Southern Experience #5: Conversations On Spirituality, Connectedness, And Segregation With The People Of Hot Springs, Arkansas

Bob the spiritual man shared about an unexplained sighting out in the woods.

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Tracy the Southern socialite talked about race, class, and her affection toward Bill Clinton.

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These are just two of several human beings of Hot Springs, Arkansas I spoke with about spirituality, connectectness, and racial segregation. 

***

After a morning of diamond mining and an afternoon touring the hot water springs with my host Emilia, she invited friends to her lake home for a night of conversation and dinner.

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My host Emilia

She cooked pasta for everyone, including…

Alex, her man from Brooklyn:

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Patrick from Southern California:

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Patrick’s wife Ann:

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Cathy:

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Kathy:

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and Bob:

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I didn’t hear southern accents among them. All have moved here from elsewhere. Yet all have arrived for similar reasons: the energy, the environment, the nature of Hot Springs.

“Herbs, crystals, water,” one shared as we gathered before dinner.

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After several minutes of conversation in the living room, I suspected and asked aloud to the group, “Were you hippies?”

“I had a ponytail,” said Patrick in agreement.

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They continued their stories of how they arrived to Hot Springs–which are stories about the essence of this special place.

One is a shaman who came here and met another shaman, stayed for a few days, and simply knew to stay for good.20160726_200946

Another found the city online, then found a house and bought it.

Here’s what they had to say:

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“Of all the places I’ve been, this place had my heart.”

“There’s something to this place’s energy. People just stay here. They find it and love it.”

“This is home after just three years.”

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“It’s like I got picked up and put here. There was no effort. It was perfect.”

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“It feels different. That’s the only thing we can say.”

“Everybody’s so friendly.”

“I feel like I belong here more than I ever did in Laguna Beach.”

“People just find themselves here.”

I’ve often found it curious how specific places produce a seemingly abnormal amount of like-minded people. For instance, rock bands are not evenly distributed. An incredible number of famous acts have come from southern California and England. One city, Seattle, borne an entire genre of rock music and saw its bands rise to the top of the world music scene in the 1990s.
Why Seattle?
Why not Pittsburgh or Miami?
Why was Paris once the center of art and thought? And why isn’t it today?
You’ll find similar, uneven distributions of creators in all fields, all around the world, through all time.
Like space dust coalesced in uneven distributions to form planets and stars, so, too, do certain places serve as centers of  gravity for specific people.

“People just find themselves here,” as these folks explained, by going with the energy that drove them here–and that drives them while here.

Bob explained by way of a story:

DSC05591“I went with a group interested in healing properties [of Hot Springs].”

They walked nearby nature trails.

“One night up there, pitch dark…there was this stuff floating in front of my eyes.”  •  “Where did this smoke come from?”  •  “It was in the shape of a sponge.”   •   “As I walked, it moved.”   •   “As we were leaving, I see sparkles of light.”

Bob told another guy in his group what he was seeing. This guy, who was familiar with the spirituality of Hot Springs, responded, “If you wait long enough, they will appear to you.”

Bob’s conclusion: “I’m persuaded that this is a magical place. It’s waiting for the right people to release it.”

For his own spiritual part, Bob, along with the others here in Emilia’s house, practice the “Oneness Blessing.”

This is a spiritual movement founded in India, they told me. To experience it, “one must be willing to accept the Oneness Blessing.”

What is this?

“The Oneness Blessing is the transference of grace into other individuals,” said Bob. There is no intention, no expectation to be a better person. It’s simply, “about being the conveyance for energy.”

It is administered by Oneness Blessing Givers, who need to be trained.

“The experience is one of joy, happiness, bliss,” Bob continued. Sometimes recipients will break down into tears.

A longer lasting result is that “life is not filtered by senses or brain or programming” any longer. And it “removes that idea that we are separate from each other and the environment.”

“There’s connectedness,” concluded Cathy.

I asked the group if they represent most folks in Hot Springs. I received a unanimous “no.”

I don’t know if my conversation with Tracy the next morning did a better job representing the area Arkansan, but I will say that the impression was entirely different.

***

“I have a woman for you to meet,” said a friend of a friend of a friend. (Only three degrees of separation between me and this Hot Springs local. The fourth degree was this woman named Tracy.)

