Wednesday, January 7, 2009

But then Elijah

I posted this a while ago on Myspace, but I was down at the Tarrant County Courthouse the other day and it reminded me of this story.

Tonight, I went to visit a friend at Tarrant County Jail.

On the way in, a man stepped up to me and asked for help: "My name is Elijah and I jest got outta this place. Damn! Sweet Jesus I need to get home to Waco!"

I wasn't sure what to say. I told him that I needed to go in to see a friend and that maybe we could talk on my way out. I don't know why I said it. But I did and I thought nothing more of it.

I've never been to jail. I've never visited anyone in jail. I checked in and eventually they called my name and I was given a sign with a number on it. I was told to step into an elevator with no buttons and hold up the sign to a camera in the elevator. The elevator let me off at the right floor, I stepped up to the plexiglass window, and picked up the phone.

We talked for twenty minutes or so. He asked about Lorri and the girls and I asked how he was doing. He said jail was like the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day" but much less funny. We laughed. He said he was going to be out in a few days and that the charges against him would most likely be dropped. I was glad for him and when I left I felt pretty good. Much better than I thought I would when I went in.

I didn't see Elijah on my way out. But he saw me.

"So can ya help me? I jest wanna get back to Waco." I just wanted to go home. I had been at school since 8:30. I conferenced with 20 students, taught my lit class, worked on my job apps, and wrote some more dissertation. I had been on campus for about 11 hours when I packed my stuff up and headed for Tarrant County Jail. But then Elijah.

But then Elijah, something whispered.

But I'm exhausted.

But then Elijah.

I turned and really looked at Elijah for the first time. He was about my age, a little shorter, African-American, sunglasses, t-shirt. It was a chilly night and Elijah wrapped his arms around his chest and shivered.
"I can't take you to Waco," I found myself saying. But then Elijah. "But I can take you to the Greyhound Station." Part of my brain was yelling at the rest of me: "This isn't a good idea. He might be dangerous. You don't know his story. What if he's violent? What if . . ."

But then Elijah . . .

"C'mon. I'll drive you to the station and buy you a ticket."

Elijah climbed into the passenger seat and we took off. I drove to the station and Elijah talked about his arrest. He said he was taken in for having outstanding traffic tickets. He had a construction job and an apartment in Waco, but he had come to Fort Worth to visit his sister. His car had been impounded for ten days and he couldn't afford to pay the impound fees. He was afraid his job would be gone when he got back to Waco. He was worried because he was two weeks behind on his rent. He was thankful to be out of jail.

I went into the station with him and bought his ticket. He had a four hour lay-over in Dallas so I gave him all the cash in my pocket -- seven dollars and change -- so he could buy some breakfast in the morning. "My name is Elijah," he said. "I thank you." His voice was low and serious. I had nothing to say so I stood there for a second. Elijah awkwardly hugged me and went back inside.

"Thank you Jesus!" His voice echoed down the empty street.

I crossed the street, climbed into my Jeep, and began the drive home. And as I drove, I began to shrink. I felt small. I felt like the roof of my Jeep was gone, replaced with emptiness. Space. I couldn't look up for fear that I would fall out. I drove home with the universe trailing from the top of my car.

But then Elijah.

But then Elijah.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Kaua'i Part II

The next morning, the children woke up much too early. At six-fifteen, the baby began to stir. By six-thirty, the three-year-old was up. So we got up too. We should go for a drive, I thought. Lorri gave me a playful shove, saying, "Hey, the kids are up. We should go for a drive."

So we did.

The morning was surprisingly brisk and the sun hadn't quite made it up out of the Pacific. We piled into the convertible, put the top down, and took off, heading back down the Kuhio Highway that we had driven in the dark the night before. It was a quiet morning and all we could hear was the rush of the wind as our car wandered down the road. In the morning light, we could see what we had missed on our drive up to Princeville. To the right, the land rose steadily to the foot of impossibly green mountains. The mountains were wrapped in clouds that shifted and swirled, always revealing and concealing different pieces of the mountainside. On the right, the island fell away quickly and as we drove over small ridges and shallow valleys we caught glimpses of the ocean that disappeared around the next bend. At one point the road dropped into a deep ravine and the trees crowded overhead, creating a canopy of leaves that tinted the early morning sunlight with shades of green and yellow.

