The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

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February 23, 2015

On Holiness, or Why I am the Creepiest Person at My Small-P-Pentecostal Church

I am going to talk to you about my down-home Mississippi country church, but first, I think I should share with you a story about Hasidic Jews, who act an awful lot like pentecostal folks when they pray.  This is a story the Hasidim like to tell about how they worship God:

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov was once asked: “Why is it that Hasidim burst into song and dance when they go to the synagogue? Is this the behavior of a sane group of people?”

The Rabbi explained it like this.

“A deaf man walking by a wedding feast wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the people  clapping and turning in circles? The Hasidim are moving to a melody that is part of God’s creation.  Just because you can’t hear the music doesn’t mean we’re crazy for dancing.”

These two smart, lovely, modest teenagers have rejected the pressures of this culture to look like loose women.

These two smart, lovely, modest teenagers have rejected the pressures of this culture to look like loose women.

To get to Christ the Rock, my Mississippi church, you have to drive down a long two-lane highway past a tractor shop, some open fields, and a place that sells feed for livestock.  When you see the long white fence followed by a hill leading up to a gravel parking lot containing some pick-ups and a beat-up old Christian Academy school bus, a white-steepled building with astroturf outside the front door, you’ve arrived.

As your hand reaches the door knob, if it’s Sunday afternoon after 1:30 pm, you’ll hear Sister Courtney and Sister Jennifer singing soulfully in harmony as sister Kathy plays the piano, brother Delbert’s on bass, and the drummer — I am forgetting the drummer’s name, with apologies, but he’s the guy in the back left of the group photo wearing the tan shirt down below, they are all singing a hymn as if their hearts were about to burst out of their chests from the heady passion of it.

The pews are covered in an industrial floral tapestry, and even the piano wears a long skirt of it.  The ceiling is not high, but it is not leaking.  A man will shake your hand at the door.  He looks hopeful and tired at once, but he is honestly glad to see you.  He leads you into the sanctuary from which this music has already reached you, and you find a seat in one of these tapestried pews next to a squirmy toddler wearing a long skirt and the most elaborate headband you — Yankee heathen that you are — have ever seen.  That headband distracts you for a minute, covered as it is with curled ribbons, lace, and perhaps a feather.  The child’s hair is curled carefully like the ribbon, ornately as a bride on her wedding day.  The toddler is drooling onto a Bible somebody left there in case you came to visit and didn’t own one yourself.

Eventually a woman wearing a long skirt bends to scoop up the drooler with one arm, only half-looking, as she has done this before, and without missing a beat, she says welcome and hugs you with the other arm.

This is my church, now that I’m down here.  And I am the most messed-up person they see regularly in the pews.

In New York, I went to churches where people speak in tongues and pray for the healing of the brethren, sing and cry and shout, but I was never the biggest sinner that entered the front door.  For that distinction, I had to compete with ex-prostitutes, junkies just finished with withdrawal, white collar criminals half-penitent of ill-gotten gains, and a few certifiable lunatics out of whom not quite enough devils had yet been cast.  In comparison to that crowd, I was always prim, tidy, reasonably holding it together on almost any day.

There are other churches in Oxford, Mississippi, where I could go where there might not be too many junkies in the pews, but the creepiness would come in the form of rank hypocrisy.  There is an ethos that some Southern churches have where butter just wouldn’t melt in anybody’s mouth no matter how hot it gets in August.  People in those churches disown gay children, hide pornography addictions, drinking problems, and gambling debts while they sing “The Old Rugged Cross.”  Mark Twain, Allan Gurganus, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, and John Kennedy O’Toole have all given you a picture of the South which includes such churches, the churches of the regular penitents on Sunday morning routinely hung over from their excesses of Saturday night.  I am not saying those churches shouldn’t exist if people want to go there.  But, see, I am not just looking for a place to wear a cute dress and lord it over people that my handbag is designer.

Let me tell you, though, at Christ the Rock, my Southern church, there are no such people.  Butter melts like it ought to — on a biscuit fresh out of the oven.  The people who attend have no holier-than-thou pretensions.  They are just actually holier than I am.

