I've taken a few days off to just be. Here is an update of sorts...I apologize for the length, but I don't want to miss a moment!
It is August 11th.
I am leaving St. Louis, when I stop by a Target. I’ve lost the only pair of earrings I have and wanted to pick up an inexpensive pair…just ‘cuz.
I’m walking toward the jewelry aisle, when a radiant smiling woman hunts me down.
“Hey. I’ve just got to ask. Are you a runner? How did you get so fit?”
Standing in front of me is a beautiful, lit-from-within woman…big smile, blonde hair and eyes that truly twinkle.
“Yes. I AM a runner. I’ve been a runner my whole life!” I replied.
“I thought so,” she says. “I used to run, but have had some back issues.” She sighed a deep nearly mournful sigh. “I miss it so.”
“I understand. There really is nothing like running.”
There is a loud pause there in the space between us.
“Actually,” I continue, “I’ve kind of made a living out of running. Have you ever heard of Girls on the Run?”
She laughs…has that look that says, of course! “Yes!” she says. “Do you know Molly?”
I’m not quite sure what to do with this information. I stumble through my words. “Molly?”
“Yes,” she says. “Molly James.”
I share with her that I do not, in fact, know Molly James…but that my name is Molly and I am the founder of Girls on the Run.
“You are kidding!” She says this with disbelief. “My daughter, Molly James is on the board for the St. Louis Chapter of Girls on the Run!”
“What the heck are you doing in St. Louis?” She continues.
I share with her that I am on a cross country journey. My kids are rounding out their summer with their own awesome experiences and I am out writing, journaling and trying to figure out how I can help develop a more effective conversation…to address the hyperpolarized state of our nation. I notice that I’m beginning to change the context of what the trip is about.
Rebekah and I talk for another thirty to forty minutes. We relate to each other our own experiences with family and friends. We discuss religion and how that can polarize people too. Rebekah is a Christian and wants nothing more than to use her deep love for Jesus to bring people together…to live as He did.
I listen and share with her that the way I see it many of our greatest spiritual teachers taught the truly powerful benefits of acceptance and love.
Our conversation is spirited, alive and rich with connection…there in the Target.
She wants a picture to share with her daughter.
Pause. Smile. Click. Connect.
I arrive in Columbia, MO. I’ve gotten into this fantastic routine of getting very close to my destination point, pulling the car over and typing “hotels” into the google line on my phone. Hotels a-plenty pop up and I pick one…usually the cheapest.
Bingo! Columbia, MO hotel found.
I pull in and am immediately greeted by a very happy Jordan.
We talk. I share with her that I am traveling and talking and learning and listening to Americans. I’m discovering that we have more in common than we realize and that somehow we’ve gotten so far apart from each other.
She tells me that she feels a deep responsibility to make her community a great place to live. She currently volunteers with a sports program that “plays” with kids who don’t have all that she had, growing up.
Jordan is only 20. She is working full-time, going to college and volunteers.
I ask her how she does it all.
“I just do. Because it matters."
I arrive at the home of Jeremy and Dawn Brown. Dawn is the former council director for Girls on the Run. Her husband owns a couple of restaurants in Columbia and he is hosting our Red Boot Gathering at his restaurant, Sophia’s.
We arrive at the restaurant. He and his crew are preparing a fine meal for the 25 or so folks who are there. Dawn has gathered together a very diverse group of “Columbians.” Pastors, attorneys, bankers, educators, students, activists, business owners. More than half of the attendees are men.
I am nervous.
We begin with introductions. I am moved by the immediate willingness of the group to be vulnerable…to express their deep and heartfelt concerns for what’s going on in America…the “under-the-surface-what’s-going-on” America.
I set the context with how the whole Red Boot Coalition came to be and we begin with a discussion on the current state of affairs.
Greg Copeland is a well-respected litigation attorney in Columbia. Former runner, he is there in his business suit, tie…he has Santa Clause eyes…years of living…most of it smiling, I think.
Across the table and down a ways is Amy Eultgen. She is a free spirit…yoga instructor…bandana holds back long brown hair…she wears no makeup and is a Girls on the Run coach.
Jaime Varvaro is a volunteer pastor at his church. He is also a marketing guy. He moves the group into the hopeful “what if’s.”
“What you are talkin’ about here is a movement. The Red Boot Coalition is about…creating a universal dialogue. It’s grassroots. It’s real and everyone can participate. It’s open, unlimited and has no requirements other than a willingness to look at our own words and actions and how they can either contribute to the dysfunction or create a new way of engaging with each other.
It calls us to all live into what Gandhi said: We must be the change we wish to see in the world."
I laugh and say out loud, “Well I can see my work is done here. See ya’ll later!”
And then like water from river now across waterfall, the dialogue really begins.
Jim Sutherlin is pastor of his church. He speaks from a deep well of wisdom. To be more as Jesus was. To walk, to see, to be with those who are underserved. To listen with an open heart.
Greg Copeland is the attorney seated next to me. He asks, “Has anyone ever disregarded your message, perhaps, because you are such a free-spirit?" He smiles and says quite tenderly, "A kind of joyful hippie with love, compassion as your guide? Those are words so easily seen as weak or ineffective in leadership.”
I am so incredibly inspired by this man. I toss it out there to the group. “Greg, I so appreciate your question. You bring up a reality we must all face. Do we consider how we are perceived or do we just keep being ourselves? Is how others perceive us perhaps an opportunity to open our hearts and ask point blank, “How do you see me so that we can use that as a starting point?”
