i miss-issippi

As I walked out of my apartment, suitcase in tow, purse fit for Mary Poppins, I realized I hadn’t yet packed a book for the plane.  Since I wasn’t engaged in any particular story, I hastily grabbed a trusty travel companion:  “Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft” by Natalie Goldberg.  The short, concise, and heartfelt chapters in her meditation on the writing process are perfect for inspiration on the go.  I can stop and start without having to reread and it’s a great catalyst for my own creative endeavors.  On this day, I was on my way to Biloxi, Mississippi.  I’d never been to the South before so my canvas of pre-conceived notions was completely blank.  I was excited.  As I settled into the seat of my first flight, I weighed sleep against study and, sleepily, opened my book.  It was marked with notepaper from the Buckminster Hotel in Boston - my mom had bought me the book on our visit there.  Since then I had read only a few chapters here and there, but hadn’t nearly digested the depth of her words.  To my surprise, I opened to a chapter entitled, “Didn’t Elvis and Oprah Also Come From Mississippi?”  I couldn’t believe it!  How did she know I was going to Mississippi?  How cool.  Delighted by the uncanny coincidence, I smiled and read on.  I ended up being incredibly moved by what I read; the chapter recounted the author’s search for that secret ingredient of the South, that intangible quality captured only by its inhabitants in their literature, poetry, art and country songs.  I wanted to share one passage in particular:“If people are sensitive they recognize a great split between what they were taught in school about the grand South and how the place was actually built.  They can feel great human suffering in the fields and in the earth.  This urges a person to speak, to utter the raw reality of a place.  It’s almost as if by being from the South, if a writer is willing to contact its pain, the land gives the writer a voice, hands it to her.  ”Speak,“ it says, ”uncover what’s real, reclaim the real story.“  Even if a southern writer never writes about slavery, it is a backdrop of knowledge, of injustice, a wound one carries.  And the South, unlike the rest of the country, knows defeat.  It makes people vulnerable, fearful underneath, as though the foundation of what they’ve built rests on moving sand.  All this is fertile territory for a writer.” Despite the mystery still contained in my idea of Mississippi, I started to feel connected in a small way, and I was ready for that “raw reality” to take hold of me.  I can’t say whether it was an effect of my exhaustion (after missing two flights and having to rebook and reschedule, I was feeling a little frazzled) or simply the gentle hospitality people in the South are known for, but I felt right at home as soon as I arrived.  I felt a familiar and sincere quality from the people I met; not just friendliness, it was more than mere manners.  I felt a genuine care and acceptance expressed in the gestures I received; from the vegan baked goods made especially for my dietary needs to the overly warm welcome I received from the manager of the Super 8.  My Q & A sessions were small and intimate, creating more of a casual dinner party vibe than the typical formal separation between audience and speaker.  It was one of those things I think I could have easily missed.  If I wasn’t open and curious, I could have missed the barren beaches and their haunting whispers of what once was.  I could have not heard the humble and hopeful words of the residents who lived through a horrible disaster and stuck around to rebuild and remember.  It was a beautiful and unexpectedly impressive experience and I’m grateful to everyone who was a part of it.  I hope to visit that part of the country again, this time perhaps even venturing past the perimeter of a convention center and a motel - though i find the vastness of an experience comes from the internal  more than the external anyway.