Magnolia Redemption

Ahhh, February. Not even the hefty President’s Day sales and Valentine’s Day chocolates can perk up this month. Kudos to Julius Caesar who modified the Roman calendar in 46 B.C. to allocate fewer days to February. Perhaps Caesar, too, suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder and knew we could only take so much of the grayness, the cold.

This February has been particularly tough—partially due to the soaking rains that have plagued Nashville for weeks. But, beyond our city’s environment, current events have dampened my spirits. The vitriol on both sides of the impeachment drama have worn me down. I thought Nancy Pelosi’s tearing up the State of the Union speech was classless. I thought Trump’s attacking Mitt Romney’s faith was unconscionable. Kobe Bryant died. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his twin were fired. Steve Kornacki’s “big board” of primary results makes me jittery. (By the way, I’m pretty sure he’s worn the same outfit for seven days.)

I’m convinced that part of my angst comes from 24/7 news coverage and our inability to escape it. In the early 90s I argued with a friend who thought CNN and all-day newscasts would be to America’s detriment. A political and news junky, I could not see his perspective, but I believe now he was right. We experience 30 minutes of real news manipulated and regurgitated 100 different ways to fill up the hours. There is no longer one clear, focused news source. My parents took the afternoon daily newspaper, and, in the late afternoon, when the tightly rolled newspaper hit our driveway, my parents would learn what had happened. Although my parents did not hold advanced degrees, I submit that they were better educated than our current population—many of whom are college educated—who get their news from Facebook or their hair stylist. My parents’ generation were informed because they read. Journalism was a noble pursuit and there was no slippery slope between facts and entertainment.

I lived through both Vietnam and Watergate and can recall the dinner table conversations. I was too young to understand, of course, but I was a master eavesdropper and remember my parents and oldest brother Jim discussing the draft. They thought I was coloring in the breakfast nook, but I heard every word. Vietnam sounded glamorous to me, and I asked Dad if it was hot there. I pictured a beach. I asked Jim if he got to go if he would bring me back a souvenir, and my mother burst into tears. I called Jim this morning to ask him his draft number. It was 261—high enough to keep him safe at home. I guess it’s a number you don’t forget.

The summer of the Watergate hearings all I wanted to do was go to my friend’s house, but the television was on non-stop. I remember begging for someone to drive me there, but all I got was “Just a minute, not now.” (After all, there were no DVRs at that time. If you missed the broadcast, you missed it). When I finally got someone to take me to my friend’s house, guess what was on the TV in their den! I remember their gold plaid sofas and green shag carpet. Trying to make conversation, but lacking diplomacy, I said, “My dad said Nixon is a crook.” My friend’s father proceeded to tell me how wrong my dad was, until his wife reminded him I was just a child. Later that afternoon, my friend’s teenage brother knocked on her door where we were playing. “Your dad’s right,” he winked.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, and polarization between parties has been with us forever. But this division, this February, feels different.

Amidst my heart’s heaviness, two things happened this week. On Sunday, our pastor, Sam McGlothlin, preached a sermon on Matthew 5:13-16: the passage from which “This Little Light of Mine” was surely penned. She spoke of our lives being a “delicate balance of darkness and light” and used the analogy of film being developed. The spool had to be unrolled, inside a bag, in darkness. Then the film was exposed to chemicals and, finally, to light. She made the point, much more eloquently than I can, that our journeys through darkness are a process. One line in what she said really stuck with me: “If you’re in the darkness, keep singing until the light returns.”

It occurs to me that perhaps we need to do more singing. After all, it’s impossible to sing and argue at the same time. Singing forces our voices into a gentler register that feeds our souls and encourages hope. Remember the Congressmen spontaneously singing “God Bless America” from the Capitol steps on September 11? Perhaps we need to sing our way out of February, out of the current state of affairs.

On Monday, when I returned to my job at Vanderbilt University, I had to run an errand on the other side of campus. Working on a campus designated as an arboretum is a gift. If you hit the time just right, while class is in session, it feels as if the natural world is all yours. Not anxious to return to my overloaded desk and enjoying the momentary respite from the rain, I stepped off the path and stood under the outstretched limbs of a mighty magnolia, my favorite tree on campus. Looking up through the waxy foliage, I felt refreshed. Reassured. Redeemed. I was under the protective canopy of a tree that had born witness to World Wars, Vietnam, Watergate, impeachments, violence. It had absorbed the angst of college students and stood strong as those individuals left to make their marks on the world. What stories those boughs could surely impart.

Some quick research into Vanderbilt’s trees led me down a considerable rabbit hole of knowledge. I think my magnolia may be 80 years old. The Bicentennial Oak predates the University. There are 190 species of trees and shrubs in the arboretum, and there is even a walking tour one can take, smart phone in hand. Someday I’ll do that.

But for now, my stroll across campus reminded me of the difference between that which endures, like the magnolia, and that which is ephemeral. The bitter discourse will eventually end. The mud puddles will be dried by the sun. And February will end. Sing your way through it.

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