Title: Mother, Nature: A 5000-Mile Journey to Discover if a Mother and Son Can Survive Their Differences
Author: Jedidiah Jenkins
Read In: 2024
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
2024 Thoughts: I read all of his books. He’s a gay ex-Christian and an amazing writer. This is the story of him going on a trip with his homophobe Christian mother to retrace a famous walk across America she did in the 70’s, and coming to terms with their very different belief systems. Not as impactful as his first two books (I thought they were going to recreate the original walk and actually walk across America together, but it was just a two-week road trip, bummer), but always love his voice and storytelling style.
The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons. If indeed they come to an understanding of them at all.
—Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
I don’t think I moved to California to get away from my mom, but if I interrogate my motivations, I do think I wanted to go far away to stretch out and try on different ideas and freedoms. I needed to be unwatched. And when I say unwatched, I mean by her.
Mom and I are free-flowing explorers. Less planning and more serendipity.
But I walked alone across the pebbled beach thinking, “Why must everything be for something? When I was a kid, I explored to explore. To know what was over there. Not because of anything.”
In a small village in southern Germany, my mom flung open the window of our hotel and cried out to the ringing bell tower, “I feel like I’m in Beauty and the Beast.” Every cobblestone was a miracle. Every bakery. The different license plates. The bubble sirens of police cars. “Isn’t this wonderful!?”
Near the Louisiana border we pass a billboard that says, “Hell is real. Are you ready to meet your maker?” I remember when I believed in hell. Now that feeling is so distant. It feels silly now. To believe that God, who rigged the whole show, who wrote every day of our lives in a book before one came to be, could make us, knowing we’ll sin and not repent, and burn. And that somehow, it’s our fault. Reality can be cruel. A good family can die from a tree branch falling on their car. A hippo can kill a baby gazelle for fun. Why make the system so mean when the random mess of disease and death is cruel enough?
I am unmarried and an adult man, and I still put my mom as my emergency contact when I do anything. Most people I know put their spouse at this age. I have never done that. Emergency Contact: Barbara Jenkins. Relation: mother. If she lives to be ninety and I’m a solo man in this life, I’ll still write her name. Expecting her to scale Mount Whitney or charter a helicopter to come rescue me from a shipwreck. Something in me will always believe she’ll come find me.
She smiles. “Oh,” she says, remembering something, “let me read us a devotion from my little book. It’s called Power Prayers: Warfare That Works and it’s prayers for specific things. There’s one in there for road trips!”
“OK,” I say, acquiescing.
She pulls a little book from her bag. It has the worst-designed cover I’ve ever seen. Of course it does. The words Power and Prayers are set in giant type across the top, exploding out of a cloud that shoots lightning bolts in every direction. It looks like a PowerPoint slide from 1997. Why do fundamentalist faith and artistic skill rarely coexist?
A thought I’m trying to jam into my understanding: a mother is just a person. A teenage girl who got older. A human who got pregnant and raised kids the best she could.
We were chain-smoking. Molly makes a cigarette seem not only healthy but necessary.
It feels wrong that this would be the church. This place, holy in the story of me, so boring and invisible to every car that drives by it. Life feels random and meaningless to me in a flash. Shouldn’t the moments in history shine? Grand, like a cathedral?
Then I soften, realizing that every ugly brick structure in the world is someone’s most important fork in the road.
“OK, where to next?” I say, moving past history like we’re running errands.
“Bless this food to our bodies. And help us in our old age, Lord Jesus.”
I am touched by the purity of the scene. Their hands clasped together, like country versions of a Precious Moments doll. There is still so much about prayer that triggers me. I’ve asked God to save my twenty-year-old friend from brain swelling, and God killed him. I’ve had people pray for me to be healed of my homo sexuality my whole life. My mom has said that she prays this every day. I hate that.
But this couple, in a posture of gratitude and reverence, sits here and asks God to help them in their old age. They believe that God, the maker of the universe, is looking out for them. And if they ask Him, if they submit to Him, maybe He’ll bless them with a little extra favor. The understanding that this couple isn’t in control of everything, and they are taking a moment in a busy restaurant to embrace that truth . . . all of this moves me. And perhaps that’s the real meaning of prayer. Not the prayer of asking-for, but the prayer of surrendering-to. Of speaking your wants and needs to the universe, just to know them clearer yourself.
“How did you know how far to go every day?” I ask.
