At Home in Opelika

A month ago I rode with a colleague to the South East Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (SEUUMA) retreat at “The Mountain” in North Carolina. It was a long half-day drive with much pleasant conversation and a stop at a “Waffle House” for lunch. I had been curious about that chain since I got here, as I remembered hanging out at one with friends on the “Sojourn to the Past” trip ten years ago. When I looked it up online, I had found a very meat-laden lunch and dinner menu and had not returned. It happens that the breakfast menu option for hash browns with your choice of toppings suited me perfectly: I brought half of my “scattered, covered, & capped” hash browns home for supper.

As our talk turned to music, Mandy recommended a documentary to me that I had heard about several times before: Muscle Shoals. It is about a place in north-western Alabama famous for hosting many celebrity bands back in the day. As I enjoyed my leftover potatoes, cheese, & mushrooms, I sat back and cued it up on Netflix. I found myself surprised at the sense of familiarity I felt—with the music, certainly (“Brown Sugar” was recorded there, for example), but also with the place. I haven't visited that part of the state, but the landscape and culture in the film resonate with my experience here in the southeast corner. I feel the same kind of connection watching movies set in other places I've lived over the years: Wales, Normandy, Paris, Washington D.C.

When I decided to do this blog, I planned to reflect on things that are different from what I'm used to. Here are a few of them:

  • Ordering iced tea requires that you specify “sweetened or unsweetened.”
  • Most retail businesses have public restrooms—including thrift stores and supermarkets.
  • When I walk out the front door, squirrels and birds skitter for cover.
  • Children are raised to say “yes ma'am”; “no ma'am.”

  

I also want to share my appreciation for the opportunity to stretch my mind and heart, yet again, by making my home in a new place. I'm grateful for the chance to deconstruct the prejudice I had coming from somewhere else to live in the South. I've come to believe that the history of this region belongs to all Americans. It is certainly not what sit-coms of the 50s and 60s depicted. I find myself feeling offended by the mainstream contempt for Deep South culture and language. Late-night talk shows have been especially vicious recently about southerners, as though their regional accent denotes stupidity and wrongheadedness. I have found many who speak that way to be intelligent, kind, generous, responsible people, whose company I enjoy.

A few photo highlights below, from around town and from our road trips the past few months exploring the area. Still so much to see and learn!

This area features many public parks to walk in. This is at the Donald E. Davis Arboretum at Auburn University.

This area features many public parks to walk in. This is at the Donald E. Davis Arboretum at Auburn University.

Here I am at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham for the Women's March.

Here I am at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham for the Women's March.

There were several people there from the fellowship I serve, and other UUs also in yellow shirts from the congregations in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

There were several people there from the fellowship I serve, and other UUs also in yellow shirts from the congregations in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

She was part of the carpool caravan of Auburn University and Auburn UU Fellowship folks.

She was part of the carpool caravan of Auburn University and Auburn UU Fellowship folks.

Group photos and lines for the porta-potties after the rally in the park and a march around the downtown. Crowd estimate around 5000.

Group photos and lines for the porta-potties after the rally in the park and a march around the downtown. Crowd estimate around 5000.

Auburn Kroger's parking lot

Auburn Kroger's parking lot

River Street, Savannah Peace Pole

River Street, Savannah Peace Pole

Savannah is a very walkable city...

Savannah is a very walkable city...

Colonial Period cemetery near our VRBO apartment.

Colonial Period cemetery near our VRBO apartment.

The city is laid out with green spaces every few blocks. The park bench scene in Forrest Gump was filmed in one of them.

The city is laid out with green spaces every few blocks. The park bench scene in Forrest Gump was filmed in one of them.

Some of the squares feature special monuments.

Some of the squares feature special monuments.

A glimpse across the square of an installation called "Hot Pink" in the atrium lobby of the Jepson Center for the Arts, one of the Telfair Museums.

A glimpse across the square of an installation called "Hot Pink" in the atrium lobby of the Jepson Center for the Arts, one of the Telfair Museums.

An example of "tabby," concrete with shells mixed in—we saw it everywhere.

An example of "tabby," concrete with shells mixed in—we saw it everywhere.

Entrance to A-J's Dockside Restaurant on Tybee Island

Entrance to A-J's Dockside Restaurant on Tybee Island

I'm sure we'd have dined outdoors if it hadn't been raining.

I'm sure we'd have dined outdoors if it hadn't been raining.

Stopped on the way home in Macon to visit the Tubman Museum.

Stopped on the way home in Macon to visit the Tubman Museum.

