Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South

Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South

by Margaret Renkl


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An Indie Next Selection for September 2021

A Country Living Best Book of Fall 2021

From the author of the bestselling #ReadWithJenna/TODAY Show book club pick Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss

For the past four years, Margaret Renkl’s columns have offered readers of The New York Times a weekly dose of natural beauty, human decency, and persistent hope from her home in Nashville. Now more than sixty of those pieces have been brought together in this sparkling new collection.

“People have often asked me how it feels to be the ‘voice of the South,’” writes Renkl in her introduction. “But I’m not the voice of the South, and no one else is, either.” There are many Souths—red and blue, rural and urban, mountain and coast, Black and white and brown—and no one writer could possibly represent all of them. In Graceland, At Last, Renkl writes instead from her own experience about the complexities of her homeland, demonstrating along the way how much more there is to this tangled region than many people understand.

In a patchwork quilt of personal and reported essays, Renkl also highlights some other voices of the South, people who are fighting for a better future for the region. A group of teenagers who organized a youth march for Black Lives Matter. An urban shepherd whose sheep remove invasive vegetation. Church parishioners sheltering the homeless. Throughout, readers will find the generosity of spirit and deep attention to the world, human and nonhuman, that keep readers returning to her columns each Monday morning.

From a writer who “makes one of all the world’s beings” (NPR), Graceland, At Last is a book full of gifts for Southerners and non-Southerners alike.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571311849
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 17,815
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Margaret Renkl is the author of Graceland, At Last and Late Migrations, which was a Read with Jenna/TODAY Show book club selection. She is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, where her essays appear weekly. Her work has also appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, Proximity, and River Teeth, among others. She was the founding editor of Chapter 16, the daily literary publication of Humanities Tennessee, and is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Carolina. She lives in Nashville.

Read an Excerpt

Hawk. Lizard. Mole. Human.
Because William Blake was right: “Every thing that lives is holy.”
August 31, 2020


One of my sons noticed it before the rest of us did: a hawk perched on the edge of the birdbath mounted to our deck rail, only a few feet from the back door. One yellow claw gripped the edge of the shallow bowl; the other claw was curled up and tucked into the bird’s breast feathers as though for sleep. It was the middle of a bright Sunday afternoon, but the hawk had settled in for a stay. Its coloring—the brown streaking, the pale eyes—indicated a young Cooper’s hawk, not long out of the nest.

Food is abundant during these hot, dry days, but water is not, and many thirsty creatures make use of this birdbath. As we were marveling over the hawk, a young squirrel came around the edge of the nearest maple tree and leapt lightly onto the railing, heading over for a drink. It saw the hawk and stopped for a moment to look it over. Then, unbelievably, the squirrel continued to make its way toward the birdbath. The three humans standing at the back door all gasped.

Cooper’s hawks belong to the genus Accipiter, avian predators capable of immense speed and built to navigate dense vegetation in pursuit of prey. My field guide, Pete Dunne’s Birds of Prey, calls the Cooper’s hawk “a slate-backed, torpedo-shaped cruise missile of a raptor.” These birds eat mostly other birds, and they can be the bane of backyard bird-watchers because they often stake out feeders. It is terrible to watch what happens when a Cooper’s hawk kills a songbird—the explosion of feathers, the piteous cry.

At first the hawk remained in its resting position, but I wish you could have seen what happened to its eyes when it saw that squirrel. Its head turned; I swear I could see its pupils dilate.

The baby squirrel was lucky that this was a baby hawk: a goofy, inexpert chase scene unfolded in the maple tree, with no harm come to the squirrel, but already there was a focused savagery in that young bird’s eyes that I have never seen before except in photos and film. A thrilling ferocity—dangerous and urgent. Utterly, beautifully, inescapably wild.


On the other side of the house, a skink has taken up residence under the low ramp my husband built for his elderly father’s scooter chair. The ramp is covered with old roofing shingles, and last spring, when the skink was carrying eggs, she took to lying on those sun-warmed shingles and sprawling out like a teenager on a pool raft, or Superman in flight: arms extended, legs stretched out behind her. The broadhead skink is the largest lizard native to the Southeast, reaching up to thirteen inches in length. The skink who shares our front stoop is well past half that size.

