Monday, July 25, 2011

Extracting a Southern Blessing (Travelogue 2011)

My wife and I recently returned from a short trip through the Deep South. Every July we attend a regional reunion on my mother's side of the family, descendants of a Revolutionary War veteran who died in Georgia in 1816. Consequently, most of us in attendance are only very remotely related to one another. These get-togethers have been going on for 32 years and many of us have formed closer bonds with each other than with our more immediate relatives. This is a good thing, as my "close" relatives on this side of the family would not walk across the street to attend a family reunion. Anyway, we find it to be great fun, and my wife always returns with a year's worth of stories and anecdotes. Chattanooga was our venue this year, for no greater reason than we've never met there before. (Next year looks to be Lake Eufaula in Alabama, and the year following to be in North Carolina.) From Tennessee, we pushed on to Charleston, South Carolina for a first time visit. We stayed two nights there, followed by one night in Senoia, GA and then a 12-hour slog straight home. I tend to avoid interstate highways whenever possible, which makes for a longer, but far more interesting journey.

The South is a complex region--equal parts fascination and frustration. But I have never found it dull. Flannery O'Connor said that one has to "wrestle with the South, like Jacob with the angel, to extract a blessing." While she had writers specifically in mind, I believe the larger point holds. The South is easily given to caricature, with the mystique of Moonlight and Magnolias on one end of the spectrum and the NASCAR/Dukes of Hazzard stereotype on the other. I will say that the reason these perceptions are so enduring is that there is an element of truth in each. I know real people and situations that could be straight out of Hollywood central casting for these particular depictions. Fortunately, the South is many other things in between.

Texans have a unique, and sometimes equivocal relationship with the South. We are Southerners, to be sure, but we were the last state of the old Confederacy, as well as the place where the West begins. And so, we have two very distinct orientations, and Texans often pick and chose between them. We are Southern when it suits our purposes and Western when it does not. This dichotomy allows us to be a little more discerning at times, and less accepting of the darker side of Southern culture. Of course, we have our own particular demons. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill once defined the limits of the South as the circulation of Southern Living magazine. This is as good a definition as I have heard. As we have been subscribers all our married life, I guess that puts us inside the South.

The region is not at all immune to the creeping and increasingly shallow similitude of our broad American popular culture. Southern communities that have sold out everything to the god of American consumerism are as ugly, bland and soulless as anywhere else in the country (the stretch of road through the Florence-Muscle Shoals area of Alabama comes to mind.) You could be in Anywhere America. In spite of this, I am always reassured by the resilience of Southern culture. Even in the areas blighted by our general culture, you can turn off the main thoroughfares, drive a bit, and soon there is no doubt about the region you are in. Of course, the racism is still around, though now largely confined to the political arena. And when one does encounter it, it seems more anachronistic than normative.

We stayed the first night at Jackson, Mississippi, only 5 hours away and giving us a good jumping-off point for all points East. Instead of taking the interstate through Alabama and on up to Chattanooga, I decided to follow the Natchez Trace Parkway into northeastern Mississippi, and then cut over to the reunion. The Parkway is one of the great treasures of the South, extending all the way from Natchez to Nashville. The entire route is two-lane, 55 mph, with no billboards or traffic signs, and with limited access. There are no home and very few farms along the way. For the most part, you are simply driving through the woods. This is not for everybody, but suites me quite well. The problem came when I left the Parkway and tried to work my way in a general easterly direction towards Chattanooga. The commercial sprawl of Florence-Muscle Shoals in Lauderdale County marred what should have been a scenic area. I believe there are more Churches of Christ per capita in this county than anywhere else in the world, including Nashville. My own ancestors played no little part in making it that way back in the early decades of the 19th-century. Limestone and Madison Counties were much more attractive, and contained some of the finest farmland I was to see. We finally arrived in Chattanooga, hours later than we would have otherwise, but I would do the same if I had it to do over.

