prophecy at goforth creek
My recent thoughts have been the sort that spill past the borders of a blog entry, but since I can’t seem to shift past them into another topic, I’ll try to make sense of them here, even if they are the sort that will send me sputtering onto a riverbank.
Just this past week, I was away from home. I drove down to Tennessee on my own with Esme to visit Jeff’s parents. Jeff couldn’t come because he was chained up to the Moses statue at the Notre Dame library, rhetorically speaking. Fortunately, I’m very comfortable at Jeff’s parents’ house, and since they really wanted to see Esme, and I really wanted a vacation of some sort, I decided to make the trip. Plus, when I go to Tennessee, I see all of my old friends who live in that area (I went to college in the town that Jeff is from), and that is a treat. It’s really the best-case-scenario in in-law arrangements, and for that, anyone would agree, I am lucky.
It still seems remarkable to me that I married someone from eastern Tennessee, since the opportunity to continually return to that area has helped me so much in my adult life to integrate my past into my present. After I converted to Orthodoxy and moved to the northeast, I realized that I had unwittingly staged something resembling a bridge burning. Well, actually, a metaphor involving fire would be overdone. I had staged a continental drift– a gentle migration into another zone, in which it seemed likely that my future mother-in-law would not be like the southern Protestant types of my past who I knew so well how to please with certain voice inflections and manners of being, but rather, say, a Greek-American lady from Boston who would tutor me in the ways of filo (philo?) dough. I believe it would have worn on me and, eventually, I would have grieved the disconnect.
But this was not my fate. I married Jeff, and grafted on the old swatches in the bottom of the yarn basket, picking up all the stray yarns and poking them back into the fabric. Our backgrounds have so many parallels, and I must say that although I admire couples of mixed race, creed, descent, or nationality, it is a personal relief to me that I married someone who understands me via a shared history and background, since I’m wimpy that way, and desperately want to be understood without an insane amount of effort.
I’m wimpy in many ways, but in other ways, I can be hard on myself. I can be a real ascetic when it comes to nostalgia, and strict with myself about not indulging in it. But driving south this time I was allowing myself some nostalgia for times spent camping in the Cherokee National Forest, probably because of the fall weather, which always makes me long to go camping. My college friends and I went camping often, given the proximity of river, streams, and mountains to the place where we sat in classrooms. Classrooms at my college were, for the student body at large, quite beside the point of student life. My particular group of friends were the people at my school who found one another and congealed through common mutinous feelings toward the status quo of required chapel services and the boring flirtations between hyper-polished guys and girls, who didn’t get the memo that it was way uncool to wear gold earrings and dress pants in the nineties. But that didn’t put a damper on anyone’s social life; the mixing never ceased. The religious climate of my college is more difficult to describe, but I’ll simply say that its more repulsive aspects played a large hand in motivating me elsewhere religiously.
Within my circle of friends, all things counter to this predominant culture of campus life were applauded and delighted in for their own sake, without discrimination, and we goaded one another onward. My friend Jordan was admired for carving out a cavity into a Reader’s Digest condensed book where he stealthily inserted his Game Boy, so that he had something to do during Old Testament 101. The rest of us got through the class by sitting on the back row in the large auditorium, and collecting and trading accumulated transcriptions of Dr. Daffie-isms, as we called them, such as, “Everyone knows that the way to a woman’s heart is through joo-ry.” The memorization of Old Testament people, places, and narratives, was deferred until exam week, when all-nighters were pulled at Waffle House or Perkins. Our friend Joel who liked to stroll across campus in a powder blue leisure suit and a black umbrella on a sunny day? Bring it on.
What I’m trying to convey is this: the energy expended on being counter-cultural at my college, the sneering at peers who were obviously there only to find a spouse left little reserves for the maturation process, academics, or simply being normal. I’ll never stop ruminating on what my life might have been like if I had enrolled in a college I could have taken seriously, which would have enveloped me in studies without my consent. It isn’t healthy to go through college feeling cynical, bitter, and falsely superior to your peers and professors, but at the same time, it was all I and many of my friends knew how to do to ward off a different kind of unhealthy that we were subjected to just by being there.
