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

May 9, 2017

Taking Down Confederate Idols to Raise Up Southerners of Today

To my blog followers, it must feel like I woke up after a three-month Mardi Gras Bender, a Rip Van Winkle to a cocktail they serve down on the French Quarter called the Grenade, and now instead of a walk of bead-bespangled post-Mardi-Gras shame, I am crawling back to work trying to act nonchalant, saying, like a good Southern belle might say after a lost weekend, “I don’t remember WHAT-all happened last night!”

Indeed, I am back after a hiatus inspired less by alcohol than post-election malaise and an onslaught of other responsibilities.  I am awake, no longer beaded like a burlesque dancer on a Bourbon Street stripper pole, not that I’ve ever SEEN a stripper pole on Bourbon Street — I just can’t remember a thing from last night!  I must have fallen asleep without any shenanigans or hoo-haw — I am a lady, not so much Southern as Belle, not so much Belle as baller, not so much baller as beatified. I am back to talk more about the South through the eyes of a Yankee invading the Confederate ruins, much like my ancestor did, only instead of a gun, I bring a book, a blog, and I blow kisses. Hi again!

mardi gras

I am waking up a bit dazed behind Confederate Hall off of Lee Circle. I have a vague memory of Mardi Gras.

What happened to Mardi Gras, you ask? Like a good Southern Belle post-bender, I secretly remember EVERYTHING that happened last night, even though I pretend not to. Nevertheless Mardi Gras is a mirage, a Brigadoon community that emerges from the mist every year.  Here are things I remember:

  • I was not twenty feet from Harry Connick, Jr., truly, who was gorgeous in a tuxedo, ageless like a Brigadoon brigand.
  • I saw a woman dressed as a water lily riding her bicycle which she had papier-mache-ed into the shape of a hippo.
  • I saw men dressed like harlequins carrying flambeaux.
  • I saw a semi-truck transformed into a giant tsunami on which rode Poseidon and a crew of Greek oarsmen.
  • I saw a mermaid sprout legs and dance to a Louis Armstrong song.
  • I saw a famous chef riding a street car covered in disco balls.
  • I saw trinkets flying in the air, tossed out in largesse to strangers.
  • I saw men dressed as skeletons brandishing signs that said, “Make America Great Again.”
  • I saw men dressed as Zulu warriors marching with spears brandished under a pedastaled statue of Robert E. Lee.

And therein lies my subject, gentle reader, as I begin again in my post-Ash-Wednesday tone. After the Brigadoon mirage of Mardi Gras receded, the Zulus turned to ordinary neighbors, mostly of color, and the Statue of Robert E. Lee remained looming above them, an enduring menace in a town where police brutality can still occur killing people of color, a symbol that says to every person of color, “know your place — it hasn’t changed since before the Yankees took back the town, even if y’all invented Jazz and whatnot.”

lee circle

Sunday the White Supremacists from out of town came to tell the people of New Orleans that they had to keep a statue standing that they don’t want any more.

The people of New Orleans do NOT want to keep General Lee standing above them in a present-tense vigil.  New Orleans is entirely comfortable with a historical context for General Lee, General Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis, champions of the plantation system, willing to pour out the blood of poor white men to defend it to keep black folks legally nothing more than agricultural equipment.  They have a museum that wrestles with Confederate memories — We don’t know WHAT-all happened on the grounds of Oak Alley plantation!  We just woke up here! Such statues are welcome in an examination of that history.  But the people of New Orleans, under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, have decided to make the past the past, whatever William Faulkner said about the past. They are taking down statues that glorify these men, as today, they do not represent the values of my wonderful adopted home town.

The Take it Down NOLA movement held a parade to celebrate the taking down of these monuments two days ago, and they were met by protesters carrying white nationalist symbols who almost all came from out of town. An hour north of here, The Advocate reports, white supremacists hand out flyers in Mandeville. David Duke lives in Metairie, about as far as Newark is from NYC. Lots of KKK recruitment goes on across the Bonnet Carre Spillway in northern Louisiana parishes, but this is New Orleans, a blue dot in a red state.  Thanks to the vigilance of a very cool-headed police team, little violence took place, but a heated argument between those who treasure those dead white men and those who refuse to kiss the dust between their toes ensued.