Broadhead skinks are attentive mothers, and ours disappeared for a few weeks in early summer, presumably to lay her eggs and guard them till they’d safely hatched. I was afraid a feral cat had caught her, but she’s back now, and from time to time a miniature striped skink with a blue tail will join her on the stoop. It may be one of her babies, though of course I can’t be sure.

Broadhead skinks are often found in trees, but this one rarely leaves the shelter of our ramp except to hunt or to sun, and the spot she has picked out is rich in insects, so she needn’t range far. When she’s startled, she darts more quickly than you could possibly believe, but when she prowls, she moves in an undulation that mimics the gliding of a snake. I have watched delivery drivers jump back at the sight of her.

I like to watch our resident skink while she’s sunning, the way she looks up at me through the glass of the storm door, fully aware that I’m watching her. If I open the door, she’ll scoot under the ramp on reptilian principle, but she has learned that I am not a threat. Once she’s safely under cover, she’ll poke her head back out to see what I’m up to. There is such transparent intelligence in her eyes.

Really, it’s just one eye, for she always tilts her head sideways to look at me, exactly the way a songbird would. When I walk out front to feed the bluebirds, I always toss a few worms into the ground cover for the furtive house wrens, who, though ferocious, can’t compete with an entire bluebird family. The wrens are quick, but the skink, waiting at the stoop at the exact right time of day, always helps herself to a worm or two before the wrens even realize I’ve come outside.


I haven’t actually seen a mole, but a mole lives here. Beyond the front stoop, its tunnels crisscross our yard, and walking there becomes an exercise in sinking. We once had a terrier mix named Betty who spent all autumn digging up mole runs. Every year she managed to make our yard look like someone had been conducting trench warfare there.

Millie, our current terrier mix, has never shown the first inclination to dig anywhere or to hunt anything, so the current mole remains unmolested. There are spots all over our yard where the mole has opened up a hole in the earth to push out the loose soil it has excavated in making its tunnels, or where its offspring have exited the tunnel in search of their own territories: as I learned from Marc Hamer’s wonderful memoir How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature, hands down the most charming book I read in 2019, moles are combative, solitary creatures except during mating, and their youngsters don’t hang around.

Moles can wreck the appearance of a poisoned, sprinkler-watered lawn, but they have never done any harm to this scruffy, wildlife-friendly patch of ground. Many wildflower seeds require disturbed soil to germinate and take root, and molehills are a safe landing place for wildflower seeds carried on the wind. Meanwhile the mole is busy underground doing its useful work: aerating the soil and consuming vast quantities of worms, slugs, and grubs—often eating its own body weight in a day. A resident mole is always better pest control than any exterminator, and I will always choose a living creature over any field of poisoned grass.


How lucky I am to live in a home with windows. Against all odds—the encroachments of construction companies and lawn services and exterminators—these windows still open onto a world that stubbornly insists on remaining wild. I love the bluebirds, and I also love the murderous hawk who reminds me that the peace of the backyard is only a fiction. I love the lizard who looks so much like a snake, and I also love the snake who would eat her if it could.

And my friend the mole, oh how I love my old friend the mole. In these days that grow ever darker as fears gather and autumn comes on, I remember again and again how much we all share with this soft, solitary creature trundling through invisible tunnels in the dark, hungry and blind but working so hard to move forward all the same.


A Slow-Motion Coup in Tennessee
For years, Republicans in this state have attempted to undermine the foundation of democratic government: the vote.
November 5, 2018

Emblazoned on the front page of the website for, which was founded in 2008 to increase voter turnout, there’s a quotation from Ronald Reagan: “For this Nation to remain true to its principles, we cannot allow any American’s vote to be denied, diluted, or defiled. The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.”

The party of Reagan no longer shares this particular ideal, at least not here in the South. In Tennessee, transparent voter suppression efforts have included an array of tactics:
Confiscating the driver’s licenses of citizens who can’t afford to pay traffic fines. This onerous law prevents the impoverished not only from voting but also from working—93.4 percent of working Tennesseans need cars to get to their jobs—and being unable to work prevents them from paying their fines. “Since 2012, at least 250,000 driver’s licenses have been suspended for nonpayment of traffic fines and costs,” according to a class-action lawsuit filed against the state. In October, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in the case, ordering Tennessee to stop the practice of revoking licenses and requiring the state to allow people to apply to get their licenses back. The state is appealing the decision.

