Wednesday, March 5, 2008

SOUTHERN RULES OF STRANGER SPEAK

In spite of the fact that I'm a Southern girl (capitol 's' for all it's worth!) I've lived in some pretty exotic locations. Okay - not Egypt or India yet but Like Ft. Lauderdale which is a blend of everything and Kansas City which is just like the South except totally different and Taos, New Mexico which really is the land of Enchantment. And these and other experiences like them have rounded out my life, made it about more than only looking out my familiar backdoor. When I was out west, I gloried in red chilies and Chamisa on the mesa. In the fact that the very light is a tangible thing that you can reach out and touch, that artists walked around 24/7 in pants with smears of color trailing through their fingertips. I loved the postman Carl with his long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and knowing that when he went home to the Reservation, that he shedded those clothes, and even the name Carl, like a snake sheds his skin. He stepped into his true identity and was comfortable on and off the reservation and I want to be like him. Balanced, trusting of myself, certain of my identity. And every place that I have put down temporal roots and called home have offered that kind of education, and integration into another society or microcosm of the world. But here's the thing. My microcosm lies down in the Southern netherlands. And never has that been more transparent than the day that I had arrived in Pensacola working my way home to Panama City after years out west. My Daddy had taken ill, his health not a good prognosis, and so I was headed east and home and my sister, a little north and away, was headed south and home. We were converging on homeland which caught me standing out on the porch of a little country style restaurant that used to be in Pensacola called Mama's. The sun was out and I remember I was just standing there like someone crossing over into a new world, my skin drinking in the humidity like a frazzled lizard. Ahhh, wet water in the air, a stomach full of comfort food, fried chicken and cornbread and dumplings, and pie. And standing there next to me is a round little women. She could have been the mascot for all that was Southern and good. White hair in a bun. Flat old, sensible shoes. Those special stockings all pulled up earlier but now rolling down around the tops so that they peek out from under that cotton dress. Not a Sunday dress, but a good go to town dress. Good enough for Mama's on a Saturday. She was carrying a pocketbook, not a purse. The pocketbook had a small handle and her arm was shoved through the handle, so that it pulled it up to the crook in her arm where it hung there obediently. Then she turned to me: "Sure is a pretty day." Only the pretty is more like purty and I'm drinking it in, that purse, those shoes, that hair, that voice. And I realized how empty that place had been. That part of my soul that was hungry for a little something more than wet air and fried food. I was hungry for a strangers voice. For conversation that passed as comfortably as if you had been born and raised as brethern. If you are from the South you know about this kinship of strangers who will strike up words as easy as match stuck across the red line. "Oh yes mamn," I tell her, "It is some kind of day." I pause a minute. Out west we don't talk so quickly to strangers. Not in grocery store lines, passing in hallways, standing on porches. But I'm not out west. "I just came home - or I'm almost home.' "Is that right?" "Oh, yes mamn. Been out west for awhile." "Well, that's something." She looks out past the trees lining the street, "I never been that far out west. Never been past the Mississippi." "Well, it's nice but it's different. You have to be ready for the different." "What's brought you back home?" "Daddy took sick." "Oh," she shuffles the pocket book, moves it down to both hands where she holds the straps and lets it hang in front of her, "Good thing you come then." "Yes mamn." "Chances are, you only get one Daddy." "Yes, mamn." "Gotta make it all count, don't you know? Every bit of it." And then she is walking down the steps, her ride pulled around and up to get her. She turns back and waves, "Nice talkin' to you, honey. You take care of your Daddy now." And I wave and think, Home. That was the day I realized that talking to strangers means a whole lot to me. It puts me squarely where I need to be. If talking in the post office line, grocery story line, bank line is off limits, then I'm outta position. After all, I'm living for the story and the story is this continuing on going everyday bubble around me. The story is the people walking in and out of my life. Even if its only for a moment. Tonight its raining in Nashville. This after a Sunday that ripped off the curtain of Winter and dared to shine in all it's glory. 60 something. Birds. Bees. Trees. Picnics. People walking, running, biking, blanketing. The whole city was alive and giddy. Today - rain. More rain. A never ending downpour accompanied by bouts of thunder, streaks of lighting. I step outside a restaurant as we are leaving, standing on the sidewalk, waiting for Mr. Wonderful to pull that truck around. A woman looks up at a flash as thunder rolls and claps above our heads. She turns to me and says, "Now, that was something!" And I look at her and smile. There's a story there between those crashes and flashes. She takes another drag on that cigarette, hides her nerves over the storm with a laugh. "Nothing but an early Summer Storm," I tell her. "It'll pass." And she believes me, smiles a little easier, and steps off the curb as I call,”You take care, honey," as she dodges raindrops and dives into a waiting car. Fifteen more minutes and I'd have known it all. All. The marriage that didn't work out and the one she was hoping was right around the corner that would. That finally this year, this leap year, would be her year and things would take a turn. That her daddy and momma had lived to be almost old and then died within a year of one another and ain't that just the blasted shame? Yes, Fifteen minutes would be all it takes. Because we are a strange people down this way. We'll tell a stranger the truth in nothing flat. About anything, anywhere, anytime. Now, granted there is the genteel south, the ladies and gentlemen with more good sense and proper manners. And even then, even them, the right clap of thunder, the right streak of lightning, and they're out in the open with it. Because we love to tell a story and we love to hear one in the making. I once had a card my good friend Virginia had given me that said "American by Birth, Southerner by the Grace of God." The writer in me nods and figures that about sums it up. Because the South is where good folks will peel the covers clean back off their hearts and tell their story full of aches and breaks in no time flat, and then they'll turn right around and listen to me run on and on as if they love me deeply and that the ending of their story is completely waiting to be determined by the ending of mine. Like we are all sacred and connected for all time and eternally and into the sweet by and by. And so we are. Even if we did just meet in the checkout line.

RIVER JORDAN is a southerner with a global perspective. Primarily, she’s a 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 with the Loblolly Theatre group where she received productions of her original works for the stage including Mama Jewels: Tales from Mullet Creek; Soul, Rhythm and Blues; and Virga. Jordan’s novel 2nd novel, The Messenger of Magnolia Street, (HarperSanFrancisco) 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 The Messenger of Magnolia Street as their Selects feature for March 2006, and by other reviewers as “a riveting, magical mystery” and “a remarkable book.” Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on ‘The Power of Story’, and produces and hosts the radio program BACKSTORY, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville Saturday’s 4:00-6:00 CST. She has just completed a new work of fiction. Jordan and her husband live in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at www.riverjordan.us

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Righteous rambling, River.

Herman

Barbara T. said...

I would submit that being from the South is like being from Heaven itself, and you explain it so well, River. Thanks for making me smile this morning.

JT Ellison said...

Oh River, you've nailed it. THe 15 minute syndrome is precious to me. I love living in the South, love the openness, the frankness. Wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

Loved it as usual. Rick's grandmother came to mind as I read this; only difference is that she gets her hair "permed" and carries a big ole handbag. Proud to be a Southerner! Love you. Miss you. Iris

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Danajoredhead said...

Mmmmm, good! Just got back from a couple of Cardinal Spring Training games in Florida and found just the very same thing. Sat by folks from NY and Canada and by the end of the game, we'd become friends. So being Southern CAN be contagious! Thanks, River ..