Six Years a Southerner

“Looks like Michelangelo is getting a bath,” said the dad, bending over the grate where his offspring had wedged an action figure into a ground sewage stream. “Do y’all understand how this happened?”

One of the funniest scenes during our time in the South played out within the first month of our arrival, some six years ago. Loverpants and I still laugh when we walk by this spot in front of the Tennessee Aquarium, a destination that is the heart of Chattanooga’s renaissance as a Southern city. We think how the aquarium houses pods and plants and all manner of sea and river creatures. It also the little-known bathhouse of ninja turtles.

My own immersion into the South was almost as abrupt as Michelangelo’s. We arrived to our rented ranch house on three acres and felt the distinct awe of our new rural-burbia life, waking up to the sounds of cows mooing when only days prior, we had known only tinkering shopping carts rattling down city blocks, the siren cry of ambulances so familiar we barely noticed. We were soon introduced as newcomers to my workplace. We were awkward and unwieldy. Baby Girl couldn’t find her sleep groove for weeks. I couldn’t find time to lesson plan. Loverpants couldn’t find an office space to lease. Little Man couldn’t find his walking feet.

But then we did. We found ourselves doing life in the South as people who worked and churched and bought Aretha Frankenstein pancake mix to make at home on Sunday mornings. The difference, I think, is that finding a rhythm is not the same as finding a fit, which is how I would classify my time in the South. Just because Michelangelo is placed in the gutter and he stays there doesn’t mean he belongs there.

I have not found belonging in the South. This is not a criticism of the South, just a witness to my experience. Mercifully, though, I have found pockets of being known and that has been the great treasure of my life here.

Belonging in the South, specifically in a more junior city, specifically in a conservative religious community, requires a certain extroversion that eludes me. Small talk is currency in this environment where one mills in small concentric circles of interconnected folks. I am allergic to small talk so I am most likely to enter into conversation with, “I cannot freaking believe I am buying sex ed talk books for my kid already,” rather than preferred pleasantries about the weather. There is also a pervasive lack of directness that is borne of the aforementioned interconnected network. If good fences make good neighbors, then a lack of fencing can lead to a superficial neighborliness. Being authentic, after all, is a liability. And being authentic in one social circle where any misdeeds in one patch might bleed into another can leave us defenseless. The need to “play nice” at the expense of addressing conflict or wrong behavior is something I’ve observed too often. My natural bent is to be as direct as possible, even if it is hard. So whenever I have found others willing to join me to climb the chutes and slide down the ladders of directness, I have desired to call those people my kin.

There are a whole host of other aspects that I have found so foreign about the South (The expression “might could.” The frequent use of styrofoam in restaurants. The lack of sprinkler parks in spite of the heat much of the year). But if I dwell on these things then I fail to see the good and to celebrate the great things about the American Southeast (Publix Grocery Stores, hallelujah! The lushness of spring. Savannah/Tybee Island. Charleston. Birmingham. Nashville. Memphis. Crepe Myrtles. Sitting in the bleachers for Used Car Night at a minor league baseball game in the fall). There is so much to adore about this region that has been our home for six years, this city that has, at turns confused and enchanted us.

We will return to the Northeast from whence we came, with children six years older, with wisdom poured like a fine wine aged six years. And we will be glad for the friends we have made, the places we have served, the houses where we have worshiped.  We will count it all a blessing to not only have gotten wet but to have been fully immersed like Michelangelo in the sewer, with passersby asking if y’all knew how it happened.

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On being a grumpy protester in the Easter pageant

My pastor has asked me to lead a scene in our Easter pageant and I am grumpy about it. It’s not that I don’t like Easter pageants or directing. I’m just ill-equipped to direct this one. Work is kicking my tail, my husband has been traveling, and my kitchen is a revolving door of kindergarten shoebox dioramas. I am exhaustion covered in glitter glue.

The pastor has recruited dozens of people to take part in a silent motion stage performance of modern day resurrection scenes. The enthusiasm surrounding this Easter pageant is infectious and the opening scenes are always very powerful. But when I get an e-mail with our rehearsal schedule, I just want to drop out. I want to stay home and watch “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, even though I know how every season ends.

Alas, my kids are gunning hard to be in the pageant this year. Every other year I demurred thinking the day would be too long for them. My son has campaigned very hard for the last month to play the part of “Bearded Guy.” He settles for a Syrian refugee boy, but continues to ask when he is going to get to wear the beard every 4 minutes. My husband can only make part of the rehearsals due to his work schedule. This does not help my grumpiness. Nothing can help it.
Not even our pastor who is is all of a twitter about this Easter pageant.

The pastor and his family are the saltiest salt of the earth and I will follow them to the ends of the earth. But this play rehearsal, y’all. It is feeling a little extra. When we arrive at rehearsal, the pastor sells the idea of each scene to us. He is especially excited about scenes reminiscent of the recently released “Hacksaw Ridge,” the trailer from which he pulled the music for the opening.

We divide into groups and try to figure out how to portray the action. We’ve been given a skeletal script, basic notions of what we’re trying to represent. I know a few of the other actors in my scene, but I’m not entirely sure what we are supposed to accomplish and how this is supposed to play out in the seconds we’re given. The basic plot is that we are a bunch of political protesters holding signs with pithy political messages. We square off in two formations, showing angry, violent opposition to the other formation of political protesters.

