Freaks & Monsters – Being an Artist in the South – My interview with Nick Norwood concludes – Part 3 of 3

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Nick Norwood’s poetry at an installation at The Eagle & Pheonix cotton mills, now lofts

Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, is also a great poet.   Like McCullers, he writes about what he knows – the American South and its eccentricities.  In previous segments of this essay we talked about the universal themes in McCullers’ work and her sense of place.  In this segment we wind up with a discussion of race talk and talk about what it means to be an artist in the Deep South…

How do think Carson McCullers’ views on race relations hold up today?

One of the papers that was read at the [recent international] conference was about how she was a part of her culture, too.  You see that in her depictions of African-Americans.  Even though it’s clear that she is sympathetic, it’s almost unavoidable that she’s gonna say things that are patronizing or that show a blind spot here and there.  So the argument that Sarah Schulman makes is that we shouldn’t just consider where she makes a mistake.  It’s the attitude towards other people that we should try to emulate.  She really was sympathetic to other people and even if she might have had some blind spots that’s not the important thing.

The New Yorker critic Hilton Als is a gay African-American man.  He won the Pulitzer prize for criticism and he has long been a McCullers fan.  He wrote a really important piece on her back in the early 2000s and has written other pieces on her.  He points out things in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that make him cringe.  He acknowledges what Richard Wright says and he says, “I’m not gainsaying what Richard Wright says.  He was right and yet still there are things I think that are embarrassing to all of us.”  For instance, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she wants to make a clear distinction between Dr Copeland and his children and she does it partly with her speech but I think she overdoes it a little bit.

There are things that she has especially Portia say.  She makes comments like walking in a black neighborhood “it had that negro smell” and that was one of the things that Hilton Als said.  She was a product of her time in that way.  So I think the main thing to try to emulate and to appreciate now is the attitude towards other people and especially the ‘other’, that I think is clear that she had, that’s the thing.

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Nick Norwood

So she talks a lot about, and has a lot of characters who are freaks and outsiders—like the circus freaks who come to town. I’m sure she felt that way growing up a lot. How is it for you being a poet in the Deep South?

You know the famous comment by Flannery O’Conner when she was asked, “Why do you Southerners have so many grotesques in your work?”  She said, “Well maybe it’s because we know one when we see one.”

My good friend Fred Fussell, who is a historian and musicologist and is married to Cathy Fussell, who was the second director of the McCullers Center—they are local historians interested in the art and culture of this place.  He explained it as “Every place has its eccentrics; we’re just exceptional.”

I think maybe that is sort of true of the South.  I feel like I am not exploiting that in the way that those famous, now we refer to them as Southern Renaissance, authors did because it would feel like an adaptation to me.  On the other hand, I’m writing about things that really happened to me in my life.  I know a lot of people see that.

When I make friends with people that are from outside the South and we start telling stories of our childhood and they look at me like “Wow!”  What can I tell you? That was just home.  So I don’t know if the South is exceptional in that way but it seems to be so.

I am like Carson.  Seriously, I came to Carson McCullers in my 20s and she was an influence on me as a writer.  I was only writing fiction at the time.  I later found out I was a poet but still I think that she’s an influence and one of the ways that she is that is, I think, to pay proper homage to a place, especially your own place, is to be absolutely honest about it and that includes writing about a lot of people that other people are going to see as freaks and monsters.

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Carson McCullers

So it might be easier to be a poet in the South because you’ve got a lot of material.

Yeah, fiction writers have gone to town. I was lucky to find models amongst the poets, many of whom became my friends, I don’t know if you know Andrew Hudgins for instance.  He is a poet from Montgomery, Alabama writing from a Christian perspective.  I met him when I was in graduate school in Texas.  He’s still a good friend of mine and he writes with blunt honesty about the South and it’s a shocking thing. His most shocking poems are the ones that are most about his Christian faith.  He likes bad jokes more than any otherwise intelligent person I think I’ve ever met and he would tell a joke sometimes in his poems.

Also this poet David Bottoms, who’s a Georgia poet, who’s just terrific.  He’s a great poet also become a friend and mentor.  His first book, which was chosen for the Walt Whitman Award, made his career—a book called Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.  It is unrelenting in its focus on the violence and the brutality of Southern culture and yet it is unmistakably a book by a serious poet.

So I had these models to find a way to talk about my Southern childhood in poems but I think that for a long time it was difficult for Southern poets to do it.  It’s almost like poetry had to evolve to a point where you could write that kind of poem.  Previously it seemed that, if you were a fiction writer, the South was a good place to grow up because there was all this great material for fiction.  I’m just lucky that I came along a little later so there are a lot of prominent American poets who are from the South and writing about the South right now.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Five Things I Learned from a Cowboy (Church)

IMG_6710I love a horse trough baptism as much as the next guy, but I have to admit that I’m a traditionalist at heart.  I appreciate the time-worn beauty of prayers passed down through generations, the mystery and splendor of a good four-part choir, the movement and purposeful flow of a well-planned order of worship, and attention paid to, you know, words.  On the other hand, I’ve been known to lead a rousing chorus of “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” with the Bishop and Cabinet.  What I’m saying is, I’m flexible.

So, recently I went to Cowboy Church and here’s what I learned.

I was in the Big Bend country of West Texas, so it was a place with real cowboys, though this phenomenon has been spreading out to many far-flung places where ranch hands are more rare, including Virginia.  The American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches counts over 200 member congregations but that’s just one organizantion.  There are many more in the US, Canada, and even Australia.  But, of course, the epicenter and place where it all began is Texas.

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Pastor Wendal in the Pen

What did I find?  Well, the Big Bend Cowboy Church is an unassuming metal building with a Western-style wrap-around porch.  Walking in the front doors I was greeted by Pastor Wendal Elliott, who was dressed in a spotless white Western shirt, jeans, boots, and cowboy hat.  There was all the evidence that I was in a church narthex, just with a few more frayed rope and barbed wire decorations.  There was the prayer board, the doughnuts, the coffee, the styrofoam cups.  So far, it was all feeling very familiar.

It was only when I rounded the corner to head to the worship space that the ethos of the place became clear.  Behind another door was a big warehouse space on a concrete pad.  Metal roll-up doors were opened to the Glass Mountains beyond.  An old rail fence decorated with American flags, saddles, and wagon wheels framed a…chancel?  Corral?  Let’s call it the Preacher’s Pen. There was more barbed wire, including the crown on the large wooden cross on the wall.

