May 07, 2014

about Memphis...

Last October I went to Memphis. I really struggled to articulate for myself what I experienced there. It really wasn't anything huge, but meant a lot to me and I didn't want to write it wrong. If I did I knew I would remember it wrong.

But I've been working on some assignments for my classes, and in the process I think I found a way to remember Memphis. So here it is...

After finding Alex in Chattanooga I continued West in the dark and was really sick of driving. I eventually made it into Memphis and found myself on a deserted freeway littered with possums and broken down cars. I wasn't sure if Memphis was such a good idea for a lonely girl like me.
I went to some blues bars after checking in to my hotel, but didn't stay longer than a few hours. I was getting a little weary by that point. But I did enjoy the music and late night bar-b-que! And I also enjoyed learning that a good way to keep guys from hitting on you is to order a large, sloppy plate of fried anything and attack it like a badger.
In the morning I had some choices to make. I had about 8 things I wanted to see and I had until lunch-time to see them. I decided to go first to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. This is the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Past tired abandoned factories, I found the motel around 7 in the morning, not a person in sight besides a patrol man and some construction workers. It was overcast, damp and very still. I saw a few of the exterior exhibits and looked long and hard at that motel and it’s door numbered 306. I preferred to imagine that the balcony was famous for some fictitious speech he had given, rather than for the place he was shot. Then I remembered that my favorite speech of Dr. King’s was given the night before he was killed, so I thought that the church he gave it at must be near by. I asked my phone and it told me to drive a little ways to the Mason Temple, about a 7 minute drive.
I got to the temple around 8 am not expecting it to be open, but found a door in the back that was unlocked. I walked in through a hallway and found the main congregation hall, which I recognized immediately. Flags of all nations line the balconies of the hall. I stood there for a minute trying to wrap my mind around where I was, I couldn't believe it. Isn't it a strange feeling when you are standing in a place you had imagined for years? Isn't it strange to see that it exists and isn't just a figment of your imagination?

I noticed in the back a man who was mopping the wooden floor behind the last row of seats. I walked over to him and found myself suddenly very emotional. I attempted to keep the tears to myself and asked him if I could look around for a bit and maybe take some pictures. He was so kind, like everyone I met in Tennessee, and told me in very understanding words to take all the time I wanted. I walked around the hall, up to the balconies, around the choir seating behind the rostrum, looking from all angles at the pulpit where he had given the speech, too afraid to walk up to it. But as I sat from the choir seating, staring at the microphone on that podium I thought... hell. I drove all the way from Utah.

So I walked up to the rostrum, looked over the organ and then sat on the red carpeted steps of the pulpit. The weather began to change. The sun was made striking and plain from the affectation those storm clouds had impressed upon me for the last two days in Tennessee, coming in with bright intent through the back windows. I had the speech on my phone and through watery eyes reread it and remembered the first time I’d really listened to it. I was working at a bagel store. I was 20 and I was the assistant manager. It was my second home and I would stay late at the end of the day and listen to Democracy Now while I swept the front after closing, when everyone was gone and all by myself I could sweep and think. They were rebroadcasting the speech on the memorial of his death. I remember it had made me cry while I swept.
Dr. King was in Memphis that week to stand with sanitation workers who were protesting for safer working conditions after two men had been fatally injured on the job. The majority of the speech until the last 5 minutes is very material and focused on the organizational and philosophical tasks at hand. But at the end of the speech the tone takes a sudden departure towards the very personal when he recounted recent threats that had been made against his life by his “sick, white brothers,” and to those threats, through an ever present part of his purpose as a man of non-violence he spoke…
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. 
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
I grew up in a religious tradition that believes in revelation from God to prophets and His children. But until that night, sweeping up the lobby of a bagel shop listening to the powerful humanity in his voice, I hadn't given it enough consideration to imagine or even really think it was possible to feel God that close. I felt that Dr. King had been given reassurance and confidence that he would need and that his family and friends and followers would need to carry on after him in the face of such painful circumstances. He was given a view from a high mountaintop to give to those who loved him.

I stood up from the pulpit step and looked out from where Dr. King had looked his last night as a living man. And in the back I saw the janitor quietly mopping the floors- back and forth, back and forth. Thinking who knows what kinds of glorious or unremarkable things. I thought about how every life ebbs and flows with greatness and insignificance. Thought about my moment of greatness experienced because of a man of peace, while I performed a task as routine and insignificant as a sweep-up at closing time. 

Rest Of 2013 from droitetgauche on Vimeo.