Dog meet Dog

And then one day, it was time. Not necessarily right or perfect, but simply time itself. Hunkering down at home during COVID-19’s foreseeable future, my husband and I figured this could be the perfect season to introduce a new dog into the family. We decided long ago that our lives were built for four-legged expansion and our nine year-old shepherd mix, Zeke, has been enjoying a solo act for years. While Zeke loves the spotlight, he wasn’t always an only child. Beulah was the first dog we added to our family and our very best girl. It feels like lifetimes ago that we had to put her down well before her time. With Zeke’s coat graying around the jowls and his joints stiffening on the walks he tolerates solely for our sakes, we have been contemplating the possibility of once more adding to our pack. We’re excited for the youthful, boisterous energy that will rally us for long walks and misadventures, but this is not a step we take lightly. When we’re being honest, this welcoming of the fresh and new is part of how we’ll say goodbye when the time comes. We know from experience that we will fare better with another dog-in-waiting when Zeke takes his leave. And while we hope that’s several years off, there are no guarantees. There rarely are. And so, it’s not so much now or never, but simply now.

With Zeke in the backseat, we drove up to Mitchell County last weekend. At the recommendation of our fabulous local pet pantry, I had been messaging with the owner of a remarkable rescue operation located a few counties to the north. After looking at some pictures online, we scheduled a meet-and-greet. As we turned up the driveway and passed the barn, we had been made. A raucous chorus of yelps and barks and howls greeted us before we even opened our doors. From the car, I could see dog yards and single pens surrounded by a hillside where a herd of cattle was grazing in the distance. The welcome itself was overwhelming. Seeing and hearing so many different faces and sounds of need incarnate can be jarring. Sometimes, it’s easier to keep our distance from those awaiting their more than just human rights to food, shelter, and love. Some journeys, then, are about how we respond to those we encounter along the way. We were talking a good talk on the drive up. We would just meet some dogs and head back home to talk things over. But fate is a thing and any lingering resolve disappeared as we waited in the back field to meet some dogs. I’m not sure when our thinking shifted from whether to bring a new family member home to which dog would be leaving with us, but it did. When the time is right, it’s just a matter of fit.

We learned something about fit when Zeke surprised us at an adoption fair almost ten years ago. We were caring for my grandmother in Batesville, Arkansas, when it dawned on us. We could get a dog! Married for just a few years, we were still learning how much adulting was ours for the making. We were living in an old family home with a backyard we could easily fence in and the farm was only a short 20-minute drive away. So much was out of our hands as we learned how to navigate my grandmother’s decline. But a dog – a puppy, even – was something we could wrap our heads and hands and hearts around.

Batesville is a small town in a rural community where dogs are working animals with important jobs. While we planned on romping our dog-to-be through the farm’s fields and pastures, we were less interested in any highly-prized skillsets like coon treeing or duck hunting. We were simply excited for exuberant companionship. When we’re being honest, we also needed some puppy energy to remind us about other seasons of life, where you could train a loved one to remember things. Little did we know that one dog would teach us so much about death, too.

To know Zeke is to know about Beulah. Weaned too early from her mother and siblings, Beulah was waiting for us one rainy Saturday morning. We drove out to get her with a tiny leash we never used. Beulah fit into the palm of my hand and tried valiantly to climb into my sweater. She couldn’t get close enough. Tucked against the unfamiliar smell of my skin, she cried all the way home. We made all kinds of plans to put her in a crate and do the sensible things you do to train dogs. But Beulah’s whimper was enough to stymie the best of our intentions and she quickly became the center of our world. A yellow lab mix, Beulah easily won over my grandmother who liked to feed her scraps from the table. My grandmother could never remember Beulah’s name and one day christened her “Whitey.” When Zeke joined the family a few months later, my grandmother nicknamed our black-and-tan addition “Blackie.”

Much like this week’s seemingly impromptu trip to Mitchell County, Zeke came our way in his own perfect timing. Beulah had been with us for a few months and much as we tried, we could not be the dog she needed. And so, we found ourselves at the pet store after church one Sunday. We often ran errands on Sunday afternoons and had planned to stop in for a treat of some kind while my grandmother napped. We had been discussing how much we would benefit from another dog in the house, but were not necessarily planning to act on our musings. We were quite certain that a second dog would be for another day or time or season. But, as we learn time and again, some decisions are not ours alone.

I remember how warm it was that Sunday and how surprised we were to see crates and cages stacked up in the parking lot of an otherwise nondescript strip mall with a shoe store, an off-brand vitamin shop, and one of the county’s two Mexican restaurants. I also remember our excitement as we reconsidered our plans to look for a new chew toy or ball. Instead, we began taking a closer look at some of the dogs and puppies. We were new to parenthood, cutting our teeth on canines and elders. Far from experts, we thought we knew what we wanted. A puppy. A female. Something small and sweet. In many ways, we were looking for something that Beulah was not.

