When everything goes wrong

An only child and the oldest granddaughter I was overindulged and sheltered by adoring  parents and relatives.  And  when things went wrong for me, I just picked up my toys and went home.

That didn’t work so well as an adult.

And things aren’t going so well these days.  Political turmoil, war and poverty,  mega fires,  devastating floods, social upheaval, financial instability.   And I must admit, my first reaction isn’t to charge headlong into the battle, but to hide, the adult version of  “picking  up my toys and going  home.”

I hear a lot these days about people  fleeing the country in desperation.  I understand  and share their  frustration.  We have a huge drug problem, our infrastructure is failing, our schools are falling behind, the middle class is struggling, our immigration policies don’t work, our racial divide is widening.  Not to mention mass shootings and  natural disasters.   I hear all that.

But  I have to wonder how many of those  thinking of leaving the country  have lived in or  visited other countries for extended periods of time.  One look at the nightly news shows us that these are not problems specific to us;  they  exist the world over.  No country  is exempt from problems and even if there were such a Nirvana, there is no way to hide there.  Our community is global.

 

Besides, we have so much to fight for, so much we take for granted.   Our public education, flawed, but still a route out of poverty for  (I’m a case in point).   Freedom of speech.  No one is imprisoned  for criticizing the government or attending religious services. Our cities have clean water and our children are vaccinated against deadly diseases.  Our breathtakingly beautiful national parks are open to everyone.  For starters.

But it’s not free.  To quote Edmund Burke,

                     “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is  for good men to do nothing. “

 And it all counts.  Every thing we don’t say, every seed not planted, word not written,  neighbors’ pain ignored, adds to the turmoil, desperation and fear around us.  It might be uncomfortable, even dangerous to face our problems.  But we can’t afford to  pick up our toys and go home.

D

Southern Cookin’

Southerners love to cook.  Especially we love those community gatherings where everyone brings their favorite dish and we all sample “just a bite” of everyone’s.  My earliest memories of this were “Dinner on the Ground,” and it literally was on the ground.  Thinking about it now, I’m amazed we kept the kids from stumbling into the spread – and maybe we didn’t..

I have such  wonderful memories of that food – and no matter how many times I try recreating their recipes, they just don’t come out the same.  Uncle Henry’s fried chicken,  Miss Nina’s coconut cake,
Miss Ethel’s peach cobbler, Aunt Minnie’s chicken and dumplings,  Miss Edna’s buttermilk biscuits, and of course, Aunt Annie’s fabled deviled eggs.

Eventually we graduated to folding tables and chairs and finally to a real Fellowship Hall equipped with all the modern conveniences.  Much more comfortable but in nostalgic moods, I wonder if we were better off in those days.  We were blissfully unaware of the dangers of sugar, gluten, lactose, saturated fat, cholesterol, and vegetarians were, well, just weird.  There was no guilt associated with a hamburger and a coke for lunch.

We had no idea the trouble we were in.

My rational self remembers  how it was   to lose relatives to diet-related disease, especially  heart disease and  diabetes.  These could be  devastating for a family, since health insurance  was essentially non-existent in those days; health care  was pay-as-you-go.

Southerners will always   love our  community food get-togethers, although today we make at least a token effort to prepare healthful food .  However, if  the occasional slice of coconut cake happened  to sneak in, well.. just a bite couldn’t hurt.

 

You’ll get used to it!

A southerner waking up that first morning in Wisconsin, I was sure I had mis-heard the weather forecast: “-25 deg with wind chill factor.”  Whatever that was. Surely not – people couldn’t survive that!  I switched to another channel.  Sure enough, it really was  -25 deg with wind chill.  Certainly businesses were closed.

But they weren’t.    Soon I saw neighbors faring forth, picking their way down the sidewalks.  Still incredulous,   I layered on most of  the clothes I owned, and slipping and sliding, eked  my way to the bus stop where  people  stood around casually talking or sipping steaming coffee from mugs,  like nothing was amiss.

“Is it always LIKE this?” I chattered to the woman nearest me, hands jammed in pockets, feet stamping for warmth.   She flashed a knowing smile.  “You’ll get used to it,” she said.

And I did.  Which was a good and proper thing if I planned to stay in Wisconsin.

But “getting used to it” isn’t always the answer.  In fact, I’m wondering if it isn’t at the root of some of the turmoil in our country today.

