The Mississippi Delta

I have just finished reading Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, and yes, the title is perfect because not only is there a Pluto, MS, but the Mississippi Delta in many ways might as well be another planet. Or former planet. Or dwarf planet. Or whatever.

Regardless, Mr. Grant’s book about a British travel/adventure writer and his then girlfriend who move to the Delta on a whim, grabbed me by the throat. Having been born in Greenwood and having spent an inordinate amount of time on my grandparents’ place two-and-a-half miles north of Brazil and generally roaming around the Delta visiting my 32 aunts and uncles and numberless cousins, the book was somewhat of a travelogue of my youth.

But more than just a travelogue of places,  more importantly it was a travelogue of the cultural, social, and racial geography of a place like no other. A place that one never quite gets out of their system no matter how many years pass or how far away they roam. I have not lived there in 54 years and presently reside in North Carolina, but I will always be a son of the Delta.

A place of friendly and open-handed people of all races, of wealth and soul-crushing poverty, of strangely institutionalized racism where people mostly get along with each other, the Delta makes me laugh until tears roll down my face, renews my faith in humanity, and breaks my heart again and again. Often all at the same time. And this is the part that Mr. Grant gets absolutely right, not just the dichotomies of the place and its peoples, but the polychotomies, if you will. People of the Delta cannot only hold two opposing views simultaneously but often several. With very little effort. That is just the way we are. That is just the Delta.

And this too is the Delta. I recently connected with a childhood friend that I have not seen or had any contact with since the third grade. He too has wandered far from the Delta, all the way to the west coast but has returned to land farmed by his great-grandfather. We have had a high old time catching up online, but that is nothing compared to the time we will have on my next trip to the Delta. We will travel some backroads, both actual and metaphorical, and continue to try to make sense of this place we still call home.

In the meantime, I suggest that if you get the time, correction, I suggest that you make the time, to purchase and read Dispatches from Pluto.

 

 

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Autumn Musings

It is a glorious November morning, cool, with a crisp bite to the air. Crimson and vermilion and gold leaves etched against a cerulean sky flutter like tattered flags from bare, black branches.

The harvest is in. Fields that held corn and soybeans and cotton are now but corrugated rows of gray and ocher stubble. The last vegetables have been gathered from neat garden rows and are being put up for winter.

The far line of woods is a gray smudge, the bare trunks indistinct in the distance but known for what they are: tall, silent sentinels rising from a carpet of autumn’s reminder of summer’s riotous growth.

Wasp and dirt dauber nests cluster under the eaves, abandoned, the drones and workers dead, starved, willingly sacrificed to the survival of the colony, the newly impregnated queens underground, dormant until spring.

Spring and rebirth are only a promise held in abeyance through the long winter, taken on faith as the rising of the sun.  Is it that promise that brings beauty to this annual death? Or is it some deep, unvoiced appreciation of the bounty gathered in? Or is it the wonder of the thing itself, accepted for its contrasts, cool air and warming sun, bare oak trees and luxuriously verdant cedars, crunchy leaves and soft grass?

I hope it is for the thing itself, but I know that buried in the back of my mind, subsumed, dormant like the wasp queen, is the kernel of knowledge that the annual violent eruption of life will roll around, a kernel which will sprout and bloom come springtime.

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As I Lay Dying-Tragedy or Comedy?

I put it off as long as I could but finally broke down and watched James Franco’s film adaptation of As I Lay Dying, and although the film has many fine moments, on the whole I was not enthralled.

The first thing that one notices is the split-screen effect, or rather affectation, used from the opening scene and throughout the film. There were a few scenes where the split screen actually works, but they were few and far between. Mostly it is simply distracting. Does one really need to see the same character from two different angles in the same scene? Does that pull one into the story or add additional layers of meaning?

Filming a novel told from several, in this case many, viewpoints is undeniably daunting. The one thing that did work for me were the voice-overs where Faulkner’s rich prose was on display, even though often hard to understand. I did half of my growing up in the Mississippi Delta and the other half in the Mississippi Hills, so I am reasonably conversant in those two argots. Nevertheless I struggled to understand what practically every character was saying.

