22 April 2014

Hating on Mississippi

I woke this morning hell-bent on blogging about why I hate Mississippi. Yes, it occurred to me just that way:  "Why I Hate Mississippi" emblazoned across the wide-screen of my mind's eye. A flood of impressions and feelings swept over me, a Life Review of the last 21 months of my life.  It was intense enough to bring tears to my eyes as I put the coffee on.

They're trimming the great pecan tree that sits in the front yard today. I awoke to the sounds of
a crew of four or five men outside my window, speaking in that garbled, stuttering gallop that distinguishes the speech pattern of many people here. And something in me screamed, "Would
you please speak so I can understand you?!"

But later, with a hot cup of coffee in hand, I wandered out to the front porch to see what they were up to. The crew leader remembered me from a few months back when he came by to survey the job. "Good morning, Miss Alex!" he greeted me, and my heart melted. Some.

So I'm not as angry and frustrated as I was at the top of the morning.

But still...

I won't say I "hate" Mississippi. I'll say it is an extremely bad fit. While the coffee perked, I tried to compose a "Pros and Cons" list in my head:  what do I like about this place? vs what do I find disgusting or impossible or frustrating or ugly or....about MS?

The process revealed that my misery is largely people-based:  it's the things that people say (which, of course, are products of the way they think) that throws me into despair. And the way people think is the basis for their culture. And it's the culture, I think now, that doesn't fit me.

On the plus side:  country ballads and blues music; the generally mellow, slow-to-anger personality prevalent among the people; a popular passion for gardening; the customary addresses of "Yes, Ma'am/No, Ma'am" and other polite utterances; the habitual inclusion of
food-sharing whenever people come together; and a pace of life slower than that endured on the East and West coasts of the U.S.

On the down side:  an apparent inability to move beyond the emotional and psychological impact of the slavery and Civil War eras; a resistance to new ideas and new people; the oppressive, smothering influence of Christianity; the persistent "racial-izing" of every issue; the sacrifice of candor to politeness; an often bizarre aesthetic; and the embrace of form over function in everything from conversation to floor plans to community events to attire.

Often enough, the thought has occurred "I have come to Mississippi to die." It was not an intention I held on the cross-country train ride that delivered me here; it is a sense that arises spontaneously in response to events and circumstances I encounter here. It bespeaks the magnitude of discomfort I have felt at times.

Sitting with the principal and vice-principal in their office at the local high school during my first autumn in Holly Springs, observing the jeer that spread across their faces simultaneously as I outlined an idea for adding a drama program to the school's curriculum, their near-sputtering chuckles as they accused me of "enthusiasm ... It was an early experience of a unique variety of disappointment and frustration that I have felt many times since:  encountering unenlightened, uninspired, unimaginative apathy in an educator rankles with a unique intensity.

In MS, it is only in the faces of very young children that I regularly encounter the bright shine and dance of freedom, curiosity, willingness. Though the phrase has sometimes sounded like cliche to me in the past, it feels like simple truth here in MS:  children are our future. The level of archaic thought and willful ignorance I've encountered among community members charged with the care and guidance of MS children is utterly unconscionable. It demonstrates frightful folly and shortsightedness to fulfill their roles so carelessly. What kind of Tomorrow can MS hope for when its children, its future, is being so cavalierly mishandled Today?

I say "cavalier" because, in the main, the school personnel I've met have been hugely impressed with themselves and their roles. They are proud of the multi-syllabic, all-in-caps titles that adorn their business cards (if they have one) (appearing as they do above a telephone number that is no longer in service or the misspelled name of the institution they serve). Their sense of self importance is blatant if fragile:  critique, information-sharing or offers of collaborative reinvention are perceived as either threat or personal insult and strongly resisted if not rejected outright.

