Our trip started off the way our last roadtrip together did: I got us lost and drove the wrong way down a one-way street. To be clear: I GOT LOST IN MY OWN CITY. Jessica handled our unplanned detour into no-man's land with aplomb. She didn't get flustered or upset. She just said "If we don't get killed, I will never let you live this down." A fair bargain.
Suffice it to say, we made it to Memphis in one piece. We checked into a motel next to a race track with a meth chef mascot and got down to the serious business of touristing. On our first day in Memphis, Jess brought out her binder of itineraries and we chose to drive into town to visit the National Civil Rights museum. In 1995, Jess met a woman who was protesting against the museum and spent the afternoon she had earmarked for the museum talking to the woman and hearing her grievances. In short, this woman (homeless by choice to protest the gentrification of her former neighborhood) dissuaded Jessica from visiting the museum and bought her a popsicle. 18 years later, the woman was still there, still protesting and still just as vocal as Jessica remembered. Jessica introduced herself again and said that she had a debt to repay. She reminded the woman (whose name was Jaclyn Smith, no word of a lie) of the popsicle and asked what she wanted. Jess bought her a muffin and brought a cup of ice. Note to self: Repay every debt.
We went to the National Civil Rights museum, despite the protestations of Ms. Smith who asserted that the museum was just a very expensive memorial to James Earl Ray. Respectfully, Jessica said that she needed to see the museum for herself to make up her mind and, equally respectfully, Ms. Smith concurred. I have known, since a cut-throat game of Apples to Apples, just how much Jessica respects Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What I wasn't expecting was to find myself equally affected by Dr. King's legacy. I didn't expect to be standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was shot, in tears. It turns out that Ms. Smith was right... The vast majority of the exhibits in the museum were dedicated to James Earl Ray, the assassin. They even had the bullet that killed Dr. King in a hermetically sealed case which was, quite frankly, nauseating. Ray's boardinghouse bedroom was on display as was the filthy bathroom from which he shot Dr. King. It was suffocating. It was...wrong. We went across the street to the Lorraine Motel and walked up to the balcony where Dr. King fell. I wish I could adequately describe what I felt, standing there, but I can't. I stood there for a long time, on the edge of tears that I didn't feel that I deserved. I stood there so long that I lost Jessica in the crowd. I found her again, speaking with Ms. Smith: debating, sharing, laughing. That's one of the things I love about Jessica. Nothing in the world gets in the way of her ability to connect with other people.
Next on our itinerary was the Mason Temple, where Dr. King gave his last speech before his assassination. Scratch that... Next on our itinerary was lunch, but the Temple was a close second. I was determined to drive to the Temple, but Jessica said "Why don't we walk?" Internally, I balked, because it was more than a mile from where we were and I had a demonstrated track record of getting us hopelessly lost. We wound up walking, though, and we walked through places where, if I was a resourceful serial killer, I would have thought to stash a body or two. Industrial parks with razor wire and desolation... Neighborhoods of boarded up windows and graffiti. Long stretches of nothingness and blight... We waded through mud and we walked through scary railroad underpasses. We stopped in convenience stores with more bullet-proof glass than things for sale. But Jessica was committed to walking to this church and I trusted her commitment. I got us a little lost on the way but, in for a penny, in for a pound...
Long story short, we got there. The church, on the exterior, looked unremarkable and I remember thinking that it looked like the Armory on the University of Evansville campus. Slightly industrial and not unique. We walked up to the door with masses of anticipation born of our perilous journey there and...it was locked. I rattled every door, hoping that one would be open. Standing there in frustration, I saw Jess standing still, serene. "It's locked. We're skunked. Might as well just go back." Jessica looked at me and that one look said "Wait." So, I waited.
In a matter of moments, a gentleman hailed us from outside the iron fence ringing the church. "We're closed to tours today, but you came all this way to see our church, we might as well show it off. Let me make a call..." Within a few seconds, the security guard came out of the church, waved to our interlocutor and ushered us inside. He told us about the founder, Charles Harrison Mason, who was once jailed and (allegedly) prayed so hard that lightning struck the jail and caused every cell door to spring open. He was clearly very proud of the temple and of its history. And then we entered the sanctuary which was bathed in the amber light of a southern afternoon. We were drawn to the pulpit which the guard said was original to the building. I turned and he read my turn for the question that it actually was. "Yes. That's the pulpit that Dr. King used during his last speech. Go ahead. You can stand behind it if you want." And so we did. And a splendid afternoon washed us with its golden light.
Let's just break this down a little... If Jessica hadn't spent a long time talking to Ms. Smith outside the museum, if she hadn't insisted on walking to this church, if I hadn't gotten us lost yet again, we wouldn't have been at the church in time to run into the gentleman who got the security guard to give us a tour. Even though the timing was random and totally unpredictable, I can't help but believe that Jessica was somehow cosmically aware of the timing of everything. She was determined to visit the church. She wanted to stand where Dr. King stood. And that's exactly what happened.
Our time in Memphis was full of good things. I performed with an improv troupe I have long admired, we ate serious barbecue, and we laughed like laughing was going out of style. But none of this would have been possible without the grace attendant on everything that Jessica attempted. In my journal on Saturday, I wrote "I lived the HELL out of today." I pray that everyone I know will have the opportunity to say the exact same thing... That, when faced with a chance to take a gigantic leap, we all choose to jump. And that we are all rewarded with grace. Moreover, I pray that you all have a Jessica in your life, guiding you to ever greater adventures.