I may be foggy-headed from the haze of a Mardi Gras honeymoon with my new home town, but don’t these battle reenacters know that the principal of any home is that you need to remove the junk of the past in order to redecorate and reorganize?

There is plenty of room in the South for a new definition of whiteness, of Southernness.  We see this embodied in people like Sally Yates of Georgia, like James Carville, like Emeril Lagasse, like Harry Connick, who really ought to reappear in this blog entry in his tux and sing a song for me — but I shake my head clear of that mist again. The new South is filled with interesting, inventive, progressive, generous white people. It’s the heavy burden of these old dead white men who were advocates for a perpetual genocide of black people that makes the South less glorious than it ought to be now.  With its many beauties, its amazing wealth of natural resources, its many musical idioms, its great writers, its gallantry, its faith — the South could actually be the richest, most wonderful part of the country if it would stop trying to hang onto an old hierarchy as if it represented anything other than a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. If the Southern Belle, awake from her bourbon bender, actually told the truth about who was with who doing what last night, the chiffarobe could get dusted out and converted into an office organizer to get new work done.

To my Southern neighbors, beloved all, I urge you to embrace your best present-tense selves.  I am a carpetbagger, still misty-eyed from Mardi Gras, but when I look at y’all, all y’all, I see a region brimming with potential, with a better nature upon which I call now.  Be the sons and daughters of a South that refuses to define itself in terms of color lines. Be the South that makes great gumbo, that grabs huge cat fish out of the swamp for dinner, that plays the best dance music in the history of the world, that knows how to sweet talk a lady and make her forget herself, that brews the best bourbon, that knows like New Orleans knows, that less is never more. More is more, and still more is still more, and more amity is more amity, more peace is more peace, more hope is more hope, and more justice is more justice.

Now that I’m awake again, or perhaps I mean woke, it’s time we take down these old men and stick them in the museum where they belong. Let’s make room for new heroes, ones whom all the South can celebrate without pain.

 

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 6, 2015

On Literary Ambition North and South — or Why My Cat is Smarter than I am

I write this on the Feast of Epiphany, having had an epiphany at 3 am, while my cat, very sensibly, is curled up in a basket of my clean socks in my bedroom, sleeping.

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

My epiphany: I am eating my heart out.

My other epiphany: I can read all the Eudora Welty I want to read.  It won’t make me think like a Southern lady when it comes to my personal ambitions.  This lady wrote brilliant, redolent fiction, made a dent in the American language with her words.  She said, “To write honestly and with all our power is the least we can do, and the most.”

That is awfully modest of her.  She was somewhat reclusive.  Me — I write still because at some level, I want to be a rock star at it.

I knew from the time I was young that I was okay looking but nobody’s casting choice for Bay Watch.  I could get invited to parties in Paris where there were supermodels present, but i was the funny one, not the cute one.  I was unlikely to invent something to replace the automobile, to find a sustainable energy source, to form a company that could dominate Wall Street, or to marry a viscount.  But i could write fairly well, and with some practice, and a slew of self-promotional stunts (like this blog), I figured I could make some kind of a name for myself.

Pray for me.  I have issues.  I have always had issues.

“I am called to write,” I still tell myself.  Because I am called, why am i not yet a household word?  Why is there furor over somebody’s twerking and not over my writing?

Furthermore, I cut my teeth in Manhattan, the island of the elevator pitch, the self-promoting capital of the universe, where ladylike modesty is a cover for some kind of Stepford wifery or a sign of mental illness.  Everybody, everybody — even the hot dog vendor and the man sweeping the floor in the barbershop — blows his own horn.  To brag is to breathe.  As a result, it is only the already phenomenally successful people who affect an air of modesty.  This way, people hate them less for winning at the game we are all playing.

But in the South, blowing one’s own horn is considered rude.  Star athletes only half-manage it.  The proper gesture is to look down at one’s toes, then look up, and shrug while saying something like, “Well, I do my best.”