We left Tennessee on Sunday morning, with a fairly lengthy drive ahead of us. As to what to do about church, I had already decided on a course of action. Chattanooga has an OCA mission I would have loved to visit. But Saint Tikhon's is located on the northwest edge of the city, while we were staying out by the airport on the southeast, with the convoluted interstate highway under construction in between. And of course, my wife would no doubt sit in the car while I was at Liturgy. The better alternative was to fore go my preference and ensure that she was able to attend a Church of Christ. I found one close at hand, with a 9:00 a.m. service, in which I accompanied her. The only times I have entered a Church of Christ in the last 5 or 6 years has been at these reunions--in 2009 in Macon, Georgia, and in 2007 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Each left a lasting impression. The Arkansas church was in an upscale neighborhood, with a young energetic minister (whose wife--in an odd six-degrees-of-separation scenario--turned out to be a granddaughter of my grandfather's late-in-life second wife.) I recall that he skillfully expounded at some length on the nature of mission work, its scriptural basis and the necessity for our doing the same, but without once mentioning the actual subject of mission work. During the entire service, except perhaps during the singing, was the name of Jesus ever even mentioned. Not once. The Georgia church was smaller, older and less affluent. Here, the minister sat on a stool with his laptop on the lectern, and delivered his entire exposition of Scripture by PowerPoint. And they were so starved for visitors, that we were literally swarmed in the foyer. My visit to the Churches of Christ in 2011 would prove equally memorable, though I approach the retelling of this with some misgivings. Whenever one criticizes their former religious affiliation, it is often seen as self-justification for what they have replaced it with--and a weak one at that. I know that is my reaction to those who have left Orthodoxy and write of it, and no doubt my Church of Christ friends must view my comments in the same light. And so, I will try to do this as dispassionately as possible. The East Brainard Church of Christ is a large, suburban congregation, with attendance in the 570s, and weekly contributions in the neighborhood of $25,000 (this from their bulletin.) The service had just started when we arrived, and the auditorium was fairly well filled. Churches of Christ are now all across the spectrum, though even the most "progressive" of them would still be seen as fairly conservative given the current state of American Protestantism. I knew immediately where this congregation fell within the spectrum--the guy in the pew in front of us brought his Starbucks coffee to the service and the young song leader was leading in a rousing "Shine, Jesus, Shine." The communion service came early on, and I was impressed that the man reading Scripture beforehand actually invoked the three Persons of the Trinity. I thought this a nice touch, as it is not normally done. In fact, I had about decided that--in the Church of Christ context--they were "doing" worship about as well as could be expected. During the communion service, I noticed that there seemed to be backdrop on the stage. There were panels painted to look like a child's room, with a small bed on one side and a desk on the other. I assumed it pertained to something going on with the children's department. A "Toy Chest" sign had been placed on the double doors to the left of the stage. Soon, all would be made clear. A young woman and a boy walked briskly down the aisle, where the boy climbed up on the stage. Ahhh, a skit. The woman put her hands on her hips and told the boy, in no uncertain terms, to clean up his room. Once they had exited, the double doors opened and characters dressed up as a cowboy and a spaceman climbed up on the stage. They proceeded to go into their routine and it was soon obvious that they were plugging the Vacation Bible School that started that night, being kicked off with a screening of "Toy Story 3." Before long, they were joined by three men painted green and dressed as soldiers, a Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and someone in a dinosaur suit. They proceeded to dance around and go through their routines, to general clapping and laughter. Neither my wife nor I said a word, and I knew she had to be mortified. I was thinking that whatever the preacher had to say couldn't be too credible, coming on the heals of this. Things could not get any sillier. Or so I thought. At that point, the cowboy character, taking roll, started enquiring where Barbie was. And at that point, a young buxom, blond church member wearing a tight workout outfit with everything pushed up and out, you might say, rode a bicycle down the main aisle of the sanctuary, honking her horn as she went. She ran on stage and started bouncing up and down (literally) and waving to the crowd. And so, VBS was kicked off in a big way. This does not quite stoop to the level of a clown mass, but it is on its way. As it turned out, I never got to hear what the preacher had to say. My wife turned to me and asked, "are you ready to leave?"

