Many who read my posts or have known me for some considerable time, or have made an effort to know me regardless of how far back our relationship goes, know that I moved back to the Chattanooga area in December 2012 after having been away for about thirty-one years.
Moving away at the age of fifteen was an exercise in culture shock and adaptation on my part. I learned very quickly, and sometimes through some tough lessons doled out by others, that the world beyond my place of birth was not the same and I had to adjust my views and interaction with the new world in which I lived to survive. I made several of these cultural adjustments over the course of my life and found it easier with each move to another city or state, or even another country. My world expanded beyond the nuclear family and community into which I was born and I learned there are other belief systems and traditions—not necessarily a bad thing. I also learned that my family of origin did not teach me proper communication skills or ways to set boundaries effectively with others so as not to become enmeshed and lost in those relationships, but to co-exist and thrive separately as individuals as well. In essence, moving away from home, and more specifically my family of origin, played a huge role in my learning to be independent and to think for myself, and to be open-minded to the differences around me, while also protecting my own self, time and energy when balancing how I shared myself with others.
While these lessons learned were not necessarily predicated by the geographical move away from my hometown or from my family of origin, I will say that it made the necessary changes in mindset easier to accomplish. I was able to look back at my upbringing and family dynamics, as well as the cultural expectations placed upon me while I was growing up in a deeply southern community, from a distance. I was able to see with fresh eyes and point of view where some of what I learned was not conducive to success as a woman, mother, wife, employee, or artist. On the other hand, many of the traditions I learned about respecting others, especially my elders, being kind to those who need it, cherishing family bonds worth keeping, and helping others were assets I continued to carry with me and which I slowly began to hone to a finer point to combine with my new sense of self and self-expression.
One thing I learned after leaving home was that it was okay for me to disagree with others, to have my own voice, and to set up boundaries to protect myself from those who would take advantage of me. None of these were taught to me as a girl in Tennessee and Georgia. On the contrary, I was taught that children should be seen and not heard, that I was supposed to be nice to everyone no matter how horrible they were to me, and I was also supposed to do for everyone regardless of the toll exacted upon me or my own beliefs, or safety, for that matter. Boundaries were not even part of the vocabulary of my family and community. The men in my family were the protectors, but they also maintained the right to use a heavy hand and voice upon their children and wives if necessary, to “Set ‘em straight.”
Women, in short, were not respected as equals where I come from. They were considered less able to think, speak, understand and do what men were assumed to know from birth or training along the way. It was a woman’s job to take care of her man and her family regardless of her needs and desires, and if one bucked that system, there was a heavy price to pay. Just smile and act like nothing is wrong. “Don’t talk about family.” “We take care of our own.” If a woman went against this norm, she was either “crazy,” “a bitch,” or “selfish.”
Therefore, many learned to get their needs met through manipulation. They made their husbands or children feel guilty as they cried or latched onto them in their helplessness, or they falsely supported them while doing destructive things such as over-spending, over-eating or not eating enough, having affairs, doing drugs, drinking, or gossiping about others to divert the pain and anguish they felt inside away from themselves. They made sure to look the part with their hair, makeup, body size and clothes. They joined the Junior League or the PTA. They tanned at the pool or lake. They flirted with their husband’s friends and stabbed their “friends” in the back. They felt threatened by women who seemed “better off” or more attractive, or self-assured. They found a person to vilify in their family or social circle and they did so with gusto—all while, smiling and saying, “Bless their heart.”
Now, I am not saying that this sort of dysfunction is limited to my place of birth or to the South in general. Dysfunctional families are everywhere, in every community and state and country. The tone and appearance may be different depending on where you are from, but the fact remains that dysfunctional family and community systems exist and it is possible to learn how to interact with others in a healthy manner—if one is willing to do so.
When I was eight years old, I told my dad I wanted to go to a school where I could learn to draw and paint and write. He dismissed my dreams and said my job was to get married and have kids. It was that simple. No one in my family had ever earned a college degree, though my dad and some other male family members had taken some college courses. It was a man’s world. My job was to make it easier for them.
Even when a man my dad’s age molested me when I was eleven years old, my mindset of being less worthy of respect and care was so entrenched that I said nothing about it. I kept it to myself so as not to cause problems—to be a problem—for my family. After all, that would be an act of betrayal. It would expose ugliness to the world, and the rule of “We don’t talk about family and family business.” would be broken.
Most have heard the expression, “You can’t go home again.” However, few know the root of this commonly used saying. Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel that was published posthumously by his editor, Edward Aswell, from extractions of a vast and unpublished manuscript which Mr. Wolfe had titled The October Fair. The title of the published novel, largely compiled by Mr. Aswell, was You Can’t Go Home Again. (Wolfe, Thomas; Harper & Row, New York, 1940)
The novel tells the story of an author who writes a book about his home town, a story that makes frequent references to his home and his life there. The protagonist, George Webber, who had been a fledgling author until the publication of his book, found national success at last with this novel. However, the people of his home town were not happy with what they considered to be a distorted view of their characters and traditions. They even went so far as to send George Webber menacing letters and death threats.
