Mystery and (Southern) Manners

It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of question I get all the time, but I don’t think I am the only one who has faced it: Am I more religious because I am a Southerner (as most of my Yankee friends seem to think), or do I seem more Southern because I am religious—never mind the fact that I am a longtime, generally happy exile to the Northeast Corridor?

I’m sending this question out not only to some of the other Southerners who have proceeded through “Good Letters”—A.G. Harmon, Kelly Foster, Tony Woodlief (A.G., Kelly and I are from Mississippi, and Kelly and I are even from the same town)—but to all of you out there who might have some input on the matter.

For what so many of us Southerners—even those of us who are not, ahem, writers—seem to share is a great and abiding sense of mystery about the world. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, in the main, even now, most of us grew up around codes of manners and behavior that were commonly known, but rarely spoken of, and there was even less discussion about the realities of class and race that were all around us. And we could go off on long tangents about the various implications.

Whatever the reason, it is a characteristic of my life that the world has constantly seemed (and continues to seem) to be filled with portents about nearly everything, turns of circumstance that seem significant, as though a narrative arc cuts through my life as sharply as a ray of sun.

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The Passion of Relisha Rudd

The first ominous sign that the Relisha Rudd case was slipping from the local Washington, D.C. imagination was when the police alert signs posted on the roads into the city had their messages changed, or were removed entirely.

For weeks after the news that the little eight-year-old girl was missing broke on March 19, the digital display boards had broadcast the Amber alert in their amber lettering, its grim message truncated in a style all too appropriate for the digital age: “BLK Female, 8 YRS, 4’0”, 70-80 LBS,” along with a contact number to report sightings. Radio stations had urged citizens repeatedly to be on the lookout.

Because I tend to leave WTOP news radio on a little too often when the children are around, my ten-year-old son grew preoccupied with the case, and because he cannot admit to himself that tragedy is ever actually happening, came to me and said, earnest with his watery blue eyes, “Mom, you know they found that girl.”

Hoping, hoping. All of us were hoping—although apparently some of us not quite enough, because it soon came out that Relisha had been missing from her home since February 28, and had not been seen at all after March 1. “Home,” in fact, was the massive city homeless shelter located at the former DC General Hospital complex on the backside of Capitol Hill—the location also of the city methadone clinic, as news reports inevitably mention—where Relisha lived with her mother and multiple siblings in cramped quarters.

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The Grace of the Unexpected, Part 2

In the first part of my post yesterday, I lamented our contemporary lack of risk, our incuriosity, our resistance to extend ourselves outside the ideological boundaries we have constructed for ourselves. And at the bottom of all our own self-congratulatory opinions and social purity tests (Obama, the Koch Brothers, Pop Tarts) is our own fear.

That’s bad for everyone all around, I think—and I wish my secular-minded friends, who are worried only about justice here on earth, not the beyond, could realize that by demonizing the Other (thank you, Dr. Rebecca Mark, my American Life in American Literature professor, Spring 1990) they are not living up to their own values.

Such deliberate blindness is especially bad for Christians, because we are to be about the business of witnessing Christ throughout the world. And the best way that is done is not by talking, talking, talking, but simply by being a closer and closer reflection of the divine image, and doing the work a suffering world needs.

“They’ll know that we are Christians by our love,” goes the verse of the hymn—well, fat chance these days, in my experience. We are in need not of evangelists but a generation of servants and saints.

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The Grace of the Unexpected, Part 1

Listen up, brothers and sisters—what follows here is the only sermon I know how to give:

Sometime in the late summer of 1975, when I was seven, my father took the blade off a John Deere riding mower, and in a moment of whimsical decision, drove out of the yard, and onto the asphalt street where we lived. He rounded the corner, went a block, then proceeded out onto Grand Avenue, the wide main boulevard that cut through town, and kept on going.

He was wearing a sky blue zip-up workman’s jumpsuit. The cancer that would kill him in a year was already branching through his lungs. I can imagine him grinning and waving at the cars passing by, though at the time I was inside the house and didn’t see a thing.

I was right there, though, when the telephone rang and my mother answered it, to get an earful from a neighbor who was at once both amused and annoyed: “Miz Langston, do you know what your husband is doing?”

I remember my mother laughing, but I also remember being cognizant of the neighbor’s implication, however slight, that my father had crossed some kind of social boundary and had to be brought back into line.

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The Feast Days of Snowfall

Dedicated to Amy Chevalier Efantis

Aside from any private celebrations hosted by the Tulane alumni organization or the Louisiana State Society, there was no Mardi Gras in Washington, D.C. Tuesday.

Oh, as with everything else in a city whose official face is all about signaling and little about actual meaning, there are token, presumably resonant gestures. Starting the week before Ash Wednesday, in typically truncated, efficient fashion, some downtown bakeries will put out King Cakes—too dry, not frosted enough, too Puritan, really.

Never mind that the real season for King Cakes stretches back almost two whole months, to Epiphany on January 6. Plus people in a town that worships maximum flexibility at all times have no idea how to react upon discovering that they’re eating the plastic baby.

In this town, celebrations are chiefly an annoyance. Parades are for out-of-towners; the motorcades merely inspire epic traffic. Drinking for most folks around here, it appears to me, is not a joyous, communal affair, but a furtive private release accompanied by Chinese carryout and David Letterman at 11:30 p.m. after the memo has been written, or the Asian markets consulted.

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