"Where should we go?" I asked. As I said, I'd never been to Hawai'i. Lorri had been before, but she had visited other islands, Oahu and the Big Island. She shrugged and I drove. Ella chattered in the back seat, pointing out trees and clouds. I could see her in the rearview mirror, long blond hair flying out behind her, eyes half-closed with wonder. Ours was the only car on the road and we seemed to have the island to ourselves.

I saw a sign: "Kilauea Lighthouse." On a whim, I took the turn. I followed the signs away from the highway, secretly hoping for any sign of coffee. Beautiful tropical island or not, I was in dire need of coffee. On our right we saw a cluster of businesses: real estate, local art, a restaurant called the Lighthouse Bistro. And, to my great satisfaction, we saw a sign for the Kilauea Bakery. But I kept driving toward the lighthouse, promising myself that there would be coffee very soon. The road wound through some hills, finally coming to a stop at a small parking lot. There was a gated drive on one side, leading into what signs identified as the Kilauea National Wildlife Preserve. We were three hours ahead of the park's opening, so we parked the car and walked to the fence that stretched across one end of the parking lot. The land fell sharply, down cliffs where tenacious trees and scrub bushes clung to creases in the rock of the cliff. The sun was still coming up and we could see the lighthouse ahead and to the left, perched at the top of a cliff at the end of a penninsula. And below us the surf crashed madly in a rocky bay: the water was all foam and froth as wave after wave pounded the black volcanic shore. The water was a deep indigo color that exploded into white spray as the surf slammed into the sides of the cliffs. Sea birds circled overhead and roosted in nests built pell mell on the sides of the cliffs. Beyond the rocks and the bay and the surf, the Pacific Ocean stretched northwards, sparkling into infinity as the sun began to crest the horizon.

We stood at the edge of the cliff for a few minutes, not talking much. Another family was there as well and we took turns with each other's cameras. The other family left and we were alone again at the cliff's edge. Ella saw everything: the birds overhead and on the cliff face, the waves crashing below, the few wispy clouds in the pale blue morning sky. The sun continued to rise and I picked Ella up and set her on my shoulder. We watched the sun glide over the horizon, hearing the faint calls of birds above us and feeling the rhythm of the surf far below. The moment stretched out and I felt, as I had felt standing on the lanai the night before, a sense of ancientness, of time stretching back over millenia. At the condo my laptop waited, student papers to grade, research to follow up. But here I was, standing on the edge of the Pacific as eternity washed over my senses. There were no thoughts about work or writing or teaching, only the ebb and flow of time as the waves completed their journey across the vastness of the Pacifc Ocean.

A minute later -- or ten -- we walked back to the car.

We drove back toward the main highway and stopped at the bakery we'd seen on our way down to the lighthouse. When we opened the door, U2's Where the Streets Have No Name was playing inside. I considered this a very good sign. Ella wanted a cinnamon roll and Lorri and I ordered coffee and pastries. Lorri took the girls outside to find a table and I gathered our drinks as Bono sang. I've seen U2 live twice and both times, Where the Streets Have No Name is one of the concert highlights. The band goes silent for a few moments, a minute, two. The audience becomes still with expectation and then, ever so subtly, the music starts. The organ builds slowly and is joined by the Edge's chiming guitar, the notes familiar and full of expectation and hope and promise. Then the drums and bass begin filling the spaces around the guitar and organ and then the song really takes off and in concert the sound hits you like a rush of wind. Every light in the stadium comes on and for a moment, everything is illuminated and you can see it all: the band, the stage, and the audience, 35,000 strong. Everything is clear for that moment and then the lights fall and once again you can only see the band, the spotlight hovering on Bono as he stalks the edge of the stage. But for that one moment, you can see how you are part of the concert, how you fit in to the music and the audience and the simultaneous sense of community and individuality is almost overwhelming. The cliff at the lighthouse was revelatory in a similar way: the surf, the cliffs, the ocean were all waiting, with us, for the sun to come over the horizon. We were part of that morning, almost as if that place and that moment had been prepared just for us. There was an incomprehensible sense of perspective on the cliff that morning and I grasped, for a moment, an indescribable insight. As the sun came up I felt as if I could step back and see everything: I could see how all the pieces fit and I felt the distance between myself and eternity shrink. For a moment I could reach out and touch time. Then the lights fell again and I was standing on the cliffside with a sense of hope and expectation that rose and fell with the morning tide.

Global Wanderings . . .