Effectively disenfranchising college students. It’s not permissible to mail in a ballot in Tennessee unless you registered to vote in person before an election commission official, or have voted in a previous election. This law makes it extremely difficult for students to vote in national elections, which are held in November and thus in the middle of a school term. The rules about voting by mail in Tennessee are so complicated that the campaign staff of United States Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat, created a graphic to help explain it. Even the graphic is complicated.

Disqualifying voter registration applications for specious reasons. Shelby County is Tennessee’s largest county. It is also a county where African Americans are in the majority. Last month, the Memphis branch of the NAACP and the Tennessee Black Voter Project sued the Shelby County Election Commission over a backlog of more than ten thousand voter registration applications that had not yet been processed because, according to election officials, they were incomplete. (The election commission considered an application incomplete even if only the field designating the citizen’s title—Mr., Ms., or Mrs.—was left blank.) A chancery court judge ordered the commission to allow citizens to complete the forms and vote on Election Day. The Tennessee Supreme Court subsequently ruled that such voters could cast provisional ballots only.

Indifference to the prospect of election interference. Despite a cyberattack last May during the primary election in Knox County, and despite dire warnings from national intelligence agencies that elections all over the country are vulnerable to attack by hostile foreign governments, we have almost no voting machines in Tennessee that are capable of producing a backup paper ballot in the event of an electronic attack.

Representative Cooper has been arguing for months—since well before the attack in Knox County—that we need to safeguard our vote with a paper-ballot backup system. Forty-six other states will have (or will be in the process of instituting), a system called the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail in time for the 2020 election, but Tennessee will have no such thing. And here’s the kicker: we actually have the money to pay for those upgrades via funding allocated under the Help America Vote Act.

“The State of Tennessee has over $28 million left over from federal funds provided to the states after the ‘hanging chad’ fiasco in Florida in 2000,” Lisa Quigley, Mr. Cooper’s chief of staff and someone who has made a specialty of studying voter suppression in this state, said in an email. “These funds can be used only for improving our election system, and Tennessee sits on that money year after year.” Perhaps that’s because most of the dozen or so identified cyberattacks of the midterm so far have been directed against Democratic candidates.

One of the most burdensome requirements of voting in Tennessee is the state-issued photo ID itself. The necessary documentation to register to vote includes two proofs of residence, proof of identity, a Social Security number, and proof of citizenship or lawful residence—all of which can be hard to come by for anyone without a steady job, stable housing, and internet access. It’s almost like Tennessee doesn’t want the poor to vote.

All of this explains why a new state-by-state analysis in the September issue of Election Law Journal ranked Tennessee forty-eighth in ease of voting. Only Mississippi and Virginia made voting harder for their own citizens.

You might be forgiven for believing that elected officials here have been trying to stage a coup. What is voter suppression but an attempt to thwart the will of the people? And what is democracy itself if not a government formed by the will of the people and designed to protect their rights—the rights of all of them, whether they are in the majority or the minority? In its baldest terms, any attempt to prevent people from voting, or to dilute the governing force of those who do manage to vote, is really nothing less than an act of treason.

Is it fair to blame Republicans for voter suppression in our state? Democrats are certainly not immune to the temptation to take advantage of all available avenues to power. Gerrymandering and dark money offer bipartisan appeal. Nevertheless, Democrats can’t hold a candle to Republicans in erecting barriers to voting. Statehouses held by Democrats tend to pass laws that encourage voting; when Democrats are in charge, the barriers to voting typically fall.

But here in Tennessee Republicans are in charge. Our governor and both of our senators are Republicans; our state Congressional delegation is made up of seven Republicans and two Democrats. On an electoral map of Tennessee, the entire state is red but for two lonely blue districts: Nashville and Memphis. That’s why Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly. If elections are messed up here, it’s the Republicans’ fault.

