Last night Jon and I went to a concert that celebrated Georgia music with the Indigo Girls and Patterson Hood. The music was amazing, and though we bought the tickets mostly to see the Indigo Girls, I can now count myself a belated fan of Patterson Hood and will likely spend today listening to him and his band, the Drive By Truckers. He especially won me over with “Daddy Needs a Drink,” and I really loved a song he played called “Ever South,” that he said he wrote just a few days ago about moving from the South to Oregon. The line “Everywhere we go, they hear the drawl that leaves our mouth, so no matter where we go, we’re ever South” reminded me of how many of my fellow native Southerners don’t think I have much of an accent, but when I visit my husband’s family in Colorado, they all seem to think I do! I also really loved the song “World of Hurt” about the crazy mix of beauty and pain that is life and love, and another song, where he sang “I can dance on my own grave, thank you,” which is exactly how I feel about my near-death experience.
At one point in the night, we were discussing Southern identity with a friend who’s from California. I said I think Colorado-born Jon has been naturalized as a Southerner at this point, after over a decade in the South and two Arkansas-born daughters. Jon said, “Well, I have a daughter named Etta Jane, what more do I need?” True. Poor guy didn’t want our kid to have a double name, because he thought it sounded too Southern, and then the little peach went and insisted on having one anyway. “NAME ETTA JANE,” she’s been insisting for at least a year now. Just Etta is apparently not enough to cover it.
It was interesting to think about, though, because I don’t think people from other regions obsess quite so much with the idea of regional identity. Are Midwesterners tortured or haunted the way so many Southerners are (or at least those of us who really love Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor)? Do people from other regions have the same experience of wrestling with their regional identity and deciding how much it influences them and what parts of it they will keep and what parts they will reject–not so much a coming out as a coming into a type of identity? I suspect not. We’re a weird sort, ever South.
Yesterday afternoon, I drove down to my parents’ house to spend some quality time tooling around Lake Hamilton on their super 1970s party barge and trying out my Lil’est Sis’s new tube. The boat, picture this if you will, is known as the Disco Barge. It is avocado green and there are some cracks in the fiberglass canopy. It has no seats, and we sit on the worn astroturfed deck in lawn chairs. However, it has a certain something many boats lack. That something is a disco ball. It doesn’t go very fast, but it goes fast enough, and we cruise around the lake, sipping wine out of mason jars, marveling at the large houses, and, these days, occasionally being tugged behind the boat in a very large tube. It’s great fun. As we cruised around the lake, we pointed out our favorite houses, we laughed at the house with the giant, water-spouting marlin statue on its lakefront, which has been for sale for over a year (apparently the marlin isn’t a selling point?), and we even noticed a giant cloud that looked rather like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.
Later that evening, as I headed out for my hourlong drive home, that thunderboomer was straight ahead. Lightning crackled across its surface like electric fissures, and flashes from deep within lit portions of the cloud. The round yellow face of a full moon shone from just behind the edge of the massive cloud. I rolled my windows down and the air was thick and humid, but refreshing at ten degrees cooler than it had been earlier in the evening, and it hummed with the sounds of cicadas and tree frogs. I let my hand float outside the window, enjoying the resistance created by my possibly too-fast speed on a dark and windy road. I cranked up some Mumford and Sons, because such a night calls for banjos and belting it out. I sang “rain down, rain down on me” as lightning flashed directly ahead.
Sometimes church is wherever you are. Sometimes it’s oh so sweet to be able to go from the home of my youth to the home of my own.
They say that if you don’t like the weather in Arkansas, wait 5 minutes and it will change. I’m reasonably sure they say this other places too, but we like to pretend we have a lock on weirdly oscillating weather patterns. The reality check, as my mountain man husband likes to remind me, is that places like Denver can have record-setting 84 degree days followed by whiteout snowstorms that cancel Rockies baseball games (true story).
