Sunday, March 13, 2011

Faith, Freedom Riders, and the Perseverance of Hawks

Growing up I spent a lot of time outside alone. It was a place of peace for me, a refuge from strings of difficult schooldays. I was an ADD child before the term was coined, and the classrooms of the late seventies and early eighties were difficult places for me. I can remember being told over and over and over by exasperated teachers, “Why can’t you just sit here quietly like everyone else?’ or ‘Are you paying attention?’ If there was a window in the classroom, I can assure you, I was not. I was staring out the window at the world beyond.

I was so out of place in the classroom, and with my peers. They didn’t understand me any better than my teachers did. But I was in my element in nature. There I felt at home in a way I rarely did anywhere else. And so I learned to be patient. I learned to grip the sides of my desks sometimes when the urge to move was too strong. I learned that if I looked out the window too much, the teacher would turn my desk away from it, so I trained myself to use my peripheral vision to sneak glances at the sky while appearing to be completely focused on the board. I learned that to make it in the classroom, I had to become, in a way, a totally different person, but I knew that if I could maintain that identity for the 7 hours I was required to be at school, the days would roll along smoothly and there would be no reprimands, no trips to the principal’s office, no notes home to my parents. It just took being patient, and knowing, no matter how slowly the clock ticked the school day away, that eventually I’d be outside in the woods I loved.

In nature, I could sit still for hours on end with no problem. As a matter of fact, I used to try to 'blend' with being very still and calm and quiet. I wanted to belong to the outdoors the same way the lizards and bees belonged to it. I learned to watch nature, and to watch for nature. I learned that if you are still enough you can see birds building their nests, a snake sliding along a tree branch, a chameleon change it's color, a butterfly drink from the puddle of dew in a leaf. The first time I was able to sit still long enough to have a bird actually land on me, I learned that there is something to be said for the art of persevering.

Yesterday I watched a hawk sitting on a very low branch by the creek. He was watching the same spot, his eyes never moving. He waited...and waited...and waited. Occasionally he'd ruffle his feathers or look away...but then he returned his gaze to that spot. He watched and waited for a very, very long time. The sun slowly changes positions in the sky, and neither of us moved. The hawk watched the creek, and I watched the hawk. Eventually, there was a rustle in the leaves, and the large bird raised his wings and carried himself up to a higher branch. But even from a different perch, his sharp eyes still watched the creek. Hunger is a powerful motivator.
Pain in the belly rarely disappears just because you want it to.

I recently discovered the story of The Freedom Riders. That I could have come through years of public school and six years of college and never known these quiet heroes existed in our nation’s history amazes me. The Freedom Riders were a group of average citizens, both black and white, who banded together in 1961 to protest segregation on the public transit systems. It’s a complex and amazing story of courage and perseverance. At every stop, The Freedom Writers were met by angry mobs. Buses were set on fire. Riders were beaten, often brutally. But they continued the ride. They weren’t trying to change the opinions of the mobs who met their buses with weapons and torches. They knew there was no hope of that. But they knew that what they were doing would, somehow, make a difference. They also knew that at every stop, one of them would have to be the first to exit the bus. Someone would have to be the first face the mob saw, the first body that would be hit, knocked down, stomped. And yet, there were those who volunteered to get off the bus first, even though they knew what they would face upon exiting.
There is so much more to this story…bus bombings, quite acts of heroism, examples of both the height of human compassion and the sad depths of ignorance that intolerance can inspire. But I won’t go any farther into it here. I’ll only say that I’m glad the story of The Freedom Riders came to my attention. I’m glad they believed that their cause was worthy, and that half a century later, their stories are still being told. I’m glad that their hunger for justice and fairness motivated them to continue the ride. And I’m glad I live now in the world that the perseverance of people like them helped to create. There is always room for improvement, yes…but we’re certainly in a better place now than we were then.

So what is it inside of us that keeps us going, that tells us what we are doing is worth continuing towards? With no definitive proof that our efforts will pay off, what gives us the strength, the determination, to keep moving along a certain path? What gives an 8-year-old child the ability to grip tightly the edge a desk just to get through a school day without a reprimand? What gives a hawk the ability to sit patiently for hours and watch a creek that may yield nothing for the hungry belly in the end? What fire inside gave The Freedom Riders the courage to continue the ride when they knew what they were facing at every stop?

I can’t tell you that. I can only tell you this: Giving up is the easy way out. It’s lying down and letting the world roll over you with its own bus. It’s looking into the face of hardship, challenge, and adversity and saying “Okay, you win.” It’s telling yourself you don’t want something anymore instead of fighting for it. It’s taking the story of your life, for which you are the primary author, and allowing fear to ghost write it for you. It’s being a spectator, and not a participant. It’s not being realistic, no; it’s being too weak to stand up for what you really want…what you really believe is possible. The Freedom Writers had no evidence that their bold stand would still be inspiring people fifty years later. The hawk had no idea I was watching him yesterday, learning lessons from his perseverance. As people, we have no idea of our own capacities to love, to live, and to believe, especially in ourselves.

I wonder sometimes, when my young son is frustrated trying to learn a new skill, or when I myself am trying to hold onto to a dream that seems to be defeated at every turn, if the ability to persevere is just genetic, something we are born with or without, or if it can be learned, taught, and inspired through the stories of others. I think it’s a little of both, but I hope it’s more of the latter, because while we can’t help how we are born, we all have total freedom to choose what we believe ourselves to be capable of. We all choose whether to author our own stories, or let fear, doubt, and intimidation ghost write our lives for us.

A hawk rests patiently, knowing perseverance is key to survival. Somewhere in history, a person takes a dangerous bus ride, knowing intolerance cannot be tolerated. Someone else loves against all hope, swims against the tide, and closes their eyes for the night with the knowledge that what they believe in is worth fighting for. Somewhere else, a person steps out of their own story, letting blank pages fill the void where words should go. These blank pages become the chapter of thier life called ‘When I gave Up’. In later years, it is destined to be the one read the most by the author, who will sit, pen in hand, desperately trying to fill the pages with what they wish they'd done.

To learn more about The Freedom Riders, visit

1 comment:

Virginia ("Ginn") said...

In my experience, it is the things we don't do that we most regret; not the things we do or at least attempt. As I read your post, I found myself thinking of the people I know who live parlysed by fear, people who seldom move forward, least they err. They fail to use the gift of life, to jump in and laugh. They remain in a "safe" place. OK, I'll spare you my rambling thoughts...I am heading outside to enjoy the warmth of the spring sun and to pause in my gardening to watch hawks soaring and gliding above the trees behind Morningglory Dacha (my modest piece of paradise).
Across Town Sippin' AM Coffee