my way home

I started this blog post with one thing in mind and like what happens in most of my writing, I learned something else. It may not be as specifically on topic as some of the other posts I've written as part of the Self-Evidence Challenge, but I think that makes a lot of sense, considering I see this as being about authenticity.

Saturday, I drove for 12 hours from Alabama to Illinois. I listened to a book on tape and the gorgeous Mississippi countryside turned to Tennessee and Kentucky as I left the place I used to call home for the place I now call home. I had a wonderful few days in Mobile, spending time with my Grandmother and my oldest friend and her daughter. It wasn't like old times, though some things never change. It was better than old times because I'm in a completely different place in my life, a place with different insecurities and doubts but one that is much more secure in who I am, or at least getting that way.

I've done a lot of research and reading and theorizing about place and space, about how spaces like coffeeshops or stretches of highway become a place "imbued with value," as Yi-Fu Tuan, a space/place theorist puts it. When you have a place, it becomes part of your being, and often, your routine. I have found that moving away from a place often reveals its significance in your life. When I lived in Mobile, I was driving from point A to point B, living my life, all the while making memories that solidified these places to me once I left and returned.

While I was in town this week, I drove down roads so familiar and yet strange. I traveled by the campus where I spent 7 years of my life, marveled at the new buildings, towers, fountains. It was clear I no longer belonged to the place and yet it belongs to me so firmly, so deeply that I feel sure that I am who I am because I was part of it, and then moved away from it. I don't visit Mobile much, usually because my time is limited when I see my family. Some of me is relieved not to face the changes, to instead remember the places when they were mine.

And still, a part of me loved rolling down the windows and taking the shortcuts I knew so well, breathing in the smells of honeysuckle and jasmine, and remembering. So much of me is built on nostalgia, and on dismantling it. When I've been away so long and because my grandmother has moved to a different house, the paths I once took between friends' houses, between jobs, between coffeehouses and bars and summer haunts are what roots me to the girl I once was and the woman I hope I am becoming.

I miss Alabama, sometimes, and when I'm there, I feel pieces of me clicking, making sense in ways I don't in other places. I am both myself and not myself there. My voice drops in whispers; the drawl slips in. I begin drinking hurricanes and southern comfort and coke and craving cornbread, squash and the smells of my girlhood. This is dangerous territory for someone who has spent years in fiction, in non-fiction, in therapy and in conversations understanding the damage of such yearning. After too long, I begin to suffocate under the weight of it all. It is dangerous to constantly look backwards because doing so doesn't often take into account the evolution between then and now. It romanticizes events, places and certainly, people.

There is a part of me that feels also, significantly out of place. Things are too changed, too different. There are couples and marriages and children to remind me that time has moved on. There are different restaurants and bars and some of my favorite places and people are gone. But then there are conversations with my oldest friends and a day of shopping and lunching and though I feel older and more settled and content, something tugs at the 19 year old girl version of myself and taunts me to remember how fearless and confident and wild I could be. An urgency pushes at my ribs and I find it difficult to catch my breath.

I often feel caught between my roots and wings.

Whenever I speak, someone will ask “Where are you from?” And though I say, “Alabama,” because I know they want to place my accent, I think of all the places that raised me. I think of Florida coastal towns, St. George’s Island; I think of Pensacola and Orlando. I think of camp summers in Andalusia and winter in London. I think of Paris rain and Illinois snow. All of these places race through me and I smile as I say, “Alabama” the place I was born, where I begin.

I love having grown up along the Gulf Coast. I love the way I learned to pronounce words, that my language choices constantly show others "up north" that I'm not "from around here." I try not to let the lilt of my Southern accent fade as I incorporate new discourses into my arsenal of language and expression. I cling to the distinction of my Southern-ness and am often wounded by it at the same time. I would not be who I am without the red clay, summer nights where sweat-soaked backs of t-shirts didn't matter, the small talk on porches, the tiny hints of etiquette, going barefoot on fresh mowed grass, watching fireflies, all the things I miss. I know that I am rooted, deeply, in a complex history (not just my own but of the South, itself). I also know that I cannot have my life, the one I have worked so hard to build and continue to build, in Alabama. For me, Mobile is Wonderland, a place confusing and weird and rich with life and color and my past. It holds all the best memories and some of the more complicated ones. I fell in and out of love there; I made lifelong friends. It is a place I can travel to, and visit but not somewhere I can really belong, not anymore. Each time I am there, I feel at ease in this fact. Each time, I feel a bit further and further away and I also feel home, kind of... which, I suppose is as good of a description as any and perhaps the only way to manage the tension of living in-between. This is a tension I face often, the kind of reconciliation I don't know how to make because there may be no way to really make it. Accepting the in-between and embracing the tensions is better than being conflicted about all of it.

The in-between, as I have written before, is a space where I feel alive. I am used to blurring lines. It is when I’m asked to step into one role or the other that I become unsure of myself. Because I’m supposed to be an academic, the days when I wonder if I’ll ever finish that article or if the chapter I finished will ever see the light of day hit me hard. The privilege of education I’ve been afforded makes me more conflicted about my writing, my scholarship, and my place in the academy. Such conflicts can be paralyzing. I need to slip in and out of places, identities, and expectations.

For me, authenticity is about acknowledging the in-between. I suppose, that many Southerners could say that my leaving the South for the Midwest, discounts my Southern-ness, makes me in-authentically Southern. I feel, however, that it has heightened my Southern-ness. I am more Southern in the Midwest than I ever could be in Alabama. The distance (emotional and physical) creates a space where I can live and understand what it means to me to be Southern. I am no mid-Westerner but I love their honesty and warmth and the way you feel completely at ease in their kitchens fixing your own drink or accepting a second helping of pie.