“We would go anywhere from ten to twenty-five miles, depending on the weather and how strong we felt. You think that seeing the road on the horizon means it’ll take forever to walk there, but there’s so much nature in every step, the sights and sounds, I was never bored. The birds and flowers. It comes so fast.”
My mom is wrapped in a blanket of rushing memories. “I think this is it. It looks different. It’s been forty years. No one’s been here in a long time.” Her tone is reaching for the feeling, but the coldness of this forgotten house, a temple to entropy, quiets her. She squints, as if to say it doesn’t look exactly as it should. Or does it? She battles the cruel truth that what we remember does not stay as it was, and maybe never was what you remember at all. Fact overlapping with feeling, exaggeration, and gaps filled with imagination.
When the woman has gone outside, Mom leans over the table.
“Do I look like I’m in my seventies?”
“No, Mom. You don’t look a day over fifty-five.”
“I don’t think I look as old as that woman.”
“Don’t worry Mom, you don’t.” I hadn’t even thought to compare her to my mother. I don’t compare my mom to anyone. To me, she is not an ordinary woman who had a child and went on measuring herself against other people, like all of us do. She is my mother. My first god, and therefore the god by which all others are judged. The water invisible to the fish.
But, put simply, we believe different things about the Bible. I believe it is a rough road map to God, inspired by God, full of myths and history, and given to us purposefully imperfect, so that we would not worship it. We would be forced to seek God through it. This is what CS Lewis believed, who is my favorite as you know. You believe, if I understand correctly, that it is the infallible word of God, full of history and instruction. You believe it must be interpreted and contextualized, but certain things are so clear on their face, that modern contextualization falsifies God’s intention. And to approve of what is clearly forbidden is to choose man’s wants over God’s commands. I don’t see it that way. Therefore, we’re going to approach it differently and come to certain impasses.
We’ve been on this road trip for four days now. Seeing only each other. Talking only to each other. Normally, spending too much unbroken time with my mother activates my flight response. But now we’re ending day four, and I’m . . . enjoying myself.
I like talking to her. I like hearing her stories. Even when she reads to me from her book or her notes, I gobble it up. Maybe it’s because I know I’m going to write about it. The curiosity of the journalist diffuses the nature of the son.
“She was a radiant flower and a symbol of dew in the desert.”
Sometimes a look crosses her face that is close to pain, but softened by sweet distance. Her brow slightly crimped. Eyes warm but glazed. A Mona Lisa smile. Looking deep in thought or sadness, but wholly accepted and no longer crippling.
It makes me wonder if returning to history is worth it. If it’s better to live in stories, in the memories that feel big and important. Either the statue is gone or she doesn’t remember. Both sad options. And in the meantime, this place has moved on. It doesn’t know that it shifted her life and named me forever.
We revisit the past because we want to believe that what shaped us lasts forever. It does not. This is helpful for those who have trauma, and tragic for those returning to remembered beauty. I guess you can’t have one without the other. Change is either fast or slow, and it is all there is.
What if I got what I wanted, and Mom renounced her evangelical interpretation of the Bible? What if she said, “I’ve been deceived,” and woke up into the mystic confusion of a world without God? Would I be happy?
I would be sad. My mother’s certainty is her strength. To see her weak and confused would devastate me. There is a reason existential crises tend to fall on the young and middle-aged. They still have time to build another worldview on which to stand.
Mom holds her phone out the window, filming the approaching mountains. I imagine the poor microphone hissing from the roar of the wind. Tonight she will play it back at dinner, watching the video full volume with pride, ignoring the screeching of the audio. She doesn’t care. She is thrilled. “This is the kind of experience that makes me feel alive. I think when I get to heaven I’m gonna have an entire mountain range.”
There are two wooden chairs next to the fire, occupied by two old men. They give us a raised hand of acknowledgment and keep on talking. It’s not that they’re surprised they have customers, but it’s clear that getting a sale is not top of mind. This is a way of life. Small-town gossip around the fire in the treasure store.
The microclimates of the West will always amaze the Tennessean in me. Between Bend and Eugene, you see three or four entirely different worlds. Desert, dry conifer forest, icy volcanic mountaintop, and rain forest. As if the world has been shrunk into an amusement park ride. This is so different from living in Nashville. I can drive for six hours in any direction and almost nothing changes. The same types of plants. The same weather. These things I don’t understand, but they give me a nice metaphor for travel. If you’ve never left your bubble, the place that made you, you do not know that what is doesn’t have to be. There are other environments just as real as yours. Other transpositions of reality. Which feels like an invitation of sorts for one’s life.
