Tallahassee: Cultivation

It’s been a year since I moved to Tallahassee, Florida. On the road trip, I had this unexpected desire to live in a house and cultivate a garden. I am now sure that this urge was metaphorical. I’ve sprinkled seeds around, and they’ve taken with a few friends, but my potted plants are less than miraculous.

I spend most of my time with writers, and like with all things numerous, I try to organize and categorize the kinds of writers in my mind. The best kind fill their endlessly open belly-hearts with the writing and work they do, giving it, spinning it out as a gift. Others already are full and self-satisfied, closed-up and final versions of themselves who may create but have to simply hitch their good work onto the back of their train-car like a welcome caboose they drag around. Some writers feel desperately small, but know that the stuff of which they are made is good, and so they hope to grow, building a schema high above their heads which they write to fill with stuff as good as themselves. Many are shocked at what they do, like people who seem surprised and amazed that they are the parent of a brilliant child. I hope to be the first; I fear I’m the third. There is, of course, another kind of self-satisfied person, one so complete they don’t even need to write, one who feels no lack at all. They are a vision of contentment, reminding me to breathe, but also reminding me that I have to work — I have to write.

But all of this categorization I do is meaningless. My friend and soon-to-be roommate, Mat, told me yesterday how he resists the language of trying to “understand” yourself because of its futility in accounting for our constant rotation on a thousand axes of mood, physical comfort, company, hormones, heat and cold, drugs, smells, love, longing, memory, and age (I’m extrapolating). Thich Nhat Hanh marvelously corrected the Western world when he explained that we don’t find ourselves. Instead, we create ourselves. I am reading Faulkner’s wild and difficult Absalom, Absalom! for the first time, and I cannot help but laugh at how absolute a value I apply to others’ approval — and how I think any one way is better than another to write this novel that I am working on. How could anyone have told Faulkner, first draft in their hands, that he was writing a good story? Only he could have.

Perhaps only the habit of creating can keep our minds and bellies and hearts open to the thousands of ways of seeing and being. (Even Thich Nhat Hanh seems to write books constantly.) While I’ve barely planted that garden I longed for back when I had no dirt of my own for a year, I have cultivated, here in Tallahassee, the habit of creation.

Fairhope: A Walk

Fairhope, Alabama sits on the Mobile Bay, along a small section of waterfront property that some vacationers pass through on their way to Florida. Mobile is famous for the tunnel through which beachgoers must drive. But Fairhope is the kind of mannered Southern town where baskets hanging from awnings overflow with flowers — begonias bloom beyond their normal capacity. It could be the walkable, bikeable small town of Vada Sultenfuss’s youth in the 1991 movie My Girl.

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I arrive in Fairhope, crossing out of Eastern time into Central, at 3:30 CST. I am staying here for a night on the way home to Jackson from Tallahassee for wedding. I have until 5:00, when I meet up with my friend, to walk the downtown and the bayfront paths, in the depths of the southern heat that is like a second layer of ocean above sea level.

I begin at the surf shop that my college friend and one-time sorority president, Ashley, manages — Adrenaline. They sell boogie boards, skateboards and helmets, sundresses, Patagonia. The shop smells like clean leather of Rainbow brand sandals, the rubber of Teva sandals. I walk down Fairhope Avenue to the edge of town that meets the bay. I pass law offices, and walk beneath the widest live oak tree I have ever seen. At an out-of-place apartment complex that advertises “1-br. furnished & unfurnished,” a long-haired guy with a fit body and a sunny complexion paces the second floor balcony.

I pass a park, whose clean, wood-carved sign promises to “always” be there for “Fairhopians.” Down a slope, the bay and an open sky rise in front of me. The water is light brown like most open water that touches the base of Mississippi and Alabama. The park is silent and green, with trash cans and a paved path. A pier stretches out and an oyster restaurant juts out from the right of it, a siren song to the hungry to come out onto the shallow bay water.

