Warning Gas Pipeline

Sabal Trail Pipeline, Suwannee River Park, FL – Photo by Joy Lau
Feb 25, 2017
As I write this, the last protest camp at the North Dakota Access Pipeline is being demolished, militarized police are pointing weapons at unarmed water protectors and arresting Standing Rock Sioux tribe protestors. 
 
The picture above was taken today during a serene hike at the Suwannee River Park in Florida, where protesters have already begun to fight the construction of the Sabal Trail Pipeline. The activists, like those at Standing Rock, fear, with reason, that an oil leak will wreak havoc on the delicate ecosystem. In 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency recommended that the pipeline – which will run from Alabama, through south west Georgia, to Orange County, Florida – be rerouted away from the Florida aquifer where local geography is made up of limestone and prone to sinkholes. The planned pipeline trespasses multiple endangered species habitats including crocodiles, manatees and sea turtles. Yet, despite the EPA’s recommendations, the route was approved.
 
The heavy weight of this fact was on our minds as we started our walk along the trail, but slowly, with each step, we started to get our bounce back. Under Spanish moss covered branches I watched an older man in a kayak glide along the still river. I admired twigs and leaves swing dancing in the center of a bubbling spring, and gazed in awe at a field of wild white orchids, as I’ve only ever seen them sequestered in pots or vases. Hundreds of yellow butterflies socialized and flittered from one flower to another, seemingly blasé while I was utterly mesmerized.
 
Towards the end of the hike I happened on this sign declaring the entitled pipeline intruder, and I was jolted back into the realization of the goliath this little paradise was up against – large corporations and their enablers who care little for the environment, little for the future of this country, and only for their own short term gains. 
 
I sighed, carrying again the ten ton weight.

A pair of pale yellow butterflies fluttered pass, reminding me that the river is much older than our memory, that the trees have a knowledge we have just begun to learn, and that even if our world is messed up for now or for a long time, nature will be reborn – with or without humans.
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Oh Mother, Where Art Thou?

Mother Emmanuel, Charleston, SC – Photo by Joy Lau

Feb 13, 2017

This morning we attended Sunday service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) church in Charleston, South Carolina. A year and a half ago, nine members of their congregation, including the pastor, were gunned down by 22-year old, white supremacist, Dylann Roof. Last month, Roof was sentenced to death.

Since its inception in 1818, Emmanuel A.M.E. had always stood as a symbol of black freedom in America. Throughout its history, the church has served as both meeting place and spiritual home for African American activism, from anti-slavery uprisings to civil rights protests, and has hosted speeches by black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.

Shortly after 9 am, we entered the storied church through the side door. After passing police inspection of our bags, we climbed up a steep narrow stairwell, welcomed along the way by friendly parishioners, and entered into the bright and spacious chapel area. We seated ourselves in the fourth pew of the center aisle. Sitting in front of us was an elegant, silver-haired, African-American lady wearing a shimmery, gold, snake-skin patterned blazer. She asked us where we’re from.

“New York City! My husband and I were stuck there once. In a blizzard, in 1996. We were going to take a 22-hour direct flight from JFK to South Africa. I don’t envy you those cold winters.” Despite the initial delay, they had a grand time on their trip. I asked her when she’s planning on visiting South Africa again.

“Oh no. I’m too afraid now.” I asked her why. I expected to hear about the lengthy flight, the troublesome airport check-in procedures, or even some ailment complicated by air travel. She shook her head, “I’m afraid they won’t let me back in the country.”

This lady, whose forebears were one of the earliest people to come to America, a bona fide American, is fearful that she may be banned, like an immigrant. She told me she’s afraid we had elected for president a man who didn’t understand the country’s needs, and that he’d already done damage in the first three weeks. She also found Congress to be…

“Spineless!”, I interjected, eager to throw in my measly two cents. She nodded.

She told me that her husband is a retired circuit court judge, her son an active circuit court judge, and her grandson a law student. “The problem with Congress”, she told me, “is they’re too old and comfortable. We need new blood in the government. The country has changed, and we need in leadership young people with new ideas and energy, who understand what this country really needs.”

Amen.

Before long, we were swept up by the transcendent gospel choir, dropped back to earthly concerns by the good reverend’s fiery sermon, then buoyed by cries of “Yes, Lord! Hallelujah!”. By the end of service, I was breathless and overwhelmed.

Shuffling out of the pew, I was reminded of the eulogy given by President Obama a year and a half ago, before this same congregation. I felt a lump in my throat as I recalled his rendition of “Amazing Grace”, channeling the pain of the congregation, and with his slightly out-of-tune singing, leading them through.

On our way out the main door, we were greeted by Reverend Manning and by Dr. Brenda Nelson, who had given the scripture lessons during service. I fumbled through an explanation of our trip through North Carolina, and the visit to the Raleigh photo exhibition about Dr. King, and that it just happened to be Black History month.

Dr. Nelson peered at me – with deep brown eyes that had witnessed 250 years of slavery, eyes that had persevered through 150 years of segregation, eyes that were all too aware of an America whose heavy conscience is carried by its black citizens – and she smiled, “You’re doing your journey.”

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Born 1 mile S.

