“Hey, darlin’, how are ya’?” Jock took Horace’s leash from my hand and fell into step with me and the dogs.
“Well,” I responded. “I’m filthy. I am covered in motor oil, master blaster, WD-40, bug spray and dirt.”
“Beats Chanel No. 5 in my book any day,” Jock chuckled.
I blushed … and he kissed me.
I had been crawling under my VW Bug trying to loosen the rear bumper and fenders while the dogs supervised. Leaves clung to my hair and neck. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to spit all the dirt and dog fur from my mouth. “I know it isn’t the most necessary thing I could be doing right now, with the world in turmoil, and the obligations I have.” I apologized to Jock.
“Gwenyfar, I think it is going to save your sanity,” Jock said with sincerity.
Though Ecclesiastes, Pete Seeger and Roger McGuinn assure us there is a time and purpose as the Wheel of Life turns, right now it feels the most out of kilter possible. All the same, we are engaged in a global pandemic, an election year, hurricane season, the sale of our hospital, the restructuring of our public transit system, and one of the most important conversations this community could engage in about our history, future, identity, race, economics, and how we move forward.
It is a fraught conversation, but one that we failed repeatedly to have.
There have been losses. We knew there would be. But just what, no one could predict … yet the news is rife. Harrell’s Department Store is closing after more than 100 years of operation in Burgaw. We are losing Two Sisters Bookery from the Cotton Exchange, where it has been since 1979—the longest operating book store in the area. We haven’t had any live theatre productions or concerts in months. Friendships are fraying over COVID and/or the way individuals do or do not respond to the crisis; and as someone who works retail, during this I have a front-row seat. It is sad to watch.
But a quiet and more lasting loss also creeps among us: death. That undiscovered country to which we must all journey beckons, and last week we lost one of Wilmington’s finest when she booked passage with the Ferryman: Kitty Fitzgibbon, Wilmington’s star of stage, screen and radio, passed away at 66.
Anyone who has lived in the area for any length of time has encountered Kitty’s work. For many people she was part of daily life during drives to school or work as one part of “Craig and Kitty in the Morning” on 103 GNI. Before that, though, she was in TV news broadcasting and was my favorite weather lady. I remember the day I realized she was actually trying to teach a short class on meteorology during the weather segment on WWAY. I think this is when I first caught her magic, but it was her stage presence which really sparkled. Kitty would have audiences in stitches laughing one evening and fearing for their lives the next. It was hard not to enjoy yourself when you got to chat with her. She was fierce, funny, kind, loving and filled with zest. There is a Kitty-shaped piece missing from this world.
While mourning these changes, our community is also looking at its history and its future, and how to chart a course that might finally recognize and include all people in “We The People.” The symbolic moment of the Confederate statues coming down, the march to the 1898 Memorial, and the renaming of Hugh MacRae Park to Long Leaf Park—all powerful and surprising events that seemed to signal a new direction, but are starting to look a lot like stage magicians and misdirection. In the same County Commission meeting that Commissioner Barfield made a motion to change the name of Hugh MacRae Park, he also voted (4-1) to proceed with the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Important as the name change of the park is, access to quality health care for our entire community is far more important—and if you really want Black lives to matter, then making a health care system that already marginalizes minorities even less not the way to go.
Now, even the possibility of a mural is too much to bear for the powers that be on Wilmington City Council. The message is pretty clear: Protesters have been thrown a few bones, now they should go away and stop making a fuss about anything substantive, anything that would require serious, systemic change. Though I have stopped by the protest a couple of times (and have been greeted warmly), my place is not there. Accepting that has been a hard pill to swallow. It is exactly where I want to be, but my role, where and how I can best serve in the highest good, is providing access to information through the bookstore and with encore.
In some ways I must admit to feeling vindicated: books that I have been recommending and preaching about for years have suddenly become fashionable. Or rather I should say their context has come into sharp focus. Many of the books we talk about on the Literary History Walking Tour (and a lot of the material) pertain directly to the conversations taking place at the protest. For well over a decade with this column I have been blessed to delve into the history of our area, and our state, as it pertains to our modern world. From the outdoor historic dramas to North Carolina historic sites, to battlefields to sidewalks, it has been an honor to explore these topics in the cultural conversation.
For right now, I need to step back from this conversation in the pages of encore. There are very few things that have meant as much to me as being part of encore. I remember the first issue of encore I read in the lobby of the Community Arts Center when I was 13. It was beyond my dreams that one day I would get to be part of something so exciting and vibrant, as everything in the magazine seemed to be.
But adulthood is about decisions. Unfortunately, right now, nothing is “normal” and all usual decision-making practices are out the window. I do know I have got to salvage some time with Jock and the dogs, and try to figure out how to keep a lifeline going to the bookstore to get us through COVID. I am of no use to anyone if I can’t keep the bookstore together.
“How do you feel about that?” Jock asked when I told him I was considering stepping back for now.
“Like I want to cry—and I just had a great idea for three new columns!” I wailed. “And the election is coming up!”
But, if the wheel turns, and life resumes, and encore finds space for me in the brave new world, those columns can come back then. I think right now I need to do some reflection and appreciation. Reflect on what the world is and what I want it to be, and my place in it to be, and more importantly, what I want to reflect back to the world.
There is serious work to do right now in our community, but there will always be serious work to do in our community. That’s the key to “community”: Every day we wake up and make more serious decisions how to spend our time, money, attention and efforts. For over a decade that’s what I have tried to explore in “Live Local”—how decisions we make as individuals create and even change the world as we know it.
Here’s a small but real example: When I was in elementary school, McDonald’s served burgers and sandwiches in styrofoam containers. Reducing styrofoam packaging, especially at fast-food restaurants, became a crusade that ordinary suburban people (and even environmentally minded kids) could be part of. Ask McDonald’s to use wrappers instead of styrofoam and refuse to spend money there until they change their ways. It seemed like such a trivial thing and such a crazy idea. McDonald’s is a multinational corporation, what do they care what an 8-year-old has to say about styrofoam? But a lot of 8-year-olds had something to say about styrofoam, and so did their parents. It worked!
When was the last time you were served a Big Mac in a styrofoam container? There is an entire generation that has no idea McDonald’s ever used styrofoam sandwich boxes. Because a group of people got together and decided the environmental devastation of single-use styrofoam food containers far outweighed any benefits conveyed by cheap, hot food kept a few degrees warmer for a few minutes longer. That is a change that was brought about by regular people making a choice and following through on their conscience. This reminds me how, together, we have incredible power to reshape the world.
I do believe we can and will get through COVID. I have no idea what the world will look like on the other side of this. I do not think it will go back to what we thought of as normal. Within that obstacle is the opportunity to ask, “What do we want it to look like?” I want to believe Pete Seeger was right: We can still care about each other, and even more important, maybe we can take care of each other. I swear it’s not too late.