This Verbal Tic is Driving Us Crazy, Right?

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photo by Frank McKenna via Unsplash

There are a couple of verbal tics that are reaching peak annoyance right now.  At the low end of the scale, (which runs from “What did he say?” to “Nails-on-a-chalkboard”), is the dulling of the simple preposition ‘to.’  In spoken English the word is gradually losing its “ooo” vowel sound and being replaced with the far less elegant “uh” sound.

The flattening of ‘to’ is often associated with a verbal pause so that a speaker’s thought can catch up with her words.  It’s easy to merge ‘to’ with that perennial oral bugaboo “uh.”  To wit: “So after that, we were going tuh…you know…get some ice cream.”

‘Tuh’ is most noticeable on podcasts and other unscripted media programs where speakers have to think on their feet, but I notice it in everyday interactions, too.  I even it hear it my own speech, which makes all the more annoying.

Much further up the scale, however, is ‘right.’  When I first started noticing it about two years ago, the addition of ‘right?’ to the end of a statement seemed endearing, as if the speaker were drawing me in and inviting me to own the observation with him.  “The popularity of Hillbilly Elegy is a function of urban America’s desire to know more about Appalachia, right?”  Here I’m invited to affirm (or presumably reject) an assertion.

Over time, however, ‘right?’ has infected all manner of statements.  Appended on to the end of a string of facts about which I know nothing, how am I supposed to respond?  When you assert what sounds like a forceful opinion and tack on ‘right?’ I feel like you’re trying to coerce agreement.

Worse, however, is the sense that the speaker needs my reassurance to continue.  ‘Right?’ starts to sound like, “I’m saying this definitively but I may be too forceful, so can you give me some indication that I can keep going?”

How about you go ahead and make your argument and I’ll respond at the end?  You don’t need my agreement to state your case, especially if you’re telling me something that I have no way to evaluate in the first place.  You don’t have to confirm with me every three sentences.  That would be excessive.  Right?

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The Myth of the Cosmic Skybox

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photo by Frank Köhntopp via Unsplash

It has finally happened.  I seriously had the thought that I would not attend an event just because I knew that, two days later, I would receive the dreaded email evaluation.  “It will only take 5-10 minutes of your time,” the email will say.

Great.  I’ll get to it right after the questionnaires related to my last hotel stay, the meeting I attended last week, and the consumer survey from a store I visited in a town I’ll probably never return to.

I know from whence these come.  In their pursuit of excellence and quality, the organizations and businesses need feedback on how they’re doing.  They want to improve at their core mission.  They appreciate my offering tips.  Sharing is caring.

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photo by Damian Zaleski via Unsplash

Yes, but scoring is boring!  Worse than boring, the endless surveys assume that I have a judgment to offer (on a functional 5-point scale) about everything I experience.  And if they just fiddle with their formula enough they’ll be able to hit my sweet spot.

Actually, I DO have judgments to offer.  Ask me to consider for a minute and I’ll be able to find a number of things that could be better.  The towels in the hotel bathroom did look a little worn and threadbare.  The speaker’s mic had a kind of tinny sound.  And come to think about it, the paper towels we bought had an odd perforation pattern.

I could do this all day.

Perhaps that would be helpful to someone, but when it comes to the life of the Spirit, I’m not so sure.  I appreciate churches that strive for excellence in hospitality and worship.  And I definitely notice when its not done well.  But if we’re talking encounter with God, am I really qualified for the job of consumer critic?

Survey Monkey questionnaires, like every online tool of evaluation, are a product of the modern world in which the autonomous individual is assumed to have a cosmic skybox inside them from which she can stand, detached from the earth and context, and cast an all-knowing eye at the thing before her.  It’s not a bad assumption if you just want some feedback on the sound system in the theater, but it’s more problematic if we’re talking about worldviews.

The essential things in this world, (like the deep pulse of the natural world, the complex bonds of family, and the mystery of a holy God), all have their hooks in us before we ever find words to describe them.  To imagine we can understand them fully or stand apart from them enough to pass judgment on them is an illusion.  Not that we shouldn’t use the gift of reason to explore them more fully.  It’s just that these big realities don’t pass before our skybox like a parade.  And we ought not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, as Paul says in Romans 12:3.

51A7VfV9RNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Too many surveys and I begin to feel that I am more autonomous, more god-like than it’s good for a creature to feel.  More powerful is to stand before the God who knows me and to feel that I am connected to—somehow inside—a reality much larger than I.  How well does our worship, our common life lead us into such a realm?