A large group of people were milling about greeting one another.  Some in the rows of chairs near the front, others around the cafeteria tables set up in the back.  The vibe was friendly and  aggressively casual.

The service began without warning.  Pastor Wendal just leaped up into the Pen and we were off.  There were a few announcements.  “The Cowgirl Gathering is coming up next weekend.  Thanks to those who showed up to the rodeo yesterday.”  Then he invited up a man who leads a ministry to those in prison.  He shared a heartfelt testimony about his son’s incarceration and about the importance of reaching out to the children and families of those in prison.  I was moved.

IMG_6699Then it was time to sing…briefly.  A man with an impressively groomed mustache and a bright green flowered Western shirt got us to our feet to sing songs “which I’m sure you know.”  There was a songbook, but I don’t think these were included in it.  There was also a screen that we didn’t use.  “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Do Lord,” back to “I’ll Fly Away,” one verse each, all to the accompaniment of a single guitar.  Then we sat down while Brother Mustache’s wife came up to join him a medley of country-western gospel tunes, some self-written.  Good folks with good voices, but I couldn’t help feeling shorted on the music front.  This constituted the whole of the music for the day.

I also wondered how and if this music would connect with the theme of the day, which turned out to be self-control.  Pastor Wendal quoted Proverbs 25:28, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control.” Then, he shared his experience in the cutting competition at the rodeo the day before and how winning requires discipline, training, and preparation.  We looked at other Bible verses praising self-control as a fruit of the Spirit and an essential feature of the Christian life.

Pastor Wendal struck me as a perfect Cowboy Church pastor.  He was direct, humble, not flashy, and seemed to be thoroughly of a piece with the culture the church so clearly celebrated.  He had authentic twang and the dramatic hand gestures so common in rural Texas.  (Think Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove.)  The message was the kind of life application preaching heard in so many non-denominational and Baptist churches these days.

fullsizeoutput_1877Then it was time to go to the stock tank.  Two teenaged worshippers came forward to be immersed by Brother Mustache, who apparently is a pastor himself.  He offered a straightforward believer’s baptism explanation of what was about to happen and then proceeded to the act.  The United Methodist in me longed for some…any…description of God’s act in the baptism, but the emphasis was definitely on personal witness.

Pastor Wendal followed it up with a low-key invitation to faith.  “Meet me in the back if you’d be interested in baptism yourself.”  And then, as suddenly as the service had begun, it was over.  Pastor Wendal jumped out of the Pen, without a benediction (or an offering!), and it was over.  People headed for the pick-up trucks and rode off into the sunset.

So what did I learn?

1) The emphasis falls heavy on the ‘cowboy’ and much less on the ‘church.’  This is by intention.  “Unchurched people view a traditional church as an organization that just wants their money and they also feel that the institutional church is too ‘righteous’ for them,” Frank Sanchez, a cowboy church planter told the Waxahachie Daily Light. “What we want to do in the cowboy church is to lower those barriers built up between the church and the unchurched, and make people feel comfortable – that they can come as they are.”

I heard the same thing from the police chief in Archer City when I talked to him about cowboy church over chicken-fried steak at Murn’s Cafe.  “I don’t have to dress up and I understand everything they say.”

Surely, it’s a good thing that people are working to lower the barriers and to help people who have been alienated from the institutional church, and institutions in general, to find their way into worship.  By so heavily emphasizing the Western heritage culture, however, is Cowboy Church failing to be church?  Is it so identified with the culture it promotes that it cannot stand against that culture when needed or initiate those who come in to the culture of the reign of God?  That’s a question for every church, by the way.

2) For a place with no dress code, there was a dress code.  Cowboy hats, boots, jeans, your best Western shirt, cowgirl chic for the women—you definitely had to be duded to the nines to feel at home in this place.  Even the children were outfitted appropriately.  I don’t think this was out of the norm for this community.  I saw this dress everywhere I went.   So, the police chief was probably right that people didn’t feel they were having to dress up by dressing this way.  But if you came dressed otherwise, you would have felt out of place.

3) Connection with the church of every time and place is not a priority.  Pastor Wendal was headed to a convention of cowboy churches and asked for travel prayers, but otherwise, the focus of the service was entirely on the individuals present.  It was not just the baptism that was individually-focused, everything was oriented to individual choice.  The multiple US flags seemed to be the most prominent nod to any kind of larger community.  It was the Sunday after the protests in Charlottesville and not a word was said.

4) Cowboy Church didn’t tell me how to be a disciple.  How does a church that is so focused on removing barriers to participation move those who attend to greater discipleship?  There was not even an offering, which made me wonder how people are challenged to think about the discipline of generous giving.  There were men’s and women’s groups meeting later in the week, but I did not feel that I was being told much about how to grow in the Christian life beyond advocating self-control.

fullsizeoutput_18765) I like cowboy duds.  I could get used to this get up.  And for bald guys, (check that—persons with baldness), a cowboy hat is a very practical piece of headwear in the Texas sun.  I did meet people who probably wouldn’t have been in church otherwise and there were a lot of them.  They felt comfortable.  But a cowboy church, like every church, has the challenge of being not only accessible, but faithful to the world-challenging message of the gospel.

John Wesley once accepted the call to field preaching with coal miners by saying, “I submitted to be more vile.”  I think he’d have donned a bolo and submitted to be more Western if the occasion had arisen.  But for what purpose?  I ask the same thing of Cowboy Church that I ask of all the churches I visit these days.  And we’re doing this why?

Carson’s Place – My Interview with Nick Norwood Continues – part 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, we talked about the universal themes of McCullers’ writing.  Today we talk about the strong sense of place in her work and the way Columbus, Georgia, her hometown, informs it.

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The Eagle and Phoenix Mill in Columbus, GA

So we think of Carson McCullers as a writer of the heart but she also has this strong sense of place. How do you see this having lived here a long time? How does Columbus fit into her work?

I once tried to write fiction when I was at the University of North Texas. I also loved poetry but one of the things I noticed about writing fiction is that I could not take myself seriously writing, creating characters who didn’t speak with a Southern accent. For better or worse my characters were gonna have to be Southerners because that was the only way that I could have them speak in what I considered to be an authentic way.  It occurs to me that that is partly where Carson is coming from, not just in terms of how characters speak but how they act, and what they eat and all the letters and all of those things — that was her foundation.

