[Beth Ann Fennelly, Marilou Awiakta, Wendy Reed and I gave readings from Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, at Burke’s Books in Memphis last night. Here are a few thoughts and photos from the evening. THANKS SO MUCH to everyone who came, listened, and purchased books. And to Corey and Cheryl Mesler, for hosting us! If you’re near Jackson, Mississippi, on Monday, July 16, Wendy and I will be at Lemuria Books for another signing/reading at 5 p.m.]
“Where are your women?” It’s a question Memphis author, Marilou Awiakta, asks in her essay, “Amazon in Appalachia,” which appears in the anthology, Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. But it’s also a question that Attakullakulla, a Cherokee chief asked when he met with the white men to negotiate a treaty. The Cherokee revere women for their wisdom, their strength, their nurturing spirit. Awiakta writes about those wise, strong, nurturing women. She calls one of them “Grandmother.”
“Grandmother, I need your courage. Sing to me about your life.”
And she does. She says things like this:
“Women share in all of life. We lead sacred dances. In the Council we debate freely with men until an agreement is reached. When the nation considers war, we have a say, for we bear the warriors….
“My own voice is small, Grandmother, and I am afraid. You live in a culture that believes in your song. How can you understand what women of my time have to cope with?”
The Grandmother explains to her about the importance of work. And joy. And hope. “Hope—that quality so necessary for survival. The Beloved Woman never loses hope.” This same Grandmother raised daughters born to a white trader, and took in many orphans. Twenty years before the Trail of Tears.
As she reads from her essay, I can see that Marilou Awiakta has become a Beloved Woman herself.
The poet and author, Beth Ann Fennelly, isn’t from the South. She hails from Chicago, but she has embraced her new home—Oxford, Mississippi—to the point of telling her husband she wants to be buried there, near William Faulkner’s grave, if possible. But in the interim, she writes poetry and prose about everything from kudzu to nursing babies, and most recently, eating dirt. As she writes in her essay, “Taking Terroir on Faith,” (also in Circling Faith):
“I wanted to take one small step closer to full membership in my adopted home, my quest to be a Southerner. I wanted to eat dirt.”
Fennelly reads to us about the five main theories she has discovered in her research on geophagy. Is it an illness or a cultural practice? Pregnant women often crave dirt. Some experts say that it helps children’s immune systems to develop. But Fennelly offers a sixth suggestion (her own): taste. Some people just like the way dirt tastes.
What does eating dirt have to do with spirituality? According to Fennelly, it “… puts me in the mind of, well, faith, to tell you the truth. I’ve been engaged in a similar, though more serious, quest to understand what I feel about religion for some time now.” And she goes on to describe her “deep internal conflict with the (Catholic) Church’s teachings.” But it’s her segue on geophagy that gets really interesting:
“… my interest in geophagy has mirrored the pattern of my interest in faith. The questions they present are similar. Both faith and geophagy are, for many, deepened by daily ritual…. Both tastes are often passed down, inherited from our parents. Both seem absurd to nonpractioners…. Can I make an intellectual decision to grow faith, or to crave dirt? Some people claim to be born with the desire to know God, the way some people claim to be born with the taste for clay….”
And so Fennelly went church-shopping, just like she went dirt-shopping, in order to taste and see for herself which religion she prefers. She and her husband have found a church that works for them right now, but she still doesn’t “wake up on Sunday mornings with an urge to go there.” Does she attend anyway?
“Maybe the only way I’ll learn whether I can nurture a craving is by feeding myself…. As for me, I took the body of the South into my body, and truth be told, I do not feel redeemed. But I’m sticking with it, at least for now. And I’m sticking with my Sunday services, too, though the dreamed-of clarity has not yet descended. So many others have found nourishment here. Maybe educating my palate is the first step. Maybe the leap comes next.”
It was my blessing to be included with these wonderful authors, along with Wendy Reed of Waverly, Alabama, co-editor (with Jennifer Horne) of Circling Faith, last night. Our stories are diverse, but our message is united—the South is full of strong women of passion, and many of us have longings to taste something beyond ourselves. Whether that something comes from our ancestors, as it does with Awiakta, or from intimacy with this place we call home, the South (as Fennelly seeks), we all want it.
Like Awiakta, I want my culture to believe in my song. I want that joy that Awiakta’s Grandmother speaks of. And I want that satisfaction that Fennelly seeks. But most of all, I want to swim out into the middle of the river of life and continue my spiritual journey from there.
Balance. That’s what I write about in “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” my contribution to Circling Faith. And I’m pretty sure that my journey will continue to involve writing. It’s a gift which, as Madeleine L’Engle said, “is indeed something given us and which we must humbly serve, and in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.” As I write in Circling Faith:
“Learning to serve the gift through writing and painting is bringing wondrous newness into my life every day. Once it surfaced in an essay about how anger blocked me from painting icons and how the beach, a dream, and a soft rock song helped me get unblocked. At other times that newness has shown up to cheer me on as I embrace the darker aspects of my Mississippi childhood by laying down difficult chapters of my novel-in-progress. Sometimes I feel its presence during the sacrament of confession, when I’ve been up all night facing down my demons, often chasing them with vodka or wine. Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons—themselves a form of life interrupted—is part of my offering to God.”