In her poem “Two Pigeons and One Dove,” Mary Szybist looks at a tree and writes:

“Nothing stays long enough to know.

How long since we’ve been inside

anything together the way

these birds are inside

this tree together, shifting, making it into

a shivering thing.”

The birds don’t need a skybox.

Fake Candles at the Tomb: A Holy Land Reflection

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Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

We’d all like a Holy Land made in our own image.  I’ve just spent two weeks in Israel and Palestine and there are a few things I’d change.  Yes, ending the occupation and a two-state solution are on the list.  (More on that to come.)  But, less grandly, how about the simplicity of a church with an open tomb without stalls selling ‘Guns & Moses’ T-shirts just outside the door?

Early on a Sunday morning, I walked the Via Dolorosa past Crusader churches, Byzantine arches, Mamluk stonework, and mass production-era kitsch.  I ended up at the Edicule of the Tomb, the recently-restored shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marking the spot where Jesus’ body was taken following the crucifixion.

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Candle outside the Edicule of the Tomb

Waiting with the polyglot pilgrims of a hundred points of origin, I felt the power of the place, but I couldn’t help being distracted by the huge candles at the entrance of the tomb.  Highly ornamented, twice my height…and topped by lightbulbs.  It looked like something your Aunt Lulu would construct from a kit she got down at the Hobby Lobby.  (Though it should be noted that the bulbs were of the high-efficiency LED variety.)

I touched the rock slab of the tomb—the impact of which was not diminished by the muffled cursing of the man ahead of me when he bumped his head on the low entrance.  Then I headed to a beautiful prayer chapel where I found the silence I craved.

In the chapel, you could hear the shuffling and muted conversation of tour groups, the chanting of monks, the rhythm of a familiar prayer.  Incense filled the air, an olfactory reminder of the beauty of God’s sacrificial act in Christ.  A riot of iron sculptures depicting the stations of the cross lined the wall.  Behind the eucharistic table, a blue mosaic of tile formed a fitting backdrop for a globe—the world summoned and surrounded by God’s grace.

We didn’t deserve this place, this church, this peace.  Just days before I met with an Israeli police spokesperson who had been at the scene of 48 suicide bombings during the Second Intifada, the memory of which is not cast away like the shoes he had to discard after each one.  One day earlier I met with a Palestinian woman of East Jerusalem who doesn’t know how to describe her nationality.  Israel, which annexed her neighborhood but sometimes treats her like a foreigner or a potential terrorist?  Palestine, which only exists as a profession of nationhood?  Jordan, the country on her papers, but which hasn’t ruled here since before she was born?

IMG_0800We pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as the Psalms prescribe, but any peace we can glimpse is tawdry, contingent, messy, rude, conditional—like the uneasy truce between the seven Christian groups that stake a claim to this church.  Ethiopian monks squat on the roof to preserve their foothold.  Fights break out from time to time between others.  And all the while the masses come and take their photos, genuflect at the sites, kneel beneath the table to touch the rock of Calvary, wonder what trinket to take back home.  Perhaps an olive wood Jesus?  Some Dallas Cowboys gear in Hebrew?

I tried to settle my mind.  My life is no less distracted than the street.  My attention wanders.  My enemies plague me even here.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are still not saved.” [Jeremiah 8:20]

Jesus meet me here.  This holy land teems with the violent, frivolous, stupid things we do.  And yet children play in the streets, couples smile at one another, pilgrims stare wide-eyed in wonder as the guide ahead waves a flag to keep them from losing their way, spices fragrance the air, a neglected cat finds food left on a stone wall by an unknown hand.

FullSizeRenderThere is light in this chaos.  Brilliant light like the burning sun of the Judean desert.  True, sometimes it’s mounted to a fake candle and needs to be replaced every 5-7 years.  But light.  Light which burns through and burns on to reconcile all things.

Rural Soul: Origins in Orange.  Guest blogger Sara Keeling returns

Sara Keeling, pastor of the Rappahannock Charge of the United Methodist Church, has a rural soul.  Or so she told us in a previous guest outing on Heartlands.  While I’m in Israel and Palestine, she agreed to share again.  I really didn’t ask for all the kind words.  They just came free!  But read on for a glimpse of the grace required for authentic ministry…


There’s a very short list of folks who grew into faith in Trinity United Methodist Church in Orange, Va, graduated from the University of Virginia, and now serve as ordained clergy in the Virginia Annual Conference. As far as I’m aware, there are two of us.

