I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away,
Dixie land.

I remember, from when I was just a little boy, standing on the front porch of my momma and daddy's house watching the fireflies light up in the warm muggy breeze of an early summer evening. The dance of light they made around the azalea bushes that grew around the pine trees was like a secret message, meant only for me to decipher. As the storm clouds approached, the lightning would flash and light up the dark, cloudy sky, as the booming thunder cracked and rolled across the heavens. The smell of the rain on the wind, coming from far off beyond the trees, and finally, the giant drops that fell like bullets on to the grass and gravel driveway just before the hard shower started. The dogs would find cover, and the fireflies would hide.

Hot days would often last even until late October, and I remember wearing short pants under my Halloween costume when daddy took my brother and me around the neighborhood for trick or treating, back when we still lived in the suburbs. Icy, snowless winters, followed by that first sign of true spring, when the Pecan trees budded out with new leaves. Sitting on the porch in the early afternoon shelling zipper peas and pink-eyed purple hulls, or snapping beans that we'd picked from daddy's garden early that morning, while we listened to grandma talk about times from when she was a little girl. The acidic, ripening odor from the screened-in porch at the back of the house where momma kept tables full of fresh tomatoes spread out on old newspapers. I hated that smell, but damn, I loved the taste of those tomatoes.

My daddy taught me how to shuck oysters when I was ten years old. I remember that we used to go gigging at night for flounder in the shallows of St. Andrew Bay, back when they were so plentiful that you could find one burying itself in the mud on the bottom every couple of yards. On weekends, I remember we'd all take the boat out to Shell Island and spend the afternoon hunting for blue crabs in the bay. The smell of salty, sunburned skin covered with mosquito bites. Sometimes we'd go to the river and fish for speckled trout or brim, and come home with a mess of fish so big that momma would have to put half of them in the freezer after daddy prepared them all on his fish cleaning table out by the shop building. Daddy built that table himself; it had a sink in it with running water from a garden hose, and all the heads and skins and guts would go into a five gallon PVC bucket. I buried that bucket's contents in the back yard... more times than I can remember.

Sometimes in the early summer, when the smell of Magnolias fill the air, I flash back to when I was twelve, right after we moved out to the country, and I am there by the pond on the south forty with daddy as he feeds the catfish he's stocked the pond with. They jump up and churn the water as they feed, and he throws more feed pellets at them with that giant scoop in his hand. The way the dust from the fish feed sparkled in the air, catching the dying rays of the setting sun as the water below danced with life, will always be a vivid image in my mind.

It was around this age that my misty, water-colored memories of childhood begin to change, taking on much darker hues laced with the unmistakable scent of linseed oil. They are mostly painful and disturbing to recall, but they are paintings in my mind which reflect part of who I was and who I would become, as much as the brighter images do.

Your memories are powerful. Some have the power to destroy you, and some have the power to save you. You have the power to choose the ones which hold power over you.

Choose carefully.

Ol' Missus married Will the weaver,
William was a gay deceiver,
Look away, look away, look away,
Dixie land.

I am a native-born Southerner, raised in the South. Everything that the South embodies, both good and bad, in stark reality and mere perception, is a part of me in some small way. But I've never owned a pickup truck, a hunting rifle, a rebel flag or a bass boat. I've never gone cow tipping, willingly engaged in square dancing, dated my cousin or been in a bar fight. That's not to say that I don't know plenty of people who have. We are all products of our environments, and the lowest common denominator usually wins. No matter where my travels in life may take me, I will always be a Southerner. And yet, while I still reside in the South, I do not feel like I belong here. The prevailing mindset of the common Southerner is the problem. As much as it pains me, I have come to the realization that my people are not my people.

By way of explanation, let me first say that I'm not much for personal exposition. I prefer to keep my past in the past. But I have been thinking recently of a quote that a one-time colleague of mine, a history teacher, was fond of repeating: The past isn't dead. It isn't even past! My roots are in the South, and it is so much a part of me that I can never escape it. It defines me in so many ways that I'm not sure I could even keep it in the past if I wanted to. Because it's not even past... it's still right now. It seems to me like some of this may resonate of "teen angst", but I'm much too old for that to be true. Put it down as "middleaged angst," I guess. The main difference is that I actually have the power to remedy what's troubling me, instead of just whining. And I've come up with a solution.

On those rare Sunday mornings when I awake with the rising sun, I sometimes think I hear the mewling, saccharine sound of that church choir from when I was thirteen and "got saved". Dad was a deacon in that little Southern Baptist church where we went to Sunday School, and I knew even then that he had truly found religion for the first time in his life. I remember that I was not quite so willing. I was busting out into puberty, and had some serious issues on my mind. I went along with the whole pomp and circumstance, right up until the Sunday morning my younger brother unexpectedly stepped out from the pew to take that walk down the aisle toward salvation in Jesus. I remember my sense of panic, and that choice I had to make in an instant: Stay in the pew where I belonged, because God had not spoken to me — or embrace a lie and follow my younger brother down the aisle, avoiding a future of unrelenting worried looks and comments from my parents, in their troubled concern as to when I was going to accept Jesus. I was young, but I wasn't stupid: I took the easy way out. It was among the first in a long series of lies and deceptions that would characterize my adolescence... all in an attempt to avoid being forced into a reality that I was unwilling and unprepared to deal with.

