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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These Are a Few of My Ill-Favored Things

I don’t know a single person who has ever kept a new year’s resolution, including me. But that never stops us from making them. Like always, the day after Christmas, after all the toys and electronic gizmos were taken down, displays of workout gear and other doo dads that promise to slim one part of our anatomy or another were put up in their place. Commercials for Nutri-System (now starring Janet Jackson oddly enough), Weight Watchers, and Alli started airing before Christmas dinner had been given a chance to properly digest. (And if you take Alli, I promise you, nothing will digest properly ever again.)

Products that promise to help us quit smoking, get organized, save money, or do anything we’ve put off for most or all of 2011 will renew a desire in us to attack whatever weakness we perceive in ourselves and try to weed it out yet again. We’ve all been in that vicious cycle…the one you begin with every good intention and carry out for weeks or even months of the new year.

Until you quit.

However, most of us restart at least once only to give up again. After that, all that’s left is to hate ourselves and crawl into our dark caves of despair until the sting of failure is nothing but a dull ache somewhere between our third and fourth ribs, easily written off as angina or a pulled muscle.

I didn’t stop making resolutions because I always failed at them (though I did), but because a resolution almost sets a person up for failure. After all, how can we know what 2012 will bring? Maybe the year you swear you’ll lose fifty pounds is the year God has something else in mind. Heck, the year I vowed I’d finish grad school, I went into the hospital and came out with a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Grad school simply had to wait until the following winter to be finished. My plans were put on hold for His, and let me tell you His were much better for me in the long run.

Just because you didn’t accomplish what you thought you should during a particular 365 day stretch doesn’t mean that your entire year was in vain. However, we like making lists, checking things off them, and feeling the sense of accomplishment that comes from it. And the thought of doing it when a new year arrives, fresh out of the box and still covered in shiny plastic is just so darned appealing…so symbolic.

As Leigh McLeroy says in her article for In Touch Magazine coming out in March, “We are, all of us, result-oriented people who serve a process-happy God.” I liked that quote when I first read it, so much so that I copied down on a Post-It and hung it on a board in my office already ripe to bursting with them. Sometimes, when I’m between tasks or letting my brain deflate after a particularly strenuous one, I look at that wall, and usually something leads me to find the one I need to read in that moment. But I digress.

What Ms. McLeroy is saying makes perfect sense. We like the concept of a process, having steps to follow, and being rewarded for carrying them out to the letter. However, sad though it is, I think we have been conditioned by Hollywood to think of those processes in montage format. You know–the ones made famous by movies like Rocky or pretty much any Disney moviewhere the hero’s long hours of training, pain, suffering, and growth is condensed into three or four minutes that’s usually paired with a catchy song?

Anyone who has ever truly accomplished something will tell you just how unrealistic it is to expect to gain it overnight. However, we live in a society built on the concept of instant gratification, and that, I think, is why many a resolution takes a dirt nap before the first green shoots of spring force their way up through the thawing soil.

I’m a firm believer in change–both the need for and the possibility of it–but the time of the year shouldn’t be what prompts it. I heard a DJ here in Atlanta say, “You have to have a resolution on January 1…just so you can break it January 2.” Really? To have a resolution only to break it is no resolution at all. I’d rather make it when my moment arrives and see it through to completion. For instance, I made dozens of promises to myself to lose weight, and I failed every time. When I finally made the decision to truly go for it, it was May or June. But my mind and my gumption were ready, and I’m one hundred pounds thinner today. Yes, I lost it and have kept most of it off for two years. It was always possible, but I had to be ready to bring it about rather than being told.

Also, change doesn’t mean you have to throw out everything you are to start over. Think of it like a room makeover. A blank slate to work with may sound appealing, but the work that is involved in stripping it bare is exhausting. And there’s nothing to show at the end of it but that raw, unfinished emptiness. Also, what’s worse is that you may lose tiny details and intricacies that are worth keeping, things that an entirely new version of that room can be built around.

I have to admit that the room metaphor wasn’t originally mine. I got the idea from Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Ellen Goodman who once said, “We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives… not looking for flaws, but for potential.”

That’s how I’m choosing to think in 2012. For me, 2011 was a pretty great year, and it was a much needed one after six or seven years of struggle on whole host of levels. I want to build on that by continuing to do those things that worked and doing them better. I want to break new ground, too.

Yes, I have many flaws, but I want to take the time to evaluate them and see if they aren’t things that can be reclaimed, refurbished, and (though I loathe to use a word like this) upcycled rather than simply chunked out the door of my soul. Because, as Touchstone says of his virgin daughter in As You Like It, it is “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own.”

I won’t call them “resolutions” as they’re more “projects” than anything else, and they won’t be bound by time. However, I will begin 2012 by focusing on three areas where I know I have potential. 

***

1. My financial situation was much better in 2011 than it has been in recent years. Therefore, I want to continue to build upon that. My goal is to eventually have $10,000 in the savings account. It may be this year, maybe not, but I can make a good start.

2. Most people I know consider me to be exceedingly well read, but I went through my Goodreads page the other day and was embarrassed at how many of the classics I had never enjoyed either by choice or because my studies never brought me into contact with them. It’s not as terrible now as when I was an English teacher and had to admit I’d never read Moby Dick, but it’s still something I’d like to rectify. I would like 2012 to end with me having read at least three seminal works of English literature that I’ve never read before. I’ll wait to see what mood strikes me before I commit to any one of them.

3. I want to do one thing this year that will benefit me in some way such as teaching me a new skill like painting or cake decorating, something I can actually practice and use. I also want to provide the same experience for another person, but I don’t know who or how just yet!