For starters, when did interrupting not only become acceptable, but commonplace?  There is hardly a “news” show that doesn’t sound like a magpie convention.  This obviously rude and irritating behavior is now widespread, and since more and more anchors  adopt the practice,  apparently worthy of emulation.

And  when did it become OK for politicians  to  lie  on prime-time TV?  When did we “get used to”  leaders that had nothing more to offer  than insults for their opponents and end up voting for  the lesser of the evils?   How would John Kennedy’s clarion call be received today? “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

I greatly fear we have lost our respect for each other and with it, our self-respect.   Perhaps  our cellphone-internet addictions have so immersed us in a  web-game-world of noisy anger and violence,  glorifying an insatiable need for power, appearances and possessions,  that we have come to believe that what matters is what the internet sells: the illusion of individual power.   In other words, “F You!”  But that is foolish. Our lives are utterly and eternally interlinked by immutable laws of nature. No  cell phone or internet game will change that.

And speaking of the “F” word,   when our kids were in college (OK, it was the nineties)  the commonplace word “suck”  was considered inappropriate in polite conversation, although its genesis was and still is,  disputed.  Use of the “F” word in public was practically unheard of.   Now it  is openly bandied about by teenagers in restaurants and  peppers conversations in popular TV shows.  Ironically, it is especially popular with young women.  Really?  Have we forgotten the connotation of the word for women?   And what if someone else simply doesn’t want to hear it shouted out on the street?   Wikipedia calls this phenomenon the “dysphemism treadmill, meaning former vulgarities become inoffensive and commonplace. Or simply, we “got used to it.”

So take it or leave it, but from where I stand, disrespectful language and behavior are just that, disrespectful.  And if  we allow ourselves to get used to disrespect, can abuse be far behind?   Don’t we deserve more?

Why am I here?

In her latter years, my mother used to ask that a lot.  I never knew what  to say, so I usually said something trite like “We still need you here.”  At which she would click her tongue against her teeth the way she did when I disagreed with her politics.

What was she asking, I wondered.  Did she still dream of unrealized ambitions in her nineties?   I always found the question unsettling and frankly, a little annoying.

But now that there are many more birthdays behind than before me, I think I get it.  I think she was reflecting over her long life and trying to make sense of it.  And I find myself doing the same.    What has my life meant?  At the finish line, will I be able to say I have   “fought the good fight” ?    Did I miss my “calling,” my high purpose?  The olympic swimmer,  the nuns of Calcutta, the Nobel Laureate, the musical prodigy;  they had a calling, didn’t they?  A custom made life-suit,  into which they fit perfectly.   Their one true path.  Is there one for me?

In my early life, I was sure of it.    My life would be exciting, full of high purpose, awe-inspiring.   Unlike my mother’s.  Especially, not like my mother’s.

Mind you, my mother  was not a slacker. She was a strong and intelligent woman; a school teacher, an avid reader, a seamstress and amazing gardener.   She make great chicken and dumplings and rhubarb pie. She survived two husbands and lived independently for 92+ of her 93 years.

But.  She never wrote a book, climbed a mountain, ran a corporation (or a marathon)  or held public office.  For most of her life she lived in the same community.  To my impatient, arrogant 18-year-old eyes, her life looked mundane,  aimless, pointless even.  Not mine, I vowed.  I would  set goals for myself and go about achieving them.  Simple as that.

But it didn’t quite work out that way.  My path took unexpected twists and  turns.   It  didn’t  lead steadily  to a noble destination, but instead  wound  through brambles, tangled ravines and rocky boulders.  I ran, I  stumbled,  I climbed, I  tripped,  I fell and I recovered,  with varying degrees of grace.

Admittedly, on its surface,  my life looks radically different from that of my mother.  I left home at an early age, attended  universities in distant states,  managed a demanding career,  travelled the world; accumulated a modicum of recognition for my work.  But at its core,  like my mother’s, my life was made of the usual stuff;  education, career, marriage, children, retirement.   And my path, like hers, was not the work of destiny, but the result of choices.

And  my path has  led me…. here. Not to a mountaintop and not to a swamp.  As it did my mother.

It’s tempting to  fall for the “one true thing”  pitch.  The idea that  we are  entitled to  the one true love, the one perfect career, the one true happily-ever-after is very appealing.   And perhaps it is true for some.   But my life didn’t  come with a blueprint; I made choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, that in the aggregate defined my path.  I wasn’t always sure of my choices,  and  they didn’t always lead to the mountaintop.