One thing we do get right in Tennessee is early voting. In most elections, there are fifteen preelection days during which a limited number of poll sites is open. The number of sites and the hours they are open can vary, but the practice does allow for the kind of flexibility that makes voting easier, at least for those who are actually registered and have the necessary ID. Roughly three times as many Tennesseans voted early this year than the number who voted early in the last midterm election. Here’s hoping these new voters truly believe in the power of the words Ronald Reagan spoke so long ago.


An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians
Our sins are grievous, but we are not yet beyond redemption.
June 8, 2020

Since long before it was a country, our country has been in flames. When we arrived on our big ships and decimated this land’s original peoples with our viruses and our guns, when we used our Christian faith as a justification for killing both “heretic” and “heathen,” we founded this country in flames. And every month, every week, every day, for the last four hundred years, we have been setting new fires.

White Christians who came before us captured human beings and beat them and raped them and stole their babies from them and stole their parents from them and stole their husbands and their wives from them and locked them in chains and made them work in inhuman conditions. Our spiritual ancestors went to church and listened to their pastors argue that these human beings weren’t even human. Our pastors don’t tell us that anymore, but we are still setting fires.

Christians set a fire every time we allow our leaders to weaponize our fears against us. We set a fire every time our faith in good police officers prevents us from seeing the bad ones. Christian voters preserve a system that permits police violence, unjust prosecutions, and hellhole prisons filled with people who should have received the same addiction treatment we give our own troubled kids.

We set a fire every time we fail to scrutinize a police culture that allows an officer’s own fear and hatred to justify the most casual brutality against another human being. It would be almost unbelievable to match an adjective like “casual” with a noun like “brutality,” but we have seen the videos. Watch the faces of justice shove an old man aside and leave him bleeding on the ground. Watch them drive their vehicles into protesters protected by the United States Constitution. Watch them fire rubber bullets directly at journalists doing work that is also protected by the United States Constitution. In video after video, note their unconcern with people who are bleeding or screaming in pain.

Make yourself look. Study the air of perfect nonchalance on Derek Chauvin’s face as he kneels on the neck of George Floyd. Register the blithe indifference in his posture, the way he puts his hand in his pocket as though he were just walking along the street on a sunny summer day. Nothing in his whole body suggests concern. He is not the least bit troubled by taking another human life.

We created Derek Chauvin.

Every single aspect of our criminal justice system is permeated by racism, but too many Christians continue to vote for “law and order” candidates anyway, failing to notice that more cops and more weapons and more prisons have done exactly nothing to make us safer. Failing to notice that they have instead endangered all Americans, but Black Americans most of all.

We should know better by now. There are so many resources to help us know better, yet too many Christians ignore the history books that document the terrible legacy of slavery. We ignore the novelists who tell us why the caged bird sings. We ignore the poets who teach us the cruel cost of a dream deferred. In our carefully preserved ignorance, we pile all their books up in a great pyre, and we set them on fire.

We set the fire when we heard a peaceful crowd singing, “We shall overcome someday,” and understood that someday would never be today, that someday was at best still decades and decades away. We set the fire when we heard a peaceful crowd singing, “Lean on me when you’re not strong,” and believed it was time to call in the military. We set the fire when our “Christian” president cleared a peaceful crowd by spraying them with tear gas as though they were enemy combatants, marched to a nearby church for a photo op, and held up a Bible to imply that God is on his side.

We have to stop letting this president turn our faith into a travesty. Love is the only way to put out this fire, love and listening and the hard work of changing, but this “Christian” president doesn’t want to put out the fire. Fire is his homeplace. Fire is his native land.

Perhaps it is ours, as well.

“Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus taught us, but we built prison after prison. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Jesus taught us, but we did not turn our cheek. We turned instead our billy club. We turned instead our pepper spray. We turned instead our rubber bullets and our tear gas and our riot gear. To George Floyd, and to so many others, we turned instead our knee.