Beulah was far from an easy dog, but her imperfections were manageable until they became dangerous. When we first met Zeke, Beulah was a rambunctious lab mix with more energy than we could walk or run out in any given day. As we led Beulah toward the dogs we had preselected, she could not contain her excitement. Her energy level was so high that the adoption coordinator worried about the safety – of the dogs in her care, of us. After meeting Beulah, her fears were assuaged. The aggression genetically coded into Beulah’s inbred lineage would not surface for over a year. That day, it really was just excitement – the kind that should have a happy ending.

Our preferences notwithstanding, the dogs we tried to pair with Beulah cowered at her exuberance. There really can be too much of a good thing. We moved methodically through our list, hoping that one of our choices would work. The adoption coordinator was exceedingly patient. After Beulah scared each and every dog on our list, she stepped in and suggested we take a look at “Ramiro,” a young shepherd mix we hadn’t noticed. She thought that he might be confident enough to stand up to Beulah’s energetic overtures.

When one of the staff members let “Ramiro” out of his pen: pure magic. His crate had been tucked into a van parked on the lot and we didn’t know what to expect. “Ramiro” ran straight up to Beulah, wagging his tail in greeting as he bobbed down in front of her before batting her swiftly on the nose. She looked up in surprise as they took off running. They never looked back. It was love at first sight and we were all blindsided by it. It’s amazing what we can’t see until someone – or something – opens our eyes.

We had Beulah only a few short years before her behavior escalated in ways too dangerous for our home – or any other. The decision to put her down counts among the more difficult of our family’s life. How do you weigh the cost of the greater good? And what if that cost is death? We agonized over Beulah’s options. And still, her last day with us was beautiful. We played fetch for hours and enjoyed a final family walk. And then we loaded Beulah in the car – one of her most favorite places – and drove to the vet. We held Beulah close and loved on her as she took her last breaths. It was a gut-wrenching, heart-bursting day. And it was so final. There was no going back. There rarely is. As we left the vet’s office and drove home, Zeke was waiting at the door.

Zeke adapted quickly to life as a single dog, teaching us about the resilience that comes from the places we can’t know until we’re already there. In her final months, Beulah was not the kindest companion, but Zeke was a faithful friend. And he has been an exemplary solo dog ever since Beulah’s early departure – loving and kind to all creatures with the exception of cats. We knew Zeke would not be tricky to pair, but still. You don’t love and lose lightly. Zeke’s opinion was the one that mattered as we met possible additions to our family. Thinking back on the list of hopefuls that Beulah rejected one after the other, I had to smile. So much has changed since we first set out on this journey of companionship. Growing our hearts and home to meet a given season, we keep showing up to this thing called life.

We met two dogs at the rescue before we asked about the big black and tan hound dog we could see from the back field. From afar, he was bigger than we thought we were looking for. They always are. When the proprietor brought out “Luke,” he reminded me somewhat of Beulah – eager and excited to meet a new friend. After a successful initial greeting, we let both dogs off their leashes to see how they might get along unattended. It was pretty much perfect: some chasing and running before each dog headed off to his own corner of the field to look at the cows and eat grass.

It’s fascinating to watch Zeke and Luke-now-Ezra figure out this new arrangement. I’m also curiously watching our household adapt to its newest family member. It’s humbling how much we can learn from those entrusted to our care. So far, the adjustment period is going beautifully. And still, I notice that I am anticipating Beulah-like responses from this new-to-us dog who has shown zero indication of anything but goofy, oversized love. When memories of bared teeth and snapping jaws surface, I am reminded that love sometimes hurts us in unexpected ways. The wounds we inflict on those closest to us run deep. They smart beyond the grave. I am grateful for the lessons that Beulah gifted and know that she is with us still. She is present in my eagerness to do right by this new-to-us dog. She is present in that which we did not – could not – know before. Beulah’s is not just a presence marked by the tin we keep on the kitchen shelf, its floral green pattern masking the remnants of a life reduced, ashes to ashes. Hers is a presence that invites remembrance, joy, and sorrow – the bittersweet things of life and of death.

It’s not surprising that this introduction to the newest member of our family has become a story about those who came before. But that’s how it works when the next generation arrives; they remind us of those whose journeys are already intertwined with ours. When we talk about the ancestors, we often mean our people. That’s why this story about our new dog somehow circles back to my grandmother who nicknamed our now-aging shepherd “Blackie” before she died. When we’re being honest, we share more in common with our four-leggeds than we think, especially when we remember that death comes for us all. Looking back, I can see how the season that gifted my grandmother’s decline, and the addition of our first “fur-child,” offered lessons that seem contradictory only at first glance. To love is to know loss. And my husband and I loved my grandmother and Beulah – fiercely. In their own ways, each is with us now as we grow our family once more.