Mr. Wolfe’s novel is categorized in the genre of autobiographical fiction. He used a fictional protagonist, George Webber, and setting to tell a story with more truth than fiction, and to show the outrage that people feel and exact on a person willing to tell a story from his or her point of view. Such honest storytelling exposes people and their masks are removed. George Webber exposed family and friends and was made an outcast for his actions. He traveled around the country and the world on a journey to find himself and finally realized that he would forever be a stranger in any place. He was forever changed by his experiences and therefore, he could never recapture the dreams of his youth nor capture anything like it in his present life.
Most writers have been held up to scrutiny and scorned for their words, especially the honest ones. Anyone willing to tell his or her own truth will be criticized by a group of people, somewhere, at some point in time, because the truth one person tells often sparks something in others—and that something is a force many are not willing to acknowledge or accept. People prefer to live in their make-believe worlds, where ugly, hateful things only happen to and are perpetrated by those people, not us.
As early as the age of ten, I was criticized for writing poetry about my experiences and feelings in the world. My own mother could not understand why I needed to write that stuff down. Ex-boyfriends, husbands, and men in general only showed interest in my writing to make me feel they were really interested in me—in who I am inside—and not just what I represented for them: a hot date, a roll in the hay, a good wife who knows her place. When the truth came out in my writing—and it always does, eventually—those people were not willing to accept me or support me, protect me from their scornful family or friends, or have my back when others were trying to knock me down and put me back in my “place.”
When I moved back “home” nearly three years ago, I was a confident woman who knew herself, who she wanted to become, and how she wanted to accomplish her goals. Despite my brief experience on Sand Mountain and “Hank’s” death and his horrible family (see my post, Don’t Shoot the Messenger), I was happy and ready to live life on my terms. The tap was flowing. I was writing stories and songs every week. I even ventured to have one of my non-fiction stories published in an online women’s magazine, MORE. It was published in April 2013 under the title, The Pull of Strays, the same month I met my husband. It seemed as if my world was finally coming together and all the ingredients were right for not only my creative endeavors, but for love and friendship, and even family. My kids were all talking to me—finally! My boundaries were set with my past and I could finally enjoy my life without an ex-husband trying his best to sabotage it. My childhood girlfriend lived only minutes away for the first time since we were twelve years old. The two of us could finally go hiking up at Bowater Pocket Wilderness together on a regular basis. My aunt and two of my uncles lived within a half hour drive. My mom’s sister and my cousins lived across mountain. I had my childhood home—though quite changed, and most of my family resting in cemeteries throughout the area. My memories, good and bad, fueled my writing. I finally wrote that novel I had always longed to write. I developed quite a following on my Facebook writing page. With my husband, I experienced the world from the back of his motorcycle and saw things differently for the first time. At last, I found a job in social services case management, helping people with mental illness to be more independent (or so I believed). Everything just seemed to start clicking.
Yes, there were challenges, and many still remain. New ones have emerged. That’s life, right? However, I found that my life here became something that was not necessarily my own, or at least, not enough of mine to make me feel as though I am still on track to writing and success. Disappointment can be so devastating. My best friend ended up getting sick and now she is in the hospital. We only hiked up at the Pocket Wilderness two times when I first came back here. Two of my kids are no longer speaking to me—again—because they didn’t like what I wrote in one of my stories. One of my uncles passed away from cancer over a year ago, and I can count on one hand the times I’ve gone to visit and spent time with my other uncle and my aunt since I moved out of their home in Ringgold and came here to live, two-and-a-half years ago. That great job in social services turned out to be more of drain than a blessing and caused me to get sick, so I had to leave it. I don’t get to see my mom’s sister because of her kids. John’s dog, Boone, died in January. We have had family illness and death. There have been many adjustments that have had to be made due to my presence in my husband’s life.
Worst of all, I have a novel I need to finish and I don’t even feel like looking at it. I have not picked up my guitar in months. I don’t sing anymore, and my husband and I don’t dance anymore.
That confident woman, who was happy and healthy, whose writing was flourishing, is now paralyzed by fear. This is not a foreign place for me to be. I lived there a long time before I finally took control of my own destiny and set boundaries with people who were determined to control and manipulate me with their anger and criticism of my life, my choices, and most of all—my truth as I see it and express it in my writing. It’s a familiar place, but a miserable one.
I don’t want to stay in this place where I doubt myself and let the opinions of others keep me from being who I am meant to be, and writing what I am meant to write. I don’t want my self-worth to be dictated by the acceptance, or lack thereof, of people who refuse to even understand me or know who I am. I don’t want to be afraid to be…ME.
I also don’t want to lose what has become so important, and that is my life here. I want to know I’m safe here, and that the most important people have my back. Despite the criticism and hatred directed at me of late, I know deep inside I don’t deserve it.
You can come home again, but be prepared for not only the changes in the people and the place, but those changes that took place within you, too. Coming full circle, and coming back home has, for me, only heightened the realization and truth of my existence. Unfortunately, the romance of that existence has burned off with the mist of these lazy mountains and ridges and revealed that, I am a stranger, outside looking in.
May 21, 2015