 Because, you see, my life trajectory is somewhat similar to Alex’s: same hometown and church, same university, same profession. My dad was Alex’s family pastor for 23 years. Alex was my campus minister and mentor. I’ve known Alex since 1984. That same year, when I was three, I spent one terrified evening in his parents’ home when my dad broke his leg roller skating and I thought his leg was no longer attached to his body and no matter how hard they tried, I would not cheer up and play games with his younger sisters. For me, Alex was the cool rookie preacher who would return home to preach and hold my attention in a way the familiarity of my father rarely did. As a college student, he was the thoughtful, inspiring leader who imbued importance on all of our futures. As a colleague, he is still the gold standard to admire for curiosity and creativity.  

I read Alex’s award winning essay: Spirit Duplicator, with a keen eye, peeping into a story of my own hometown with some of the same cast of characters.  

Ms. Moore was also my beloved 3rd grade teacher. Likewise, I remember walking by the tree at the Episcopal church where Lee tied his horse. Mostly because my mother is an avid historian and horse enthusiast, she was always quick to tell me that the confederacy was the wrong side of history, but Lee’s horse Traveller could be revered for being a loyal companion and clearly not knowing anything about the war he was fighting.

Like many small towns in Virginia, Orange is full of historical markers, battle fields, statues, even the home of James Madison.

It’s interesting—the history a hometown will leave with you—it’s given me the credentials to live an authentic rural life. I now come home to Rappahannock county—where I’ll introduce myself to locals and tell them I grew up in Orange—so they know I’m one of them. But if I meet a come-here from closer to the beltway, I’m quick to mention my three years in Alexandria—so they’ll know I’m one of them too.

 People close to the beltway tend to think Rappahannock is gorgeous—a great place to escape or retire too or take a weekend trip to the vineyards or the Inn at Little Washington—but they wouldn’t want to live here or be from here. To someone from Rappahannock, the greater DC area is just one big traffic jam, and the people too busy. I’ve lived and loved both regions of the Commonwealth. We are technically in Northern Virginia, and yet we are a world away from the grid lock of I-495.  

When first told I was moving out here 7 years ago, congregants in my Alexandria church asked if I couldn’t just combine those three churches into bigger one.

That’s almost as fruitful a question as can you just combine your three children into one? I have three churches and three children and the answer is the same in both of those scenarios.  

We generally talk of urban areas as liberal and the rural as conservative. And while it’s true that one tends to vote blue and the other red, they are, of course, not monolithic. My urban church had some rabid conservatives. My rural churches have some flaming liberals.  

Along with the Word of God, my own socio-political worldview influences the words I say on a Sunday morning.

The Rev. Sara Porter Keeling

One of my churches is named after a Confederate chaplain. His story is one of sacrificial love as he literally gave his life for a fellow soldier, to be executed in his place. A Christlike act for sure, but he still wore a grey uniform.

 I preach a sermon on race and Black Lives matter and get impassioned pleas about colored blindness or the lives of police officers.

I preach about sexuality: reminding everyone that we all have different opinions in the room, that some of us here are gay, or have gay children whom we love and support, or have a gay sibling that we don’t understand, or think it’s downright sinful . . . and people with tears in their eyes either thank me or ask how can we could possibly be welcoming to people like that?

We pull together for a shared meal or lunch after a funeral and I worry more about the ways we are shortening our lives with the number of calories in the fried chicken we all just ate than how many of us are reading scripture everyday.  

I lean back on grace. I say we should listen and try to understand with empathy and not judgment. I remind everyone that we are all children of God.  

 It’s hard to believe some days that we are all on the same team. All just trying to love Jesus and be the people God would have us to be.

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…

A Reporter Comes to the Shore: My interview with Monica Hesse – part 1 of 3

Hesse, MonicaMonica Hesse, an author and reporter for the Washington Post, came to the Shore to write a book about the spate of arsons that took place on the Eastern Shore between 2012 and 2013.  That resulted in the bestselling book, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, which I recently reviewed on Heartlands.

Monica agreed to an interview with me that ranged from conversations about the Shore to rural life in general.  The first of the segments begins right here:

I’m really enjoying the book. It’s reminding me of Lauren Hildebrand and Michael Lewis. You’ve got that propulsive writing style I really appreciate.

Well, I’ll take that as a huge compliment obviously since both of them are immensely talented

I know you’re incredibly busy getting this off the ground but how do you find the reception so far to the book?

