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

October 8, 2017

Lessons from God — American politics and regional experiences

Imagine for a moment that all Americans believed in some kind of divine, at least in Jefferson’s “nature and nature’s god” from the Declaration of Independence.  Imagine now that all of us here also really believed what we say unkindly to those in trouble: everything happens for a reason.  How might such a set of universally held beliefs affect our regional politics?

I believe that when disaster strikes, especially when that disaster defies explanation, the rational mind shuts down and looks for paranormal interventions, whether we mean it to or not.  As a Christian, I have no trouble believing in the divine, but I also know that I have an irrational side that does not square with my theology, that believes that when a tornado warning goes off and a funnel cloud appears in the distance, no mater how much I know about meteorology, that the rotating winds are there as God’s thumb to squash me like a bug. No amount of schooling, no amount of storm-tracking by satellite, can prevent me from holding this view. There is part of me that cannot reconcile my immediate anxiety to a clear-headed rational thought.

During the Middle Ages, people made no pretense of rational thought in such circumstances, however resigned they were to meeting their Maker. In Palermo, during a horrible outbreak of plague, people wrote of seeing the plague appear in the form of a large black dog dressed as a bishop, cutting people down with a broadsword.  In Sweden, the plague was sighted as  beautiful maiden who waved a deadly saffron-colored scarf into one window or another in a village, causing all inside to die. In the absence of any germ theory or immunology, people did what they could in their terror to understand the emotionally incomprehensible.

plague

During the Middle Ages, people frightened by the plague hallucinated phenomena that could allow them to understand how one person could die while another lived.

Let’s be honest. For all our Doppler 4000 and our antibiotics, we’re no better. We respond to disaster viscerally, and because individually we are largely unable to control events larger than ourselves, we look to God.  It has often enough been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Allow me to submit to you that in America, whatever our pretense of intellectualism or agnostic yogic meditative practices, there are no atheists in America when a disaster hits us, and consequently, we form ideas about the theodicy — the “how could God let this happen here” — of such events. As some events are more likely to happen in the North than in the South, in the East than in the West, regional concepts of the divine, not the church divine, the scriptural divine, but the irrational-brain-invented notions of god and that idolatrously constructed god’s mysterious ways, that influence how we understand commonweal and political responsibilities in the face of catastrophe.

yellow fever

In industrialized cities, wealthier people understood that letting the poor die of yellow fever without care endangered their own health.

In Philadelphia and in Chicago, it became clear that a system of government that could prevent and extinguish fires would be useful. It was clear that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern in a shed, the whole town would suffer. In New York and Boston, it became clear that some form of sanitation and public health system would be better than not having one.  While the pilgrims believed in an Abrahamic covanential sort of responsibility toward one’s neighbor, particularly towards one’s pious and hard-working neighbor who fell ill, in New York, the motives for this were different.  There, it became clear to the very wealthy that sometimes even when one leaves town during an outbreak of yellow fever, one might catch it anyway from one’s butler or one’s laundress. Hence, having health clinics for the poor might secure the health of the wealthy and powerful. Either way, in major American cities, we are all our brothers’ keepers even today. We understand that an attack from unseen forces on one of us is likely a harbinger of trouble for us. We show up to liberate people from airport jail during a fascist Muslim ban.  We dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center. We make condoms free during the AIDS epidemic. We make sure every building has a fire escape on it, and if need be, a water tank as well, so that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow can’t harm anyone but itself.

This is not what disaster teaches the irrational mind of Americans outside of sardine-packed cities, particularly not in the South, where tornadoes and hurricanes are the most common mass tragedies.

storm

A storm hits one place and misses another — are we spared catastrophe by our innate virtue?

Take last night.  My husband and I hunkered down in New Orleans with our two dogs and more starchy food and alcohol in the house than we commonly have, cases of bottled water, and flashlights. We removed outdoor hanging plants from hooks and packed up lawn furniture. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was headed for us. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was supposed to land on us as a category two disaster. The mayor Mitch Landrieu wisely told us to stay indoors after seven pm.  He told people repeatedly not to go surfing on Lake Catherine — apparently a hurricane jackass dare. He called for a mandatory evacuation of three neighborhoods on the far-eastern side of town. We were battened-down.  We were prepared.