I don't completely belong in either place. But I claim them both with fierce pride. Knowing myself means embracing the idea that home can exist in multiple places. It means understanding my need to be in-between, which sometimes means it's going to be difficult to make a decision, or that I'm going to distrust it once I decide. But that's who I am. I get stuck in the chaos. I overthink. I worry. I don't always do the right thing or say the right thing. I can be a snob and often express my opinions too freely. But, I feel deeply, passionately about what and who I believe in.

I love blue, the color and the flavor, even though it's not a real flavor. I love the afternoon thunderstorms in the South, how it can be sunny one minute and clouds full of big fat raindrops the next. I love knock-knock jokes and Mad-Libs. I'm messy and silly and cannot make a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich without putting a hole through the bread. I believe that the right song can completely change your entire day. I believe that change is possible, that we, as a society, can make a difference.

I believe in hope and in faith and the intangible world of possibilities, despite all evidence that shows how cruel, and single-minded the world can be. I value these pieces of myself and am working on making them more obvious, wanting them to take up more room in who I am than some of my more challenging qualities. But like Lindsey says, I know who I am, all the weirdness and the eccentricities, the losses and successes, the motivations and the desires of my heart. I know where I've been and where I want to go and right now in-between those places is a pretty good place to be.

my father, the compassionate

My father has been a driving force in my life and in many of my decisions. Sometimes I was reacting against all the things, in my mind, that he stood for. Other times, I was considering what he would do if faced with a similar decision; many times I was simply hoping he was proud. He used to write me letters, send me clippings, poems, editorials, cartoons. I treasured the letters, no matter what they said. When going through drawers and other things recently, getting ready to pack, I found a stack of letters from him, which I'd forgotten about, from early days of my Ph.D. program. I relied on his encouragement and compassion. It seems as if he knew when I was having a particularly difficult week because a letter would arrive about how Nathaniel Hawthorne was once fired from his job and felt like a failure but because his wife believed in him, she'd put money aside to last for a year so he could write his book, which ended up being The Scarlet Letter.

So, everyone doubts themselves, my father would write, it's how you manage your doubt and challenges. I know that you can rise to the occasion you've been given. If you do not trust yourself, then trust me.

There are dozens of these letters meant to encourage and inspire me. And they did. This is compassion at work.

I've been thinking about compassion ever since Dian challenged us. I've been thinking about it because I feel a deep need to pledge myself to compassion because it is not something that I practice enough, for myself or others. In my understanding, compassion is simply not wanting others to suffer. But putting compassion into practice is something different altogether. In my readings both on Christianity and Buddhism, I'm beginning to see that compassion is not a state a mind but an act of recognition, deeper than sympathy or empathy (though I believe along the same lines). Compassion sees all living beings as worthy of happiness. It is not earned or rewarded. The Dalai Lama has said the following about practicing compassion:

I find that whenever I meet new people and have this positive disposition, there is no barrier between us. No matter who or what they are, whether they have blonde hair or black hair, or hair that is dyed green, I feel that I am simply encountering a fellow human being with the same desire to be happy and to avoid suffering as myself. And I find that I can speak to them as if they were old friends, even at our first meeting. By keeping in mind that ultimately, we are all brother and sisters, that there is no substantial difference between us, that all others share my desire to be happy and to avoid suffering, I can express my feelings as readily as to someone I have known intimately for years. And not just with a few nice words or gestures, but really heart to heart, no matter what the language barrier.

My father's job is compassion. As I get older, I am blown away by both his intellectual and emotional capacity, which far exceed my own understanding. I see that my desire for deep understanding of the world comes from his curious nature and his emotional longing. As a minister, my father is constantly pouring out emotional support. It is difficult for him to find respite for his own mind and heart. I was suggesting movies that Mom should add to her Netflix Queue and he said, "Dev, every single movie you've suggested sounds wrenching. They all start with tragedy, usually someone dying. I deal with death and sadness and tragedy on a constant basis; I want an escape from that somewhere."

I nodded though I cannot fully understand. I am not responsible for others' grief or joy, for their spiritual health.

I have watched portrayals of preachers in TV and movies and what they rarely show is how work is never done, how drained it leaves one. My father never had a punch card or a way to clock out. I remember the phone ringing throughout the night closely followed by the car leaving the driveway. Before we planned trips, I would ask God not to let anyone die so that we could go on vacation. I attended countless weddings and funerals and sat in various hospital waiting rooms as my father worked. It is difficult to explain to others exactly what your father does when he is a preacher. It is difficult for anyone to truly understand the lines of vulnerability and distance that he constantly resides within, including me. I often struggled to reconcile the man in the pulpit with the man in our house, who had time, energy, emotional heft for everyone else but his family. I grew up in awe of my father, of his knowledge, and depth of character. I placed him in my mind and in fiction on a pedestal. There are versions of my father I have from childhood, each of them as likely to be false as they are true.

What I do know is that he truly cares about people. He enjoys conversations about people's lives, about what they will name their children, about what they want to pursue, about their hopes and dreams. He meets no strangers and yet has had the same core group of friends since seminary. My father is complicated and complex; all the best people are.

Ultimately, he is a man of stories.

I am his daughter in some of the worst ways and I hope some of the best. I want the best to include compassion. Thus, in a pledge to compassion, I will try to recognize my capacity for care. I think Pema Chodron describes this perfectly when she says:

When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.

What would happen if I believed and tried to practice this daily? If I seek to live heart to heart with others? If I recognize suffering of all living beings as my own suffering? If I followed my father's example?

In his sermon yesterday, he said that compassion is not a human instinct. When someone cuts you off in traffic, your first thought isn't about their suffering or difficulties. But what if it was?