Day 1: Harpers Ferry, WV to Lebanon, TN
I was born in the same town where I spent my entire young life, living in the same house from the day I came home from the hospital until I moved away to college. My people have lived in this place for generations, and my ancestors have called the greater region home for hundreds of years. Appalachia, including western North Carolina, east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and southern West Virginia, is the motherland to my father’s people since the 1600s, and for my mother’s people since the 1800s. When I move through this region, even though I no longer live there, I feel a sense of home in my bones, in my blood, in my DNA. It’s a deep experience, one that defies any logical storyline about home and belonging and place. No matter where I have lived or travelled in my life, some deeper force continues to call me back to the centuries long homeland of my ancestors. The mountains of Appalachia will always feel like home.
When I turned 18 and moved away to Baltimore for college, I hadn’t yet considered such things. My mind was still small and my experience limited, and yet there were strong inner forces pulling me away from the place I knew as home. I was an artist, and longed for the company of others like myself. I wanted to be in the city, among a greater diversity of people and ideas, and with more potential for growth in my creative endeavors. As I stepped away from my birthplace, I felt a new, more expansive breath of possibility. Free of the blue collar values, small-mindedness, conservative values, and dogmatic Christianity, I came to see how I’d been uncomfortable for years without any way to name it. I knew that I could never live there again, and even short visits made me feel stifled, backed into a corner. My difficult relationship with my mother pushed me away even more strongly, and yet, the magic I felt in my relationship with my dad called me home.
After some years away, I began feeling called back to the land, under the guise of hiking in the mountains. My dad took me to Whitetop Mountain in southwest Virginia a handful of times, and we enjoyed a magnificent vista spanning three states, grooving in the beauty and silence of it all. I walked segments of the Appalachian Trail, and scrambled around Mount Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain in western North Carolina. I enjoyed dense forest paths alone, surrounded by tall trees, rhododendron thickets, and rushing streams. In time, I came to understand that my father’s family descended from Cherokee ancestry, and that these lands were the lands of my native ancestors. Something deep within me wanted a palpable connection, and yet we couldn’t even locate the last remaining photographs of my Cherokee great grandmother, my father’s father’s mother. As my attunement to such things grew over the years, I began to sense the presence of the story of my people, etched into the land, unspoken. The only way to access the story was to be with the land and get really quiet, and listen.
After my father’s death, I made the journey with my wife to the top of Whitetop Mountain to leave offerings for his onward journey. I rested on the open land in the sun, directly plugged into the grass, flowers, stones, and sky. Some transfer of information was happening, and I lay there unmoving for over an hour, maybe two. Perhaps it is profound grief that cracks us open to the flow of energy through time and beyond this world, perhaps it is always there, waiting for a moment of receptivity to enter us, to lay down its mycelial threads into the body, connecting us to the oversoul of our ancestral knowledge and lands. The amplification of this soul deep connection to the lands of my people was affirmed that day, and the ache to be with these mountains persists now, not unlike the ache to flee to kinder places in my youth.
As we drove yesterday, I pondered these things, this sense of home-in-my-bones. What is it about land and ancestry and history and the relationship we have among them? And what is the loss ~ or gains ~ that we humans experience when this relationship is severed, or forgotten completely? My wife feels no sense of home beyond the comfort of our life in our house on the mountain where we live. Her people are both immigrants and military, and in her life she has moved countless times across vast distances, across oceans. There is a history of movement in her ancestry, and this longing for a particular place is something to which she cannot relate. She has her preferences for climate and natural environments, of course, but there is no deep imprint of homeland in her bones, at least not that she can perceive. Home is changeable, home is inside oneself, home is much more than possessions and an address.
I have lived that. Home is changeable. Home is inside myself. Home is much more than possessions and an address. And home is sometimes distant and unreachable. I have traced stories of exile in the lines of my ancestors. French protestants fleeing the homeland due to religious persecution, never to return. Native people forced out of their homelands, or staying in them in hiding, pushed aside by the ferocity of colonialism. The loss of language, the loss of names, the loss of lifeways, the loss of status, the loss of culture, the loss of ancestral identity. And yet, the grief from these losses is an echo within each lineage, an ache for something that is no longer available, no longer possible. An ache that sometimes goes underground within us, hungry in a way that is difficult to nourish, hungry for something that is unnamed, misunderstood. As I’ve tuned into this over the years, I have come to call it “refugee consciousness” ~ a sense of constantly moving, never able to settle, a deep and mysterious existential anxiety, a longing for something that is unnameable. The desire to feel a sense of belonging to some place, time, or identity, a desire to feel a part of something that is a perfect fit. For so long, I understood this as a misplaced longing to return to the womb. Now, I see it differently. I see it as a longing for a sense of home and place in a culture that is a patchwork quilt of other cultures, with none of the richness of any of them.
And so, every time I find myself rolling along a certain stretch of highway in the direction of the place of my birth, there is an ache within me. Tears of longing, tears of loss. The desire to return to a quiet mountainside, watching the birds soaring high above, cicada song in the background, warm sun kissing my skin. An ache for what is unfindable now in these mountains, something that is lost except through the connection I am fostering with the ancestral ways of my people. It’s a strange thing, feeling the longing to return to something that no longer exists, and finding the resonance of that very thing in the magnificent land that I could never possibly return to in a more permanent way. Perhaps these are the very ponderings that enliven and reawaken the ancestral understanding within us, reactivating what is lost so that it is at least not forgotten, and so that we can remember who our people are as we wander through this postmodern world filled with the erasure of so many rich and potent cultural ways. And so, I’ll continue following the call to return to these lands, to lay on the soft mountaintop and open myself to the wisdom that is still etched into the stones and sky for those of us called to pause for long enough to listen.
*** This is one of a series of blogs written along the sacred journey of burying my wife’s mother’s ashes in the place she considers the most long term home during her youth. A road trip from West Virginia to Texas, by way of Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and back.