See these good, loving people?  I am so much more creepy than they are.

See these good, loving people? I am so much more creepy than they are.

The women in this church, once you have gotten over the bedazzled headbands on babies, are not dressed in overpriced designer schlock.  They are dressed femininely and modestly, few ankles, no knees, and no bosoms exposed, unless of course I walk in, in which case butter is melting in my mouth, and I am sweating like a whore in church. I am perhaps in something I could have worn to church in New York, a little short-skirted sometimes, never really whorish, to tell the truth, but not deeply modest like these other women are.  The women at Christ the Rock often don’t dye their hair when it grays or wear make-up because those are not the parts of their lives on which they want to focus — instead they honestly want to focus on the experience of God’s presence.  I, on the other hand, have stubborn grays and stubborn worldliness, both of which I cover up. I wear make-up.  I double-process my blonde. I am not secure enough to show up anywhere looking only like God made me.  That’s the truth.  These women, even the teenagers here, are more secure than I am in that way.

What’s more, the men at this church, they are good guys.  They talk about fatherhood and honestly consider it the greatest joy of their lives to nurture their kids and grandkids.  They act loving, even when they don’t agree with somebody about something.  They are faithful to their wives, wives they met in high school and married the month after graduation, in more cases than not.  They are sober men.  They don’t drink.  They want to be helpful.  They want to be gentlemen, and “gentleman” isn’t a code for white male privilege.  A white man of a certain age who attends this church and whose name I shall not disclose, in this still relatively rural Southern community, has been courting a woman of color with all the respect of the code of chivalry heretofore reserved by white men for white women.  But I shouldn’t gossip.  People don’t gossip at this church.  They actually avoid the sins not explicitly mentioned in the Ten Commandments on top of all the not-murdering-not-coveting stuff I usually manage to accomplish on a good day.

The pastor and his wife, Glenn and Kathy Williams, are incredibly warm and loving.  They run a school and have programs through the State of Mississippi for parenting classes, anger management, and addiction-related issues mandated by the court system for those who have messed up in these areas.  They have plenty of opportunities to judge others.  I don’t believe they have ever judged anybody since I have met them.

The whole church is a place that doesn’t judge.  They tell everyone in the room to avoid sin. That’s a given, and when you’re with women who won’t dye their hair and men who won’t take a drop of alcohol after a funeral, you know you are a sinner.  They don’t have to judge you.  You will judge yourself, you Yankee rapscallion scoundrel, just like the Good Book tells you to.  Even as you judge yourself, you will find yourself unflinchingly loved by them.

The sermons are smart without exception.  However, there was one sermon I remember that I never would have heard up North.  It’s not that it was on an unusual topic, exactly.  Any part of the Bible might be preached about in the North.  But this sermon was punctuated by blues harmonica solos and what small-p-pentacostals call “hooping.”

For those of you who are uninitiated, allow me to paint you a picture:

Preacher: “Now one day Goliath, he met his match, — huh!” (the “Huh” is the “hoop” of hooping.)

[insert a short blues harmonica solo here]

“‘Cause David, huh, he got himself his sling shot — huh!”

[really bluesy blues harmonica here]

“and that Goliath, huh, he was gonna fall — huh!”

You get the idea.  Anyway, it was as Southern as a Southern sermon could get.  If the man who gave that sermon had been flanked by an Elvis imitator and the widows of the Confederacy, it wouldn’t have been more Southern.  A bowl of grits would have gone well with it.

But the very best part of attending Christ the Rock is the palpable presence of God like the Rabbi Baal Shem Tov talked about, the thing that makes the deaf think the dancers are crazy.  The presence of the Holy Ghost hangs thickly upon us, and while He is there manifesting, we dance, we clap, we shout, we rejoice.  It’s quieter, that presence at Christ the Rock than at some of the places where people get delivered out of years of addiction in one fell swoop or where demons need to be cast out, but it is strong, loving, and real.  As my nose presses to the industrial gray carpet stubbornly, when I feel called to pray kneeling, when the reverberations of the skirt-wearing piano shake, when the sound of glossolalia mixes with the Southern gospel, I feel the delicious sensation of both the Holy Spirit and my own cultural disorientation.  I’m not home, not until the rapture, but I am some place, I’ll tell you what, some place out of the pages of high Southern prose yet unwritten, perhaps written now. I am not raptured just yet, any minute now, surely, but I am in a place far more authentic than some butter-melt-free-mouthing-off place.  I am some place real where there is real welcome.

