By Adrienne Stuckey

Christmas in Cullowhee

A little over a year ago, my husband and I moved from a suburb of Atlanta to Cullowhee, North Carolina, a college community in the Great Smoky Mountains, for me to begin work as a tenure-track professor. There have been many adjustments, not the least of which include learning to build woodstove fires, having just one grocery store option, and choosing from only a small handful of restaurant options. We also had to leave behind a church and faith community that we adored.

A year ago, we were thankful to have ten Atlanta friends move us to Cullowhee, unload our moving truck, set up our furniture, and unpack nearly every box we brought. So we were happy about a month ago to spend an extended week and a half visiting family and staying with the same Atlanta friends over Christmas and New Year, which was also the first anniversary of the move. While we were still there, we got a call from our Cullowhee neighbor to tell us a tree had fallen near our house on the mountain. It blocked the driveway to our neighbor's house, but minimal damage was done, and it got out cleared by the end of that day.

Chris and I spent some time talking about the symbolism of that tree. It's funny how trees fall. What does it take for one tree to stand strong through a windstorm on the side of a mountain? Is it because it has other protective trees around it? Is there some tiny patch of super-strong soil on a hill to which it clings? Does it have a network of horizontal roots winding into the side of the slope? I don't know enough about botany to be able to say, but I figure it’s reasonable to think that a tree’s roots have a lot to do with it.

We left behind deep roots when we left Atlanta. We left well-seasoned friendships and a deeply satisfying church life. We left behind secure job histories, our first house, and all of the memories created in the first thirteen years of our marriage. We've struggled to find a local church that really satisfies us like the one we left. So far, we have no small group, and church isn't yet the place where we're finding deep fellowship. Many of our Atlanta friends were church people, and many were "fifteen-year-friends." Almost all of our Cullowhee friends are academics, many are skeptics, and they are all "one-year-friends" or even less.

With Christmas approaching, we asked, would we be lonely in this Advent season? Will we start to feel like this is "home" sometime soon? When would we begin to grow some roots?

We stayed in Cullowhee until Christmas morning, when we drove to Atlanta for our visit. This meant that we spent all of the actual Christmas season here in the mountains. Since the semester ended in early December, we had some space to breathe, regroup, bake cookies with our "adopted" Japanese international student from the university, attend a faculty women's cookie exchange, enjoy our normal weekly Friday social event at the university faculty and staff club, invite a colleague and his wife over for dinner, and host a casual holiday drop-in party two days before Christmas.

This Christmas, our hearts were so surprisingly full. At our holiday drop-in party, we had about ten people show up. It was December 23, and it was mostly composed of the small core from our university faculty and staff club who were still in town. Some neighbors walked up the hill to join us and they connected with our other friends. A friend who runs a full-time college campus ministry for former foster children came. Some faculty friends listened to him, enthralled, while he shared the mission of his work and its importance to the campus community. "Wow," I thought, looking around, "It's true that one-year-friends aren't the same as fifteen-year-friends, but these one-year-friends are a really great foundation for the next fourteen years!"

And all of those thoughts bring me back to that dead tree that fell in our yard. It's tempting to say that tree is an ominous symbol of how life's winds batter at us and can take us down. It's tempting to say, "We don't have deep roots here in Cullowhee yet, so we are at risk of being taken down like that tree."

But, after a year here, we can see that we are not like that tree. Yes, our social circle here is quite different from our social circle in Atlanta. But, while most are skeptics, they all know we're Christians. We haven't hidden that and no one has silenced us. Sometimes they even ask intriguing questions or start insightful conversations with us about elements of our faith. For example, the volatile politics this year were and continue to provide a chance for us to explain the reason for the hope within us. We've explained in simple terms that our hope doesn't come from whether our parties won or lost, but from the One in whom we have faith. We've discovered that this is a surprisingly powerful, soft-spoken, and influential concept. And it's a concept that our friends acknowledge the need for — and that they listen to. So even in one-year-friendships, we've discovered we have a voice in our friends' lives.

We are not the tree that fell over in the windstorm. The deep roots we had in our lives through Jesus back in Atlanta didn't get cut just because we relocated and entered a remote, rural academic community. Those existing roots weren't wasted and haven't withered. I think to some extent, I pictured our "Atlanta roots" as being place-centered and highly dependent on the people around us there. So, I thought we would have to completely start over here and be thirsty and withered for a very long time while weak, baby roots took hold here in this new place. But what we're discovering is more like Psalm 1:3. We were already planted near deep water — the water of Jesus himself. And moving here did not cut those roots. Our location and the length of our friendships in Atlanta was not the source of our roots. The source is the person of Jesus. Our roots, and Jesus himself, came with us to Cullowhee. And our new friends can come near to us and experience the impact of his refreshing nourishment — and they don't have to wait another fourteen years to do it. It can happen even in one-year friendships.

We are already a thriving tree, here in Cullowhee.

About the Author

As of Christmas 2017, Adrienne is a third year tenure-track faculty member in special education & teacher preparation at Western Carolina University, living very near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She and her husband relocated from the Atlanta, Georgia region, where she taught high school special education for 12 years before earning her PhD at Georgia State University. Aside from chopping up fallen trees for firewood, her passions include improving interactions between high school teachers and struggling students and equipping teachers to teach diverse students. 

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