It has been almost a year since we departed Memphis to move back home. My final blog entry discussed lessons learned from our trip, but I have decided to revisit the topic and see if the extra time to absorb and reflect on my experiences has provided me with an enhanced perspective. While I still agree with my insights from the last entry, I have found that some different themes stuck with me, one specific and a few more generic. I am also collecting all these entries to create a book (as a personal keepsake, not to market and sell), and it only seems fitting that the book should have a final chapter. This conclusion will focus on the areas that have made the most lasting impressions on my life.
A specific area that has changed from our travels is my perspective on racial issues in our country. Living and traveling in the South forced me to confront my own personal, unrealized biases. For the first time in my life I found myself in areas surrounded predominately by African-Americans. No big deal, I’m not racist, this shouldn’t affect me right? Well, my feelings told me otherwise in situations like the time I myself driving alone through a poor, predominately Black neighborhood in Memphis. I was both surprised and disappointed by the mix of emotions I felt: Unease, fear, plans for escape or if it came down to it, defense. How has my American upbringing shaped my psyche of how I should feel in these environments? And if there was any validity to any of these emotions, what does that say about the areas, resources, and opportunities that we afford to this group of people?
As well as confronting these personal feelings, we were able to visit museums and historical sites all over the South. The most impactful of these included the site of Dr. King’s assassination, Kelly Ingram Park, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an old slave warehouse in Montgomery, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice which commemorates the thousands of victims of lynching crimes. We also participated in the local chapter of a community group called Be the Bridge that aims to “empower people and culture towards racial healing, equity, and reconciliation.” Within this group we read and discussed the book The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby which details the American Church’s unfortunate complicity with racism throughout history.
Before these experiences, I had a faint picture of the racism that existed in our society but I had never chosen to examine it more closely. The combination of these and other endeavors served to fill in some of the brushstrokes of what this picture really looks like. The result being a more detailed and haunting image of not only past injustices but also widespread current inequalities and prejudices. Pre-Memphis, though I considered myself well-intentioned, I was, in practice, ignorant and indifferent in most of these areas. From a distance it’s easy to blame racism on a handful of overly racist individuals and organizations. But if we refuse to look at and recognize our own personal prejudices and our nation’s overwhelming systemic injustices we continue to be a part of the problem rather than the solution. Post-Memphis, I will both strive to have more sensitive and informed attitudes in these areas as well as implement these convictions by advocating for systemic reforms in government policies and by giving financially to organizations fighting for social justice.
Now onto the more generic, abstract areas that have made a lasting impact on me: The first of which is gratitude. Now that we have been home for some time I can more clearly appreciate the opportunities we were able to enjoy throughout the course of our drive trips and year living in the South. At the time, it was difficulty to fully appreciate everything as we had so many unique experiences in rapid succession. Just looking at our return trip: We went from Washington DC, to New York City, to Niagara Falls, to Chicago, to the Badlands, and Black Hills in South Dakota, to Glacier National Park in a matter of days. Any one of those spots are often individual vacation destinations. Yet, we got to see them all.
Opportunities like these don’t just happen but instead require a combination of good health, finances, timing, and circumstances. Our cross-country move occurred when we were not only in good health and financially secure but also had no kids and quite a bit of free time. This enabled us to take our time traveling cross-country, book long weekend trips to explore nearby areas, and enjoy local museums, tourist attractions, concerts and live sports. I realize that these are privileges that not everyone has. Hindsight has allowed me to appreciate them even more.
Current events have also helped me be thankful for the timing in which our trip occurred. Had a global pandemic and social distancing struck while we were traveling or trying to make residence in Memphis our experiences would have looked drastically different. We would not have been able to enjoy nearly as many of the tourist destinations and events that we did. But even more concerning, it would have been very difficult for us to have connected with anyone locally. In my last blog entry I wrote about the importance of this social connection and I think the world is really recognizing that right now. Of course no one could have predicted the restrictions we are currently under, but this only serves to demonstrate how we can’t take our freedoms and opportunities for granted.
While it was wonderful to visit all these unique places, the year in Memphis also helped me to renew my sense of curiosity and exploration regardless of where I was. Traveling and living somewhere new gave me an excuse to view my surroundings through an amateur’s lens: to ask questions, to revel in new things, to not assume I knew what things were or the way things should be. Growing up in the Northwest, somewhere along the way I decided I was an expert on this turf. But now that I have returned home and tried to maintain the perspective I had on my travels, I keep discovering beautiful and novel things that I never realized about my homeland. Once we flip that switch, whether conscious or not, to where we think we know it all, we’re liable to miss things. I have found that there is a peace in slowing down and noticing. And a joy in considering oneself a student rather than a master.
Lastly, and I’ve touched on this theme before, I have to end with the lesson that life is a series of seasons. Our cross-country trips and year in Memphis were wonderful experiences but now we have moved on to another season. Since returning to the Seattle area we, bought and moved into a home and have become pregnant. We are expecting our first child in September. Will we ever be able to replicate this time in our lives that I was able to chronicle in this blog? Maybe eventually we’ll return to a similar season, but probably not for awhile, and even then it would look different. Each new season builds on the previous ones. But with the memories and lessons I’ve learned thus far, I am excited to enter into this new season of life. And then the one after that. And the one after that.