Souvenir from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike

Souvenir from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike

Part of a large mural

Part of a large mural

Late afternoon walk at Town Creek Park in Auburn

Late afternoon walk at Town Creek Park in Auburn

On a neighborhood walk in Opelika

On a neighborhood walk in Opelika

Dogwoods everywhere!

Dogwoods everywhere!

Chapel at Calloway Gardens

Chapel at Calloway Gardens

The region is known for its azaleas.

The region is known for its azaleas.

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Pond at the Arboretum

Pond at the Arboretum

Interior of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

Interior of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

For some reason, I find dogwoods highly photogenic.

For some reason, I find dogwoods highly photogenic.

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Here's one blooming in front of my apartment.

Here's one blooming in front of my apartment.

Annual event hosted by the International Women for Peace and Understanding, a multicultural interfaith group founded after 911 by members of AUUF and others. Members provided a variety of home-cooked traditional dishes.

Annual event hosted by the International Women for Peace and Understanding, a multicultural interfaith group founded after 911 by members of AUUF and others. Members provided a variety of home-cooked traditional dishes.

"Meditation Rock" at "The Mountain Retreat & Conference Center"—an ever-changing, always breathtaking view. The woods here are full of rhododendrons growing wild—none yet blooming.

"Meditation Rock" at "The Mountain Retreat & Conference Center"—an ever-changing, always breathtaking view. The woods here are full of rhododendrons growing wild—none yet blooming.

Back yard of the duplex very pleasant for Wayne's May visit

Back yard of the duplex very pleasant for Wayne's May visit

When the dogwoods finish blooming, there are plenty of other things to brighten the landscape.

When the dogwoods finish blooming, there are plenty of other things to brighten the landscape.

Gardenias sweeten the Fellowship's parking lot.

Gardenias sweeten the Fellowship's parking lot.

Calloway Gardens Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Trail

Calloway Gardens Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Trail

Parked near our VRBO apartment in Charleston

Parked near our VRBO apartment in Charleston

Visitors assist with ceremonial flag-raising at Fort Sumter, on a manmade island built on a sand bar in Charleston Harbor after the War of 1812. The ranger gave an inspiring homily lifting up American values and honoring the contributions of immigrants.

Visitors assist with ceremonial flag-raising at Fort Sumter, on a manmade island built on a sand bar in Charleston Harbor after the War of 1812. The ranger gave an inspiring homily lifting up American values and honoring the contributions of immigrants.

Eggplant fritters at "Five Loaves." 

Eggplant fritters at "Five Loaves." 

At the entrance to the grounds of Drayton Hall—we were told people sometimes don't know better than to have their children pose for photos next to an alligator. "They eat children!"

At the entrance to the grounds of Drayton Hall—we were told people sometimes don't know better than to have their children pose for photos next to an alligator. "They eat children!"

Fascinating tour of an old building being "stabilized" rather than restored: a different approach to historic preservation. The docent was excellent—a retired history teacher.

Fascinating tour of an old building being "stabilized" rather than restored: a different approach to historic preservation. The docent was excellent—a retired history teacher.

Ground level basement, which housed the kitchen and some of the enslaved laborers 

Ground level basement, which housed the kitchen and some of the enslaved laborers 

When we walked past it on the way back to our apartment, one of the kitties ran up to the window and greeted us. I think they must be lonesome when the cafe is closed.

When we walked past it on the way back to our apartment, one of the kitties ran up to the window and greeted us. I think they must be lonesome when the cafe is closed.

Trying out the "joggling board" in front of Hyman's Seafood

Trying out the "joggling board" in front of Hyman's Seafood

A moment of silence on the quiet street in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church 

A moment of silence on the quiet street in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church 

Who can say no to ice cream "created in fellowship"?

Who can say no to ice cream "created in fellowship"?

Outside kitchen entrance to AUUF—made me laugh aloud!

Outside kitchen entrance to AUUF—made me laugh aloud!

One magnolia blossom among many in my neighborhood

One magnolia blossom among many in my neighborhood

Opelika walk sunset

Opelika walk sunset

Cuba

I spent an hour in the supermarket yesterday, and was struck again by the contrast with what we saw in Cuba. As I sipped an early afternoon cup of milky Starbucks coffee, it felt warm and cozy to be roaming the aisles, perusing the cold wall of yogurt selections, the stacks of canned goods, the rows of spices and condiments, the festival of colors in the produce section. The familiar environment and routine of grocery shopping helped numb the waves of distress I've been feeling since the election.

