It’s been a long time since I was an English teacher, but I am still capable of correcting mistakes, being bothered more than most by ones we, as a society, have chosen to let slide. “First Annual . . . ,” for example; it can be the first, but it can’t be annual until there is a second one. One-time happenings do not a tradition make. They may make us hopeful that we’ve started something, but the roots of tradition take time to grow.
That said, I’m hopeful I’ve begun a new tradition. Actually, the tradition already exists, I’m just hopeful I can become a part of it. Fishmongers, a local seafood institution, has a tradition of an oyster special on Friday afternoons: seven bucks a dozen. My invitation to join came when my friend Terry called yesterday afternoon.
“What are you doing?” he asked, which was an introduction to the more important question: “Would you like to go to eat some oysters?”
The answer to the second question was an unequivocal YES.
He picked me up a few minutes later, and before long I was digging into my first dozen, accompanied by a Newcastle Brown Ale. As luck would have it, Ginger was out walking with Lori, Terry’s wife, so I called them to inform them of our plans and they changed their walking route to meet us at the restaurant. The four of us had a great time together, and then the women headed off to finish their walk and Terry and I stayed to finish our beverages and continue our conversation. I came home happy and hopeful that it was only the first of many of my Fridays at Fishmongers.
I can feel my roots beginning to grow.
Two or three songs into the show last night, Joseph Shabalala, the founder and leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, spoke to the sold out auditorium about music and tradition. Ladysmith has been singing for forty-eight years, taking the harmonies that grew out of the suffering and hardship of the mineworkers and giving it life as a healing force.
“Tradition is like a tree,” he said; “the deeper the roots grow, the stronger the tree becomes, and the wider the branches.”
They sang songs with roots that grew deep, going back beyond the destructive violence of apartheid, back beyond the mines, back to Shaka Zulu, to what it means to be African, to what it means to be human. I thought about the tree that fills our front yard, which must be eighty or ninety years old and is the same tree that was planted even though it’s own existence is testament to all its changes. Whoever planted it all those years ago hardly could have imagined how it would tower over our little house any more than Shabalala could have imagined his singing group would grow to sing at Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Prize ceremony, or tour the world, or end up singing with Paul Simon. When they sang “Homeless” last night, they talked a bit about the collaboration, now over two decades ago, and then introduced the song by saying, “We are all homeless.”
And yet their songs called me home.
My deepest memories of Africa are musical ones. Sundays, as a boy, meant meeting at Matero Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia. The harmonies the guys brought to the stage last night were the same ones that sprang from our congregation each Sunday: rich, rhythmic, and relational. As they sang, I found roots I didn’t know I had, roots that run deeper than all the moves I’ve made, all the disconnects, all the rootlessness and homelessness I feel. As they sang, I could see faces – Wynnegood, Norman, Rebecca, Lazarus — and smell the dust that swirled around the church, feel the breezes that blew through the open windows, even hear the rain on the corrugated tin roof that made it almost impossible to hear on stormy Sundays.
After all of these years, Africa has not let go of me. My roots, withered as they seem, remember with resilience and I find myself feeling like a prodigal reclaimed. In the same evening, strangers with songs and a new friend offering oysters both came to say I belong, which is a message I crave, over and over again.
The climatic scene in the movie Ratatouille comes when the grizzled old food critic tastes the little mouse’s signature dish and is pulled from his cynical self all the way back to the hungry hope he knew as a child that was satisfied by the same dish at his mother’s table. In a similar way, the harmonies took hold of my heart and pulled it across oceans and continents to a place in my childhood full of meaning and emotion. Though Zambia is not my home, I was reminded that I felt at home there and it has not let me go. It was less about remembering a place than it was remembering who I was. Who I am. My roots are deeper than I ever imagined; my branches wider.
William Cowper wrote
sometimes a light surprises the Christian when he sings
it is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings
when comforts are declining he grants the soul again
a season of clear shining to cheer it after rain
“I had a farm in Africa,” Isak Denisen began Out of Africa. I had several houses there myself, which I left long ago. But last night, Africa came and found me with melodies that broke my heart and healed it again, even as I walked out of the room resonating with memories and into the cool night of my new town.
Terry says Ladysmith comes around almost every year. Whether last night was a first annual event, I don’t know; I can tell you by the next time they come I will have eaten an awful lot of oysters.