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Easter in the South
Anthony Easton

My dad and I spent three weeks together in the spring, traveling to seven cities in the South. He and I don’t often agree. In recent years he has been prone to grand gestures, a dramatic change from a slipshod parenting style he exhibited while I was growing up. Even now, in my mid-thirties, I haven’t learned how to handle this bifurcated relationship, and I hoped that this trip would provide insight. It was the same hope I had felt on other trips before this.

We found ourselves in three places during the Easter Triduum: Savannah, Sapelo Island, and Brunswick, Georgia. Going with my dad—who was doing the best he could, but who is organizationally challenged and unable to tell me what he wanted—made Easter complicated. My time in these places was holy and lonely; it made me think of hospitality, race, and money in unexpected ways. I was continually being sold on this idea of the South, but also that any idea of the real, authentic South was a hustle. In order to enjoy the geographical region, you had to be okay with the idea that nothing was real, and enjoy the artifice of it.

 If you read stories of medieval pilgrimages, you get the same sense—the indulgence sellers, tour guides, and innkeepers along these sacred routes became part of the sacred route itself. This is different from travel essays where someone spends a few days (or a week, or a season) wandering through a city and writes what they see. For essays about the South, that often means snake handlers, greasy spoons, grotesqueries. Writers see what they choose to see, so the location becomes a mirror for their own ambivalences. These essays don’t talk about how self-aware the South is and how it constructs itself for outsiders.

The South performs southerness in order to preserve its own interiority. While visitors want the authentic place, the South values its privacy. So the essays go out and the people come in, and the cycle perpetuates itself.

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday

The geographies of Charleston and Savannah look similar in some ways. Each has a wealthy downtown, then rings of progressively less wealthy neighborhoods, until you reach the much poorer inner suburbs, and then the money expands again—money on the inside, money on the outside, and a stretched poverty in the middle.

Downtown Savannah is on a grid, with large parks in the middle of public squares. It’s lovely, and it’s been colonized by tourists and the Savannah College of Art and Design. Everything seems slightly out of central casting, including the Anglo Catholic chapel—The Collegiate Church of St. Paul the Apostle, on St Thomas Square—warm red brick exterior, warm oak interior. I went to two church services there, one on Thursday and one on Friday. Women wore knee-length Lilly Pulitzer dresses and men dressed in pastel oxfords, chinos, blue blazers with brass buttons. The Maundy Thursday service was quiet, even with organ accompaniment. There was no foot washing. This ritual, perhaps the oldest in Christendom, seemed too corporeal for that space.

Afterward, I rambled through Savannah’s squares. Each one seemed to host a garden party that evening. These small shoals of white southerners, presumably residents of the houses surrounding the squares, drank and talked in hushed church tones. As I walked toward them, they silently moved away, returning afterward—to the conversation, to the wine in real glassware, to the tiny sandwiches and even tinier cakes.

On Good Friday I attended an outdoor stations of the cross at the same church. The garlands at the door contained real flowers, a mix of perennials and a few lilies. The lilies gave a hint of death, but lacked intensity; the garlands communicated gentility more than death. We walked around the quaint square quaintly, singing hymns at low volume. Tourists exiting trolley buses stopped and looked at us. People peeked at us from the windows of the Hilton on the other side of the square. SCAD students traipsed from building to building. My dad stayed in the hotel.

Holy Saturday

Dad and I took the Greyhound out of Savannah toward Brunswick, and then a cab from the Flying J Truck stop to the ferry station, where we waited to embark for Sapelo Island. Dad is an atheist, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking or talking about God. He’s also an old leftist. So it was surprising to me when he talked about his previous trip to that island, and about how deeply he felt the religious experiences he had there. 

I understood the sacredness he felt because of the island’s beauty and history. Sapelo was one of the first places West African slaves would see after the middle passage. It is also reportedly the place where the first Muslim theological work was written in America. It has a tradition of folk religion that was violently, repeatedly suppressed yet has cautiously returned time and again, something new added each time.

Our trip to the island was a disaster. We got the wrong times for the ferry. We didn’t arrange transit to where we were staying, and we didn’t have reservations. There was no grocery store. We didn’t bring food. I was snappish, exhausted, unkind, and impatient. Dad and I had been fighting for days. The only internet service on the island was on the porch of the public library.

The island was muggy and thick with bugs, but the porch was cool, with breezes from the ocean. Kids rode golf carts nearby, and I overheard free-flowing conversation. I sat on the porch, wrote, watched the sunset, and listened to crickets and cicadas. I heard horses at nearby farms. As the breezes seemed to carry the gloaming, more people came to the porch, cell phones lit like lanterns.