My husband and I stayed with my grandmother, and with Beulah, after they passed. Holding a body in transition is not easy. Staying present to what’s left behind is hard work. My grandmother had already died when we were called to her bedside. I don’t know what compelled me to do so, but I climbed into bed with my grandmother’s body and stayed there for hours while we waited for those in charge of her transport to arrive. After my parents and grandfather left, my husband and I sang and cried before settling into the quiet impossibility of that holy moment. Flesh of my flesh. Heart of my heart.

We held Beulah’s body, too, after the drugs stopped her heart and slowed her breath until all we could hear were our own sobs. Some things you cannot know until you hold life in your hands and let it go. As we reckon in this season with the calculus of choice itself, I like to think that our learning can honor this deep truth: life and death come for us all. Even then, they do not play fair. When we hold death gently among us, climbing into its arms to be comforted by that which awaits us all, some of our choices become clearer. Sometimes, we get to learn that so many choices aren’t ours to make at all. I like to think that our newest family member, Ezra, will live into the examples set by the two-and four-legged creatures who journeyed with us until their end. I like to think that we have learned from those who lived and died among us. I also like to think that he’ll just be a great dog. What I know for certain is that that my grandmother would have smiled at Ezra’s big paws and floppy ears. She would not have remembered his name, but she would have reached out her hand and loved him.

(N)ever Appalachia

I wonder about forbidden things – people and places, too. So much so that I wrote a dissertation about what it might mean to uncover the forbidden in the stories we love to tell. My doctoral work took up where my masters degree in Appalachian Studies left off. That degree was a thinly veiled excuse to spend two years in western North Carolina singing hymns and gospel songs in missionary Baptist churches that sounded like the stories my mother and grandparents told about a small rural congregation in north central Arkansas. During those two years in the North Carolina mountains, my husband and I were welcomed by faith communities connected by the close-knit kinship networks I was learning about in books and seminars. Sitting on the alto bench, I watched families three and four generations-deep worshipping together. Over a two-year period, I observed families navigate life and death as new generations came along to fill in pews claimed by ancestors long gone. I also noticed how these families cared for one another. Living into a gospel that preached Jesus first, family second, I watched women in their 60s and 70s cook, clean, and care for parents in their 80s and 90s. Literally lifting one another up as they walked into church together, each multi-generational pair taught me something about the holiness – and sacrifice – of so deep a commitment. I was deep in my book learning, but it wasn’t my thesis that kept me up at night. It was the women in these churches who reminded me of my grandmother and her mother and her mother before. Preaching by example, these church ladies – Ms. Jan, and Ms. Ruth, and Ms. Kathy and Ms. Eulala – reminded me that I, too, was a granddaughter. Looking out over other people’s families, I remembered my own.

My grandmother was diagnosed with dementia right before I began my graduate studies. Scattered across the country, my family struggled to hear what this diagnosis would mean for us all. Some held out for a miracle. Others hoped for a gentle decline that would foreclose dementia’s indignities. I wasn’t sure what to think, but after two years of bearing witness to the living gospel of those accompanying loved ones to life’s end, I was convicted that the next chapter of my learning would be hands-on and heart-bursting. The years my husband and I spent living in my great grandfather’s house were messy and complicated, and not just because of the decline in the house next door that shaped the contours of each day. The precious gift of the rare cogent moment or recipe improbably remembered were hard to translate for those holding onto a different measuring stick from afar. I struggled to make legible and tangible and meaningful both what remained – and what was fading each day. It was one thing to remember and face my own convictions. It was harder to learn that we all get to show up in our own ways and on our own timelines.

Caring for my grandmother was my calling. And then, the phone rang and I was offered a spot in a prestigious doctoral program where I could step forward – but also always back – into another kind of learning. On the very same night that my grandfather finally agreed to let us raise chickens in the old dog pen out back, I choked out the news: I would be trading in one season for another. We would be leaving so that I might pursue the next chapter of my professional life. While the cost of our decisions count among those things we don’t always talk about, we all paid a price for the learning I sought elsewhere. Had she been lucid, my grandmother would have insisted on our departure. She believed in education above most things, but my grandmother was no longer able to bless any of our choices. And so I held fast to what I thought I knew, and we left.

There are some things too tender to probe, too complicated to parse. My grandmother’s decline is one of them. She has been gone for almost five years and I am just now stepping up to the fault lines we crossed in our efforts to do right by her. For a little while, the intellectual journey of my doctoral program offered new and often deeply engaging ways to talk about identity and belonging. From the very beginning, though, I wondered about the trade-off. Even as we crossed the Mississippi on our way to Atlanta, Georgia, where I would enroll in Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion, I wondered what it meant that I could leave someone behind. How would academic training stack up against the learning – and the wisdom – gifted in the unwinding of a life?