An elderly man gets out of a car with a dog that appears trapped inside the fur of a panda, frozen with depression at the sight of the small park. The man surprises me and jerks the leash, shocking the beautiful creature forward. I pass a rack of ten paddleboards and a motorcycle — abandoned in parking spaces. The only other people walk off in random directions looking into the backs of their sunglasses.

I walk out onto the pier, into mildly deafening wind from the water. Benches line each side of the wide pier, and the walk becomes an homage to the dead who spent their final years on this bay. The wind sings their music, keeping bugs off of me, preventing my feeling whatever late afternoon sunburn is coming to my high forehead.

Carved into the benches are compositions of remembrances, forming some poem as I walk:

BELOVED husband father brother
Gone fishing
Roll tide
God’s gravy maker
Lie beneath the reef
The good life since 1990
May all your sunsets be spectacular
In loving memory
Untill [sic] Jesus comes.
6-28-42          11-7-10

Halfway down the pier at the oyster bar, a coed group of thirteen year olds rings a bell for service. They order soft drinks and pay in cash, green dollars that seem foreign in their smooth hands. I continue walking to the end, where the pier makes a T and a man — wearing one of the fishing shirts that Ashley sells in the surf shop — bows over the railing with his hands joined. His two fishing poles are also bowed against the railing on either side of him, the two lines in the water shivering in the wind and surf.

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Originally written in June of 2016.

Tallahassee: Settling

I spend most of a Sunday, four days in to my freshly settled life in Tallahassee, Florida, sitting on the front porch finishing the Jim Harrison novel Dalva. I need a church or some volunteer work or both. I think of calling Mama–when was the last time we talked? It feels like it did when I lived in Batesville and the conversations with my parents were impressionist dreams, never with much purpose, but important. I was following a sixth sense each time I called them.

But on the road, these conversations were my lifeline, the bright realist marks among days that flew by in comic strip images of nature and old friends. I needed them more than I ever did before. I wonder how to recreate that import now. With letters? Letters require two people to be of the same mind in communication. Mindfulness, a choice to remember.

I restart another habit from my former, settled life: I write quotations on paper and tape them on the walls. Again, I set my roots on my own terms, but now they are tied to the earth where it is called “Tallahassee.”

Originally written in June of 2016.

Florida: Driving to Key West with Claire Whitehurst

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Day #1: Paint-to-learn civil history in Vicksburg
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Day #2: Getting charmed by the #saltlife #coasties #mobilealabama
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Days 3-4: Downtown Mobile with our dear friends Seth & Katy; live oak trees; palms & pines; and a lovely visit with Shelby & Louie — all colored by the magical Claire! 🙆✍🏋🎨
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Day 4: Conversations with mermaids after the live show (see @claire_downes) + picnic + car camping (Claire hates it! 😬)
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Day 5: Cross over to South Florida + her cousins show us the tip of the Everglades & the beach at sunset. We love them. Claire stops and watercolors here & there.
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6: After a night with cousins in Wellington near Palm Beach, los colores de Miami! Lunch with some amazing Mississippi expats, matching sunburns. Tomorrow we’ll wake in the keys. Bye, continental USA!
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7: “Gulls + Buoys”! Claire and I perfect our chemistry on the Florida Keys. She is painting mangroves and I’m reading about the wind.
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9: Bumblings around the southernmost part of the United States! Cuban coffee, boats & fish, and exceptional drag all around. Waited out the hot afternoon poolside–painted postcards. Claire did not live-paint the drag show. She sang “I Will Always Love You” afterwards.
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“Do you ever get jealous of trees?” Claire asked me as we passed under an ancient banyan in the touristy part of the island. Florida, 10: We take a boat damn near to Cuba & snorkel our little hearts out with our #onehumanfamily, canvas Key West on foot, & hit the pillows like bags of rocks. And yet we agree that the trees have it made. Perhaps because we are heading back toward MS today & their homes are nonnegotiable.
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11: Claire and I woke up on St. Paddy’s to a subtropical fog in South Florida & we drove through rain up to Tallahassee. Her cousins are taking care of us in all corners.

Originally composed in April of 2016.

