Julia Roat-Abla: The Hidden Valley

Our guest writer this month is Julia Roat-Abla, a longtime member of NazToo. Julia lives in Dayton, Ohio with her husband, Evan, and daughters, Heaven, Faith, Danielle, and Angel and her mom, Katie, and her dog Brigid, and her chickens et. al., and the donkey, Santo Pietro. She’s the pastor of The Grace Collective Church of the Nazarene that just restarted this year as a church of micro-congregations. She’s honestly not sure how long that’s going to last. She likes to tear old books apart and attempt to grow things from seed. Her most recent accomplishments are walking on the treadmill yesterday and completing a load of laundry.

One Art (by Elizabeth Bishop*)

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

*from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.

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When I was young and my Dad and I would go out for a walk in the woods, we usually didn’t say a whole lot. He might talk about the old abandoned Specketer place where we once found huge piles of old Chicago Tribune newspapers from 1932 in the barn. We’d take note of a trail that needed to be re-cleared or a tree that had fallen. We would check the ground for mushrooms and evidence of animals along the way.

But our goal was always the same in these walks — Hidden Valley. Regardless of which trail we took, our turn-around point was a clearing full of prickly pears and prairie grass where one could still make out the ruts from an ancient plow. It was a depression deep enough that Dad could see it becoming a pond one day.  

We stood at the edge of the valley and he would point out how all of this was mine — the oaks and hickory, sassafras and walnut. The winding trails he had cut over sandy hills. The blackberry briars he came here to pick as a boy. I believed him and I dreamed dreams of my own about this place. I would walk these trees and the trails with my own children someday.

It was hard not to believe — that I would inherit both the land and the legacy of my ancestors. There is a rich mythology within my family. Roats had been farming in Havana since the 1840’s. They were never prominent citizens. They threshed crops for local farmers. It seems they kept to themselves, pretty much. But when my grandfather, Henry, married Julia Hendricker, around the turn of the last century, he was a man who had been deeply affected by his own father’s drunken death. Great grandfather Jacob, kicked in the groin by the mule, lay on the kitchen table before his young children, bleeding to death. His own mother, the substitute wife who came from Sweden in her sister’s stead, now survived her intemperate husband with a brood of youngsters in tow. I have to imagine that my own aunts’ and uncles’ strict and sectarian upbringing was a part of Henry’s desire to have nothing to do with that tragedy.            16325618_10212516585129730_326567229_o


My grandparents were charter members of the Church of the Nazarene in Havana. Plain, hard-working folk, they were saints in the pietist, holiness tradition. Julia’s parents were already firmly rooted in the Wesleyan-holiness church in Arenzville before the Church of the Nazarene was ever formed. They sent their daughter, Lydia, to Olivet for high school. She graduated salutatorian and played a highly embellished arrangement of the Sweet By and By at her senior recital. She wanted more than anything to be a missionary to India with her good friend from Olivet, Amanda. But health would not permit it. So she stayed behind and eventually married Henry’s brother, Ben. She became a local pastor and evangelist. She and Uncle Ben would travel and sing throughout central Illinois and she would fill the pulpit as a supply pastor.

They never had any children. Neither did any of Henry’s other brothers or sisters. They built farms and homesteads and established a school for the rural neighbors. So the steady and stable life created around farm, family and faith centered on Henry and Julia’s eleven children.

It is hard not to create a deep tissue of stories that wraps itself around tragic and enduring moments like these. They envelope the imagination of children and their children. And my Dad, as the youngest of the eleven, seemed to be at the heart of maintaining and creating the traditions of our family and our faith. He seemed tasked with removing the residues of trauma as much as possible.

By the time I was born, my family was everything — it was my church, my school, my past, and my incentive. My lingering memory is sitting out in the hot strawberry patch picking berries after school, trying to pass the time by calculating how many years I had until graduation from high school, college, etc. But for whatever reasons there may have been for my Dad and our family in creating this life, it expressed itself in the peculiar ways that maintained faith in God, good citizenship, and pride in the land.

***

My Dad was both melancholy and creative. This is really what I’ve inherited from him. In the midst of his reliable conservatism was a seed of dissent that could not be reconciled with moral majorities and trickle-down economics. Scattered amongst the Cal Thomas and Malcom Muggeridge on our bookshelf was Wendell Berry and Henry David Thoreau, poetry and field guides. I honestly don’t know if he recognized it, himself.