It’s been wonderful actually. It got really pretty good reviews which was obviously a relief because after you’ve spent so much time on something you don’t want to feel like it’s been wasted time and you want to feel like you’re doing your editor proud but moreover, the people who I’ve heard from the Shore who have read it have reached out to tell me that they think I got it right, which is much more meaningful to me because they’re the ones who I’m trying to write about and those are the lives I’m trying to capture.

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I think that is credit to your ability to listen to what was going on here. So what attracted you to this story?

I had an editor once who told me a good story was about two things: It’s about whatever the story is about and it’s about the meaning of life. I felt like this was a story about a series of arsons and a rural county but it was about so much more than that.  It was about love and the crazy things that we’ll do for it.  It was about this moment in the country as a whole and how we were or what rural America meant to the country. It was about community and how horrible situations can bring out heroes and bring out the best in people. So I just felt like this story had so much to it that I wanted to write about and I wanted to try to capture.

I appreciated the way that you used this one very interesting relationship and the things that happened around it as a way to try to paint a bigger picture of what’s going on with rural America. That really came through. What made the Eastern Shore an interesting place to you or what struck you as interesting about this place?

I’m from a place that is not technically rural because it’s a university town but it is a town where you drive seven minutes in any direction and you’re standing in the middle of cornfields.  So to me the intimacy of living in a place where you talk to folks in the grocery store line and you let someone go ahead of you if they have fewer items and you might pull over to check on them if their car is broken down—that feels comfortable to me.  What was interesting to me was to spend time in a place like the Shore that I felt like I knew in some way but then had this maritime history and had this agricultural history.

I had never spent so much time in a place that was so old and had seen so many layers of history roll through it that it really did feel like a thumbnail of America. You have the rise of the railroad, you have the fall of the railroad, you have different styles of farming overlapping and I thought that all of that was just fascinating.  There aren’t many places that have seen so much history in the United States.

Yeah, that’s certainly true. 

Then I guess on a more personal level, when I moved down people would tell me, “Oh, everybody knows everybody around here,” and I thought that that was just an exaggeration. But then on the first day I interviewed the Commonwealth Attorney and I thought, “Well, thank you for your time.”  I thought, “Well, I won’t see this man again unless I need to interview him.”  Then I saw him like an hour later at the Rite Aid and I saw him two hours after that having dinner and it was like, “Oh, right, everybody really does know a lot of people around here.”

The fact these arsons were happening in a community that I was learning was so close-knit— I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to watch the county burn around you and be wondering all the time if it was your neighbor that was doing it.

I was living in Northampton County at the time and I remember those times well and the anxiety.

I bet you guys were wondering,  “Are they gonna cross the county line? There’s only a matter of time before they’re gonna end up coming down here.”

Yes it was a lot of the wondering who it was, wondering why it was so hard to find the folks who did it, but there was also a little bit of,  “Well, something interesting is happening here.”  There was some excitement to it.

Yeah. I loved hearing about that from people, too. I would talk to folks who would say, “We want this to stop absolutely.  At the same time, man, that house at the end of my road I’ve always thought was an eyesore. I mean if they’re gonna burn something could they care of that house?”

Part 2

What I Learned From a Day with Emmett Till

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In the video, Johnny B. Thomas, mayor of Glendora, Mississippi, looks out over Black Bayou. This is where the body of Emmett Till was dumped following his brutalization and murder in 1955.  In a voiceover, Thomas says, in effect, “Things haven’t changed here.  A lot of the problems that were here then are here now.”

It’s hard to argue with that.  Spending a few days in the Delta, I feel as if I’m in a place where economic opportunity is still stagnant and racial reconciliation is still a long way off.  In many ways, it’s similar to my own home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  This is a place where young people are told, by observation if not in words, “Your best chance is to leave and if you do stay, don’t set your sights too high.”

I spent the afternoon making the pilgrimage to the Emmett Till sites.  I wasn’t alone.  There are tour busses traveling through the area making the stops, too.  What else brings people to Money, Mississippi?

IMG_6583That’s where you can find the overgrown ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the country store where 14-year-old Emmett, down from Chicago for a visit with his great uncle, Mose Wright, went on August 24, 1955.  While his companions were outside on the porch, Emmett went in and what happened in the minute he was in there has been a matter of dispute ever since.

Did he make lewd remarks and grab Carolyn Bryant, a white woman behind the counter, around the waist as she claimed (and recently recanted, in part)?  What was the character of the whistle he made as he was hustled away by his cousins?  Whatever offense it was in the complex racial structures of pre-Civil Rights Mississippi paled in comparison to what came next.

IMG_6586Next door to the ruins is a old filling station and store restored to look as it did in the 1950s, down to the Gulf pumps advertising No-Nox gasoline.  A sign, often vandalized, designates the spot on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

Across the street, a group of white construction workers leaned against their equipment and watched me photographing the sign and store.  Later, they saw the tour bus pull up and a group of twenty-some people, all white, filed out.  It was hard not to project myself into the workers' heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to tut over and shake our heads and fingers at? Do they only come to the Delta to amplify its shame?”

Later I pulled into Glendora, former home of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy.  The house is gone now; just a patch of open ground remains.  Milam was acquitted of Till’s murder though he later confessed along with Roy Bryant in an infamous Look magazine article for which they were paid $4000.

Next door, still standing, is the cotton gin where Milam and Bryant found an old fan which they looped around Emmett’s neck with barbed wire before dumping his body.  As gruesome crimes go, they don’t get more gruesome.  Something that was obvious when Till’s horribly disfigured body was found three days later.  His mother’s decision to have an open casket for his funeral led to an iconic picture of the effects of white supremacy run amok.

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The cotton gin today houses a small museum called the Emmett Till Historical Intrepid Center.  You read that right.  Intrepid.  There was something a little intrepid, audacious, and fearless about Emmett Till.  Reckless, you might even call it.  By all accounts, the young teenager enjoyed being provocative and his murderers cited his refusal to act regretful as one of the reasons for their brutality.  It’s one of the things that make Emmett Till more than a victim in this story.  His refusal to be defined by the unjust powers of the day is ennobling.

So why not take a place that was commandeered for a heinous act and convert it into an intrepid center?  The museum is worth the visit, even if you may want for a little more air-conditioning on a really hot day.  The displays are visually interesting and help place Till’s story within a larger Civil Rights narrative.

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As I left the building I was being watched again, this time by a group of African-American men standing outside a nearby building by the railroad tracks.  Again I couldn’t help projecting myself into their heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to gawk at and burnish progressive credentials?  When, as Mayor Thomas said, nothing really changes?”

I brushed aside my self-consciousness to take a picture of the sign describing the Glendora Gin.  In the background of the photo was the place where Milam’s tool shed was, the place Milam & Bryant brought Emmett to be tortured and mutilated.  Well, at the very least…that’s gone.

Skylight Inn BBQ: The Long-awaited Heartlands Review

fullsizeoutput_17f4I’m not going to wax eloquent about a BBQ joint.  O, heck, who am I kidding?  I’m totally going to go overboard about a place with as much character as the Skylight Inn.

Should you find yourself in tiny Ayden, North Carolina, (and really, why would you find yourself there? – go!), you’ll discover an old downtown suggesting past glories.  The brick facade beauties of many a coastal plain town still stand, some repurposed as gun shops and hair salons.  You’ll even find Bum’s Restaurant, but I suggest heading out west of town where you’ll find a long building topped with what the rotunda on the US Capitol would have looked like if it had been made by your local tinsmith.

You’ll smell the place before you see it, though…and it smells good.  Stacks of wood line the back lot, feeding a perpetual fire to slow-cook whole hogs because, as the sign says, “If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not BBQ!”

Despite the fancy name, the Skylight Inn is a no-frills operation and has been since it began in 1947.  Bring cash because their not going to take your confounded credit cards or checks.  Prices include tax and most are rounded to the dollar so that you won’t have to mess with change.

IMG_6534Just get in line, (there will be a line – even if you arrive at 1 o’clock on a Monday afternoon like I did), come up to the counter and make your order.  If you’re lucky you’ll get a tray.  If not, you’ll get a piece of butcher paper and you’ll be grateful.  Then, if you ordered right (you could have ordered chicken but…why?), they will load up a cardboard container with pork that has been chopped in front of your eyes, cover it with a slab of dense yellow cornbread, and serve it with a side of cole slaw.

We can quibble about the slaw.  I’ve had better.  But save your arguments about where you’ve had better BBQ.  They’re no good here.  We’re not talking Texas brisket, Memphis ribs, Alabama pork with white sauce, South Carolina mustardy, or Western Carolina tomato-ey.  This is the distilled essence of a long tradition served up with no fuss that sings with the soul of the east Carolina soil it grew up in.

IMG_6535Bits of crunchy cracklin are chopped in with with meat.  Vinegar-based sauce is there if you want it.  Drool if you have to.  Take some home if you’ve got a cooler for a long ride.

Ayden, North Carolina didn’t used to be on the route from Virginia to Texas.  But trust me…now it is!