Forbidden thoughts and disquieting questions about my own choices accompanied me throughout the coursework that I navigated with flying colors. It wasn’t until I began writing a dissertation about my own storied inheritances that my grandmother – by then an ancestor – asked for a different kind of memorial. For a while, I thought I was writing about categories of abstract belonging, trying to unpack the history of a particular term to figure out how and why it excluded so many. I eventually figured out that I was actually trying to write my way back – to a farm, to a family, and to a grandmother who asked me to be my best self until she no longer remembered who I was.

The deeper I got into the dissertation, the more my narrative voice wandered off, circling the familiar places I couldn’t seem to leave behind. When Walk ‘Til the Dogs Get Mean hit my desk, a compilation of first-person narratives about the politics of telling a story that doesn’t register as authentically “Appalachian,” the volume’s bold, unflinching prose reminded me that I, too, have a homeplace begging for a reckoning. Sections titled “Forbidden Gods,” “O Ruiner of Holy Things,” and “Wayfaring Stranger” alluded to the stories my dissertation was deferring. In narratives of betrayal, memories of strange fruit, mourning rituals, and rites of confession, I encountered again and again the tricky proposition of being a someone else, an outsider, an other. With deadlines to meet and a degree to earn, I stayed the course – but my words were already shifting, begging to tell a story I was remembering from lands both strange and familiar.

Hitting my desk mid-dissertation writing, this volume walked me to a place of courage from which I began to remember my own stories and truth-claims. In the volume’s introduction, the editors name faith, poverty, and woundedness among the threads that both bind and blind us to one another. Exploring the shifting fault lines that claim those from a cherished “here” while questioning those from everywhere and nowhere else, I began to consider what it might mean to lean into and live out the contradictions I was studying – between the imagined and real, the expectation and shortcoming, the presumed and precluded. As someone from “off” teasing out the relationship between religious tradition and regional identity, I found others’ willingness to call out the politics of their own realities both empowering and sobering.   

What I remembered, as my thought-work veered from the abstract to the deeply person, is that the voices we listen to matter – especially when they speak ancestral truths; that the questions we raise have impact – especially when we honor the vulnerable places from which they spring; and that inclusion and exclusion both come at a cost – especially when we take the time to pay attention to the invitations we extend and those we do not. Writing on the other side of so many unexpected chapters, I continue to remember that we are all conditioned to – and measured by – theologies of difference that scar as much as they save. Remembering the contortions I have made to to reconcile my full self with ideals articulated and authorized elsewhere, I notice how easily and repeatedly we fail to recognize ourselves and others; how distinctions between insiders and outsiders can blur. I tackled this slipperiness between “us” and “them” in my dissertation, hoping that a deep dive into the story of “Appalachian religion” might yield a threshold worth crossing. In religious cosmologies, thresholds are portals to new worlds, but their transformations often exact unexpected sacrifices. For a long time, I thought that teasing out the relationship between regional and disciplinary identity politics would be enough. But my raising has proven hardy and my roots have always been calling me to a different place of inquiry. I am a scholar of religions and regions we know by their storied exceptionalism. But I was a granddaughter first, and my questions keep coming back to what I left behind at the kitchen table. What story can I tell that counts the cost of looking for myself – and my roots – everywhere but home?

While all dissertations tell one story or another, mine explored the relationship between the naming and claiming of difference. Some of the questions I once raised ring hollow now, but I am still compelled to journey with the stories we revere as gospel truth. The place where our convictions and truth claims meet is what I call the religion of exceptionalism. This is not the religion of iconic country churches or of mainline missionary upstarts. Instead, it is the push and pull of nostalgia and caricature, dual inheritances that show up in the stories we tell about ourselves and others. Believers and skeptics, alike, we all have our role to play in the exceptionalisms that give shape to our daily liturgies.  

Truth-telling invites a deep exhale, but calling out our gods is dangerous business, especially for those on the outside looking in. Some of my questions – and my deepest truths – make me a ruiner of holy things. But perhaps ruination is just another name for salvation, making space for the outsiders among us to reframe the forbidden as an asset and not a liability. Most days, I wonder about the nature of our beliefs and the ways they shape our being and sense of belonging. But sometimes, I wonder about the ways we simply do not see one another at all.

If my grandmother were alive today, she would proudly display my bound dissertation on a bookshelf overflowing with old Sunday School books and compilations of condensed novels that Reader’s Digest sold by mail order. She would have loved the title I rarely use and would have eagerly shared my professional accomplishments with the ladies in her Sunday School class. I’d love to hear her mirror my learning in the simple homespun language that carried such depth. It’s hard to know what she would have made of my musings. I know she would have resisted some of my questions that pester too insistently at the foundations so firm in her mind. I also know that we would have weathered my grappling in the kitchen where my grandmother would have slaked my thirst – for knowledge, for life – with the meditations of her heart. Ours would have been a different kind of seminar, a diminishing circle with multiplying rewards.

There are no do-overs in this life and I’m not certain I would go back to make different choices if I could. And still, as I keep unlearning the lessons that try to silence my heart’s native tongue, I return to questions of the forbidden. What rich gifts lie just beyond the boundaries of our own knowing. And what sweet release lies waiting in stiller waters. For the work of knowing our own forbidden fault lines, and for the strength to follow them all the way home – I give thanks.

