Before we role up our sleeves and delve into working with the communities. I took ample time alone, wandering the city with little agenda, trying to take it all in, rather than me go after it all. It was in these moments that the most spontaneous and insightful conversations arose with locals, it was then where I felt I got the clearest glimpse into the heart and origins of the Delta. While I still am, and always will be an outsider, and have only scratched the surface, I’d like to impart a little of what I’ve seen, and the strong connection I have felt.
It is inspiring and moving to feel the warmth the locals radiate, and the happiness they exude, even though relatively, they have so little. This got me to contemplate what it is I truly need in order to have contentment. Just a few of the questions, which arose among the many, were: Do I need to strive for a high paying income? Do I need perpetual Internet access? Do I need to practice yoga every day?
It also got me to reflect on my upcoming solo-backpacking journey. While this journey is certainly about helping others and making an impact on community development, I can’t help but think that it’s the best possible personal preparation for my upcoming endeavor. I’ve already seen ways in which I’ve transformed: instead of thinking how can the city accommodate to my desires and needs, I realize the true experience of novel perspectives and places is how do you accommodate your routine and needs to what the city has. It’s not about finding the place that makes you feel comfortable, rather it’s about becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, familiar with the unfamiliar. That’s the real expansion of your boundaries.
I’ve also reconfirmed the importance of being alone while traveling. Spontaneous and profound conversation occurred more often, as it’s much easier for someone to approach you alone rather than when you’re in a large group of familiar friends. Not only was the approach different, but also the conversations were also distinct when alone. When it was just a local and I conversing, I felt I could be really present with the other person and remain true to my intention, of exploring their experience of growing up in the delta, without external voices guiding the flow of the conversation.
I have always wanted to help people, but this experience has redefined how I want to help people obtain wellness. It is one thing to help people who already have so much, to obtain things like internal contentment and wellness, it is another thing to help those who have less to obtain pertinent things like food security. It is one thing to take a well-developed community and try to build an ideal community, it is an entirely different endeavor to take a society with so little and strive to build a sense of community that may otherwise be previously lacking. It is truly a real life example of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The city of Clarksdale tells a tale of a town divided; a line is drawn which separates people in half based on the direction the city is going. Part of the residents give the image of a modern city, with an old southern charm, which is finding its way in the midst of the delta, growing, flourishing and economically developing. While the other is a cry for help, a need for development, for resources but mostly for our attention. For every smiling face, there is a hardened one. For every charming, antique storefront, there is a dilapidated building. Which story you see truly depends which side of the fence you are on, and from which lens you are viewing. I think there is no better representation of the paradoxical nature of this struggle than what is displayed in a storefront in downtown Clarksdale: a rustic, earthy, overpriced pillow which reads “raised on delta dirt.”
Some want to keep the city this way. Others want to help it flourish and take on a new meaning in these grave times. Some local want things to remain status quo, they want to grasp on to their heritage and humble roots while others want to embrace development and allow blues tourism to keep stimulating change. Again, it depends which sides of the fence you are own.
While there is discrepancy in class and views of the city, one theme remains consistent: the people are inspiring. From a wellness center built in the middle of rural Charlestown, to the kid I met who got a full ride to study botany at University of Colorado and Mississippi, to the homeless man, lil rob, who told me he invites anyone down to the delta because, “My mama taught me from birth to love all that lives.”