They say that no matter where you go, there you are. This is true, but it’s still okay to give yourself a change of scenery.
Stacy and I love our little 1930s cottage in Clarkston, Georgia, with its tiny red barn out back. But since the beginning of this pandemic, the seven small rooms of that cottage and the four walls of the barn were all we had seen, apart from masked-and-gloved runs for essentials.
So thank God for friends, particularly those with houses in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina. As I write (about a week before you’ll read this), I’m sitting in a very comfy chair, next to a fireplace and a window, in Waynesville, North Carolina. In this living room, the wooden ceilings vault up to a height of about 15 feet. The silence of the mountains last night was plenty to ease the troubled mind, but we were additionally blessed with a hard, half-hour rainstorm. The pounding of the water brought a cascade of sound down through these ceilings, and I figured that if you can’t hear rain pounding on a rooftop in heaven, I’d just as soon not go.
When I write these days, I find my subject matter is often small blessings such as these. Over the previous seven years, I spent my days writing and editing stories filled with tension. In that work, I felt a strong sense of mission — obsession, really — to defend everything worth loving about the South while damning the oppression and hatred that characterized our region for so long.
If you believe, as I do, in equality, that we are called to love all our brothers and sisters as we love ourselves, being a Southerner means fighting those battles. It goes with the territory. It’s part of the deal.
But here tonight, sitting in the peace of these mountains — about 100 miles northward from where I was raised in Appalachia — what I’m feeling is this: Maybe it’s okay to lay down my sword, at least for a little while. I think my journey to Waynesville for some rest is teaching me just how much rest I really needed.
We were already into the pandemic when this year brought me the worst health crisis of my life — and subsequently a breakup with the publication I had founded seven years earlier. Not long ago, I talked to an old friend from Alabama who now lives in Oregon on an evening when his city was being threatened by wildfires. As he looked out his window at a sky turned purple and orange by the smoke, he said, “2020 is the sh-ttiest year ever.”
I agreed with him in that moment, but as the days passed, I began to wonder, “What is there to redeem us?” It’s a fact that 2020 has hit every one of us — all our brothers and sisters, everywhere on the planet — with challenges we thought we’d never face. Many of us have contracted a life-threatening disease we never saw coming, and too many lives have been cut short. We could all use some rest and some healing.
I certainly know I do. And maybe I had to come to Waynesville and sit in this very comfy chair before I could admit to myself how much I need it. And to admit it to you.
This house here in the North Carolina mountains is a fine place to let the healing start, because you can feel how full of love it is. The friend who loaned it to Stacy and me, Meredith McCarroll, is a true daughter of Appalachia now living up in Maine, where she is the director of writing and rhetoric at Bowdoin College. She grew up in this house. Meredith’s mother, Phyllis Braswell, had lived here alone from the death of her husband in 2006 until about two and a half years ago, when she was stricken with a blood disease. Phyllis’ illness took her to live with Meredith and her family in Maine, until she died there in 2018.
I looked up her obituary in The Mountaineer, the local newspaper, and found this: “Although she dealt with illness in recent years, she enjoyed a full, rich, hilarious, and happy life through its end.”
Her home is a testament to the fullness, richness, hilarity, and happiness of her life. The house remains full of her things — cherished knick-knacks, a big spinning wheel that sits in the dining room, bookshelves overflowing with histories and novels and family photographs. Sitting here, surrounded by the artifacts of a life so well lived, it seems impossible not to absorb the love Phyllis Braswell put into this home. Although I never knew her, her love is palpable here.
How wonderful to leave a legacy so strong it can be felt by strangers. How miraculous to imbue a house with such wondrous love.
In times like these, so perilous and fraught with division, this kind of love, the love in a family — whether it’s a family by blood, by choice, or both — seems to me to be the only true salve for our hearts. Our nation might seem to be tearing itself apart, but I beg you — just as I am reminding myself right now — not to forget the power of that love.