Epilogue

After pulling through to the farm’s gravel road, let your car idle as you close the gate behind you. Tuck the lock into the wire loop hanging behind the post, wrapping its heavy chain around the gate. As the story goes, an old Dodge truck will be idling under the pecan trees. Turn off the ignition and climb onto the truck bed. Scramble over the cattle prods, shovels, and buckets to take a seat on the long metal toolbox built onto the back of the cab. Dangle your feet over the side and tap the window to signal that you’re ready to go. Hold on as the truck lurches across the front pasture. When you reach the cattle, greet them enthusiastically. “Here, pretty girls!” You’ll count the herd, scratch the calf feed, and restock the salt licks before the truck drives on. Watch out for snakes. And for the bull.

When the truck turns toward the middle pasture, you’ll come to a gate. Jump off the back and take a close look at the lock – you’ll be in charge of reproducing the intricate knots on the way out. One day, others will navigate the locks and keys you leave behind. For now, you can leave the gate open. Raise your hand in salute as the truck pulls through. It will wait for you to climb back up and tap “all clear” before driving on. To your left is the front pond; to your right, the site of the old homeplace. The house is no longer standing, but you’ll know the spot by the chuppah that marries old and new near the flagstones of the old homestead long ago returned to earth. Stand under the sky-filled canopy and you might find yourself transported, breathing the past into present and future.

At the top of the hill, check the rain gauge before heading into the hills. From here, you can see the metal structure trying to replace the old barn that fell in years ago. Your eyes still look for what is no longer there. Beyond, the garden beckons. If it’s the right time of year, your feet will graze thigh-high Johnson grass and fescue as the truck climbs to the back pastures. The ride will get rough as you head up a steep hill. As the truck rounds the back pond, lie down across the tool box, bracing your toes against the edge of the truck. The cattle are out front and there’s no work to do; just a vista to take in, a hillside so familiar you could lose yourself in its description. This is where you sing a medley that sounds like home.

How Firm a Foundation. Precious Memories. I’ll Fly Away.

You won’t be ready, but the truck will start heading back to the road. You’ll attempt to lock the gates you opened along the way, taking your place alongside those hoping to leave no trace of their handiwork. When you get it right, remember that mastery is learned, not inborn. When you don’t, consider the possibility that some gates are not meant to be closed. Either way, the truck bears witness as it passes by, moving forward while you grapple with what’s left behind. 

Sometimes wild turkey and deer will cross your path. You’ll wonder whether glimpsing the fullness of creation is the same as honoring all creatures great and small. Cringe when you shoot the armadillos whose burrows cause the cattle to stumble and fall, but pull the trigger anyway. When you heave the carcass across the neighbor’s fence, consider what you lose by making death and decay someone else’s domain. Checking the electric fence is your final task. Even though you know it might hurt, touch the wire directly. The voltage isn’t high and the light shock will remind you of something you already know. Hidden currents are best tackled with bare hands, eyes wide open.

When you’re back at the front gate, take a long drink of water from the thermos and pull your car through to the road. As you fasten the gate, you’ll look up to see the truck driving back across the fields, fading into the dusk.

The closer you look, the harder it is to know what you are seeing.

Perhaps you imagined the truck altogether, but the ground under you looks solid, even as you wonder whether you’re coming or going. As you drive off, you’re humming songs whose words you no longer remember.

Prologue

Homeplace Geographies

Jamestown Landmark Missionary Baptist Church sits in the long curve of the road as you head north from Batesville, Arkansas, into the Ozark foothills. Once you cross the White River—cattle to your right, a stand of corn to your left—climb the steep grade up Ramsey Mountain and turn right at the Triangle Café.  Drive along the bluff, past Southside’s Assembly of God, farm supply stores, and the Harmon boys’ homestead before turning left at the old cotton gin in Desha. Wind your way on the county road lined with limestone homes and churches. Coast downhill through Greenbrier Creek bottoms, lifting a few fingers in greeting when you meet wild turkey and tractors. The Ozarks will appear in the distance as you round a corner to see the Landmark Church that signals the final stretch to the gate. Pass the church on your right as you come to a four-way stop. Turn right to follow Jamestown Creek into the hills. When you see the old Vickers place on the left, the house tucked into the woods at the top of the hill, Herefords grazing in the field, you’re almost there. Lean into the curve until you see a rust red farm gate on the left side of the road. Don’t worry about the no trespassing sign. The combination to the padlock is 1949.

Welcome to Gloryland.