I think at some point in his young adult life, my Dad perceived the possibility of something divergent to the life he had known in the farm fields and pastures of his childhood. He went to Olivet and became a high-school biology teacher in a nearby town. And this may seem utterly middle-class and pedestrian today, but it was radical for him.

He was more social than I ever could be, so he ran for public office — county board, board of education, precinct committee man. I remember the Reagan rallies at five years old. And because Dad was a teacher, he had a prominence in the community that was rather unique to our family because it was professional, educated, and civic-minded.

More profoundly, though, was how I think Dad managed to reconcile the weight of family inheritance with the push of realized beauty. It was the natural world that made it so. He didn’t study science and become more skeptical. He went to school and it gave him new insight and reverence and curiosity for creation. But as both a farmer and a scientist, of sorts, he must have felt the tension these movements created next to one another.

***

I grew up in this stoic optimism — no significant traumas like divorce or displacement to challenge that — fully expecting the endowment of this land and legacy to come to me someday. This was the heart of his legacy to me.

So, there could be nothing more cruel to one who guards the memories of a people than to lose his mind. My Dad was diagnosed at 65 with early onset Alzheimers. He was not the first among his brothers and sisters. Seven out of the eleven siblings have had some form of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

When I went back home a few years ago, and Dad’s mind was clearly beginning to falter, I walked around the yard, in the barn, along the edge of the woods. The land, like his own life, had deteriorated to the point it was almost melting back into the soil. He didn’t have the physical or mental strength to do anything. And most anything worth saving had been left outside to rot away.            16326228_10212516585089729_541475411_o

This was what this land, this promise, was now to be.

Dad insisted on selling the timber.

We auctioned off the farm and household. We sold the house.

Two years ago, we laid the man himself to rest.

I think about what my Dad was like at the age I am now, 41 years old. At that time he was building things, teaching and telling the jokes he had written in his textbook. He was growing strawberries. He was active and vigorous. But I think we must share some of the same internal misgivings and disappointment with this world. We would agree that migration of birds can be both predictable and infinitely varied and diverse. We would enjoy how the incredible intricacies of a filament of algae also make it unfathomably exquisite. We would also have the sneaking suspicion that things just don’t always turn out like they should. That there are bad things in this world and we tend to move toward them. Our impulse is to hold on to things more tightly, because we know in our hearts that all things come to loss.

I don’t share these things to repudiate their goodness, but to try to figure out how even the best things we do spin toward entropy and loss. The good life that my family, that my father tried to create cannot, in the end, avoid decay. Sin and death could not simply be asterisked in the footnotes of our genealogical tree.

My experience has come to be one of trying to figure out what I think I can hold on to, and when I simply need to let that go too. What seemed so natural and “destined” at one point in my life . . . the result of good parents, good upbringing, good choices . . . were all really made within the condition of this release. Returning time and again to Romans 12 and Philippians 2, what I thought was just a simple and once and for all spiritual “decision” has ultimately played out in bodily ways: the nagging fear that this may be the last time I remember this story, the ever elusive desire for job security, seasons of paralyzing depression, the lost future of a child missing.

Perhaps it is as true for a denomination as it is for an individual — can we even perceive the dis-ease that pulls us constantly back to what we were when we had not yet received what was promised to us? That something good that we might possess now — even spiritual power, cultural influence, doctrinal distinctives, confidence in our own rightness — is that which still bends us toward our doom. All material throws a shadow. It’s very substance carries it’s own darkness. How does a Body divest itself without loss? If we cannot expire, do we even live?

Today,  I don’t know whether it is resignation, exhaustion or actual apathy, but I’ve come to another point of loss. Whatever portion of my faith still remains from this past promise that family and fathers passed on to me, it is gone — my church, my education, my past, and my future.
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I don’t know that it is particular to this pastoral vocation, maybe just more pronounced, that we do our job by dealing more or less well with what we can no longer hold on to. As a pastor, I have to speak Good News every day into the chasms of grief and despair that people face. Some days, I must speak that Good News into my own void. Even my faith in the Triune God is not something I can possess. And I don’t think my peace with this is faithlessness. The Hidden Valley was promised all long. If I remain, I need to pray. I think it will be like that long walk through the woods clearing a new trail of hope. I want to take note of what paths need to be re-cleared. I will check the ground for mushrooms and evidence of God’s presence along the way.