And it's not that I have not encountered this kind of thing in other parts of the country. What's striking is the pervasiveness of the mindset here. It has become a trademark of Southern Culture for me: hypersensitive defense and protection of personal perspective. And an attentive devotion to the surface of things--the grandiose title on an ill-wrought business card, the meticulously-tended floral border along the grounds of a collapsing architectural treasure, the self-congratulatory articles in the weekly newspaper about academic "achievements" that would be viewed as proof of failing in the rest of the country, the home improvements effected using substandard materials and clumsy workmanship--with little regard for the depths.

soul vs spirit
surface vs depth
form vs function
simplicity vs complexity
curiosity vs conviction
conformity vs innovation
fluidity vs rigidity

It's the culture. I live in a culture foreign to my nature.

The landscape is also foreign in my experience but I recognize and appreciate the natural (that is, un-peopled) beauty of Mississippi. The trees and other plants, the light and the climate, the movement of the seasons...all of these have been sustaining comfort and inspiration to me.

And I have enjoyed some precious moments with people here, encountered generosity and wisdom and humor on occasion that truly touched my heart.

But such enjoyments have been infrequent, outnumbered and outweighed by a preponderance of parochial obstinacy, indifference, well-mannered bigotry and a consistent lack of follow-through (appointments? call-backs? honored invitations? timely repayment of debts? ...my psyche is littered with debris from these disastrous encounters.) that have come to define Southern culture for me.

Illustrative of the ironic quandary that characterizes my experience here, I feel obliged at this point to urge Southern readers to take no insult from my remarks. These are my personal observations. This is the way Mississippi feels to me. I'm not warning people away from Mississippi; I'm reporting my experience. If you're having a different experience--if you love living in Mississippi, for example, I say "Good for you. I celebrate your happiness."

For myself, I vacillate between a few orientations and states of mind these days.


...to name a few.

16 April 2014

James Baldwin

This is The Year of James Baldwin. So says a "consortium of cultural organizations" in New York City. As Baldwin's name does not come up every day in my current surround, I view my stumbling upon this celebration as affirmation that I am still 'on task' in my intellectual life, still doing something right (though it is far from apparent to me most of the time).

According to Wikipedia, his complete oeuvre reads:
Together with others:
At best, I've read excerpts from The Amen Corner and Nobody Knows My Name. His name comes up again and again -- in conversation, in commemorations of one kind or another on NPR or among my poet friends. Until now, I resisted falling or following but it was not because I couldn't hear him, didn't feel something stir and moan within me, especially whenever I encountered his analysis and commentary on American culture.

It was more a case of avoiding the pain of knowing, of seeing what one can't help but see because Baldwin is nothing if not plain-spoken in his critique. It always hurt a little hearing his recorded voice on the radio, talking about the Negro experience in America. It always seemed he was telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly ... 

I am reading Go Tell It On the Mountain. A friend has given me access to her boyfriend's dormant library card and I have borrowed the title as an e-book. I did not know until minutes ago that it was his first published work and that it is semi-autobiographical (not that I didn't already suspect I was reading his life story).

I am letting him in at last. And it still hurts. It's hard not to take nearly everything he says personally, hard to maintain a strictly intellectual, subjective frame of mind when I read him. It is impossible to ignore the compromises and half-truths of my own life in the light of his precise, unflinching candor.

This morning I acknowledge that a transformation is underway. I am letting him in. The usual pain is assuaged by the signature gentleness and compassion that I perceive in Baldwin's writing, a tender sadness that carries and tempers his astute observations. I feel him grieving for America, for white people, for black people, for the intractability of the "race problem" that has defined interracial relationships here from the beginning.

His writing makes me aware that my half-truths and compromises have not brought me peace of mind but rather produced an uneasy resignation that has precluded true contentment and unbridled joie de vivre. I've been a lifelong host to squelched discontent. It likely underlies my lifelong "battle" with depression.

Baldwin left the country. Was he able to see his native land more clearly from a distance? Did exile make it easier to find his voice and the courage to speak?

Reading him now I feel ice breaking somewhere inside me...

03 April 2014

Home for Turtles

"Longing for Home"  Photographer:  El Amigo Chico

George W. Bush never felt like my president. I just couldn't connect with the guy. From his physical appearance to the way he spoke, from his personal values as demonstrated by his professional choices to his life story, I just never felt myself a member of his tribe or part of his constituency.

