In My End Is My Beginning

Georgia. From the Greek, the feminine form of George, a word meaning “a tiller of soil” or “farmer.” The name fits seeing as how the state is filled from border to shore with farmland. But while some folks settle in and work the earth, more often than not, it’s a place people pass through or end up marooned in by some sad twist of fate. Think about it…

Gladys Knight got here on a midnight train, leaving sunny California to return with her man in his shame and failure (whoo whoo!)

The brokenhearted Marshall Tucker Band arrived on a Southbound, one that took them to the place where “the train runs outta track.”

It’s the place where innocent men are hung because of backwoods Southern lawyers, where good men settle down with their hard lovin’ girls, where it’s easy to think it’s raining all over the world.

Seems like no one who comes here is very happy about it (except Ray Charles who made a fortune singing about moonlight through the pines, but let’s not bring him into it.)

Like many, I’m a sojourner in the thirteenth colony, brought here against my wishes. I’d lived in Georgia once before when I attended Valdosta State University, where I earned two bachelor’s degrees and hooked me a husband. But when I lost my teaching job and scatted on back to sunny Florida, my adopted home state, I was glad to shake the red clay from my feet. Little did I know that less than a decade later, I’d be back and settled in a city much farther north—Atlanta, the pit of the peach state.

This sprawling metroplex, now known as “The Hollywood of the South,” was established in 1837 as the end of the Western & Atlantic railroad line. Unlike other capitals, it’s not on a river or a coast, a locale easily accessed by waterway. It’s tucked firmly, stubbornly some might say, in the right breast pocket of the state. And though six or seven major roads can get you here these days, don’t count on any of them being faster than that original train. Oh, and it’s original given name? Terminus, which means “final point” or “end.” How fitting. (Thanks to The Walking Dead for that little factoid.)

So yes, it’s safe to say I’m not head-over-heels in love with this place. I miss the ocean and fresh seafood, saw palmettos and mangroves, eating oranges straight off the tree and the taste of homemade Key Lime Pie. I miss endless green golf courses and hidden freshwater springs and manatees. I even miss anoles.

It’s not just creature comforts I’m kvetching about either. For the first time in my life, I’m six hours away from my family, which left me feeling adrift and isolated at first. But I’m starting to understand the value of that kind of distance.

Before I left home, there were many things to which the answers seemed sure. Why? Because I lived in an echo chamber, surrounded by people who looked, thought, and acted like I did. Consensus doesn’t call for much in the way of soul searching. Here in Atlanta, however, I’m away from kin and have had to build a larger social circle to compensate. Sharing space and time with a more diverse group of people has proven to be one of the greatest blessings (and causes for growth) I’ve ever experienced.

For the first time in my nearly 40 years on this earth, I listen more than I talk. I have sat wide-eared with people I’ve grown to love and value, and they’ve revealed so much. They told me how they grieve over tributes to the Confederacy in town squares or carved into Stone Mountain. To them, the latter is a blight on an amazing creation of God, and each statue, plaque, or obelisk reminds them that racism’s roots run deep in the state we all call home.

As a lover of all things historical, I once argued that such monuments should be left unmolested in order to preserve history (and avoid repeating it). However, knowing that these objects cause others pain, seeing it writ large on the faces of fellow image bearers of God, compelled me to revise my opinion.

That unsettling revelation led me on a paper pilgrimage, and I read books like Blood At the Root: A Racial Cleansing In America by Patrick Phillips, White Awake by Daniel Hill, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, March by John Lewis, and Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson. With each volume, I’ve been challenged, forced either to defend or amend things I once thought settled, and while it can be challenging, it’s been well worth it. The work has reframed my understanding of the legal system in America, helped me see the ways we confuse patriotism and nationalism, and broadened my view on immigration and belonging.

The distance has also required me to look at my faith with fresh eyes. For too long, I went along with what I’d been taught, and while there’s nothing theologically amiss about the doctrine I grew up with, it never felt fully mine. I had never been obliged to step up and own it. Being here allowed me not only to find a place I can call my own for the first time; it also drove me to the Bible and theology texts of all shapes and sizes. The process has shown me the shocking scope of things I didn’t know, and that is cause for both great humility and expectation.

When my the pastor says, “I ask you, Christian, what do you believe?” I stand with my brothers and sisters and say….

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

I recite it and know in a way beyond words that what I believe is true. That it is solid. That it will hold. That it will never be found wanting. That’s well worth a little geographical discomfort.

In “East Coker” the second of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, he closes with the following stanza.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

And that’s precisely what I’m doing. I am “still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion.” Georgia, despite being the last place I wanted to live, became the place where I needed to be. What I saw as an end was actually my beginning.

Once again, Eliot says it better in “East Coker” than I ever could:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

In this place, this state and time, I have learned that what I “do not know is the only thing [I] know.” Here in this strange, broken, and somehow beautiful territory, I have become a farmer of sorts, one who turns over the soil of her own heart, removing weeds that hinder growth, sowing good seed, and watering it in faith.

Yeah, Georgia ain’t much, but it’s home.

