I'm writing this installment at 36,000 feet somewhere around the Bering Strait and the very Northeastern tip of Kamchatka/Siberia. This is probably one of the cooler places I've ever written out my blog. It's -90 degrees Fahrenheit outside. "Cooler", get it? ;)
I'm 8hrs into this flight from Detroit, Michigan to Seoul, South Korea with 6hrs to go. I'm on my way to Daegu, South Korea where I'll be visiting family and friends and playing several shows as well. I lucked out HUGE and got a window seat. Score. I'm looking off into the half night/half morning time and I can see thin clouds which is barely a shroud concealing the prominent icy terrain below. It looks like we're still over glacier-laden waters. They look like solid white tektonic plates with gaps that appear to be water. Meh, I didn't go to school for this but I did want to take this moment to appreciate the pristine beauty of my surroundings, albeit cramped and exhausting, and to talk about the Thanksgiving I just had. It was a new one for me for many reasons.
As you may know, this Thanksgiving and, indeed, holiday season will be my first without my brother Doug. It's tough in itself but especially so in that his passing has drawn all of the good and bad things to a head in our tight family unit. The siblings have always been each other’s support network and I've drifted quite a bit from my Mother and our regularly tumultuous relationship. That's a whole other keg of worms. It's just a painful situation. 'Nuff said.
So with the family scattered all over the world, as we're accustomed to being either way, this time it's with a more acute sense of not-togetherness. We always take each other’s company for granted in that we're so used to being scattered that we don't really go out of our way to reach out to each other although we love each other very much. That and we have very strong connections with our respective friends who are very important to us and might as well be family. This is all very different now as we're building more deliberate channels for each other. A great thing for anyone to do and it's never too late.
To celebrate this year, my sister and I decided to visit our brother Bernard and his wife at Jubilee, a commune out in Madison County, GA, at his invitation. It was very out-of-the-box for our usual digs this time of year, but there's nothing "normal" going on in my life so what the hell. Since Bernard was largely raised in the US on the very doorsteps of Jubilee, he's spent countless months living and working there. It's a largely self-sufficient, self-sustaining place where people who have been displaced from their war-torn homelands have come to seek refuge, political asylum and try to rebuild their lives in the United States. We're talking some serious shit. People who are from places like Burma, Sudan, Kosovo, Chad, Honduras and many other nations who have experienced serious political and social strife. Many of these people have had family murdered, sometimes right in front of them, as a result of brutal wars and genocide carried out even today. It's a miracle some of these people ever got out of their countries. That fact makes what they have at Jubilee even more beautiful. I've always known about Jubilee from Bernard and I've heard countless stories ranging from heartbreaking injustices all the way up to soul-jarring brutalities.
The property has modest farm houses that double as meeting houses and living quarters, a school house that holds teaching lessons for all ages and rich fruit and vegetable crops. They have cows and chickens there too. It's a proper co-op situation with people from all over helping as much as being helped.
Bernard had just shown us the whole of the Jubilee grounds, we got to meet some nice folks from all over and eat some home-made food. I've always been extremely proud of Bernard for the work that he does and I was so happy that we were together and spending time. He's a giftedly sharp kid with a heart of solid gold. I was already thankful for the day, my time with my family and pride for my brother’s work, and we were on our way out as I thought I couldn't fit more gratitude into my heart. Until Karen came by, that is.
So, I finally got to meet some of the people who run this place or have, at least, been very big influences on it. Two, particularly, stood out. You might think of the people who are involved with stuff like this to be total hippies. Simple, live-off-the-earth, patchouli types who are wishy-washy and probably pussies. This could not be farther from the truth. These people have found themselves deep in foreign countries, combating Nazi-equivalent forces in very real danger with no hidden agenda other than to try to have a positive impact on a part of the world that most are too nervous to go to.
Karen is a 93 year old white gal with a charming old-school southern accent who's originally from North Carolina. She was walking along slowly with her cane for support and holding a young child's hand.
