When I was quite young – I don’t know – maybe 12 or 13 – I read a book that fascinated me: I can’t remember the title. I can’t remember the names of people or places. But the main character, a young woman with drive and compassion and determination, set out into the foothills of some remote mountainous region of the United States – some hillbilly setting where kids went to school barefoot in the snow and got ringworm on a regular basis and ate something called ‘grits’. This woman set out to change prejudices and gender biases, to reform a culture, to provide opportunities where there hadn’t been any. She meets with angry and offended people, and loves them so thoroughly without compromising her values, but while learning a deeper compassion, that she wins many of them over. And while she is busily making changes in their world, they were pulling her into theirs, so that in the end she could not leave: she had made and found her home.
I was so completely pulled into this story – a nonfiction account, it turns out – that I lived it in my day and night dreams. To this day I can easily pull up the feelings it evoked in me of needing to speak out against injustice, of wanting to do something that creates change, of the power of compassion and loving sacrifice. Like many people we meet on the way, people who show us some deep and meaningful way of living, we may not remember their names, but the lessons they teach us have formed who we are. This book is like that and I regret I can’t give it a greater tribute.
Shortly after this book hit my mental shelf I became a lover of Big City Culture. Now, where this influence came from is a little more vague. Just tag along with me here while I try to sort this out. I was introduced to big city gangs in books like Run, Baby, Run or The Cross and the Switchblade. Oh!! The Outsiders!! Books that taught me about ghettos and boroughs and subcultures. Anne of Green Gables – when Anne leaves Avonlea and goes to the city to school I was in raptures with her over the wonderful cultural and educational opportunities there. Though I myself was in a ‘city’ I felt myself secluded, wanting to expand – I thought surely I would mature and find my true self if I’d only move to a “real” urban center. I developed a pitiful crush on Vancouver – I was smitten with her glittering lights and pretty bridges. I wanted ballet and symphonies and museums and nightlife. City Girl. I was sure I was a City Girl.
So I spent last week in New York City – Manhattan Island. Oh, swoon! I am in love, oh! Madly and deeply!! It just felt like some wonderful giant embraced me and I breathed in all the personal scents like manly perfumes (and scents there were aplenty, I can assure you!). I spent all my time rubber-necking, of course, and made no secret of my touristy delight. We (Hubby and I) came home with 848 photos on one camera alone – if you add in the photos from our phones, well, 900+. We hit every sight-seeing-spot we could squeeze into seven wee days: Times Square and Bryant Park (an outdoor reading room! Love!!) and the New York City Library (be still my beating heart – though seriously, we wandered around in there for over an hour and did not find one shelf of books for browsing! No word of a lie!) and Central Park where squirrels were mouthing up bunches of leaves and propelling themselves up woodpecked tree trunks and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (my poor swollen feet just had to put up and shut up because my eyes couldn’t get enough) and Ground Zero which is itself a place of poetry among concrete and glass with a thousands shades of gray and the Brooklyn Bridge covered in graffiti and lovers’ hearts and hurts. And we took in two shows on Broadway – the bobblehead hyenas and the wicked ‘tosstoss’ are mine forever – and we got into Letterman’s Late Show (he is simply not a nice man and that’s all I’ll say about that). Macy’s shopping is all it should be but the Flower Show! Oh!! The Flower Show! Well, we didn’t get in to The Flower Show, truthfully, but the displays in Macy’s windows were droolworthy. And Soho Shops and Chinatown scarves (and yes, Randy, the coconut buns!) and the sneakers farflung into treetops and the Cinnamon Snail (for whose chocolate bread pudding is worth flinging one’s very self headlong into traffic!) and the Waffle Truck who endured a parking ticket so Hubby could indulge (bless their Belgian hearts!). And, oh yes, Easter mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral all full of scaffolding and rebar but beautiful and awe-some and daffodils absolutely everywhere and Hellebore! *sigh for pink and creamy Hellebore* Grand Central Station and the army guy with hand-hovering-over-glock(?) and wet market fishes with mountainous spice bowls and quirky elevator dials and cryptic stars in the ceiling. And the addicting musty smell down where the trains live with not a speck of litter. Being blown nearly right off the Empire State Building and swept away forever by the forever and ever lights and rivers of gold flowing on the streets and police officers on every corner with accents from I-can’t-tell-if-that’s-the-Jersey-or-the-Bronx-but-I-don’t-care and wrecking your shoes on the pitted sidewalks and throats of subways puking up truckloads of bodies that suck you into their currents and drag you down 8th. Oh. New York. It was dreamy.
And then, like that, back home. Small city of maybe 40 000 on a good winter. But growing, bless our souls. And my little remote, undervalued and much maligned school of less than 200 kids. Today S. poked her excessively pale face and hair into my room to ‘prank’ me: her mom’s coming in to the WeSchoolInAction meeting to talk about volunteering at the women’s shelter: ha! Jk. And K., recently diagnosed with dysgraphia after 12 years in the system and who hates school with a fervor but whose heart is of burnished silver, finally submitted his final assignment, just today! and earned that credit which he thought was hopeless. And a boy from a quiet humble family made application with Canada World Youth to go to Peru and “learn how other people live” – he believes against all odds that he isn’t limited by his tiny, over-stereo-typed community. A dozen, led by a girl in grade eleven, are making plans to go to India for their grad party, to dig a well. Or build a school. And they are hoping to persuade Potash Corps to sponsor them. They’ve written a letter. Big dreams for a girl from a community of like, well, a dozen. Ish. One lonely but hopeful and self-sufficient J. wrote an essay about how where she grew up – this judging community – has taught her to be gracious and creative. An angry boy stayed after class and agreed to try again. C. writes about her reserve where her best friend hung herself last week and was being cut down from the wicked belt even as C. was called down to the office because her sister was coming to pick her up; she tells me she wants an education and that she will do every assignment over again as many times as she needs to until she passes because she ‘needs out’.
I cried when she left.
New York and those big city lights are miles and miles and miles from home. Here is where the heart is. In this little place I’ve been sucked into lives and have learned something about compassion. And how to live. Live big. Bigger than the lights on Broadway.