Opinion | Notes on returning home
I was angry as I drove west from Nashville. The sun was in my eyes, and I had a tight grip on the steering wheel as the car kept being blown away by the gusts of passing trucks at surprisingly illegal speeds. At least I’m not heading eastI kept reminding myself, Stuck behind a large platform trying to overtake another on a steep mountain slope. On the flatlands of West Tennessee, even eighteen-wheelers can go 90 miles per hour.
I was relieved when the car’s map directed me toward a four-lane lane leading south. But from the top of the slope, I could see a tanker truck stabbed across the road, no more than 50 yards away. Sirens were sounding from every direction.
The map took me back to a smaller road where the speed limit oscillated up and down, dropping at every intersection, even when the intersecting road was a path between fields, nothing to mark out.
Now the wind was not coming from passing trucks, but from the world itself, blowing across the expansive fields. Cotton was still growing on the same road, and I was astonished to realize that my windshield was full of insects. I never have to clean my buggy windshield at home anymore. Despite my best intentions, I was used to living in a place poor with insects.
As the road went on, little church after little church, little churchyard after little churchyard, I drove carefully, sometimes going no faster than 30 miles an hour. I was no less concerned about the possibility of a lurking police vehicle armed with a radar gun being obscured by vegetation than a barefoot child or an unleashed dog might wander mindlessly down this usually quiet road.
A song from Tyler Childers’ new album “Rustin’ In the Rain” was playing on the radio, so I turned up the volume. Mr. Childers sings on Loretta Lynn’s original Appalachian record or The Carter Family. He’s good company on a winding road in a quiet place, where it’s easy to imagine the aching loneliness of his words—or the echo of faith, or the mysterious intelligence—being enacted in real life just steps down the road.
While driving through the Mississippi countryside, I felt my shoulder drop. Suddenly I was smiling. On a path dappled among grassy bushes and pine forests and cotton fields and rural cemeteries and ramshackle towns that lie at crossroads without a blinking yellow light, I was singing along with Tyler Childers and smiling like a fool.
I was home.
I don’t mean literally. I come from a peanut farm in lower Alabama, not cotton farmers in Mississippi. The first time I set foot in Mississippi, I was 22 and on my way to New Mexico, eager to get the red dirt of home off my sandals as quickly as I could.
But those little boarded-up churches where the cars parked right on the grass, those rough farm roads yielding to blacktops, those insect-dazzled flowering edges between the fields, that crackling light streaming from the pines—they were all telling me that I was. house. I was so happy to be home.
Poet Mary Oliver says: “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, do not hesitate. Surrender to it.”
I think she’s right—”Joy is not made to be crumbs”—but for a certain kind of Southerner, it’s impossible not to question that very happiness. This place has caused so much suffering. How could her love fail to raise questions? However, the sight of cotton growing in the fields made me happy. During those few hours, despite my knowledge of the terrible and bloodstained history of cotton, I could not help myself. Happiness rose within me like an anthem.
I remembered my college friend who visited Kansas from Alabama and returned saying she truly understood her prairie-born husband for the first time. He was a creature of big skies and waving grasses, and always would be, even though they lived together in the Piedmont region of Alabama.
We can’t help ourselves. We are shaped by the landscape into which we are born as inescapably as any other earthly creature born into any other ecosystem.
I’m at home wherever cotton grows surrounded by tree lines covered in kudzu. I’m at home where the roadsides bloom with the little yellow flowers called beggar’s ticks. I’m at home in rural churchyards, in towns too small to even let a blinking yellow light, in pines so far from commerce, that through the pine needles they sound just like a whisper, never mind that “whisper” is a cliché that doesn’t Forgivable in society. Wind context.
Drive down the highway back home, with the golden autumn light pouring around you and the golden leaves falling in the rush of the passing air, and tell me that your heart is not filled with love and longing. Tell me you can stop your heart from being filled with love to the point of palpitating with longing. Even a completely broken heart comes back broken more when the source of the heartbreak is home.
I’ve crossed the American South in recent weeks, from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi floodplain, from the Buffalo to the Tennessee and all the other great southern rivers—the Tombigbee, the Chattahoochee, the Coosa, the Oconee and the glorious Caney Fork—it’s been the same wherever I’ve gone. “This is a sign you need more guns and ammunition,” one billboard said, and yet my heart was filled with love for my difficult, troubled, wonderful home.
The South is changing. Look at polls on divisive issues like guns, abortion, and gay rights. Look at the results of ballot measures in red states. Behold the Grammy-nominated video for “In Your Love” by director Tyler Childers, which tells the story of two gay coal miners who find great fun together despite the growing threat of violence around them. My friend, Kentucky Poet Laureate Silas House, who was working on a story created by his husband, Jason Kyle Howard, wrote the screenplay.
Even a decade ago, you could have imagine Country artist raised in double wide trailer in eastern Kentucky making this video? Or, for that matter, an openly gay man becoming poet laureate of Kentucky?
Many Southerners rejoice at these changes, while many others do not know what to think about them. There is no denying that a few will take up arms to try to prevent such changes from taking hold. I believe nothing will prevent them from taking root, but even the most devoted among us know that it will be a long time before the full human being flourishes here.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to love the place that made me, because it seems I have no choice about it. Because when the faint gold of pine needles, the pale yellow leaves of elms, the speckled orange leaves of sugar maples, and the brilliant red leaves of black gum trees fall from the sky in the wind, it always feels just like a pond.