Who Do You Need When You Come Undone?

30 Nov

“but when a southern anthem rings 
she will buckle to that sound 
when that southern anthem sings 
it will lay her burdens down”                                – Southern Anthem, Iron and Wine

When I am sad I go home.

All my life I have known who I am and where I come from. I’m a Southerner. An Oxonian. Sometimes a place can define you, make you who you are.  Not in any sense of fatalistic determination, I simply mean that when your environment is as all encompassing and (arcane) as Oxford, Mississippi the in late 80s and early 90s, it’s hard to not be a product of the southern gothic. At least for me. Move as I may, however far, I have that place so deeply ingrained in me it’s in the very core of my thoughts and actions, in the substance of my tears, and when I slip up, it’s in the slow drawl of my speech. We Oxonians have a sense of place- or of history- of a collective past so contradictory we spend our entire lives contemplating it.

When I am sad, I go home. It is my admission to vulnerability. I go to Mississippi. When my heart aches, I visit the red clay hills and steamy green deltas that both broke and healed me when I was young. The river. My river. My lake. And my town and my place. And I become part of a colletive we. Our place. I melt back into the clay from which I come.

The sights of magnolias and giant oak trees, of weeping willow and Spanish moss, of kudzu forests in the shape of dinosaurs, and the sounds of crickets and birds, and the smells that hang in the humidity like a thick blanket comprised entirely of a watery air. It’s all so familiar. It embraces me.

But It’s not the same. I grew up in a small town that was just beginning to be known for the miraculous nest of culture that it is. Now that we’re caught on, alumnus and other out-of-towners buy up the real estate and bulldoze our history in order to install chain restaurants, condominiums, and shopping centers. High end wine and cheese bars and private clubs are everywhere. They have torn down the older, crumbling buildings that I knew so well and erected newer, flashier, and higher city blocks than I ever dreamed of as a child. The woods have been replaced by high rise apartments. The population has more than doubled. My town is underneath, buried beneath progress.

Sadness frightens me- triggers the stress response- fight or flight- and I RUN. I run to something, though I don’t know exactly what it is- I simply run to the future. I run to move the ground beneath my feet. I run because I don’t want to answer for it, I don’t want to explain to them what it is.

And I am not quite certain as to who the ‘them’ I am referring to is.

Maybe ‘them’ is everyone who doesn’t get it, and those who don’t let it go, and those who don’t know, those who know too much.

Terrible Knowledge

-the kind that has a weight; the kind that leaves a scar.

I run back to where it originates, where everything originates in my world.

There is hope and beauty and peace in the absurd.

I have this memory from when I was very very young. So young that when I recall my memories they are just blips and blurs. My brother and I are playing in the backyard, up the hill by the blackberry patch at the edge if the woods. I remember the oak trees and the shape of the hill. The crunch of leaves beneath my feet. I remember the neighbors and their small farm. The old green truck that sat in the garden for so many decades it became part of the plant life. I hear the sound of the call of the wild turkey hens. I can smell the dirt and leaves. The memory is as alive as the little green grass snakes that hang from the trees. And I remember the blackberries. Our game is simply to push each other into the thorns. Our parents scold us. We both win, and neither of us ever win.

And all of it is gone now.

I remember the nightmare I had about Sardis Lake, full of faceless bodies missing their limbs and I remember not wanting to go water skiing because of it.

We played a game we called ‘scientist.’ We would poke at algae with sticks and fling it at the ducks. We roamed the woods in search of the tree with the initials carved into it. It had a mark, a wound left by lovers years before. Scarred. We found the spring that fed the lake- we named it. We saw the cannonball, left there from the war that raged and destroyed deep in the dark cervices of the county, and that still rages to this day. We stumbled upon a very old tombstone, picked it up, and brought it home us.

My best friend and I roamed wild in a forest that to us had no end. We lost our boundaries. We shot a squirrel. As it jumped from branch to branch we chased the poor bastard with a bombardment of .22 bullets. Finally one struck it- right through the head- and it fell 20 or so feet down to us. We killed it. The devil made us do it. We cried. Smeared the blood on our faces. Tied it to a brick and threw the body in the lake.

I remember the home movies we would make at the creepy old ice house. And how we would dare each other enter Faulkner’s woods or walk around Rowan Oak on the darkest, moonless nights.

How Ole Miss was nearly indistinguishable from the town itself.

“Meet me on the Square” 

Ice cream on the Square Books balcony and wasting time at As Seen on TV. Even the old Purvis’ pool hall, where children weren’t really allowed but we dared to go anyhow.

Living in a tornado alley and the familiarity of climbing into the tub and leaning an old mattress against the tiles, listening to the rain and thunder outside. And the the sight of the pottery manufacturing factory that Floyd and the other cats came from after it was leveled by a storm.

“We’ll be at the Grove”

I visit the plot of earth, next to my father’s, where I will spend my physical eternity when the time comes.  I will share my rest with many great men- my father, William Faulkner, the yellow fever deaths, past classmates, accomplished professors, and lauded statesmen. All gone now.

A comfort in the insanity. Acceptance in the inevitable.

And time slows down. A year happens each day I am at home- my Southern home- and when I return to my reality time has skipped ahead and things are different. It is my time machine. My reality check.

I’m lucky to come from such a place, to know the deep sadness and heavy air that hangs optimistically over the deep south. And it puts my own sadness into perspective because no matter how many times I see someone off to St. Peter’s, my sorrow is minuscule compared to the suffering and pain and loneliness that Oxford- that Mississippi- has known. I am insignificant in the story of the South.

And it is not a defeat to be sad. Just an observation. And it is not cured by these visits. Simply acknowledged. A celebration of the macabre.

A habit I cannot shake.

Perhaps when I am sad I go to the place that I associate with sadness. Sometimes I am too tired- and that underlying southern sadness is just all that I have left. And I think I want that more than nothing. Because to let my southern sadness go, to forget the great albatross that has anchored me thus far, would be to belittle it’s value to me all those years. To let it go and move on and forget about the place underneath the kitsch and development would be saying that there was nothing there worth remembering. And the nothing is scary and empty and sad. It is a cycle that cannot be broken. And to leave it and let it go entirely feels like a betrayal of how much I once felt for my woods and lakes, and how those places enveloped me, and what my kudzu covered jungle meant to me as I formed the shape I take now.

But sadness is not all. It can’t be. There has to be a balance.

If we loved once then we can love again.

The joy and thrill of beginning life still exists there alongside it. It is found on Bramlett hill. The innocence and awe of the world. The kind that wears off as we learn to weather the storm. With every break and every hurt is the reminder that I am still alive, that the deepest cuts heal and the gnarliest wounds mend up. Our scars are our maps.

I see the town as I remember it- I get lost now with the new roads and the new place- but the old Oxford is still there, underneath, lurking. You cannot kill a ghost.

And I am not sad I left. But there is always a sense of longing that I feel when I am away. I guess it is easier for me to preserve the memory from a distance.

But when I am sad I return to my home.

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