The Southern Book Tour, Part One: Mississippi Redux

I will admit to having made my plans for this recent trip with great trepidation; I didn’t ¬†know if it would be a very good idea to revisit my former home or a very bad one. But I did know this: good people had invited me, and they did so with warmth and affection. That was the constant thread through this whole trip. Good people. Warmth. Love.

I lived in Mississippi from 1994 until 2001. Part-time at first: my then-husband had accepted a job there and was working full-time while I had pledged to finish “one last degree” in Bowling Green, Ohio. We moved together from Birmingham to Ridgeland, Mississippi, after I finished my MA in English at UAB, and when the MFA program started in the fall, I went up north to study and came home on every school break. When I finished the program, we moved out to Yazoo County and stayed there together until both our marriage and our home–almost simultaneously–blew apart. We were still calling it a “trial separation” when the tornado hit. The storm nearly killed him; a few months earlier, I’d tried to kill myself.

What would it be like to go back? What would I say to people I’d known, lived with, worked with? Who would I see? Where would I, could I go?

I was there, of course, to read from my book, The Sudden Seduction of Gravity, at Holmes Community College, both the Ridgeland Campus in suburban Jackson where I’d briefly taught part-time while on school breaks, and the Goodman Campus, where I later taught full-time for five years with some of the most gifted students I’d ever had and some of the kindest colleagues. And the Mississippi Poetry Society had invited me to read from the book as well as talking about Writing As a Healing Process. I knew the trip would be, in large part, my own healing process. I hoped it would be helpful to others. I think it was both.

I met and talked with so many people who had survived their own illnesses, their own losses. People who had survived fires, floods, hurricanes, and yes, tornadoes, too. People who’d suffered every kind of illness or who were care-givers themselves.

There’s relief, real relief, in knowing others have been through what you have–in knowing you’re just not alone. There’s relief in knowing it’s okay to talk about things. It’s a GOOD thing to acknowledge pain, a GOOD thing to grieve, a GOOD thing to mourn. Sometimes what we mourn is only our own innocence, the person we were–or think we were–before our loss. That makes room, I think, to celebrate the person we can become.

And isn’t that marvelous?

Whatever’s behind us, there’s so much more ahead. That’s not a cliche. It’s life.

It’s hard to see, of course, in our darkest hours, and that’s why I believe writing, speaking, and touring as someone who has survived so much is important. I do believe that writing about our experiences, creating anything artful from it, has at least the potential to make us stronger. It is helpful and healing to our bodies, telling our stories, in and of itself, even in a private journal we show to no one. But to shape and nurture what we create, to truly make something artful, we can find ourselves taking control over something we’d previously felt no control over. It helps. And we can help others who aren’t able to process in quite the same way, or who haven’t yet learned to.

I used to dread change. That was fear, and sometimes there’s reason to be scared. But I believe it’s true that “people we have not yet met will depend on us in ways/we cannot fathom.” Sometimes it’s just one person who needs us, one person whom we help. Sometimes WE are the person. And that’s everything.

It was good to meet new people on this trip. It was very good to see old friends. It was good to weave both those things into a mesh of new experiences. We are constantly creating our own lives.

And, truly, that is marvelous!

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