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.

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.

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Sweet Home Alabama {The Year of Yes}

My students say that I am Reese Witherspoon’s character in Sweet Home Alabama, because of my stories about my small town Southern upbringing. There are worse characters to be compared to, I suppose, so I am okay with that.

Recently, my friend asked me to meet halfway for a night on the town. Since it’s the Year of Yes, I could not say no. Besides, it was Valentine’s weekend, and I was excited to have fun and be adventurous. We decided on Troy as our destination, and I messaged a former student who attends college there for recommendations.

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The drive was easy, and I realized that I have sadly spent very little time in the Great State of Alabama. Troy is quaint and has a charming downtown square that I adored. I immediately made my way to the local boutiques and bought Valentine’s Day gifts for the kids. The selections were fantastic, and I loved how friendly the shopkeepers were. I even found adorable trinkets for my son’s sweetheart.

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For dinner, we ate at a local seafood shack and enjoyed a laid back atmosphere and people watching. Afterwards, we ended the night at an adorable wine bar called Sips, where we laughed and exchanged life stories before heading out and listening appropriately to Hank Williams and Hank Jr., while touring the town some more.

But it was one of my favorites, “Night Train,” by Jason Aldean that ended up on repeat, as we sang karaoke in the car. Something about that song just fit with the unseasonably warm, Southern Alabama evening, thick and haunting.

 

Motherhood {The Year of Yes}

You can quit a job. I can’t quit being a mother. I’m a mother forever. Mothers are never off the clock, mothers are never on vacation. Being a mother redefines us, reinvents us, destroys and rebuilds us. Being a mother brings us face-to-face with ourselves as children, with our mothers as human beings, with our darkest fears of who we really are. Being a mother requires us to get it together or risk messing up another person forever. Being a mother yanks our hearts out of our bodies and attaches them to our tiny humans and sends them out into the world, forever hostages.”  ― Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person

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Photo by Captured by Casey

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Photo by Captured by Casey

My Ride or Die in Orlando

The upside of culling people from my life is that my focus has become very clear. My vision has become razor sharp. I now work to see people, not as I’d rewrite them, but as they have written themselves. I see them for who they are. And for who I am with them. Because it’s not merely about surrounding myself with people who treat me well. It’s also about surrounding myself with people whose self-worth, self-respect and values inspire me to elevate my own behavior. People who require that I stay truthful and kind and not totally crazy. Not eating every single thing in sight. Not hiding. Not saying no. I want Ride or Dies who make me want to be a better person. ~Shonda Rhimes, THE YEAR OF YES

Sometimes you just need your best friend, and she needs you. You can hear that something in her voice that lets you know that she needs you to just be near her. No explanations are necessary.

What do you do when you have traveled to DC, to Middle Georgia, celebrated the holidays and your son’s birthday and your best friend calls and asks you to come for the long MLK weekend, too? You pack your bag, put money on your Sun Pass, load up your playlist, drive through Wendy’s for “Baconator” fries and a strawberry lemonade, and you hit the road for Orlando. Because it’s The Year of Yes and, frankly, she will not take “no” for an answer. K always gets what she wants! She has a certain mojo or swagger, and I am bewitched by her.

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One of my favorite chapters in The Year of Yes was about finding your tribe– the people who are in your inner circle and are your “ride or dies.” I kind of like that there is an FSU association to be made there, but my Gator friends will not. K is one of them.

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T, who I went to visit over my birthday weekend, is in the tribe. We were in the same kindergarten class. K is another. We are from the same place in North Florida, but we did not know each other at all until we became neighbors randomly at Wilkes Townhouse Apartments in Vidalia, Georgia.  She drove by while I was at the mail box with her Florida Gator tag labeled with our home county, and the rest is history. I knew she was going to be in my life forever.  It was her cooking that really lured me in, though. She never let me starve, and, Heaven knows, I was a horrible cook whose pantry was regularly stocked with peanut butter, chips and onion dip, and fudge rounds and not much else. There was also that time that she literally ran my boyfriend down my stairs and out of my house, because she did not like his way too charming toothy grin. No one did but, of course, I thought he was so niiiice. He never came back, poor guy. lol

K is psychic and she says the same about me, although highly intuitive is probably a more safe description. She senses things and is extremely tuned in to me and my kids. I love it! I think it is very provocative and reassuring, all at the same time.

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So, Orlando it was, and it was incredible. As soon as I arrived, her husband sent us out to a local winery for dinner, followed by a memorable night at a dueling piano bar. Turns out, I do a sassy “Cupid Shuffle.” We laughed, we went live on Facebook, we caught up on our work lives and daily demands, we danced, and we reminisced about being in our early 20s, moving to rural Georgia, and going out to the local bar, Kerrigan’s Country, with all of our friends on the weekends, followed by the mandatory stop at the Waffle House for loaded hash browns and Cokes.

Then, K and I closed the piano bar down like it was 1999 again.

And it felt wonderful just letting loose and knowing that I could be one million percent Becky Jo, and she would love me for it, hold me up and hold my hand if she needed to. She is always completely in my corner, always has been, and she will not let me fail, even if it means being brutally honest and willing bad juju away. My tendency to see good in people drives her INSANE, and she is constantly praying protections around me. K does not see good in people, so we balance each other out. In the end, I know she makes me a better, much stronger person, and I am grateful for it.

Wide Open Spaces and The Year of Yes

I love country music. The Dixie Chicks are my jam, and my favorite song of theirs is “Wide Open Spaces.” I remember playing it on repeat driving all over South Georgia, in the years immediately after I graduated college and moved from home. I am playing it now as I write.

