June 20, 2020, I woke up thinking of this lovely, feisty woman I’d met at a Jim Haynes Sunday dinner in Paris a few years back. In her thick, familiar southern accent, she introduced herself, “Dudley Shearburn. Shear like in cut, burn like in burn.” We corresponded a couple of times but then lost touch. I missed her and wanted to see what she’d been up to, so looked her up online not knowing if she’d still be living in her city of Winston-Salem, NC or not. What I found was that, unfortunately, she had passed away only one week before.
I remembered that she’d written, with Emily Wilson, a couple of books, but I had not yet read them. One, “Get a Good Life,” is about her life as a mother of seven children, and another, “Life’s a Trip,” details a few of her many travel tales. I’m still going to try to find the former but decided right then to buy the latter.
During these restricted COVID-19 months, I have really missed traveling or even the prospect of it. I thought that after graduation in May I’d be taking a short trip within the U.S. to see family or friends. And I hoped for sure that I’d start planning a big birthday bash overseas in December. Instead of a May trip, I was planning my grandmother’s move next door to me. And as for December, we’ll see. Because it still may not be safe enough to travel, because I may be paying more attention to my grandmother’s or my health to go anywhere, and because the U.S. and American travelers are currently on the shit list of certain countries I’d like to visit, who knows what will happen that far ahead. Besides, I never was too much of a plan-ahead kinda gal. In 2018, as some of you may have previously read, my friend Emily and I scheduled an impromptu trip to Paris and New York, one week before leaving. How delightful.
Through Amazon, I found a used copy of “Life’s a Trip.” Not only that, but it was a signed copy. I was elated to be able to have something that not only represented her life but that included her own signature. There is something precious about that, as if she would be right there reading it alongside me. I ordered the book immediately, which was due to arrive the first or second week of July. Then a surprise; it was arriving earlier than scheduled.
The preceding days, I’d been feeling pretty low. Although I appreciate the calm and freedom of solitude, I have found that consistently living in limbo is not all that much fun. It isn’t boredom; there are plenty of things to do, read, watch, listen to, etc. It’s the not knowing. And although, like I mentioned, I’m not a big plan-too-far-ahead kind of person, not knowing anything at all or having any direction is, well, confining. I don’t own a car, and I find that when I do go out most people aren’t respectful about wearing masks or social distancing. It’s depressing to know that there are so many who are more concerned with their personal freedoms than with considering the health and well-being of others. Although I like to keep abreast of what’s happening in the world, I’ve tried to stop watching or reading the news too often because it is full of aggression, fear, frustration, sadness and anger. Watching a news story the other day about a young boy who, before he was four months old, had been beaten nearly to death by his birth parents broke me, which resulted in me bawling like a baby on Nana’s sofa. WTF is wrong with people? Gun violence is up in the U.S. Violence is increasing, period. Global warming is rising. And the fact that so many accept the world as is without contemplating that maybe a few small actions on our part might better the world we live in is disconcerting. We’re all in this together. How can anyone justify money or anything else over humanity or protecting the planet and its resources we and future generations need to survive? We can’t spend 24/7 worrying, but we can be more aware of how our products are made, where they come from, how they affect human beings and our world. We can notice our emotions, learn why we react in certain ways that may be harmful to ourselves or others and find ways to become kinder, more compassionate and happier. And we can listen. But still … life goes on, right? And I digress.
“Sometimes you take sorrow with you, and suddenly, you find you’re able to put it down somewhere on your travels, and sometimes, if you’re expecting to be constantly ebullient in your travels, you’ll find sorrow along the way. And in both instances, you come away transformed.”
The book. I was excited knowing that I’d receive it early. It’s all about the little things right now. And when it did arrive, I immediately opened it. Attached to the book was a note from the owner. So nice. But not. In her mind, because she thought I might want to offer it as a gift to someone, she’d sent me a new copy instead of the one I’d ordered, with the signature. Again, tears. The little things bring joy. And the little things bring sorrow. If I’d wanted a new copy, I would have ordered one. I wrote her immediately voicing my irritation and sadness. In fact, she’d already sold the copy with the signature. So she sent me this new one with her note, instead of updating her copy on Amazon, letting me know beforehand that she no longer had that specific copy or saying in her kind note that in fact that copy had been sold and she was sending me a new, although returnable, copy. She seemed remorseful, vowed never to go that route again and told me she would refund the full amount if I wanted to return it. I made sure to let her know my dissatisfaction but decided to keep the newer copy. At least I could read Dudley’s words, signature or not.
I prepared a cup of tea and opened up the pages. And there I was, delighted at once by Emily’s lighthearted intro, and then Dudley’s first words:
“All my life I have been a wandered. Where I travel, I want that place to be my home. I think of that line in the Janis Joplin song ‘Bobby McGee’ – ‘He’s looking for that home and I hope he finds it’ … My family moved a lot. New street, new houses, new schools, new people. I was so often the outsider trying to find a way in – looking for a home, and I hoped I’d find it.”
Hooked. I’d forgotten (sorta) about the signature. Dudley and I had not spoken often, didn’t really know each other. To her, I’m sure I was one of the many acquaintances she’d made during her extensive travels. To me, she was one of the strong, beautiful, ebullient women I’ve been so fortunate to have met in my lifetime. But that we had certain imbedded similarities, I was unaware. I would love to have known more about her back then.
“When you find a place, you’d better go then because you can’t step in the same river twice.”
Learning of those kindred connections in her book touched me as did her entertaining voice; I could hear her sweet accent on every page, whether she was talking about red-faced, wild-looking Gus Alley in Birmingham, Alabama; exploring her father’s final days in Charleston, South Carolina; leading her reader through Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris; or celebrating New Year’s Eve in mystic Ireland during a pub wage worker dispute. She took me to Greece, to Mexico, to Manhattan during a rainstorm, and introduced me to all those she met along the way. In other words, she had me traveling.
Going on this journey with Dudley has inspired me to travel from home, as if I needed more inspiration. And it’s been a joy to read her words and feeling that whenever I pick up her book, she’ll be right there.
The home voyage continues. Being fairly confined as I am, I’ve been watching the Paris playlist I created in 2016, after the horrendous attacks there, thwarting my, and many others’ thoughts of a trip to Paris. Sometimes, when I’m job hunting, reading or listening to music, I’ll put it on in the background. It’s usually on silent although sometimes I’ll turn up the volume and enjoy the sound of scooters and passing conversations.
This Sunday, I attended a French-English online exchange and spoke French with folks in France and other parts of the world. July 1st, in honor of Mom’s birthday (She would have been 74.), I made mini éclairs. And after speaking with one of the women in the exchange, I was motivated to make salmon rillettes.
Reading about the places Dudley stayed during her trips also motivated me to look up some of the places I have, namely Hotel Plaza Étoile, which looks a lot swankier now than it did when our high school group stayed there during my first trip to Paris, when I was 16.
In a past post, I mentioned a few 360º travel videos I’ve watched during confinement. Even though we might not be able to meet, at least in person, with long-lost friends or fellow travelers or explore all of the places we’d like right now, it’s fun to travel through words, music and film. I added a few links to the videos on my site, and if you have others you’ve found and love, please feel free to shoot me a message and link.
So until we can meet again, I’ll leave you with a few final words from Dudley. Be kind, stay safe, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey.
“By the time I get to my rented apartment and put down my shoulder bag, it’s time to go out on the streets of Paris. Get a croissant and a café au lait, and start doing what one should do the most when in Paris: watch the people go by.”