Growing up in the Southern Tradition has its ups and downs. Most people have a love-hate relationship with sterotypes because they're such ridiculous exaggerations of the truth. When you're young and impressionable, it's easy to make fun of faggots, niggers and Yankees when you're sure that you're not one of them. Bigotry comes easily when you're surrounded by bigots. It's passed on in much the same way as religious and political beliefs. Hate and fear don't come naturally, they're learned. When life experiences begin to show you that the things you were taught as a child were a lie, it's much easier to disregard the truth and cling to what's familiar and comfortable. So long as you have the constant moral support of those around you who are just as deluded as you are, it's possible to live your entire life without ever having to think or question who you are or why you believe the things you do. In the South, those who challenge this safety zone are just asking to have their asses kicked. And there's always a mob handy to defend time-honored traditions.

While this sort of mentality can be found the world over, it is commonly recognized as a sterotypical quality of the Southern man. In this day and age, it's not hard to find a legion of Southern men and women who will stand tall and declare, "That's not me." But I'd lay odds that precious few of them would deny they were ever subjected to the same conditioning, or that they continue to encounter this sort of ignorance and fear in people throughout their daily lives. Sometimes you don't realize how common certain beliefs are until you challenge them. Stereotypes exist because, even as extremely polarized as they are, there are a few people who are actually like that.

I might have been one of them, were it not for a little quirk of nature that turned my entire world on its head. Because of my upbringing, I went through all the clinical stages of grief at the same time I was thrust into the tumult of adolescence. The grief I felt was for the death of an ideal and a promise: the person that I thought I would become. I somehow managed to make it through those years without checking out early, thanks in part to nearly lethal doses of self-denial. Eventually I came to accept the fact that reality was not at all what I had been led to believe. The lies I hid behind were the direct result of the lies about the world I had been taught when I was a child, growing up in the South. It took almost ten years for me to fully accept the fact that they had all been lies to begin with. Reality, in and of itself, doesn't fuck with people's heads nearly as much as do the lies that people believe are true.

Then hoe it down and scratch your gravel,
To Dixie land, I'm bound to travel
Look away, look away, look away,
Dixie land.

Here I am now, some years after. The darkness has shed its veil, and I'm aware of all the ties that bind me to the South: family, friends, history, tradition, honor. It's beautiful and warm, like a mother's embrace. It's home. But for me, it's also smothering, stagnating, and now as ever, an obvious trap. If you always do what you've always done, then you'll always have what you've always had. The memories that the South hold for me aren't enough. I can't keep living in the past. I need more. Still, I love the South, and I especially love Florida. If you've ever read anything by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, you have some idea of the majesty this place had, and in many cases, still has. Some of my writeups are a testament to this as well. But in spite of the nostalgia, I've come to my senses (at long last), and understand now that it's time to move on.

The thing that's most surprising to me is the way that I came to this understanding. Like most people (or so I suspect), I have never been much of a traveler. It wasn't until I found this web site, and started going to gatherings in Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Oregon, Ohio, and other places that I'd never been before, that I started to see what life outside of my Southern Exposure was like. My experience in this regard is not unique, as it so happens, but that doesn't make it any less real or life-altering. My eyes were opened. I met wonderful people that I now count as friends. I discovered strange new lands. And I found that I now had options that I didn't have before. Alternatives. Open windows. Maybe even freedom to be the person that I really am. Freedom to find the real me that I've buried inside for so long. Real freedom. Can it really be real?

So I'm leaving the South. I'm turning my back on momma and daddy's vision of utopia: tractor pulls, corn bread, black-eyed peas and collard greens. I'm moving to California: the land of fruits and nuts, earthquakes and mudslides, Hollywood and Castro Street. The mindset there is different. There's tolerance. It's the Great American Frontier, the Wild West... everything is permitted. It's stereotypically liberal. The people there are my kind of people - not all of them, mind you, but the overall climate is more congenial to my disposition. It's everything I'm looking for that the South isn't, and then some. I've been there. I know it's real.

I also know it won't be easy, and it won't be perfect. So maybe there's rolling blackouts and high gas prices. Few things worth having ever came without some kind of sacrifice. Maybe I'll miss the humidity. Maybe I'll miss the swamps, and the mosquitoes, and the fireflies. Maybe I'll be homesick for a little while. Maybe, just maybe, I'll whistle "Dixie" now and then. But I doubt that will last for long. The Left Coast is just too beautiful in its own right. I may be a son of the South, but now I know that I left my heart in San Francisco.

Thanks, E2.

I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie land I'll make my stand,
To live and die in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!


Update: February, 2003

I am now a resident of the Golden State, and live in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. I have become the American Dream. I can do anything.

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