Southern Gothic

cemetary

Confederate Soldiers at Rest, Montgomery, Alabama

I have always loved cemeteries. Even as a young girl, with a nostalgic historian’s heart, I enjoyed walking through them, admiring the artwork, the names, the family groupings. To me, there is great beauty in them, and old Southern graveyards even enchant with their ancient trees and draping moss, harboring sassy mockingbirds who keep watch over the quiet stone inhabitants in respite from the busy modern world.

Since my Mom died, I have rarely been to a cemetery. I have always been good about visiting my family plots, regularly placing flowers and cleaning up their resting places, an obligation ingrained in me from childhood. Write thank you notes, Becky Jo, and visit your people, that’s what Southern Belles do. But my Mama, against all family tradition, chose to be cremated. Three months before she died, as we were leaving our swimming hole on the St. Marys River, she told me that when she died, she wanted to be cremated and her ashes spread. I fussed and fumed at her, because she was young and healthy, and I did not want to be talking about death on a hot summer afternoon. She insisted, however, and I was forced very soon to honor her wishes against the protest of many of our kin.

I never understood why she made this choice. I tried to and I even spread her ashes in a poetic manner, playing her favorite Beatles song, “Here Comes the Sun” at dawn while doing it. Now, I get it.

Yesterday, I was in Montgomery, Alabama, making my way through the lovely Oakwood Annex Cemetery, and an overwhelming wave of emotion hit me. I realized sort of stupidly for the first time that my Mama wanted to be cremated, because she was single and did not want to be buried alone. I knew it as if she was whispering the message on my heart, and I got teary-eyed, because I, too, now have that fear.

As the day went on, I thought about my  life and my relationships and got very, very morose at the thought of dying and not having a loved one to lay beside. Granted, I have my grandparents and other family members and I have my kids who will hopefully, God willing, be with me when that fateful time comes. But not having a husband, not being a Mrs. whomever, not belonging to another human being when passing, just breaks my heart and makes me cry.

Maybe this is part of some midlife crisis I am having. A quick search actually showed that the fear of dying alone is quite common. I am not scared of dying itself and have no sense of its impending call as I think my Mama must have had. Maybe this new sensitivity is a sign of my longing for deeper companionship. Maybe it means my heart is healing, that I am ready to be fully committed, hell if I know. Whatever it is, the flood of emotions that overcame me as I snapped pictures of magnolia trees and Confederate graves haunted me like a ghostly specter throughout the day, and the fear lingers with me, even now.

I do not want to die alone.

As women glide from their twenties to thirties, Shazzer argues, the balance of power subtly shifts. Even the most outrageous minxes lose their nerve, wrestling with the first twinges of existential angst: fears of dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian.” ~Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary {my favorite book}

The Anxiety of Intimacy

My best friend and I have had many conversations about dating. She has walls up from past hurts, which is completely understandable. She does not want to let her guard down, does not want to be taken advantage of, does not want to seem vulnerable.

She gets frustrated with me, because I am so open to meeting people. I easily connect, enjoy hearing people’s stories, even like the cat and mouse chase. The writer in me enjoys the fodder it gives me for good laughs with my girls.

She worries that I risk getting my heart broken too much, but she is wrong. I never let anyone near my heart. There is so much scar tissue built up that it is going to take a skilled surgeon or hunter gatherer with a sharp knife to get anywhere near the actual organ.

I learned at a very young age that a man does not show up when he says he is going to, that he will pick and choose what is important in your life and you are completely at his whim. I remember sitting for hours staring out of my grandma’s window waiting for him to show up for whatever grand adventure had been promised, only to be disappointed while others made excuses for him. I stared out in crowds at pageants, awards ceremonies, graduation, hoping for some sign of support and approval. But all the crowns and trophies and scholarships and accolades could not make him appear. So I started making excuses for him, and I started blaming myself. I am not enough. I am never enough.

