Like any other city in the world, Memphis sometimes does some things wrong (if you're young, ask someone what Union Avenue used to look like). But then again, it can do some things so right (100 years ago, in 1977, when I graduated from high school, there were about three places in downtown Memphis where you could get a drink and something to eat).
This past Saturday, the friends and family of entertainment superstar and philanthropist Isaac Hayes hosted an open-to-the-public ceremony to unveil Hayes' new, bronze grave marker at Memorial Park Funeral Home and Cemetery, and I was fortunate enough to be involved and attend. (Full disclosure: I work at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.) "Rose for Black Moses: A Celebration and Commemoration of the Life of Isaac Hayes" was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in Memphis.
For starters, if you've never visited the Crystal Shrine Grotto at Memorial Park, you should. It is an area designed and built during the 1930s by Mexican artist Dionico Rodriguez and it's on the National Register of Historic Places. It's like a fairy-tale land, with a cave filled with paintings and some five tons of quartz crystal, a serene Pool of Hebron, trees carved into special chairs, and other things that make it one of the most special places in the city.
"Roses" took place beside the grotto, with candles lighting the water in the pool, a stage with Hayes' covered grave marker, music floating through the air, old friends and family members gathered, and large urns which were filled with roses that the guests brought. Hayes' lifelong friend and songwriting partner David Porter and his widow Adjowa Hayes worked tirelessly to get all of this arranged so that people in Memphis could come and celebrate his life (most of the speakers talked about Isaac, their friend and the man who constantly gave back instead of always taking). The marker would make his grave a place for people to come visit and pay their respects.
I won't gush on, but let me just say that near the end of the ceremony, at sunset in Saturday's perfect weather, with white doves released and circling the sky as the incomparable Shirley Brown was singing, well, wailing, "You'll Never Walk Alone," it was something magical. It was Memphis at its finest and it was something that everyone who was there will never forget.
This all came at the end of a stressful week for me. Just the day before, I got an e-mail from a friend who graduated from high school in the spring and has been accepted at an esteemed college, but is so far unable to get the loans he needs to leave inner-city Memphis and get the education he deserves. This young man is one of the brightest, most polite, most respectful kids I have ever known. He has worked his butt off to get to this point. He has not been in any kind of trouble. He's a good kid with a big heart and now, because of nothing more than financial circumstances, he may not get to go. I don't know what to say to him, other than the system needs a lot of work.
I also know a fellow who served two tours of duty in Iraq and had part of his leg blown off by a roadside bomb. He came home psychologically tortured and now he is sitting in a cell on the psychiatric floor of the Shelby County Jail at 201 Poplar with no family in this part of the country. To my knowledge, no one from the United States Army has tried to contact him, no one has visited him, and no one wants to acknowledge that when you are told to kill pretty much anyone that you think might possibly pose a risk of any kind, even if it is a family huddled in squalor behind doors you are told to kick in, that this can cause severe temporary, if not permanent damage, to the mind.
But I was so elated when I read an article online in The Commercial Appeal the other day about a Memphian, Thomas Dyer, who, in an attempt to stop suffering to the degree that he can, has become the U.S. Army's first Buddhist chaplain. The twisted part of me jumped to the reader comments to see how far the ignorance meter would rise among those who profess to believe in God but also in the murder of innocent people, and it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, although there were some real winners condemning him to an afterlife of what they perceive to be hell. No big surprise there.
I know I'm not making a whole lot of sense here. Sometimes I don't. But if more people followed in the generous footsteps of Isaac Hayes, and if we could possibly find a way to not deny a very deserving young man a decent education, and if we could help out an Iraq war veteran who is caught up in a molasses-like judicial system, and if we could not argue over someone's choice of a spiritual path to help the suffering, maybe we could all chill out just a bit and see that it doesn't do any good to be close-minded and obsessed with what I see on a daily basis as just a bunch of bullshit. There.