And then, at the last possible minute, the storm turned Eastward, away from us. We were spared from all disaster. I saw a rainbow in the sky. I knew we were fine.

Here is the insidious lesson that might be learned from the irrational-brain-god about this event, one that might serve to explain a lack of general compassion on the part of some for the problems of others, particularly those poorer than we are: We might learn that this god spared us because we are somehow better than our neighbors in his eyes.

We hear the occasional crack-pot preacher claiming Houston got flooded because it elected a lesbian mayor, that New Orleans has too much decadence in it, and that caused Katrina. I’m not really talking about those losers who say this. I think that the frightened human mind cannot quite help momentarily thinking that the disaster that narrowly missed us and hit another is a confirmation that we are just in the hands of a proactive and highly insightful deity who knew that the person whose house got clobbered by a tornado either had fantastic insurance and would get a much better house or was sinful in ways that we weren’t, and that’s why our house was spared. The lesson here is the opposite of the lesson learned in the industrial city.  In a rural community, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks a lantern in a shed, and the shed burns down, maybe her cows get loose, and her son gets scolded for sleeping in the shed drunk with a lantern that could catch the hay on fire. The person who got sick from yellow fever whose nearest neighbor lived five miles away probably didn’t spread the disease.  They won’t even know he’s dead until he’s half decomposed. The irrational brain divine tells us to believe in ourselves, in our own virtues, in such circumstances.  While this is not scriptural — Jesus says to us that rain falls on both the wicked and the just — it is an almost inescapable human reflex, one that is destructive to our Republic.

There are cynical politicians in Washington bought up by a few wealthy and greedy megalomaniacs who are willing to demand help for Katrina and withhold it for Sandy because it won’t directly benefit their districts and will cost their patrons more in taxes. They are what we call down here common trash scalawags, and I am not worried about them because I believe (despite recent political rallies) they are few in number. I worry, though, about people who refuse to learn either from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or rational and secular humanism that they ARE their brothers’ keeper, that if one of us burns down, we all do, that a flood in Biloxi, is a flood in New Orleans, is a flood in Houston, is a flood in Miami, is a flood in San Juan. How many of us are willing, relieved that we were spared, to share the burdens of others at a distance?

I am sitting writing this now in my un-flooded living room, my pit bull asleep on the love seat, one of the hands typing this intermittently reaching into a bag of starchy snack food that was supposed to sustain me in the event of disaster that never arrived. I feel comfortable. Two hundred miles away, there are sixty thousand people without power. That’s where the storm hit. Even as I send disaster relief, there is a small, barely conscious part of myself that wants to congratulate me for my moral hygiene and clever foresight that I was not the victim here. I need to smash that idol — right after I eat this bag of puffy starch sticks.

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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.

January 14, 2012

Pontifical Politics in Mississippi

Not only holding the keys to the governor's mansion, Bryant seems to think he holds the keys to hell, death and the grave.

That the new Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, teared up giving his inaugural address to the legislature when he told them he had been sworn in on his grandma’s Bible is not surprising, nor am I surprised that he quoted scripture a great deal in his speech — all that is standard operating procedure for politicians, especially in the South.  When thanking Governor Barbour, though, for years of service to the state, Bryant cast himself in the voice of the Lord when he told Barbour, “I think I can say, ‘well done, my good and faithful servant.'”  That is surprising indeed and is indicative of the mood right now in the far Right of the Republican party in this state and others, as they honestly think they speak for an authority beyond their service to the people who elected them.

The outgoing Governor, Haley Barbour, just pardoned some men who had murdered their girlfriends and wives because he got to know them when they were working the prison work detail polishing doorknobs in the gubernatorial mansion.  It reminds one of W. S. Gilbert‘s ironic operetta lyric about nepotism:

“I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!”

