Attention to (Southern) Discomfort

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The phrase “Time heals all wounds” is attributed to the Greek poet Menander (300 BCE).

He was half right. 

Time is a component of healing. 

But healing does not happen with time alone.

Healing requires both time and attention. 


***


Something traumatic recently happened to me in Harmony, North Carolina.

And, because the attention part of “time and attention” means not ignoring it or stuffing it down, I am writing about it.


***


I am a first-year presenter at the *Wild Goose Festival* at Van Hoy Farms—about an hour north of Charlotte, near nothing with which I am familiar.

The festival name—wild goose—is derived from Ancient Celts speaking about the spirit of God being like a wild goose. 

(Apparently wild goose chase is unrelated; it was a form of horse racing.)

My friend, Afia, who lives in the Outer Banks of NC—on the east coast, five hours away—is here to help manage me for my four, one-hour sessions. (And to drive us off-campus between sessions for lunch.)


***


Chip’s Cafe doesn’t have a sign large enough to see from the road, so we pass it and then turn back into the parking lot.

“Big Daddy looking at us from the window,” Afia quips as we approach the glass door and enter.

I expect Afia also imagines hearing the record-skip sound in the blond teenage waitress’s mind as we enter and she points us to an empty table.

The young dear, politely—it is the South, and most everyone makes the effort to appear nice—takes our order: chicken strips, a BLT, Pepsi, hush puppies, and fries. 

A large figure—Big Daddy—approaches the counter at the end of our table, places his hands down, and, standing above us, leans in our direction.

We pause our conversation, leaving space enough for him to say whatever it is he has come to say. But he doesn’t speak. 

“You must be Chip,” I say good naturedly. 

“Indeed I am.” 

Fight-flight-and-freeze responses are popularly known, natural reactions to danger. Fawn is a lesser-known response, and it is the one I’m going with as I point to the picture on the wall of a young girl pushing a toy stroller. 

“I assume,” I say, “this little beauty is your grandbaby.”

“That’s my great,” he says. “My first great granddaughter.”

We tell him from where we are visiting and why. 

He recommends the homemade dessert called Cherry Yum Yum and recedes to the kitchen.


***


Five years ago, Afia and I were presenters at the *Embrace Festival* in my home town of Portland, Oregon. 

A short time later, but at a moment neither of us remembers, we gifted each other absolute, unconditional love with a non-verbalized agreement: 

I will be as compassionate to you as I possibly can, in all moments, with the hopes that you will learn to hear my voice in your own head and treat yourself with all the compassion you deserve.

We are tight.


***


At my pre-lunch Saturday session, Robert is wearing a t-shirt: “I’m a pastor. Don’t look so surprised.”

It is surprising, though. 
His tough-as-nails look—with double-buckled leather bracelets over muscular forearms—obfuscates the fact that he is a clergyman. 

“I make certain that people see this,” he tells me and the group as he rearranges the bands so that the pride-rainbow W.W.J.D. bracelet is centered. “It’s my way of telling folk that everywhere that I am is a LGBTQIA-safe place.”

He is willing to get into throw-down fights over gay rights—in the name of Jesus.

Hallelujah. 


***


Again, Afia drives us off campus for lunch. Her tiny Chevy Spark feels like a clown car amidst the Tahoes and F-150s in the parking lot.

As we pass an eye-level bumper sticker of a confederate flag, Afia adjusts her Ghanian headdress and asks, “You sure about this, Rabbi?” 

“What’s to fear?” I ask and give her a wink. 


***


As we walk into Gunter’s Family Kitchen, Robert is just walking out.

Were we in Portland, we would have hugged.

But it’s not Portland.

We chat for a moment which, Afia tells me later, made her extra uncomfortable—“drawing extra attention to the Jew and the Darkie.”

Robert leaves and the two of us sit in the corner booth and order: chicken strips, hush puppies, sweet iced tea, and a grilled cheese—hold the mayo. 

(Who knew that mayo was an option on a grilled cheese sandwich?)

A small, white-haired lady seats herself in the booth to my right and orders a biscuit and Mountain Dew.

I giggle a little. It’s just so perfect.
Until I see what’s two tables away.

I set the bottom of my phone on the table and pose as though I’m taking a selfie. 
Actually, I’m snapping a picture of the confederate flag tattoo a man’s shoulder.

I show the image to Afia who asks, “Why do they always have to be so poorly rendered? Is that just to add a little more insult?”


***


The man with the confederate flag tattoo stands and walks to the register to pay his bill. I notice the large, sheathed knife attached to his waistband. 

What happens next, I’m certain, happens at regular speed.
But my experience and memory of it are in slow motion. 

He turns towards where we are sitting, toothpick flicking in and out of his mouth. With wide sweeping steps, he shuffles past where he had been sitting, approaches our table, and sits next to me. 

He sits right next to me.

He raises his arms so his elbows rest on the back of the booth.

Fawning is not an option here. 
I freeze.


***


As the time warp ends, he awkwardly side-hugs the Mountain-Dew-drinking lady—thereby explaining his reason and choice of seats—by saying loudly, “Happy Birthday, Nanna.” 

And, then, with no special effects whatsoever, he leaves.

***

Robert, later, at my 4pm session, tells us that he too didn’t feel safe in that restaurant.

“I’m surprised you weren’t jumped,” he says and follows it up with: “Afia, Rabbi, I’m sorry to tell you: they most certainly did spit in your food.”


***


My go-to definition of trauma is “disruption without repair.” 

Wounds happen. 
Our healing has to do with how well our hurts are tended to—both by others and by ourselves.

Which is part of why I’m sharing this story with you.

Because both time and attention are required to heal.

With love,
Rabbi Brian

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