July 11, 2010
But a Samaritan, while traveling, came near [the man who had fallen among thieves], and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. . . . He put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
Luke 10: 33-34
My best Gallivants have some component that wasn’t part of the original plan. When Ron and I decided to go to a horse show in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1984, we had to secure accommodations in nearby Amherst. That led to my first visit to the sites sacred to the memory of Emily Dickinson, a poet I’d liked and appreciated well enough but had not been in thrall to before then. A casual remark by a friend while I was on a research trip to Boston in 2002 led me to head north before I returned home and visit the Bread Loaf campus for the first time in thirty years. And you know what happened after that.
The Sewanee Writers’ Conference does not start until Tuesday. At first, I planned to leave on Monday, drive about 500 miles, stay overnight, and then complete the last 200 miles (a good five hours) in the morning, getting me to the check-in table by the appointed hour of 2:00.
Just before the beginning of July, however, I fell into a conversation among some online friends about To Kill a Mockingbird. I discovered that a special celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book would be taking place in Monroeville, Alabama on this very day, a celebration which was to include an actual appearance by Harper Lee. Why not leave early, go even farther south, and reconnect with a book that helped shape me as a reader and a writer when I was fifteen years old?
That discussion also included some references to Flannery O’Connor, a writer whose work I have been revisiting as my novel becomes more and more about the struggle between faith and doubt. I looked at the map, and saw that Monroeville is almost a three days’ journey from home. Flannery O’Connor country is closer, and a pre-Sewanee gallivant there could, if I so wished, take me through my haunts in Georgia and South Carolina. And suddenly, I wanted to see those places again, be with those people one more time.
This morning I had breakfast again at the McDonald’s on Route 441 in Clayton, Georgia. Last year I fell into the pattern of going there every morning to check my cell phone for messages (no cell service in the forest where I was staying) and use the Internet (none of that either). I sat in the front window, the only place where there was an electrical outlet, beside two tables that most days filled with some older people who live in a senior apartment complex across the road. Many of them were working on a project for the Clayton Historical Society, and I would listen unabashedly to their reminiscences about small town life in the 1940s and 1950s
The place was always busier on Sundays than on other days. I had to park in the store lot next door because the line at the drive-through was so long. I walked in by the side door. A woman at one of the window tables looked up, raised her arm, and said hello to me. She was the one I’d called “Eudora Welty” because of her white hair and her strong jaw. I’m not sure she remembered my name (I’m not sure I ever told these casual acquaintances), but she remembered I’d been at Hambidge. (Well, okay, I was wearing the infamous Writer hat.) Suddenly I was back where I was a year ago, among good country people.
And, just as I had in 2009, I finished my Egg McMuffin and by 10:00 was headed for Walhalla, South Carolina, and worship at St. John’s Lutheran Church there.
I had found myself at St. John’s the first Sunday I was at Hambidge, and I returned every Sunday and every Wednesday throughout my stay. I felt comfortable there — comfortable with the theology, comfortable with the spirituality, energized by the dynamic young preacher and the good country people I shared Lenten potluck suppers with. Over the year I kept in touch, exchanging notes from time to time with the pastor, reading the newsletter and the bulletin online, remembering birthdays, keeping in touch. And I know now that my decision to see Flannery O’Connor country had more to do with its lying just beyond Walhalla than with anything I might actually learn about that writer.
I entered the narthex and was greeted by the young vicar (seminarian), just concluding his year at St. John’s and getting ready for his wedding. ”I don’t think we’ve met,” he said. I explained my brief history with the congregation and my feeling that I am a member of the family.
At the beginning of the service the pastor greeted me by name. The text for today was the familiar story of the Good Samaritan. I say familiar, but it is one of those texts that you can think you know (yeah yeah fell among thieves yeah yeah passed him by yeah yeah be a neighbor yada, yada, and yada). You only half listen, until suddenly, one day, far from home and carrying an acute awareness of how deeply you love the people in your life, how much you need to open your heart and trust them, the story speaks directly to you when you hear this gifted preacher, facing his own challenges to love and be loved, to trust and be trusted, call us to live with a dangerously generous heart, to not count the cost of love, to carry each other. Carry each other.
It was my great privilege to be among these wonderful people this morning. I stayed for the brief congregational meeting afterward, at which it became clear that the challenges facing this congregation as they move through some changes will test them, test their faith, test the strength of everything they ever believed.
Every Gallivant has an enormous moment, a moment when I know why I felt called to undertake the trip. I had that moment this morning. Everything else, from now until I turn north again in two weeks, will be commentary.
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