Visiting my childhood home in West Virginia, as I currently am, is a time of deepest pause. Here, the attributes and activities that define Adult Julie take a hiatus, while the Younger Julies, from the tween who brought a book to read at family dinners, to the outraged activist teen who marched for PETA in Washington, step eagerly to the fore. I know I’m not the first adult reduced to a huffing, stomping sourpuss because their parents watch Fox News at top volume and still don’t recycle, but the regression surprises me every time. I do yoga. I meditate, goddammit.
There is a restfulness in the rhythm of family obligations, but I am no less at odds with my southern roots than I became as soon as I emerged from the chrysalis of childhood. Fields of GMO wheat and corn ripple under the sun, destined for feedlots in the Midwest. For every friendly country smile, there are reminders like this
to suggest that we are under siege, and no one is safe without their own trigger to pull. For every friendly wave, there’s a bumper sticker declaring that only a spray-tanned billionaire with delusions of grandeur can return our nation to its former glory. For every quaint roadside chapel, there’s a billboard broadcasting the equivalent of “Get God, or Get Out”.
I grew up spitting distance from Civil War battlefields, one of Patsy Cline’s old haunts, and a truck stop that proudly calls itself “My Pappy’s Place”. When I was young, I thought this corner of the world was heaven on earth, and couldn’t imagine planting my flag anywhere else. Sunday church and Monday night football were the fixed points of each week, and I had plenty of classmates who showed up to class smelling of farm chores. I’ll never forget Avery, the pale girl with corn silk hair who came in one day with a top lip swollen to the size of a golf ball thanks to a frightened bat that got trapped in her trailer.
I was the proud owner of a Huffy dirt bike and member-in-good-standing of the neighborhood gang. I bolted through the door after breakfast and was simply “out” until dinner. I was free to have the kind of misadventures and near-misses that season kids into unflappable adults, and I loved every minute of it. Things went sideways now and then and I still bear the marks, but that freedom was home. Sure, I got hurt, punched, scared, mad, insulted, angry, and lost, but it was all in a day’s work. There was discipline aplenty at home to remind me whose house I lived in and which God I had to get right with at week’s end, but I was never denied the secret world that would one day help fill the pages of my books.
It took a while for me to notice the racism and dominant phobias (homo and xeno) all around, but once those cows were out of the barn, they could not be coaxed back in. I began to notice the rips in the fabric, until the rips were all I could see. It is often a daily practice to remind myself of what remains whole during my return visits.
My internal compass tells me that these days the road home winds sometimes north, sometimes west, and sometimes across the sea. Still, I have scars on my knees from run-ins with barbed wire fences, the irrepressible tendency to smile at strangers, and an accent that crops up when I feel angry, tender, or tired. Each time I leave West Virginia, these things come, too. They are part of the home I have left and all the ones I make as I go, as is all that I leave behind. One more time, as my wild and wonderful beginnings recede in the rearview mirror, I pray that when I return, it will be with a lot less grump, and a little more grace.