Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Wild Man Shows Us How to Live Well

I stumbled last night onto “Billy Connolly's Route 66” on PBS. 

Connolly is a British actor and comedian.  The show is centered on him riding a three wheel motorcycle across the country.  He starts in Chicago and follows the famous Route 66 all the way to Santa Monica, California.

There are four episodes in the series.  They were filmed in 2011 and originally shown on British television.  I have only seen the first one.   But it has me hooked.

Connolly is an aging but vibrant man.  He has long white flowing hair and matching mustache and goatee and dresses like someone out of the 1970’s.  He looks part Hippie and part motorcycle gang from an assisted living center.

I wasn’t much interested at first but the strength and sheer joy of Connolly’s personality kept me engaged.  He’s a bit of a rebel with an absolutely infectious laugh.  He’s old school and loves the historic architecture of the cities and towns he visits.  He’s captivated by various “giants” in remote places across the land, statues of some person or character relevant to a particular locale.  He simply loves those things and keeps saying he wished there were more of them.

Along his journey in the first episode his visits with individual people are heartwarming and moving.  He shows that underneath all of that mischievousness and silliness and sometimes sharp criticism of things (billboards) and people he disdains (Donald Trump), resides a large soul crammed with genuine compassion and even a kind sweetness and care for others.  He clearly enjoys people and life.

He visits with an African American man who collects detailed and beautiful small clay dolls or figures of different characters out of the jazz age.  Connolly delights in each one.  The gentleman who owns them talks about the days of segregation and how many of the great jazz artists, in spite of their fame and popularity, still lived under the isolation of a country filled with prejudice and indifference to Blacks.   Connolly reveals his sadness of those long combative years.  The two men connect immediately and share stories and squeal with laughter like two adolescent girls.  

Later down the road he rides in a horse driven buggy with an Amish man who allows Connolly to hold the reigns and drive the cart.  Their conversation is warm and personal.  They talk about their children and the man tells how he lost a baby son in a terrible accident on the farm.  Connolly listens with such tenderness and you can hear in his voice a man with a heart of generosity and grace.

At another point he strolls through a town in Oklahoma where a tornado has devastated the community.  He walks through the rubble and comes upon a young woman and her mother.  Standing in the midst of random debris she tells how she found her engagement ring still in its black velvet box and she shows it to Connolly.  He thrills to this news and this sight and his brief visit with these women, filled with feeling and empathy, is like a minister shepherding his people.   His quiet solidarity with them is moving.

There are many other instances like this that are so compelling. 

It is easily tempting, and I often succumb to it, to adopt an attitude of cynicism about things and people.  The glaring scars on our environment, signs of our callous carelessness and refusal to be responsible stewards of our land; the raw menacing political and religious divisions between people today that shame and wound and discredit us; the self-indulgence and craven greed of so many of us, a plague that weakens our unity as a people, as neighbors and individuals—these things and other disturbing behavior too often become our focus and we identify them as who we are as Americans.

But Billy Connolly’s freewheeling ride across Route 66 reminded me of what an incredible country we live in with its lovely landscapes and dazzling architecture and its enchanting people.  There is an elemental goodness that weaves its way through our nation and makes us at the heart a country characterized by decency and good will, by hard work and responsibility, by family love and individual acts of common kindness, and by quirky likes and funny expressions and amazing but necessary differences.

Billy Connolly expresses such delight in his travels.  His child-like fascination with life and its inhabitants; his deliciously healthy laughter that spills so honestly and so often out of him; his sheer openness of spirit to all of his surroundings was an inspiration I found enthralling.

The ancient mystics wrote, “If you can risk getting lost somewhere along the day you might stumble upon openings that link you to your depths.”  Clearly, in his planned but sometimes spontaneous journey down a historic highway, Billy Connolly has done this. 

If we could capture his spirit we might come to know what a character in one of Chekhov’s plays wished for, “And our lives will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress.” 

© 2013 Timothy Moody

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