When we first arrived in Camagüey, our bus was stuck behind a truck unloading bags of sugar for a provechos (provisions) shop in a very narrow street. This gave our guide, Yanet, an opportunity to tell us about food distribution as we watched and waited.The system in Cuba is so different from ours, I'm not sure I've completely grasped how it works. Each neighborhood is supplied with basic goods according to the needs of the population: from the perspective of our commerce-based system, we would call it “rationing.” Healthy adults, for example, have less milk assigned to them so that children and pregnant women will get as much as they need.

One shop provides chicken, fish, dairy, and eggs (it has refrigeration); another has sugar, beans, rice, bread, spaghetti, and cooking oil. Provechos distributors are government run, and the people who work there receive salaries. There are also street vendors offering fruits and vegetables they have bought at a central market where farmers bring their produce. These are not assigned, and the sellers earn profits from them.

Education and health care are high priorities in Cuba. All Cubans are entitled to the health care they need and as much education as their abilities warrant. Despite the country's relatively low standard of living, these systems compare favorably with those in “developed” nations such as our own.

Those who attend university pay for it by spending two or three years in community service roles after they graduate. Sports (especially baseball) and the arts receive government support. The cost of attending games and performances is minimal, since players and artists receive salaries. In the short time we were there, we saw three dance companies in rehearsal, toured a music conservatory (high-school), visited numerous private galleries, and enjoyed live music at nearly every meal (well, except breakfast).

People in Cuba live more simply than we do; of course, the tropical climate helps. Also, being there raised my awareness of the cultural conditioning we have here to always want more. “Consumer confidence”counts as a measure of success in the context of the American economic system. Now it seems to me a euphemism for acquisitiveness. Because so many Americans are one health crisis away from losing everything, it makes sense that we would feel anxious about “stocking up.”

Yanet gave a little homily toward the end of our trip about how Cubans don't worry so much about what they don't have, but appreciate what they do have. I try to imagine what it must be like not to worry about health care, education, or shelter (all managed and distributed by the government). And I try to imagine how it could free my spirit to be relieved of wanting, saving, getting, and spending. If this kind of liberation is possible, I would much prefer it to the emotional numbness and fleeting pleasure of shopping!

On our first morning, we were transported in a fleet of "bici-taxis" decorated by local artists to visit several galleries.

On our first morning, we were transported in a fleet of "bici-taxis" decorated by local artists to visit several galleries.

There was one of Jiménez's sculptures in our hotel lobby, "Santa Maria," and we saw many other works by her around town.

There was one of Jiménez's sculptures in our hotel lobby, "Santa Maria," and we saw many other works by her around town.

Conservatory of music housed in former leper hospital. Sounds of practicing, and there was a performance for us on strange bamboo instruments from Indonesia.

Conservatory of music housed in former leper hospital. Sounds of practicing, and there was a performance for us on strange bamboo instruments from Indonesia.

A family of artists. Their home is also a gallery, not unusual.

A family of artists. Their home is also a gallery, not unusual.

The hotel has an elevator :-)

The hotel has an elevator :-)

Patriarch of the Casanova family of painters and potters, demonstrating his work on the wheel. Their home/studio has a courtyard chapel open to the community. Our host gave a little homily on the importance of love.

Patriarch of the Casanova family of painters and potters, demonstrating his work on the wheel. Their home/studio has a courtyard chapel open to the community. Our host gave a little homily on the importance of love.

Casanovas' pet turtles sunning themselves under a tree

Casanovas' pet turtles sunning themselves under a tree

We sang "Oklahoma" while riding in our carriage

We sang "Oklahoma" while riding in our carriage

We paid a visit to the cottage of a retired worker, where we were served cane juice, cookies, & coffee

We paid a visit to the cottage of a retired worker, where we were served cane juice, cookies, & coffee

Primary school across the way

Primary school across the way

Breakfast room of our Camagūey hotel had stained glass featuring scenes of the city

Breakfast room of our Camagūey hotel had stained glass featuring scenes of the city

Arriving at the hotel for her quinceañera (15th birthday party)

Arriving at the hotel for her quinceañera (15th birthday party)

Rubik's cube of cucumber, watermelon, and cheese

Rubik's cube of cucumber, watermelon, and cheese

Two Remedios neighborhoods compete during Las Parrandas festival, Christmas Eve. The artist we were visiting is a partisan of the rooster neighborhood (San Salvador), but has been engaged by the hawks (El Carmen) to design their light displays and floats this year. We were sworn to secrecy when we visited the warehouse where construction was happening.

Two Remedios neighborhoods compete during Las Parrandas festival, Christmas Eve. The artist we were visiting is a partisan of the rooster neighborhood (San Salvador), but has been engaged by the hawks (El Carmen) to design their light displays and floats this year. We were sworn to secrecy when we visited the warehouse where construction was happening.