We don’t hug. I don’t notice at the time, but later, as I’m writing, I do. Instead, we walk up the beach, the roar of the waves making it hard to talk. Mom bends down every ten feet to pick something up. We continue for a while, letting the achievement of our arrival really settle; then, in the smallest moment, the turning of a thought, the notion of “we’ve walked far enough down this beach, let’s turn around” dawns on us, and the trip changes course. We transition from going to returning. Like the winter solstice, there is a moment where the whole earth shifts, the planet turning its North Pole back toward the sun. We cannot feel this, but many of the biggest changes—in nature, in life—go unnoticed. They happen without the moment ever being named.
Come on, say more! I take a moment to interrogate my expectations. What do I want from her? I want understanding. I want to see that she has grown wise and poetic from life. I want her to analyze and reflect. It may be a generational difference. Millennials are comfortable with therapy, with unpacking trauma, with healing the inner child and talking about foundational wounds. We were raised on all of that. Baby boomers are tougher. Constant analysis was not modeled for them. And to look too closely might open a wound long calloused. Smile and keep going. Keep calm and carry on.
I want to talk and talk until there are no more words and the feelings are splayed out like a pig roast on a spit. She doesn’t have words for me right now.
We’ve seen the elephant. And I am unsatisfied. I wouldn’t say it was a disappointment, but it wasn’t fireworks. It was simple, a mother and a son walking on a beach that could’ve been anywhere.
“I don’t understand why God would give us a heart and experiences, if following him felt like deep spiritual dishonesty every day.”
“I asked her if she thought she had a future, even at her age. She was over 60 and I didn’t want to offend her.
“Oh, ma stars. Bawbra! Ya can start a new life at 50, 60, or 85. Yaw life is just beginnin’. Why you can start a new life at 90!” She threw her head back and laughed. “Just give me a chance!”
As any traveler knows, the return is rarely accompanied by a sense of closure. The bigness of the trip whimpers into the driveway. Plopping my bag in my room. Dreading the unpack. Opening the fridge to see what’s in it, not looking for anything specific. We’re back where we began. And was it even real?
Last April, I hosted a writing retreat in Boone, North Carolina. I’ve never done such a thing, and I wouldn’t have done it if the venue hadn’t reached out and asked me to, or if I hadn’t needed the money. Hosting a writer’s retreat triggered a specific fear: imposter’s syndrome. To teach writing, you have to really be a writer. You have to know exactly why you make the decisions you do. Why you word things one way and not another. These are things I haven’t studied and don’t know. My only teacher has been reading. Soaking myself in language for thirty years. I write until it sounds right. Until how it is on the page is how I would say it out loud. When the retreat center asked if I’d ever consider hosting, I felt like the universe was inviting me into discomfort, into something new.
On the second day I asked them to walk in the woods silently for forty-five minutes, saying nothing, and then sit under a tree and write for forty-five minutes. I told them to write things they’d never written down, things they’d never allowed themselves to think. Things that would get them in trouble. Things that felt nasty or mean or scary or vulnerable. “Write it down,” I said, “and then we’ll burn it in a bonfire tonight.” I wanted them to feel how powerful it is to put language to secret thoughts. When you write down your shame, your failures, your dark or embarrassing deeds, they no longer lurk like a monster behind the door. They come into view and are left weaker for it. Often, they are no monster, just a jacket on the coat rack.
One girl said, “I think we should sing!” and a few people laughed. But after a couple more shares, she started singing. “Take me hooome, country road…” Then we all came in, “to the place, we belong!” And the voices rose in unison. Most people in the circle had been raised in a church—evangelical, Mormon, Catholic, or some other version of faith. The thought came to me, Wow, we are religious creatures. We get together, we feel the “spirit” and we want to sync up in ecstatic experience. We sang the chorus two times through and felt closer for it. A unit. An army of tender loves. We stopped and laughed in some mysterious recognition.
I don’t want to talk about that, which means I should talk about it. I started talking.
But I know that who I feel myself to be is good, and not broken. I know that all the shame of Christian teachings couldn’t shake the gnawing conviction of my desires. And when the heart and the brain are on the same side, dogma hardly stands a chance.