These days it seems Arkansas has decided to skip straight to summer. In the evenings, you can already hear the chorus of cicadas buzzing in the trees (my husband calls them “skeedeedees,” an onomatopoeic word he coined to capture the way they sound, and I love that coinage). As I stood out in the street talking to a neighbor the other night, a mosquito bit my leg. ALREADY. And today, when I was driving down the road, I could see those hazy mirages that form on exceptionally hot asphalt. I glanced at my thermometer and it was 90 degrees.
And while I will absolutely complain about the heat and the humidity and the havoc both wreak on my hair, the truth is, I love me some Southern summer. My Colorado in-laws may melt in this kind of weather, but I’m like my region’s native flowers: gardenias, magnolias, and jasmine. Sure, I may not smell as nice as they do when it’s sweltering out, but this is my kind of climate. If you want to see me wilt, send me where it’s cold. If you want to see me thrive, plant me in some Southern soil. Just look around– Southern ladies are blooming all over in brightly colored skirts and sundresses.
Side note: Yes, I know, I sort of dropped off in the middle of the Beatitudes series. It will be back this week, I promise.
The bus rumbles through the intersection and I reach up to pull the cord; a loud “ding” tells the driver to let me off at the next stop. We lurch to a halt, and I stand, stumbling, and make my way to the doors, which swing open, allowing a blast of humid air to rush onto the blessedly well-air-conditioned bus. “Thanks!” I say to the driver with a wave as I step out into the heat for my short walk to the office. “Have a great day!” she says as she closes the door and pulls away. A few feet away a young mother struggles to keep two toddlers in hand and moving in the right direction. “Good mornin'” she says as I pass, my pace quicker than that of the toddlers. “Good mornin'” I say with a smile at the kids. Farther down the road I pass a woman I see every morning as we walk to our respective offices. She smiles at me. “Good Mornin'” I say. “How ya doin’?” she asks. We smile at each other and keep on walking. As I wait at the corner to cross the street, a jogger whizzes by and breathlessly says “Mornin'” as she whips past. As I walk down King I pass two older men, who nod at me. “Mornin’!” I say with a smile. “Mornin’!” they reply. In the parking lot I see a parking enforcement officer writing tickets. I am briefly thankful that riding the bus means no parking tickets. “Mornin’!” he says with a nod. “Mornin’!” I reply. I smile as I walk into my building and press the button for the elevator.
It occurred to me on my walk from bus stop to office that it must be hard being an introvert in the South. In the short 2 block walk down George St. all the people I passed said, “Good Mornin'” to me, with a smile. I’ve always had a habit of talking to strangers, so I love that it’s normal and acceptable and even expected here that you say “Good Morning” to people as you pass them on the street, that you will chat with the person you sit next to on the bus, that you will make small talk with the person standing behind you in the checkout line, and that you will have an ongoing rapport with the person who swipes your parking pass or cleans out the trash cans in your office.
I know about the trials and tribulations of many of the regulars on my bus. Like the woman with diabetes and an adorable new grandbaby. Or the lady with 17 cats and an ailing mother with dementia. Or the church lady who has a hard time with the fact that her husband is retired and she isn’t.
I haven’t lived outside the South, but it only took one week of riding the Metro while in Washington D.C. to realize that it’s not normal or acceptable elsewhere to chat with strangers. Not only did I stand out in a sea of black wool coats by wearing bright red, I also shocked Beltway types by daring to chat with them on the bus. They looked at me like I had four heads. I cut it out by the first stop.
Now I’m not saying I think Southern people are kinder or nicer or more friendly than people in other parts of the country. You only have to get to know the proper usage of “bless her heart” or “God love him” to know that we can sugar-coat a bitter pill better than many folks. But I do think that we have a social expectation of talkin’ to each other that others don’t, and I have to admit, I love it. By the time I get to my office, how can I NOT have a smile on my face after saying “good mornin'” to seven different people? As we face a possible move in the next year, one that very well may take me out of the South for the first time, I think what I’ll miss more than anything is the chit chat.