There are positive models for what Christian faith in the public sphere can look like. Think of John Alexander, a Baptist philosophy teacher who published a journal designed to convert white evangelicals to the cause of civil rights. Think of the Reverend Daniel J. Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who opposed the Vietnam War. Think of the Reverend Jennifer Butler, a Presbyterian minister who founded the activist group Faith in Public Life. Here in Nashville we have the Reverend Stacy Rector, the Presbyterian executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and the Reverend Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest and founder of a nonprofit that works to “rise up against systems that commoditize, criminalize, and abuse women,” as the Thistle Farms website puts it. There are many, many others, all across the country.

Our sins are grievous, but these Christians remind us that we are not yet beyond redemption. It is time to act on what we say we believe. We need to remember the words of the prophet Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” We need to remember the words of Jesus—“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake”—and join the righteous cause of the protesters. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


All the Empty Seats at the Table
Even before the pandemic, Thanksgiving was a reminder of loved ones gone before.
November 23, 2020

In the box of old photos I found after my mother’s death, there’s a picture of me taken on Thanksgiving Day 1983, in the fall of my senior year of college. I’m lying on the sofa reading James Agee’s letters to Father Flye. I don’t know why the photo exists—we were not a family who documented ordinary moments. Our pictures centered on people gathered around birthday cakes and Christmas trees. Film wasn’t wasted on someone who has no idea a picture is being taken. Certainly not on someone who isn’t even smiling.

I remember that day, not because it was documented in a photograph but because I ran into my Shakespeare professor outside the liberal arts building when I got back to school, and he asked me how I’d spent the break. “All I did was eat and sleep and read James Agee,” I told him. “That sounds like the perfect Thanksgiving,” he said.

Maybe I remember that conversation because it startled me. It had not felt like the perfect Thanksgiving. My great-grandmother, the quiet, steady, patient anchor of the entire extended family, was missing. She’d broken her hip the year before, at age ninety-six, and then pneumonia—“the old folks’ friend,” my great-grandfather, a country doctor, called it—had taken hold. Mother Ollie was still herself right until up until the day she fell, and I suppose that’s what my great-grandfather must have meant by “friend”: that there are fates worse than death for the very aged. But a year later, the empty place at the table still felt like a rebuke. As with every death before or since, I could not get over the shock. How can love not be enough to save someone so deeply loved?

A year earlier, too, my grandmother had barely survived a shooting that shattered the feeling of safety in her close-knit farming community. She recovered, eventually, but she always needed help after that, and holidays shifted to our house. All the Thanksgiving gatherings of my childhood, the sideboards laid with pies and casseroles and corn cakes glistening with butter, with bowls of creamed corn and lady peas; the arrangements of pink camellias and the delicate custard dishes of ambrosia, each with a sprinkling of coconut on top; the rocking on the porch afterward, the catching-up talk and the stories about loved ones long since buried in the graveyard just down the road—all of it was gone.

One year my grandmother was still cooking the feast she had always prepared, and the next year it was just our family at our own ordinary house in the ordinary suburbs. Overnight, it seemed, my mother became the de facto matriarch, and it was not a role she ever came to relish.

Mom would have been happy to serve stuffing out of a box and cranberry sauce out of a can, but my father was committed to the traditions he had acquired by marriage. A child of the Depression, growing up with a single mother forced to travel for work, he spent most of his childhood in what amounted to an orphanage. Having gained an extended family at the age of thirty-two, he would not give up the groaning table so easily and thereafter pitched in as a wholehearted sous chef. Mother Ollie took the recipe for corn cakes with her to the grave, but the scaled-back Thanksgiving menu at our house included almost all the other favorites—plus, it must be said, some horrific innovations, like brandied fruit and cranberry Jell-O mold, that my mother must have picked up from a magazine.

After I left home, I came to recognize the gift of those gatherings, of being with my family together under one roof, but Thanksgiving never stopped reminding me of that homely old house in the country with pecan trees to climb and cousins to play with and bird dogs sleeping in a patch of sunshine in the yard. Of all the empty seats at the table.

Now I am the matriarch, the one who cuts the flowers and puts them in vases, the one who spends days in the kitchen, chopping and sautéing and stirring and buttering, all for the sake of two hours at the table with everyone we love. My own husband is the wholehearted sous chef these days, but I admit that there have been times when I was still cross about it all. Times when, like my mother, I didn’t want to be the matriarch. Why hadn’t I understood, all those years before, what luck it was to be the cherished child returning home, with a whole day set aside for eating and sleeping and reading the intoxicating words of James Agee?