This road to the farm, with familiar landmarks and curves I can take with my eyes closed, is the main thoroughfare of my homeplace geography. A personal cartography that maps experiences and memories onto specific landscapes [1], homeplace geographies draw on the biographic and personal to house what Donald Davis calls life’s “unforgotten images.” [2] Mine comes to life in the stories I was raised on: stories about faith, family, and farming in the Ozark foothills. As I was neither born nor raised in Arkansas, the Natural State is more a cherished family hand-me-down than my own, and its mythology looms large. This is the land that my maternal fourth great grandfather John Worth Gray sought out on an 800-mile trek from High Point, North Carolina, to what later became Independence County, Arkansas. Seeking land and opportunity during the nineteenth-century gold rush, John Worth crossed the Cumberland Plateau and the Mississippi River in 1850, settling his family near a spring on Mount Tabor. John Worth built an exact replica of the family’s High Point home on the Hickory Valley farm, transplanting North Carolina roots that flourished and multiplied in the Arkansas soil. My third great grandfather, Elisha Columbus, raised seventeen children in Hickory Valley, including my grandfather’s grandfather, Christopher Columbus. His is the generation we commemorate at annual reunions with a family roll call that counts us by relation to the “original seventeen.” The Grays provide fodder for countless stories about ancestors with colorful names and quirky traits. Family lore about Thornsberry Anderson, Queen Esther, Virgil Omega, and my own Christopher Columbus makes me heir to much more than a homeplace.

What these stories bequeath is a sense of belonging, a heritage, a tether to somewhere.

Appalachian writer James Still describes heritage as something we “cannot pass beyond.” [3] For Still, “being of these hills” shapes life’s contours and destinies. Former Kentucky poet laureate Jesse Stuart also proclaims the gospel of a hilltop homeplace, a “heritage of hills” rooted in “[the] high upheavaled ground … we’ve always known.” [4] I, too, worship a hallowed ground, but I am not of its hills, nor have I always known them. Two generations off the farm, its stories are a birthright that shape the contours of how I know myself. Always circling, mine is a journey of eternal return, a mythical trajectory that calls me back to place time and again. Religion scholar Mircea Eliade spent his career exploring how time and place shape the myths and rituals that bring our worlds to life. While Eliade combed nineteenth and twentieth-century archives for the primitive­—searching for people and places “uncontaminated by time and becoming” [5]—I look closer to home. In my grandfather’s practice of planting by the signs, I find remnants of a way of being and knowing that answers to the moon itself. Planting and fishing by lunar cycle, my grandfather honors that timing matters to the places we cultivate and inhabit. Looking to the stars to make a garden grow changes how you know your place in the world.

First look to the sky for guidance, then to the ground.

Watch and wait as the fruit bears.

Stages and Stories

These storied Ozark roots prove hardy, tugging at me from a life lived elsewhere. In contrast to my preferred origin myth that places me on the family farm, my life maps a different world. Anthropologist Kenneth George describes lifeworlds as “the interconnected lived-in spaces that bring people—with their thoughts, experiences and sense of self—into reciprocal touch with global currents.” [6] Mine begins on the banks of Cincinnati’s Ohio River and extends across the George Washington Bridge that spans the mighty Hudson. Raised off Route 17 in Ridgewood, New Jersey, early childhood memories feature turnpike diners and Friendly’s ice-cream, Harlem Baptist churches and kosher bagel shops. Weekend trips into the city made Central Park’s Hans Christian Anderson statues a favorite jungle gym and family hikes on Bear Mountain followed Seven Lakes Drive, a winding country road that parallels the Appalachian Trail.

While my Arkansas imaginary speaks in stories, my childhood reverberates in song. The daughter of a pianist and an opera singer, I first stirred to the sounds of my parents practicing together. For years, my lullabies included Mozart and Verdi arias, art songs, Broadway show tunes, and classic Christian anthems: Hall Johnson’s arrangement of “Ride on, King Jesus!” and Aaron Copeland’s “Zion’s Walls” competed with Frank Loesser’s “Luck be a Lady,” Mitch Leigh’s “Man of La Mancha,” and endless opera. My siblings and I sat on the front row when my parents performed, my mother minding us from the piano bench as we mouthed the lyrics to great theatrical effect. I remember my father singing at the Liederkranz in New York City, performing a concert staging of Richard Strauss’ Daphne. In preparation, my parents told us the Greek myth, describing how Daphne would turn into a tree—if we were on our best behavior. This promised metamorphosis kept me riveted during the hours-long performance. When the soprano struck her final pose, assuming a tree-like stance that fell far short of any visible transformation, I was sorely disappointed. That night I learned important lessons about the parameters of performance and the limits of translation. Cultural theorist Edward Said reminds us to distinguish between what we know and the peoples and places made known on the world’s many stages. [7] Sometimes, curtains mask the difference between knowledge and its production.

Before taking a bow, we must first see ourselves on the stages of our own making.