You can find all of these different writers who make this remark about your best stuff comes from your childhood. I believe that’s true, I really do. It’s been true in my life as a writer and I believe that it’s true and this is the place where she grew up so it’s the source for all her stuff. The other thing is that she saw firsthand the situation of the poor millworker.  So she had that firsthand experience of poverty and that sort of hard life and what it does for instance to race relations.  These people are on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder for white people and so they’ve got to have somebody that they feel is beneath them—that’s African-Americans.  So you can imagine what it’s like being an African-American.  So I think all of that stuff informs her work.

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Nick Norwood

You can also find other things in her work where you realize, once you know about her life, “Ah, that had to have been partly where she gained the insight.”  For instance, in her second book, [Reflections in a Golden Eye], we have this homosexual army officer and that was one of the things that really angered people [about the book] here in Columbus. One of her best friends was Edwin Peacock, who was a gay soldier here, and through him she met other gay soldiers.  This is this thing that people didn’t want to see, didn’t want to recognize, wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. It was dangerous for someone like Edwin Peacock to have someone know this about him but Carson knew it.

So you can find things in her work all the time that show you: “Oh, she had the real experience that she had in Georgia that helped give her the insight about this.” Carson was able to see in her own little town things that relate to the human condition in general.  It was like all great writers who end up being able to connect with other people: [through] experiences they have growing up, they’re able to see people beyond just the way that their neighbors try to see them.

They’re both insiders and outsiders. She grew up Lula Carson; that’s about as Southern as you can get and she loved Southern food.  if you’ve ever heard her voice—I have people from Columbus tell me, that’s not just a Georgia accent that’s a Columbus accent that you hear there.

So she’s an insider but on the other hand she was an outsider and was shunned by a lot of people because she was ‘weird.’  That’s the term that they always used to refer to her from the beginning.  She didn’t dress right; she was much more interested in the society of books than she was with society of her neighbors. She was just a young person who remained aloof and was mocked and didn’t care, which rural people do not like. So she was an outsider which allowed her to observe them more objectively than most people who are from a place are able to do.  That’s where Columbus shows up in her work.  She was able to see, in Columbus, so many different facets of the human experience in this one place.

Maybe that has something to do with the particular place because even though it’s a relatively small town, it was about 40,000 when she was growing up, it’s kind of interesting the number of people from different walks of life, to use that cliché, but also from different geographic regions that this place brings together.  Fort Benning is huge and when you start reading about the history of the army in the 20th century, all the major players came through this place.

Eisenhower was the commandant at one point. Rusty Calley was tried here [for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam] and then spent most of the rest of his life living in this town. My partner lives a few blocks from where Omar Bradley had lived around the corner from her house.  Still, as a teacher at Columbus State, I teach students who come from all over the country and even from different parts of the world because of Fort Benning.  Then there’s the Coca-cola connection and the cotton mills that drew in all of this industry. So it was, in a way, a good place to soak up humanity.

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Nick Norwood’s poetry in an installation at the Eagle and Pheonix Mill in Columbus

I read your piece about the millworkers for Library of America.  Even though she’s got those characters like Jake Blount and Dr. Copeland who are really engaged in thinking about political realities and economics, I’ve never really thought of her as having that side developed.  Of course, she was only 19 when she wrote it but you see that she had a real feel for it.

The other things that she wrote about are more widely discussed.  They’ve become part of this prominent national conversation that we’re having about, take for instance, sexual orientation.  At [a recent] international conference, there was a lot of talk about that.  In fact, they had an open call for proposals for papers and then, based on the proposals that they got, they came up with the sessions because there were so many people writing about like things.  They had to have two sessions for gender and sexuality cause there were so many people who wanted to write about that aspect of her work.  Not one paper on her writing about the working class, not one.

That’s partly because, McCullers tends to attract a certain type of scholar—people who are interested in certain kind of things.  People who are attracted to writing about the working class and so forth have more often gone to other writers.  But I think that’s a mistake that you overlook that aspect of her work because it is prominent and one of her major characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Jake.  That’s what he’s all about.  If you read her author’s outline where she’s describing the town, clearly it was a big part of what she was thinking about and writing about.  Setting the story in a town like this with the mill culture and poor and how the mill workers all had that look of loneliness and sadness.  It’s a big part of her work that is currently being overlooked, but with the popularity of J.D. Vance’s book, [Hillbilly Elegy], because of this recent election, maybe more people will consider that aspect of it.

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Alex hanging out with Carson McCullers

She talks in one of her essays about homesickness being the American disease—we’re always looking for a home. 

“Loneliness: An American Malady” is the title of the piece.

How does that play out with Columbus because after she left she never really returned to live?

She’s sort of like James Joyce—left and never wanted to live there again but never wrote about anything else. It’s a cliché, again, this love-hate relationship, but, especially if you’re as sensitive a person as Carson McCullers was and you’re exposed to this place at that most impressionable time in your life, its going to be a big part of you.  At the time same time, as Thomas Wolfe says, you can never go home again.  It’s never going to be the same.

Even though I think she was grandstanding a little bit when she said, “I have to return home periodically to renew my sense of horror,” she really was horrified by what went on here—the poverty, the race relations, and all of those things.  You can’t get away from it and on the other hand you can’t return to it.

But what she says in that essay about the particular American version of loneliness, (and I’ve flown this by people from other countries to see if they would say “Well, that’s not true.  We have the same thing” and no one’s really called me on that), her argument is basically that we don’t have the class ties that the European countries have and that long history.  I was just in Italy and you study all of this Roman history and realize even that was built on earlier histories.  You have these traditions that have been going on for thousands of years.  We don’t have that here, so to be disconnected here is to really be disconnected.

One of the interesting things that she says is that writers and artists have often formed themselves into schools.  They branch out from the mainstream but they’re not doing it alone, They have other people similar.

She says more often what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves.  They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them.  Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.

It is a strange thing in the case of somebody like Carson but one of the things to me that shows that she really did feel a sort of homesickness is when she talks about food and holidays and the trees.  You can tell that she misses those things intensely.