On the other hand, the casting however was a strong point, particularly Beth Grant as Addie, Ahna O’Reilly as Dewey Dell, and Brady Permenter as Vardaman.

Now for the crux of the matter. Am I the only reader who thinks As I Lay Dying is a comedy, albeit a decidedly dark comedy? How many times does Anse say “I’ll be beholdin’ to no man” as he borrows and begs his way to Jefferson? Dewey Dell was raised on a farm and falls for the “You’ll need the rest of the cure” line. And really, a ten-cent concrete cast on Cash’s broken leg. Farmers treat their livestock better. I could go on and on, all the way up to “My mother is a fish.” But the penultimate moment is when Anse shows off his new teeth as he introduces his children to his new wife. i actually laughed out loud the first time I read that scene.

These are not tragic characters unless one considers ignorance and a lack of self-awareness as tragic. Having just written that, I realize that, yes, that is tragic in our modern sense of the word, but not in the classic, literary sense of one who makes a serious error of judgement leading to their downfall. These people are a bumbling mass of incompetence stumbling their way through their lives. They are extreme, over the top characters, intentionally drawn that way by Faulkner, and they are sadly, morbidly hilarious.

All of this does nothing to take away from the novel. It is brilliantly written with its multiple viewpoints and deep, accurate revelations of character. But if As I Lay Dying is a comedy, then as a film maker, James Franco didn’t get it.

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The Most Southern Place in the World

Just read Richard Grant’s New York Times article “Sweet Home Mississippi” which stirred up more memories and emotion than I would have expected.

I have not lived in Mississippi in 37 years or the Delta in 53 years, but I will always think of Mississippi, in general, and the Delta, in particular, as home. I was literally born on the banks of the Yazoo River because that’s where the Greenwood-Leflore County Hospital is located, right on the riverbank. Except for a brief sojourn in Drew in the heart of the Delta, I never lived further than three blocks form the Yazoo River until our family moved to Tupelo the year I turned nine.

I attended Davis Elementary School, named for Jefferson Davis, of course, for two-and-a-half years. I spent weekends and summers on my grandparents’ farm two-and-one-half miles north of Brazil, a town consisting of three stores, two churches, a school, and a relocated post office still named Stover after its original location a mile-and-a-half north of Brazil. A spur of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad ran through Brazil but did not stop. The nearest train depot was Sumner, site of the infamous Emmitt Till trial, and yes, I use the term trial loosely.

My first best friend’s great-grandfather was one of the first white settlers in Leflore County and a major landowner. I like most of my friends growing up am descended from Confederate veterans of the Civil War. My playmates at school were all white; my playmates on the farm were all black.

To this day I am both drawn to and repelled by my home. Its heritage of poverty and brutality is abysmal. The reality of the place is confounding to one who knows its history. On a personal level race relations are more amicable than an outsider might expect. My grandparents and their family bought all their clothes from one of my grandfather’s best friends, a Jewish merchant in Webb. Almost every little Delta town had a Pang’s Store operated by a local Chinese family, probably descended form railroad workers. No one gave a second thought to shopping there. Migrant Mexican workers followed the harvest north through the Delta every fall. My mother’s family, farmers too, relied on their help during the cotton harvest.

It is a land of contrasts: the crushing poverty of a family living in a tar paper shack and stately, old multi-generational homes of comfortable excess; the staggering beauty of sunset over a cypress brake, verdant green foliage etched against a fading crimson sky, and the heart-breaking decay of once-flourishing little towns crumbling into vine-choked gray shells; the soft cry of mourning dove over fields shimmering with the early light of dawn and the harsh roar and clatter of soybean harvesters at work into the night; black, white, brown and yellow children at play in parks and ball fields and segregated churches and country clubs and private schools.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Delta, the thing that always seems to get a visitor’s attention, is that its people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, income, or profession, are open-handed, kind, and friendly. To neighbor and stranger alike. Sir, Ma’am, Hon, and Sweetheart are all used liberally and sincerely, without artifice.

In all honesty, I do not know if I could go back and live there. Maybe I could, maybe not. I have been gone a long time but am still pulled back regularly to visit. I cannot escape it, nor would I. What I do know is that to this day I draw strength from having been born and raised there. Whatever I may be, I am because of that place, the most Southern place in the world, the Delta.