It’s as if Barbour, in current Republican mode, honestly couldn’t imagine the humanity of all the inmates of state penitentiaries, but when given the opportunity to talk to a few of the good ol’ wife-stabbin’ boys who come and call him “sir,” he is able to look upon them, Lord-like, with compassion, and remit their sins while still being tough on the others who have not had a personal audience in his Sistine chapel — I’m sorry — his official office.  Rather than imagine that all the inmates in the penitentiary are capable of rehabilitation given the right set of circumstances and a will to change, he responds with compassion to those he can see and disregards those to whom he can say, like it says in the Good Book, “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”  This, of course, appears in Red Letters in the Gospel, and is the voice of the Lord as well.

Among those to whom he showed no compassion in pardoning these men arbitrarily are the families of the victims of these incidents of domestic abuse.  They worked no iniquity, and have reasons for concern that these men are back on the streets, because the ability to use Lemon Pledge effectively on the governor’s desk does not qualify as any actual sort of rehabilitation.  In Mississippi, the pardon gives them the right to bear arms, many arms.  Just how do you suppose they remember their last encounters with their former in-laws?  I doubt these families sleep well at night.

This knowing-better-than-the-stupid-people-who-elected-you fashion has extended down to the state legislature, where only in November, the voters of Mississippi voted down initiative 26, the so-called “personhood amendment,” that would have legally defined life as beginning at conception, complicating not only questions related to abortion but even of delivery of babies, birth contol, and in vitro fertilization.  The voters resoundingly defeated these initiatives with 58% of the electorate, even in conservative corners of the state, voting down this idea.  This week, two bills were introduced into the legislature to ratify the very text the voters rejected.  One is called something like “the treatment of embryos act,” and the other one is called something like, “the life begins at conception act” (no H.R. or S.R. numbers assigned yet).  Thinking the people can’t decide such a weighty matter for themselves, or rather, thinking they did not like the results when they did leave it to the people, the state legislators think they have an authority that extends beyond the will of the people who put them in a higher position.

I have been trying to figure out the Biblical text on which they have based this last dishonest double-dealing.  I’m looking at Psalm 118’s “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.”  The stone, which is understood by the church as Jesus, would be in this case, their rejected ideas.  So appointed not by a fair election of the people who pay their salaries but by God Himself alone, why wouldn’t they adopt this as a method of justifying this?  Aren’t they capable of  declaring themselves infallible on any matter?  Didn’t you see the white smoke from the roof when the votes were counted?  We don’t have a state government — as they say at the Vatican when the new pope is elected — habemus Papam — “We have a pope,”  even if most of us are Southern Baptists around here.

 

 

April 10, 2011

Southern Motherhood, and why you’re glad your momma lives up North

In Union, South Carolina in 1994, a young woman — white, church-going, apparently loving mother reported to police and  the world, that her two adorable boys had been car-jacked by a black man.  She tearfully plead in front of cameras for this black man to release her children.  Finally, after long, tense days of  interrogation, she finally admitted to having killed these  kids, driving them unimaginably into a lake and letting them drown in the back seat of  the car.  She might have gotten away with it, too, because she fit the model of a perfect Southern lady mother — neither too educated nor too little educated, dress-wearing, Bible-quoting, knickknack collecting, and outwardly demure.

Susan Smith -- murderess and somehow typical Southern Mother

I submit to you that Southern motherhood is both powerful and dysfunctional — sometimes demure, sometimes outspoken, but always given great license even when no one should give it any.  Southern women may not all be feminists, but the culture has carved  out a significant power, however martyred, to the cult of Southern motherhood.  I submit that power over small children is no substitute for power over one’s adult self, one’s emotional life, one’s economic destiny, and that some women I’ve seen or heard of down South wield this power like a sledge hammer  — the problem is that the only thing that sledge hammer can really hit is the heads of  their children, bashing  out brains.