The trip down through Georgia and South Carolina proved to be most interesting. I wanted to cut over through Jefferson and Lexington, as these communities have historical significance to my family. The latter, though a county seat, is little more than a hamlet and one of the most unspoiled little country towns I have seen in quite a while. The fact that Oglethorpe County is not exactly on the road to anywhere plays a large part in its preservation, I suspect. I stopped at the "new" Bethsalem Presbyterian Church--the one built in 1817. My family came to Georgia from North Carolina with this church group in 1785. Again, I was impressed with the productive farmland. In my region of Texas, crops stopped being grown decades ago, taken over by cattle and timber. And so I always enjoy traveling through a real agricultural region. I never knew corn grew as high as I saw it here. We entered South Carolina at Augusta, and then angled over to Aiken. This small city has to be one of the most pleasant communities anywhere. One day, I hope to return there and look around a little more closely. On the road into the town, I passed the sign for St. Catherine Orthodox Church. I know nothing of this mission or its status, but I was pleased to see it take its place among other roadside churches, such as the Whosoever Wills Prayerband Holiness Church, a bit further down. And who knows, perhaps one day these missions may dot the Southern landscape here and there. (I know that hope does not fit the narrative of some who assert that Orthodoxy will never take hold in the country, doomed as it were by the very converts it attracts. They may be right, but I think not. And even if so, I have always enjoyed working at something while being told it can't be done.) Of course, there were plenty of roadside establishments of a less spiritual nature, such as Zippy's Motel and Social Club and the Wow-Wee Country Club. Had I been traveling alone and not in such a hurry to reach Charleston, I think the Wow-Wee would have made a tempting stop.

In due course, we finally arrived in Charleston, a city not exactly on the way to anywhere. Charleston was meant to be approached by sea, rather than by road. Our accommodations were well-situated, on Meeting Street three blocks north of Broad, within easy walking distance of most everything one would want to see in the old town. I always try to get a sense of the places I visit. I suspect that my snap judgments may sometimes be far off the mark. That said, my impression of Charleston is not that of the quintessential Southern town I imagined, what with the part they played in starting the war and all. In many ways, the town hearkens back to something far older than the ante-bellum South. One gets the feel of insularity from the outside world, a city-state almost. I believe the residents are more about being "all about Charleston," than they are being representatively Southern.

The town bills itself as the "Holy City" in light of its numerous churches. That might be stretching it a bit, but the old town is chock-a-block with them and most are quite lovely. The portico of St. Philip's Church actually extends out into the street. The entire churchyard, as well as the lot across the street is the parish cemetery, where many notables, including John C. Calhoun, are buried. At night, this is one of the most atmospheric places in the city. There are all sorts of specific tours of the old town, including the ubiquitous "Ghost Tours." But the good folks at St. Philip's are having nothing to do with it. They have a sign posted inside the fence stating "The Only Ghost at St. Philip's is the Holy Ghost...Join Us for Worship Sundays and Learn about the Trinity, Including the Holy Ghost." Good for them, I say. The raised tomb of William Rhett, a founder of Charleston who died in 1722, is hard up against the iron fence directly across from St. Philip's. The top of the tomb is covered with pennies, and a few nickels that passers-by have flipped there for good luck. I do not believe in luck, but reached into my pocket anyway. I did have a number of pennies, as well as a few dimes. In my foolish reasoning, I considered how much more lucky a dime would be than a mere penny. And so, I flipped the dime through the fence onto the tomb. The coin landed on end, rolled around in a complete circle and then careened off the raised slab onto the ground below. I had to laugh at myself, now duly chastened for my over-reaching. I fumbled in my pocket again and came out with a nickel, figuring to split the difference. The five-cent piece rolled and stayed. I would have to be content with moderate luck, I suppose. The nearby Circular Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) is an interesting structure on Meeting Street, a block north of Broad. I really did not expect to find an old Congregationalist church in Charleston, but nevertheless, there it was. As at St. Philip's, the churchyard was completely taken over by the ancient graveyard, which in fact backed right up to the St. Philip's Cemetery. Many of the burials dated back to the early part of the 18th-century. With the older stones depicting the angel of death, the cemetery could have just as easily have been in colonial Boston or Cape Cod, except for the fact that many of the names were French. I had to chuckle at the sign in front of the church, which read "Circular Congregational Church, a Progressive and Inclusive Community since 1681." But of course! These days, everyone knows what the words progressive and inclusive really mean when used in a religious context. And when one thinks of progressivism and inclusivity, I am sure that Charleston, South Carolina is the first thing that pops into our minds, as it has since 1681. Pretty silly stuff, that. In my first semester in graduate school, my history professor introduced us to the concept of "presentism," in which one's contemporary beliefs are forced back upon historical events. But then, another sign advertised that on Tuesday nights the stolid old church transformed itself into "Praise House!" I am sure you get the picture.