So, thank you, Richard Grant, for taking me back. And for adding “Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta” to my reading list.

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Uncle Bill

Maybe it is because I am a Mississippian, born in the Delta, raised in the Hills, but I have been a devotee of William Faulkner’s writing from the first time I opened one of his novels when i was 15 years old. I was captivated by his concatenation of adjectives, precise and descriptive; his often elliptical way of telling his story, each cycle offeing more illumination; his rich, fully-fleshed characters; his ear for regional speech patterns reflected in his wonderful dialogue; and his subtle yet wicked sense of humor.

I call him Uncle Bill when talking to myself, not because of any blood kinship, but because, in so many ways, it seems that any of us who attempt to tell stories about the South in general or Mississippi in particular, are beholding to him, like a favorite uncle whose influence is neither gentle or harsh but always profound, always there in the background.

Attend any writing seminar or fiction writing class, and you will be bombarded by the mantras of start with a bang, set the hook early, avoid adjectives, and only use one modifier at a time, all of which were rules that Faulkner broke regularly and relentlessly. A novel is not a pop song or a Tweet or a text to be quickly consumed and discarded. It is, if it is a good novel, filled with the complexities of emotion and motive, action and consequence, accomplishment and loss, that make up life, things that take time and effort to plumb, assimilate, and appreciate. That is why we go back again and again to great novels, to savor them and gain a deeper awareness of the beauty of life.

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Last Days

We buried Dad last week. I thought that after Alzheimer’s had robbed him of his memories, his ability to walk, and eventually the power of speech or ability to take care of himself in any way, after he lay there days and nights on end practically uncommunicative, that I had long ago said goodbye to him. I was wrong, emphatically wrong.

His actual passing away still hit me like a ton of bricks. Solace in the certainty that he is now without pain and in a better place and reunited with loved ones praising God helps, tremendously, but the pain of loss is still there, still fresh and sharp and focused.It still comes in waves at unsuspected times. And that is a good thing. It is good to miss someone who meant so much to you, one you loved so deeply, one whose love for you you never questioned. There is no loss without love.

I was fortunate. I spent the last eight days of his life with him. He was unconscious from the stroke that finally took his life. Nevertheless I talked to him like he could answer. I read the Bible to him. I kissed him goodnight and good morning. in fact, i kissed him goodbye every time i left his room. Just in case. And one morning, just in case came when I slipped into the bath for a shower. Through the door, I heard his last rattling breath. He was finally, irretrievably, gone.

He taught me so much. One of his greatest lessons was the value of time, a truly precious gift, time spent tossing a football or baseball, going to football games, wandering in the woods with a rifle on our shoulders, just time together, talking, sharing what went on in our respective worlds. Without that profound lesson, I would have missed out on those last eight days, hard, stress-filled days with nights of fitful sleep, days and nights I would not have spent any other way, a glorious time with the man who had given me life and love and shelter, a man whose instruction and example continue to inform my life and actions, a man who had shaped me into the kind of man who would want to be there with him to share his last days.

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Newspaper Article

I am excited to announce that an article about my new career as a writer appeared in the online version of the Charlotte Observer today. It will be in the print version next Wednesday. Marty Minchin interviewed me back in September, and I had been waiting with bated breath. I am really happy with her article.

I had been interviewed before, by my friend Bill Bartee from Jesse Brown’s Outdoors (my go-to camping store) for the Carolina Outdoors program that he hosts on WBT Radio, AM 1110, FM 99.3. Even though it was recorded live and broadcast unedited, it was a lot like sitting around shooting the breeze with Bill and Don.

This was different. Interviewing for a different medium, Marty had the opportunity to conduct a more in-depth and wider-ranging interview. So first of all, you do not want to come across as a rambling, quasi-incoherent, blathering idiot. I think I accomplished that, although it may have been touch and go a couple of times. Marty, like Bill and Don, made the process a real pleasure.

Well, now the article is out there, and I must admit that it is somewhat of a surreal experience reading an article about yourself and seeing yourself quoted in print. newspaper stories are about other people. It is also an interesting glimpse of how others see you, what someone else finds interesting in your story.