I am not providing statistics here, only anecdotes.  However, I do have some tales to tell of Southern motherhood gone  horribly wrong.  No names are offered, so if the picture isn’t yours, make no assumptions that it might not be your next-door neighbor:

1)  I know of  one mother who had a beautiful teenage daughter.  This girl was not astonishingly intelligent, but she had good enough looks to almost, not quite, be a model.  In high school, her mother had no particular ambitions for this  girl.  They lived in a trailer park near the Gulf of Mexico.  The mother  had a job at Wal-Mart — one of  those low-paying jobs that Wal-Mart is trying to  fight getting sued for, even though the store most certainly did practice a pattern of wage discrimination against women.  She was busy a lot.   They talked about Jesus but never read the Bible, never went to church for more  than a special occasion.  This girl was enrolled in school, but the mother never cared much what grade the daughter  got.

As she grew older, she became prettier — too pretty for her own good.  The mother was too busy to care much about the parade of boyfriends, paid no attention to  drug and alcohol use,  turned the other  way when the girl was out late, never asked questions, never talked about AIDS or birth control, never gave her standards by which to evaluate the quality of any boyfriend or boyfriends, just let the daughter careen brakeless down a steep hill.

This girl moved in with a man — what a Christian who was dedicated to traditional church teachings would call living in sin.  The mother raised no objection, even though the man was much older and was without visible means of support — an unlicensed electrician.  Three months later, the daughter was pregnant, and  this man tossed her out on her ear.

She turned  to her mother for help.  The mother suddenly chose this moment to raise a traditional Christian-sounding sentiment.  She told this eighteen year-old girl that abortion was murder, that it was against their religion.  Note that she had never once told  her that it was against the Bible to sleep with a man out of wedlock, to do drugs, to do any of the other  bad  things that she had ever done in her whole short life.  So  given  what her mother said, this girl carried the baby to term and kept it.  Had she remained unpregnant might have ended up, given her looks, despite her education, the receptionist at a well-heeled business in a town like Baton Rouge,  which while not a perfect life was far better than what she already knew in the trailer park in the small, dirty town.

However, because the mother, the Southern Mother, said so, this daughter had a baby with a man who is bad news, she lives in the trailer with her mother, who sometimes helps with the baby, but no better than she helped the mother of her grandchild, the daughter-newly-made-mother works two thankless jobs, one of them at the oppressor of women Wal-Mart, and she has no ambitions.  Her youth is effectively gone.  Her looks  remain.  For how  long?  We don’t know.  The mother has contributed much to their destruction by indifference to consequences in all cases but one.

2) I know of another mother, again — this might be your next door neighbor.  She  has done what the mother did in Bastard Out of Carolina — she has chosen her abusive boyfriend over the daughter he abused.  She sided with him when the cops were called.  They made no arrest.  The girl is in a safe place now, but because her mother has made her  feel so guilty over  the years when it suited her  to put hooks  in  the child, she has the girl thinking  that if she moves back in,  if only the boyfriend dumps her, which he inevitably will, all will be well again.  What she doesn’t see clearly is that this is something that has happened before in her mother’s life — she abandoned her children for another man’s love.  She will find  someone to cling to again — I can’t bring myself to imagine this woman is capable of love — and this poor girl will be cast aside again.

Are there good mothers in the South?  Of course there are plenty.  Are there also bad mothers in the North?  Yes.  But the berth that is cut here down south seems to be a wide one.  Mothers are generally trusted.  Mothers are not always worthy of the trust.  People think of  the institution of  motherhood  as sacred, but it is only as sacred as the women who practice it.

I can’t help but think that Susan Smith and the two anonymous mothers I told  about here would have been capable of being better at mothering if they had first learned to harness and rudder their own personal power — psychological, spiritual, economic, and political.  In the South, motherhood is encouraged, celebrated in superficial ways that show superficial  respect.  It is often the only power that women think they have.

Motherhood is no substitute for self-direction.  Self-abnegation is inherently unreliable.  The unacknowledged self sometimes pops up in monstrous ways — three cases in point.

December 1, 2010

Searching for Kosher Chicken in Porkchop Country

One of my old neighbors in Brooklyn. Where would he shop around here?

