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Discovering Your Spiritual Home

An Interview with Betty Smartt Carter

by Joyce Dixon

 

 
 

Betty Smartt Carter comes from a rich family history with links to the Read House in Chattanooga and a father who was a founder of The Presbyterian Church in America.  She was much younger than her siblings, so much of her youth was like that of an only child.  Growing up in Hopewell, Virginia in an evangelically charged household, Betty found comfort in Christian rituals before she discovered her own spiritual foundation.

Betty Smartt Carter is a writer, artist, and mother of two. Her first book, a novel, I Read it in the Wordless Book, was published in 1995.  She has spoken at Wheaton College, Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing, and Union University's Creative Writing Conference. Smartt Carter met her husband, Jon,  at Wheaton College, where she graduated from in 1987.  They now live in Leeds, Alabama, where she continues to write novels, short stories, essays, and book reviews.

 

The title – Home is Always the Place You Just Left – is a phrase your husband said when he was trying to help you understand your moving anxiety.  For him, “home” was you.  What is “home” for you today? 

Geographically speaking, I'm feeling pretty "at home" here in Central Alabama. Alabama is a wonderful state, interesting and beautiful and full of unspoiled places.  What I wanted to describe in my book, though, was a feeling of exile that used to come over me--a deep sense of longing for some place and people that were long gone. I'd cry when I'd read that Psalm "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept for thee Zion." Why did I feel like an orphan, when I came from a relatively happy family? And why didn't my own family (husband and children) satisfy my need to belong to somewhere and to somebody? I analyzed all the possible reasons for my unhappiness: the overly mobile American life, various failures of my parents, faults in the religious community I grew up with. I tried to overcome my bad feelings by staying busy, getting counseling, taking medicine. In the end, though, I realized it was better to let myself suffer for a little while and follow the longing where it was taking me.

I think desires are given to us as signs. We should pursue them—not blindly, because we're apt to go in some pretty wild directions and hurt people who depend on us--but cautiously, and with prayer. I still have lots of desires and yearnings: I don't fight them or hate them anymore. I sense God on the other side of them.

Your memoir is a painful testimony of your journey to God. In some ways it is like standing in a river, yet thirsty for a drink of water.  What did you discover about yourself through the writing process?  What do you hope readers will take with them from the book? 

That's a good metaphor. I was up to my neck in religion, but I lost all sense that God was real. In fact, at a certain point I became pretty sure that religion was a lie. If I'd been a more adventurous person, I might have left it behind right then (plenty of my friends did). I'm naturally kind of timid, though, and I hate change of all kinds, so I stayed in church, no matter how much I hated it and no matter what was going on in my heart--sort of like those Victorian atheists who dressed up on Sundays and refused to work in their gardens. Probably plenty of people understand this phenomenon. 

Through writing the book I discovered several things: one was how much I loved my parents (and how good they'd been to me, ordinary human weakness notwithstanding). I also discovered how hard it is to decide what to put in and what to take out of your written story! I had a very good but ruthless editor: she made me leave out plenty of people and events that seemed so important to me but apparently clogged up the works.  And that brings me to the third thing I discovered: A good editor, who can tell her worth? Her price is far above rubies.

I hope the book will be a sort of "companion in suffering" to people who are going through hard times. Ann Lamott's Traveling Mercies did that for me: I'd like to give such a gift to a few others.

Your father’s grandfather owned the Read House in Chattanooga.  His sister and your namesake, Betty, died as a child, when she fell over the edge of Lookout Mountain.  The event caused the family to find religion.  Do you feel trauma tends to turn people to God?

Apparently it does, since faith is a lot more common in places where people endure poverty, disease, even persecution. This is a real mystery to me. Christians believe in a God who suffered (and suffers) with us, and at the same time we struggle with the fact that He allows suffering at all (which is the biggest obstacle to belief in a good God). The whole thing makes my head hurt. I try to concentrate on the God Suffers With Me part and leave my Why Does He Allow This? questions for later.  

During a storm on a mountain hike, your father swung you over a cliff.  He was laughing at your fear.  You called his act courageous.  Considering that his sister Betty died in a mountain accident, don’t you find his act careless and psychologically damaging to you? 

My father certainly was fearless in the physical sense: he took all kinds of risks, and used to scare the fool out of my mother (for instance by throwing my sister in the water to "teach her" to swim). He could be thoughtless, no doubt about it, but I have to say that his confidence and optimism were the best things he gave me. His favorite phrases were "Sure you can!" and "You're great!" (Of course, it would have helped if I'd agreed with him, but still it was nice to hear.) 

As your older siblings left home, your father traveled more as one of the founding members of The Presbyterian Church in America.  Do you feel that  having older siblings put you in the frame of mind to connect to adults as friends instead of your peers? 

Maybe, although I always did have friends my own age, too. To tell you the truth, my brothers and sister could be pretty cruel, especially as teenagers (it's the nature of the teenage beast--red in tooth and claw).  I admired and worshiped them, but I didn't feel safe with them. They were alternately very generous and very harsh. I would advise anybody who has both teenagers and little children to be protective of the young ones--don't allow them to become the slaves of the older siblings. In the long run they'll love each other better for it.  

As a child, your father was your hero.  He is known in the church for his evangelistic zeal and storytelling.  Do you feel your flair for the dramatics and talent as a storyteller, came from him? 

Yes, I do. Have you ever noticed that quite a few storytellers/actors/songwriters are preachers' children or grandchildren?  I used to chalk that strange phenomenon up to youthful rebellion-- children of religious people turning against their parents' values, sowing wild artistic oats. I've changed my theory, though. I think that what we see here is the same creative gift--the gift of theater, really--expressed in different ways. I don't enjoy speaking in front of people the way my father did (I stumble over words, I can't remember jokes). But when I can express myself in a more "mediated" way, either by reading a story I've written or acting in a play, I get this huge thrill.  I think it's what evangelists get when they preach. Maybe I should start asking people to send me money. 

Tell us about your novel, I Read it in the Wordless Book. 

I'm still pretty proud of that novel and I hope it finds a new life somewhere. It's a picture of a young girl, Carrie Grietkirk, being raised by her grandmother in a very religious Dutch community in Virginia. Carrie's mother died long ago in a car accident. Her father now comes

home after serving as a chaplain for seven years in East Asia, during and after Vietnam. He brings with him a new Vietnamese wife, Phuong, whom he rescued from a refugee camp after the war. You can imagine the adjustments that these people have to make--getting used to being a family again after years of separation. I won't give anything else away, but I hope people will find the book and enjoy it.   

What are your next writing projects? 

I've begun work on a novel set about a hundred years ago in the north Alabama mountains. I'd like to write something I can read to my children (who are 12 and 9 now, but will surely be older when it's finished!) as I go along. I've found that publishing brings a lot of joy, but some anguish, too, since it doesn't turn out to be the fulfillment of all a writer's dreams. What gives the purest joy is a direct response from a reader, even one reader, who hears and loves your story and--miracle of miracles --wants to hear it again! Somebody (Lauren Winner, actually, who has a book of her own out) told me that she's reading my memoir for the second time. She might as well have handed me the Pulitzer Prize. It doesn't get any better than that.


Selected Links for Betty Smartt Carter

Paraclete Press

Books & Culture: A Christian Review

Christianity Today

 

 

home is always the place you just left:
a memoir of restless longing and persistent grace
by Betty Smartt Carter
Paraclete Press, 2003
Trade paper, $15.95 (213 pages)
ISBN: 1-55725-323-4

      Southern Scribe Review

 

© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved