Saturday, February 7, 2009

老家

So today I went down to Louisiana, where I was born. It's kind of strange now, after living two-thirds of my life outside of it, to think of myself as a native of Louisiana. But still, when we drove through those streets, I could feel that almost supernatural bond you have to the town of your nativity. It's a feeling deeper than nostalgia. I got it as we drove in to get our Chinese take-out, and I realized that my favorite pizza restaurant in the whole world is right across the street from my favorite Chinese restaurant. How are they so close??

Lately I've been reading a book about Louisiana called The Clearing. It's by Tim Gautreaux, who lives in my hometown. It's about a mill manager who comes down from Pennsylvania to retrieve a lost older brother who works as a lawman in a primitive cypress mill. Like in his other novel Next Step in the Dance, he digs a lot into the differences between Louisiana and the rest of the U.S.

The book has been of particular interest to me because I've just come back from a faraway place, and am seeing Louisiana and Mississippi in new light. Honestly, some things are disturbing--even terrifying--while others are like wounds being healed with a familiar balm. Like Randolph, I've come back to "ignorance and good food, poverty and independence."

In coming back to the South, I don't know whether I should be filled with satisfaction or despair. We pride ourselves on our ignorance and bad reputation. There are still sharp divisions between ethnic and economic groups. It seems like we've got a long way to go, but at the same time, we get so many things so right.

Example: You cannot underestimate the greatness that comes from living in a city where almost everyone is not just civil, but friendly--where the guy at Subway doesn't feel like you're breathing down his neck to produce your Sub Club 15 seconds faster. Because when you get to the end of your life, you won't care about the cumulative 15 seconds. You'll care about whether your life was overly stressed, and whether or not you dropped that stress, like acid, onto everyone around you.

I love the South, but we're backwards on some things. But at the same time, would it be the wonderful, rich place it was without the darker side of its mentality? Could a utopian-ized Oxford Mississippi produce a Faulkner? I'm not necessarily saying it couldn't, but could it? I don't know. I hope so.

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