In my family’s most spectacular performance, we moved to Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Part of a small group of American artists heading East to replace Germans heading West, my father accepted a position as full-time opera singer in Neustrelitz, a small town in the lake district of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. There, we found ourselves joining in the swan song of Cold War politics, bearing witness to the promises and failures of reunification. We quickly learned that “reunification” did not convey the experience of those for whom the long-awaited national reunion was more of an annexation or second Anschluss. When we arrived, Neustrelitz had a population of approximately 20,000 Germans and 40,000 Russian soldiers. Within one year, the Russian army would ship out, leaving empty blocks of crumbling housing and a socio-economic vacuum in its stead. As we learned a language grappling with its terrifying ability to speak the unspeakable into being—crossing impermeable thresholds with Paul Celan and contemplating the impossibilities of exile with Bertolt Brecht—we began to experience Germany’s competing histories as they played out in one small town. In time, we learned that the white-washed walls crisscrossing town divided the Russian sectors from those displaced from their ancestral lands and neighborhoods. Contested territories—along with stories about the 681 suicides committed one night in 1945 when townspeople learned that Neustrelitz would fall to the Red Army—made clear why we didn’t play with the Russian children who lived on our block. No one mentioned the town’s approximately fifty Jewish residents murdered in the Holocaust.

Stories of war, occupation, and rehabilitation competed for inclusion in history’s grand rewriting with winners and losers changing roles almost daily. In my first year at the local Gymnasium, our principal was fired for his active role in the Stasi, East Germany’s infamous police regime known for its surveillance tactics that demanded the collusion of its citizenry. In addition to perpetual changes at the administrative level, our teachers rewrote curricula on the fly. History, economics, politics, and ethics all needed a new script. I used to beg one of our tutors—a retired English teacher who took on my siblings’ German language skills as a personal project—to tell her family’s story. Geopolitics necessitated the family’s flight from their home in what was once Prussia to territory that became part of Poland before being annexed into the extended Third Reich. From her location in yet another former state, Tante Ille was living proof:

 Who we are and what we know perform on the shifting sands of time and place.

Family pictures from our early years in Germany capture worlds colliding: here we are in the basement of our first apartment building shoveling coal for the ancient limestone heaters that sat in the corner of each drafty, twelve-foot ceilinged room; this is my brother’s kindergarten class—half of the children are still wearing their Jungpioneer uniforms from the GDR’s compulsory children’s organization; this is a picture of my siblings stemming berries from Tante Ille’s carefully cultivated garden that produced fruits and vegetables to supplement what was available in local stores; our family portrait features classical statues from the town’s Schlosspark, instead of a monument honoring Russia’s war victims unceremoniously removed from the market square one day; here I am in music class, singing Russian folk songs, German art music, and American classics: “Country roads, take me home, to the place where I belong. West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads.”

Singing John Denver’s ode to a West Virginia homeplace in a country vanishing into its own nation state was deeply ironic. There were no roads that led to East Germany. Instead, updated maps pointed to neuen Bundesländer, the “new” states returned to their presumably proper place. Theorist Jonathon Z. Smith writes that “map is not territory,” [8] distinguishing between emplaced realities and their representation. When we moved to Germany, I learned that representation is always incomplete and never impartial, mapping only one lay of the land instead of the messy layers that lurk above and below the surface. Increasingly aware that the word “former” did not adequately account for the tectonic shifts in East German statehood, I learned that maps fail.

Sometimes, there is no map.

As a teenager, I traipsed independently across Eastern Europe, coming into my own alongside a collective sense of loss that accompanied East Germany’s dissolution. Adopting a displaced Heimat, I found myself in what East German author Christa Wolf describes as an “in-between place,” [9] where what remains is Ostalgie [10]—a longing particular to those remembering and memorializing a former way of being, knowing, and being known.

Word Made Life

In an attempt to make legible my competing heritages and the stories they inspire, I turn to those who refuse ready distinctions between insiders and outsiders, selves and others, histories and myths, between somewhere and nowhere. Cultural anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin calls attention to the overlapping, multi-dimensional spheres that create “our own confused invention.” [11] For Boyarin, distinctions between “me” and “you” unfold on a spectrum of difference and exclusion that defines the worlds we bring to life. Mindful of the “others within and others without,” Boyarin asks us to cross both time and space to “permit the past to confront our blinders with its own account of the present.” [12]

My blind spots emanate from and produce multiple imaginaries: Jamestown, Arkansas, and the German Democratic Republic compete for my attention and narrative voice. Nostalgia and Ostalgie both make real the mythical places [13] where my lifeworlds “work their magic—and exact their demands.” [14] At the crossroad of time and place, I look to the far corners of what I know to find a common ground where rural Americana and the Iron Curtain meet. In Appalachia, a storied region long described as in but not of America, I found myself mesmerized by the contradictions of holler holiness. [15] Relegated to the margins of history’s grand narratives—alongside the family farm and small towns in a former Soviet-bloc country—Appalachia serves as proof-text to one telling of my mythologized lifestory. Eliade reminds us that the myths we attribute to distant times and places survive in the daily living of life itself. [16] Calling for an awakening to the rituals and stories that become the breath and bone bridging past, present, and future, Eliade lays bare the project of self-fashioning at the core of my own insistent grappling. [17] Appalachianist Barbara Ellen Smith uses different language to locate the past as “our home” and “historiography [as] our difficult, sometimes contentious effort to return.” [18]

In the living and telling of particular stories—word made life—we create the worlds we inherit and in-dwell.