Vicksburg, MS: Joan

Beginning in 2002, my parents occasionally picked me up from school and told me we were going to look at houses. “Don’t mention it to Joan,” they’d say. She was our next-door neighbor, the one whose house we’d played innumerable games of hide and go seek. She was our most frequent guest on the back patio, of which there were many. My parents moved from our midcentury upper-middle-class neighborhood in 2004, and so did Joan–she had threatened for years that, were we to move, she’d return to Vicksburg, where she raised her children.

Since 2004, Joan has lived in a house that backs up to the Vicksburg Country Club golf course. Inside the grill and bar, there is a newspaper cutout from 1974 that shows her as the women’s division winner in a golf tournament. Then, she was raising children. Now, she golfs, takes care of her dog, and checks in on her ex-husband who lives down the street from her now.

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I pull into her driveway and she walks out to greet me with a huge, “Hello!,” and a smile, and she throws her arms out for a hug. She still wears her timeless, unique wardrobe of beautiful one-piece suits, many halter-style. Her cabinets in this house, like the ones back in Jackson, are painted a feng shui crimson red. We both were sorority girls, Chi Omegas, and I recall reciting the words, “To be womanly always; to be discouraged never.” Joan was a Chi O when, in my imagination, it meant just that.

She drives me around town in her Chrysler with the good heat blazing through the sunroof. We talk about everybody in our families, what they’re up to and what we think of what they’re up to. We laugh a lot. A warning goes out that someone escaped from the federal prison here in Vicksburg. We pass a SWAT team readying themselves to infiltrate a river-side motel. We drive a loop to see if they get him.

In the evening, I am anxious to make the one hour drive back home. My parents are calling constantly, excited for me to come back to Jackson. But before I leave, Joan and I sit on the low couch in her living room — the same sofa where I watched Unsolved Mysteries as a kid and learned to fear bathing during lightning storms — and we talk about the big things. We talk about what she’s seen in her many years in Vicksburg and how the major changes in southern society were reflected in her experience there. Here is the recording, unedited (sorry).

Originally written in April of 2016.

Texas & Louisiana: Taproot

After the yin of Marfa, some yang: I follow highway back to interstate, and interstate through wine country and into Austin, Texas. Here, I spend a week as my sister’s VIP guest. Juliana was 19 when I was born, and we have different mothers. The first time I remember meeting her, I was in the 4th or 5th grade, and she visited us for a week in Jackson. We continued to see each other in units of weeks, on special occasions, when things were hectic. So, in my solo visit to Austin, we experience our first time alone together–our first time as sisters–between her sunny cottage and the restaurants and bars where her friends treat us. In the course of these days, I fill out the details of the portrait I carry of her. I feel at home. I could stay forever in her guest bedroom. She sends me away with tears and a blue pendant made of Siberian glass.

Leaving, I think of the family I want to interview before I run out of money and find some temporary job. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, only six hours east, is the next-door neighbor I grew up treating as a third grandmother. My little brother and I called Joan (pronounced joe-anne) by her first name, and played hide and seek in her closets. We were over there so often that I can draw a functional map of her house with details as small as where she kept the dog food.

Before I call Joan, I stop in Fort Worth at Joan’s grandson Bert’s apartment and meet his four year old daughter for the first time. Bert and I grew up together. We even had a wedding that the adults orchestrated for us when we were five years old. Now, his expression is unchanged, a smile that could reveal a secret, but that only comes to represent the sweetness and politeness of manner Southern parents hope all their boys will grow into. Seeing people again after those ridiculous lengths of time proves that people don’t change, or at least that what you remember being fond of about them is constant.

Bert, his daughter Avery, and I drive to a touristy part of town and watch a cattle drive. It happens constantly–three times a day, but it’s still crowded like a circus. The cattle drive takes place on a single cobblestone block in Fort Worth that seems to be the economic and cultural motor of the whole town: the ancient architecture, the commercialized restaurants, and the bulls with wide horns. People swarm the sidewalks. The cattle carry their enormous horns down the street, with cowboys on horseback keeping just behind them. After, we stop by a candy store. Avery picks out taffy based on the colors, and Bert approves or vetoes based on the flavors.

