By Deb Avery
When I left rural Alabama many, many years ago, it did not occur to me that I would ever live there again.
Let’s just say that not only do I understand deeply “why the caged bird sings,” as Maya Angelou writes so eloquently, I also understand how that bird feels to suddenly find the door to the cage open, and freedom waiting on the other side. But seeing that door open brought two very strong emotions; fear and excitement. Fear that the seldom used wings might not be strong enough to carry it on it’s journey to freedom, fear of the unknown, and the excitement of finally being free. These are strong emotions for a little bird to deal with.
They were also strong emotions for a young woman coming from a strict, harsh religious, and isolated upbringing.
If anyone had told me that I would move back to my hometown again many years later, back to the place of my caged existence—I would not have believed them. Oh, I like to visit from time to time, but I never thought I would wind up back in the land of my childhood. And nothing would ever have convinced me I would return to live in the very same house I had once grown up in.
But life is strange like that. Sometimes our journey turns back on itself so we can revisit places and see things we might have missed the first time around.
When my husband informed me over 20 years ago that he wanted to leave his job overseas and return back to this small, rural town, I made him promise me that we would not stay for more than a few months before we moved on to greener pastures. He promised and I stopped crying—for awhile. But as the months turned into years, the tears came more regularly.
Don’t get me wrong. The South is beautiful. The trees, hills and rivers are some of the most lovely landscapes you will find anywhere. That part of my homeland, I loved with all my heart. It was the isolation from like-minded people, the feeling of being a fish out of water, and the harsh, unrelenting religion of the Southern Baptists that I disliked so much. I felt that because of the hold religion held over the people in my life, it had robbed me of a normal childhood.
But that’s another story for another day.
I had lived in many diverse places over the years, opening my mind by living in different cultures and devouring almost everything I could get my hands on about religion, philosophy, science, the arts and humanity, psychology and many other subjects. I had been exposed to a big, wide world with all kinds of people and I did not want to go back to the small town which had remained so closed minded and hostile to those who are different. Religion was still the center of everything there and I felt claustrophobia settling in around me just thinking about moving back.
I won’t sugar coat things. It was very difficult.
This was the early 90’s, and in order to live and function in this land of intolerance, I had to camouflage myself. I could not talk about Buddhism and what a profound effect it had on my life. I could not voice my difference of opinion on just about everything that was held dear and sacred in this deeply religious, rural town without causing a nasty scene and hurt feelings (on both sides). I was cut off from all that I had grown to love. I had no close friends to talk to, and even though I was surrounded by family and people I knew, I had never felt more alone in my life.
It was just where I needed to be.
Yes, you read that correctly. No, I did not mistype the sentence. This isolation, this loneliness of spirit, was just exactly what I needed to experience—first hand—all that I had been reading and learning all those years while away. It was like that old song sung by Sinatra, New York, New York. For I knew if I could practice lovingkindness amid the hostility, compassion versus the intolerance, and somehow learn to be content in hostile territory—as the song goes: “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.”
So, my journey of enlightenment began in earnest. I would like to say that I somehow elegantly and gracefully attained enlightenment, but this was not the case. Just as the seed planted in the soil must go through a process of total chaos, I too went through what appeared to be total devastation.
It was ugly, painful, and sometimes seemed more than I could bear.
I remember when internet first arrived in my rural area. Excited beyond measure, I sat before the computer screen and typed “Buddhist in Alabama” into the Google search engine. I think I was holding my breath while waiting on the results. The list came up short and not exactly what I had in mind. The only search results was this quote from a book someone had written; “She was as lonely as a Buddhist in Alabama,” and listings for a couple of Buddhist temples in Florida and Georgia.
After I got over my shock and disappointment, dried the tears in my eyes so I could see properly, I regrouped and expanded my search. I finally found my first virtual Buddhist sangha at a place called Daily Zen. I could enter the “temple” and meditate with people from all over the world. I was in heaven! I had found Nirvana! And for awhile, the frustration and isolation lessened somewhat. I still use this site often to sit in meditation knowing that others from all over the world are doing the same.
With the internet, life became a bit easier. I found friends, tribes of sisters and brothers and other like-minded people to share my thoughts, life lessons, and journey with. Yet it would be almost 15 years later before I finally came to a place of acceptance, peace and authenticity on my journey. By never giving up on myself, my aspirations of growing and learning, and through the art of acceptance, gratitude and deep compassion, I found a place in my heart and mind where I am content, fulfilled and no longer lonely.
My family still does not accept my beliefs or philosophies.
I am on their prayer lists, daily. I have very few local friends. Life is still difficult at times, but I no longer worry about what neighbors, friends, or anyone else thinks about me, or my beliefs. I have learned to do this gently, with acceptance, compassion, and respect to them as well as myself.
It is much easier these days to understand and forgive the attitudes, contempt, and harshness of the religious community and followers around me. All I have to do is remember that the door to my cage was opened, allowing me to find the courage to fly free. Most here did not have this opportunity, or did not feel strong enough to take flight.
I think the hardest thing for the local community to accept is the fact that I am basically a good person. I’m always one of the first to offer a helping hand, and I strive to be compassionate and kind to everyone, and everything. It’s not what is expected of a non-Christian. To them, if you aren’t a Christian, you will go to hell when you die. No ifs, ands, or buts. Therefore, I am an enigma to them. I don’t fit into their narrow views of how one should be.
What they will never understand is the simple fact that I am happy with who I am.
I am grateful for where I am because I do not think I could have learned all the lessons in compassion and tolerance that I have learned here. And perhaps, most amazing of all, the very place that frightened me so, is now a beautiful and peaceful refuge where I can spend time surrounded by Nature and all her beauty.
Life is strange.
I have traveled and wanted to travel more. But the ironic thing is, I did not have to visit India and sit under a bodhi tree to experience a form of enlightenment.
I found it here, where I least expected, under a magnolia tree.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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