“All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity. Haunted by wrong turns and roads not taken, we pursue images perceived as new but whose providence dates to the dim dramas of childhood, which are themselves but ripples of consequence echoing down the generations.” William Faulkner
Eleven months have passed since my last post. I didn’t think it would take me so long to get my bearings and begin to write again, but in light of all the changes that have taken place in my life in the past year, I’m a little surprised it hasn’t taken me longer.
The most significant change had its beginnings in those first days of thinking about writing this blog in October 2016. My mind was occupied with retracing, recapturing, making sense of the experiences and emotions of my past. The speaking and training I was doing in the area of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the neuroscience of trauma, new understandings arising from knowledge of epigenetics, and what healing looks like prompted me to look at where I have been in a new light; that process continues as I continue to learn. While walking around in my past, I came across people and letters and objects that triggered memories and led to some reconnections that I found a bit overwhelming, to put it mildly.
As I was thinking through and preparing to tell the story of Sams in Switzerland that summer of 1974 (told in my post titled “No Souls?”), I felt the need to talk to someone who had been there and had been part of the story. I didn’t think I had kept any pictures from that time but decided to look anyway. I pulled out a small plastic bin that contained a few memories I had kept over the years. I hadn’t looked in this box in decades and wasn’t sure what I would find. As I was opening the box, I saw something that looked promising: a few colorful packets that looked like they would hold photo negatives. I picked them up and read, “Switzerland 1974.” There were three packets; I was stunned. I took the negatives to a local photo shop and had them put on a CD.
There were several pictures of the group of students at the hotel that summer and of other individuals. I remembered some first names but last names wouldn’t come. The only person whose full name I recalled was Nigel, my supervisor I mentioned in my post “Renowned.” It had been over 40 years since I had communicated with him, but since we now live in the day of Facebook and he had an unusual name, I thought just maybe I might be able to find him. I ran a search, and there he was, still in England. I sent him a message. To say he was surprised would be putting it mildly. For the next few weeks, by Messenger and email, we revisited those days.
Other significant reconnections were prompted by the contents of that box. A letter from a college friend led me to find him and catch up while processing memories. I learned he had spent his life as a teacher in Mississippi. I told him about the work I was currently doing in the area of trauma and with children. When I finished talking he said, “Jan, why don’t you take what you know and have experienced and come back to Mississippi to help us? We need you here.” That produced an immediate response from me. There was NO WAY I could ever return to Mississippi! The heat, the humidity, the fire ants, the mosquitos…I had a long list. Besides, I told him, I had bought the perfect one-level house in the perfect neighborhood three years earlier and had completely renovated it so I could stay there for the rest of my life. I had close friends, a strong support system; I was solidly rooted. Coming back to Mississippi was not an option; the very idea was ludicrous! I decided to forget about what he had said, to let it go. But try as I might, I couldn’t let it go because it wouldn’t let me go.
As the weeks passed after that conversation, again and again I would see articles about Mississippi, hear news reports about the needs in Mississippi, read stories of people returning to Mississippi after years away. In February 2017 I was attending a seminar at East Tennessee State University, and there was yet another article about Mississippi. I left that day thinking this drawing I felt couldn’t be real. I sat quietly, thinking about how content I was, how secure I felt in my home, in my community of friends I had known for decades. I again expressed my gratitude to God for all of these blessings, and for how comfortable my life was now. Then came the clear, insistent thought: “You are comfortable to the point of becoming complacent. This is not the way for you.” I felt as if I had been stabbed. It was then that I knew I couldn’t resist any longer; I would be moving back to Mississippi.
The looming question then was, where would I go? Certainly not back to the small town of Newhebron, where my story began. It wasn’t long before the name of a town in north Mississippi began to impress itself on my mind. Tupelo. I had heard of Tupelo but had never been there and knew no one who lived there. Over the next few months, as a series of astonishing events unfolded, it became clear that my destination would be Tupelo. I was going back to Mississippi; for what reason or reasons, I had no idea.
Over the next few months I was drawn into the flow of change. I made an exploratory trip to Tupelo to see where I would be moving and contacted a realtor to help me find a house. I described what I was looking for to my realtor: a one-level house in an older neighborhood, near downtown. That the community was racially diverse was important to me. It wasn’t until March 2018 that the right house was found. I have to admit I was hoping I would be released at the last minute and would be allowed to stay in my comfortable northeast Tennessee life, but that wasn’t to be. The home I loved in Tennessee was sold privately to a friend through yet another amazing series of events. In July 2018, the moving truck was loaded for my move back to Mississippi.
Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, referred to by some as the “philosopher of neighborliness,” writes about what he calls “the repotting hypothesis.” He explains it like this: “Mobility, like frequent repotting of plants, tends to disrupt root systems, and it takes time for an uprooted individual to put down new roots.” In that sense, I suppose you could say I have been uprooted and repotted. I have many new lessons to learn as I discover why I have been led here at this time in my life. There is much more I could and will say about this, but that will have to come later.
Another change you probably noticed when you saw this post was the change in my name. Although I had legally changed my name back to Riley, I had originally thought I would continue to write and speak in the name I had used in the past. I’m not sure why I thought that would be a good idea; sometimes we look back at ideas that seemed to make sense at the time and wonder, what exactly was I thinking? This is one of those times.
The last significant change I will mention that has occurred since my last post nearly a year ago was the death of my mother on December 30, 2018. I had known for a little over a year that she would die at the age of 85. That knowing had compelled me to go to see her this past November, a week and a half before her 85th birthday. For reasons I will talk about at a future time in the context of the much larger story, it had been nearly nine years since I had last had contact with her.
As I made that last drive to see her in the small town of Richton, MS, I was surprised to observe that my mind was actively quiet as I prepared myself to see her. I had no idea what to expect (I had not told her I was coming), but felt I was now at a point in my life that I could handle whatever happened. I knew this was to be our last meeting and hoped she would at least be civil to me; I could not hope for more.
Even though I had prepared as best I could and had known it was coming, processing her death and learning to live in the reality that she is gone has been strange. In my post “Understanding Backwards” I talked about some of the reasons for my hesitancy to write about the painful experiences of my past. I have spoken about some of this in trainings I have done over the past few years for foster parents, school counselors, child advocates, church groups, and so on. But writing the story is something I have yet to do, and it is something I know I must do. My life experiences have taught me so much about estrangement and about what I now refer to as necessary distance.
“All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity.” Faulkner was right in his observation. But I want to take it further. I want to talk about how we recognize those webs for what they are, about how we find release from those webs of the past that bind us and move on to wholeness. I want to talk about how the history of the future can be changed. I think that’s the story that is mine to be told.
Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000, Simon & Schuster)