Some of the actors have a vision of how we can assemble and I defer to them. Others don’t know where to enter; others are concerned that they won’t be seen. My son keeps wandering out of his scene to tug my shirt and ask me when he’s going to get his beard. For three nights in a row, I am somewhere between Syria and Washington DC, surrounded by soldiers being lowered down Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa. None of this makes sense–especially our political scene which ends when two angels appear. Enter: cherubs. Then, the protesters throw down our political signs, hoist a huge American flag, and hug one another. Two teenage girls even snap a selfie, political opponents no more! I glance at the other scenes and I can recognize the true beauty that rises from the ashes of refugee camps and tragic school bus crashes and wartime heroics. But our scene just feels hokey.

At the end of practice, I make sure the American flag we use as a prop isn’t left on the ground. I drape the flag over a church pew. As I arrive at rehearsal each successive night, the flag has been folded neatly and lovingly into a triangular formation. It becomes my obsession, keeping the flag lifted and not falling on the stage where it can be trampled.

As the final rehearsal finishes, I am proud of my little group of protesters. We have worked hard to get our scene right. As the angels emerge from out of the darkness, we’re all in position and the flag is where it needs to be. The “Hacksaw Ridge” trailer music queues like nightmare on loop. I don’t know how we are going to do this for 13 consecutive performances. I text our pastor and his wife. “When do we get to debrief about this?” The pastor replies that the best part of this is not the performance but the chance to build community. I feel bad for being one more grumpy church lady he has to deal with.

We are up at 6a the day of the pageant for makeup. My hubby and kids are sponged and dusted with cocoa powder and make for convincing refugees. My pack of protesters are outfitted in our best patriotic garb: tattoos, bandanas, red trucker hats that say “Make America Great Again.” In between scenes, I get to know the protesters who are students of nursing and psychology; single mothers and new drivers; socially liberal singers; former members of the police reserves who just like to carry guns.

I am barely awake for the first few performances but by 11a.m., the church is packed to standing room only. Cheers cry out for Desmond Doss as he climbs Hacksaw Ridge to save “just one more,” and it all comes crashing down on me and the tears come and they just keep coming. The flag that we raise and the ladder that the soldier climbs are not mutually exclusive as symbols go. In fact, they are the same. This is not mixing religion and politics–trust.


Christ came to save us all: the tattooed and the trucker hatted; the schoolbus driver and the new teen driver; the gun-toting soldier and the refugee. He would not let one fall to the ground without regarding it as precious. Not a sparrow falls without his notice. In the same vein, this flag that we revere, the one we cannot let fall to the ground, is one for which blood was shed so that all could enjoy freedom. What could be freer than love? Freedom and love are regularly compromised and trampled on the battlefield for our hearts, but the war has already been won by the One.

We throw down our signs as we throw down our crowns. And his name shall be Emmanuel, God with us.

photos by Andy Nash.

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Why La La Land would’ve wrecked me if I were still 22

There is a gaggle of girls in this coffee bar spoiling the ending of “La La Land” and I take umbrage. They are loud and sighing and I’m annoyed.

But I should warn you that this post probably contains a spoiler or four, as well.

Like the rest of earth that needed to see what would happen if Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling put on tap shoes and started singing, my beloved and I went to Los Angeles last night for a couple of hours. We also went back to our twenties when we were full of friend-roomies and durrnnk parties and all the ideals our 22 year-old hearts could contain. I would not go back to that time on a permanent basis, though. I needed Jesus and a budget more than I can articulate.

lovey.tractor

We loved “La La Land” like the rest of the universe. We were wrecked by it, too. From this vantage, though, Loverpants and I can safely wonder and wander through all the What Ifs and not be completely devastated. We are committed to the happiness and holiness of each other and our children and right now that looks like trading off time to write blog posts and play frisbee in equal measures.

However, if I had seen this film when I was 22 and was fully convinced I needed to move to NYC and get an MFA and find my voice in the basement of moody unnamed coffee bars, I probably would have tore a page out of main characters Mia and Seb’s playbook. They decided they needed the space to pursue their own dreams. Their creative endeavors could not come to fruition if they stayed together in the same geography, looking up at the same stars from the same latitudes and longitudes.

And that’s a lie I so wanted to buy when I was in my early 20s. The lie that one can *only* pursue creative dreams when given the maximum space and resources one can afford. It all seemed easier to clean house to make space for more short story drafts than to have to compromise with another whose time and talents pulled equal rank.

I tried to break up with Loverpants and he with several times. I felt ashamed that I was doing the un-feminist thing by moving to be closer to him after college. Even a month before our wedding, I was still fighting to get into law school until I realized that law school wasn’t what I wanted. I just wanted stable professional footing. Even more than than that I wanted a happy, stable marriage. I deferred law school and ultimately never went and have exactly zero regrets.

Throughout our relationship and marriage, we have pursued various degrees, moved to support one another’s professional dreams. I was pregnant and adjusting to life with a baby for much of grad school. Some would say these were not ideal circumstances, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. They added a richness and a texture to every pursuit. I worked harder and more efficiently because I had a baby who napped for two hour windows. My degree mattered to me because I wanted to make my daughter proud. Loverpants built a private practice from our kitchen table. I wrote a book while rocking our son to sleep. Time and Fit are the non-negotiable factors in a relationship’s survival, whether starry-eyed millennials or obedient Dave Ramsey-like Baby Boomers.

who is johnny bravo w/ these ladies?

Mia and Seb’s relationship is familiar, I’m sure, to many creative dreamers who don’t want to trump one another’s artistic aims. It’s familiar to me but allow me this microphone: It’s not the only narrative that will net a Mostly Happily Ever After. Partnership adds something wonderful to the creative life, whether one’s role is co-author or sideline cheerleader. I’m glad to have been able to play both roles and look forward to wearing a many more hats before the curtain falls.

Here’s to the ones who dream. Foolish as they may seem. Here’s to the hearts that ache. Here’s to the mess we make.

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