I briefly mentioned that I was going to Korea the following week and that we had all lived there for several years. She did too, except we had these stark differences in our common bond: she was there immediately following the Korean War, she didn't have military involvement (i.e. safety net) and she was a woman way back when that was not a place for a woman to be. She was there as a Missionary teacher and organized large orphanages around the Northern region of the new South Korea. Tensions with the Chinese and new North Koreans were still very high and it wasn't guaranteed that war wouldn't erupt again. She was even given instructions to bring certain children across the river to safety if they came under fire. Let me rephrase that: in case CHILDREN were openly shot at as an act of aggression. Serious shit. The part she found absurd was the suggestion that she only save a few of the 700+ children under her care. She pointed out very directly that that idea was laughable bullshit and that she would duke it out to save as many as she could. She was just plainly and simply sharing a glimpse and memories of her involvement with the reconstruction of the country. Not remotely boastful, just very friendly conversation in her mind. She started telling us more of her experiences in her 20something years in South Korea and she must have found me strange as I doubt I closed my mouth or blinked once the whole time she talked. This is a sweet old lady telling you some seriously gangsta shit she did when she was my age and younger. I later found out that she was attending University in North Carolina when black students and faculty were starting to be integrated, much to the aggravation of the majority of the Caucasian people there. She organized and led protests and sit-ins on behalf of the new, highly ostracized black members of the education system in the US. Bear in mind that this was in the 1950s when a white person could be dragged out and lynched for such a thing or at the very least disowned in the South. THAT woman has some balls.
Karen came and went on her charming way and then in strolled the next swinging badass who carries himself as meekly as an accountant who's afraid of girls, but has done some hard core shit in his life too. Gary, is his name, also overheard that we lived in Korea for a while and he then said that he lived there for about 2 years himself. His tone and reaction was that of someone you've just met realizing that you have a friend in common. Very casual and just matter-of-fact. He, like Karen, was there when there was much unrest in the region. He recalled this time that he was working on rebuilding houses for people (he's an original founder of Habitat for Humanity) in Korea when he and his Missionary crew of civilians were smack in the middle of a vicious gunfight between North Korean Special Forces, who unsuccessfully infiltrated South Korea to assassinate the new President, and the South Korean Army only they were discovered and this gunfight was the outcome and of Custer's last stand magnitude equivalent. He jokingly pointed out that they all hit the floor and could see bullets rushing by the windows and sometimes coming inside past their ears. This is funny? Another 30 years later he is one of the only Americans to ever step foot inside of North Korea with both our and their government's permission. He's trying to build houses for the people of North Korea as their harsh government gives them nothing and the violent Typhoons in the rainy season kill thousands a year. These cause widespread famines and homelessness. Many suffer needlessly and he's organizing missions to go in and build houses to help on a large scale. For free.
I heard another story about Gary involving a conflict in the Middle East where he spent his own, personal life-savings to buy medical supplies and illegally trucked them into hostile territory to get medicine to wounded children and civilians stuck in the middle. He. Himself. As a civilian. In a, then, world-class danger zone.
If there is a "pussy" to be found in these conversations it's the floppy haired musician, mouth agape, in disbelief at the acts of bravery performed by normal people with powerful wills.
Needless to say, this gave me even more perspective on things to be thankful for. You see movies about people like this and here they are standing in front of you asking you if you want more food or if they can fix you something to drink. Makes other problems seem tiny and makes your ingratitude for what you have feel as wide and cold as this frozen ocean I'm flying over.
We collected our things and went to see Bernard and his wife's new place in the country not far from Jubilee. Roomy, charming place and not a bit of furniture yet. They made us coffee and tea and we talked, laughed and sat together on the floor for hours. We had the best time.
I feel that, in my life, I regularly take inventory of things that I have to be thankful for and it's strange that in my most splintered state during this time of year, I could feel so fulfilled and rich with life and love in those moments. Even though we couldn't all be together, I felt it powerfully. It's always about the people you love. I've never forgotten that but it's always nice to have vivid reminders from fearless people, spilling over with humanity, selflessly demonstrating the qualities that make our species remotely special. It’s even more special for me to know that someone in my family is one of them.
The drive back to Atlanta was a thankful one, indeed.