I’m here to scare the hell out of you.
I’m pretty sure that was the very first thing Dorothy Allison said to us on that cold night in south Georgia. It was 5pm and the sun was already down. I was bundled up with about 30 other creative writing students in a classroom of the Forest Drive building that smelled like crayons and Kinko’s. We were there to listen to the South’s own literary badass talk about this heartbreaking labor of love called writing.
With her appearance alone, she is already successful in her attempt to scare the hell out of us. Dorothy Allison has thick arms and straight, graying hair that she parts down the middle. One of her eyes is more closed than the other. She’s one of those people who looks like if she were to hug you, it might hurt a little because she would squeeze so hard. Somehow all of these features mixed together make for a surprisingly beautiful woman. But she is also terrifying.
Well, she says. Where are y’all from? An unusual question to ask an entire audience, but no one dares to even begin to think of her as strange.
We’re all quiet and still at first, but then someone says, Roswell. She nods once. Looks to the next person. Macon. And the next. Savannah. Atlanta. Lawrenceville. Dunwoody.
My throat constricts as the the wave of answers approaches my seat. Eventually it’s clear that it’s my turn. She looks at me and raises her eyebrows.
I’m from California, I say. I try to speak loudly, because I think she would like that.
Her eyes stay on me, she squints. The silence thickens the air. I try with my mind to shift the attention off of me. I say to myself, Yep, yep that’s right, California, we’ve got really good avocados, alright, moving along now…who’s up next? Oh look, up next we have the dude that invited me over for tea Freshman year, I know where he’s from! He’s from Marietta, he went to Japan and got this really nice tea, we watched Youtube videos about some video game he loves that I didn’t think was funny but I laughed anyway and then I left and I haven’t talked to him since, and I think he’s kinda mad at me but hey! He’s from Marietta!
But her eyes are still on me. I seriously consider pointing to the tea dude and saying, He’s from Marietta! But she interrupts my thought.
Oh girl, you’re in trouble bad, she says, shaking her head and smiling with just one corner of her mouth. She swings her large hands up to the sides of the podium, gripping its perimeter, and now her whole mouth is smiling. Her head shakes violently, her eyes roll back and she starts to laugh one of those laughs that can stiffen an entire room with its volume alone. If you heard this laugh in a restaurant, your mother would be alarmed and definitely make a comment. Then, silence. She steadies her head, her eyes, and looks at me, a little too directly.
Girl, she says, almost whispering. You. Are in. Trouble. Bad.
Five years later, and I still have only guesses as to what she meant by that.
“Everything that comes to us is a blessing or a test. That’s all you need to know in this life…just the certainty that God’s got His eye on you, that He knows what you are made of, what you need to grow on. Why, questioning’s a sin, it’s pointless. He will show you your path in His own good time. And long as I remember that, I’m fine.” -Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina
Up until I graduated from college, the word God used to make me aim my finger towards my mouth and make a little gagging noise. I had always been under the impression that religion started wars and made people hate each other. But I listened to what those Southerns had to say about God, because I’ll listen to anyone who thinks they’ve got something figured out. But for most of them, they told me that they didn’t really have anything figured out. All they knew for sure was how to pray, and as it turns out, they’re really good at it.
One of my ex-boyfriends would pray pretty much every night. If he forgot to do it before he went to sleep, sometimes I’d wake up to him praying at 4am or whenever. He’d take his hand into a clenched fist and press it against his heart. Then he would silently talk to God. He told me that he’d ask God to help everyone he knew that was going through something hard, which was pretty much everyone, and to let everyone that he loved know that he loved them. And to seal it all in, he’d bump his fist twice against his chest, make a peace sign with his fingers, kiss the peace sign, and extend his arm up toward the sky. Like some sort of spiritual gangster.
He never went to church or read the Bible or anything like that. But he said he could tell that he really needed to pray when he got a little tingle in the palm of his hand.
When people ask me about my experience in the South, they always ask about how it was to live in the Bible Belt, expecting me to talk about how weird it was for a religionless girl from the Bay Area to live in a place where religion was big. But the truth is, that’s what I loved about it most. Maybe I was lucky, and I just didn’t see how religion was damaging people my age down there. But most of them were just fine–they didn’t think they were going to hell because they had sex before marriage or wanted to go see the Vagina Monologues. There were of course, assholes, who thought gay and black people were going to hell, but I don’t know if they thought that way because of religion. I think it was from their asshole parents. I don’t really know.
I come from California, where things going wrong in your life are problems to solve, issues to pick apart, lessons to be learned. To just pray about your life isn’t enough, you’ve gotta do something about it. You’ve gotta ask why. And you better take that answer and learn something from it.
Girl, you are in trouble bad.
I think it’s more about balance. As with everything. One part figuring shit out and one part giving it all up to Whoever. Doing and not doing equally. Too much doing and too much not doing isn’t gonna get us anywhere. I’m just glad I learned how to do both. But some days it’s hard to remember that, and some days all I can hear are her words. They make me smile. They’re comforting and completely terrifying at the same time:
Girl, you are in trouble bad.
Don’t you just love her?