But meanwhile, in the church, there, I realize that I am a real piece of work.  I drink the occasional glass of spirits, not just the Holy Spirit.  I am not neurotic by the standards of midtown Manhattan, but I am one twisted-up freakazoid for this pastoral landscape.  I wear make-up and urban clothes because I am hiding my unacceptable self. I don’t judge much, but I don’t love as effortlessly as these people love.  Nothing’s in their way, perhaps, from the stupid pomp of this shallow culture — no lip gloss, no eyelash curler, no list of trends, no fashion police, no need to impress the neighbors.

And yet they tolerate my Yankee accent, which, while mild compared to most up North, sounds like Rhoda Morgenstern’s here when I testify to the works of the Lord during service. They tolerate my over-fluffed pretensions.  These people could have treated me like a space alien, but instead I sometimes wonder if I am their team mascot.  If so, I think we must be called “The Carpetbaggers,” and our fight song is about victory in Jesus.

So if you need a good church that will help you hear the music to which you are currently deaf, I exhort you to come to Christ the Rock, 352 Highway 30 East, out in Oxford, either in Lafayette County or Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, take your pick, as people this good surely belong in fiction, though perhaps not in William Faulkner’s novels. Just come as you are. Leave transformed.

August 13, 2010

Leaping into Faulkner’s Lap

the legend at work

Here’s a bit of practical advice:  Don’t enter the mausoleum, however ornate and lovely it looks on the outside, until you’re good and dead.

When I was first learning to be a writer, Allen Gurganus warned me not to be overawed by “literature.”  If writers spend too much time being intimidated by literary greatness, he said, we would  never achieve greatness of our own.  Our job was to go to the keyboard every day and create something new, polish it, make it good on its  own terms , but we were never to assume the pressure of immortality mid-opus.  Our immortality as writers was only our problem in as much as we were to slug it out  every day.

However much I try to obey this commandment, it is tempting in a place like where I am now — Oxford, Mississippi — to be seduced by the quest for immortality.  Oxford is one of the loveliest Southern towns — a venerable square, many historic churches, quaint gift shops, good restaurants — and many, many shrines to  the great William Faulkner, who lived here for most of his life and set many of his works in this area.

There is a statue of William Faulkner near city hall and the epicenter of culture here — Square Books, a fantastic independent bookseller with a large Faulkner section and tote bags and coffee mugs with Faulkner quotes on them.

The giant and lovely University of Mississippi is possibly more focused on football than Faulkner (especially in the administration, which surely  operates with another “F-word” in mind — “fundraising.”), but in the department in which I am working and getting my PhD, the English department, Faulkner is the raison d’etre. Many professors from Europe with an inordinate love of Faulkner congregate here to be experts in him and in his dense prose.

It is hard not to think of him constantly.  The college library has a  large-letter quote from him on the wall.  Faulkner is dead, but his ghost walks the halls.  People in the English department have  a ritual of drinking at Faulkner’s grave.  I have yet to do this, but as  I  type this, I am looking at a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon already set apart for this inevitable occasion.

However, my writing is not Faulknerian.  I am not destined to be Faulkner, but myself.  No one has built me  a statue.  No one  drinks at my grave. This feels like failure around here.

Enter my step-daughter, Charlotte, an irrepressible fifteen year-old  with that delicious freshness that all young people have.  Tennessee Williams remarked once that young  people love as if they had invented love.  A truer observation would be that young people invent love  and every other human experience with every generation.  Here is a photo of Charlotte taken at a store where they sell bins:

my wonderful, bright, funny step-daughter

Charlotte has sometimes gotten into trouble with older people who feel she has no respect for boundaries and their own sacred persons.  She is not  overawed by any adult — neither teacher, nor parent, nor store manager holds any particular fear for  her.  Sometimes, this gets her sent to the principle’s office or grounded.

