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 unspeakable 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 loved ones 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 fully immersed 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. 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 a 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.
I am alway surrounded by stacks upon stacks of books. It’s rare that I single out one, but it was this particular volume that walked me to a place of courage from which I returned to my own storied 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 proverbial 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 now ring hollow, but I am still compelled to journey with stories revered as gospel truth. The place where conviction and truth-claim meet begs for a practice. Parsing one from the other, the religion of exceptionalism meets its match. This is not s 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 a role to play in the exceptionalisms that give shape to daily liturgies.
Truth-telling invites a deep exhale, but calling out gods—yours, mine, ours, theirs—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 asset and not abomination. Most days, I wonder about the nature of our beliefs and the ways they shape our beings and sense of belonging. 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 speak truth over my learning in a cadence I can only hear when I forget myself. I’m not sure what she would have made of my musings. I know she would have resisted the questions that pester too insistently at the foundations so firm in her mind. Ours would have been a different kind of seminar, staged in the kitchen, where my grandmother dished up formation long after her memory faded.
There are no do-overs in this life, and I’m not certain I would make different choices if I could. And still, as I keep working to reclaim my native tongues, the precious boundaries of my own believing and knowing expand. What rich gifts lie in the remembering and returning. For joys unspeakable – and for the strength to follow them all the way home – I give thanks.
March 28, 2020