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.