The old city market was only a block north of our inn. This long, narrow hall is a fixture of old Charleston. The structure has recently undergone a thorough-going restoration, and is now a tourist haunt. Most of what is sold here is frou-frou stuff manufactured elsewhere. But outside the halls, a number of black women still sit in the shade and weave the beautiful sweet-grass baskets. We purchased a small one, our only souvenir from Charleston. The payment went directly to the artisan herself, who only stopped weaving long enough to take the money. Unique to the Gullah culture, I understand this weaving is something of a dying art. There seemed to be a number of women doing it, but with limited interest among the younger generation.

The inn where we stayed offered up an impressive breakfast in the lobby each morning. While I was piling-up my plate, I overheard one of the guests talking to the black lady who was obviously in charge of this operation. The tourist lady was trying to decide which outlying plantation home to visit that day and asked the black lady if she had ever visited there (a question I would not have asked.) The woman was polite, but firm, answering "No, no. I've never wanted to go there." The traveler nodded and quickly replied, "I understand, I understand." And I think we stiff-necked white Southerners are perhaps finally beginning to understand. These stately old Southern plantations that are our pride mean something altogether different to our fellow Southerners whose ancestors were forced to work them.

I left our itinerary in Charleston totally up to my wife, and she decided that we should visit Drayton Hall, a plantation on the Ashley River not too far out of the city. The residence itself was built in 1738 by a younger son of the family that owned the neighboring plantation, "The Magnolias." The latter home, obviously older than Drayton Hall, still remains in the family. The home we visited stayed in the Drayton family for 7 generations before it was finally gifted to the National Historic Trust. Outside of the obvious fact that it was the headquarters of a slave-based rice plantation, there was nothing about the house that we would particularly characterize as Southern. The three-story Georgian and Italianate mansion is simply an English country home, what one would expect to see in Hampshire or Surrey. Other than painting-over, nothing was really ever changed inside the house. The detailed 18th-century woodwork remains in place. The interior reminded me very much of Stratford Hall, the Virginia boyhood home of Robert E. Lee. But more than the house and grounds, we enjoyed the 45-minute presentation and group discussion on the enslaved inhabitants of Drayton Hall. A retired librarian, now Trust employee, led an engaging discussion about the development of the Gullah culture along the South Carolina coast. She had no axe to grind, neither excoriating nor defending the Draytons, merely telling it as it was, as dispassionately as possible given the subject matter.

Before returning into Charleston, I looped over to the suburb of Mount Pleasant, where I visited the Holy Ascension Orthodox Church. I had a nice visit with Fr. John Parker (whom I had met before) and a seminarian summer intern. This is a beautiful temple, and in one sense is something of a rarity in the OCA. I suppose it would be unkind to characterize them as a wealthy parish, so I will just say that their temple is in a wealthy neighborhood and leave it at that. Knowing something about them ahead of time prepared me to be impressed, and I was not disappointed.

Leaving Charleston and trying to get anywhere reminded me again of how isolated the city can seem. I resigned myself to a good bit of interstate driving and did not leave same until I reached Macon, Georgia. I ventured west and northwesterly from Macon, and visited three family cemeteries connected to both our families. Fortunately the graveyards were all right next to the road, and I was able to see what I needed without even engaging the Georgia chigger population. A fruit stand in Woodbury was a necessary stop for some peach ice cream and a 25 lb. box of Georgia peaches, which would find their way into the freezer and jelly jars once we made it home. We stopped over a bed and breakfast in Senoia, Georgia, in what had once been the old Hollberg Hotel. This little town was also saved by being by-passed by the main highway. Incredibly, the town never really suffered, and is in such a state of preservation that it has become something of a destination. A movie studio in town has been the catalyst for a number of major motion pictures being shot here, including "Fried Green Tomatoes," "Sweet Home, Alabama," "Driving Miss Daisy," and a bit incongruously, Stephen King's "Pet Sematery, II." Anyway, it provide a nice respite for the marathon drive home.