Hospitality is a Southern tradition, but apparently only one that anticipates fellow Christian guests.  When Lylah, my fabulous feminist Muslim friend, came down to Mississippi to be my maid of honor last winter, I went looking for things to cook for her.

You see, Lylah practices Halal, the muslim dietary laws, outlawing pork but also outlawing certain forms of cruelty to animals in butchery.  Observers of Halal are free to eat not only things produced by Muslim butchers but also kosher ones, as the same butchering practices are observed in both Islamic and Jewish traditions.

Near my home in Vicksburg, there is a large Kroger supermarket.  It is stocked with numerous international foods.  I can get cornichons and wasabi there.  However, we went all over the store, to the fresh and frozen meat sections, and the only thing that Lylah could eat that was a dead land animal was found in a Hebrew National hot dog package.  I asked the manager of the store where he kept the Kosher products, certainly thinking that Halal was out of the question in the middle of the deep South but that Kosher products must certainly be available.  He asked me to repeat the question.  I did, and then he told me he had never heard of Kosher meat — what was it?

As a New Yorker, I had never once imagined that Kashrut would not be practiced by somebody in my community.  Here is a picture of a man from my old neighborhood, the Seagate section of Coney Island, standing near a plastic palm tree on the beach.  Brooklyn is a thriving and diverse place, but Jews are particularly numerous in the population.

When I visited Israel, I ended up touring the various sites with a British photographer.  People would stop us and ask us where we were from.  When he said he was from the UK, they nodded politely, but when I said I was from Brooklyn, over and over again, the response was, “Brooklyn!  Maybe you know my cousin!”  Truthfully, maybe I did.  Maybe, even if I didn’t know the individual’s Jewish cousin, I had ridden the same trains, eaten in the same restaurants, bought meat at the same counters. Kosher meat is clean meat.  I often bought Kosher chickens because they are less bloody.

Jews are part of the fabric of New York to the point where the mainstream culture gets a lot of its slang from Yiddish — plotz, schmuck, schlep, kibbutz, shmear, and schmooze are all words used by people from every ethnicity in town.  When I use those words here, I have a fifty-fifty chance of being understood.  Antisemitism, while it exists to some small degree in New York City, is a form of anti-New York self-loathing.  If a New Yorker happens to say he hates Jews, whether he is Jewish or not, he is really saying he hates himself and his whole community, because the town includes most distinctly all that is wonderful about Jewish culture and tradition — a profound commitment to commonweal and social justice for the poor, a raucous sense of humor that defies every hardship, a respect for learning as something sacred and inviolate, a complex system of negotiating shared space between diverse peoples who get along for the most part without any violence, a profound sense of busy and vivacious commerce that is supple and willing to negotiate to fit the needs of the customer — all these New York things are also first and foremost Jewish things, and anybody who doesn’t think so has simply not done his homework.  Likewise, New York foods are often Kosher foods — I spent months when I first arrived here salivating at the memory of a chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli, of their Kasha Varnishkes, of their soul-affirming chicken soup.

When Lylah first arrived here, I honestly thought it would be no problem to find her some meat, especially since I knew that Vicksburg had a history of having a certain number of Jewish residents.  One of the grandest buildings in town where one can host a wedding used to belong to the local B’nai B’rith.  One day, when we were driving through a town that is absolutely lovely and not far from where we live, I saw a synagogue of messianic Jews.  I heard that there was another one in town as well.  I have only recently discovered that these are supersessionist Zionist Christians, most of them people of African-American descent who have converted to a false Judaism layered with an odd, legalistic Christianity.

The Jews have mostly left Vicksburg.  They were there largely before the Civil War, back when Mississippi had more millionaires in it than New York did, and while there is no evidence to suggest that the Jews of Vicksburg numbered among those richest people of the nation, they were often engaged in an international commerce of cotton, one where Vicksburg was a hub.  However, today there are few Jews in town.  Most have moved elsewhere.  To the best of my ability to see it, I find no particular incidents of antisemitic discrimination drove them away, only the same forces of commerce that compelled lots of people to leave the South in the early part of the twentieth century.

