Memphis Memories

A conversation in letters with Martha Park and Rachel Edelman

Rachel Edelman and Martha Park grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. There, they orbited the same East Memphis circles, attended the same public schools, and observed the distinct religious traditions their families passed down to them. When they graduated from high school, they each moved away: Park, for a decade; Edelman, for good. They have held Memphis within their creative imaginations in writing that grapples with religion, migration, climate catastrophe, and home-building. 

In this correspondence, two orbits that have briefly intersected so many times overlap in a sustained communion.


Dear Rachel, 

There is so much I don’t know about you. How far apart were we in school? A year, or two? The gap seems small now, but it was enough: back then, you were always my friend’s older sister, and a poet I looked up to. There’s a lot more I’d like to know. Growing up, I often lost track of people, popping in and out of their lives as we moved from one church parsonage to another, one school to another, bouncing across town every few years whenever my father was appointed to a new congregation. 

When we first set out on this correspondence, we decided to begin with the stories of our names. If my parents had wanted to give me a biblical name, there were much better characters, I thought, than Martha: Ruth, Naomi, Esther, Hannah, Junia. I had a theory; all of dad’s friends were ministers, and they all had babies around the same time. I was the youngest. By the time I was born, all the best names must have been claimed. 

I pictured Martha often: busy with hosting and cooking, her frustration turning to anger until finally, after dinner, up to her elbows in dirty dishes and soap suds, she’d had enough. Leaning against the doorway, she watched her sister sitting on the floor at Jesus’ feet. Martha blurted out: “Doesn’t it bother you that my sister left me to do all the work by myself?” 

Surely, she thought, in all his lessons, there was one about picking up after yourself, helping your sister cook dinner. Her cheeks burning, Martha heard herself say to Jesus, “Tell her to help me.” Jesus did not speak to her in parables, then, did not set up a scenario in a faraway town in order to teach her a lesson or explain her to herself. Instead, he told her that she worried too much. That her sister was right. Martha and Mary will go on to be the first witnesses to resurrection. But Martha would be remembered forever for this moment, when she was flicked away like a gnat.  

I’ve tried to imagine what my dad could have been imparting to me with this name—which I tend to share only with white-haired old ladies—or this namesake, who bothers me still. Martha is entwined so closely with Jesus and resurrection, two aspects of my inherited faith that I am the most troubled by. 

Tell me about your name, and the people who gave it to you? 

Martha


 

Dear Martha,

I’ll confess: I’ve never read the Gospels. Of course, some of the stories are unavoidable. I attended public schools in Memphis, haunted by crosses and youth groups with stacks of New Testaments; at some point, avoiding the rest of that scripture became an act of resistance. So I just read the parable where Martha shows up. Your exegesis was already swimming in me, but even if I’d read it cold, I would have felt for a character told by a strange man not to worry after her sister abandons her mid-task. I’m drawn to anybody who makes domestic labor visible. Martha’s complaint insists on material needs: you can’t depend on a miracle to put dinner on the table.

You asked me about my name. My parents lifted the “R” in my name from two uncles named Robert; many Jewish parents carry forward a letter from an ancestor. I’m grateful to have a name that states my Jewishness plainly, a name that resolves the question my olive skin and dark curls raise.

I used to resent being named for a woman known best as a beauty. Rachel had so little narrative to hold on to. I’ve also bristled against my name’s etymology: in Ancient Hebrew, it means lamb of God. The lamb’s symbolism conjures the image of someone who turns over their agency to God-as-shepherd. In a religion that taught me to wrestle with God, how could anyone obey like that?

You were in the same grade as the first of my brothers, the brother I drove to high school my last two years in Memphis, berating him or worse on the ten-minute commute. I was two, four, and six years old when my three younger brothers were born, and as a child I felt held back by their presence. I remember standing in the doorways of our house or our grandparents’, waiting for the boys to finish playing so we could leave. I always wanted to leave. I raised my voice and my fists, terrified that nothing would go right if I didn’t force it. I turned sixteen, got my driver’s license and my aunt’s old Volvo, and thought I’d finally be in control. When my brother wasn’t out the door at the exact moment I wanted him to be, I raged at the slow shuffle of his morning legs.

Do you remember, maybe in fourth grade, making an electromagnet by wrapping a wire around a nail? In adolescence, I wound myself that tight. I thought that if I knew the right thing to do and everyone did what I told them to, we’d all pivot like a tray of iron filings pulled into line.

