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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Drinking Icees, Slurping up forgiveness.

I check my Swatch watch when I wake up. It’s darling but it always needs to be wound so the time can’t be right. I putz about the bathroom and find my other watch. Oh mercy.

The kids are both still in their pajamas. They’ve probably watched 286 cartoons between the two of them today.

“Guys, Mommy slept in. It’s already noon. I’m so sorry.”
“WHAT?!”
“We missed my swim lesson?!”
“I know. I’m so sorry.”
“WE WASTED THE WHOLE DAY!”
“No, baby, we just wasted the morning. Mommy forgot to set her alarm.”
“Mommmmmaaa, I wanted to go to my swim lesson!”
“I know. How about I make it up to you and we can go to Lake Winnie today.”

***

The kids are moving in slow motion and all I want to do is reverse the clock, sit down and eat a bowl of granola and drink coffee and not feel frantic. Swimsuits elude us. Applying sunscreen is work.

“What’s going on, Little Man? Can I help you?”
“Mom, I just feel grumpy.”
I’m proud that he has accessed a feeling instead of casting blame.
I sound like a self-esteem manual from 1989.
“Mom, I’m grumpy because I’m sad I didn’t get to go to swim lessons.”
“I know, Son. I hope you can forgive me. I messed up.”
“I forgive you.”

***

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We are walking back to the car. We have laughed, we have floated on the lazy river inner tubes several times. We have eaten funnel cake. We have had a good day.
“Mom, I’m still really upset I didn’t get to go to my swim lesson today.”
I don’t remind him that he got to shoot down a colossal waterslide, drink a giant Icee, and ride all the rollercoasters he could handle for the last six hours.
I don’t tell him that a whole afternoon at Lake Winnie beats any doggie-paddle lesson any day.
Instead I tell him the thing about forgiveness that is so hard to do.
“If you forgive someone, you can’t keep bringing it up. You know just like how God says when He forgives us, He casts our sins into the sea and doesn’t remember them anymore?”
“Yeah.”
“That’s what we have to do.”

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***

The next day he is unlocking the front door and turns to me as he opens it. “I forgive you for sleeping through my swim lessons, Mom.”

***

The day after that, he hugs me unbidden and says, “I still forgive you for sleeping through my swim lessons, Mom.”

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Inflating a pool, deflating my pride

You hear a lot of voices while you’re inflating the kiddie pool in the high noon sun. Most of them are saying,

You are a moron.

Why aren’t the kids helping you?

Was that a wasp?

You are still a moron.

 

You might even appreciate the irony for a moment, inflating the kiddie pool while standing on the surface of the burning sun, that you paid for a hot yoga class that morning, HAHAH, which is basically the same thing, HAHA, in terms of working out in a sauna and breathing hard. The only difference is that in hota yoga your outfit was cuter and at the end the instructor placed an ice cold towel on your head as she whispered, “Namaste….”

Then there’s always this one voice that seems to intone not in your head but in your heart and it says,

Don’t be mad about this. Don’t be mad about any of this. Don’t feel sorry for yourself for one second. This thing you’re doing for your kids–

That voice gets interrupted for a second because you just bumped your head on the beach umbrella you were trying to drill into the ground near the sad-looking kiddie pool so that the littles will have some shade.

I know you just hit your head, says the voice, and I know how that feels. But be tenderhearted anyway.

You go in the house and tell the kids you want to share something with them. They look slightly alarmed because you are all sweaty and, “Mom, we were watching Teen Titans–”

“You guys, so I got the pool all ready for you,”

“Yeah, thanks, Mama,” they pat my shoulder just to maybe tamp down the crazy I might unleash on them at any moment.

“So you know, as I was out there and I was sweating and getting injured just to do something nice for you guys, I was thinking about someone who suffered a lot doing nice things for me,

“Jesus?” they say.

“Yeah. And how I don’t always say thank you. So that was just a reminder of how even Mommy needs to say thank you to Jesus more.”

All I have is the Gospel. Again and again I’m fooled by pride that I’m the one making big things happen. But all I have is Jesus and the grace he floods me with, the air that he pours into my lungs each day, which I offer in trickles and spits and poorly inflated pools to the little ones who are on lease to me. All glory is his. Namaste, Peace be with you, and Amen.

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