To Charlotte, William Faulkner is just some  guy.

When she saw the statue of Faulkner, cast in bronze seated on a bench,  holding his pipe and wearing his fedora, she leapt onto the statue’s lap and put her arms around it.

I have not put up a photo of this event on this blog because I think a person in Oxford might get a ticket for Faulkner lap-leaping.  I’m not sure.

Oh — what the heck — here she is!

a dynamic relationship with literature --no pretenses

I say Charlotte has it right.  Faulkner is just some guy.  So is Shakespeare.  so is her dad.

Veneration is fine for the dead, but for the living, it’s premature.  Literature is just some guys and gals writing some stuff and editing it so it gets really good.

I  took Charlotte around campus and helped her to imagine a more serious future — SATs, college interviews, the five-paragraph essay.  I bought her literature her  woefully inadequate high  school English and History departments don’t bother teaching.  I  showed her some foreign movies to help her imagine a world bigger than her small town shows her.

She is currently reading A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and now loves the movie Amelie.  The universe is expanding, and there are serious parts of it, but there is no reason not to be so scared of  any of it that we miss the fun of it.  This is, in a nutshell, Charlotte’s experience right  now.

Leaping into Faulkner’s lap is a much better impulse, I find, than making him into the patron saint of Southern writers.  If he  is all that good (and he is), the proper impulse is to incorporate him currently into the life of our minds, to approach him with whimsy as well  as  analysis, to make him useful to us, not a heavy bronze backpack for us to climb with uphill.

Writing is the problem of people living today.  Literature is  the problem of  the next generation after my death.  I’m a writer.  I just work here.

One day, when she is  older,  Charlotte will leap less onto the laps of legends.  That will be a sad day for literature.

March 27, 2010

Yoknapatawpha County — a dispatch from fictional Mississippi

straight out of the pages of Faulkner

“…he knew it was almost dawn, the night almost over. He could tell that from the whippoorwills. They were everywhere now among the dark trees below him, constant and inflectioned and ceaseless, so that, as the instant for giving over to the day birds drew nearer and nearer, there was no interval at all between them. He got up. He was a little stiff, but walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun. He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasing – the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back.” — William Faulkner

I arrived yesterday morning in Yoknapatawpha County, not the real county, Lafayette County, where for 100 miles south of Oxford, Mississippi, there are farms, rolled bales of hay, horses, cows, but in Faulkner’s fictional county, where surely Faulkner is not mocked, for that which a man soweth, he shall also reap.

I drove through the farm country, thinking of  the grittiness of agriculture, the struggle between good and evil, for there is right in this county, and there is wrong in this county.  It is dawn now, and the sounds of the birds are overwhelming.

I have made the most wonderful discovery about Southern writers.

I used to think that there was something uniquely lyrical about the South that lent itself readily to discussions of mendacity and blight, of tragic love and closeted yearnings.  I used to think that the diphthongs and cadence of Southern parlance was naturally more musical than the staccato of Brooklyn’s “Yo”s.  I was wrong.

The beautiful thing I have discovered is that Faulkner, Williams, Welty, O’Connor, Mitchell, Walker, Gurganus, and all the others are all up to the same shenanigans as I was up to in New York — it just sounds different.

What they do — and what New York writers do — is that they already have a story in their hearts, perhaps not quite consciously, but it’s there.  They then glean, to use a particularly Faulknerian verb, from their surroundings the necessary sustenance for this narrative.  “Barn Burning,” from which the above quote is taken, would be a very different story indeed in the hands of a lesser writer.  It would be different indeed were it not told in an agrarian paradigm, but “Barn Burning” could be “Arson in Staten Island.”  It could be, “Rive Gauche Vandalism.”  It’s not — Faulkner found his idiom in the rolling hills near the Yalobusha River.  He found a way to have his Lot walk away from his exploding Sodom without a wife into the darkness, trusting in the Right.  He borrowed from ancient stories but wrote his own close to home.