She was asked by Holiday magazine to write a piece on the South and they couldn’t publish it.  She could only be honest, so it was not just talking about good, happy things, which is what they wanted—the things that you love about Columbus.  She couldn’t do it without also talking about the things that are not good, about the natives’ racism and other things.  That’s one of the things that has estranged her from a lot of people in Columbus especially during her lifetime and among people who were still alive in the decades after her death.  She exposed the town’s dirty laundry and they think that’s unforgivable.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 3 of this interview

In Which I Tumble Out of the Tumble In and Head to Terlingua – A West Texas Adventure

IMG_6683The bright lights and hubbub of the big city (Archer City, that is – population ~1800) were starting to get to me, so I decided to head even further out into West Texas.  Out to where the skies stretch out like God’s own Imax screen.  Out to where coyotes howl at the setting sun and the rising moon.  Where javelinas, those tough little pigs, take chunks out of prickly pears and diamondbacks thick as a tree trunk slither across the roadway in the heat.  Out to Big Bend country.

Who am I kidding?  All those things happen in Archer City, too, but you need to savor the differences.  Texas has more layers than a sweet Vidalia, though you wouldn’t know it from the coverage it gets, pro and con.  And if Jerry Jeff Walker found a piece of Texas essence in the Chisos Mountains, maybe I could, too.  Viva Terlingua, y’all!

IMG_6639I set up camp at the Tumble In RV Park just outside of Marfa where, I kid you not, a major poetry festival was going on.  I wandered over to the El Cosmico Campground  and we sat by the light of the setting sun among the yurts and teepees, listening to poets from exotic places like Tucson and New Jersey wax about border crossings, Wall Street, and childhood trauma.  We laughed.  We cried.  (On the inside.  We are poets after all.)  A band set up to play some desert folk.    It was like what Woodstock would have been if people had brought vegetables to grill and had really good footwear from REI.

I didn’t survive at the Poetry Festival past the first night.  Marfa, I realized, was not for me.  Every gas station has become an art gallery and every quonset hut an organic burrito joint.  I needed something that involved more existential wondering, more sense of place, and more sweat and misery.  Poetry can do that when its good, but not in fru-fru Marfa.  So after a hearty breakfast at Buns N’ Roses, (it’s a flower shop after breakfast, OK?), I headed for the Chihuahuan desert.

fullsizeoutput_184cRoadrunners darted across the road as I wound down the mountains south of Alpine.  A coyote slipped under a barbed wire fence and disappeared into the scrub.  The landscape turned from a fragile, vibrant green to yellow dirt and gravel.  Strange, volcanic mountains off in the distance and not a house in sight.  Eighty miles to Terlingua, and nothing in between.  And Terlingua was supposed to be a ghost town.

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Viva Terlingua!

Only it’s not.  The cinnabar mine from which the military extracted so much mercury to blow up things in the World Wars, has closed.  But the end of the mercury trade has not meant the end of the crazy in Terlingua.  Jerry Jeff put it on the map with his iconic 70s album, but competing international chili cook-offs and an earned reputation for offering refuge to misfits have made it a collection point for a wide variety of eccentrics.  I stopped at La Posada Milagro for a coffee.  “Espresso…y poco mas!” the sign said.  Very little mas as it turned out.  But, hey, I was not expecting coffee in the desert.

IMG_6669I sat on the patio and looked out towards the valley and the Chisos beyond.  A small cemetery filled with bleached wooden crosses marked the final resting place of former Terlingua residents who had braved this unforgiving terrain, coffee-less, in years past.  The heat made it feel as though everything beneath it was grilling – not just the vegetables back in Marfa.  I couldn’t imagine thinking clearly in such heat in the days before air conditioning, never mind that they were, you know, mining mercury!

Big Bend offers two spectacular parks, the national park—which fills with visitors during its peak season March-June to hike the Chisos basin, ride the rapids through Santa Elena Canyon, and perhaps to sit in the natural hot springs baths and watch the sun set over the Rio Grande, and the state park—which offers unrelenting desolation, no services, but the greatest drive in America.  That’s where I was headed.

IMG_6677I stopped in the visitor’s center in Lajitas to check in with the ranger about what I should know about hiking.  Turns out what I should know about hiking is that I really shouldn’t do much of it.  It was 100 degrees, you are absolutely exposed to the sun, and everything out there, plant and animal, wants to hurt you.  Or even if it doesn’t, it will do it incidentally.  That in mind, I headed to the Fresno Divide Trail, a pleasant little jaunt just south of El Solitario, the major geologic feature of the state park, which is a massive eroded volcanic cone.

Forty-five minutes into my hike, I had found what I came for – the splendid isolation of the desert, the remarkable flora and fauna perfectly adapted to their environment, the absence of pretentious poets.  To be in such a place was lonesome communion with the Creator and creatures.  My inner space expanding in this big space.

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The Rio Grande from the Greatest Drive in America

Then it thundered.  Black clouds began rolling up from the Mexican side of the river and to the north over El Solitario.  Two storms were coming and I knew, because I watched my fair share of Westerns, that a feller could drown in the desert if he got stuck in an arroyo in a rainstorm.  Not that I was in an arroyo, but I liked the word so much that I repeated it out loud on my jog back to the car, racing the clouds.  Arroyo.  Arroyo.  And to be fair, Fresno Canyon was just to my right.

IMG_6696The rains did come.  After driving a while along the Rio Grande, I found myself stranded between two improvised rivers on the road to Presidio (aka The Greatest Drive in America) and had to wait for the waters to go down.  I stood by one of those rivers with the surprisingly refreshing smell of the damp creosote bushes in the air.

The rest of the day was not so pleasant.  The rains returned when I got to the Tumble In and I had to retrieve the tent from a lake and pack it wet.  I ended up at the Bien Venido Motel in Alpine about which the less said the better.

But if I can’t recommend the accommodation, I can encourage you to take to the desert.  The Bible says that hope comes like streams in the desert and I’ve seen those streams.  They flow through ocotillo and lechuguilla down to the canyons of the Rio Grande.  I hope we never see a wall in such places.  The glory of God needs to flow.

Oh, but I gotta tell you about Cowboy Church!  Next time…

The Spiritual Isolation of Carson McCullers – An Interview with Nick Norwood – part 1 of 3

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Nick Norwood in front of a painting of Carson McCullers in Columbus, GA

So, I’ve got a thing for Carson McCullers.  Anybody who read this blog through the McCullers-palooza that was her 100th birthday celebration in February will know that this Southern writer speaks to me.  The characters that she introduced us to in such classics as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of Sad Cafe are indelible, all afflicted with the same malady – the longing for love and connection.  It’s the same theme that some of our greatest Christian writers (Augustine, Julian of Norwich) have dealt with.

Nick Norwood, who is, among other things, the director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, calls this theme ‘spiritual isolation.’