The first time I went to a literary reading in the South, it was the author’s first novel, and he was in a room of unpublished people.  He shook our hands one by one and inquired of us who we were and what we did, then began his reading with an apology, saying he was sorry to interrupt our getting to know one another so he could share a few pages of his work.

Apologize?  Getting to know us?  That’s lunacy to the New York writer!

A possible, maybe typical, stance of a New York writer at a public reading of her first published novel looks like this:

“Good evening.  I congratulate you all on being discerning enough to understand the great occasion of my first novel, and you are ahead of the curve in hipness, better than your neighbors, for realizing my impending greatness.  Without any more delay, let me dazzle you with my prose.”

And yes — that IS why half the people in the audience came to the reading — to feel hipper than the people in the apartment next door.  That is the commerce of status in New York.

The South resists such a commerce.  Perhaps it is like the lack of snooty wine shops, the intolerance of the maitre d with an attitude at a trendy restaurant.  Perhaps it is a sense that if words matter, they matter without authorial rank.

I have adapted to this sensibility, taking cues from Bill Clinton, who when campaigning thanked everyone in the room where he was stumping, to the greatest degree possible on an individual basis, before beginning his speech.  I may seem stuck up to you.  However, I can promise you I am infinitely less stuck up than I would be in New York, where my jaw-dropping self-assurance and swagger would make (and once actually did make) Rudolph Giuliani shut his mouth.  The South has not made me a Harper Lee recluse of a writer, but it has made me understand that I was inadvertently offensive when I was just acting like writers do below Fourteenth Street and above the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island.

But another writer I know, wholly deserving of recognition, both brilliant and beautiful, gracious and personable, just got a moment of fame, and I am jealous.  I have sunk to the level of dissipation that makes me paraphrase a passage from the screen play for the movie The Interview: I am sitting at home, sulking, eating a peanut butter and jealous sandwich.  I have been swimming off the coast of Coney Island, and I have gotten stung by a jealous fish.  I am looking lady Bey in the eye, and I am singing to her, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jealous.”

I hate myself for being jealous.  Instead of being jealous, I should be winning.  I should be world-frigging-wide.  I should be beating you at breathing.  i should have groupies.  But I am sitting on my bed in the middle of the night, typing this.  Pray for me.  I have issues, big issues.  I make you look perfectly sane.

I moan to myself, “But I am CALLED to this!  Why has my career not been one Michael Jackson moon walk at the Motown Music Awards after another?”

And it is now, on cue, that my cat comes and curls up in my lap, purring.  She is so much better adjusted to her existence than I am to mine.  She is called to be a cat.  She is called to chase things like grasshoppers and the occasional bird.  She is called to stretch on the sunny spot on the floor.  Yet, she has no ambition to be the best birder on the block.  She is content to lie on the thighs of her neurotic mistress.  She will eventually go downstairs and drink from the toilet if she gets bored.  Right now, though, it is enough to rub her face against my leg, to flex her claws gently so she does not hurt me.  Why can’t i be more like her?  What kind of adulation do I think I might get?  I was a disappointment to my parents.  Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature would be awesome, but i would still have other issues.  Pray for me.

The only comfort I have this evening is that I am quite a lot like one Southern writer, a man so ambitious that he wrote much of his Southern literature up North — Mark Twain.  He made up that funny name for himself because it was more rock-star-ish than Samuel Clemens, which, let’s admit, is kind of blah as names go, kind of gaze-downward, foot-shuffling, aw-shucksing.  But “Mark Twain” is something a steamboat pilot shouts.  He was wildly ambitious, albeit in a rather discreet, Connecticut sort of way, too ambitious for a Southern man to comfortably be known to be by his neighbors down South.

Perhaps if I wore a white suit and bolo tie… Perhaps if I changed the spelling of “Babson” to “Baubson” like Faulkner changed his Falkner.  I found a picture of Twain with a pet cat.  I dare say that little cat on his lap was at greater peace than the man who imagined Tom Sawyer conning the neighborhood boys into whitewashing his fence.  I am looking around here for things to whitewash now.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

February 8, 2012

On Going Native

I may look relatively sophisticated, but like Kudzu, the redneck is creeping up on me.