Here is a link to the article. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think.

http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/community/south-charlotte/article37331604.html

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Rowan Oak

Call it providential. I grew up less than 50 miles from Oxford, Mississippi. By my teen years I was reading and writing papers on William Faulkner for school. That started a lifetime of reading Faulkner for pleasure and for my own edification. Yet I had never visited Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home in Oxford.

My wife and I rectified that on Friday, September 25, 2015. That’s right, on Faulkner’s birthday, 118 years to the day after he was born.

We parked along the shady dirt road on the property and strode up the gravel drive to the brick-paved walk lined with old, towering cedars to the stately white house, two-storied, columned, clapboarded, built in 1844 and purchased by Faulkner in 1930. We saw all the rooms in his house, including his study where he outlined the plot of A Fable right on the wall. His manual typewriter sat on the little portable desk Faulkner sometimes carried outside to write in the yard. Although Rowan Oak is a large spacious house, Sherrie and I were both struck by the simplicity of the furnishings. It felt like a home.

Soon Bill Griffith, the curator, and I were sharing our favorite anecdotes and thoughts on various Faulkner novels. He recommended some critical works and a memoir by Faulkner’s niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, for whom he was guardian after her father’s death. I bought a copy in Square Books later that afternoon.

We wandered about the grounds and saw the stables, barns, and servants’ quarters. it was a perfect fall day in Mississippi. We could hear the Ole Miss marching band practicing for tomorrow’s halftime show during the Vanderbilt game. Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is only a little over half a mile away as the crow flies.

The Rowan Oak staff was expecting guests from New Albany, Mississippi, Faulkner’s birthplace. In addition to it being his birthday, actually because it was his birthday, they were dedicating the 35-mile stretch of Highway 30 between New Albany and Oxford as the William Faulkner Memorial Highway. Sherrie and I showed up for the reception, and Mississippi being Mississippi, we met Kenny Ferris, the Assistant Director of Visit Oxford, who was from Tupelo where I grew up. Additionally her husband was from Macon, Mississippi, and through him she had met some of my extended Catledge family who had married into the Adams clan. That’s just Mississippi.

It was a rare and good day. Providence is like that.

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Another Rite of Passage

Today I feel a little more like a writer than ever before. I just passed another initiation test, cleared another rite of passage. That’s right, I got my first, honest-to-goodness, official rejection notice. Probably the first of many. Of course, that puts me in pretty good company. Many authors I admire greatly were rejected: Faulkner (my favorite), Joyce, Nabakov, le Carre, and Saroyan, to name a few. Of course, they all eventually joined a more exclusive club, the Published Authors Club, and ultimately the Very Successful, Widely Respected Published Authors Club. I have no pretensions to the latter but am definitely aiming for the former. Fortunately there are plenty of literary agents and publishing houses to go. Keep the faith.

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The Imagery of Loss

Deer are not an uncommon sight in our neighborhood, but that does nothing to diminish the beauty or elusiveness of their taught, muscular grace. I stepped out into the driveway the other evening deep into the gloaming. As I turned to go back to the house, I startled a doe grazing in the natural are of our backyard. In a flash her white flag went up and she was gone, a gray-brown blur bounding away.

The after image of that fleeing doe lingered in my mind’s eye even after she had disappeared into the gloom of the thicket down the hill, gone in the blink of an eye, a smear of gray-brown smoke. Gone.

In some poignant way I was reminded of my wife’s uncle, her mother’s only brother, gone from this world just the day before. Even though he had lived a long, rich life and had been in declining health, he was still gone, just like that, in the blink of an eye.

But his after image will linger and for much longer. It will linger as long as those people he affected live and breathe and pass on his story. And there were many, not only his children and grandchildren, but the two sisters he loved deeply, the countless lives he touched on that battle-torn lump of a rock, Iwo Jima, as a Navy corpsman seconded to the Marine Corps, the people he did business with in his professional career, and friends on the golf course.

At times, life can seem as fleeting as the flight of a startled doe, but a life well-lived can send its after image much wider and further and transcends the generations.

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