Our hotel front door marks the border between the two rival neighborhoods

Our hotel front door marks the border between the two rival neighborhoods

"Finca Luna"—farm lodging & restaurant

"Finca Luna"—farm lodging & restaurant

Their cat, Felix

Their cat, Felix

Musicians always welcomed guest participation

Musicians always welcomed guest participation

Our guide, Yanet, on the bus

Our guide, Yanet, on the bus

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We visited the home of a Santería priestess. Urns, perhaps

We visited the home of a Santería priestess. Urns, perhaps

Ceiling

Ceiling

Holocaust museum in the foyer

Holocaust museum in the foyer

Synagogue, also dance rehearsal space

Synagogue, also dance rehearsal space

Lynn had many opportunities to play along with the accordion she had brought with her to Cuba

Lynn had many opportunities to play along with the accordion she had brought with her to Cuba

Staghorn ferns obviously like the Cuban climate 

Staghorn ferns obviously like the Cuban climate 

View from our Hotel Nacional room

View from our Hotel Nacional room

Public art in Old Havana—the barbers' neighborhood

Public art in Old Havana—the barbers' neighborhood

An elders' day center

An elders' day center

Carlos, relaxing on a play structure at the Barber's Park, said his mother gave him the shirt

Carlos, relaxing on a play structure at the Barber's Park, said his mother gave him the shirt

Yanet telling us a story about this sculpture

Yanet telling us a story about this sculpture

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We were asked not to take photos in the studio of Martha Jiménez, but in the courtyard she had a friendly cockatiel. 

We were asked not to take photos in the studio of Martha Jiménez, but in the courtyard she had a friendly cockatiel. 

All the pieces in this studio were made of leather—tobacco leaf shapes with faces on them, sea-horses, humidors for cigars...

All the pieces in this studio were made of leather—tobacco leaf shapes with faces on them, sea-horses, humidors for cigars...

These reminded us of the "Green Man"

These reminded us of the "Green Man"

We saw this artist's cat faces in more than one mural (see below)

We saw this artist's cat faces in more than one mural (see below)

They were proud of the 18th-century wall between them and their neighbor.

They were proud of the 18th-century wall between them and their neighbor.

This is a "Tinajón de Camagūey," symbol of the town and the province—used to collect rain water draining off the roof

This is a "Tinajón de Camagūey," symbol of the town and the province—used to collect rain water draining off the roof

Representing the living fence posts seen along the rural roads everywhere

Representing the living fence posts seen along the rural roads everywhere

Jorge drove our conveyance at the King Ranch wearing a Millennium Falcon t-shirt 

Jorge drove our conveyance at the King Ranch wearing a Millennium Falcon t-shirt 

Residents of the workers' village used to gather here to watch TV. Now, they have TVs in their homes.

Residents of the workers' village used to gather here to watch TV. Now, they have TVs in their homes.

Her bathroom

Her bathroom

Hens apparently like cane husks

Hens apparently like cane husks

King Ranch Bed & Breakfast wing

King Ranch Bed & Breakfast wing

A roadside rest stop

A roadside rest stop

Artist's studio in Remedios

Artist's studio in Remedios

Just a beautiful wall

Just a beautiful wall

Visit to the "Driver's Cafe," where they did not have enough glassware to serve all of us, but we got rides in these amazing cars!

Visit to the "Driver's Cafe," where they did not have enough glassware to serve all of us, but we got rides in these amazing cars!

Another roadside rest—some had ice cream, some had mojitos

Another roadside rest—some had ice cream, some had mojitos

"The party exists only for the people and by the people."

"The party exists only for the people and by the people."

Another family of artist-farmer-musician-entrepreneurs

Another family of artist-farmer-musician-entrepreneurs

Coffee plants, a small zoo, sculptures, tropical landscape

Coffee plants, a small zoo, sculptures, tropical landscape

One of a number of peafowl and a tinajón—though not in Camagūey

One of a number of peafowl and a tinajón—though not in Camagūey

A very old baseball stadium, with young players at practice

A very old baseball stadium, with young players at practice

View from resort hotel

View from resort hotel

Havana

Havana

Lunch in a lovely modernist courtyard, followed by music, dancing, and a game of dominoes 

Lunch in a lovely modernist courtyard, followed by music, dancing, and a game of dominoes 

Beautiful stainless steel flatware

Beautiful stainless steel flatware

More modernist architecture in this neighborhood

More modernist architecture in this neighborhood

Aquarium in a Havana restaurant

Aquarium in a Havana restaurant

Not everyone has a cell phone

Not everyone has a cell phone

Dominoes in the middle of the street

Dominoes in the middle of the street

Singing "Guantanamera" with the folks at the day center accompanied by Lynn on her accordion 

Singing "Guantanamera" with the folks at the day center accompanied by Lynn on her accordion 

Very old city wall monument

Very old city wall monument

Tall buildings close together provide shade 

Tall buildings close together provide shade 

Wise women set up to offer advice on the plaza

Wise women set up to offer advice on the plaza

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Campaign against domestic violence

Campaign against domestic violence

Havana skyline, from the bus

Havana skyline, from the bus

Saturday seems to be laundry day.

