There are songs that are like Rorschach Tests. Sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a scream…they reach out and reveal the truth of the moment, of your inner world. One such song for me is Patty Griffin’s Up to the Mountain.
Which streamed through my airpods this morning while I walked past my alma mater. The alma mater I graduated from thirty years ago. The alma mater that still smelled of eucalyptus leaves, hot dry dust, and salty sea air. The alma mater that had nearly doubled in size since I graduated, adding two new colleges. And today there were construction crews and cranes and people in yellow vests, and lots of orange Detour signs.
And I wondered, as I ignored the signs and kept walking, if I had taken any detours in the past thirty years.
Would I have imagined, at age 22, eager to leave my hometown of San Diego, eager for adventure, bound for Russia to study women’s literature, that I would be here 30 years later, again saying good-bye? Though, this time for Israel. And this time with more permanent intentions. Would I have imagined that, in those 30 years, I would get married, have three amazing children, embrace a religion, a people, a path that always felt like home?
No, I don’t think there were any detours. Because I am exactly where I am meant to be. And going where I need to go.
But smelling the eucalyptus reminded me of the girl I was 30 years ago. And listening to Patty Griffin made me realize just how far I’d come.
Up to the Mountain was written in 2005 to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr’s 1968 speech, the last he ever delivered before he was killed, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop. And it was always these lines that got me, We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
These lines of course speak to the terrible injustice of slavery and racism. They also speak to that truth that we are all born free. That is the promised land. That place where we are all free. The late politician and activist John Lewis elucidated this by explaining that the approach in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was to act as if you are already free, to embody the freedom, to know you are free. Not to ask for freedom, but to know that you were born a child of God and already free. But I think that, in addition to political freedom, King and Lewis, as God-fearing activists and leaders, spoke also of an inner freedom. That spiritual promised land of freedom.
And that was the promised land that I realized, amongst the eucalyptus trees, I was already inhabiting.
No, not the promised land of milk and honey and Mediterranean beaches and the best hummus around; I am talking of the spiritual freedom that comes from no longer being a prisoner to the past. To the legacy of abuse and dysfunction. Forget college degrees and other academic accolades, I am the only cousin of my generation not to have served time in prison! Three of my five cousins are dead, two from drug abuse. I’m not bragging, just to say that I think I am something of a miracle. Everything in my upbringing would have prepared me for something more akin to Hillbilly Elegies than well, I can’t really find an equivalent to my story.
But, suffice it to say, there were moments when I believed the lies I had been told—by abusers and haters, that I was nothing and would always be nothing. My childhood nickname was Fatbrat.
But the eucalyptus was cleansing my nostrils, cleansing my heart. The anger was long gone. But, I didn’t realize the sadness was still there. The sadness of a little girl who was trying so hard to let go of a dark past, remake herself into something loveable…she was the one crying today, as a 52-year-old. She was realizing that it was ok; she had escaped.
With much help, of course. With the help of a loving mother and husband and children and friends. I knew I wasn’t here alone. And then Patty sang her words into my ear,
…Some days I look down
Afraid I will fall
And though the sun shines
I see nothing at all
Then I hear your sweet voice, oh
Oh, come and then go, come and then go
Telling me softly
You love me so
The peaceful valley
Just over the mountain
The peaceful valley
Few come to know
I may never get there
Ever in this lifetime
But sooner or later
It’s there I will go