March 11, 2018

will drive for hugs

Today, I will drive for a full hour to a place where I will do some other things and also get a hug from one of my favorite people, and then drive home.

An hour is nothing.  I drive for hugs.  Looking back, it's what I do.  I don't make lengthy automotive journeys where the end holds a beautiful view or national monument, an event or a tourist attraction.  If a good hug is waiting for me at the end, a bond, a connection, then I don't count the miles.  Denver and Nebraska, Texas and Manhattan.

My bumper sticker says:  Will Drive For Hugs.

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I met Nanci Griffith when I was twenty-one, after four solid years of driving significant distances to concerts and attempting to get backstage and meet her.  She's reclusive and won't meet fans, but I dreamed of meeting her.  As in, I had frequent dreams wherein I would be in some place, an outdoor bookstore or a restaurant-library, and she would come around the corner or appear, and would smile at me and know me.  Just that.  The dreams were frustrating because of the damned-near impossibility of them coming true.

Then she came out with "Other Voices, Too" and wrote a book to accompany it.  I had them both the day they were released.  One Thursday evening, when the Internet was young and I was editing the fan-girl web site I maintained in her honor, I saw that something had suddenly been added to her tour schedule:  A book signing.  Sunday.  That very weekend.  She would be in a chair in a Place (a Borders bookstore, which was maddeningly fitting because all of my dreams about her had bookshelves in them), and I could get in line and meet her and she would be right there, not running away or elusive.  So my husband and I looked at each other, and Saturday morning before sunrise, we cranked up the better of our two mildly dilapidated Nissan Sentras and drove from North Carolina to Michigan.  The Flying J in Knoxville had gas for seventy-five cents a gallon.  We got a grotty room at the Super-8 Motel in Ypsilanti and tried to work out how to go to the early afternoon book signing the next day, then somehow make it back halfway across the eastern U.S. and be at work bright and early Monday morning.  But we were there, a stone's throw from Ann Arbor.  

And because we were there anyway, I had discovered The Ark online, and Odetta was singing that night.  My husband had negative five-thousand interest in going, so I drove alone and bought a ticket and took a seat in the intimate music hall, awed that I was about to hear a living legend in folk music.  Odetta's voice and presence were captivating.  We honest-to-god sang "Kum Ba Yah" together as an audience, after which she introduced a special guest to help her sing, and that is when I discovered that Nanci Griffith had been sitting behind me.  She must have refrained from singing, because I would have heard her distinctive voice and turned around and frightened the shit out of her with my instant transformation into Mecha-Fangrl.  

After the show, I knew she would be hiding, but this wasn't a massive venue like Wolftrap in Virginia or Piedmont Park in Atlanta.  It had a tiny back hallway with a door leading to a couple of dressing rooms.  I pled with the sound guy standing guard and told him my story, the long drive from North Carolina just to meet my hero the next day, bags already forming under my eyes.  He had mercy and went back and had a word with her, and Nanci came out just for me.  I got to give her the Hug of Hugs and thank her for all her music had done for me, for being a worthwhile hero and opening doors to the world outside my small town.  We chatted for five minutes, and I thanked her, too, for coming out and speaking with me so that we could head home in the morning and make it to work on Monday.  Another hug, and sleep, and a drive home, and I never again dreamed about her.

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After my son's death and my high-dive plunge into the waters of process theology, I used a slightly more advanced Internet and learned that a premier writer in the field, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, was going to be giving a Q&A session at a pot-luck dinner at her daughter's house, with all area ministers welcome, open doors to anyone.  Anyone in central Minnesota, that is.  (There were about three of those writers, as no one else was scholarly enough to understand what the bleeding fuck Whitehead was on about; even reading their expositions and translations was exacting.)  This was a month away, so I had more time to plan.  I took our newer-model five-speed Nissan Sentra and made the drive up I-75 again, this time through Chicago and across Wisconsin.  I stayed in St. Paul with friends and blindly navigated to the home of Marjorie's daughter, using the creased, folded-all-wrong 1976 U.S. map my daddy had given me, one that didn't show some of the major highways and none of the belt-loops, resulting in What Happened In Cincinnati Afterward.  But I digress.  I was standing in the kitchen where people were helping themselves to plates of food.  I hadn't brought a dish, but I was welcomed anyway.  No one was quite sure what I was doing there, but I was given a seat in an armchair and told that I was more than welcome to listen in and participate.  

I had driven all the way to Minnesota because I wanted to hug her and thank her for helping me get something resembling faith back.  And I had a burning question.  Just the one question, one not answered in her most popular book, about the afterlife as framed in terms of the process-relational model.  My college religion professor was blown away that I had taken this from him and run with it, "across the tracks, ten miles above the limit and with no seat belt" (more Dar Williams).  

After the meeting, when the mingling and cars in reverse out of the driveway and clearing up dishes and food had settled, Marjorie brought two steaming mugs of tea over to where I sat waiting, and sat down and said, "Okay, dear, you obviously have a big question.  So let's talk."  We did, for half an hour, and I got to delve into a great mind, like reading an encyclopedia full of everything I craved to know.  When we were finished, she announced to her daughter and two remaining graduate students of hers, "This lady needs to be in graduate school!"  We finished our tea as a group, and I got to give four hugs and thanks for the evening's pocket of belonging, graciously extended to a stranger.  Marjorie had answered my question.  I hugged her for that.  Gratitude.  My well full.  The drive home passed swiftly as I pondered all she had said, requiring my very depths, pausing only to escape Cincinnati.  When I got back home, I bought a new map.

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I befriended a man who also loved Nanci Griffith and who became a sort of surrogate father (back when my daddy and I weren't what I could call "on speaking terms" following my parents' divorce), who helped me break free of my confined small-town life.  He once lived in that same small town and we had mutual acquaintances, sufficient to prove he was not, in fact, an Internet-predator axe murderer.  I rented a room from him for a while after I had packed up all of my belongings in a Pontiac T-1000 hatchback and left home.  He lived in Florida at the time, and then New York, and then Wisconsin, and then New York again, his field of industry being one where all middle managers played musical chairs every two years.  I can't count the drives I made to these distant places, until we could afford plane tickets.  At the end of each one was an incredible hug, and fresh-baked bread and shabby-chic decor and quiet evenings listening to good music.  A dear friend was always waiting at the end of those long drives.  

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I will leave soon and drive for an hour and give and receive a good, solid hug.  As I've grown older and settled down, embraced forty, I've found that my city holds people who can hug with the best of them.  And sometimes, Kate Campbell comes to town or nearby and plays a concert.  My brother-in-law is five hours away and gives incredibly good hugs.  Needs for connection are met.  I don't have to travel so far, which is good, as my bladder and stamina are no longer twenty years old.  

But I know that if the desire struck me and I felt the itch to see highway mile markers again, I would climb into a much safer vehicle and I Would Drive For Hugs.

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