On my current renewal leave, I stopped by Columbus, Georgia at the childhood home of McCullers, who was born Lula Carson Smith.  Sitting in the kitchen of that house where a young Carson produced her earliest works using the pocket doors for a curtain and her siblings as actors, I got to spend a great hour with Nick, who is also an accomplished poet and Professor of Creative Writing at CSU.

In the three parts of this interview we talk McCuller’s sense of place in writing, her ongoing influence, and what it’s like being a Southern poet.

37380So if you had to say why people should still be interested in Carson McCullers what would you say?

Well, I think one of the things is that Carson McCullers developed universal themes.  To me that’s why she’s a writer with real staying power.  She took on, as a major theme, what she refers to as spiritual isolation.  People have used other terms for it. The term ‘loneliness’ has gotten attached to her, mostly I think because of the title of that first novel, [The Heart is a Lonely Hunter], but also because that’s the theme that she continued to return to in all her major works.

She’s one of those writers who’s going to speak to people no matter where they’re from or what age they live in. To me, here’s proof of that: Why would people in France, in Italy, in China, in Japan, all relate to her so strongly if it weren’t for the fact that she’s developing something universal.  Not only that but she’s doing it in a unique way, in a fresh way. To me, what she does with John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, that’s a piece of genius.  So to me that’s the main reason.

A lot has been said recently about how a lot of the social issues that she dealt with in her books are now at the forefront of some national conversations—things that have to deal with sexual orientation, gender, race, all those things.  Sarah Schulman, a novelist and lesbian rights activist, wrote a really interesting piece that was published in The New Yorker last year.  She makes the argument that now is the time for writers to be returning to Carson McCullers. And the specific reason she said was that there is now this ongoing debate about white writers writing about people who are not like themselves, people of color for instance.  It’s gotten kind of contentious and [Schulman] is very sensitive to that and doesn’t dismiss it at all but says,  “Still, I want to be able to write about the full human spectrum, so how do I do it?”

She notes that Carson McCullers does it and she quotes the famous review by Richard Wright of Carson’s first book: “She’s the first white writer to be able to write about black characters with as much understanding and sympathy as she does her white characters.”  So, there’s one reason why people should be reading her now.  But to me the main reason is that she wrote about universal things that are still as important as they were when she wrote them.

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The Smith-McCullers House in Columbus, GA

What makes it spiritual isolation? I like that term for it.

There is literally being physically, if you will, isolated but what’s more important to her is this idea that we all feel at times that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us. That’s why I think The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is so brilliant because we have this character, John Singer, who is an exemplary human being and really is sensitive to other people.  And because he doesn’t speak, it makes people think that, not only is he a good listener, but he understands them.  Then, of course, the big revelation is: no, he doesn’t.

My partner is also a colleague of mine.  She teaches art and she taught The Heart is a Lonely Hunter this past year too.  A lot of us did because of the [100th anniversary] celebration.  We argued about this character of Antonapoulos.  She thinks that John Singer’s devotion to Antonapoulos is ridiculous and unbelievable.  I said, “No, I think the reason that she had to do it that way is to show how strong is this desire to have somebody to connect to.”

Antonapoulos is the only person Singer knows for one thing.  There’s the practical issue that Antonapoulos understands sign language.   He’s also a mute so he can relate to Singer and it just helps her develop the theme.  So when she talks about spiritual isolation it’s this idea that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us.  That is pretty bleak but that is the situation of all humans.  Maybe it’s not always that way.  Maybe there’s some temporary relief from that situation but that is the basic situation.

So, you have Singer, the most exemplary lover, and even he has his own isolation. 

When she has him write the letter to Antonapoulos it is revealed to us that he doesn’t know these other characters who come to him with their problems. He’s not sure what they’re talking about.  I love it when he says, about Jake, “He thinks that we have a secret together but I do not know what it is.” But all of this is prefaced by the fact that he’s writing this letter to Antonapoulos whom he knows is not able to read.

 

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 2

What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville

DHMudULVYAEEq0QLet me begin with the ‘ought to’s.  It ought to go without saying that what happened in Charlottesville at a gathering of white supremacists and white nationalists was an ugly display of our divisions in this current moment.

It ought to go without saying that an ideology that believes the white race is superior to other races is a discredited relic of some of the darkest moments of our American history.

It ought to go without saying that such an ideology is antithetical to the gospel and the inclusive message of God’s intentions for all creation and all people.  If Christ is our peace, as Ephesians 2:14 says…If, as the verse goes on to say, “he, with his body, broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us,” then there can be no place for another message, especially one claiming the name of Christ, that would perpetuate hatred and division.

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Heather Heyer

It ought to go without saying that the deaths and injuries over the weekend—of Heather Heyer, a young Charlottesville woman who died in the vehicle attack, of two state troopers, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, who were patrolling in a helicopter that crashed, of the many others wounded—are tragic.  We rightly weep for them and for their families.

It ought to go without saying that Charlottesville, a place where I have studied, lived, and worked at different times of my life, should not be defined by this act.  It is a city that has struggled, perhaps more so than most, to understand and learn from its history, including its troubling racial history.

All that ought to go with saying, but I’m saying it, because the fact that people openly espouse racist and Nazi ideas in America in 2017 shows that we still have the capacity to nurture evil in our hearts and minds.  We have not escaped the human condition.

19884025_490881374591713_1163294255372840333_nWhat more should we say?  On social media this weekend I saw many calls to pastors to speak about Charlottesville from the pulpit on Sunday.  Clergy were very visible in Charlottesville on Saturday – walking arm in arm in a silent witness against the hatred on display.  I was glad to see United Methodists in the midst.  On Sunday, in the Texas church I attended, no one offered a word about Charlottesville in sermon or prayer.

Some would say that to make a big deal about the violence at the protest would amount to “virtue signaling”—a marker so that others can see that we’re on the right side of the issue.  This kind of concern is a sign of the fallen nature of our public discourse these days.  There are many people who feel that, by acquiescing to the request to make a statement or a prayer, they may be coopted into a whole set of agendas that have far more to do with a political worldview.  If I put #Charlottesville in my Facebook post, am I putting myself in a camp?

There are also those who worry more about those who didn’t say what they thought ought to be said.  If my attention and my ire turns to those who didn’t bear the witness I felt they ought to make, am I distracted from doing the hard work of community building that it will take to overcome the Great Divide and renew our commitment to shared values?