Dawn Brown offers to host more of these gatherings at her home. “Perhaps we invite others…others we might not otherwise cross paths with in our daily lives...to talk, to engage, to connect.”
I ask the group if anyone has any final thoughts.
Scott Wilson has been relatively quiet. He wears glasses, button-down, khakis, loafers and is an attorney.
“A couple of years ago I attended a forum that was addressing this very issue.
After four days of talking, debating and listening, we came to the same conclusion that it has taken us two hours to come to…deep down underneath it all…people just want to belong…to matter to someone…to have meaning.
That’s it. It’s not complicated and yet we make it so complicated. Ultimately it comes down to one very simple question. Am I willing to make the effort to see, to listen to look for the humanness that rests within each person I encounter, talk to, read about, see in the news?
I am asking myself this question now. How easy it is to engage like this with others when I’m on vacation or out of my daily routine. But what if I engaged like this in my own daily life…looked for and listened for the common ground with every person I see and encounter…at Starbucks or work or in traffic.”
Pause. Snap. Click. Connect.
The next morning on my way out of town, I see a sign for Larry’s Boots. I have to stop.
I go in. There are more cowboy boots than I’ve ever seen…rows and rows of ‘em
The Red Boots stick out from the rest…there are baby red boots, men’s red boots, women’s red boots, star-spangled red boots, decorated-with-bling red boots, painted red boots and polk-a-dotted red boots.
Heather is putting more boots on the shelves when I stop to chat with her a minute.
“Hey…have you noticed who buys Red Boots? Any common characteristics?”
She pauses for a minute.
“Well, usually the women who buy red boots are outgoing, friendly people. Goofy even.”
On my way out of Columbia, MO, I stop to run on the Katy Trail. The Trail runs across the state of Missouri and I find an access point about an hour outside of St. Louis.
Physically, I’m not feeling on point and so I walk mostly…slowly in the heat…the Missouri river is broad, raging…crossing rock and broken limbs.
Finishing up…I see it. A tiny black feather… tinged on the tip with red. I pick it up, feel the softness there...run my fingers across the edges...the delicate splendor of it
I say a prayer for Ferguson, MO.
I have two days to get to Denver. I don’t know where I’m going to stop exactly so I just go west. I am in Kansas somewhere when I pull off the interstate to get gas.
They are seated on the porch of the gas station with their dog…two young people.
Back packs open with clothes and sleeping apparatus spilling out. They are playing a game that involves dice.
I get out of my car. He nods his head at me.
I nod back.
“What’s your dog’s name?” I ask.
“Wampum.” He explains a bit about its meaning.
“What’s ya’ll’s story? What are you doing here??
He explains that they are headed back to his home. They've been in Utah for a "Rainbow Family" gathering.
He shares the origins of “The Rainbow Family”…founded by a couple of Vietnam Veterans, the Rainbow Family is open to anyone. They are, according to him, a peaceful group of people who are about living in communion with others. They typically gather in large national or state parks and share common beliefs around love, compassion and acceptance. There is usually a limited exchange of money…most things are exchanged through a barter system.
I ask him if they could use a few dollars for their trek home.
He says with gratitude, “Why yes! Anything will help.”
I go in…grab a coke, some almonds and get some cash.
I come back out…hand him $40.00.
He says thank you.
I pause. I want to know more.
“So,” I say. “You know, people like me, who go about living our daily lives don’t fully understand people like you. Do you mind if I sit down and talk with you guys a bit more.”
“Of course not,” he says.
And so I sit cross-legged on the porch of the gas station with them.
We talk for forty five minutes.
His name is Brian and he is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Well-read and articulate, he speaks at length about philosophy, politics and education. He and his young wife sleep in drainage pipes and underpasses to steer clear of inclement weather.
I ask him what his parents think about his chosen lifestyle.
“My dad didn’t understand me when I was younger. But I gotta give him credit. He decided that he’d rather understand than not have a relationship with me and so he actually came to one of the Rainbow Family gatherings.
It was weird for me. There I was sitting there with my Dad. He is a far-right-wing-Republican kind of guy and there he was with me and all my Rainbow Family friends…sitting in a circle listening and talking with us about all of our philosophical beliefs.
I’m not sure he totally gets it, but at least we have a relationship now.”
His wife, Chrissy is from Ohio. They haven’t been married long. Her parents don’t know the full story yet. She plans to tell them, but she doesn’t want them to worry about her.
I feel something stir within me…a kind of mother-protective instinct…for both of them.
“Have you ever read ‘The Giver’ Quartet?” He holds up the thick book.
“I’ve read ‘The Giver’ with my daughter. It’s a book that really disturbed and unsettled me…in a very provocative and thoughtful kind of way. It definitely made me think.”
“You ought to read all four of the books. She is a brilliant writer.”
I ask if I can take their picture.
They say yes and call Wampum over to get in the picture. He isn’t very cooperative.
They continue playing their dice game.
I get in the car and call my kids. I miss them.
I am in Kansas. The Sun is setting on the distant horizon. I’ve never experienced land like this…my eyes can see to the ends of the earth and the road…like ribbons of black taffy stretch out in front of me.
The top on my little car is down and I lift both hands from the wheel…steer with my knees…and hold them high up into the forceful wind and scream as loud as I can.