By the Book: A Bible Belt Memoir of Growing Up Good and Southern
About the book:
In the South, one thing we’ve become exceptionally adept at is normalizing bullshit. If you’ve grown up in a fundamentalist church, or perhaps another institution constructed on a rigid set of rules that categorically suppressed entire groups of people, you know what I’m talking about.
I was raised in a church in which I was not allowed to stand, speak, raise objections, or lead prayer in the presence of men. As a spitfire of a girl who was smart and skeptical of any rule thrown in my path, I suffered greatly because I also loved my family dearly. My dad was a rule follower, and we butted heads for decades.
That sense of belonging, or yearning to belong, is why social pressure works so well. We’re hardwired to look at another person’s face when we’re doubtful of what we’re doing.
There is a way to break free, though, and that way has led me to the greatest sense of peace and belonging I’ve ever known. I found belonging in some of the last places I thought to look, and with fewer people than I thought it took. (Lucky for me, there are a few other rebels out there.) And miracle of miracles, I even got resolution with my dear departed dad before he left for his eternal home with the Lord.
This book shows how I did it.
Why I wrote it:
I’m amazed at how many women I know – smart, well-educated, experienced, and lovely – who, deep down, have so very little confidence in themselves that they stay in abusive marriages or miserable jobs or get trampled by their families or sock away cake or wine or indulge whatever compulsion that gives them some relief. I think they’re seeking relief from the inner trauma of having given up on their God-given intuitive sense of what is right for them. They’re, ironically, incredibly conscientious and rule-bound. They’re talented and magical but they don’t know it. They’re like I was, and this is my story of how I let go of what I thought I had to do, in order to find out what I was meant to do. It’s a story of growing up in the American South in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and what sense I tried to make of being raised a good, white Christian with smarts and a fundamental difference of opinion with just about every rule I came across….
It’s hot. Texas hot, which is its own brand of dry, dirt-filled sweltering. The air is thick with dust that smells like dandelion stalks tinged with axle grease. All around me I hear the buzz of flies stuck and vibrating against the corners of the window screens while in the distance, a tractor motor rumbles and whines. I lean left then right, adjust the folds of my skirt, and look around at the other churchgoers. Most of the kids are restless like me, shifting slightly, some garnering silent reprimands. A quick pinch or jagged frown that says, “Behave!”Read More
It’s hot. Texas hot, which is its own brand of dry, dirt-filled sweltering. The air is thick with dust that smells like dandelion stalks tinged with axle grease. All around me I hear the buzz of flies stuck and vibrating against the corners of the window screens while in the distance, a tractor motor rumbles and whines. I lean left then right, adjust the folds of my skirt, and look around at the other churchgoers. Most of the kids are restless like me, shifting slightly, some garnering silent reprimands. A quick pinch or jagged frown that says, “Behave!”
The adults are pacing themselves, taking their weekly dose of God, the gathering of the righteous that’s guaranteed to get them into Heaven. Pa, my daddy’s daddy, is up there presiding from the pulpit, telling everyone what’s what, warning that with one false move we could end up in the fires of hell. His voice has dropped to a whisper. I was listening for a while, but now all I can think is, Dear Lord, Pa, when are you going to wind it down? He’s preaching like it could very well be the last chance he has to save our souls.
My little brother lets out a long sigh and from the corner of my eye I see our Ma reach into her black patent bag and a second later pull out a stick of Juicy Fruit. She doles out a half-stick to each of us along with our cousins, a stingy bribe to keep us still. Thank God. If it’s gum time, the Invitation should be coming soon and then we can at least stand up. But just then old Pa turns and sends a zing of tobacco juice into the spittoon beside his lectern. A sound like the sharp ding of a boxing match cracks over us as he takes a deep breath and winds up again, waving his heavy hand, then pounding on the lectern, his voice raining out in its trembling baritone. I guess it is like a boxing match the way he paints it, Satan and Jesus in a perpetual battle for our souls.
I slump back into the pew. People love to toss around the phrase “come-to-Jesus meeting,” but if they’ve never actually been in a church service on a roiling summer Sunday when a Church of Christ preacher’s been caught by the spirit, they simply have no idea.
Finally, Pa delivers the Invitation, encouraging any wayward sheep from the flock to come forward and receive forgiveness. As we stand and sing “Come Home,” I scan the crowd to see if anyone’s moved by the Spirit. Please, please, please I beg silently, hoping no one has sinned so badly they feel the need to share it with all of us. If they do, we’re in for at least a good half hour of praying over them. If Sister Oldham’s visiting Methodist nephew (a Methodist!) decides to repent, Pa might haul him into the baptismal pool for a dunking. We’d have to wait and sing while he goes to change into a white dunking gown. Then Pa’ll come out with his waders on over his Sunday shirt. He’ll begin to pray and hold his hankie over the sinner’s face while he dunks and raises him back up, washed white as snow and sopping wet. But thank the Lord, today all is right with our souls and no one steps forward.
Soon enough Pa offers the closing prayer and we’re free. After the service is finally over it’s time to move, visit, and eat. Covered dish Sunday suppers were where church became family. Songbooks are tucked away. Fans and pocketbooks retrieved. Mothers release young children to toddle or race down the aisles. There’s lots of hugging and handshaking and folks waving to one another across the pews. Together Mom and Dad greet old buddies from Texas Tech. Dad knows lots of others too, since this is where he grew up.
My cousins and I run around outside the church, dirt flying up onto lace ankle socks, sweat dampening the collars of pressed white shirts. We play hide-and-seek among the pickup trucks, all washed and shined up for Sunday service, while the uncles smoke their Marlboro reds and the aunts dab at their foreheads with hankies and swat at flies before excusing themselves to ready the meal.
Inside the fellowship hall, an efficient army of women lays out the weekly church supper—casseroles, homemade pies, salads with marshmallows, green beans dotted with hunks of salt pork, a technicolor array of JELL-O molds, and pitchers of tea so sweet just glancing at it sideways could make you ready to start a diet. Ma and Sister JennaRae shoo the boys while they try to swipe the frosting off the co-cola cakes, while we girls escape our duties by doing patty-cake sing-song claps to the latest playground chants. As we play, I can hear the low buzzing of gossip. Periodically the women pause and one pops up like a prairie dog and barks out an order to one of the males. “John, stop dawdling and get those tables set up! Jimmy, get on over there and help your dad with the chairs!”
Entering the church service, women checked their voices the way they hung up their bulky coats during winter, but once church was over they sure had no trouble finding them again. My, how the meek became strong. Of course, they never were meek to begin with, that was just part of the game. Is this how the world works? I remember wondering. The men think they’re in charge and we women just pretend they are?
By the Book: A Bible Belt Memoir of Growing Up Good and SouthernComing Soon!