Perhaps I will write another blog entry about historical Faulkner.  I am headed to the University of Mississippi — a transfer to a better school with a program more suited to me.  Ole Miss is in Faulkner’s home town, and the English department, naturally, is filled with his greatest fans.  It is worth noting that only a few Americans have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Faulkner was among them.

However, creating a mausoleum to Faulkner is not necessary for a contemporary writer.  I have his secret — let me share it with you:

You see, we all live  in Yoknapatawpha County, a Yoknapatawpha of our own making.  Our stories play out in the Avalons of our own minds. We are all living in our own Brigadoons.  Visiting Faulkner’s country has not nearly half the utility for me as a writer of exploring my own undiscovered and undocumented territories.  We could stand in the same corn field, Faulkner and I, and we would see different landscapes.  He has already finished his writing.  It is up to me to complete mine.

For years, I wrote about the women and men I met in New York City, or more precisely, I took my inspiration from the women and men I met in New York and wrote about people of my own imagining.  The city in my poems is not quite visitable; it is a place of the mind, not of the intersection of “walk” and “don’t walk.”

My style of crop as a writer

Now that I’m in Mississippi, the land will yield up to me a similar harvest.  After all, that which a woman soweth, she shall also reap, and the ground in Mississippi, with its pungent mud, its worms, its hot coagulation, is fertile ground.  I have my own stories to tell.  They are not Faulkner’s stories but my own.  All that remains to see is whether I have the richness of voice with which to enchant my interlocutors.  I am fertilizing the mud with the words of those  who have sat on this land for generations.  However, I sense I am no Steinbeck, finding her metaphors in the grape harvest.  I am an immigrant.  My words are more like hanging wisteria — a flowering weed that wraps itself around a tree and puts off gorgeous blooms with the most lovely perfume known to anyone.  I am not planted deep but hanging over this land, and my perspective is bound to stay aerial.

That said, I am here for the duration.  Weed killers and tree surgeons won’t remove me.  It would be better for the residents of Yoknapatawpha County to simply  resign themselves to enjoy my fragrance and to admire the blooms that flower from my embracing bowers.

March 19, 2010

Gallantry Against Gall — on Southern Chivalry

Chivalry is not dead, not in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the ghosts of Civil War Soldiers are still occasionally spotted, where reenactments of the siege take place annually, where some of  the houses, alas, not mine, are straight out of a  Margaret Mitchell antebellum fantasy.

Chivalry is not dead.  It is not even really wounded.  It is not even stunned, the way a bug gets slightly stunned  by a pesticide it has already survived, by the poisonous culture of today.  However, chivalry is not alone in the South today.  Chivalry lives next to unimaginably bad manners, and perhaps it always has.

Chivalry is not dead in the historic town of Vicksburg

On one hand, the one that is getting kissed, perhaps, in this photo, men are still gallant.  Yes, I said gallant, not just because hand-kissing still exists once in a blue moon.

For some reason, I have always been the kind of woman who gets her hand kissed, even on the beach.  It started when I was twelve.  Throughout my young years, young adulthood, and then, now, in my — ahem — prime,  men have chosen that gesture to express their feelings about me, or maybe they thought since conventional methods to get me alone wouldn’t work, perhaps old-fashioned ones would work better.  Maybe I have nice hands.  Maybe I’m just too tall to kiss on the lips.  Whatever the reason, men kiss my hand.  Here, my husband kisses my hand.  I don’t know that he has ever performed that gesture with another woman — he doesn’t strike me as the hand-kissing type altogether, too modern, but with me, it feels natural to him to do so.

However, as I said, I am not just talking about hand-kissing.  I’m talking about real, unimaginably old-fashioned reenacted gallantry.

For instance, we had our electrical contractors, from a company called without a whisper of irony Joe Gay Electric, in the house installing new lights and making slight repairs.  I was in the house making sure my wishes were carried out.