In Dallas, I visit my old roommate from Mississippi Teacher Corps and a friend of mine from college, who found one another by coincidence. We go to a birthday party, and end up on a gay scavenger hunt. With experience, the Dallas of my imagination — formerly plain — grows fun and convivial.

The next day, I eat lunch with my mother’s best childhood friend: she is the only woman in the world who speaks and acts like my mother. They are singular. Laverne and Shirley. Paris and Nicole. We laugh and cover the gamut of catch-up conversation in a short time. We both call my mother afterward.

I’d thought of Dallas and Fort Worth as a detour between Austin, Texas, and Vicksburg (I’m skipping over Louisiana for now). But the transition to my visit with Joan in Vicksburg is the natural conclusion to seeing all of these people. As I move closer to home, the people move closer to my heart. I focus less on writing. In fact, I don’t put down these thoughts until months later.

Originally written in March of 2016.

Jackson to New Orleans: On the Occasion of a Teacher Wedding

On the occasion of a teacher wedding, I leave Jackson, Mississippi for New Orleans. I am giddy after two months of living with my parents and working at Lemuria Books. I’m giddy, and I’m organizing and getting things ready for a move to Tallahassee. I am hitting the road for one more week before I finally settle into a house there, where I’ll write fiction and workshop it and teach freshmen for three years. One long week of travel. A last flourish on top of that road trip I did this past year. After this, I’ll pack up all my things and move them to this house and settle and be a writer. I’ve always written, but I’m going to identify as a writer for the first time. It is almost natural; this road trip made me a writer to a lot of people. It’s occurring to me lately that everything I do—traveling, writing, every job I undertake — paid or not — is a way of searching, and I’ll only do it — I’ll only enjoy it, it seems — if I expect it to be an act of searching, an act of exercising hope and surprise to rid me of any of the plaque of certainty I may have accumulated through the week, months, or years of mindless abeyance to what society needed me to do.

I listened to a Rebecca Solnit interview with Krista Tippett (http://www.onbeing.org/program/rebecca-solnit-falling-together/8691) this morning and they discussed the idea of being a hopeful person who looks at memories and uses them to tell their own story in a hopeful way—giving their story a redemptive ending. How you can kind of be somebody who looks at their memories and uses that as evidence of hope. Other people look at their memories and tell themselves a story of certainty. Almost without fail, the story of certainty is a tragedy. It’s the story the news tells us every day.

News and education both need new ways and meaning, new stories; both operate on assumptions of certainty. As much as the children and the consumers rebel against the ugliness, they blindly accept the most toxic aspect of the two systems: they accept the story of certainty. Perhaps the rebellion we need looks like gazing intently in order to understanding the flaws, and to change the story from front to back. To face and confront and tweak.

Here I am leaving Jackson Mississippi for a week of traveling I-don’t-know-where, an act of hope, or of rebellion against the notion that one job ends and another begins immediately. I’ve brought my travel guitar, this cheap nylon stringed thing Santa brought my brother and me when we were in elementary school. I’ve brought cheese and crackers from my parents’ house, their staple. I’ve packed my whole twenty-pounds-heavier body, which I’ve fattened up in the months living at home. I’ve packed books I’ve acquired while working at the bookstore and a film camera whose film is almost spent on people I’ve grown new admiration and love for here in Jackson. I’m packing up all these nights at the Apothecary Bar behind Brent’s Drugs and new habits both good and bad. My hair is cut. I packed my bathing suit, and I’m not afraid to wear it. I threw all kinds of shoes in the car. I’m so excited to be on the road agin, to be moving because at the end of the day, to be mobile means I’m not really even leaving anyone. Nothing is for certain and that’s the most hopeful thing.

Whatever I end up writing in Tallahassee, let none of it end in certainty. Whatever I write over the course of these next three years, thirty years, eighty years, let none of claim to be fact.

Originally written in June of 2016.