In the summer it gets hot. So hot that the temperature holds as the sun goes down, and even the moon makes us sweat.
This is where I live. It is not where I have always lived, though that place is not so far away either. That place, so full up of wheat fields and family; so full up of God. Filled to the brim and runneth over with churches that were once small and white and chapelesque, but are now behemoths, megachurches; congregations with mic’d up pastors and acoustic guitars, home to not only worship, but high school graduations, Starbucks, and daycares. You’ll find Catholics where I’m from, and Methodists, Lutherans, and dancing Baptists. You’ll also find angry billboards crowding interstates, their messages forged by hate groups masquerading as ones of hope.
Alas, I live there no longer. I left not because of God, not because of billboards or the Baptists. I left because that is what some people do. They leave where they are because they are curious and hopeful for the unknown future. They are not beat down by being human and raising family and following their dreams. They are not beat down by traffic and mass killings and car wrecks and breakups and heartaches, or whatever else. They are not tired. Not yet.
So they leave like I left and like thousands and probably millions of people leave the place of their birth, and maybe some of them go back to that birthplace, and perhaps it is something in the water that drags them there like the north star dragged gifters of frankincense. I learned to spell the name of the spice on a black chalkboard as a child. In the summer we decamped from our video game postures, from our aimless wanderings, from baseball fields and pool parties. We left those things behind for something called “Vacation Bible Study,” which was no sort of vacation I was interested in. They did, however, excel at spelling long-winded Bible names, and in retrospect perhaps there is some camaraderie to be gained from that time before I left; Wednesday night youth group, arms raised, free pizza. As if there really is a club. As if there really is support if you go to enough meetings.
I am not the only one who left, some of us choosing to make a home rather than being made by one. And of course, we never forget that we left. We might compare our places of past to that of our foreseeable future. In this practice we are looking backwards and forwards, always leaving out the present.
But enough about where I was and where I will be. I’ll have plenty of time to sit in the well of my past when I’m older, looking to the light above, smoking my pipe in a splintered rocking chair made of wisdom and wood, creaking along with the chorus of crickets in the evening.
Where I live it is so hot, but it is wonderful. And is that not a true southern sentence? To both criticise and cherish? Recognizing the imperfections of where you are from with a celebration and analysis that slip into romanticism. If you are from the south then you are born with this romanticism that runs like a red ribbon from your gut out of your mouth. I have dreams of someone pulling this red ribbon out of me, and pulling and pulling and finally when it is done, and I am on my knees panting like a thirsty dog, then it makes sense that I am southern. I am ecstatic and perturbed. Happy to be rid of it but always in longing for it. To be southern is to be addicted to this sentimentality.
Clarification may be necessary in even my term “southern.” I am not southern with accents, though ours is there as well. I am not southern with antebellum white pillars that are Greek in birth but sometimes still prejudice in practice. Blanche Dubois is as foreign to me as she is to Stanley Kowalski. I am not that kind of southern. I am not from there.
I am from cowboy boots and country music and mesquite trees and the fondling of B-B-Q, which can be spelled no other way but to look delinquent. I am from coyote howls at night and smoky casino floors in the morning, when the remnants of double-wide fortunes leave charred patches of red shame on the soul.
I am from a place of oil derricks that look beautiful and science fiction at the dawn or dusk of the day. A place that runs desert to the west and forest to the east, as you sink into the Gulf of Mexico, as you pay tribute to your southern neighbor, where Spanish is an absolutely breathtaking and beautiful language full up of breathtaking and beautiful people.
I am from line dancing where the term “honky-tonk” inspires nothing but agreeable nods. I am from campfires and peeing blindly into the woods and fucking blindly into the woods with girls named Mary Lou and sometimes girls named Kathy. I am from football and Friday night lights, where pickup trucks circle bonfires like summer Junebugs to a naked porch light, and country music mixes gleefully with booty dancing white girls and black girls and those aforementioned Spanish lovelies.
Where I’m from, people smile at one another and this is important for the sanctity of positive, glowing energy that moves with the wind through the trees and down past our tongues into the souls that the preacher has saved. Everything happens for a reason, they say, and that smile must surely be the reason.
And when you look back, when you ask why you left, it’s so that you can carry some of it along with you, in your briefcase, in your knapsack, in your fingertips and touch, and spread it around where all of us can have a drink, all of us can smile, and maybe when you’re done riding the trains, criss-crossing our home like the trappings and strings of a net, perhaps then we’ll have some purpose. Perhaps then we’ll catch a gleam of happiness, far out there, rising from the line of the horizon, silhouetted by the sun, riding a fucking horse.