Like most politicians, he often began statements with the words "What the American people want/believe/need..." and 99.99% of the time what followed was not true for me.

It was a crazy time. I felt exiled in my own country. I felt invisible. And hopeless.

I felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wondered if folks like me had long ago forsaken the U.S. and I'd missed the boat.

I didn't have a clue about what to do. I felt disoriented. At risk. My thinking was scrambled, frantic, terrified. It felt like the country was on its way down the tubes and I was desperate to escape.

I came to believe that my only hope was to set out in search of a circumstance that would facilitate my leaving the country. I threw away, gave away or stored anything I could not carry on my back. I surrendered the keys to my Oakland apartment and hit the road bound for .... I didn't know where.

One thing led to another. I soon came to feel I'd entered a parallel universe. Unlike the realm I'd left behind, Time was more flexible and keys were unnecessary and sleep had more to do with my energy level in the moment than what I had planned for the next day. Life became a series of new locations and situations -- house-sitting for friends of friends, contemplating the smorgasbord of Departure-and-Arrival possibilities offered on bus station and airport marquees, long nights at diner counters, nursing bottomless cups of coffee. 

Some mornings began with a few seconds of having absolutely no idea where I was. Other mornings began with several minutes of hearty laughter, astounded to find myself where I was. There were nights of gratitude to have somewhere warm and dry to lay my head; and other nights crumpled in despair, alone, without shelter or inspiration.


Photographer:  Felicia Simion
Through it all, the common denominator was Me. The locale, temperature, companions, noise level, amount of money in my pocket or reading material on hand changed. And changed again. But there was always Me. 

Catching my reflection in a storefront window or the bathroom mirror of a luxury hotel -- or a gas station -- I'd meet my own eyes and say "Hey! Hello there. I'm still here..." and give myself a loving embrace through my eyes.

Somewhere along the road I had a dream of Sojourner Truth. In the dream, our eyes met and, for each of us, it was like looking into a mirror. I started researching her life shortly thereafter, partly out of curiosity and partly with an eye toward developing a performance based on a comparison of our lives. I began to think of myself as a sojourner. I adopted a mantra:  I have everything I need. The Earth is my Home. Choose from love, not fear.

"Finding Yourself At Home"    Photographer:  Pia Johnson
I am entering my second decade of sojourn. There's a lot I could say about the experience, maybe will say if I ever commit to making a book of musings drawn from this blog and journal entries I've made along the way. The particulars of how people live, for example, is a fascinating study. People sleep on the floor or in beds or on futons, in houses and teepees and RVs...  People prepare meals on shiny, state-of-the-art stove tops and in toaster ovens or never prepare meals where they live. Living spaces boast floor-to-ceiling bookshelves or not a single hardcover publication on the premises. Living spaces smell like animals or like apple-cinnamon potpourri or whatever's on the stove.... In some houses there's not a sponge or rag for cleaning to be found; in other houses, each sponge has a tag indicating its precise and exclusive use.

Some places bear a close resemblance to my preferred style of inhabiting a living space. In the places that don't I sometimes long for "home" -- not the larger Home evoked in my mantra but the smaller, closer more personal sense of Home. That longing mostly reflects the level of discomfort or inconvenience I'm experiencing at that time and in that space. 

More than Home, I still long for Tribe. I recently realized that if I "won the lottery" today, I would use most of it to keep traveling, to travel further, in hopes of finding my Tribe. It's my fantasy that where I find people of like mind and heart, with whom I share values and humor and mission, any place will do. In such an environment, questions about over or under toilet paper, room temperature vs refrigerated butter, etc. are manageable and largely irrelevant, arising as they do against a backdrop of cosmic, spiritual, more humanly fundamental concerns.

I'll end up somewhere. Some day my life of sojourn will end and, wherever I am, I'll take my last breath. I'll be at Home -- in the Universe -- perhaps in some location that feels like Home...or doesn't; perhaps in a place I "own". But, as always, the fixed feature of that time and place will be Me. "Hey! Hello there.... It's time to move on."

The Christians call Death "Going home" but who knows:  perhaps it's just the site for the next sojourn.