Finding Your Raw Center, Because it's Worth it
It was about 10:30 in the morning a few Saturdays ago at Millie’s Diner in Richmond when a woman sat down next to me at the counter and introduced herself with a PLEASE tell me they have red bull and vodka. I didn’t know but a passing waiter did (nope) and a small Q&A happened just a bit out of earshot before she settled on a rum and coke. We’re having VERY different breakfasts, she said, her final words to me as she waved down that same waiter again. I paid and stood up. I was off to the Edgar Allan Poe museum and she was on to her second drink, our Saturdays starting off in the same place but headed in what I could only imagine were different directions.
I learned right away that more than anywhere else, Poe spent most of his life in Richmond, though never in the house that held the museum. We know he visited at least once, the man behind the desk said. It’s an old stone building – the oldest in Richmond, actually – and it’s got quite a bit of memorabilia, though not all of it the kind you’d normally get excited about. His hair, for example, occupies a two-floor exhibit. His hair. And though I found it slightly notable that his iconic mustache was something he grew only late in life, I wasn’t fascinated by the more forensic side of things. His desk chair, the one his editor cut the back off to encourage posture, certainly interesting. His pen, that too. And the two black cats in the garden out back? Of course.
The Black Cat is Poe at his psychologically traumatizing and violent best, and there’s something wonderfully sinister about having two of them roaming the grounds – a point I made to a couple of British women who wandered over while I was giving Pluto a long scratch (he did that thing where you tilt your head back to really allow me better access to his chin). They asked why? And I gave them the quick run-through:
Well, in the story, the main character gets violently depressed, cuts an eye out of the cat and then murders it. Feeling slightly remorseful, and in attempt to explain the cat’s absence to his wife, he gets another one. He eventually finds himself in the same pickle again, feeling murderous rage towards the cat, and when it nearly trips him, he goes to kill it with an axe. The issue, though, is that his wife tried to stop him, so he axes her to death instead, and puts her body (along with the cat) in the wall of his house. The police investigate and he nearly gets away with it, but he starts to brag about the strength of the wall to the police, so they check on it. When they do, they hear a scream, go into the wall, find his wife’s body, and realize that the cat was in there as well, the source of the scream, in fact. So cheers, and have a lovely rest of your time here.
Appomattox was next.
In the McLean House right across from the courthouse, the Civil War formally ended. As it’s told, a sharply dressed Robert E. Lee was sitting under an apple tree waiting to hear back from Ulysses Grant. A letter was delivered, he made his way into the parlor of the house and sat waiting. Grant rode up – mud-splattered and disheveled – and there it all ended. Supposedly. The country now had permission to reconstruct, a process without an end date.
Nearby is Farmville, a city I know for three reasons: first, it was the second stop the Freedom Riders made in 1961. They left from Washington, D.C., came through Richmond, and then to Farmville. Their courage in face of the violence they met on their way to New Orleans changed the country forever, and was one of many examples of how un-far the country had come nearly a full century after Grant met Lee and moved the fighting from battlefields to segregated schoolhouses and segregated buses and segregated restaurants and segregated parks. Another example of this was the second reason I knew Farmville: it was the site of one of the school segregation cases that ultimately folded into Brown v. Board of Education. My mother was born the year that case was decided – how close we are to that tragic time – and over the next decade, southern states did most everything they could to resist its outcome. George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, stood at the entrance to Ole Miss, physically blocking James Meredith (who became the first black student admitted to that university) from getting in.
The third reason I knew of Farmville is much less significant: I had signed up to run a 50K there that evening. It was, like many races I’ve done recently, a last-minute decision. When I emailed Dan he said, yes, a runner had dropped out so yes, there was space for me and yes, I should sign up right away and so you know, the race starts at the caboose (which is just that, a caboose, and it seems to have a selection of versatile purposes, from meeting spot to starting line to finish line). When I looked it up, here’s what I found, news of great local significance:
So I took Dan’s advice and signed up. Later that night, one that had me tossing and turning and not sleeping, I packed a small bag, headed to Port Authority, jumped on a middle-of-the-night bus to Richmond, made my way to Millie’s Diner when I got in that morning, and asked for a cup of coffee, the thought of red bull and vodka not occurring to me until I was nearly through with breakfast.
I had never raced an ultramarathon before, and my race report is quite simple: I was music-less and shirtless and held a water bottle and ran until the race was over. Thirty-one miles along white-stoned trails and across an old bridge (also of Civil War importance) that spanned a stretch over the Appomattox River. I finished fourth and won a magnet that’s not on my fridge, but buried in a basket that holds memories from every race I’ve ever done. Numbers and medals, photos and swim caps. Now a magnet. The newest friend to a happy gathering of things that remind me of feeling so very alive.
I drove back to Richmond that night, cramped and sweaty, and hobbled over to a little pizza place that employed a waitress who looked at me uncertainly when I ordered one and then another and asked her if it would be ok if I had the chocolate milk I brought in with me because I just didn’t feel like beer or wine. And you should have heard my legs: each step back to my hotel barking things like, what the HELL was that all about and I mean, how many more steps must we take? The next day, I used those same legs to walk up a hill to a church where Patrick Henry once said Give me liberty or give me death! and then had the beer I didn’t feel like the night before while I waited for the bus that would bring me home.
This was supposed to be my last day in Greece, but I’m now staying a while longer, my plans itinerant and impulsive. I think of Jack Kerouac when I’m drawn to wandering spots of time like these – Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life – and as is the case with most everything he’s written, I want to hug it and slap it at the same time.
The quote that leads this comes from a book of short stories, this one from one called Second Chances. She’s a writer I wrestled with as well, though differently than how I do with Kerouac. It’s a nice way of saying something I think often, and even nicer when paired with a longer passage from the same story, one that tackles banality and wordlessness in such a simple way:
When I say nothing, she turns to me, naked hen in hand and asks a question whose answer has thorned my side.
“Nnwam, what do you want from me?”
I want you to boil the chicken with onions and salt. I want you to melt the palm oil on medium heat and sizzle ogbono till it dissolves. I want you to cough when the pepper tickles your throat. I want you to sprinkle in crayfish so tiny I believed, at age four, they’d been harvested half-formed from their mother’s womb. I want you to watch the ogbono thicken the water and add the stockfish and the okra and the spinach and the boiled meat and the salt you never put enough of and call us when it’s ready and say grace and be gracious and forgive me.
The answer I give: the lopsided shrug I manage when I can’t find words.
In a way, these two quotes are quite guiding for the rest of my time here. Because she has another quote for what else the world can do to people:
When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.
What's striking to me is that whether it's the woman brooding over a morning red bull and vodka, the emotional rawness of Poe, the fearlessness of the Freedom Riders (among many, many others from that time – trust me, posts on that to come), or the lines of Kerouac and Lesley Nneka Arimah, the binding appeal of it all is something related to authenticity. To being the most frank expression of yourself, and being it again and again and again.