I met her the next morning at a cafe in town. Southern cooking with Southern prices, evidently.

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Described as socially connected, the redheaded woman of about 40 opened right up to me.

“We have sweet tea, unsweetened tea, and coffee,” she answered when I asked the waitress–to no avail–about herbal tea.

This 20160727_101055is the South. I have three choices, Tracy said.

Tracy grew up poor, the daughter of a chicken farmer.

“I went to school with chicken feathers in my hair,” she recalled.

I as I ordered eggs, bacon, and grits–and she ordered biscuits and gravy–I shared where I was from. Then I asked her what people here think of Minnesotans.

“They’re Yankees,” she said, despite my explanation that we’re Midwestern and not Northeastern. But that didn’t seem to matter in her book.

I asked if the North vs. South mentality is still strong down here.

“Some people really have the war on their minds,” she explained. More than that, she continued, it’s a future hope of “We’re going to come up again.”

“They envision an independent south?” I asked.

“Yes, they do.”

It’s a “one day” notion, a way of thinking ahead to an eventual–albeit unlikely–outcome to the appeasement of one’s present. Humans do this all over the world.

I asked about race.

“Race is pretty powerful here,” she said. “For a long time, I was like ‘where’s the black people?'” because of how the groups have segregated. “You just don’t associate with them.”

I asked about Hot Springs in general.

“It’s just beautiful here, and there are people from all over the country that live here.”  •  “It’s cheap to live here.”  •  “It’s easy to come here to retire.”

Tourism is big, with a craft beer festival and their “World’s Shortest” St. Patrick’s parade, said Tracy. They had Kevin Bacon here for it one year.

A Gay Pride parade? Not so much.

“They had it one time,” Tracy answered with a chuckle. “Coming out isn’t as popular here.”

I asked who she will vote for in November.

“I probably will vote for Hillary. I don’t know if I trust anyone at this point, but I damn sure don’t trust him (Trump),” she said.

She wants the Supreme Court judges to be liberal because “they can see both sides.”

Perhaps she also favors Hillary, because she likes Hillary’s husband. As a matter of fact, Bill Clinton has roots in Hot Springs.

“I love Bill Clinton,” Tracy said, declaring her attraction.

“You find him sexually attractive?” I asked, distinguishing Bill Clinton today from Bill Clinton 1996.

“Yes, I’m attracted to men with brains.”

“His infidelity doesn’t turn you off?”

“It (the Presidency) is a stressful job. They should have services if the wife is okay with it.”

Interestingly, this was our final topic of conversation.

More interesting was how the first group I spoke with highlighted the connectedness of Hot Springs, whereas Tracy pointed out its divisive aspects. It’s all in what you notice, I suppose. And while it doesn’t make for a simple, neat story, I’ve learned through my travels just how important it is–for the sake of truth–to offer various, often opposing, sides. Reality isn’t one face. Contradictions exist.

I try to let experience reveal the truth of the matter.

My final morning in Arkansas, as I was leaving for Memphis, my experience tilted the scale.

***

Most of the natural springs in town are scalding hot–140 degrees. A couple of them, however, are cold water. At these locations, plumbing and faucets have been added. At these locations, people from all over town (and the region) come to fill up on as much cold, fresh, spring water as they like.

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Like the water cooler at the office, this is the water fountain of this community. I hadn’t seen anything like this since the village in Tanzania I stayed at for much of 2014.

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Myself behind the pump

People gathered at the well in Magulilwa every day to gather water–mothers with infants, children after school, and us from the village school.

The water fountains of Hot Springs, USA sees the daily gatherings of men, women, old, young, rich, poor, black, white, and everything in between.

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There couldn’t have been a more emphatic example of connection and togetherness in this community than a common place to get water. And though not spiritual connection as expressed by Emilia’s friends, many do believe in the healing power of this water. I recorded my conversation with these folks about community and the water’s healing powers:

Turns out, Hot Springs is a historic gathering place. According to my host Emilia, the Native Americans, who revered the springs’ healing qualities as well, used this region as a meeting place for various tribes. Warriors were instructed to lay down their weapons before entering this sacred, peaceful space.

Emilia hopes to resurrect Hot Springs as a meeting place for Native people all across the Americas.

I was grateful to see during my time here connectedness overcoming separation.

 

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