Monday, October 19, 2009

An Ode To Joyful Living (Salem, Va)

Above: Me, Judy and her corgi Joey in Salem on Tuesday morning.

When I meet someone for the first time (and this trip has ushered forth many chances to do just that) I can't help but get a sense of their energy. This isn't easy to put into words. Sometimes that energy is subtle, other times it is more pronounced. When I met Judy Walz on Monday evening in Salem, VA it was obvious.

I was walking up Market Street to her house, hopelessly on time as usual. Judy was walking her corgi Joey with a friend and coming down Market Street from the opposite direction. We collided right in front of the sidewalk leading to her house. Talk about perfect timing. We greeted each other and I immediately sensed an unmistakable joy and zest for life.

I've met a lot of people on this trip, all so welcoming and full of care for me, but only a handful that I think could muster the energy to keep up as a walking companion. I'm going to go ahead and add Judy to that small list. The amazing thing is she is 40 years my senior and seems to have every bit the amount of "get up and go" as I do. Soon after I arrived we set out for dinner, taking a brisk walk across the beautiful Roanoke College campus which adjoins her house. She matched my pace easily, taking three strides to my two, as she filled me in about the college and her experiences living here for the past twenty years.

We ate at a local eatery called Mac & Bob's. Bob lives near Judy and we hoped he would be at the restaurant as he is also a friend of Fritz Knapp who I stayed with in Louisa. Unfortunately he wasn't there. What was there were some amazing crab cakes, two perfect glasses of wine and a few pesky little gnats intent on sharing our meal. Judy and I sat there talking excitedly about our travels while periodically detaching eye contact to follow the unpredictable flight of a nearby gnat and then try to quickly catch it with a well placed clap of the hands. I felt like it was Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san all over again, recreating a scene from the favorite movie of my youth - Karate Kid.

When we returned home she did not ask me to paint her back deck or wax her car. Sorry, another Karate Kid reference there. After all, I did watch it seven times in the theater in Harare when I was 12 years old. In fact, after I check off "walk across America" from my bucket list one of the only things remaining will be "attend a Halloween party dressed as a shower". But I digress.

What did await me upon our return home was a homemade apple crisp. My love of desserts had clearly preceded me, fulfilling my devious plan of constantly mentioning it in my blog posts for hosts down the road who might read it. I devoured a hearty slice and immediately started to feel the siren call of sleep.

Both Judy and I are morning people so we picked up our conversation over an early breakfast. I should back up for a second and say how we got connected. Joey (our mutual friend, not her dog) is married to the daughter of Judy's best friend Devere. Devere and her husband Jerry have known Judy for many years and she has an abundance of affection for the important role they have played in her life. They originally met while living in the Midwest and then they briefly both lived in Salem when Judy relocated here 20 years ago.

Devere and Jerry moved to Connecticut but they have stayed best of friends. Judy has a close knit network of friends in this area as well. Over breakfast she showed me hilarious pictures of nights she and her friends spend together acting out sketches written by one of the group. For a whole night they dress up and act out the characters they have been assigned, often into the early morning hours. From the photos I saw it looked like an absolute blast.

Seeing those photos took me back to the last time I participated in a homemade character skit. It was New Year's Eve 1985 and my dad had roped both our and John's family into recreating the biblical story of Lazarus. What transpired was one of the worst displays of acting not just on the African continent, but on any continent. I smartly chose the role of Lazarus, thus negating my need to memorize any lines. My brother Aaron even more astutely grabbed camera man duties, erasing the need for a costume at all. Thus it was all captured on tape for posterity. John as a enthusiastic Jesus who often went off script, my Dad as the disciple Thomas with a sofa blanket draped over his head, my mom as Martha drumming up crocodile tears and finally me in the starring role, coming out of a side door draped in a bed sheet after Jesus' extended soliloquy challenging me to rise from the dead. It was corny, yes. But it was fun at the same time and was followed by a rousing sing along replete with drum and Shona choruses.

Looking at the pictures Judy showed me I sensed that same kind of community and fun among her and her friends. I am sure having such a close knit group of friends is part of why she leads such a joyous life. Another part of it is surely her infectious optimism. We each make a choice every moment of the day whether we are going to exist in a spirit of gratitude or whether we are going to concentrate on lack. I struggle with that as much as anyone, even on a trip that I chose to take which gives me a freedom few others have the luxury to experience. I really appreciated Judy's living example that optimism is always the better choice.

Before dropping me off on the outskirts of town she gave me a copy of one of her favorite magazines. It is called Ode and its mission is to cultivate a spirit of optimism through stories that sow hope rather than fear. It was the perfect small gift from a woman whose whole life seems like an ode to joyful living. It got me wondering as I walked away from Salem why I don't cultivate more cross-generational friendships. It seems like a bit of an enigma in our culture. Maybe all cultures, who knows. But someone with Judy's joy and life experience would be the exact kind of cross generational friendship I would like to have. I would even throw my hat in the ring for one of those character skits. I might even take a speaking role this time.

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