But putting on wool socks and outfits that would be acceptable for two days of wear, plus double acceptably as pajamas, we would set out, caravaning in several cars on gravely back roads, toward one of an assortment of campsites with exhilarating names such as Thunder Rock, or Goforth Creek. To me, names denoting natural landmarks and locations are king among proper nouns. Missionary Ridge. Signal Mountain. Devil’s Shoals. I love these names, and I loved being in a place where such names circulate and rumble through everyday speech. Goforth Creek is my favorite. It is a proper noun, imperative command, and compound word all at the same time, and has connotations of old time Appalachian religion. “Goforth! [Creek]”
On one camping trip, after the fire, and all the prerequisite things that happen before you turn in, I ended up in a tent with my friends Lisa and Micah. Micah was a guy who was destined– down to the molecular level– to be a religious leader of some sort. He was a priest long before he was actually ordained, and he had the gift of authoritative speech that I’ve encountered in maybe one or two other people in my life. He was the unofficial figurehead of the cynical social circle I moved in. Everyone liked Micah, thought everything he said was either highly entertaining or prophetically true, as he was the most accomplished at satirizing and picking apart the institution we were all trying to undermine, but with so much more eloquence. Plus, he was a master at impersonating Chris Farley. In the tent that night he was holding forth about the way God brings people into your life, and by way of example, told Lisa and me that he believed it was no accident that the three of us were in that tent together on that particular night. At this pronouncement, the whole moment was colored over with the hues of destiny for me, and although it hadn’t occurred to me to think of our sleeping arrangement in that way, I instantly embraced what he said as objectively true, receiving it with goose bumps. Yes, I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, camping in the hills of Tennessee. It had to be true.
This is the specific memory I was having as I drove down to Tennessee this past week. Although I don’t really talk to Micah much anymore (he is actually a very busy parish priest now in Detroit), Lisa was one of the people I saw while I was down there, and I asked her if she remembered Micah’s words on that particular camping trip. She didn’t. Therefore, I reason, it was powerful on a totally personal, subjective, and emotional level, like so many of the memories that composite my dreamy, undiscerning youth.
I think I’ve learned to be a bit less impressionable and a tad more critical of what people blurt out around me, but the relationship-oriented part of me that was so ready to embrace Micah’s words is essentially unchanged. When I look at what really motivates most of what I do, it is social, relational. I still revolve around my connections to people and want to integrate them all into a big happy rubber band ball. I can’t say that I spend a lot of energy making new relationships, but I spend a lot on deepening the ones I have, and it really does seem to function as a visceral priority which rules my destiny. This was why I never cared very much about making good grades in school unless I particularly adored a teacher. This is also surely why I can’t seem to excel at things that make money or give me status as an adult.
Dang, I wish I was better at that stuff. I wish I cared. It nags at me. I feel that, for instance, if I like to write as much as I claim to, I’d be finding ways to get paid for it, instead of pouring energy into “flakedoves,” the worst name for a blog ever…the name that has zero popular appeal. And forget writing, I can’t even stick to a logical domestic schedule as a stay-at-home mom. One call from a friend inviting me for coffee is enough to make me lose my resolve.
As much as I dream about how my life would be different if I had enrolled in a different, more serious, more academic college, I have to be honest with myself and admit that, first, I can’t bear the thought of having not met the people I met at that time, who have been and still are so important to me, and second, even if I had gone somewhere else, my natural tendency to place friendships above other ambitions would have resulted in similar outcomes and early twenty dramas.
The truth about me that I should probably just accept, is that life happens to me through people and I think about life in relational terms. Sometimes that has brought practical things my way, like jobs (how I wish that would happen right now), but most of the time it leads my life away from worldly success of any sort. What I’d like to conclude is that there is nothing wrong with this. Remembering Goforth Creek, I am starting to suspect it’s the way I’m made, and I should probably start working with it instead of against it, not forever thinking I should be some other way.