In this photo, I believe I have a certain air of sophistication.  That scarf is Hermes, or at least the Canal Street knock-off version of Hermes.  I bought that coat on the Internet from a respectable retailer to women of taste.

However, and I say this cringing, knowing that some of my old friends in New York will get wind of this, I have developed some red neck habits.

Let me be clear.  I am deeply committed to a life of the mind.  As I type this, I am staring at a book in Middle English, a fourteenth-century play about Cain and Abel.  However, it is worth noting that this play has a reference to carnal sheep violation.  As I type this, I am listening to Buddha Bar tracks on my i-pod, but those are shuffled with Band Perry songs about lying like a rug and being buried in satin, stuff about which a gal might sob into a honky-tonk beer.  When I drink it’s either fine wine or Rebel Yell bourbon.

Two years into this life change, I seem to be straddling the Mason Dixon line in so many ways.  Let me show you:

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just got invited to give a reading of my poetry at Middlebury College‘s gender studies program.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I read from my poetry collection entitled The White Trash Pantheon.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just bought a new pair of shoes.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I needed new ones because the old ones got covered with animal manure and mud.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just won a quiz prize at the University.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“It was for knowing that Florida State had penalties imposed upon them for NCAA violations, affecting their Big-10 football program.”

It’s stuff like that that makes me think warily of how all those Jeff Foxworthy jokes, the ones that seemed so alien when I lived in my Russian-mafia-negotiated-apartment-with-access-to-a-private-beach-in-Brooklyn-for-almost-no-money, are beginning to apply to me.

Moi?  Mais oui!

Here is a list of signs that I am beginning go native down here:

  • I wake up most mornings at 5 am, walk through mud, and chain up the hound dogs so that they don’t spook the neighbor ladies.
  • I find myself liking Elvis more and more with each passing month.
  • Grits don’t taste gritty.
  • Ham is the sixth food group for me these days.
  • It seems odd NOT to call people “ma’am” and “sir” every other sentence.
  • If Terry McMillan doubted I could, I am no longer waiting to exhale — I’ve exhaled.  Life down here operates at a slackened pace.
  • If I wore black every day, it would seem as if I were in mourning, not just hip in day-to-evening wear.
  • Even though I read mostly British literature (see reference to Chaucer’s era above), Faulkner and Twain make more and more sense to me.
  • I have said “y’all” and not felt self-conscious about it, y’all.

For those of you in New York who miss me, if you want to stem the tide of this, I recommend sending me emergency care packages from The Second Avenue Deli or from any Indian restaurant on Sixth Street.  Send me something of which New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” approves.

I am going native.  Next comes the drinking of pre-sweetened iced tea.  After that, there’s a whole slew of floral prints yawning their maws at me.

Help!  I’ve gone South and I can’t get up!

December 15, 2010

Doing Shots at Faulkner’s Grave

My participation in a Southern Tradition

The PhD students in English and American literature at Ole Miss have a tradition of drinking at William Faulkner‘s grave — a stone’s throw away from  the campus.  It is germane to everything that department does — the specter of Faulkner, though he dropped out of the school and  went his own way — haunts the halls.  Who is the next immortal among us, he seems to ask.

However, despite the lovely, rich prose, Faulkner, were he in fact a king-maker, would never point his scepter at a woman or a person of color to indicate that we were smart or interesting in any way  but perhaps sexually.  I’m sure I would have scared the crap out of Faulkner, so in going to his  grave at Saint Peter‘s cemetery, I had no problem trying to spook him.  I am the kind of woman who would have wanted  to scare the crap out of him, anyway,when he was living — a Yankee feminist who worked as  a speechwriter and pamphleteer to end apartheid.  To Mister Faulkner, whose worst nightmare I am, I say “Boo!”