The people who came to the porch were related to our hosts. Before my dad and I settled in for the night, our hosts fed us a dinner of pit beef, wrapped in tin foil and cooked in the coals of a fire. There was liquor and grape soda, crackers and black rum cake. The cell phone lights were as much of a metaphor as a fire, but it was not a metaphor intended for us. It was intended for the family members home for Easter. The homecoming felt thick, and I felt like we were interlopers. We were interrupting the family time with our whiteness, our bickering, and our lack of preparedness.

But, authenticity is performed. They put us up in someone’s house, small and spare. They charged us for the place to stay, for the ride to the ferry and the ride back. We overpaid for our lodging, but I had the sense the farming and fishing weren’t great and we were subsidizing. They were not obliged to feed us but they did, and the food was brilliant. The land was one of the most beautiful places I have been.

 The pit beef, the lack of the internet, even the poverty—this all amounted to a kind of seductive tourism that claimed authenticity. Even this claim of pit beef as being authentic was problematic. It’s what they called it on the island—it was roasted slow in a flame pit, in the sandy soil. But Maryland also lays claim to pit beef, and some Sapelo residents had moved to Maryland during the northern migration after World War II. Experience allows for a simple understanding of things—like barbecue or Blues music, or the lived experience of religion—to become very muddy.

Think of this foil-wrapped beef, of people moving between Maryland and Georgia, of who brought what to whom—even the possibility that it was originally pit fish or pit goat. Think about that in terms of prayer, or the lived experience of religion. Think of pit beef as a metaphor.

Also remember, pit beef tastes good.

Easter Sunday

We planned to stay in Sapelo for Easter, but we didn’t. I don’t quite know why. Dad wanted to go to a church there, but the church had moved to the mainland. Maybe it was that simple. Our hosts invited us to their church, but we didn’t go. We didn’t go to church at all. When Dad gets an idea, we move forward with that. We don’t argue.

We took a cab from the ferry terminal to a hotel in Brunswick. It was closed. We stopped at another; it was full. We stopped at a third, and they had a waiting list. The fourth had room. It was in one of those unincorporated places outside of town, where interstates push together and everything seems to be in a state of neglect.

Our hotel shared a parking lot with four other hotels, all cheap franchises in need of renovation. Inside, the decor was brass, with Nagel-style prints of irises. Only the omnipresent heat and humidity and the palmettos in the parking lot indicated that this was the South rather than anywhere else.

I stayed in bed and watched television, then I looked up nearby churches to see if any were open on Easter Sunday evening. Everything was forty-five minutes away. I was sad and exhausted, frustrated, far from anything resembling home. I prayed as I could, reading the Book of Common Prayer off a laptop in a nondescript hotel room. It was in that moment that God became present to me—maybe moreso there than at any other point in the trip.

I had dinner with Dad in a not-great seafood restaurant with a solid salad bar. People at the restaurant were dressed for Easter—actual hats, bright colors, little boys in pastels, women with bolero jackets over long, cotton-print dresses. It was a working-class version of the outfits I had seen in Savannah, which read Easter and the South, as much as the sweet tea.

On our last day in Georgia, Easter Monday, we took a long drive outside of Brunswick. We traveled deeper and deeper into the forest until we eventually reached the end of a road. On the left was a white clapboard church, with a giant Spanish moss-laden oak in front of it and around it a nineteenth-century graveyard. The church itself was dark and cool, with stained glass that told difficult tales of missionaries, and had emblems of pelicans and lilies. In the front of the church was a cross, overwhelmed with live flowers.

I spent two hours there, on the porch, praying in the chapel, looking at the graveyard, before I discovered that John and Charles Wesley had founded this church.

The Wesleys came to evangelize Georgia, and no one listened. There was hostility from both indigenous people and white colonists, and the pushback was strong enough to send both John and Charles back to England. The church that was built in Wesley‘s honor is its own success—but a wealthy, moneyed, papering over—the idea of history, more than the actual history.

I wonder if that is how Christians now deal with the church, regardless of how—or if—we travel. We have an idea of a place, we see the place, and it fits into these concepts. These narratives of what public Christianity is, or what private Christianity is, about who we follow (aside from Jesus), and about the stories we tell about those followings. About the sanctity of some places over the others, and the failures that we paper over on our attempts to be Easter people.

The messy refusal of a tight narrative—maybe that is the closest we have to the divine. 

 

Anthony Easton is a writer and artist living in Hamilton, Ontario.



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