That said, the Jews are missing.  Lylah is coming to spend Christmas with us.  I need a Kosher butcher.  According to Superpages.com, there is not one Kosher butcher listed within hundreds of miles from my town.  The Jews are missing.

This makes me sad.  It explains the total lack of Kafkaesque irony in humor around here.  It explains the total lack of haggling.  It explains the work ethic, which is, let us say, moderated by a sense that if one moves too fast one might bust a button of one’s work shirt.  No one would ever say, as one hears fairly frequently in New York in business, “You pay me enough, I’ll finish the job yesterday.”  This is a New York sentiment, one entirely compatible with Jewish business practices.  The Jews are missing, and commerce runs, to borrow a phrase from Scarlett O’Hara, “as slow as molasses in January.”  The Jews are missing, which means that any notion of commonweal is subsumed under what Republicans tout as Christian  family values — one that forgets the Bible’s admonition to care for the stranger in the land, something, according to my reading of the Bible, a nation does at its own peril, for God judges the nations, per my reading of all the prophets, according to the way it treats widows, orphans, strangers, and whoever else is vulnerable.  I am very sorry the Jews left Vicksburg, whatever it was that took them away.

When Lylah comes, I’ll have Kosher meat flown in from Long Island — Kosher.com has a site that will FedEx me some good chicken, lamb sausages, and beef good for stewing.  Then, she’ll go back, and ham will again be on my table.  When I want a certain kind of ironic humor, I’ll watch The Daily Show.  When I want things done more quickly, I’ll have to take a breath and remember that a New York minute is something I left above the Mason-Dixon Line.  When I want justice redolent with mercy, I’ll pray.  I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, just as the Bible instructs us to do — all of us, Jew and gentile alike.  I pray for peace.  Lots of families around here have young people in the military sent overseas to Afghanistan.  I pray for peace.  As for any complex negotiation with other peoples of shared space — not a problem in a black-or-white-divided community where people stick to themselves.  No space needs sharing — we all have room.  My husband and I integrate an otherwise black church.  I pray for peace.  I miss the Jews.

October 19, 2010

Roy Herron for Congress — Tennessee’s 6th district — as a litmus test for my adjustment here.

In today’s New York Times, a marvelous story about Southern Democrats quotes Roy Herron, who says in order to win, he has to convince voters here he’s a  “truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, Gospel-preaching, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy.”

He poses on his campaign website with his mother in a photo that could be the inspiration for a Country Western ballad.  Loving your Momma and treating her right is more important down here — even if she’s (and I’m sure that Mrs. Herron is a lovely lady) an old battle axe.

The candidate and his Momma

Roy Herron served in the Tennessee State Legislature and State Senate for some years.  He is the author of three (I’m guessing self-published) books, including one called God and Politics.  Yet he is fighting an uphill battle in his district to convince people that he participates in the following activities — let me list them down here once more:

  • Truck Driving
  • Shotgun shooting
  • Bible Reading
  • Gospel Preaching
  • Crime Fighting
  • Family Loving

These sound not only like a list of things that people in the Sixth district of Tennessee might want in a candidate but a pretty good litmus test for Southernness in general, at least for a man.  Allow me to add a few more items:

  • Grits Eating
  • Elvis Adoring
  • “Y’all” yowling
  • Whiskey swilling
  • Football flinging
  • Yell whooping
  • Denim sporting
  • Hound-dog hoarding
  • Knee slapping
  • Neck reddening

I would like to propose the list above — Mr. Herron’s and my own — as a Southern Democrat’s litmus test.  I would like to go over it one item at a time to see how I’m doing at adjusting to living down here.