When he did show up, he made me feel like a million dollars, so I would try harder. And, hence, the roller coaster ride of emotions I have been on since I was born. I have got to be better. I have got to work harder. I have got to obtain some level of perfectionism, because maybe then he will say I am enough.

This very basic lesson in my formative years set the pattern for my adult partners, as I strove for fulfillment and acceptance in dysfunctional relationships, slowly chipping away at myself and building scar tissue around my heart until I married. As my dear friend Iris pointed out this week, that decision to marry was the only real mistake I have made as an adult, because it was the one in which I gave up and settled; but it made me a mommy and something about that woke me up to the vitality of life and the need for healthy, intimate relationships.

Only now, I am like a wounded animal. Friendships and casual dating I can do and I can do them well. I can give my all to my children. I can love my students whole-heartedly. Hell, I can love strangers and have a soul full of empathy and compassion.

But a truly intimate relationship with a man? It is completely foreign to me, because as soon as someone tries to pierce my scar tissue, I shrink away in anxious fear. I literally torture myself with the negative messages I learned as a shy five year old suppressing tears of rejection and disappointment. I beg my friends for reassurance, and then I close off and push away.  I try to stay so busy that I forget that I ever needed that affection in the first place. I shuffle quickly like my rescue puppy does when anyone tries to pet him, because he, too, has learned that love hurts.

I wish that I could wrap this post up with a pretty ending, but I cannot. All I can do is admit that I at least recognize my patterns and want to fix them. Iris insists it is as easy as replacing the bad thoughts with positive ones, like breaking my Coca-Cola habit last year. So, I am committed to praying and filling my thoughts with scripture, of acknowledging how much my children and students adore me and why, and counting the blessings that are my friends, every single time my inner dialogue says that I am less than. After all, the whole goal of this “Year of Yes” is a better, more full life, one filled with intimacy and passion and love. Finally, I realize that I am worth the effort of healing. I want more and maybe, just maybe, I have met someone worth the trying.

If you want crappy things to stop happening to you, then stop accepting crap and demand something more. —CRISTINA YANG, GREY’S ANATOMY
Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person   

I should say that this post is absolutely meant with no disrespect. I still adore him and crave his attention and approval. But I have learned to set boundaries now, another step in the healing process, and I hope one day to understand the why behind his behavior. If that does not happen, then I will have peace knowing that I at least tried. I have always tried. I just will not make or accept excuses anymore.

Diversity

This year, in my social psychology unit, I used a lesson from Echoes and Reflections, a Holocaust education resource program, to open up a dialogue about racism, discrimination, intolerance, sexism, hate crimes and other issues related to diversity. We viewed clips of Holocaust survivors and then watched a dated PBS documentary, circa 1996, called “Not in Our Town,” about a group of citizens in Billings, Montana, who joined together and stood up to put an end to anti-Semitism.

The documentary led to a social movement, and there is a wonderful webpage (https://www.niot.org/) and YouTube channel which highlights modern “Not in Our Town” messages across America. I highly recommend both as resources in the classroom. Ironically, this lesson coincided with an incident less than a mile from our school, where an anti-Sematic message was spray-painted across the front of a business in plain view of all of our students passing by. This happened in an affluent, middle class neighborhood, proof that it can happen anywhere.

I wrapped up this message by asking students to work informally in groups and choose a minority population for which to advocate, with the intent of expressing this group’s view points and any discrimination faced by them to the other students. The goal was to teach empathy and compassion. This part of the plan was literally put together on a whim as our conversations unfolded; however, I was stunned by how wonderful the presentations were. Here is an example of one of the beautiful messages that was delivered. It is shared with permission.

 

This month, our school participated in the First Annual Holocaust Education Resource Council (HERC) Living History Museum. I am on both the HERC education committee and the school’s committee, so I wanted to contribute something special. I asked my students to create a mural that would reflect that they had learned as part of our “Not in Our Town” unit.