If I could answer my mother  now, I would reassure her that she didn’t miss her calling.  Like me, she simply made choices that led her to her destination.   And  at the end of the day, it was not our accomplishments, as my teenage self thought,  but the accumulation of our everyday thoughts and actions that defined us. Both of us.

 

 

Celebrating Southern Writers: Sally Whitney

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the many benefits to me of this blog is the opportunity it provides me to  celebrate  the successes of fellow southern women writers.   I am delighted to  showcase  Sally Whitney’s  latest book, Surface and Shadow, just released today.

A few weeks ago, I asked  Sally to share some of her thoughts about being a southern writer and in particular, what inspired her latest book.

What gave you the idea for this novel?

 I can’t say that anything gave me the idea for this novel. The idea just seemed to grow. Strong women have always been my favorite characters in novels, so I knew my novel would have a woman as the protagonist. I think women have a hard time being strong because for many years, expectations and requirements have been set against them. Too often, women have to show strength in defying cultural norms before they can be strong anywhere else. I wanted to show this personal battle within my protagonist. I’m also interested in North Carolina cotton-mill towns, partly because very few of them still exist. I put the woman in the cotton-mill town and asked “What if?” And the story grew from there.

 Why did you choose to write about the South?

 The South chose me. Place is very important to my fiction. Often with short stories I get a sense of place before anything else. I see a backyard vegetable garden baking in the mid-summer sun. Or a front porch sagging under the weight of family generations who have traipsed across it. With Surface and Shadow, I saw the narrow main street of a small town with its decades-old store fronts and a mysterious aging farmhouse partly obscured by trees and flowers.
Always the places I see are in the South, usually in North Carolina. And it’s not just the physical places that draw my thoughts in that direction. It’s a sense of mystery and wonder, history and hope, darkness mixed with light. When I was in graduate school in New Jersey, I tried to write about a woman living in New Jersey, but my professor told me to “get that woman back down south where she belongs.” He knew where my imagination lives.

 What do you think are the greatest pitfalls to writing about southern women?

 Number one is falling prey to stereotypes. We all know them. Southern women have been caricatured in books and movies and jokes since such means of communication began. But avoiding stereotypes and still conveying some of southern women’s significant characteristics can be tricky. Stereotypes, like caricatures, have some basis in truth. While southern women are not as hung up on social niceties and proper etiquette as they’re often portrayed, we do expect people to be kind to each other. Good manners are nothing more than being considerate of other people. We are not simpering, obedient belles trying to please the men in our lives. We do not go to college just to find a husband. We are independent women, but we often find ways of exerting that independence that are more persuasive than combative. We like men, and generally love a few of them, but they aren’t required to help us lead fully developed lives.

 What do you think defines a “southern writer?”

 Although southern writers are often defined by where they live, I think they’re more accurately defined by the books they write. My favorite contemporary southern authors, including Lee Smith, Joshilyn Jackson, Tom Franklin, and Fannie Flagg, tell stories of passionate people caught in difficult circumstances, not necessarily unique to the South, but certainly influenced by southern culture, climate, and geography. In Jackson’s gods in Alabama, for example, the great respect many Alabamans hold for football plays an important role. In Franklin’s The Tilted World, which he wrote with his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, the roaring force of the southern Mississippi River is a major character. Heat is often one of my favorite characters in stories by southern writers. Although other parts of the United States can be hot, there’s no heat like southern heat. And heat can make people do crazy things. Southern writers understand the South and its people with all their beauty and their flaws. They know the strong ties between the people and the land and the climate. Their stories could not take place anywhere else.

For more about Sally Whitney and her work, see this blog, May 1, 2015.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silent Healing

 

In this Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 photo, Louisiana Army National Guard dump truck, loaded with rescued flood victims, makes it way back to dry land in Walker, La., after heavy rains inundating the region,(AP Photo/Max Becherer)
In this Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 photo, Louisiana Army National Guard dump truck, loaded with rescued flood victims, makes it way back to dry land in Walker, La., after heavy rains inundating the region,(AP Photo/Max Becherer)

In the haggard silence, there can be no words

A  merciless anguish falls on the sodden bodies

But comforting too, the  bodies close

Pressed, crushed together

They are a single throbbing wound

That can only heal as one.


Of all the heartbreaking photos of the flooding disaster in Louisiana, last weekend (and there were so many),  this one cries to me the loudest.  The faces register shock, disbelief, loss, pain.   And yet there are no tears.   Old and young stand together, defiant,   facing ahead  in  a solid show of will.   Their common  suffering has become the bond that will unite them to survive

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