Tag Archives: south

The University of… “The South”

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Sewanee, Tennessee (and it was not easy to get that butterfly to hold its pose!)

The University of the South is an actual place in Tennessee, although its oft-noted resemblance to Hogwarts might make one wonder. It is officially Sewanee: The University of the South, and the combination of its mountaintop location and Gothic architecture is crazy cool, but that’s not what I am referring to today.

Instead, I am thinking about my education in “The South.” I was born and raised in, shaped and influenced by, and commissioned to leave from and welcomed to return to The South. It is once again both my heritage and mailing address.

I do not have a romanticized vision of The South, though tempting at times, but neither do I focus only on its shameful parts. I attempt instead to see it as it is, warts and all (which is surprisingly not an original Southern phrase!).

None of this is specific to The South. Every place can be both resplendent and repulsive if you look from just the right angle. What makes The South special to me is that it is mine.

If put to an answer for my favorite novelist, I would go with Jesmyn Ward, who has been compared to William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. I am a white man, and Ward is a black woman, so although we grew up in the same region, we grew up in different worlds. Ward matriculated to Stanford University and later the University of Michigan and went on to wild success as a novelist. She could live and work anywhere in the world, but with mixed feelings she chose to return home to The South. Last summer she answered the question why in an essay for TIME magazine. She described her dilemma and then, in her own beautiful way, shared that she, too, has a dream:

I like to imagine that one day, I will build a home of cement, a home built to weather the elements, in a clearing in a piney Southern wood, riven with oak and dogwood. I’d like a small garden where I could grow yellow squash and bell peppers in the summer, collards and carrots in the winter, and perhaps keep a few chickens. I wish for one or two kind neighbors who will return my headstrong bulldog if she wanders off, neighbors who I can gift a gallon of water in the aftermath of a hurricane. I like to think that after I die, my children will look at that place and see a place of refuge, of rest. I hope they do not flee. I hope that at least one of them will want to remain here in this place that I love more than I loathe, and I hope the work that I have done to make Mississippi a place worth living is enough. I hope they feel more themselves in this place than any other in the world, and that if they do leave, they dream of that house, that clearing, those woods, when they sleep.

I have received many lessons in the university of “The South” and have apparently returned to continue my education.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

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Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

I remember a scene in the movie, Glory, when the brave soldiers of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry are sailing down a lazy river into the South. One says, “Welcome home, boys,” and another replies, “I forgot how hot it is down here.”

Given our recent move and our present heat wave, let’s just say that I have been remembering that line on a daily basis.

So far, I have surprisingly enjoyed the heat. I often say that I prefer hot to cold, but I have secretly wondered if that would prove true once removed from idyllic Malibu weather and back in the land of summertime heat and humidity. Well, so far, so good.

I am so white that at times I’m invisible and have already had two skin cancers carved out of neck, so it is a bad idea for me to spend much time in the actual sunshine. But I have noticed in my walks to and from and around campus the fantastic feeling of sunshine on skin.

Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of America’s first modern black poets, and he described the summer heat in almost sensual terms in his beautiful poem, A Summer’s Night.

The night is dewy as a maiden’s mouth, 
The skies are bright as are a maiden’s eyes,
Soft as a maiden’s breath, the wind that flies
Up from the perfumed bosom of the South.

Like sentinels, the pines stand in the park;
And hither hastening like rakes that roam,
With lamps to light their wayward footsteps home,
The fire-flies come stagg’ring down the dark.

I realize that summer has not officially arrived, but that doesn’t stop me from being there in my mind as I delightfully stagger home among the fireflies.

Better and Better

PICT0011The picture above was taken in New Orleans ten years ago when we celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary.  Today, to save you the math, we celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary.  I share this picture (knowing that my wife will yell at me) as proof of several things.

  1. We were early to the selfie movement. #trendsetters
  2. Food in the American South tastes better than food in California. #notsurethatisreallyus
  3. My wife is Benjamin Button. #truestory

Time doth march on, but some things age well.  Like my wife.  And our love.

My particular faith leads me to believe that although there is an expiration date on this body of mine that there is more—and better—to come.  The effect this has on my attitude toward the problems in this old world and the increasingly frequent reminders of the aging process is gigantic.

Some things are undeniably getting worse.  I want to be someone who is constantly getting better.  Thanks to my wife, and our love, I know that such a thing is possible.

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Avoiding a Repeat of History

charleston-picI set my alarm for 5:30am most every morning, but when I did so on Tuesday in Charleston, South Carolina, it was actually 2:30am for the old California-tuned biological clock.  But I got up anyway and met a new friend in the hotel lobby for an early morning run.  We ran four miles through that beautiful city with its gas lamps, stately mansions, cobblestone streets, peaceful waterfront, and general gorgeous-ness before the sun really even thought about making an appearance.  It was great—the run, the conversation, the city, the sights, and the weather.

When we first located the ocean on our run (fyi, those oceans aren’t always as easy to find as you might think), my new friend pointed toward a gleaming set of lights in the distance and said casually, “Oh, there’s Fort Sumter.”

I nearly had to stop running.  Fort Sumter.  Where the American Civil War began, a fact I taught an unknown number of teenaged history students a few decades and careers ago.  I knew Fort Sumter was in Charleston but hadn’t thought about it in the days leading up to this hastily-planned business trip and surely didn’t expect to see it pointed out in casual conversation.

That location, sitting silent in the darkness, is where the citizens of my country chose up sides and literally started killing each other.

Times are a little crazy right now, and I don’t wish to sound overly dramatic, but a professor friend of mine who is an expert on Lincoln has pointed out more than once recently that our current political climate reminds him of the decade leading up to the American Civil War.  Surely such a thing couldn’t happen again?  Could it?

Not if I have anything to do about it.  And I do.  We all do.

While Fort Sumter sat silently in the distance, I considered the contrasting metaphor of our morning run where two American brothers ran side by side in the same direction sharing deep thoughts and good stories.  That was nice.  We did, however, meet people traveling different directions than us, and as we tend to do in the South (and as this Southern boy does wherever I happen to be), we said hello in warm greetings to those traveling in the exact opposite direction.  That was nice, too.

Now don’t get me wrong: There is a time and a place to stand in opposition to others.  And we should.  But there is also a way to treat your brothers and your sisters when you stand in opposition, and when the collective decision concludes that the best way to do so is to pick up weapons and start shooting each other, then something went horribly wrong a long time ago.

Something may have already gone wrong in this country of ours a long time ago.  If so, I suggest that we find a way to reverse course before some random runner a couple of centuries from now is jarred by the sight of the place where we once again chose a violent answer.