One of the Joe Gay men, a sweet-faced guy named Pete, asked me very politely if I might not have a needle.  At that point, I had unpacked nothing, so I apologized that no, I did not have one.   The foreman asked him why he needed a needle.

“To drain the blood out of this thing.”

He held up  a thumb that had received some kind of significant trauma under the nail.  It wasn’t quite bad enough to go to the emergency room,  but almost, and he looked like he was suffering.

“You sure did bang up your thumb, Pete!” Said the foreman, examining it under a light, “I’m surprised I didn’t hear you scream none.  That must have hurt!”

“Well,” Pete said sheepishly, leaning his head in my direction, “I couldn’t cuss with a lady present.”

Because I was there, he felt he couldn’t trust himself not to curse  in pain, so he held it in — a wounded rebel soldier who would not offend his hoop-skirted hostess as the minie hit him.  I found myself uttering words I thought I would never say, not in the twenty-first century, not out of this Brooklyn mouth where such a construct does not linguistically exist:

“I thank you,  sir, for your gallantry.”

Such a phrase was surely uttered by Melanie Wilkes between the barbeque at Twelve Oaks and Sherman’s takeover of Atlanta.  Such a phrase would not have been uttered even by Scarlet O’Hara, who would have found it too mealy-mouthed, unless  she was trying to charm something out of someone.  Yet, it came out of my mouth, here in Vicksburg, in my own home.

Other men open doors, walk me to the place I am going  where I am lost, carry my  packages when I  am overburdened, this without expectation of any return but of perhaps some word of thanks.  Since moving South, I have been the recipient of some chivalry, and I’m not pregnant, not elderly, not infirm,  and not so luscious as I might inspire men to do anything at all to speak to me.  There are plenty of chivalrous men.  No, Southern chivalry is  breathing, walking around, and ordering grits for breakfast at Waffle House.

However, chivalry co-exists with some of the worst manners I have ever even heard of.

The flip side of the Confederate coin.

Remember that I come from Brooklyn,  a place where the signs welcoming one to the Borough say “fuggetaboutit,” instead of , “welcome, gentle visitors, to our humble abode.”

Men shove women out of the way in an effort to get a cab in a rain storm in New York City.  They bump into each other and don’t say, “excuse me.”   They complain about each other within earshot of each other.  At best it’s frank, but at other times, New Yorkers can be downright rude.

That said, I have come to understand that certain Southerners, the kind that end up on Jerry Springer throwing chairs, have worse manners than any I encountered in New York, and that’s saying something.

To the right of this text is a political illustration of a Southern representative in Congress in 1856 caning a Yankee congressman during a session.  Without going into what turned into a war between the states, that’s just bad manners, shocking, horrible bad manners.

A young man of my acquaintance down here recently lost his father.  An older man he knew and who did not like him took that particular moment as the time to tell this young man, while his father was dying, that his father was a no-good %&*%# who deserved to die.  If someone in New York tried being mean like that in a place where he could be overheard, even by strangers, he would find himself surrounded by people demanding an apology for the young man, even threatening him with violence if he didn’t apologize.  That didn’t happen in this case.

I remember reading in a short story by Allan Gurganus, the Southern writer, the following phrase, “Now there’s mean, and then there’s country mean.”

We’re talking country mean.

A woman I have some contact with had every reason to thank me.  I had done a large number of very nice things for her daughters, purchased them presents, treated them honorably, and generally showed them kindness.  Far from being grateful, she subsequently went out of her way to insult me in front of her daughters and my husband.

I was kind enough to get a young woman down here a designer purse from New York, precisely the kind she said she dreamed  of owning.  Not only did she not thank me, she insulted Yankees the next time she saw me.  Then she had the nerve to ask for another designer purse.

I can hear all  the Brooklyn girls wagging their heads, shouting, “Oh no she di-nt!”  Oh, yes, she did.  No one in NYC would ever expect a second act of kindness after a display like that of bad, bad manners.

So why do chivalry and Jerry Springer manners cohabit this region of the country in quite this way?  I have been pondering this.  Perhaps the people with really good manners are just too polite to tell the people with really bad manners where they can go.

