life between the pages

“I spent my life folded between the pages of books.
In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”
Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me

Saturday, March 22, 2008

and sunrise greets the dawn

Image courtesy Wright and Associates

Society Hill. Cashua. Darlington.

And - just so you blend in and aren't immediately branded as "you ain't from here, are ya?" - that's Cash-euw-ay. Not Cash-eu-uh. Say it soft and let it roll off your tongue like sorghum syrup, smooth as the serene Pee Dee River itself. I haven't really been there yet, but it's on the list.

Society Hill is the little town where the crew goes for a special meal during the Kolb project. It used to be just the way it sounds - and in a matter of speaking, still is. Gracious folk come out laying platters of barbecue, vegetables, cakes and pies down on a table around which gather the scientists, who for one night are treated like family no matter from whence they hail. Most of them are not from the South, and many are young, in their third or fourth year in a University program, and in general have a slightly bemused attitude toward the natives.
Cashua St.-Spring St. HD Streetscape, Darlington
Many are older, and have been here many, many times, or now call our state home. They let them stay, as long as they behave and are respectful of their elders, and don't forget that no matter how long they live here, they will never, never be natives, and there are certain subjects therefore that they will never understand and opinions thereon may be tolerated out of respect for a friendship, but will never be shared.

We know ourselves and our idiocyncracies and foibles, and are comfortable with them. Thank you all the same.

I did not attend this meal, but I always hear about it. One of the ladies makes certain my husband's favorite, Key Lime Pie, is on the menu. They all get a taste of the local 'shine, and are expected to render an honest opinion on its vintage as compared to the previous year. They leave with full bellies and humble hearts. The outpouring is a bit overwhelming, for they are essentially strangers and infiltrators, yet the locals treat them with kindness and hospitality usually reserved for family and the closest of friends.

As little as some have, it is still wondrous to know there are places where a handshake is as good and enforceable a contract as a registered document at the courthouse, and the fact that someone looks you in the eye while you speak means that not only will he remember you, but your words as well, even if several months pass by and you do not speak. So I smiled as I listened to the team still expressing gratitude and astonishment at the bounty spread before them earlier in the week. And I was reminded of arms laced over a community well-fed, bustling with purpose, accomplishment, peace, and generosity.

As previously related, I left early the next morning. In the seat of South Carolina auto racing, I stopped to refuel at a corner market. A neatly hand-lettered sign on the pump caught my attention, and I squinted in the reflected sunlight to make it out:

Welcome to the Corner Connection
Due to drive-offs, we ask
that you please pre-pay for
gas after dark. Sorry for your

The attention paid to politeness and sincerity was as clearly etched in those words as the pleasant expression on the attendant's mouth as I entered the store. A small man with a merry face akin to a hobbit's, he bobbed behind the counter talking smack with a big man in pursuit of a lottery ticket while I paused at the counter display of pre-packaged donuts, bear claws, and other disgustingly sugary substances. There was no way I could eat that stuff, so I moved over to the aisle where the pretzels were stored, forgetting one major facet of small-town life, even as it was drifting into my ears, my eyes roaming inattentively across the shelves.

"Hey there good morning," the clerk spoke to me, savoring the words with a long, sweet essence of kindness in each syllable. I looked up and waved, then ducked my head down again. Uncomfortable with strangers, especially males, I resolved to get something quickly and get out of there. I could eat real food when I got back home, only about an hour away.

"Gimme one of them educational tickets, the green ones," the big man spoke up.

"Yeah? Gitcha in trouble," was the affable reply.

"I don't care."

The clerk continued to greet each customer in like manner: "Good morning, there." "We sure appreciate your business." "Come back now, anytime."

As I type these exclamations now there is no way to communicate the warm hospitality and plain goodness in the man's speech. I heard it, and it cracked my shell. Tentatively, I approached the counter, laying a bottle of orange juice down and a pack of Orbit gum.

"Do you happen to know where I can get a biscuit around here?" I asked. I gestured vaguely down the road in the direction I was headed.

"Why, we got the best biscuits you'll eat right here," was his reply, and I was immediately struck with my stupidity. Of course they did. This was the "Corner Connection," after all, not a big BP Plaza. I'd chosen it specifically because it was NOT a franchise market, and its neat appearance bespoke respectability and pride in honest work. You find these all over the south, if you'll just look, mind you. You out-of-towners ought to broaden your horizons, and try the local fish. But as I was sayin'.

"Do you wanna plain biscuit, nothin' on it?" He gestured toward the back and also along the heated window just to his right, where neat packages containing portable breakfasts waited neatly, exactly --and i do mean exactly as my grandmother made, and a few extended cousins still do, to take along to work for those who must do so in the mornings. I knew in those wax-paper wrapped shells lay the melting-hot goodness of homemade biscuits with scrambled eggs, sausage or bacon, and the hot sauce was sitting right there at my elbow if I cared to embellish it a bit.

"I think I'd just like a plain biscuit, thank you --oh," as I saw him walking toward the kitchen, I faltered.

"'Melda - do we have anymore o' them biscuits back there? Nice lady out here wants a plain one." He fairly danced on the tips of his toes. I knew the woman back there, whoever she was, had been up with the sun like me that morning, only with a purpose of mind that led all the way down to her fingers, and in turning out fifty or so breakfasts, she'd already done a days' work, and was in the midst of scrubbing up. I could not do that to her. Or myself. Sheesh.

