When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Whitney Houston’s performance of “Home” on the Merv Griffin Show. It was the world’s introduction to her and she chose perfection when selecting the standout ballad from The Wiz. It would be years before I watched the Broadway production turned film in its entirety but I would watch my mother’s VHS of Whitney’s greatest moments like it was homework. I studied everything and mimicked it. Her notes. Her movements. Her posture. Whitney sang about home and I believed her because I had one.
I had a home. Home was wherever my mother was.
For the first 33 years of my life, home was Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She made the city seem bigger than life to me. Putting me in almost every youth organization the city had to offer, I grew up believing that I could do and be anything. And, she made my family tolerable. No matter where I was in life...no matter what dream I chose to pursue...no matter what family tension was difficult to navigate, my mama told me I could always come home. In one of my final conversations with Mama, I told her that when I completed my doctorate, I was going to try to get a job at my alma mater- Duke Divinity School. Jokingly, I told her that they’d need to hire more Black people by then (prophetic I am) and I could live in Durham and not be far from her as I began to start a family. “Candice, when you’re done, you’re going to have so many opportunities and offers. You can always come home but it’s going to be time for you to make your home somewhere else. I just want you to spread your wings and fly.” I quipped that I was rearranging my entire life for her and she responded by creating a “Hallmark Mahogany greeting card moment”. We both laughed.
Home was also the church. It was the place where my mother believed she could safely raise me. I spent years understanding my identity rooted as one of the “good ones”. It would take years to admit that I was a virgin in middle and high school by default: I never had a real boyfriend; I was never tempted. I lived vicariously through my friends during the weekdays while throwing them under the church bus Wednesday nights and all day on Sundays. Though I enjoyed somewhat of a little popularity in high school, I reveled in being considered one of the ones who would go on to “do something” with my life. I was holy. I was righteous. I would always win.
And home was the academy. After writing about why I left my PhD program, I decided I’d never again write or talk extensively about my time in the academy for free. Still, the life I saw it affording me was one that I was looking forward to and I had constructed every one of my professional objectives around it.
I don’t know if I ever told her but, in every way possible, my concept of home was directly connected to my mama. Winston-Salem was home because she was there. The church was home because she raised me in it and remained there. The academy was home because she thrived in that space and told me I could, too. I couldn’t imagine home without her. So, when she died, everything I understood about home died too.
I will never forget, just hours after she died, being told “your mama spoiled you. Now it’s our turn to break you.” I’d later be assured that it was just a joke but that and everything that happened up to that point (including learning from a text message that my mother was dead) wasn’t funny to me. Coming home now is extremely laborious. Many of us often don’t know what we’ve been shielded from or the ways a parent enabled some relationships to be tolerable until that parent is gone. Though I love much of my family and my hometown friends, I came to the conclusion that Winston-Salem, without my mama, just isn’t home anymore.
When my mother died, I stopped attending church for a year and a half and my relationship with the space has been complicated ever since. I couldn’t reconcile hearing all the messages that, if we just delight ourselves in God, we will be given the desires of our hearts and the favor we receive from God is directly connected to our obedience with the reality that my mother -one of the most faithful believers and best people many would know- died alone. I was angry with God and wasn’t given room to be; I was supposed to “know” better. That tattered relationship began to become even more frayed the more it became clear that the church, in my adulthood, was the same church of my childhood. I’d grown up to “know” better but it had not. And without my mother– without a theology to help me make sense of the fact that she was taken so abruptly and it was okay to acknowledge that my life would never be the same, the church wasn’t home anymore either.