I do expect that the clergy and lay leaders of the Eastern Shore will address Charlottesville and I expect that many did in services on Sunday.  But they should address it not because it is the issue of the day, but because the gospel illuminates it for what it is.

The truth is that racism is one of the powers that rule in our day.  It is a sin that infects us all, not just the ludicrous gatherings of white men with tiki torches and vile flags and signs.  They claim it openly, but racism is in the air we breathe, and if we were to get rid of every little pocket of supremacists, it would still be there in our souls to struggle with.  And to do that will take faith in God’s liberating work in Jesus Christ and the communion of the Church which invites us to continual confession.

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The Rev. Jeffrey Pugh

The Rev. Jeffrey Pugh, a United Methodist and a Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University, was one of those clergy at the protest on Saturday.  He talked about his experience there on the podcast Crackers and Grape Juice on Sunday.  While the clergy were committed to a non-violent witness, he confessed that he found himself wanting “to grab a rod and start hitting a Nazi.”

In the aftermath, he found himself appreciating the ongoing work of learning to be a disciple, a work that kept him from taking up a rod.  “Christianity is a daily practice,” he said.  “It’s a daily practice of inculcating certain disciplines of the heart and soul that we might be those people that can stand in these moments of trial.”

I pray that we can be grounded in something far more than a stance.  We need to do far more than showing up in Charlottesville the next time the racist circus comes to town.  We need to show up every day to the places we live and the people we interact with, helping to expose and root out the racism that is around and within us.  We ought to be about the daily practices of being Christians.  And that ought to go without saying.

 

Strong, Resilient, Independent – the Characters of Virginia Reeves – part 3 of 3

Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, has some very memorable characters that are worth getting to know.  In previous segments of this interview we have talked about resiliency in strange times and the meaning of Alabama.  If you’ve read the book, you’ll enjoy this segment because we get down deeper into the characters that bring the book to life.  I began with a nod to the theme of electricity that pervades the book…

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Virginia Reeves

So…I’ve got an electrical problem here at the house. Can you help me with it?

[laughs] No. My go-to on the question about electricity is that one of the pieces about writing that I really love is the research process and being able to try on so many different careers and livelihoods and passions and hobbies. I also did not know that Roscoe [the main character in the book] was an electrician for quite a while. I actually wrote most of the prison scenes before I knew what it was that Roscoe had done to get there.  Which seems really strange at this point because electricity literally flows through the whole book.  When I stumbled upon that I was like, “Of course, you have Yellow Mama [the prison’s electric chair] and we have the electrified lines around the prison and all linked together.  But I was just a little blind to it for a while.  That’s often the case when the truth is right before us.

I discovered the electricity much like Roscoe did: I found a book of Faraday lectures in an old used bookstore.  Faraday is this incredible kind of fortune or storyteller and really an entertainer.  He would have these huge lectures in which he would tell huge rooms full of people about the forces of nature and do demonstrations.  I just loved the language of the mechanics of electricity.  It’s actually very lyrical and beautiful.

So I dove into the study of electricity through Faraday and then did internet searches and questioning people and double-checking my ideas.  I retained it long enough to write the book but if you ask me anything about electricity right now I think that that file has been purged and opened up to the next thing that I need to learn.   So I guess I could not solve your electrical problem.  There was a moment where I maybe could have at least guessed, but no longer

Well, you are very convincing. That really surprises me because the theme of electrification really moves through that book.

Well, thank you.  Two of the recurring questions I’ve gotten are: Am I an electrician? and How much time have I spent in prison?  I say it is a testament to the art of writing fiction that I am not an electrician nor have I spent time in prison.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Yeah, and you’re not a man and the other amazing thing about this book is how much you were able to get in our heads in a really deep way.  

Well thank you, thank you so much. I’m flattered by that. I feel like that’s the highest compliment.  As a writer I think the best stories come from character and this story started with Roscoe.  If I had stumbled upon a female that I would have been interested in I think I would have written her but we are chameleons as fiction writers and we take on the lives and voices of our different characters.  So I think of it as just an extension of that.

Then I also think I’ve always really connected with men.  As far as my personality goes, I’m part adolescent boy and 80 year old man mixed into a 38-year-old woman.

One of the things you said at the end of the book was that you developed the Marie character [Roscoe’s wife] because one of your students encouraged you to spend more time with her.  It was interesting watching my wife because, as she read the book, she had a much more negative reaction to Marie than I did.  She didn’t like Marie at all.  

Marie is the most hated, for sure, of all of the characters in this book and people are very divided on Marie.  Many book clubs have lots of conversations and people hate Marie, like really loathe her.  Actually, I think I should probably start taking notes but I would say that my male readers mostly have more compassion for her than my female readers.  I adore Marie and I see Marie as resilient survivor. I don’t agree with everything Marie has done and I don’t condone her behaviors across the board…she finagles a divorce from Roscoe when he was in no place to grant her one, so there’s dishonesty there…I don’t agree with all of her actions but I see Marie as a strong, resilient, independent woman in a time when strong, resilient, independent women were not the norm.  She needed to survive.  She needed to save her son.  She needed to save her farm.

Actually, this a place where it becomes more personal, because she was much harder to take in earlier drafts and someone asked, “Who is she? Who does she remind you of? Are you basing her on anyone?”

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photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

It took that question make me realize that I was actually basing her largely on my grandmother who lived in Alabama and got me thinking about Alabama in the first place.  My grandmother is turning 90 in October. She’s a very strong, independent, resilient woman and has suffered many tragedies in her life and when faced with tragedy she looked it in the eye and put it aside and never returned.  When I was younger I saw that as a kind of a flaw.  I saw it as cold and distant and as I’ve aged I think I see it as just her coping mechanism.  It’s survival.  It’s the only way she knows how to move through tragedy and pain.  So I gave that trait to Marie and I see her actions not coming out of a place of malice necessarily.  I mean she’s definitely angry at times, but not out of cruelty and not out of any sort of meanness but out of a need to survive in the only way she knows how.

I think that’s true and, as I said in the review, I felt like some of your best writing was in the chapters where you were trying to flesh her out. I think I would’ve had a really negative reaction without those chapters, too, because the longer you stay in prison you wonder “Well, where is she and what’s going on?”

Exactly, and early drafts of the book were all from Roscoe’s point of view and he didn’t have any sense of what’s going on with Marie.  She existed only by her actions and that was where a trusted great reader said, “What do you think about spending a little time outside of prison and letting us know what’s happening and letting us get to know Marie a little bit so that we don’t just loathe her completely?” and that was very, very good advice.

