Last night I had the pleasure of reading a short essay I wrote for a beautiful new collection called “South” to a room full of Southerners – both natural-born and transplanted. I was asked by the book’s editor/author, Wendy Pollitzer, to write about what the South means to me . . . in 500 words or less. She might as well have asked me for a haiku explaining quantum physics. Not known for my brevity, I wasn’t sure I could swing it, but it was a good exercise in whittling down and zeroing in. Reading the little ditty aloud was such a joy, especially when I heard a few sniffles out there… which, of course, got me sniffling. Here ’tis…
The South of My Heart
I’ve lived in the South all my life – almost half a century – and I’ve seen it change plenty. It’s more like everywhere else now than it used to be, though, famous for its slow and stubborn evolvers, it’s not entirely homogenized yet.
Still, when you ask me to talk about the South – that wholly distinctive place that lives in my heart – I will always tell you about the South of my youth. About catching lightning bugs on warm Alabama nights and the catfish-gasoline smell of the Tennessee River. I’ll tell you about fireworks etched across a dark July sky, about the taste of buttered cornbread and the low drone of honeybees on Confederate jasmine.
Ask me about the South of my heart, and I’ll send you to Sunday school in black patent leather shoes . . . teach you to say “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” . . . make you clean your plate, write thank-you notes, say your prayers, pledge a good sorority, and whip up a casserole when somebody dies. I’ll tell you of a place both gentle and hard, where a fixation on good manners is both the grease of society and its squeaky wheel . . . where the exalted ideal of the Nice Girl – with all its burdensome expectations – is enough to turn a girl mean.
Again, this was the South of my youth; we’re far more progressive now. But not entirely, and I thank God for that. I thank God that we’re not quite up to contemporary code, that we still have some antiquated rules of behavior. For in those rules, I see a terrible beauty. In the southerner’s lingering obsession with manners and appearances and honor and “niceness,” I see an honest assessment of the human condition and a poignant desire to transcend it . . . or at least to elevate it a bit. In that sense, the unreformed, old-school southerner is something of a tragic figure. And a noble one.
So, you can have your enlightened west-coasters and your sophisticated back-easters. As for me, I’ll stay in this hopelessly romantic, sun-rinsed place where the patriotism often borders on jingoism . . . where the religiosity often masks hypocrisy. . . where they preach family values but don’t always practice them. I’ll stay here, because this is my place. These are my people, and I love them. Down South, we know things aren’t always what they appear to be – that we aren’t always what we appear to be – but we never stop wishing they were, and we never stop trying.