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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Crepe Myrtle Season, see also: when I cry on the inside

I’m not a flowers-phile like some folks who know all the pretty ones that grow in shade and bloom hard in direct sunlight. I do know crepe myrtles, though. They are the only thing in Tennessee that stands outside looking pretty in July and August. The rest of us are all drippy faint and upping our deodorant game.

Crepe myrtle

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In 2011, crepe myrtles greeted us as we drove up our long serpentine driveway when we first arrived to our rental home in Tennessee. They looked as though they’d been waiting just for us, practicing their pageant wave. Park here, they said. We’ve spruced up this place just for you. Crepe myrtle

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The crepe myrtles remind me now that we are still here. We’ve lapped the sun four times and we know when to anticipate the chorus of cicadas, the halo of autumn leaves, the brisk mornings and the humid incubator that is crepe myrtle season.

Crepe myrtle

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I spend most of July and August in a state of homesickness, grieving a home and a people that are contained in one big amoeba of pain that globs around inside of me, never allowing me to feel perfectly at ease wherever I live. WAHHHH MEEEE. I’m a pilgrim from a lot of places and I ache privately because I think I’m alone in this. My country ’tis of thee, you confuse the heyyy y’all out of me, of thee I sing.

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The beautiful crepe myrtles earmark another season of being here and being a misfit. They also usher in another school year. I’ve been so excited about sending both of the punks back to their school work-a-day routines that I practically forgot to mourn their own growth, to feel the full freight of their being a whole school year more advanced than the people they were last year when the crepe myrtles were in full glory.

Crepe myrtle

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Kids are only capable of two kinds of good-byes, it seems. The unceremonious “Bye Felicia”-esque dismissal, or the neck-wringing ugly cry adieu. How long, or should I say, how many crepe myrtle seasons until they realize their parents are all Bye Felicia on the outside but on the inside?

2gleeschuecry

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On contradictions and bob haircuts

I am more than mid-way through my fourth year of teaching at Small Christian University in the South. In other 4 year installments in life, like high school for example, this would be the time when one would be getting fitted for a gown, sizing up the graduation platform, making plans for the next chapter.

For me, I feel as though I am just getting started. Year four has been very self-actualizing. I am better at teaching what I have to teach. I am better at anticipating questions about what I teach. I am better at knowing what I don’t know about what I teach.

Let me tell you the cool part about improvement: once you’ve improved to a certain degree, you feel like the thing you’re doing is something new. Because it is. In the past, you were doing that other thing, the mediocre thing, the thing that made you feel all bummy and ill-equipped and now you are doing it better which actually changes how you approach, tackle, reflect on that thing. Life is new even though it is basically the same. Except you sleep better and don’t dread everything and you can eat food without having acid reflux and you don’t feel on the brink of tears all the time.

God is pouring a new formula into me. The bottle is better, stronger. The ingredients are of higher quality because they’ve been distilled longer. The label still says Kendra’s Jam. But to me it tastes new and improved.

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In some ways, I am hitting my Finally Stride. Lovey and I can finally go on dates and Little Man does not go mental and thrash about and punish us for days when we leave him with another benign person. I am finally finding a rhythm at work where I can feel good about the work completed and the work yet to complete. We are finally making a dent in our loans. I am finally reading Wild.

Yet, I am also fully aware of how much finality there is in finally. We got Baby Girl’s hair cut the other day. “How are we cutting it, Mom?” asked the hairdresser. She asked how we’re cutting it, like it was a joint effort, her sheers and my master vision. I realized how this might be one of the final times I have any say-so in that cute little bob.

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I realize that in general, we are shifting altogether too rapidly from the phase of dimpled elbows and slurred letters to the full-on independent child phase. It comes in waves, noticing suddenly that their play has become more sophisticated, their desires are more long-term rather than immediate, their cares are no longer whether they got the last pack of fruit snacks but more whether or not their friend who is moving to Arizona will remember them. There is finality in their own little child infinities. Their little ends become our endings, too.

But then there are the whole new epochs of their growing up — the fun and fish ownership and new favorite things. It is all so fleeting and yet it is all so rich. How can something, this parenthood business, be all so ephemeral and yet all so meaningful? Why are the days long and the years fast?

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God, so infinite and so lofty, still continues to make all things new. He makes it all good and perfect in seven days and we burn it and hoard it and waste it and still–He makes all things new. He is in the contradictions. Alpha-ing and Omega-ing all over our final finallies. He lives and works in this busted vessel and calls it a new thing.

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