“Well, I went home./ And when I stepped out of my own front door/ when I knew where I was starting from/ I knew then where I was going./ The only road I could go was the road/ that started from my own front door.” -Jim Wayne Miller, Brier Sermon–“You Must Be Born Again”
People are tied to their history. This is especially evident in the culture of Appalachia. If you look at Appalachian literature, you see a people focused on their local society, locked into a lifestyle marked by steadiness and tradition and a love of the land. You find a people steeped in its past. And though the mountains are a place slow to change, the modern world has been creeping in.
Miller feels the weight of the mindset of progress as it starts to shape the people of Appalachia. The modern generations have a tendency to neglect their past, focusing so much on the future that they disconnect from their roots. They leave their inheritance and “[think] it [isn’t] pretty because it wasn’t factory made” (Miller, 425).
The preacher of Miller’s work sees this as unacceptable. He tells his listeners that though they don’t want to live in the past, “the past is living in [them]” (Miller, 426). Though they seek to break free from their roots and build a life far different from the ones they grew up with, their pasts are part of what has made them who they are. To tuck your history away is to bury a piece of yourself, and this hinders your ability to move forward. “Forgetfulness of a part of ourselves/ makes us less than we ought to be/…Forgetfulness of the fathers makes us a people/ who hardly cast a shadow against the ground” (Miller 427).
His point is that there are two ways to leave home: you either abandon it or carry it with you. You either try to forget everything that has made you who you are, or you let the past become your foundation for building the future. In Miller’s perspective, the foundation of our past is what keeps us from getting lost.
An appreciation of our families and our heritage gives us a surer footing for moving forward in our journeys. We are better equipped for the future when we know the mistakes and successes that have led us to where we now stand. The past can act as a comfort, a guide, or even a warning of what to avoid, all of which comes together to help move us further along.
Miller’s final lines read “You’ve heard it said you can’t put new wine in old bottles./ Well, I don’t know./ But don’t be too sure you’re new wine./ Maybe we’re all old wine in new bottles” (427). In many ways, we are all old wine; we are all the product of the generations before us, and as we step into the new world around us, we all bring with us the unique blends of our histories. We shouldn’t be too quick to disregard the traditions and the legacy we have inherited. There is beauty tucked in those parts of our stories, even in the aspects which are messy, or silly, or superstitious. We need to take the time to realize the value of what has come before, so that we can be prepared for what is coming ahead.
As we pass stories on to our children, we hope they will not be forgotten. Why is it, then, that we are often so quick to forget? Are the tales of our parents of any less value than ours?
Miller, Jim Wayne. “Brier Sermon–‘You Must Be Born Again.'” Appalachia Inside Out: A Sequel to Voices from the Hills, vol. 2, edited by Robert J. Higgs, Ambrose N. Manning, Jim Wayne Miller, The University of Tennessee Press, 1995, pp. 423-427.