Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Church of Camo…Believing without Seeing

The other day two friends separately discussed their experiences with wearing camo to church. Full camo, I might add. Michael had worn full camo once to a Wednesday night service, while Will had been out of town hunting and had nothing but camo gear to wear, so he showed up to a Sunday service decked out in just that. I believed them, but there was a small sliver of doubt which pricked my unbelief…I didn’t think I could truly believe until I saw such an entrance with my own eyes. I didn’t have to wait long, because tonight I saw a walking forest saunter into church about 30 minutes after the casual evening potluck and teaching had begun. The 6-foot-something thicket of brush (who’s name was Mark) made his way over to the buffet table in a full one-piece camo jumpsuit, and then dug into his pulled pork and macaroni casserole as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I had to suppress not just a giggle, but full-scale laughter. “Oh help me in my unbelief”, I thought…”WHERE is my camera???”, followed only shortly after!

At Home in a Land Far, Far Away...

All right, so I take it there’s been a few of you waiting to hear about the Cash festival. To sum up the evening, attendance was meager at first, but as the night wore on, the bands got better and the crowds got more enthusiastic (aka drunk). Both of these things made for more interesting photos, which was my real reasoning for making an appearance.

What was really ironic about the entire experience was that Johnny Cash was arrested for public drunkenness and there everyone was, celebrating his official posthumous pardoning with a beer in hand in downtown Starkville. Interestingly enough, event organizers had been hoping to focus more on redemption as the theme of Cash’s life, rather than his blunders, so Sunday morning they’d scheduled a Redemption Service with gospel worship lead by Johnny’s sister Joanne. Liz & I slept in which, we figured, was redeeming enough.

Liz & I have been making the most of this week (doing a LOT of talking and catching up) seeing as how her husband Michael has been off hunting in Ohio. When I arrived at their house late last Wednesday night, the entire house looked like he’d just returned from a Mossy Oak shopping spree (Mossy Oak is a chain of hunting supply stores which I’m sure proudly outfits most of the locals with, as I’ve been told, ‘all things camo’. Visit if you’d like to ‘Join the Obsession’). The morning after Michael left for his weeklong buck-hunting adventure, Liz told me that he’d woken her up sometime during the wee hours of the morning to ask if she knew where his favourite deer-skinning knife was. I’m fairly sure she had no idea.

Now camo, skinning knives, and the quest for a ‘monster buck’ are not strange concepts to me seeing as how I grew up in a hunting family. Our family hunting trip to Wyoming was a favourite childhood memory of mine, and I can also recall the fall season being that special time of year when large, skinned animals were strung up from the rafters of our garage. My friend Stacey, with whom I share a penchant for all things redneck, loves to tell people about the moose that were strung up from the family swing set. I guess it’s good to have a friend who boasts about equally strange and wonderful childhood memories (that we both hope to replicate for our children one day!).

The thing with the south that differs from hunting culture in Canada is that here it’s not unusual for hunting paraphernalia to be seen en masse and in town. The night of the Cash concert I counted dozens of men, women, and children sporting camouflage gear…and not in the styles or patterns you’d pick up at Old Navy either! I spotted teenage girls pairing their daddy’s oversized hunting jackets (complete with elastic waist and wristbands) with cute jeans and low-slung heels. Here in Starkville, camo shows up on both the black man and the white girl, at the Walmart and in the trendy Italian restaurant. I stood in line at the grocery store last night reading the back of one man’s t-shirt that claimed: ‘Southern by Birth, Deer Hunter by the Grace of God’. There was part of me that wanted to be shocked that someone’s t-shirt would exhibit such a slogan, but then I had to remember that my dad has his own collection of redneck t’s…ones that he’s created himself using his own colourful imagination. It’s pretty strange realizing that my own upbringing and surroundings are what make me feel oddly at home in this southern state!