I closed my mind against things like cholesterol and fat calories. Today was a day. The end.

"No, no, that's all right." I waved at him, staring at the case and spying the answer I was looking for. "Do you have any sausage ones, made up?"

He turned, smiling. "Sure do." He opened the case and a heavenly smell poured out. Ohmygod. Yum.

He grasped a hefty one and popped it into a little brown bag, handing it over with what I knew to be his trademark smile, tho' I'd never seen him before and likely wouldn't again. "That's the local Weinberg's sausage," he added with satisfaction.

"Well, I love that," I responded. I had no idea, which fact added to the word "local" consummated the decision for me at once.

"Do you? It's good, " he said, nodding as he took a bill from my extended fingers. He rang it up promptly and handed me my change.

"We sure appreciate your business. Come back anytime."

"I'll do that. Have a lovely day." And I went out into the morning, a treasure in my hands and heart. In the car, I opened the paper and bit into the softness of the biscuit, reveling in the spicy flavor of the homemade sausage on my tongue. So good. Moist. To hell with factory-sized hog farms. Waste of resources, pollute the watersheds. This was heaven, and you can't get it from industrial hogs. (I should have stopped at the farm-store when I saw it on the way out of town and picked up several packages for the next time I make cassoulet. Nothing better, and there's more in common between the family Provencal and these Darlington-area farmers than you'd think at first. It's all about taste.) These babies were raised spoiled as hell, living fat and happy off the land until the day they died, and the sweetness of their existence underscored for me the expanded meaning the words, "family business" have for me now.

Just as the word, "primitive" now evokes a mindset evocative of grace and peace, where food and goods and services touched by human hands are still evident, "still in the family" means they haven't let go, haven't sold out, someone still rises every day to greet the dawn expending hours of energy in just doing what they do best, working at an honest trade or purpose, where the sounds of birds calling and cows lowing and the wind in the grasses frame a lifestyle where you can still hear the heartbeat of the earth.

Truly the light is sweet
and a pleasant thing it is
for the eyes to behold the sun.

And I started up my car, and drove home, unabashedly poetic about the fact that I'd just put $20.00 in my gas tank. These days of multiple-miles-per-hour travel like this are ending, drawing to a close, and I am saving up memories to recall for the future. I am where I am supposed to be. It is life-affirming to come into contact with people for whom, in spite of the Internet (and I love it so), in spite of rampant commercialism, in spite of the assimilation of a mass-market cultural freakism by so many other places, there still remain those with whom I share a deep cultural connection, with whom it would be silly to compare notes, because even though we are separated to a vast degree by education and political views, we line up exactly to the nth degree on what matters most.

Community is worth saving - and there are so many communities, even those intrinsically associated as Darlington is with a sport like auto-racing, who remain diversified enough, close enough to the ground and still interlinked with their agricultural roots, that they will be saved, they will endure, they will survive and go forward to the next thing that awaits. The keys to their future lay within their past, and in their vast inner wisdom, they never lost it. Again I have to say it: We will be fine.

Amen, even so come, Lord Jesus.


Rachael said...

Now I want a sausage biscuit... or even just a buscuit... hmmm...

Anonymous said...

The post about Darlington is wonderful... You are fueling my imagination, since I never grew up with all these secrets of the rural south, ironic as that may seem. I told you my mother was emotionally and physically diminished through most of my teen and early adult years. She did not have the strength to impart those secrets or to implement them, that is assuming she ever knew them in the first place; and father, a very passive man, did not hunt, fish, or participate in any of the rural traditions so often associated with coming of age rituals for southern boys.

So, I struggle to unearth the secrets in my middle years, knowing on a purely non verbal level that they are the source of strength and contentment. You are so right that there is no substitute for physical labor and for the application of those solid old skills. They are purely intergenerational gifts, without pretense, without the intrusion of words on the page. They are the front porch stories of southern history, of Welty's childhood, of our youth.

This new job is the gateway to old knowledge, old insights buried deep in my psyche. I grew up in such towns, but I
as ashamed of them. I was never comfortable in that milieu. I was an elitist from a very early time, resentful of small town familial ties. I could not understand why all thoughts and actions had to be filtered through the dark lens of genealogy. Why couldn't we just move forward? The world of Marion County was so insulated, even though a lot of good kids came out of there to achieve success in the larger world. I also resented them, if the truth be known. The place was never my nemesis. IT was my own deep insecurity that bred my elitist ideals and left me an outsider in my own land. Perhaps my story is not far from the real message of southern literature, the prominence of place and its connection to the human psyche: The natural landscape as metaphor for the human condition...

This job and your sweet words are helping me to rediscover the dark, rich earth of my Pee Dee. I am going to commit myself to documenting that adventure. I plan to use black and white photography matched with some narrative.

You know I traveled through a vastly strange region of this state on Wednesday. I had never taken Highway 3 from Ridgeland back to the Aiken area. This is one of the most rural parts of SC: maybe three houses in 25 miles. I didn't know such places remained here. There was something magic about the experience, as if I had wandered into the magic forest. Is that what you call food for the soul? Thank you for your story....I once thought it hokey. Now I find it nourishing, loving.

Hope you're feeling okay today. There is something very courageous about your prolific work, both in the content and in the sheer volume of work. You are able to channel your energies into creation rather than self-pity; and you certainly have every reason to shake your fist at the sky. Instead you endure. You go girl. ((-: