I’m back and forth about writing a book on Mississippi. Exploring the meaning of place, a theme I’m always enchanted with, along with my passions for social justice – which would be too easy to tie into a book about Mississippi – arguably the least progressive or forward-thinking state battling for the top of the list in least educated, least healthy, least wealthy every year. And then there’s the history. The lovely, bloody history.
My love for my home mingles with my grief for its woes, and together they swell around my heart, and sometimes it’s too big for me. So I feel I have to share it. I have to share these things I want to feel and say. But like every great dream that is too big for me, I just don’t know where to start. How do you sum up the greatness and the shame and the hard truth and the good truth and your good stories and your bad stories to say: but you’re still my home, you’re still me, and I love you.
So I begin my hard thoughts as I always do – in a letter.
I get it from my dad. He writes what is too hard to say. I have a stack of letters from him dated to significant dates in my life. My sixteenth birthday, Christmas, my wedding day. Beautiful thoughts that cannot be made any better than they are, cannot be rehearsed for effect, cannot be expressed in any other way but in a letter.
My father is a farmer. He taught me to love the seasons as each one is a gift of God, an elaborate display of the necessity of cycle in nature and in our lives. He taught me how to tell the difference between a red oak and a white oak (don’t ask me to remember it). Farming is in his blood. It’s all he ever wanted to do. When it wasn’t enough to feed four children, he held other jobs. We was a forester and a carpenter. My mother stayed home and educated us there. Funds were low for most of what I remember about growing up. Until I graduated college, the majority of my closet had always been hand-me-downs. I remember almost everything we ate was made from scratch. Flour and butter, after all, were cheaper and lasted longer than freezer biscuits.
When I got to be about 15 or 16, I began to resent not having a lot of money. I began to notice my friends and their families in nicer cars, newer clothes, bigger houses. I joined a youth group at a new church that was not at all interested in reaching out to the quiet girls. I didn’t go to their schools, I didn’t have my own cell phone and car like they did, and – worst of all – I didn’t play soccer. It wasn’t until about six months later when other homeschoolers joined the youth group that my sister and I had anybody to actually talk to.
(I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to digress to offer my little snippet of how youth groups are generally prejudiced against introverts. If you’re not willing to comfortably take part in the chubby bunny, the ultimate frisbee, the general loudness, then you don’t really have a place there. This culture as a whole does not make it a priority to reach out to those who are not naturally prone to coming out of their shell in front of a lot of people they don’t know.)
Needless to say, I was rather awkward in my early to mid teens. But of course, everyone else is too. It’s just that no one ever believes that at the time.
I was a good kid. I suppose I should be grateful that my angst was primarily reserved for my journals and lonely walks down the road where I would disappear numerous time – sometimes in one day. But I reached a point where I finally realized that some people are richer than others. And we were the others.
My whole life, I always wanted to leave Mississippi. And now that I finally have made that great trek all the way to Tennessee, I realize that much of what I learned about my life as a child who lived in the country in Mississippi came far later than I wish it had.
Much of the world only exists to us as it is through our lenses. Lenses that are developed over time by family, place, education, travel, and history. For childhood, I believe lenses are placed upon us for guidance, but at a certain age, I believe we have a choice to remove them or try on another pair every once in a while. Being able to see my home state through the eyes of non-natives has opened me up to so much more beauty and horror than I would have know otherwise. And it would seem that for every virtue, there is also a great sin to precede or follow.
We ARE the Hospitality State. We offer our kindness and services to anyone who comes through our doors. Unless you’re gay or on welfare. We will claim, as a whole, our devotion to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was usually only ever associated with the marginalized, but we will not associate with the marginalized, with those society and history have cast aside to the outskirts.
We ARE the birthplace of America’s music. I know there is much to argue about that, and I will admit that there is an exception to jazz and bluegrass, but overall, you have the Blues to thank for almost anything that comes on the radio. We are proud of this, and if Sir Paul Freaking McCartney can come to Memphis (technically Tennessee, but come on…) 50 years after the height of The Beatles and talk about how good it feels to be in the place that inspired everything they did to begin with – I guess I can rest my case after that.
Of course, I don’t think I need to rehash the correlation from such musical roots to the poverty and hardships that spurred it on for the community that created it. But there you have it, a trait, a virtue, a history we acknowledge with pride tied so intricately with a history we wish we could just put in the books and close for good. And there is much that is still shameful, still wrong, still in need of change.
My state is a character. A growing child like we all are and have been. And if you can imagine how long it takes for a consciousness to change in a single human over the span of a life, imagine how long it would take for millions of humans.
There is a quote attributed to St. Augustine, though there is no record of him saying this: The church is a whore, but she is my mother.
Now there is too much that rests under these words, too much I cannot think about or discuss at this time. But I cling to the simple idea expressed, and I continue that in my sentiments toward my home state. Mississippi is a a lot of things, but she is my mother. We acknowledge the truth, but we don’t lose our loyalty so fast.
Now, some people have abusive parents. And for those, there is no going back.
I grieve for those who had such experiences. I grieve for those who were not shown the love I felt, for those who did not have my privilege, and while I may not have come from an affluent home, I do have privilege.
Mississippi does not provide memories of kindness and security for them. It is not my intent to speak for them, so perhaps they would want to speak for themselves. I hope they do.
But it is my hope to share all these stories. Because they are all part of one picture. For me, they start with my family, put together thanks to WWII and Mississippi University for Women.