Sunday, April 27, 2008

Take Me Home, Country Roads....

The State Capitol building in Charleston

This week I returned to my native West Virginia after an absence of a few years. I hadn't really been back since my Mother's funeral (2002). As I drove over the border from Maryland into West Virginia I had my MP3 Player cued to John Denver's "Country Roads" to mark my passage from the "world" into my state of origin. I stopped to get gas in Flatwoods (the traditional stop between Morgantown and Charleston) and the air was heavy with the scent of spring perfume. It was warm and the the sun shone the whole way. The lady at the cash register called me "honey" and for a moment I paused to take that in, wondering if I should say "I'm not your "honey"!" But this impulse gave rise to the realization that the culture that had formed and nurtured me was unique and wonderful in its own way. Honey was her way to make a connection, to offer friendship,to extend a familiarity and a caring. I sank into it like a pair of old comfortable shoes.

Going home again is always a challenge (for anyone). Some things you can pick up where you last left off, other things you can't. I am a different person than I was when I left in 1988. Some of those differences may put me at odds with some in the Mountain State, while others reconnect me to something primal and unique to my personhood.

Unless you grew up there, you don't understand the fierce pride that lurks in liberal and conservative alike. I am proud to be from here, yet when I claim that heritage outside the state I always get some joke about incest or ignorance or lack of teeth (I remind them that "Deliverance" took place in Georgia!). We can call each other hillbillies, but if you are not from here, you better not call us that! We are Mountaineers. Its the State that gave the world "the right stuff" in Chuck Yeager, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, opera singer Phyllis Curtin, Cyrus Vance, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, "Barnie Fife" (Don Knotts), and Pearl S. Buck. The diversity of that list probably conveys the diversity in the people.

Part of the charm of its people is their fierce Independence and commitment to democratic structures which are best described in the State Motto "Montani Semper Liberi" (Mountaineers Are Always Free). Driving around my home town of St. Albans (where I grew up and where my brother and his family live still), I visited the schools which gave me my basic education. They are in order from primary to secondary and all stand on the same street from Central Elementary, to St. Albans Junior High (which now stands abandoned and shabby looking 1920's edifice with broken windows from vandals, and tall weeds in the front lawn) to the shining new St. Albans High as the last stop on Kanawha Terrace.

My schools:

Central Elementary

St. Alban's Junior High

St. Albans High School

I drove past the Baptist Church where I grew up. I stopped and parked and tried to go inside but found that the door was locked and I had to ring a bell and talk to a box in order to gain entrance. I decided that I didn't want to have to 'splain who I was and what I was doing there to people who didn't know me from Adam. So I snapped a picture and walked back to my car. They might have considered me misguided, not only to have left the American Baptist Church, but to have become an Episcopal priest to boot! I would be far less the priest I am had I not had a great foundation in scripture which was my inheritance for growing up in that Church.The Baptist Church I grew up in...

While going home can be complicated I felt a resonance that I can't really define. Its the feeling that you are in the presence of something eternal to your life---a place, a location of memory and formation that you can't deny or replace. A place called "Remembrance" which has power over you whether you want it or not---a power you can willingly succumb to or resist. For me it was a pleasure to be seduced by it. To let it wrap me in its ancient arms and hold me, if only for a moment, to remind me of who I am.


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