Southern “Freaks”

My dog passed away last week. After 14 years of love, joy, and mutually agreeing upon distaste towards other people’s pets it was time to put her down. I cried. I cried a lot.

I was going to leave Miami four months ago. I was going to walk away from Miami employed, satisfied, and morally conflicted for having not finished my YAV year. I cried. I cried a lot.

2000 years ago (give or take) Lazarus passed away. After a few years of love, joy, and friendship Lazarus passed away. Jesus cried. Jesus cried a lot.

I don’t cry.  I don’t choke up. I cried in front of my best friend once via the telephone, my supervisor here in Miami, once and choked up in front of our Board of Directors when we had to check-in at our Board meeting the same day my dog had been put down. You (the reader) now know my entire history of crying in front of people in the past three years. And on the rare occasion that I do cry I, like Jesus,  just freakin’ lose it like a big baby!

In her piece “Word Hoard” from Parabola, B.K. Loren writes about either herself or a character experiencing aphasia. The loss is devastating for the writer or someone in love with words and obsessed with how we speak them. The author tackles the traumatic event with humor—i.e. word associations, “fish: bagel, lion: table, pelican: funicular.” Causing her sentence to be, “the funicular skimmed the surface of the ocean searching for bagels.” They write about it with anger—“I was dead in the water without language,” and they write about it with sadness, “a year into it, I was depressed…I couldn’t stand to see words played with as if they were in some writing workshop.”

The other day I was talking to my roommates about what it means to be southern—the pain, the struggle, and the wounds left behind from a racially charged, extremely queer-phobic, and to top it all off very “Christian” past. I opened up about my families painfully white southern history. In their eyes glazing over was the mirror held to my face realizing I am not homesick, I am home chronically ill. Ann Powers’ review of Alabama Shake’s new album Sound and Color seems to perfectly sum up the southern experience and has stuck with me since reading the review in February:

“In the six years I’ve lived in the region, I’ve developed a mantra: Southern freaks are the best freaks. For me, the word “freak” can be both positive and downright spiritual. It describes serious individualists who are tolerant of others whose own paths may diverge from their own; people whose ways of thinking connect to form an antidote to the deep conventionality that often surrounds them. Southern freaks, like the four young musicians in Alabama Shakes, face multiple challenges: not only the love of tradition (and defensive attitude about it) that their neighbors nurture, but also the prejudices of those who live elsewhere and expect Southerners to be somehow limited by their native surroundings. Southern freaks are the best freaks because they have the resilience to flourish in a home that can feel foreign, while also recognizing that legacies can’t be simply processed. They must be lived, confronted and altered from within.”

Powers is alluding to what I did and exactly how I now feel about it. Running from our past is not just human nature, it’s ingrained in our DNA and it is also profoundly biblical. I speak to so many people like me who either did time away and never found a place quite like being at home, worked for years to make a new home, or the small number of success stories of people who found a home in the south. I think of the southern “freaks”—the friends and mentors that shaped who artistically shaped who I am today, the pastors who nurtured my spirituality, and the family that taught me a love of tradition—and I’m resurrected.  I want to be back home. I want to put an end to the work of a hateful southern past and embrace a brighter southern future. I’m tired of pretending like I fit in, I’m exhausted trying to be from anywhere else but the south, and I’m tired of pretending that I don’t love southern culture, because I do.

I’m secretly a sentimentalist. I secretly want everything to be exactly the way it was before. I say secretly because outwardly, defensively, and selfishly I am distant. I don’t call people regularly to check-in. Sometimes I see a text and then put the phone away in my pocket. I’m a compulsive Instagram and Facebook “liker,” but don’t post a whole lot about how I feel, articles I think are brilliant, or comment to dialogue among other friends for fear of “trolling.” My habit of being distant gets worse when I’m home. Usually I’m home with this nagging of flight, flight, flight, flight in the battle verses fight. Instead of embracing the awkwardness of running into parents of friends I know downtown, I want curl up in an introverted ball and say, “well, actually I’ve got to run!” And then my worst habit of all shows through—talking more about me than listening to what’s going on in the listener’s life.

But it wasn’t that way this past weekend at home. I caught myself talking too much if I wasn’t listening. I embraced some of the awkwardness of not having a lot to say when their used to be non-stop chatter. I walked into the local brewery and saw a few friends, two of whom had really been huge support systems earlier in my life. A friend reached out and visited when I invited her over from about an hour away and we picked up on a conversation three years had passed in between. A visit with a friend turns from short chat to hours of theological and personal reflection. I spent quality time enjoying traditional barbecue and southern comfort food with my family instead of instantly running to see my friends.

None of this happened to me in Miami. I didn’t realize how much I missed the south and being southern until my flight back to Miami reading B.K. Loren’s final paragraph from “Word Hoard” when the divine reached down:

“Once, I was aphasic. The condition lasted, to some extent or another, nearly ten years. When I came back to words I came back like a lover who’d had a mistaken affair. Once the damage is done, it’s done. But there’s a carefulness that follows. You don’t take things for granted. You speak from the soles of your feet, a current of meaning running through your body, each word carrying with it its history and the intimate mouths of your ancestors speaking it. Their lips touch yours as the word leaves you.

This is what connects you to who you are. What you love. What you caress. Whatever it is that leaves you and in its absence makes you lonelier than God.

When it returns, it becomes holy. When it returns, you see the sacred in the profane. You do not fall prostrate before it. You hold it close. You let it go. You live with it. You live.”

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