It’s easier to share stories about things that happened to me along the road. But the stories about my own judgments and the impact they had on others are far more vulnerable to tell.
And yet, that’s what this trip is about. I purposely put myself into the unknown. I want to get out of my comfort zone of silo life with soundbite dictates of how to see and interact in the world. I want to challenge myself to face my judgements, and find a new truth that is far more compassionate.
Some days are better than others.
My hope with this trip is to talk about those judgements and notice what happens when we don’t let them run the show. Oh, and then there are the times they do.
This story is a bit of both.
On a hot October afternoon, after spending a night lost in the hills of Tennessee, I arrived in Tupelo, Mississippi, located in the north eastern hill country. The birth place of Elvis, this city of 30,000 is most known for its furniture factories, Toyota plants, confederates, rednecks, and bible thumping preachers. (Not to mention the most recent comments during a runoff about “going to a hanging.”)
I hadn’t intended to stay in town, but after waking up late and relishing having found a ‘real’ grocery store, I desperately needed coffee before heading westward for another 3 hour drive.
I googled ‘best coffee’ Tupelo. Good coffee was only a couple miles away in the downtown section of the city.
Driving down Main Street to the cafe, flags lined both sides of the roadway. When I say lined, I mean LINED! The flags were spaced two feet apart throughout the downtown blocks. I’ve yet to see any other city with so many flags. One corner, yes, the literal corner of the block, had 10 flags within 4 feet.
Woah! (BTW, my father was in the military. I grew up with flags. I had never seen anything like this!)
Without a doubt, I had entered the OZ of patriotism.
You know how when there’s an accident on the freeway and you know you should keep driving but you just have to look?
That’s how I felt. One side of me said, “Run Dorothy, run!!!! The other side said, “Let’s just see how twisted this town is…”
At the end of Main Street there was a circular roundabout. In the center, a 30 foot confederate statue with the requisite two flags of a confederate nation proudly crested into the heavens.
I stopped and took a picture.
“Wow!” I thought. “This is where I am to spend the next five days! Shit.”
The high school girls had sent me here to talk to women about what it was like to live in a state where there’d never been a female senator or governor.
Then I wondered, “What was I thinking letting high schoolers tell me where to go?”
I felt compelled to stop.
The GPS lady called out that my location was on my left.
I pulled into a space across from the cafe. My caffeine withdrawal was piquing. The chatter in my head was screaming, “Are you crazy? Get out of town!”
“Steady on,” I thought, as my heart trembled.
I opened the car door. A furnace like heat swamped me like a tidal wave from hell. I could barely breathe. My lungs refused to expand. I gasped, pulling open the door to the cafe. A wall of cold air struck me awake.
I stood dazed for a moment.
The red-headed woman with a intoxicating Mississippi drawl greeted me kindly. I stammered something about coffee. She took me back to the barista bar. Her welcoming kindness draped around me like a soft shrug on a cool spring day. “I don’t know how to make coffee,” she drawled. “Let me get Jesse.”
A Portlander through and through, I wondered what a cup of brew would taste like here in the hills.
My caffeine cravings on overdrive, my judgments pricked into my skin.
As she walked away, I observed her as if she if she were an exotic, yet potentially lethal, parakeet in the zoo. News stories of saccharine women with homophobic, anti-choice, racist raced through my mind.
I looked around, through the corners of my eyes, trying not to look like I was looking. The cafe felt exactly like a Portland cafe, you know the sagey-mint green with the burnt orange (my favorite colors, by the way). Vintage formica tables lined the walls. A four-foot painting of a VW bus hung in one of the main rooms.
Endless. Confederate Statues. Confederate flags. Elvis memorabilia.
It was mind-blowing.
I so wanted to ask her the question the girls wanted me to ask: “What is it like being a woman in Mississippi… but I was just plain scared to ask.
Jesse started making my latte. She asked where I was from. I groaned about the suffocating heat. She laughed and said, “This is a cool day.”
Maybe I laughed. Maybe I said _________. I have no idea what I said. My mind was too busy reeling from all the things I wanted to say.
I saw some biscuits and tried to squirm my way into a conversation by asking about pastries.
“We’re out for the day,” she said, “but there’s a pastry shop about two blocks away.”
I would have beat myself up for being so cowardly but my body was too busy trying to survive the cauldron of late afternoon heat as I walked thee feet to my car. I drove two short blocks to the bakery.
Ready for this?
I don’t like pastries. I really didn’t even want one. I was just trying to bolster the courage with someone, somewhere to ask the question the girls wanted to know. Unlike the cafe, the pastry shop was bland and unexceptional. I quickly bought quick slice of overly sugary, gooey coffee crumble.
I knew what I needed to do.
Now cranked on caffeine and hyped on sugar, I thought, “Carolyn, you’ve got to do this. Go back and ask her.”
I knew that I would totally kick myself later if I didn’t check out the judgements I had about this red-headed woman with an I Love Lucy bandana.
Driving back to the cafe, I practiced what I would say. What would I say?
“I’m working with high school girls who want to know… what is it like to be a woman in state that’s never had a female governor or senator?”
It seemed like such a mouthful.
I staggered through the heat and back into the door.
“Me again.” I laughed.
She smiled. The staff was cleaning. The cafe was closed.
“I got my pastry… but I’m wondering if I can ask you a question.”
She came around to the front of the counter, two feet from me with no protection in between us.
“Sure,” she said.
“What is it like to be a woman today in Mississippi?” I stammered. I braced myself for whatever answer would come next.
Her hand went up to her hip. She leaned against the service counter, her jaw firm.
Inside I gulped.
“Don’t get me started,” she said. “In Mississippi, a woman can work in one of three industries: hospitality, education and health care. That’s it. The only way to have real power and respect is to own your own business.”
Her eyes were fiery.
“… And this is your business, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “With my husband.”
“Um… do you mind if I record this?” I fumbled with my cell phone camera.
“Not at all,” she said. “Just make sure Jesse’s not in it. She doesn’t like getting her picture taken.”
By the time I left, twenty minutes later, we’d taken a number of clips, Jesse even joined in for the one about how she felt about the way outsiders view Mississippians. Jesse violently chopped carrots as she expressed her anger that outsiders mistook the government’s view for the people’s voice.
I breathed for the first time that day.
This moment, this singular moment, when I dared to face my own judgement and ask an awkward question, set the trajectory of my trip and began a friendship that, hopefully, will last a lifetime.
Amanda, the woman in the picture, will forever be my heroine! Now over a year later, she continues to teach me what it is like to live in your truth in a family, a city, and a state that often is too embedded in their fear to step beyond the beliefs that have been passed down through generations of bigotry.
After that afternoon, I felt empowered to ask the questions given to me and ready to face whatever came my way. Well, almost always.
Today, I invite you … Notice your judgements.
Are they limiting how you might be perceiving others?