Southern Talismans

13 05 2011

Sorry for the radio silence. Life got in the way.

Spent a week in the South recently, in Milledgeville, Georgia, for a Flannery O’Connor conference, and I saw not only a different state but what might as well be a different country ~ a different planet. I’ll begin with the tornado.

I’m asleep in my bed at the lovely Antebellum Inn in Milledgeville (as in Mill-edge-ville) on Saturday morning at 6:30 when out of the blue a warning siren lets go this plaintive wail. At 6:30!?! AM!?! Naturally, I hunker down in bed. A minute later, the siren sounds again. This time I hear scuffling feet in the hall outside my door. The other guests, clearly from the South because they know what this is about, are skee daddling for cover. It occurs to me that I am in tornado alley, I guess, and that perhaps I should inquire about all the scuffling. I poke my head out just in time to see the proprietress of the place, lovely Jane, telling everyone to grab whatever is most valuable and come downstairs ~ immediately! A tornado is on its way.

Like a curious, dim-witted Yankee, I casually walk to the window (which I’d left open to get a nice cool breeze) and I notice that it’s perfectly calm. Dead Calm calm. Doldrums calm. Monastic calm. What’s the problem? There isn’t even the faintest breeze outside. What on earth are they talking about?? Then, somewhere deep in my cerebral cortex, a saying comes to mind: The calm before the storm. Oh… I says to myself. Then I grab my computer, my phone, and my paper that I was to deliver that morning and make haste for the cellar.

This is the fun part: I’m down there with the other 5-6 guests, all of whom are in various states of disarray and half-dress, and among them the poet Kathryn Stripling Byer; Stanford English professor and Pulitzer Prize nominee Carol Shloss (nominated for her book To Dance in the Wake); author Tom Franklin (of such lighthearted tales as Hell at the Breech and other really lovely southern grotesque/Gothic novels); and E. L. Doctorow and his wife Helen (he being the author of such things as The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, and Billy Bathgate). I couldn’t think of a better group of people to be holed up with in a tornado (or in a nice hotel lounge in Paris, for that matter), and so I began to almost wish for a prolonged disaster that would keep us together for hours. Alas, the tornado never came, and so we all quickly resumed our normal public personae (all of them but me, of course, who doesn’t have a public persona) and flew back to our respective corners of the world, never to be together again. It was one of those moments, you know, and it wasn’t at all lost on me. I was very much there through all of it, and it was worth all of the inconvenience (if for no other reason then to have gotten the chance to hear Mr. Doctorow ask our overly careful proprietress Jane, “How long has this house been standing?” to which she replied, “Oh, something like 150 years,” to which he then replied, “Don’t you think it will hold up another few hours, then, so that we might go back to our rooms now?”) Clearly, E. L. wasn’t seeing the humor in the situation like I was.

The rest of the trip was, believe it or not, almost equally exciting. I was met at the airport the Tuesday prior by my lovely friend Polly, who took me to see MLK’s church and then a little hole-in-the-wall Southern Cookin’ joint a block away, where I had my first taste of deep-fried okra (fabulous!), vinegar induced collard greens (not so fabulous), and sweet tea (the Southern equivalent of Jolt). The ribs were to die for, as were the corn bread and sweet potatoes. Then sweet Polly bid me adieu and let me drive off in her dad’s pearl of great price, his 1980s vintage Buick LeSabre (“Someone with a car like this does not need to be justified,” I kept saying to myself) as I drove to Milledgeville a couple of hours away.

The highway signs along the way (“Repent! Jesus is on His Way!” and “Peches and Plums 4 Sale”) were worth the price of admission into Christ-haunted country, as Flannery O’Connor called the Old South. These were people who didn’t give a rat’s ass what you knew if you didn’t know Jesus. This was old-time religion, and the New Atheists need not apply. It was an eschatological moment for me, as if going back in time was somehow simultaneously skipping forward, when all the Fashions of the Age will have worn thin and we’ll be back to admitting the essential mysteries of life. Life come full circle, like in the words of T. S. Eliot:

[…] We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

I felt, in a strange sort of way, like I was coming home. The South in many ways has more in common with my superstitious upbringing in the bundoks of the Philippines than it does to my experience as a properly enlightened adult living in the West. Miles mean very little when it comes to space. I think of the relativity of it all ~ of both time and space ~ and how traveling through the Old South on back roads and byways on my way to Flannery O’Connor country ought to feel a bit disorienting (or re-orienting as the case may be). People here believed in magic, in the old stories and myths, of lines one shouldn’t cross. But as soon as I say this, the haunted part of Christ-haunted comes to mind. There are, of course, lines that should be crossed, as they finally were in the South in the 60s ~ but even then, those same lines are only dotted now. They’re virtual lines, invisible to everyone but those who live there. We may have erased the lines, but their outlines remain, like the indent left by a couch’s feet on a soft rug. And those lines, I tell you, still run deep.

Okay, enough for now. My next post will be about my dinner that Wednesday night with my fellow dinner guests: an Atlanta billionaire, a Roman Catholic philanthropist, the producer of the Left Behind movie franchise, a Renaissance politico, Flannery O’Connor’s official biographer, O’Connor’s only living relative, the first woman to graduate from Harvard Law School, and a former president of the Jacques Maritain Society. And that only describes four of them.

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