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Tennessee and Mississippi: Celebrate the Planet Festival

August 19, 2012

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dedicated to Gary Dennis Cate, 1945-2012, and my own father, who is dealing with complications from prostate cancer

I showed up at Painted Planet Artspace at 10:30 a.m. today and met Donna Padgett Bowers, the driving force behind the Celebrate the Planet Festival and the cancer ministry. After helping to move speakers, assemble tents, fill drink coolers, and so on, all that remained were technical tasks, such as setting up the sound system, where I had no expertise to offer. Because I had done what I could and festival attendees had yet to arrive, I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. It presents the most thorough and detailed account of African American history and struggle for equality that I’ve seen anywhere in one place. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, not to mention the images of slavery, segregation, and cruelty. I was glad I had given myself time to experience it without rushing, to allow the horror to sink in and also to be inspired by the shrewd and increasingly sophisticated tactics that civil rights movement leaders employed to achieve their successes.

Afterward, a 40-mile drive into the open spaces of northern Mississippi to the Blue and White Restaurant (Tunica, MS)—for a tasty dinner of catfish Creole, fried okra, hush puppies, and a freshly made donut for dessert—gave me a chance to decompress.

Afterward I went back to the festival, where the temperature had started to simmer down and The Bluegrass Band was in the middle of a set. I hung out for a little while taking in the scene—people eating, talking, listening to music, and trying to stay cool. I had wanted to help out at the end of the night to disassemble and pack things away, but at about 8:00 p.m. felt sleepy and pretty much wiped out by the day’s heat and humidity: I knew I wouldn’t make it until the end of the evening. Feeling a bit wimpy, I found Donna to say goodbye and returned to my hotel room for a shower and to bed for an early night.

The Bluegrass Band at the Celebrate the Planet Festival – Memphis, TN

I do research and program evaluation in my other life, spending much of my time trying to measure the impact of interventions and activities. Even more than in past volunteer gigs, I found myself doubting that my presence had had any measurable impact here.

. . .

Days later, when I contacted Donna to check a few facts, we ended up talking on the phone for nearly an hour and a half. Though she hardly knew me (or perhaps because she hardly knew me), she wanted to process the events of festival with me (covered in more detail on the community news site here) and confided that they hadn’t raised as much money as hoped. Donna is now working just to keep Painted Planet’s doors open so that she can continue to offer free services to women with cancer (more details on how to help here).

What I learned: Even if I can’t see my impact on others, it’s real. In fact, it’s inescapable.

After my long talk with Donna, I realized I’d had more impact than I first thought. That brought me back to thinking about my friend’s father, Gary. I think Gary knew I felt a special connection to him, yet I imagine he never fully appreciated the impact he had on me, and the inspiration I will continue to draw from his life as an example of kindness, free thinking, and courage in so many ways. Sometimes it’s not the most obvious relationships that have a big impact. Gary’s terminal cancer diagnosis a couple of years ago forced me to consider the meaning of my connection to him in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. I realized that he was a person I wanted to learn more from and spend more time with before he died, even if just for a few days or a few moments.

It’s a cliché, but in my moments of self-doubt it helps me to think about the tiny pebble that breaks the surface of a pond, sending out ever larger ripples in all directions.

Have you ever encountered someone who ended up having an unexpected, positive impact on you? What made that connection special? In what ways do you minimize your contributions, the difference you make? Who might you be having an outsize impact on, perhaps without even being fully aware of it?


Coming up:

August 26: Latin Dance Festival, Albuquerque, New Mexico

September 22: Habitat for Humanity, Charleston, West Virginia

  1. Glad to see you are still running randomly through the states!

  2. Liz rosaaen permalink

    Love this question. Funny how a brief encounter or an inspirational act, can be an influence… know, like the bravery it takes to fly around the country volunteering….:)

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