg of my journey – a flight to Orlando. I will find the car where David parked it in Row H. I will grasp the steering wheel and guide myself home. I will pretend to be as excited to see my Lhasa Apso as she is to see me.
I will do all this with hands blessed and ready for whatever they are called to do next.