The following piece was performed at The Southern Fried Film Festival (The Orion Amphitheater) on June 9, 2022.
Should I hand over my baby to the President? This is a question that I actually once asked myself. Some questions are easy to answer, ala final Jeopardy questions concerning Netflix’s Derry Girls. In retrospect, my “Should I hand my baby over to the president?” was more philosophical in nature, more akin to Tolstoy’s Three Questions.
In Tolstoy’s parable, a king believed that if he had the answers to three specific questions, he would be successful in all that he did.
He journeys to find the wisest to answer his questions, and in his quest he aides a hermit who is revealed to be the unlikely vessel of this knowledge. I imagine the king’s surprise to finding out that the hermit would be his mentor was much like Luke Skywalker meeting Yoda for the first time. Why does he speak backwards or why is he green?
The king’s three questions were these:
- Who are the most important people?
- What is the most important thing to be doing?
- When is the most important time?
The hermit lays out his truths and the king leaves better for the wisdom he was given. But the query, “Should I hand my baby over to the president?” was not one for a hermit, or even a Jedi.
When my son, Henry, was one, Jimmy Carter was 89. When Jimmy, as I’ll call him for now on, wasn’t leading efforts to eradicate endemics like Guinea-worm disease, or building homes with Habitat for Humanity, he could be seen teaching Sunday school at Marantha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia and by simply signing up on the church’s website, anyone could reserve their seat to hear him speak.
On a Sunday in June, we headed out for our semi-local pilgrimage. In tow were Regina, my wife, Henry, my mom, and our family friend, Linda.
We were all very excited to meet this compassionate luminary. He was from our state. We had read his books. He had the most robust philanthropic post presidency in U.S. history.
Linda even had a personal connection. Linda’s daughter was gay. And when the news came out in the early 90s that she was, the so-called friends at her church ostracized her and gossiped behind her back. It was heartbreaking for her to lose her friends, but even more so to see how her daughter was treated for being herself. Linda left the church, but never left her personal faith.
Years later, her daughter suddenly died from an aneurysm. In seeking answers, Linda wrote Jimmy. And instead of getting a form letter back from the office of a former President, Linda received a heartfelt, handwritten letter from him. It became a prized possession. She even kept it folded inside her family bible.
In contrast to Linda’s earnest sojourn, I was excited to meet the president because of a different reason. I had always loved the idea that all people in the world were connected to each other on an average of six, or fewer, social connections. And by virtue of a individual’s fame, the fewer connections it took. The idea had even been turned into a party game that I bet everyone here as heard of; Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It’s where you connect any actor to Kevin Bacon via shared movies. Here’s an example. 22 years agon, I was an extra in a little movie, called Road Trip. So, me to Fred Ward in Road Trip. Fred Ward to Kevin Bacon in Tremors; two steps. I admit this may not have been the right motivation for someone seeking to hear a sage. My wife even suggested it might have been… shallow, BUT it would be thrilling to say that my son, Henry, and I would now both be only a few degrees from almost every modern leader, celebrity, artist, and athlete in the entire world.
After a thorough pat down by the Secret Service, we found our seats on pew near the middle of the small sanctuary. The church’s young preacher walked out and gave the attendees a few housekeeping rules for decorum-sake and then Jimmy entered through the front and began his lesson, part spiritual observation, part history class.
After the sermon, everyone who was visiting was given the chance to have their photo taken with Jimmy and his wife Rosalynn. The rules were very clear, we were not to shake hands or touch them, we were not to hog their time, and we were not to reenter the line if we left.
Linda was ahead of us and after several people had their photos taken, it was her turn. She had the rare, beautiful opportunity to thank someone for their kind words.
My connection to the world based on Six Degrees of Separation was coming upon us, when Henry took it upon himself to soil the last diaper that we had on us. We had already used our spare during the service and didn’t bring our diaper bag with us as to streamline our entrance into the church. I quickly sized up our distance to the front to see if I had time to run back to the car to change him and then I remembered the third rule and the seriousness of this rule being enforced considering the presence of the Secret Service. THOUGH SHALL NOT REENTER THE LINE!
Linda was finishing her conversation when the usher called, NEXT!
We walked up to Carters, said hello, and then it happened. Jimmy reached out for Henry to hold him for the photo.
I paused for a moment, unsure of what to do. SHOULD I hand over a very saggy and heavy Henry to a seemingly frail 89-year-old, former President of the United States? The Secret Service had checked for explosives, but not this kind. I was afraid there would be leak, but what is a dad to do when a former president offers to hold your son for a photo, making the connection of Six Degrees that much more solid. I gently passed Henry to Jimmy. Luckily, no leaks.
And yes, I guess you could say that I was successful in introducing my young one to a President for the sake of a connected experience, one that he will obviously be incapable of remembering save this story, and a photo for evidence.
And as I looked to my left and to my right, seconds before the photo was taken, to see the people that I was with and the familiar peanut farmer holding my son, my intentions of forcing a superficial socially connected bridge had crumbled away to live in this very surreal, but enjoyable moment.
Tolstoy might be pleased to hear that his example of mindfulness and the answers to his parable’s questions were unintentionally being acted out that day, even hours before meeting the President.
- The most important people are the ones you are with.
- The most important thing to be doing is to do good for and by those people.
- The most important time is now.
I received a call from Linda’s husband a few weeks ago informing me that Linda had passed away. It wasn’t a surprise as we all new she had been ill. I immediately thought of our trip to meet Jimmy that June morning and how much that experience meant to her. And she would have loved to have been here with you tonight.
I’m not religious, although I do believe in the virtues of communion, kindness, and attentiveness. Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” and I’m fairly certain that Tolstoy, Jimmy, and Linda would agree.