Saturday seems to be laundry day.

Spent some time in the flea market on our last day in Havana

Spent some time in the flea market on our last day in Havana

Just resting

Just resting

Hotel Nacional lobby

Hotel Nacional lobby

Hotel meeting room ceiling

Hotel meeting room ceiling

Foyer of our farewell dinner restaurant

Foyer of our farewell dinner restaurant

More lovely flatware

More lovely flatware

Some of our new riends listening to the restaurant owner's story

Some of our new riends listening to the restaurant owner's story

Very early call time the next morning for our flight back to Miami

Very early call time the next morning for our flight back to Miami

Settling in...

I've been here over a month now, and I miss my California home, friends and family! My project this week has been to furnish the guest room, and I hope it will be used often—please come!

People here say that the weather has been unusual for the region, and that there should be more rain. It's rained only once since I arrived, and had not rained for several weeks before. Folks here experience this as a “drought.” News lately has reported a number of wildfires around the state due to unusually dry conditions.

I've been spending a lot of time shopping for my home in Opelika. So far I've visited three different Goodwill stores in Atlanta, and one in Opelika several times. It is next door to an Asian grocery store, serving a population of immigrant families who, I'm told, come to work in nearby factories such as the Kia factory just over the Georgia state line.

Opelika has a charming historic downtown, which looks to be enjoying a period of economic growth. It is a short walk from my home—a mid-century duplex unit—to the downtown shops and restaurants. Taking any route, you find either a church or a historic mansion on just about every corner. Most of the churches occupy large properties with several buildings and electronic signboards. The neighborhood is blessedly quiet at night, except for trains passing through in the distance every few hours.

The Fellowship I serve has been extremely gracious and welcoming, and I'm very much appreciating that it is part of my job to sit and chat with each and every person. I've also enjoyed meeting people outside of the congregation, including members of the Auburn Clergy Association, my landlord, and a local realtor I got acquainted with during my housing search. Her husband happens to be an architect, and she told me about Frank Lloyd Wright's “Inn at Price Tower” in Bartlesville, OK, where Wayne & I stayed one night on our way here.

My expectations were murky at best, and I have been surprised by a number of things I've discovered about this part of the world. Auburn is a relatively small city, but as a university town it has many of the cultural amenities I'm used to enjoying in the Bay Area. Being spoiled by our Hetch Hetchy water supply, I did not expect the tap water to taste as good as it does here. The two Kroger's supermarkets and the Target store look pretty much like their California counterparts, so I'm not in danger of lacking any familiar commodities. The clientele at the Trader Joe's in Atlanta look exactly like folks you could meet in the Emeryville store (until you hear them speak), and it's located in a upscale neighborhood near a beautiful green space. There are bike lanes. There is birdsong. There is fresh-roasted coffee. Craft beer pubs are quite popular.

So these are some initial impressions. I look forward to digging a little deeper and learning more—heck, I haven't even explored the historic downtown in Auburn!

Photo from welcome party

Photo from welcome party

Morning shadows

Morning shadows

Courthouse Square commemorates Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Courthouse Square commemorates Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Visit from a (well fed) neighbor

Visit from a (well fed) neighbor

Alabama Bound!

As I prepare to relocate across the country to serve a congregation in Auburn, Alabama, I wanted to create a space to stay in touch with friends and family, and especially to reflect on experiences of being in a new (to me) place. This road trip marks the beginning of what I hope will be a several-years-long career in transitional ministry, moving every couple of years or so to serve a Unitarian Universalist congregation as it works through the tasks of adapting to changes in leadership. 

The blog name, "Taking off Shoes," is inspired by the Max Warren quote at the bottom of the page, epigraph for an essay on cultural borrowing in the UU World by the late Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatly. The banner photo, taken by Wayne outside of the jumpy-house at our recent neighborhood block party, offers a sweet metaphorical frame for cultural humility in an unfamiliar context: we do our best to avoid injuring our fellow travelers as we hop and cavort and leap and learn how gravity operates with norms different from what we're used to.

Feel free to sing along!

Our first task in approaching another people, another culture is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget, that God was there before our arrival. ~Max Warren, British Missionary Statesman