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Reacting to the Writing on the Wall

Having recently moved into Atlanta, the first truly metropolitan area I’ve ever lived in, I can say that there are some adjustments I’ve had to make. Some of the changes that come from moving from a rather idyllic suburban area to an urban zone have been positive. Others, well, not so much.

Photo by the Associated Press

On the negative side, with my poor sense of direction, learning my way around has proven to be a challenge. For those who have never visited the ATL, half the streets have “Peacthree” in their names, and none of them meet up. It’s like the street were titled by the same five-year-old who calls all her pets and stuffed animals “Kitty.”

I’ve ended up going the wrong way down more than a few one way streets, calling my husband to help me get somewhere after I’ve gotten lost, and generally crying hysterically for a few minutes once I get home. On the plus side, my prayer life is much richer for it. Also, once I do reach my destination, I have to determine where I can park because “parallelin’ it” is often out of the question, and only so many of the parking garages take debit cards. (I’ve also learned the value of the word “validation,” which has NOTHING to do with my self esteem.)

And the TRAFFIC. I’ll save my discussion of that for another blog post. It truly

Photo by Jack Kurtz

deserves its own. I’d like to find the person or persons who thought it would be a good idea to merge I-75 and I-85 together through a major city and to do so in such a way that it is impossible to ever widen it. I would have a reasonable discussion with them about civic planning, like Sampson, smite them with the jawbone of an ass.

However, for all the drawbacks (i.e.–not as many people say “Hello” when they pass you, personal safety is of greater concern, and it gets hecka cold here in the winter for a thin-blooded Florida girl like me), there are a great many positives. For example, I live five minutes from an amazing arts center where I can visit the museum, take in a show, or listen to a concert just about year round. There’s a botanical garden close to it as well. There are unique bookstores, restaurants, and music shops straight out of High Fidelity I can peruse at my leisure. Broadway’s best shows come here, as do the biggest bands while on tour. All major sporting leagues (except hockey…sorry Thrashers) have teams here I can follow, and there are beautiful historical sites and festivals going on all the time. There’s never a shortage of new things to experience; I just don’t always have the funds to indulge in all of them!

I’ve tried to balance out these two diametrically different forces in my life. Sure, I’m farther away from my family than I’d like. However, moving to Atlanta gave me the opportunity to leave education and jump feet first into the print industry. I’m writing and editing for a living, which is something I NEVER could have done back home. The many long and painful things Wayne and I had to endure on the path that led us here were worth it, both spiritually and financially.

People have been doing the “Thirty Days of Thankfulness” thing this month on blogs and on Facebook, posting one thing a day for which they are truly grateful be it family, a flush toilet, or flavored dental floss. I think it is an excellent exercise, one we should practice the other eleven months of the year. After all, we’re blessed year-round, not just during the one month the holiday happens to fall on the last Thursday.

I can tell one thing I’m grateful for.

His name is Onk.

Me and My Buddy

You’ll notice that I didn’t name him; the “artist” who created him did. Granted, he’s just graffiti, a spray paint squiggle defacing a wall separating a train station from the street. I see him each morning when I leave for work as the road I take out of our neighborhood runs into the one where he’s stationed. There’s something about him that makes me smile. Perhaps it’s the “whomperjawed” eyeballs that sit, off kilter from one other, or the bucktoothed grin. Maybe its just the mystery of why someone would take the time to create such a thing (and name it) on a random Atlanta wall. I’ve come to think of Onk as “home.” I know I’m in my place when I see his familiar teeth, and I can use him as a guidepost for others who need directions to find me. Sure, time and the elements will eventually erase him, but, to a Southern girl like me, that’s no different than knowing how to get somewhere based on where “such and such building used to be.” There’s a comfort in distinctly human things like this, a quirky thing that decorates an otherwise soulless wall. I’m willing to bet hundreds if not thousands of people drive by him every week and never notice he’s there, but I do.

Imagine my surprise yesterday morning when, on the way to church, my husband and I saw this!

Onk Has New Friends!

Yep, Onk has a roommate! (Or two—I can’t tell if the squiggles in brown are a word or a design.) There’s now a vivid blue mouse wearing a turban (or a ninja hood) a foot or two away from my old friend.

Unlike the sanguine Onk who sits tranquilly on the wall, his eyes glazed in half sleep, the blue mouse (who I have to name on my own some day) seems flabbergasted to be where he is. His wide eyes and acute eyebrows betray his panic to oncoming traffic, as if he’s afraid we’re going to choose neither left nor right and plow straight into the wall where he’s stuck. I was actually delighted when I saw it for some reason, and I stopped to take a picture this morning.

Perhaps I clapped my hands in delight because yet-to-be-named-blue-ninja-turbaned-mouse reminds me that I live in a world of constant change. Nothing stays the same, but I can choose how I react to it and be thankful that I’m around to experience it.

I can either get angry because A.) Someone is defacing a wall or B.) I liked Onk just the way he was -or- I can see it as a positive. It’s just another guidepost, a thumbtack on the topographical map of my life. I think I’ll choose the latter.