So far one of the most blessed things about Mississippi in the fall has been the weather. Blue skies every day and balmy southern temperatures, not to mention the lack of humidity and absence of mosquitoes this time of year, have made each day fantastic. Flip flops and t-shirts every day have definitely put a perpetual smile on my face. Due to the climate, the need to embrace the outdoors has definitely overwhelmed me at times, however, parkland within the city limits seems nonexistent. In search of a place to sit and relax outside, I discovered that the university campus was a great place to retreat to, and so on Sunday I hit the vast, green expanse of the Drill Field armed with books and sketching supplies. I settled into the centre of campus to sketch one of the stately old facades, then moved to wear the sun’s rays still warmed another portion of the quiet campus. There I pulled out the first book on a list of required reading that I’d been given. I figured reading about Mississippi before writing too much about it was a wise thing to do, so I started off with Willie Morris’ slim anthology of southern tales as a recommended introduction to southern literature. Before I’d even finished the first chapter I was hooked, but I was also reminded of my very first night in Mississippi which brings me back to my initial visit over seven years ago.

Immediately following my final exams in 2000, I was flown down to Mississippi as a graduation gift from my parents. It had been over a year since I’d first met friends I’d made while on a missions trip to Russia, and my first stop was to visit my dear friend Liz (Shehane) Stewart in Starkville, Mississippi. I knew nothing about the state except for what I vaguely recalled about the south from movies; stereotypes which I was sure Hollywood had grossly exaggerated. Over the course of my two week trip, however, I was stunned to find that many of my stereotypes were matched by the realities of the south and I quickly became obsessed with all things southern. But back to my first night in the Deep South.

When Liz picked me up at the airport in Jackson, the state’s capital, I initially reacted to the extreme humidity as an entity which one could chew…I felt myself working to swallow the air and felt that with each gulp I was most likely fogging up my lungs. The only other recollection I can muster up from our drive to Starkville was the mind-boggling amount of kudzu (a kind of creeping vine) that Liz claimed was, “eating up Alabama”. By the time we reached her family’s home and the warmly lit porch that welcomed us in, the sky had become black but the humidity had not lessened. As I stepped from the air-conditioned car into the sticky night I stood riveted in one spot by the sound of something I believed I’d never heard before. “Don’t you have crickets”? Liz asked as I stood wide-eyed in the dark. “They don’t sound like THAT!” I replied, somewhat taken aback that a chorus of insects could raise such a ruckus.

Later after Liz and I had settled into bed for the night, I lay very still listening again to the mildly soothing racket caused by the crickets and decided that there was something about the crickets, porches, kudzu, and humidity that when combined, blended into a rich cultural cocktail that had the potential to inspire a great deal of creativity. I made the promise to myself that if I should ever choose to write for a living, I would return to the south to do so, because it was the only place I knew of so richly endowed with inspiration. Apparently I was not the first to come to that conclusion, as I discovered on that first trip that a great deal of renowned writers and musicians had their roots buried deep in Mississippi’s fertile soil. A year after my first visit to the south I finally put my finger on what made Mississippi so unique, (at least in my opinion) and that was that natives who were born and bred in the state often had the innate gift of story-telling. Always a sucker for a strong narrative whether tall or true, I haven’t tired of seeking out southerners’ favourite stories to tell, and doubt I ever will.

If you have a hankering for a bit of classic southern story-telling, pick up a copy of ‘Good Ol’ Boy’, by Willie Morris and I can guarantee that you’ll catch a whiff of the south without having to plow through one of those dry and dusty ‘classics’ that we’ve all been told are good for us. You’ll also be thoroughly entertained, especially if you’ve grown up in a rural setting where you were forced to create your own fun. Believe me, it’s a keeper. Oh, and read it barefoot…preferably on a porch swing or near a pond if you can locate one!

Well, that’s all for now…glad you’ve been enjoying the blog so far! Stay tuned for highlights from this weekend’s much anticipated (and my first ever) college football game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs & the Alabama Crimson Tide.