Eyes fixed on the horizon, I look for the competing geographies that beckon – ever present – always out of reach.

My curated cartography maps real, imagined, and disappeared places. The intentional choice to privilege the Ozarks and East Germany as main characters in my lifestory, instead of suburban New Jersey or my father’s hometown of Atlanta, reveals an editorial process through which I stake my claims. Womanist scholar Layli Maparayan distinguishes between the practice of “standing-in” and “flying over,” two positions that require us to name, choose, and act on our priorities. For Maparayan, standing-in means “being present as … both ‘an insider’ and ‘the opposition’ … with the larger aim of change from within.” [19] Flying-over skips “the intervening steps of tediously unpacking everything,” allowing us to “jump into” the conversations at hand. [20] Standing-in my “ex-center,” [21] a positional crossroad blurred by the lure of each cardinal direction, I tell stories about storytelling. I fly over monuments to teleologies and truth claims.

The “blank space” [22] from which I write is densely scripted—each word both product of and homage to the histories and traces of people and places who have come before [23]. Taking stock, I weigh deeply evocative rural mythologies against the presumed order of things to take on the stories through which I imagine myself home. Employing an Arkansas hermeneutic forged in a shuttered East German factory, I grapple with the politics of place-making and find my way back to Jamestown’s Landmark Missionary Baptist Church. An unassuming wooden building tucked into a gravel parking lot surrounded by large shade trees, the church sits empty except for Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings when the dwindling congregation gathers for services. This is the church where my grandparents were baptized and where my mother learned to play seven-shape gospel piano to accompany hymns that proclaim, “I know whom I have believeth.” My writing draws inspiration from a lifetime of stories told about this particular country church. I go to Jamestown to commune with the gods, but Jamestown Missionary Baptist doesn’t tell my story. It is not the church I enter. I don’t even linger on its threshold. Instead, it is a sign, a landmark that points me on my way elsewhere, a narrative device in my own quest for meaning-making.

If I began as an Arkansas Traveler, a character in the popular nineteenth-century vaudeville act that pits local yokel against city slicker, somewhere along the way I made a Faustian bargain. Haggling for the tree of knowledge, the terms of my contract remain vague; I might be writing a new script altogether.

As the story goes, my soul hangs in the balance.


[1] Donald Edward Davis, Homeplace Geography: Essays for Appalachia (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006), 14–16.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] James Still, “Heritage,” in Appalachia Inside Out: Volume II Culture and Custom, ed. Robert J. Higgs, Ambrose N. Manning, and Jim Wayne Miller (Knoxville: University Tennessee Press, 1995), 741.

[4] Jesse Stuart, “Our Heritage,” in Appalachia Inside Out: Volume II Culture and Custom, ed. Robert J. Higgs, Ambrose N. Manning, and Jim Wayne Miller (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), 739–41.

[5] Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 89.

[6] Kenneth M. George, Picturing Islam: Art and Ethics in a Muslim Lifeworld (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 4–5.

[7] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York, NY: Vintage, 1979).

[8] Jonathan Z. Smith, Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

[9] Stephani Richards-Wilson, “Cry Wolf? Encounter Controversy: Christa Wolf’s Legacy in Light of the Literature Debate,” New German Review: A Journal of Germanic Studies 24, no. 1 (February 3, 2011).

[10] Dominic Boyer, “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany,” Public Culture 18, no. 49 (Spring 2006): 361–81.

[11] Jonathan Boyarin, Storm from Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 78.

[12] Ibid., 50–51.

[13] Rob Sullivan, Geography Speaks: Performative Aspects of Geography (Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2011).

[14] George, Picturing Islam, 4–5.

[15] See, “The Centre Cannot Hold,” W.B. Yeats, Michael Robartes and the Dancer (Churchtown, Dundrum: Cuala Press, 1920).

[16] Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, 135.

[17] Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, trans. Willard R. Trask (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1963), 113, 134–38.

[18] Barbara Ellen Smith, “Legends of the Fall: Contesting Economic History,” in Christianity in Appalachia: Profiles in Regional Pluralism, ed. Bill J. Leonard (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 14.

[19] Layli Maparyan, The Womanist Idea (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 70–71.

[20] Ibid., 74–75.

[21] Vincent L. Wimbush, “Introduction: Knowing Ex-Centrics/Ex-Centric Knowing,” in MisReading America: Scriptures and Difference (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 1–22.

[22] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1972), 17.

[23] Antonio Gramsci, “Culture and Ideological Hegemony,” in Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates, ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander and Steven Seidman (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 48.