But today I am wondering why I haven’t always appreciated the crowded house and the days of preparation for the two-table feasts of my own matriarch years. In this pandemic holiday, no one will gather here but our adult children, and once again there will be too many empty seats at the table. That’s a metaphor: in fact there will be no table, for we’ll be sitting outside with our plates in our laps, trusting the distance and the open air to keep us safe.

If my sons ever look back at photos of this gathering from the vantage of decades, they will surely see a poor approximation of their own Thanksgivings past: no aunts and uncles this year, no cousins, no beloved friends. The pictures won’t remind them that when it came time for the blessing, we gave thanks that our bouts with the virus have all been relatively mild, or that we prayed for the families, more than a quarter of a million already, who will have empty chairs at their own tables forever after. That we prayed for our country as winter came on.

But maybe they will remember the joy of being together for a little while, if only at a distance, and the quiet pleasure of an unencumbered afternoon at the end of a hard, hard year. I hope they will know somehow, even if no one thinks to tell them, that such days are rare—and truly perfect.


Graceland, at Last
For reasons I cannot explain, some part of me needed to go there.
January 6, 2018

In 1986, Paul Simon released his seventh solo album, Graceland. One year later, my fiancé and I moved to Nashville. He was driving my father’s secondhand panel van with the fake wood-grain wraparound made of shelf liner that masked the previous owner’s business logo. Attached to the van was a trailer too heavy for the hitch. I was driving the Exploding Pinto, a nickname derived from that ancient model’s fuel-tank fires, and on top of the Pinto were several hundred pounds of books, provisionally contained in a homemade roof rack built of two-by-fours.

Between South Carolina, where we had just finished graduate school, and Tennessee, where we would start our new teaching jobs, lay the Appalachian Mountains. Getting over them in one piece would be the first real test of our lives as fully employed adults.

Top-heavy and buffeted by winds, the chugging old Pinto struggled. My traveling companion—a cat who badly needed to pee but refused to use the litter box on the back seat—was perched on my headrest, her claws gripping my head as eighteen-wheelers barreled around us in the dark. In the cassette player on the passenger seat, Paul Simon was singing “Graceland.” It is not too much to say that “Graceland” got me safely over Monteagle Mountain when I was in danger of going over the edge.

I grew up in a house without a stereo, and my parents’ car radio was always tuned to big band music, so my formative years were in no way informed by Elvis Presley. But you hear cheerful music just as you’re thinking you might truly die, and you form a kind of bond with it. Driving over Monteagle Mountain with a cat latched to my head, I vowed to see Graceland someday. How lucky to be moving to the very state where Graceland could be found!

Decades passed, and we still hadn’t made it. We once went to a conference in Memphis, but three hours after we checked in we got word of a death in the family, and so we got back in the car and headed home. Our babies—who were worse traveling companions than the cat—kept road trips confined to far-flung family reunions.

In 2010, when our oldest son chose a college in Memphis, I thought I would surely see Graceland at last. We packed up our two younger sons, then fourteen and twelve, and made a vacation of the college’s Family Weekend. We toured the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, took a walk along the Mississippi River, visited the ducks in the fountain at the Peabody Hotel, ate ribs at the Rendezvous, and peeked into blues joints on Beale Street.

What we did not do was visit Graceland. Halfway through our tour, the kids rebelled. They did not want to pay homage to Dr. King at the National Civil Rights Museum. They did not want to visit Sun Records. Most of all, they did not want to visit Graceland. “It’ll be fun,” I said. “There’s a Jungle Room.” They said they’d rather go back to their brother’s dorm and shoot each other with the Nerf guns they’d packed in lieu of clean underwear.

By the time we’d dropped them at the college, there wasn’t time to make it to Graceland before closing, so my husband and I sat outside in the hotel hot tub and drank a bottle of wine out of plastic cups and looked at the gray Memphis skyline. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child who won’t even go to Graceland with you.

