In my early twenties, after I left Alabama, I worked as a caseworker in a swampy part of western Tennessee known as the Bottoms. My clients—mostly poor white people who sharecropped, hauled junk, and cleaned houses—put no truck in the happy ending or the quick fix. They wanted to eat, to work when work was available, and to indulge in the few pleasures open to them: smoking and drinking beer on their front steps, swimming in the creek in summer, hunting deer in the fall, and buying moonshine when they could.
Two or three days a week, I made home visits to wooden shacks with barren front yards full of scrawny chickens scratching in the dirt. Teenage boys watched me warily while their mothers, often unemployed and depressed, cleared a place at the table for me to sit. I was grateful for their generosity, and though I believed I could be of help to these families, in truth I knew just enough to keep them from starving. It took me three long months to realize this, wedded as I was to good intentions and the beauty of a vase of wildflowers near a kitchen window rather than the sober facts of poverty and the southern caste system.
Later, I’d see this job as a reality check to the sentimentality of easy solutions, do-gooder notions, and the up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that fueled so much of popular philosophy. I had yet to understand the sour meanness and desperation, racial injustice, ill health, and lack of resources that so often
accompanied poverty. But more than that, I understood little of myself. Both success and failure seemed to elude me, darting around me like exotic fish, unknowable and vicarious. Instead, I lived in a state of waiting: waiting for my inner life to make sense; waiting for my disappointment to clarify; waiting for something to happen. And then, like an avalanche, it did: My marriage fell apart and took me with it. As I struggled through a difficult divorce, my life split open. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I as afraid of everything. Even afraid of being afraid. Unnerved, I quit my job and sat in my bedroom, staring at the small crack between the closed curtains, watching how, with a slight breeze, sunlight made a timid jab into the room. In my drawer one morning, I found a clothespin I’d brought from Alabama, and I eliminated the crack. Now darkness filled the vacuum where ordinary life had been. Though my old life was broken, I didn’t want to leave this room. Not yet. I didn’t want to leave, because I’d begun to ponder what I realized was an essential question: How does one keep the broken part from shattering the whole?
I’m still pondering that question, even as it has expanded beyond my divided attachments to the historical and the cultural. The broken part isn’t just in me but in the world of the past and the present, a world of great beauty and brutality, of promising errors and tragic liberations, a world that requires not
only skeptical musing but also the pursuit of spontaneity and pleasure. Of course, I never found a satisfying answer to my question. And yet because of that question, I discovered a way of thinking, an awareness of my own organizing intellect’s ability to observe and to experience and to insistently ask
what lessons need to be needed.
And so, I begin.
I try to tell my stories. Stories of class and race, of gender and caste, of silence and ambition, stories of reckoning after my first visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, as well as stories of childhood longing and family loss. My stories are always about the South, both as a place and as an inheritance that stretches inside and beyond me, a place I’ll never understand and yet will never let go. A place that will never let go of me. “All over Alabama the lamps are out,” James Agee wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as he watched the warm southern night descend, the leaves soften, the winds cease, and a vigilant silence reign.
As do I.
Unable to sleep, I pull back the curtain of my life and wait for dawn.
Written in the Sky: Lessons of a Southern Daughter is the
newest collection of essays by Alabama native and PEN/Jerard Fund Award-winner Patricia Foster. Available for preorder now, the book will be released in early September.