Thursday, October 4, 2007

SOUTHERN MYSTIC


I was raised by women who believed in Jesus and could tell the future. The Jesus part was easy. It was as expected as heat lightning on a summer night. We were southern and Jesus ran through our blood like pine sap through the trees. You would think the nature of God would draw more questions for the asking. More back-chilling, spine-tingling mystery but this was not to be the case. That was the black and white of it. The cut and dried. Family Bible on the table. Prayers called out over food and footsteps. Sunday go to meeting. Jesus was no mystery. Jesus was real. This future shrouded in forebodings and signs of all kinds, that was the mystery.

Now, the men in the family knew no future other than the day at hand. They were rough and tumble guys. They fished, they hunted, they told lies and alibis. The telling of things to come was not a part of them. Hard work was a part of them. Alcohol was a part of them. They were made up of three parts survival and one part mischief and so while the men stayed grounded to the earth, the women were the mistresses of all manner of things that were a part of food and babies. Of blessings and dinner on the ground. Of signs and wonders. Of dreams and fore-tellings. And the women drank this portion of their cup in without complaint. Carried the burden where it led them. And the men let them carry it on, following from a respectful distance, shuffling on the edge of mystery.

These women of mine could tell things by the weather. By the way wild animals appeared and disappeard. They could call the sex of the unborn by the way a woman walked, cold tell if was a man child or girl child coming. They could find a missing husband cold turkey in the middle of the night three cities away, and in some cases, they could tell fortunes. For them the veil between time and distance and other worlds was thin, more gossamer than brick.

Like the morning that my Grandmother rose from a troubled sleep and announced at the buttering of the biscuits, "Last night I had a dream of muddy water." She paused, took a sip of her coffee, slid the biscuit through tomato gravy and looked up. "Go on, " Aunt Leaner said and so she did. "I was standing on a bridge looking for something, looking up and down that creek. The wind was dead and silent. The water was full of mud and sorrow. Barely moving." She looked up at each of them, her eyes passing over my head that barely cleared the table's edge. "I never found what I was looking for." Then the circle of aunts shook their heads, went tsking with their tongues, and picking up worry. What would come next? A sick child? Dead animals? A husband hurt or worse? And the worry would continue until, sure enough, the dream would fulfill itself. Bad times, once on the distant, foggy horizon would land.

On the frequent nights that I went to visit I slept with my Grandmother. Tiny thing lying in that big iron bed with the sound of old fans stirring the hot air. Eyes open, I'd look out the window across the dark field and into the woods. As I lay there, unable to sleep, the sole survivor of the day, still wakeful, still watching, I'd see thunderstorms move across that field towards us until thunder shook the house. Until lighting was upon us. Until the air hissed, cracked, and rolled. Until I thought we were going to die. And on my Grandmother slept, breathing in and out, exhaling sights unseen over me until I finally drifted off into a southern, mystical sleep of my own.

These days people ask me about where my inspiration comes from. About how it can be steeped in signs and wonders and yet have characters and settings so real readers tell me they can pull up a chair by the fire, and be right there. Well, just look at me. No, look closer. See the little kid? Yes, that one. The quiet child moving through the shadows of whispers and skirts. See the long fingers of women weaving through my hair, hear those low tones being spoken over my head. Those are stories being told. Visions being cast. Layers of life being laid down through my skin, grafted to my bones. That quiet child so still, so silent, taking it all in. And now, the writer in me lays it down again one simple word at a time. What you see running through those pages, those words that pull like an undertow, that's a generation of women touched by mystery, of men grafted to the earth by hard work, raw life and strong love. These are my people and this is what they've give me. And, I am so very, thankful. (Live link to audio podcast)

River Jordan is storyteller of the southern variety and has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee. Jordan's writing career began as a playwright where she spent over ten years with the founders of the Loblolly Threatre group. Her second novel, The Messenger of Magnolia Street, (Harper Collins, Harper One) was published in January 2006. Kirkus Reviews describes the novel as a "beautifully written atmospheric tale." The Messenger of Magnolia Street was applauded as "a tale of wonder" by Southern Living Magazine who chose it as their Selects feature for March 2006.

Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on 'The Power of Story' around the country and produces and hosts the radio program, Backstory, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville every Saturday at 4:00 - 6:00 CST. She has just completed a new work of fiction and lives with her husband in Nashville, Tn. You may visit the author at www.riverjordan.us

4 comments:

Barbara Thomason said...

River, thanks for taking me back through the years of our childhood today. Our women will always and forever live on because of your writing, your books, and your memories shared. You do us proud.

Kerry Madden said...

I agree with Barbara Thomason, River. "You do us proud." What a beautiful piece of memory and story about those strong southern women in your family.

All best
Kerry Madden

wilsonwriter said...

River, as always you offer a great mix of the mud of life and the spiritual side that runs as an undercurrent. I love your writing, loved "The Messenger of Magnolia Street," and can't wait to read your next book.

Eric Wilson

Sassy Sistah said...

Wow. Just - wow. I MUST read your book right away. You sound like "my kind" of people (and writer) alright. I loved this essay. Thank you! I can't wait to read "The Messenger of Magnolia Street."

Sandy