That last day, we lingered around the breakfast table visiting with our hosts, as if we did not have a 12-hour slog ahead of us. But we finally got on our way. Before we crossed over into Alabama, I stopped and picked up a half-case of Yuengling, which cannot be purchased west of the Mississippi. I did not know how far west I could buy it, but I wasn't taking any chances! We made a short detour in Uniontown, Alabama, home to one of the most beautiful Episcopalian churches anywhere, the Church of the Holy Cross. Directly behind the church and graveyard stands an old, decaying Southern mansion. I checked on it two years ago when passing through, and at that time, the house was just on the edge of being an utter ruin. I was pleased to see that someone had purchased it, and is tearing away the rotten wood--of which there is a considerable amount--and seem to be in the initial stages of restoring it. I commend them and hope they have deep pockets. About 10 miles further on, we detoured in Gallion to take a look at St. Marks, a beautiful Episcopal church out in the west Alabama countryside. We stopped briefly at our favorite bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi for a 5:00 book-signing by two Southern authors. By 11:00 we were safely at home, and the next morning I was back at work. All in all, a week well-spent for the both of us.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Curmudgeonly Thoughts on Patriotism and the Fourth

Let's just say I'm not much of a flag-waver. I have always been a little ambivalent about the Fourth of July holiday. As a historian, I understand the significance of what happened on this date in 1776, and our collective need to commemorate it. And in terms of our history, it is the colonial era--whether it be English, French, Spanish or Dutch--that most interests me. I wholeheartedly agree that our Revolution and the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence which set our course as a nation are truly remarkable events in world history.

That said, a realistic, even-handed reading of the struggle reveals that George III made for an unlikely villain, and that of Britain's many possessions, we were the most pampered, privileged and prosperous. The Seven Years War (our French and Indian War) nearly bankrupted the Empire. And when asked to pony-up our share of the massive debt the Crown incurred in defending these very same colonies, well, the colonists were having none of it. We had been left to our own devices for too long, it seems. And the only thing that separated our glorious revolution from an ignominious one was the fact that we got away with it (thank you, France.) None of this means we should not celebrate the occasion, I'm just saying that I have never been carried away by all the hoopla surrounding the day.

When I was about 12 years old, I remember a conversation between my mother and my uncle--her brother-in-law. My mother was working in the kitchen, as usual, and my uncle was sitting there on a stool, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, no doubt, talking away. Two more dissimilar people could not be found, but they enjoyed each other's company, even though he was much more the conversationalist. My mother was the most literal, matter-of-fact person you would ever encounter. She did not speak the language of nuance and subtlety and shaded meanings. Symbolism was lost on her. Mother said exactly what she was thinking, regardless, and in her view it was the right thing to say because it was what she believed. As would be expected, this created lots of controversies through the years, but my dad was usually there to smooth things over, or at least pick up the pieces. She was fiercely loyal, but only to her tribe, her blood kin. It went no further. My uncle was a career Navy man. A life at sea had rescued him from both the Great Depression and an aimlessness in life. He circumnavigated the world 3 times and served in World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War. His experiences gave him a perspective my mother could never imagine.

Anyway, the conversation somehow turned to "the Flag." My uncle spoke eloquently of the honor and respect due the flag and its symbolism, etc. My mother, almost off-handedly, remarked that it did not mean anything to her at all, that it was just a piece of cloth. My uncle was left speechless, one of the few times I ever saw him at a loss for words. The discussion continued on, with my uncle becoming increasing frustrated with my mother's intransigence on the issue. And while I understood my mother's thinking--even at that age--I nevertheless sympathized with my uncle.

So, the Fourth was never a major holiday in our home. Generally, it fell during hay-baling season, so the day off simply meant that there was a good chance I would spend it in the hay field. There was always a good meal that night, perhaps with homemade ice cream, but that would be about it. Fireworks were never considered--"foolishness" in my mother's eyes.

My attitude at this stage of life lies somewhere between my uncle's and my mother's view. My "patriotism," if you want to call it that, or at least my loyalties, have much more to do with a particular piece of dirt that I live on, or my family lives on or has lived on. I have no particular feelings about our flag, or any other. In that sense, I recognize that I am my mother's son. I find American history to be unique, but not exceptional. We are not the end of history. Given enough time, there will be other configurations within what is now the United States, some maybe sooner than we would otherwise believe.

I respect and honor our soldiers, and now feel some regret that I did not serve in the armed forces myself. And when the caskets or maimed bodies of our young men are returned home from Mesopotamia or the Hindu Kush, from these most incomprehensible of incomprehensible wars, I am deeply saddened for them, their families and the utter waste of it all. And no amount of flag-waving, parades, Star-Spangled-Bannering or politicians eulogizing about their sacrifice in "defense" of our country helps one damn bit.