Me, I’m from Brooklyn.  I’m a lady.  People kiss my hand, even on Coney Island Beach — seriously!  I think that the best of manners must be tempered with a measure of frank  confrontation.  No one should countenance bullies.  Bitchiness followed by the words, “bless her heart” is still bitchiness.  In Brooklyn, we tell people who are rude they are being rude.  Occasionally, it may come to blows, but not with me — I’m six feet tall, and I look like I know a good lawyer if my mere physicality doesn’t intimidate someone rude.  Most of the time, we don’t invite the rude people back, the way they do around here.  My husband was surprised that I would not invite the rude girl who insulted Yankees and wanted new purses from the Yankees she insulted to our wedding.  People down here, the chivalrous ones, they just keep the wheels turning, never confronting the ones who abuse the social system.  In Brooklyn, we call people out.  Then we either fight, or — we just fuggetaboutit.

November 20, 2009

My second act

“There are no second acts in American Lives.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Every Jane Austen novel ends at the marriage altar.  Dissatisfied wives in literature end up dead — like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary.  Satisfied wives end up obscured in fiction, without their own narrative, accessories to the real plot.  Unmarried women barely exist at all.  When things go wrong in literary plots, women end up strangling themselves with their own bridal veils, like Antigone, or they end up obliterated some other way.

A couple of years ago, when my life fell apart, I wondered which dramatic death I was destined for.  I did not want to die, understand, but where did I have an example of a woman who picks herself up, dusts herself off in her forties, and starts all over again?  I had a couple of television-world examples, less than half an inch thick.  I had CJ Craig from The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin imagines a second act for one woman

, who becomes the White House Press Secretary after a failed Hollywood career in PR.  I had Samantha Jones from Sex and the City, who at a perpetual 39 seems to have no regrets.

Sex And The City imagines a second act that ressembles act one precisely, only with the possibiliy of Botox.

In fiction — well, I had Scarlett O’Hara, shaking her fist at heaven, swearing that as God as her witness, she would never go hungry again.

After marriage #2, Margaret Mitchell imagines a still-feisty Scarlett getting engulfed by Rhett Butler's embrace.

I did a great deal of soul-searching, of Internet searching, of job searching, of PhD searching, but I dare say I have drummed up a second act in this American life, no matter what Fitzgerald thought:

  • I’m getting remarried
  • I’m becoming a not-so-wicked stepmother
  • I’m getting my PhD
  • I’m working part-time while I do so and my future husband pays the bills.

The one thing, though.  Perhaps Fitzgerald could have said, “In New York lives, there are no second acts.”  However, in other places, I find that I can have one.  Scarlett gets hers in Georgia.  Mine, it turns out, is in Mississippi.

Yes, I’m moving from Brooklyn to Mississippi.

Horrified?  So are my New York friends.  They imagine Klansmen.  They imagine a total lack of Sushi — which, I admit is a legitimate consideration.  They know that Mississippi is the number one  state for teen pregnancy, illiteracy and  obesity.

Don’t they get it?  Down there, I’m skinny.  What dieter wouldn’t want to go?

Seriously, here is a photo of my second act:

That smiling woman is me. That cute man is my fiance.

I corresponded with my old writing teacher from my Freshman year in college — Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All — a Southern writer if there ever were one.  He told me that he thought my adjustment from New York to life on the Mississippi would be more dramatic than my adjustment were I to move to the Belgian Congo.

He may have a point.

This blog, which will document my adjustment weekly, will examine just that.  Those of you  who like Jeff Foxworthy jokes, or  remember fondly The Beverly Hillbillies, feel free to watch in  morbid fascination as I document all that I find to love about the South, all that I find cumbersome or odd.

Intermission is over.  The house lights dim. Enter our heroine, stage left.  We see a ranch-style house in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  There is a small dog yapping.  There is a man seated outside, sipping a can of beer, smiling.  The woman is carrying an armful of books,  and she is  dressed in black.

The second act, written by my hand and the improbable divine hand, begins.

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