One does not drink alone at Faulkner’s tombstone.  Apart from the shade  of the author himself, his longsuffering wife is buried next to him, his parents across from him.  One wonders who chose the inscription “Go with God,” which must be read ironically, if one has ever read the guy’s work.  Not only  did I drink with the former Faulkners, I  also  drank with my pals in the PhD program Victoria, Thomas, and Ebony, who are all  very cool.  Thomas provided the booze (see the Maker’s Mark in my hand).  Victoria provided much of the prose from Faulkner and the photos.  Ebony brought the fabulousness.  I just brought the bad attitude.

We had trouble finding the grave.  Saint Peter’s cemetery is not next to Saint Peter’s church, and it was cold and dark outside.  We wandered the streets of Oxford, Mississippi, following the confused navigator function of Victoria’s phone.  I think we were bamboozled by it because of the magnetic waves emanating from the tombstone.  The waves are a transmission from the next dimension, which declares in a garbled text message:

OMFG — you will never have immortality as writers.  Post-modern criticism  has killed the cult of the author.  Give it up.  I am more fabulous than you will ever  be.  Even Satan bows to me in Hell.

I knew it was a lie from the pit itself.  We  disregarded it.  We climbed into Ebony’s car for warmth and listened to Ella Fitzgerald  and Frank Sinatra.  Whatever is true about the so-called cult of the author, the cult of the diva is alive and well, as evidenced by Ebony’s i-Pod play list, as evidenced by Ebony and her fabulous diva self.

I care about the Pulitzer.  I  care about the Nobel.  I care about the National Book Award.  I care about authors.  I care about Divas.  No tombstone can talk me out of this.  All it can do is lend perspective on the notion of  authorial immortality.

I once saw a graffito that went like this:

“God is dead”  — Neitzche

“Neitzche is dead” — God

Shakespeare  is an immortal writer.  His bones are turning to powder as  we speak.  It is not good enough to be an immortal writer.  One must actually go with God, not just have relatives, who would burn every copy of one’s heretical books if they could, inscribe such a thing on a tombstone that they never meant to be ironic.  There is truly only one  kind of immortality — the resurrection kind.  That said, without the other kind, how will I  explain to future generations why I thought the giraffe-print furry hat and  giraffe-print furry bag  I had with me the night I did shots at Faulkner’s grave were really cool?  I intend to be an immortal writer who is immortal indeed, not like the godless, misogynist, racist genius at whose grave I poured libations a few days ago.

Here’s a picture of  me with  Ebony, wandering around looking for the grave:

Hunting for Faulkner's grave; finding the fabulous

Ebony is a brilliant woman who is funny, hilarious, and — despite all Mississippi siren calls that might have drawn her away from this — always impeccably dressed.

If Faulkner were living and breathing, he wouldn’t like either of the women in this picture — one  he would utterly dismiss, and the other he would just loathe.  Faulk him and his  genius, I say.  We’re fantastic.

Finally, the four  of us found our way to the grave.  We all took a shot, and Victoria read a lovely passage of prose from the man in the grave about the enduring quality of words.

As the moon stood in a sliver against the black of the night, and the wind rustled in the breeze, I couldn’t allow myself to make this a worshipful experience.  I don’t believe in ancestor worship, even of really fantastic ancestors, but while Faulkner was fantastic as a writer, he wasn’t such a great antecedent.

After Victoria finished reading, I took what was left in my glass and splashed it on the grave.

“Bitch, give  me your talent!” I shouted.

Ebony, Victoria and Thomas are used to such outbursts from me —  not so much the cursing  as the incongruity — and they just took it in  stride.

Thomas read a passage from “A Rose for Emily,” one which involved the repetition of the n-word over and over again.  I took the bottle and poured out  half of it  on the engraved name beneath us, interrupting Thomas to say, “That’s what you get for saying ‘n*gger’ so many  times.  You’re just lucky it’s not my urine.”

We went afterward to a reading of living writers. It was time to go.  Let the dead bury the dead.   We were out of booze, anyway.

Insulting Faulkner while taking note of his talent seemed appropriate — not worship, just acknowledgment.  The cult of the author, per Derrida and his sychophants, is dead.  Perhaps it should be.  Instead, long live the diva, I say.  Long live Ebony.  Long live you, whoever you are.  Go with God.

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.

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