This is the final product. We named it Diversity.

diversity 2

Lessons from the Holocaust Learned by a Young Child

jew
My son, M, who is now eight and in the 2nd grade, attended a Holocaust Education Resource Council (HERC) education committee meeting with me at Tallahassee’s Temple Israel in October. I had no sitter and, the quiet little man that he is, I knew that I could depend upon him to behave. At that meeting, we discussed how the book And Every Single One Was Someone by Phil Chernofsky can and should be used in high school curriculum. This profound publication literally lists the word “Jew” 6 million times. Something about the number intrigued him and, even though I did not think he was paying attention to our conversation due to his tablet in one hand and a piece of cake in the other, he actually very much was.
Since that meeting, M has regularly asked when he can go back with me to visit the Temple. He has asked me simple questions about Jewish culture and how it differs from ours and our Baptist faith.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, he surprised me. M told me that he had read a book about Anne Frank in school. He is extremely bright and reads on a very high level, but he is also sensitive and internalizes emotions. I worried a little that he was exposed to content too mature for his age.
I questioned him about what he had read, and he told me basic facts about Anne Frank’s story, including her death.  He was matter-of-fact about it, but then he said, “Mama, at the end of the book, I really wanted to cry. I had to hold back my tears so my friends didn’t see me.”
This touched me so much, and I told him that he should have wanted to cry, and that it was horrible what had happened during the Holocaust. I explained that everyone should want to cry about Anne Frank’s story and others’ and that it is bad when we do not.
Several mornings later, while driving to school, M spoke up out of nowhere again. He said, “Mom, was Anne Frank one of the names in that book? The book that had ‘Jew’ written 6 million times? Was her family in that book, too?”
I told him yes, and I praised him for understanding that truth. I realized once again that he is like a little sponge and absorbs so much more than I give him credit for. I also thought how profound it is that an eight-year-old can make such important connections, when adults often cannot.
NOTE: M’s teacher confirmed that the book that he read in school was Who Was Anne Frank? by Ann Abramson. This book is part of a popular series that he loves and is age appropriate.

The Not So Long Drive Home

There is no where else on this planet that I would rather be than at home, near my extended family and friends, near the Okefenokee Swamp, the muddy St. Marys River, and Fernandina Beach. I do not live that far away–2.5 hours easily. Yet, as much as I want to be there, I often make excuses not to get in the car and drive where I know I am loved, where I know my dogs are welcome, where I know I can just relax and be myself, and where I absolutely am certain that I will know half the people in Winn-Dixie.

I deny myself this occasional refuge, because four years ago, my mom fell asleep at the wheel of her car driving from where I live home to have Christmas with family and friends. She hit a tree head-on off Interstate 10, less than a mile from a sign for the Lake City “Rest Stop.” Oh the irony of that extremely large sign, which actually gives me a brief sense peace when I pass it. She is at rest.

The trauma of stopping at that location to lay a wreath four years ago, of claiming her demolished car with my son’s Match Box toys scattered everywhere, of arriving at the funeral home with the clothes I had purchased for her that morning… As much as I miss home, the trip over is almost unbearable, because of the anxiety I experience.

But that cannot happen anymore. I have an upcoming trip planned that is out of my norm and am very excited to head to Jacksonville. In this Year of Yes, I will choose to focus on the destination, rather than the road. I will fill my car with the joyful sounds of the praise music Mama loved, and I will pray, knowing full well that my Mama’s spirit is in a far better place, and that I am free to live fully in the meantime.

It’s time to move on.

“Saying yes . . . saying yes is courage. Saying yes is the sun. Saying yes is life.”
Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person

On a much lighter note, one of my favorite songs out right now is by Ed Sheeran. “Castle on a Hill” reminds me so much of my tribe– all the close friends of mine with whom I have grown up and old with. This will be playing on repeat as I pull into town.

Castle on a Hill.jpg