 

Thelonious Monk Sign in Rocky Mount, NC. – Photo by Joy Lau

Feb 11, 2017

Our road trip started at the birthplace of Thelonious Monk, in the southern town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. A lonely plaque near the railroad tracks whispered of their most famous native son. “Thelonious Monk 1917-1982. Jazz Pianist, Composer and Architect of Bebop. Wrote ‘Round Midnight’ (1944). Born 1 Mile S.”

Born one mile south. This simple sentence says a whole lot. In many southern cities, the railroad tracks have been and continue til this day to be the dividing line between the white and the black communities. The side of the tracks one was born on would determine the path of one’s whole life. Monk’s family moved to New York City when he was 5 years old, perhaps traveling on these same railroad tracks, and thus broke their umbilical chains to the South.

The South. “Ooh. Be careful. They have guns down there. You’ll need a confederate flag and a bible for protection.” My New York City friend teased half-jokingly when she heard that I was going to take a trip to the Deep South. I have noticed recently among my urban liberal friends that, post-election, the usual condescension towards the bottom half of the country has veered in a sinister and slightly hysterical direction. I, too, am guilty of participating in the perpetuation of these beliefs, having laughed along with my friend’s warnings.

The first evening in North Carolina we attended a multi-course dinner party complete with fresh flowers and candlelight. Southern hospitality. During dinner, it was whispered that a fellow dinner companion, who had briefly left the room, had made an earlier comment that “Black people can be intelligent too.” Giggles and groans ensued. I groaned along with the other polished guests. The offender returned to the table, and conversations about vacation plans resumed.

Why had no one, myself included, pointed out the racism in her comment? And how was her comment different from that of my NYC friend, about the folks in the south?

The next day we visited the Raleigh Museum of History to see an exhibition of photographs taken by Spider Martin in March of 1965, “Selma to Montgomery: A March for the Right to Vote”. I was moved by the heroism of Dr. King and the marchers in the face of the antagonists, their fellow citizens. One photo in particular gave me an emotional jab in the guts. In the photo was a group of white protestors with cocky grins, one holding a sign that said, “Who Needs Niggers”.

The Whole Truth Luncheon, Wilson, NC – Photo by Joy Lau

Before heading further south we had lunch with an artist friend in the next town of Wilson, at a church-operated lunchroom known for good ol’ southern cooking. Dave is, by his own accounts, a true southern boy, y’all and all. In between bites of succulent fried chicken and turnip greens, he railed against a southern mentality that he perceives as complacent and fearful. I think back to those pictures of Dr. King and the marchers, and they were certainly neither complacent nor fearful.

In a sense, complacent and fearful are descriptive words applicable to either side of the Mason-Dixon Line, the symbolic line that divided the North from the South during the American Civil War. Today the divisions are no longer as clearly marked by lines on the ground. There are new lines – social lines, economic lines, race lines, educational lines…enough lines and they’ll all weave together to make one thick colorful tapestry. Like the United States of America.

Perhaps, if we crossed over the lines we would see that the divide is not really that wide. Perhaps, if we talk to one another and listen deeply, we would find the questions and forget we need answers. Most importantly, the honest discussion must begin immediately, maybe over a good meal, a good soul searching meal like the one we had at the Whole Truth Lunchroom in Wilson, North Carolina.

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18 Miles of Kindness and Counting

Poster at the entrance to Strand Bookstore, NYC – Photo by Joy Lau

February 7, 2017

This morning I witnessed four separate acts of random kindness during my subway commute. They were simple gestures from perfect strangers to other perfect strangers, one act lasting two seconds and others longer because of the language gaps that were eventually bridged by smiles.

Later in the evening I was happy to find this poster at the entrance to my neighborhood bookstore, Strand. Yes, The Strand of 18 Miles of Books and Counting. They don’t mince their words: “Refugees Welcome Here”. 

After not finding the book I wanted, despite the many miles, I wandered into my local store for insomniacs, Best Buy – electronics 24 hours a day. I found a headphone jack adaptor that I didn’t know I needed, and didn’t know how it worked. Glancing around me, I tapped on the shoulder of a fellow customer to borrow his headphones. He was talking on the phone. Embarrassed by my utter rudeness, I quickly apologized, but he replied no problem, and told his girlfriend in Spanish that he’ll call her back.

Strolling home, bounty in hand, I encountered a fight on the street. A tall white man wearing a long black coat and brown fedora was in a heated argument with a slight black woman wearing a hooded winter coat, their words muffled by their scarves and coats. Folks had gathered to separate the fight. As I got closer, I noticed the bemused looks on the faces of the crowd. The black lady shouted with such passion that I sensed the force of her anger but could not understand her words, however I understood what the man screamed, “He’s your president! He’s your president!”

The way I see the United States of America is, we’re one big extended family. We have Cousin Tom over there polishing his guns, Cousin Fred always correcting my grammar, Aunt Wendy trying to force me to eat kale, Grandma Jo talking about how it was always better in her day, and other wacky relatives doing their things in their own corner of the house. But despite all our differences and issues, we all come to the table when the food’s ready, and we give thanks.

I am thankful to this country and for this country. I know we’re loud and messy and obnoxious. That’s what Democracy is, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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