“[Spirit] needed a player, someone willing to get on the field of action, learn the plays, take the risks, get injured, play through the setbacks and defeats and continue to grind their way to the goal line. NOT to sit on the bleachers as a spectator…” -Burgess Owens, cornerback for Oakland Raiders and Super Bowl winner in 1980 in reference to me.

Burgess

When I went to the University of Miami for college from Scranton, I had no idea the explosion that was about to happen in my life. After all, I only had one significant boyfriend for most of the four years of high school. He was my first lover and we naïvely began discussing marriage at sixteen. At that time, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be the trajectory of my life. As life would reveal, she had other plans. To say that I was an inexperienced sixteen year old was an understatement. My idealism and my family dynamics did not prepare me for a life of simplicity and joy. It did not prepared me for the suffering required for maturation. Although Miami was not a good fit for my heart, I made it work for the four years required as a prerequisite for the deep initiations I apparently “signed up for” in life.

Early in my freshman year I was walking with a girlfriend and I crossed paths with a young junior who, unbeknownst to me, would drastically change my life. I remember specifically stopping in my tracks and saying, “I’m in love.” Burgess was a starting football player on the University of Miami football team. He was also a marine biology student. I knew nothing about football, so his celebrity eluded me. All I knew was that he was handsome and deep, gentle and loving. I began to tutor him French and he helped me with my sciences. We would frequently drive to the Florida Keys on the weekend to snorkel and collect sea life for his tropical aquarium.

B and II soon became aware that this relationship would alter my life, but I had no idea of the degree to which it would explode open. I immediately called my boyfriend and told him what was happening. Our plans had been for me to transfer to a college in New York State that was closer to him, but my life was taking a whole new tract. Good or bad, happy or sad, I was being drawn into a tsunami and all I could do was let go.

The next two years were expansive for me. Unlike the focus from my family of origin, my first two boyfriends supported my educational/intellectual pursuits. I became the president of the freshman women’s honor society and received recognition from the mortarboard and several other honors. Left to my own devices, I probably would have taken the easier path joining the waterski team that was seeking me out after seeing my slalom abilities. Education had never been my focus. My older brother was the first person to finish college in my family. Escaping the pogroms in Russia and surviving the Depression while speaking broken English was more a part of my history than higher education.

I knew that Burgess believed in me and that gave me the courage to pursue honors programs and to graduate cum laude. However, there was a deeper initiation into the vicissitudes of life that would take me to my edge. Opening my heart to this young, charismatic, and idealistic man transported me into unknown territory. Crossing the “racial barrier” was an initiation that required a level of courage I did not know I had. I can remember looks from people imbued with much fear, fear of crossing a line. After all, I was in the South. I remember Michael telling me that prejudice in the North was just as prevalent as in the South, it was just more hidden. I clearly felt the pain of bearing a scarlet letter across my chest not unlike the yellow stars my ancestors were forced to wear. I felt the shame from the projection of other people’s fears. However, this was an initiation I was willing to undertake. After all, the feeling in my heart was undeniable.

I can remember that day I looked at Burgess and no longer saw a black person looking at me. This was the young man I loved with all my heart. I didn’t realize the depth of initiation I was undergoing.

And now, forty years later we have reconnected on a soul level. We are revisiting the influence that connection had in our lives during such formative years. Despite Burgess and me practicing completely different religions and ideologies, there is still a spiritual connection that transcends the social constructs that would otherwise force separation.

After forty years we are reconciling our differences and acknowledging both the idealism of our youth and the excavations we have courageously and willingly undergone building bridges instead of walls in our hearts. I know these bridges will filter down to our children and our grandchildren to affect a world that is more inclusive.

Sharing what we have learned over the last forty years and revisiting our limitations from the past is bringing a healing that would otherwise have been unimaginable to me. Saying the things to each other we were too immature to grasp at that age has brought a deep level of completion and clarity.

When I crossed the racial boundaries, I opened up a level of empathy for the vulnerability and potential terror a mother of African-American children feels; I opened my heart to the multicultural families I would work with in my career. Burgess and I raised our children to cross cultural lines as well, and to not just believe in diversity, but to live it, to marry people of different cultures, giving birth to grandchildren who have the courage to bring in the New World.

These personal communications between Burgess and me are not just healing our human hearts, but they are changing the world, or they are showing us how we have already changed the world.
Disclaimer: Burgess and I have remained friends, but our philosophico-political leanings are diametrically opposed. I, in no way, support his political beliefs and, frankly, believe he has gone off the deep end. Although I will always love him, I cannot, in good faith, have a friendship with him and this saddens me.
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