Plato’s wisdom lies dormant within my grey matter for only so long.
Then, influenced serendipitously by a sullen interaction (or too many straight days of routine), a tipping point is reached. My pen engages with a legal pad, pushed across paper by inertia such as: “Writing is the geometry of the soul,” or, “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.”
After two years of routine, I’m ready to love out loud the beauty I’ve been observing on the front porch of Oklahoma, in the living rooms of our citizens, in the diners of our comrades … and in the junctures and intersections of those knit together by wildly varying shades of yarn, and with the greatest spectrum of artisan skill.
I’m ready to begin sharing with others the beauty I’ve encountered in my work with Every Point on the Map, an Oklahoma blog series that documents a meaningful conversation with one person or group from every town in the state. After two years, with more than 10 percent of our work complete and 64 conversations in our archives, the inertia pushing my pen is grand.
There are collective themes in my head, categories of moments encompassing our pilgrimage across the prairie. Moments where stranger asks stranger, “Will you sit with us? And, by the way, can we videotape our encounter? Also, sign this piece of paper that signifies you agree to do so. And one more thing, can you please take this microphone and drop it down your shirt?”
Miraculously, a high percentage of those we ask agree. How we reach agreement feels complicated. When an “I-Thou” moment occurs, our pupils lock in some bizarre connection. A nascent relationship; our history pure tabula rasa. Yet somehow, Trust triumphs, and their answer is yes.
Within minutes, I’m asking this human to slide my equipment — this foreign object built for voyeuristic goals — down their shirt. It’s jarring; the whites of their eyes are slightly more pronounced. I do my best to quiet their souls with a joke, a comment about their surroundings. But, it’s jarring for me, too.
Yet over these three-score and four encounters, themes are beginning to push through my dormant gray matter, emerging in fits and starts. One theme has resonated in an especially salient way. And Plato knows why.
In vino et cibo veritas
“I like to drink coffee, wine and beer while I talk to people. It keeps me balanced; I learned it from the French.”
The day was clear near McKiddeyville, the sun was intense, and Kim Kidder sat in a lawn chair with his “formulae de balance” at his feet.
Ten minutes earlier, I had knocked on Kidder’s door twice before he answered by cracking it ever-so-slightly to gander at his caller. Informing me he “couldn’t open the door because he wasn’t wearing any clothes,” I knew this stop would be a yes. I knew because Trust had already triumphed. Anyone willing to admit their nakedness to a stranger on the other side of a two-inch thick panel is already halfway to friendship in my book.
A beer for my comrades. Two for himself. A trip inside occasionally for replacements.
Kidder played host as he balance-drank through family history: The youngest of four sons born to an oil-rigging roughneck father and a Cherokee mother, he fancied himself a “Dukes of Hazzard” type. Layers of stories outrunning cops across Colorado and Oklahoma were interspersed with avoiding, then divulging, his “extreme right-wing political views.” He despises the EPA and in the same breath expresses a soft spot for “his momma’s chicken and dumplings” — so tenderly, I might add, that I teared up.
This wasn’t the first time our meaningful conversations were documented with alcoholic supports (and it won’t be the last).
‘Will you talk with us for an Oklahoma blog?’
I distinctly recall struggling to find common ground, hoping to kickstart a stalling conversation in Lima, Okla. Turning to the grandson of our discussant, photographer Rachel J Apple wondered, “So, what’s the right question to ask in order to get people talking about Lima or New Lima?”
A physically fit Derrick Jackson, only a few years free from serving a 15-year prison term in McAlester, offered his best assistance as he cradled a young puppy. Smiling, he replied, “Man … you pretty much gotta catch ‘em on a day where they’re having a barbeque or drinkin’ a beer.”
And we’ve found this to be an absolute truth of our project. So much so, that packing an ice chest of drinks and snacks before each departure is as much an exercise in planning for our needs as it is in planning for the needs of those we will meet.
Jillian in Beggs called her family to delay their Mother’s Day Sunday dinner just a bit so she could tell us that she was finally holding a healthy baby boy after experiencing three miscarriages over the course of a year.
Tyrone offered us his chicken fingers in a Boley café while we listened to his aunt share hopes of one day seeing life breathed back into their community.
We ate breakfast with Santa Clause in Cache.
Drank beer with a wheelchair-bound farmer in Cromwell.
Connected with volunteer firefighters in Carney as they finished their eggs.
Drank tea in Crescent.
Coffee in Guthrie.
And started a conversation at PJ’s Diner in Disney that lasted three hours, ending with a four-wheel tour behind the Grand Lake Dam in a M*A*S*H unit truck with wailing engine belts.
Plato posited that there is “in wine, Truth.” But our conversations have proven that there is also Truth in food. Truth emerging between those who sit together, connecting through a glass of water, a shared morsel, or a balanced liquid diet, each time finishing our meal with full hearts.
I’m not ashamed to say that I fully love the strangers with whom we’ve connected. I want to revisit every one of them. I want to take them food and see how they have been since we last ate, drank and communed together. I want to share with them Plato’s wisdom — that, “The object of education [in life, or school] is to teach us to love what is beautiful.”
And there has been so much beauty in the souls of those we’ve met.