Fast-forward another seven years. Our oldest son—who had transferred to another school after only a semester—was all grown up, the middle boy was in college, and the youngest was almost on his way. We were hosting an Australian exchange student, a teenaged boy who loved American music. One day my husband said, “I wonder if the guys would like to go to Memphis.” Unbelievably, they were game, and this time I didn’t make the same mistake. First stop: Graceland.

It was not at all what I’d envisioned. Outside on a rainy Sunday in January, the crowd-control stanchions were entirely unnecessary, the massive parking lot nearly empty. In thirty years of waiting, had I inflated Graceland in my own mind? Had I read too much spiritual significance into its name, expecting some sort of blessing?

Then, like Alice through the looking glass, I stepped through a door still bearing a desiccated Christmas wreath, and that’s when everything got awesome. Graceland’s formal rooms are all white carpet and gold trimmings and mirrors—walls and walls of mirrors. With its hide-covered furniture and lamps hanging from chains and vines draping a stone wall, the Jungle Room did not disappoint, but downstairs was the real action: a room with three televisions embedded in the walls, a sectional sofa with sequin-bedecked pillows, and a mirror-topped coffee table bearing a bizarre porcelain creature of indeterminate origin gazing toward the door; a billiard room with walls and ceiling entirely upholstered in pleated floral fabric that might have been fashioned by a seamstress on mushrooms.

By today’s measure of lavish wealth, Elvis’s mansion would be dwarfed by any family home in an upscale suburb, but to a girl of the ’70s who grew up poor enough for contact paper to seem like a reasonable way to embellish a used van, it was perfect. Walking past all those mirrors, I kept catching glimpses of myself, grinning.

Somehow it felt like more than checking off an item on a bucket list. Maybe it had something to do with a dawning sense that I was moving past the delayed gratifications of motherhood, past the time of putting off what I wanted to do. Or maybe it had something to do with coming full circle, of making a vow just as our marriage was beginning and finally seeing it through just as we were on the verge of being alone again. Mirror after mirror, there I was, right in the heart of Graceland: smiling and smiling and smiling.

Table of Contents



Flora & Fauna
Hawk. Lizard. Mole. Human.
The Flower That Came Back from the Dead
The Eagles of Reelfoot Lake
The Real Aliens in Our Backyard
Make America Graze Again
The Misunderstood, Maligned Rattlesnake
Making Way for Monarchs
The Call of the American Lotus

Politics & Religion
A Monument the Old South Would Like to Ignore
The Final Battleground in the Fight for Suffrage
The Hits Keep Coming for the Red-State Poor
A Slow-Motion Coup in Tennessee
We’re All Addicts Here
There Is a Middle Ground on Guns
An American Tragedy
The Passion of Southern Christians
Christians Need a New Right-to-Life Movement
Shame and Salvation in the American South
Going to Church with Jimmy Carter

Social Justice
What Is America to Me?
ICE Came to Take Their Neighbor. They Said No.
Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row
An Act of Mercy in Tennessee
An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians
Looking Our Racist History in the Eye
Middle Passage to Mass Incarceration
In Memphis, Journalism Can Still Bring Justice
An Open Letter to John Lewis
Reading the New South
These Kids Are Done Waiting for Change

America’s Killer Lawns
Dangerous Waters
More Trees, Happier People
I Have a Cure for the Dog Days of Summer
The Case against Doing Nothing
The Fox in the Stroller
Death of a Cat
A 150,000-Bird Orchestra in the Sky

Family & Community
Waking Up to History
Why I Wear Five Wedding Rings
Demolition Blues
The Gift of Shared Grief
Remembrance of Recipes Past
All the Empty Seats at the Table
What It Means to Be #NashvilleStrong
The Night the Lights Went Out
The Story of the Surly Santa and the Christmas Miracle
True Love in the Age of Coronavirus

Arts & Culture

Keep America’s Roadside Weird
Country Music as Melting Pot
John Prine: American Oracle
So Long to Music City’s Favorite Soap Opera
“Beauty Herself Is Black”
The Day the Music Died
After War, Three Chords and the Truth
Proud Graduate of State U.
What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?
Graceland, At Last


Customer Reviews