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I saw a quite-nice production of Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden yesterday, and in my usual Jungian
way searched for some aspect of my own personal mythology among the
characters. Oddly enough, it was General Griggs who, upon cresting his
own arc in the last act, realized: “So at any given moment you’re only
the sum of your life up to then. There are no big moments you can reach
unless you’ve got a pile of smaller moments to stand on.”
Oh, yes, yes, indeed. The trick, I suspect, is gathering all those
small moments together in such a way that they can support you.
"The river bore the alluvial plain that is the Mississippi Delta, and the Delta bore fruit …"
— Luther Brown, Director, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning.
Alluvial. Roll that around on your tongue for a while. What a sensual sound. If Mississippi is alliterative, then alluvial is onomatopoeic. You can hear centuries, millennia, of water relentlessly carrying with it everything it passes. Stand in a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta, and the talc-fine soil will work its way into every pore and crease of
your skin. When you pick up a handful you’re sifting Montana through
your fingers. The Rocky Mountains are reduced to this. The river has
drained 41% of the continental U.S. for 15,000 years. Our history is – literally – deposited here.
This river is a perfect metaphor for our country’s dark closeted history. Alluvial: 4.) an accession to land by the gradual addition of matter that then
belongs to the owner of the land to which it is added. Our history
has drained and collected in this alluvial plain, and now it belongs to
the soul of that plain. This deep fine soil and these deep fine people
have come to symbolize – and to carry as their own – the most shameful
part of this country’s past.
I do know this: You can’t heal what you won’t look at.
I’ve known far too many sanctimonious folks content to sit in their
smug banality, turn a blind eye, and let the South continue to carry
the burden of all that happened a century and a half ago. I’m not a
Confederate sympathizer. Far from it. Slavery is an immoral and
shameful practice. (I also happen to be deeply offended by the slave
labor used to perpetuate the coffee and chocolate industries. And by the quaint glorification of colonialism at amusement parks and furniture stores. But that’s another post for another day.)
The history of civil rights in this country is bathed in the blood
of Southerners. Lyndon Johnson forced passage of the 1964 Civil Rights
Act, knowing it would lose him the support of his party and ultimately
destroy his presidency. In 1922, the Klan controlled elections and
installed mayors in Portland Oregon, and in Portland Maine. LeRoy
Percy, U.S. Senator from Mississippi defeated the Klan deep in the
The Mississippi River carries more than silt. This river has washed
the nation clean of the stink of slavery, and has deposited everything
right here in the Delta. The Union sold the war on moral grounds. Just
like our invasion of Iraq was sold on moral grounds. The Union didn’t
want secession because it would mean they’d need to pay import tariffs
on the cotton and other agricultural goods that fed their mills, their
railroads, and their export businesses. Empires as grand as any
antebellum plantation: and all built on the backs of slaves. But
politicians couldn’t sell that to the public any better than they are
able to sell the real reasons we ignore Darfur and invade Iraq.
It hurts. It really hurts to own responsibility for inequity. But
until this whole nation owns the shame of what still happens every day
in the Delta, it will never heal the shame of the past. It will just
keep on washing itself clean and turning its back on the alluvial plain
of rich deep pain.
This is the beginning of the blog I’ll be required to keep as a member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps
class of 2006. Beginning May 30, I’ll be part of an alternate-route
certification program that includes a Masters through Ole Miss in
Oxford, MS. I don’t know yet in which city or what grade I’ll be
teaching, but in a few months I’ll be an English teacher. That’s all I know now about my future.
My journey is starting now. In 2 months I’ll leave the job I’ve had for
18 years. Well, OK, not the exact same job – but at the same
place, and the job title has been the same for these past 10
those years. I’ve lived in one neighborhood or another around the same
city since 1960, except for 2 years in Atlanta and 3 in Richmond – but
those were both before I was 25. I raised my daughter here. I married
and divorced. I fell in and out of love.
Leaving Northern Virginia for the Mississippi Delta
involves so much more than just packing up the house and moving. It’s a
complete cultural change from suburban Washington D.C. to what is
probably the poorest region of the poorest state in the country.
Housing prices have increased 25% annually here. The Delta is losing
population at 2% annually. People here are driven and career-centered.
I’m longing for a slower life, but know I’ll be terrifically busy as a
first-year teacher and full-time grad student. My colleagues here are
other professionals, most of whom have been in publishing for 10 or
more years. I’ll be a part of a group of recent college graduates, many
of whom probably haven’t begun any career yet. I have no idea what my
housing will be. I know I’ll be making about 1/3 as much as I’m earning
now – yes the cost of living is less, but not that much. I don’t know
anyone there. I won’t even see my household belongings again until
And now, in less than 3 months, I will not recognize one single aspect of my life.
Read that again. It takes a while to become a reality.
So my job now is to make sure that I strengthen what I can take with me
– and that’s what’s inside. It’s pretty much all I’ll have.
I’m tempted to focus on the goodbye, but I need to think about the hello, too. This is my crossroads.
Circumstances are that I will be delaying the move to the Delta until 2007, but it will happen. Meanwhile, I find myself with a liminal year. While it’s not exactly what I’d expected, it’s still a crossroads. It’s the time that exists between my two lives. I don’t, however, intend for it to become simply some time I spend while I wait for a new life to begin. It will have a life of its own and will serve to help me define myself in the context of movement forward.