Now that I teach high school, I see how little control children have over their lives—I work every day to earn their trust. A shepherd earns a lamb’s steady presence by leading it safely to sustenance. What elements of your religious tradition help you navigate trust and control? How does your return to Memphis, after many years away, affect your relationship to that tension?

Rachel

 

Dear Rachel, 

When I opened your letter and saw your confession, I tried to imagine having never read the gospels and felt a rush of levity, a kind of brightness. Thank you for dipping into the story, and for offering up an interpretation that is deeply moving to me. Writing about this reminds me that scripture often seems less instructive than it is something to contend with or struggle against. All the meanings I’ve ingested over the years cloud my ability to see some of these stories for myself. 

 It’s funny you mention the electricity lesson in fourth grade. In the first essay in my book, I write about how my relationship to my dad and the faith I inherited feels less spiritual than it does electric, a kind of wiring that I was born with, that my father and I share. I remember, as a kid, being troubled by the way magnets could attract and repel each other, worried that the force that held my family close could change, and we would push each other away instead.

You asked about how my religious tradition helps me navigate trust and control. I’m not sure that they do. I hold my breath every morning when my husband takes our son to school, and go through all manner of rituals before my parents’ doctor’s appointments, and knock on wood whenever I say something too confidently. So maybe I could use some more help. 

In your essay “We Meet at the Well: Miriam, Hagar and Me” you write about discovering, a decade into your own exodus from Memphis, a religious community that became a haven and a home for you. I loved these lines: “exile can be a place for sustained nourishment: the same activism that led me out of Jewish community came to tether me back in.”  In one of my favorite poems in your book, Dear Memphis, you write, “I wanted to live/where no one knew/ who I belonged to. / I wanted to tell you myself.”

My own confession: I’ve been attending a church, here—something I thought I’d never do after my dad retired from the ministry—ƒand the pastor has been preaching from the gospel of Luke for fourteen months now. He says he may go two years. I’ve been totally won over by the project, by the way it feels like he is proceeding an inch—or a single word—at a time. Still, I don’t tell many people I’ve been going to church. It feels like I’ve picked up an embarrassing habit.  

How has finding this community changed the way you see yourself in relation to Memphis, or of your relationship to faith? I am wondering if the sustained nourishment of community has softened any of the more painful edges of exile.

Martha

 

Dear Martha, 

I love imagining you listening to this pastor’s deep reckoning with the gospel of Luke. It reminds me of a scene from Sermons and Sacred Pictures, by Memphis filmmaker Lynne Sachs, that collages footage taken by Rev. L.O. Taylor of Olivet Baptist Church. In one scene, white-robed prostrates file through swaying trees and congregation into baptism in a lapping tributary. Each one, in turn, turns toward land and leans backward, stiff as a split poplar, into immersion. In your pastor’s case, he stays under, finding a pocket of oxygen to sustain him. For him to share this feels like a profoundly intimate endeavor.

I recognize this kind of extended wrestling as a muddling of public and private that I relish in both literature and religion. I was always taught that this was part of Jewish theology, but in my childhood rabbis’ commentaries, I craved more messiness. I wanted them to disclose unkempt, unsettled understandings of text or living or both. Maybe I wanted a trust they couldn’t offer. I found that trust in poetry, first, before I learned about radical Jewish communities, before I found out that queer anti-Zionist Jews existed, before I knew we had a history, a history much older than any colonial wish for a homeland.

That ethos of fear props up Israel’s ongoing Nakba against Palestinians—it’s an ethos that insists that the only way for the Jews to survive as a people is to isolate and become the kind of aggressors who would have us destroyed.  In Memphis, I sensed that fear all around me, but it never felt true to my life. On my grandfather’s side, my family had been in Memphis for five generations; my brothers and I played with the grandchildren of men he had played with as a child. Nothing about that felt precarious.

I felt stifled by the community built for me, around me, in Memphis. It was so hard to challenge my community’s assumptions, to insist that I could not be who they believed me to be. I set out to make a life in literature, outside of Jewish community, but I learned that my creative impulse thrives in the world as well as on the page. 

Over the last decade in Seattle, I’ve found unexpected ease in creating community one relationship at a time: one afternoon sitting in a kitchen planning a performance, one day de-escalating counter-protesters at a Palestinian event, one sunset gathering in a park to hear the shofar. Lately, that’s quickened: when I chained myself with a line of people outside a federal building, we all became kin. Each touchpoint gathers history and enmeshes my life with the lives of others. It may look, from the outside, similar to the community I left, except I chose it.

I so appreciate you sharing your “habit” of church attendance, which resonates with my return to Jewish community. How does your choice to return to church shape the way you relate to your writing and community? What possibilities does it open for you?