  • Truck Driving — As a woman, truck driving is optional.  Trucks are to manhood in the South what the Red Porche is to midlife Manhood in the North and the West Coast.  Hence, I’m going to substitute “pie baking,” a very traditional Southern women’s activity.  I have baked so many more pies down here than I ever did up North.  I give myself an “A” for that one.
  • Shotgun Shooting — Men and women both do this.  I am so willing to learn how to do this.  My future son in-law has promised to take me out to a place where I can fire off a few rounds, but this promise has yet to be fulfilled.  I give  myself a “D-” since I have not done it, but I get a couple of points for willingness.
  • Bible Reading — I read the Bible.  I even teach it in the context of courses at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.  I get an “A.”
  • Gospel Preaching — I have not, I admit done a lot of this, so here goes:  Everyone within earshot, know that Jesus loves you and died for your sins.   Accept him into your hearts and spend eternity in Heaven and the here and now in a transformational liberation from cynicism and bondage to sin.  There — okay, that’s a “C” effort.
  • Crime Fighting — I wonder what image Mr. Herron is trying to evoke here.  Is he the Sheriff at the OK Corral?  I have done none of this, but perhaps my ladylike womanhood allows me to substitute another activity — say, Home Decorating — my total  home makeover  in Vicksburg earns me an “A.”
  • Family Loving — Southerners, as I mentioned before, seem to love their families without questioning the dysfunction within them.  Bourbon substitutes for Freud.  I’m a New Yorker.  Years of needed therapy after dysfunction would give me an “F,” but loving my husband and my two step-daughters would give me an “A,” so I’ll average that out to a “C.”
  • Grits Eating — I aced this!  “A.”
  • Elvis Adoring — Although I really like Elvis, I have been getting a PhD approximately 75 miles from Graceland and have yet to visit.  I think I’ve got a “C-.”
  • “Y’all” Yowling — I am in remedial classes for this criterion.  I have graduated from “You guys” to “You all,” but “Y’all” remains out of reach and “All y’all” is a distant Willie-Nelson-Soundtrack dream. “F.”
  • Whiskey Swilling — Hello!  My Irish-American ancestry prepared me to excel in this area. I get an “A,” with a Summa Cum mention for Sour Mash Tennessee No. 7: I am eligible for the Jack Daniels dean’s list.
  • Football Flinging — This is a manly attribute, although women can participate.  I will substitute for “Football Player Tutoring,” which I have done — think Cathy Bates’ role in The Blind Side.  I’ve done that and am doing that. I get an “A” for this.
  • Yell Whooping — There’s a Rebel Yell and a Lady Rebel Yell.  I have just learned the Hotty Toddy Ole Miss Rebel Cheer.  I get a “B-” here.
  • Denim Sporting — Because of mud and dog slobber, jeans are a more practical choice in Mississippi in my wardrobe than black pants of non-denim material.  I get a “B+” here.
  • Hound-dog Hoarding — I now have a hound dog — a yellow lab named “Baby” by my Step-daughter.  I have a Daschund named Oscar.  Do two dogs constitute a hoard?  Just barely.  I get a “B-.”
  • Knee Slapping — I am indeed an afficionado of Southern humor.  However, I lose 200 points for using the word “afficionado.”  Hence, I get a “C+.”
  • Neck Reddening — Having fair skin and no sense at all when it comes to when I’ll be spending any time outside, I am actually, much to my horror, watching my neck turn red.  If I were looking in the mirror, I would have a red ring beneath my head from time spent at a Bill Clinton rally and a trip to the Mississippi State Fair.  I get an “A+” for this one, alas.

So what then are my mid-term grades for Southernness?  Add to the mix of  the above that I did some extra credit — I wrote a piece that got picked up on Y’all Politics and there’s a website for the book The Cracker Queen that has a link to this blog.  Combining these two, I give myself another “A,” and averaging it all out, my mid-term grade for Southernnness is: C+

I’m still a Yankee, but not a “Damn” Yankee anymore.

As for Mr. Herron in his Mid-term elections, I wish him every success on the first Tuesday in November.  He loves his Momma, and I’m just betting that lady will be voting for him.  Honestly, how many other people really might live in the Sixth district, anyway?  If he can get his cousins on board, I bet he has a real shot at Congress.

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