In my quest for a doctorate, I learned many things. Chief among them is the fact that no one cares when you’re hurting. Also, White people confidently teach about Jesus without necessarily knowing him. Add to that the painful reality that all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk and that everybody talking about a womanist Heaven ain’t going there. Wading through the hurt and the humiliation of a failed doctoral pursuit was compounded by the fact that my mother died weeks before she was set to defend her dissertation. I labored under the belief that, if I failed at this, I was failing her too. Though it provided the financial ability to create some much needed breathing room, no settlement that I received was large enough to assuage that guilt. It would take–and will take time. Sadly, my mother’s death gave me permission to tell the truth that my pursuit of my PhD was rooted in my desire to be like her: a mother who had a career that afforded her the opportunity to provide for her children in ways she couldn’t imagine. I wanted to be in the academy because my mama was there but, truthfully, it was never home to me.
I am homeless. All the places that were once dear to me aren’t so much anymore. This is [in part] due to the truth that, since her passing, this is the first time I’ve been able to just sit with the weight of losing my mother. No heartbreak. Minimal family drama. No professional crisis. No devastating health diagnosis. Just me realizing that my mama is gone and nothing I will do can change that. It doesn’t matter how much I look at apartments -that I don’t even want- in Winston-Salem, living here isn’t going to make her feel closer to me. It doesn’t matter how many times I force myself to go, sitting in church when I don’t want to be there right now isn’t going to bring her back. It doesn’t matter how many well-meaning and overwhelmingly generous professors and administrators speak to me about coming to their institutions to finish my degree, going back to a painful place definitely is not going to bring Mama back nor is that what she’d want. And all of that is okay. It’s okay because, while I’ve been sitting with the weight of losing my mother, I’ve been remembering what she taught me. And, more importantly, I’ve been remembering one of the very last things she said. My mother wanted me to spread my wings and fly. My mama wanted me to find my home.
And I have. I have been able to examine my healed heart and determine what makes me come alive. I have been able to make writing my profession and explore all the ways I can tell stories of Black women’s faith and healing journeys in print, online and onscreen. I have a literary agent, a collective of amazing editors, a screenwriting coach, new mentors and guides, fellow writing colleagues and friends. I have everything I need to make the pivot and thrive. I gave myself permission to spread my wings, fly, landed in LA and found fresh wind and strength for the journey. That is home and I’m ready to be there permanently. I gave my spirit permission to name that it longs to know who God is outside of the church and I stopped forcing myself to contort it when it yearns for greater freedom. Taking screenwriting courses and studying to show myself approved in that way is the only scholarship I’m interested in these days and I couldn’t be happier.
I am finding home.
This is my last post on my blog. Part of finding home for me has required an honesty about who I am and what I do. I am a creative. I pour my heart and soul into every project and I just can’t keep doing that for free anymore. While I will continue writing for online and print publications, you will be able find my personal content on my Patreon site. This is a scary but necessary leap. I’m praying for a soft landing but, ultimately, I know that it’s time to fully transition into the spaces that are healthy for me. When I can create, and root that creativity in the truth that God is for us and healing can be ours, I come alive. I want to live.
For so many years, I moved how I thought I was supposed to move. I genuinely believed that, if you did things the “right way”, you’d be rewarded. I no longer believe that. Now, I understand that the only reward is the peace that comes through living an authentic life. Transparent with both the wins and the losses, it matters to be vulnerable about the spaces in between. Leaning into the truth of who I really am and who I truly want to be created room for the shift: to say goodbye to where home has always been and say hello to where home is now and where it can be. When we have outgrown the places we’ve held dear or they no longer truly serve or affirm us, I hope we all have the courage to give necessary benedictions and begin the quest to find the place that welcomes us home as soon as we walk through the door.
"I know you're listening God so won’t you please try not
to make it hard to know I shouldn’t believe everything that I see. Tell me, should I try and stay? Or maybe I should run away. Would it be better just to let things be?
Living here, in my brand new world, it might be a fantasy.
Yes. Yea, it could be. But it taught me to love so I know that it’s real. It’s real to me.
And I've learned that we must look inside our hearts
to find a world full of love- like yours, like mine. Like home."
–“Home” from The Wiz, as sung by Whitney Houston on The Merv Griffin Show (1983)