by E. Hughes
The Israelites must have felt like I had last August, driving back into the Central Valley. After the walls of the Red Sea crashed and drowned Pharaoh and his army, after the sea returned to its usual ebb and flow, when only memory and sea mist whirred about their faces, the Israelites must have felt as I had when I stopped to gas up and buy gummy worms at a Chevron in Barstow, California—afraid and alone.
I spent last summer partially in Sioux Center, Iowa and in Salt Lake City, Utah—waiting to begin the MFA program at Fresno State and coming down off of graduating from college (which was not an easy feat for me—a black woman who graduated from a predominantly white institution without a genuine support system). I spent a lot of last summer excited to pursue a writing career and dreadful of my return to the Central Valley—the place I had incidentally escaped from.
Because of my fear and dread, I spent too much time thinking about PhD programs and yelling at God. Once I sat in my basement apartment, having binge watched Parks and Rec and not having spoken to anyone for twenty-seven hours, shrieking—You don’t give a damn about me! How could you allow this to happen to me? Why? Why would you take me back to that place? Why do you continue to take from me? You made me! Don’t you care?
This prayer seemed not to budge God.
You see, leaving the Midwest for California meant returning to the memories of my abuse, to my mother and father, to the family I have been grafted into then grafted out of, to the friendships that disintegrated, to my suicide attempts—to the homeless and hopeless Erica that met Jesus at 18 years old. None of this I wanted to remember.
On the first weekend back in the Valley, I took Highway 99 (which is a lot like interstate 80 from Nebraska to Illinois, except for the LA and Bay Area commuters) from Madera to the last place I lived before my time in Iowa—Porterville.
The feet of the Sequoias were rolling; and in August, the citrus trees were preparing for fall, the sun with its hand on its hip midmorning. The tar road looked like water under the sun as I made my way southeast toward Porterville.
While I was homeless, a Christian couple (let’s call them Bob and Shirley) moved me into their home, tucked away in orange groves on an unpaved road at the edge of the Porterville. Due to my severe mental illness at the time and despite this arrangement lasting for almost four years, the arrangement we established and our relationship fell apart. Still, the baby pictures I had given Shirley still hung on the wall along with her children’s picture.
The house still smelled of lemon, dust, and cooking grease. Bob, Shirley, and I sat down in their living room to discuss life since seeing them last. I told them about Princeton, graduate school, Cairo, Illinois, and driving across the country twice, about the thick woods of Alabama and thunderstorms, and lightning bugs. I never mentioned that I had fallen in love twice or that those loves failed or that I had protested Donald Trump or that I had become a feminist.
I looked around the room, recognizing old furniture and pictures, remembering. I peered toward the bedroom, which is just off the living room, I lived in for three years, remembering the morning I tried to commit suicide—the cold tile on my naked body, the smell of iron and crushed pills—remembering the morning I came to Christ in that bathroom, stewing in the trauma and glory of it all.
At the end of our conversation, I collected the last of my things from Bob and Shirley’s home, accepting them as people bound to a time and place confined to my memory.
Doubt is the act of distrusting memory, of revising it. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hasty and nostalgic, desperate to change story for better or worse in order to comfort myself.
And comfort is the reason why both the Israelites, crossing the Red Sea, and I, driving back into the valley, felt similarly distraught. This year, I’ve learned that faith is much more difficult when one fails to continually tell stories of God’s faithfulness—to remember God’s faithfulness.
And a few weeks ago, a few of my friends invited me to hike a trail in Yosemite National Park. On the entire ride (to what my friend Steph calls “the Disneyland of national parks”), I reflected on my six years following Christ: how I still struggle with depression and making relationships, how I threatened to walk away for him and how I’ve been caught up in the Holy Spirit, how I’ve wept both in mourning and elation.
When we reached a two-lane tunnel, linking one side of the mountain to Yosemite Valley, I felt like I was being transferred from reality to the next. On the other side of the tunnel, we parked alongside a cliff, peering down at the full rivers and up at four waterfalls pouring over cliffs. This year, the Yosemites are green and wet after a five-year drought.
Before I left California for college, I never paid attention to the landscape, to the way the ground moves or to the way the sky drapes above us. I remember getting off the plane in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and the odd sense of having left a womb—the womb of the Sequoias and Yosemites, of the Diablo Range and the Tehachapi Mountains, and of the Santa Lucia Range. Landing in the middle of the prairie, I was being born, like driving through the tunnel and into a new birth.
Faith is the act of telling the truth, of telling the story. And despite the sheer unfairness of life, we must understand how to shout the story in the high heat of drought and to sing when water rushes over our cliffs.
Erica Hughes is working toward her MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry at California State University, Fresno, where she also teaches freshmen composition.