Intimations of the South

This blog’s been pretty quiet lately. I’ve been out in the sunlight shaking off the dust from four years in the bunker with Chief Joseph. It’s nice to stretch and dance.

One of those dances was last week in Nashville, where I spoke to a father-son dinner at a very exclusive boys school. The very notion of speaking or thinking about something other than Chief Joseph was at once terrifying and exhilarating. Things went very well, despite an arduous 13 hour journey through stormy skies and snowed-in
airports, in no small measure because a good audience makes for a good speaker. And a thousand respectful, intent listeners lifts a speaker to his or her best.

I could go on about that, but I want to say a bit about my first impressions of the South.

I have never been to the South other than to make a marathon two day drive from Florida to Minnesota. This time I had at least a day to savor the scents and shapes, and I was smitten. You might think, quite logically, that one day can teach you nothing. On the contrary, if you keep your mind and eyes open and trust your senses, you can learn a lot from a short, overwhelming exposure to a place. There are rhythms, there are pacings, there are conversational mannerisms and distances. There is the balance between formality and intimacy, the way people interact with each other across racial and class and age divides. There’s the way they treat animals, the way they drive, the speed or lack thereof in the way they do business at a counter.

The list is endless, and it is limited only by your capacity to make observational discriminations. As a watcher from way back, I try very hard to take in everything through every sense, then let myself sort it out in memory.

What I am left with from this visit is the overwhelming historical shadow under which the South lives. It’s not just the shadow of slavery, though that’s part of it. It’s more that there is a cultural pattern and manner here that was established at a time in the past, then was modified by a great disruption. It’s sort of a distant analogue to dealing with contemporary Indians: these people were once something, then were forced to become something else. Yet the residue of that pre-disruption “self” remains.

In the case of the white upper-class South,one aspect of this residue is a graciousness and a well-mannered formality that has more in common with the English than with my raw-boned American compatriots here in the Midwest. And it certainly has more in common with the English tnan with the “everybody’s a friend until you prove it otherwise” openness of the western interior where I have been spending the majority of my travel time for the last four years.

It was like there was a veneer of social propriety that allowed everyone to operate with a common social currency while decisions regarding the appropriate degree of intimacy were being made. I remember it well from England, and how much freedom of personal interior movement it allowed. One crossed distances at one’s own pace, and intimacies were earned and given higher valuations. At the same time, the possibility of disingenuousness is heightened exponentially.

Frankly, I found it exhilarating. I have worked most of my life to be able to achieve a casual intimacy with people I meet and to offer this casual intimacy to them as my gift. Sometimes it has served me well. But it has often gotten me in trouble with folks who presume a distance based on professional or cultural distinctions: they find it presumptuous and leveling and think it is somewhat disrespectful.

I understand this, though a leopard does not easily change its spots, and I’m getting to be a rather old leopard. However, Europe — specifically England — and this brief dalliance with the South remind me that distance, benignly established, offers a privacy that allows a person to shape their intimacies with more care.

I could knock around for hours in this idea, but the day is widening and I have work to do. Let me close by saying only that, as I drove around Nashville and its environs, visiting historical sites, talking to folks, savoring the time I had with the people at Montgomery Bell Academy where I spoke, and drinking in the Tennesee landscape and springtime climate, I could feel the presence of the Civil War beneath my feet, just as I feel the presence of the Ojibwe and the Scandinavian settlers under my feet here in northern Minnesota.

One of the great joys in life is to learn more about those forces that echo in a particular place, so the echoes can be better understood when they are heard or sensed. I cannot wait to go back to the South. And I cannot wait to gain more intimate acquaintance with the forces that shape and inhabit that land. Four years living with the western interior through the Nez Perce and the settlers and soldiers of the 1800s gave me a great gift of understanding. One day of living with the South of Nashville gave me intimations of a world of meaning and apprehension that I would like to understand.

There are lots of ways of being explorers. I hope that you, like me, try to take advantage of those that are presented to you. There is no joy greater than that of mapping the interior and exterior terrain of the world through which we walk. All we need is curiosity, watchfulness, and a love of life.

I hope that all of your days are going well and that spring is beginning to creep through the cracks of winter wherever you are. Thanks for staying with me. I appreciate it.

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