Having returned recently from a month travelling across America, East to West, I woke up this morning convinced that I was still across the pond; only the lack of air-conditioning and the view from my bedroom bay window were able to persuade me otherwise.
In this hinterland time of jet lag between worlds it seemed a good time to reflect on leaving one and returning to another.
It was ten years since I was last in the States. On my last sojourn there I witnessed the beginning of Obama’s Presidency, so I was curious to see the impact of another President. Perhaps you won’t be surprised when I say I found many people upset and embarrassed by the words and actions of the new resident of the White House. But of course, I also found those that had voted for the man of orange tinge and red words and indeed in perhaps unlikely places; the Egyptian taxi driver in San Francisco, for example.
For fear of delving too much into politics, I found an interesting parallel between events that had led to a bombastic businessman and tyrannical TV character becoming President and the mutterings, concerns and disenchantment of the British people leading to Brexit.
I had an extraordinary adventure travelling across a vast country, indeed made up of many countries. I was moved by the towering majesty of the Redwoods, touched by the hospitality of Southerners, embarrassed by the flirtation of drag queens, uplifted by the patriotic wearing of a nation’s colours, enthralled by the magic of a mid summer wedding and was struck dumb by the Leviathans of the deep.
It is a cliché to say that travel broadens the mind, and indeed whilst this may be true, I think that just as important is that it deepens the soul. With increased volatility, friction and fear that seems to flood our screens incessantly , I was concerned with what I might find on this trip.
Perhaps it was because I often had a paintbrush in my hand or a phone camera composing the view, and perhaps also because I was blessed with having the time to just be, I observed and experienced America at work, play and indeed prayer.
I found a people still confident but increasingly concerned. In the rich variety of conversations I had, it struck me that the great in America is already here, and whilst there is much poverty and struggling, there always has been. With such extreme focus on immigration currently, it would seem to demonise the huge diversity of the population, which is the very essence of a nation, built and sustained by the beauty and strength of difference, enterprise and mutual respect.
I had an extraordinary opportunity to spend part of the 4th July in a dungeon underneath the Congress Meeting House in Charleston, and indeed I even paid for the privilege. There I learnt about the Holy City (so named because of the number of churches to be found within its boundaries ) and the vital role it played in the crucible of the war of independence. It was a sobering discovery to learn that the very politician’s that had signed the Declaration of Independence in the finely furnished rooms above, were days later cast into the dungeon below (and I thought my time as a local politician was tough enough!).
Whilst gathered in the dungeon with a whole mixture of other representatives of nations, including Canadian, German, Dutch and French; the scene was made even more bizarre by a fellow visitor asking me about England’s performance in the World Cup.
Whilst in beautiful Charleston I also visited the old slave market and Boothe Hall Plantation where in both places I learnt more about the reality of conditions of life in that bondage. At the plantation, I attended a presentation by a lady from the Gullah culture who with song, humour, prayer and testimony, transported us back to a time where cruelty was currency and people were assets. She ended her story by turning to each section of the hundred or so audience with the words, ‘you are beautiful’, ‘your story, my story, our story’. As the tears welled up in the eyes of the audience, she swept her hands across us all in benediction and once more proclaimed ‘you are beautiful, your story, my story, our story’ and added as she raised her arms and face to heaven, His(s)tory’.
What an amazing US adventure this was. I would like to thank everyone who has been part of it, either in America or followed and encouraged me in the UK. I’ve met so many great people, spent time with friends old & new, seen so many wonderful things, received a warm and generous welcome wherever I’ve been and through it all I’ve been inspired to paint & store up memories for more. It’s been super, super cool / it’s been rather wonderful (edit appropriately depending on what side of the pond you are! )
It’s also certainly been a challenge too! 9 internal flights, 2 long haul flights, buses, boats, taxis and 1 pair of trekking boots (very much broken in), one pair of deck shoes (very much broken!) A total of 15150 miles travelled by plane, boat, taxi together with 92.4 miles walked in summer heat and humidity.
To think this time last year I couldn’t even have carried my suitcase down the street , let alone around the United States!
It’s been an extraordinary journey these past two years. I’m not certain what lies ahead for me now, but this trip has made me certain that with my faith, family and friends I can embrace it. I am reminded daily of the courage, beauty and faith of the Gullah Lady at the plantation who I was blessed to speak with afterwards. I thanked her for her beautiful and moving account and then shared with her that I have been on quite a journey recently with heart surgery (apparently more critical in timing than had first appeared) followed by the disappointment of not being chosen for ordained ministry training at this time. She smiled and said ‘everything is in his hands’.
In a time where it seems popular to seek to apportion blame I was moved that this lady, who could well be justified more than most in doing so, chooses instead to acknowledge that each one of us is intrinsically connected and bound up in each other’s stories and that what can divide us can also bring us together and that the choice is ours to make.