I also liked the visions of Marie that Roscoe has that got him through in a way. I thought that was really insightful in the way that we use people to think—the way that we use the idea of people to get a us through.

Yeah that’s very well said. I love that idea that we conjure creations of people to help us through.

A Border with No Country: A Review of All the Pretty Horses

 

IMG_6614“This is still good country.

Yeah.  I know it is.  But it aint my country.…

Where is your country? he said.

I don’t know, said John Grady.  I don’t know where it is.  I don’t know what happens to country.” (299)

Not counting the movies of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, it has taken me all my adult life to get to Cormac McCarthy.  Now that I’m out in West Texas for a spell, it seemed like a good time to see what all the fuss has been about.  Like John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, I’m saddling up today to head towards the border.  They make good companions.

51+nxfaxmXL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_All the Pretty Horses is the first of three McCarthy books that are known as The Border Trilogy.  It won the National Book Award in 1992.  It’s cinematic front story is about Cole and Rawlins, two San Angelo teenagers in 1949 Texas who set out on horseback to look for ranching work in northern Mexico.  They are joined early on by a younger boy who calls himself Jimmy Blevins and who rides a really fine horse.

Through a series of adventures and misadventures they lose Blevins, find work, and are establishing themselves a valuable members of a massive ranch.  Cole and Rawlins have an innate sense for working with horses and they have particular success with a group of wild horses brought down from the mesa to be broken.  In the meantime, Cole begins a forbidden romance with the patrón’s daughter, Alejandra – an act that eventually leads to the two being dragged off to prison, where they are brutalized and eventually freed.

I’ll save the spoilers for the last act of this drama, but suffice it to say that McCarthy presents all this with spot-on dialogue that crackles with life and even humor.  (I did not expect to come to this book for the laughs, but they are definitely there.)  You also got the blood.  That was as advertised.

Behind the action is a more brooding, philosophical work that comes through most prominently in Cole’s interactions with the Dueña Alfonsa, the cultured grandaunt of the hacienda who guards the virtue of her goddaughter, Alejandra.  Alfonsa and Cole muse on choice and fate, society versus the individual, and the nature of home.  Alfonsa discerns in the Spanish (and Mexican) soul “a deep conviction that nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed.  Virgins, bulls, men.  Ultimately God himself.” (230)

No one lives this out more than Cole himself.  If this is the standard, he becomes a true Mexican.  But this is also a meditation about home and Cole doesn’t find that.  The book begins with him losing his family ranch on the death of his grandfather.  It ends with the exchange that leads this review.  Nobody knows where their true country is.

On this journey I’m on, I stopped in Columbus, Georgia to talk with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center and a Texas poet himself (interview coming soon).  We talked about McCullers who often talked about the homesickness of American artists.  Norwood said:

“[McCullers] says…what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves.  They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them.  Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.”

McCarthy is another poet of that spiritual isolation deep in the American soul.  But he embeds it in a rich constellation of relationships and within a creation of creatures.  If you can’t find the country in the land, perhaps you will see it in the eyes of all the pretty horses.

Alabama – The Character – my interview with Virginia Reeves continues – part 2 of 3

IMG_3258Can place be the primary character in a book?  You can make the case for that in Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, Work Like Any Other.  In the previous segment of this interview, we discussed maintaining hope in strange times.  In this segment we talk two great states – Alabama and Montana.

Tell me about Alabama because it’s as much of a character in your book—maybe the biggest character in your book.

I agree. I think setting is character. My current book is set in Montana and Montana is very much a character in it.  I’ve been visiting Alabama since I was 8.  My grandparents retired there from Colorado but they don’t live where this book is set—they retired to the little tail of Alabama there on the Gulf Coast.  My grandmother lives in the same house she moved to 30 years ago, so I’ve been returning to this one place almost every year for 30 years and I started writing stories about the kind of retirement covenant-restricted community where my grandmother lived. Those are hit and miss some might see the light of day someday, but they’re not great.

I took a history writing class when I was at the Michener Center [at the University of Texas] with the intention of beefing up those stories and fleshing out.  I had my personal observations but then just digging in to the history of the state, the first thing that I pulled off the shelf in the UT library was a study of convicts who had been released on parole and their rates of recidivism based upon all these different character traits. The rules were counterintuitive when I started to look into them because they were like: if you were married and had kids you were more likely to commit another time.  If you had a genius level IQ you were more likely.  If you had a skill or trade you were more likely.

I just made a list of all those different traits and that list became Roscoe. I knew I had a convict in Alabama around the 20s and 30s when the study had been published and so that led me to Kilby Prison.  As a fiction writer, I think stumbling upon a place like Kilby prison in the historic record is a gold mine.

You asked a great question in your email about ‘Does Alabama kind of represent America, does the story kind of ripple out to have bigger implications for our country?’ and my short answer to that is ‘yes.’  And my expanded one is: my fascination with Alabama is that I think it is a very rich state and it really holds a lot of our beauty—a lot of really incredible things about the culture of America from cooking to music to camaraderie and agriculture and all of those different pieces.  And then it also holds some of our ugliest elements as well from slavery and segregation and convict leasing.

3104631813_ae2bf4786a_zSo Kilby was this institution that was built to incarcerate but it was very progressive for its day and had all of these elements: the farm and the cotton mill and the wood shop and the library and the chapel.  It was built with this mission of rehabilitation and also was, of course, overrun with injustice and violence. Ironically, for an institution built with an eye toward rehabilitating, it also housed the state’s first electric chair.  So there was this crazy dichotomy between ‘we are going to rehabilitate you or assume that there’s no chance for rehabilitation and execute you.’  To have all of that in one place felt incredibly powerful and exploring the historic record of Kilby became a complete fascination for me.  It’s amazing how much you can uncover.  I found the original blueprint for the prison and the original architectural plans and the original pitch to the legislature for why it should be built.

All the sensual detail in there is what made the book so rich, too. I assume that’s drawn on your own experience of Alabama?

A lot of it is. I have this memory of visiting my grandparents maybe in fourth grade with my sister.  They let us walk to the clubhouse and there was a pool right by the gate and it being  nighttime and being cloaked with that humidity and sounds and just this feeling and the smells.  I have those points of reference of just feeling Alabama around me.  Then I also worked with the native Alabama plant guide next to my desk so that I was like, “I know what I’m feeling but I don’t know what the plant is” so there was a lot of crosschecking as well.

dktSzDu1_400x400You say you’re working on a book about Montana.  Is there anything more you can say about that?