Roaming has to be in my blood. I am descended from Daniel Boone and his nephew-in-law, Benjamin Cutbirth, who, in 1767, was one of the four white men who made the first trip from east across land to the Mississippi River.  My dad, his brothers, and my grandfather are a line of car haulers, and my great-grandfather was a peddler who traveled from the Tennessee/Kentucky border down to Nashville to sell his goods.

Yet, I have never had the chance to travel much, other than car trips growing up. The first time I flew was in law school, after I was married. We traveled to New Hampshire and Boston to meet my ex-husband’s family. He was scared of flying, so we did not fly much. During one of my early jobs, I was able to travel quite a bit for work, but he was so anxious about it that it became miserable for me.

And, of course, traveling by plane is expensive. And we had pets and kids and we were too busy…

“Losing yourself does not happen all at once. Losing yourself happens one no at a time.”
Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person

No more of that nonsense. I need wide open spaces! YES to roaming the great American frontier!!!

This fall, I was honored to receive a wedding invite from a former student. The event was in D.C., where my best friend T lives, and it happened to be my birthday weekend. Normally, I would have made my excuses, sent a nice gift and bowed out. However, I immediately booked a cheap flight out of Jacksonville, and sent my RSVP with T as my plus one.

I was nervous flying alone, but as soon as I got on the plane, I had a peace come over me, and I was overjoyed. It helped that I was seated by the most handsome man! He was funny and kind, and we just connected. We talked and laughed non-stop the entire flight, prompting the attendant to remark on what a cute couple we were. It was all innocent, but what an ego boost! We even had the same song playing on repeat on our phones– “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” by Mark Posner. The original version, of course.

A true gentleman, he walked me out to the gates to meet T and her husband when we landed. As we came around the corner, it was like a scene out of my favorite movie, Love Actually. I saw T’s smiling face under the lights of a gigantic Christmas tree and went running to embrace her. It was a moment that I will never forget, and I turned to see my new handsome friend smile and wave and continue on his way. T looked on in amazement, with a knowing twinkle in her eye. I felt young and free again.

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I just love this RSVP card! My song pick? “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and, with that, I am showing my age.

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As for my birthday, well one of my favorite memories of the weekend was T’s husband taking us for a night out in D.C. We stopped in at the Willard Hotel, where the Mint Julep was famously invented. This southern belle with Kentucky roots could not turn up an opportunity to try one out, and it was amazing. And strong. M finished mine, but what a way to welcome in the new year.

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The Year of Yes {by Shonda Rhimes}

My friend of almost 20 years, Cheryl, told me to read The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes, and I am so grateful.

I absolutely love to read, but I find it difficult these days to relax enough to actually focus on a book. So I am trying to force myself back into the habit. This book not only made that easy, but it changed my life, literally, by giving me a voice and giving me hope. Rhimes, the rock star of ABC’s Thursday night television, describes how, while on the outside she was successful, she grappled with fear, anxiety and an inferiority complex so great that it was destroying her life. That is, until her sister challenged her to say “yes” to every opportunity that came up within a year that she would normally shrink away from and say “no” to.

This idea intrigued me. In my own season of restoration, I realize that a lot of my own dissatisfaction with life is caused by a sense of being trapped in the role of single mom, one that I never in a million years dreamed I would become. It is like I do not recognize myself anymore. Ironically, I was stunned that Rhimes had almost identical issues. She is funny and brutally honest and has had a completely different, way more glamorous path than I, but, most of the time, I felt like I could be reading my own diary, her stories fit so closely in with mine.

Turns out, saying “yes” transformed her from the inside out, made her a stronger person, and I have decided to challenge myself to my own year of “yes.” From here on out, I will not shy away from or decline any opportunity that comes my way. If my first inclination is “no” for any reason, I am going to say “yes” and see where it goes. In that risk, I already feel more free.

Starting with saying “yes” to realizing that I matter.

 

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THE YEAR OF YES by Shonda Rhimes

My entire life, I have been in a relationship. I am the classic serial monogamist, and I have dated some amazing men, most of whom I am still in contact with in one form or another. But I have realized over the past six months that I was never completely myself in any of those partnerships. I just conformed to make them happy, often ignoring or minimizing my own needs. No more.

My grandma instilled in me the creed, “You don’t need a man.” If she said that to me a million times, I would not be surprised. It always seemed so humorous to me, because she was so conservative and old-fashioned. But it has stuck, and she was right.

I don’t need a man. I need God.

While it would have been financially more sound and, frankly, easier to have stayed in my recent engagement, the reality hit me that it was not working for either of us or any of us, for that matter.  And, while I have struggled to adjust to being on a single income budget with no help, for the first time in almost 15 years, it has made me realize how strong and capable I am. Growing up poor has its advantages– I can stretch a bag of pinto beans and a cheap box of corn bread mix like nobody’s business. There is a reason that sweet tea is the table wine of the South. It’s cheap, y’all!

I do not need rescuing. I do not need to settle. I simply need to trust God to provide for our needs and to provide a mate when He deems the time right. If that happens to be Tim Tebow, then my garnet and gold blood will have to bleed blue and orange, and vice versa, because he is pretty dang amazing and at the top of my prayer requests.

The truth is, I actually do want a man. I want to be married again, I want a home bursting with love, laughter and masculine smells, and I want to experience a healthy, whole love that can only come from a heart that is now healed. I realize now that I am my own sun.

Cheers to my very own Year of Yes!

 

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Photo by Krissy Hugo