Rachel 

 

Dear Rachel,

You asked how my choice to return to church shapes the way I relate to writing and community. I’m tempted to write the usual list: that worship forces me to carve out some contemplative space; that spiritual life goes only so far as an individual endeavor and is essentially enlivened, deepened, and challenged in relationship; that writing a book about faith without participating in this kind of community allowed me to get really deep into my own head, and it helps me—as a person and a writer—to enter into other people’s thoughts and experiences.

But your description of the difference between a community you chose versus a community you grew up in or inherited resonates with my experience, too. It has felt entirely different to choose a faith community as an adult. My instinct has always been to hold myself at a bit of a distance, and so it’s been meaningful to choose to bind myself closer, to make myself more vulnerable.

I think Memphis is the only place I can be religious, to whatever extent I ever will be. I’ve loved living in other places more, but in Memphis I am legible to myself in a different way. In your book, you write, “there’s comfort/in a constant ache.” I think that’s similar to the way I feel, living here again. There is something about faith that will always be unresolved. It’s pleasurable, in its own way, to be proximate to that wound.

By the time my book is published next spring, I’ll have been working on it for nearly a decade. So much has changed in that time, all while plugging away on this single, solitary writing project. I’ve had the looming sense that I will need to create a new relationship with writing. What does writing feel like for you, now, as your book finds its readers out in the world? What space is writing holding in your brain?

As I read your book, I wanted to know more about how you feel about Memphis these days—what kind of emotional landscape does Memphis hold for you, now that you live so far away? I got the sense as I read, sometimes, of a feeling of impossibility: the impossibility of living here, and the impossibility of really, truly leaving this place behind. Is that just me?

Martha

 

 

Dear Martha,

Thank you for offering that language of dual impossibilities: I do feel “the impossibility of living [there], and the impossibility of really truly leaving [Memphis] behind.” As a child, I wanted to leave so badly, with such force, that of course an opposing anchor also holds. I’ve tried to imagine a life in Memphis, but how hard would I have to fight to become legible to myself there? I can see how that fighting would harden the parts of me I’ve worked more than a decade to soften.

Part of that illegibility must come from absence. My grandmother died in December 2012. My parents moved away in June 2015. I was last in Memphis in July 2017, for a week-long residency at Crosstown Arts. After I landed, my first stop was my childhood housekeeper Minnie’s house. She’s the person who tells me about the weather, who keeps me up to date on the latest civic scandals. She’s the only named character in Dear Memphis—the closest person I have left there. When I visit this April, I’ll get to meet her youngest grandchild.

My first, failed, poem that Minnie was in was about a flood. Growing up, I remember sheltering for tornadoes and reading in the paper about low-lying parts of town that had flooded, but I’ve never had to manage those disasters as an adult. You’ve written so movingly about how people adapt to their very particular climate catastrophes; your work has helped me understand and articulate the ways environmental phenomena have shaped my life and vision for my future.

Here in Seattle, I’ve learned to bike through atmospheric rivers, to wedge cedar shoe trees into my cycling cleats so they dry before the ride home. I’ve learned to order extra air filters in the winter when they’re on sale, enough to spare a few for friends. I lived here for six years without A/C, but I bought a portable unit after a 110-degree heat dome kept my spouse, cat, and me sheltered in our garage for three days. The disasters I’ve immediately experienced are now the ones I imagine clearly enough to try to prevent or, at the very least, prepare for in a way that allows me to care for myself and my community. I can manage some choreography of survival here; would it work somewhere else?

Lately, my morning writing time is occupied in correspondence: publicity logistics, of course, but I’m also engaged in several literary correspondences like this one. Each has its own shape and character, and each feels profoundly attuned to crafting a relationship with my correspondent and our audience. It feels like I’ve found a shared ethos, an openness to possibility. So I am writing, yes, but it feels like I’m writing into an opening in the world more than an opening in myself. Thanks for being here with me.

Rachel


Want to read more from Martha? Pick up a copy of our Spring 2024 issue today to read her thoughts on green burials and land conservation in the South.

Rachel Edelman’s first book of poetry, Dear Memphis, was published by River River Books in January 2024. Dear Memphis explores displacement and belonging of a Jewish family in Memphis, collaging personal, communal, and environmental histories of the U.S. South.

Martha Park’s first book of essays, World Without End, will be published in spring 2025 by Hub City Press. In World Without End, Park, who grew up a preacher’s daughter in Memphis, weaves together memoir, reportage, and research to explore how our religious and spiritual backgrounds shape the way we interact with the natural world.