I can, yes. It will come out from Scribner again.  It will be a little while. It’s called The Behaviorist and follows a behavioral psychologist in the 60s and 70s at the height of de-institutionalization and mostly set at the Boulder River School and Hospital for the Developmentally Disabled.  My doctor comes there and is the superintendent who is hired to essentially right all of these horrific wrongs.  This is the moment where mental institutions and hospitals across the nation are being exposed for their horrific conditions and he’s brought in to right those wrongs and also oversee and help facilitate de-institutionalization.

It’s very much an exploration of the tension between how you can be a really great doctor but possibly not a great father or not a very good husband.  So there’s a lot I’m returning to—there’s definitely a little bit of a troubled marriage involved, there’s an institution involved again.  But there’s a different story set very much in my home just at a different time.  So I don’t need the native guides because I do know the plants and animals of Montana.  Montana itself is very much a character like Alabama was a main character. Then it’s just passion and love for this place that pulls him.  He brings his family here because he has fallen in love with the place that is Montana and so that plays a part as well.

Great. Well, it’s on my list. 

This interview concludes with a discussion of characters in Work Like Any Other.

Love, Character, and Ordinary People: A Visit with the World’s Greatest Tour Guide

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Shirley Cherry

“That’s where the bomb hit,” Shirley Cherry says, pointing to a nondescript spot on the porch of the old Montgomery, Alabama house.  The little girl standing on that spot jumped and moved as if it all might happen again.  Perhaps another bomb thrown by a racist terrorist upset about the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott might explode again into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage.  Maybe 3-500 angry black citizens, many of them armed, might gather on the lawn once more and threaten retaliation.  Maybe a young pastor in his first appointment might come out onto that porch, after checking on the safety of his wife and children, and advise the crowd in strong, measured, gospel-filled words to go home.  “We know a better way,” Martin Luther King, Jr. might say.  Love is a better way.

IMG_6567Such is the power of Dr. Shirley Cherry to make the past come alive that she can make you see all those things on the porch of 309 S Jackson Street (“Remember that number,” Cherry says.)  She can also help you see how that past persists.  When I arrived at the Interpretive Center, (this was my second visit), Dr. Cherry immediately introduced me to Nelson Malden.

“This is the man who gave Martin Luther King his first haircut in Montgomery and his last haircut before he died,” she said.  It seemed impossible because Mr. Malden looked far too young to have been cutting hair in 1954 when King arrived in the city.  But sure enough, he had vivid tales to tell of King’s first visit, of the way he talked about the haircut Malden gave him and teased him about his tithe as a way of explaining why he didn’t tip him.

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Alex, Nelson Malden, and Shirley Cherry

As the tour group moved over to the parsonage, Dr. Cherry spotted 95-year-old Vera Harris out on the porch of her home.  In 1961 Harris and her husband, Richard, sheltered Freedom Riders like Diane Nash, James Farmer, and John Lewis, after they were attacked on their journey to desegregate interstate bus travel.  Cherry marched the thirty-some tour participants over to Harris’s swing and gave them the opportunity to shake hands with a living Civil Rights veteran, to Harris’s great delight.

There is a lot to see at the Dexter Parsonage: The table where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed.  The study where King wrote.  The kitchen where he sat at midnight on January 27, 1956, praying for courage over a cup of coffee after yet another anonymous phone call threatening his life — a moment he recounted in his last sermon, the famous ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ sermon:

It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Shirley Cherry keeps the kitchen dark as she tells this story to mimic that midnight hour.  “That’s the kettle he used to make his coffee.  This is where he sat.”  But then she gets personal.

It’s not just King’s story she’s telling; it’s hers.  She knew poverty growing up.  She saw the pictures of dead Emmett Till, brutalized and murdered in next door Mississippi for allegedly whistling at and grabbing at a white woman.  (That woman, Carolyn Bryant, now says that grabbing never happened.)  A young Shirley saw those pictures and heard the unspoken message, “You better know your place.  Or else.”

But King gave her a different narrative.  She draws a young teenager in close to her.  “What’s your name?”

“Hannah.”

IMG_6570Shirley drapes an arm around her shoulders.  It is grandmotherly and sisterly all at once.  “Hannah, Dr. King taught me to look people in the eye.  To look white people in the eye. Will you make a pledge to me?”

Hannah says ‘yes’ before even knowing what it will be.

“You can answer on behalf of all the people in this room because they all need to make this pledge.  Will you keep looking forward and not look back?”

“Yes.”

“There are things in life that will break your heart, but you must learn how to let them break your heart, but never, EVER, let them break your spirit.”

“Dee Dee,” she points to another teenager, a basketball player that she has called on earlier in the tour.  “You stand up straight now.”  I noticed a lot of us standing up a little straighter at that moment.  Did it myself.

“There are three things I want you to take away from here,” Shirley had told us earlier.  “Love, character, and ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”

After the tour, over salmon, stewed tomatoes, and collards at the cafeteria of the Alabama Center for Commerce, I asked her where she had gotten that mantra.

“The only thing that is really, really missing today is love and it doesn’t mean loving somebody when it’s easy to love them. If it doesn’t have anything to do with love, it doesn’t mean anything anyway.  Only what’s done for love will last. So if you say you know God and you don’t know love…you know the Book says that ‘if you do not know love, you do not know me and I don’t know you.’”

IMG_6577She talked about her 31 years of teaching (with only 1 disciplinary referral!) and what she tried to inspire in her students.  “I used to put my arms around my students and go, ‘Do you know what you have?’  They’d look at me like I’m crazy.  And I would say ‘Potential, and I want it.’ They knew not to give me anything second-rate.  They knew that.  Besides that I had my character quote too: ‘One must be on a lifelong quest for excellence.’ Oh, and it drives me crazy when you see people who just want you to love mediocrity. Colin Powell said, ‘The best way to achieve mediocrity is to try to please everybody.’ I’m not trying to please anybody but myself and if somebody says what somebody else thinks about me that has nothing to do with me.

“I’ve got to tell these people what it meant and why it mattered – what Martin Luther King did and Caretta and all the rest of them. It meant something. It meant that we had a better world. It meant that we weren’t just black and white but we were a world.”

I guess you know, that if you’re ever in Montgomery, or even close, you have to go to 309 S Jackson Street.