on blogs and being while here

cropped-img_1168.jpgIn the reliable hurdy gurdy that life has now become, the idea of beginning a blog still unsettles me. First off, let me admit to some befuddlement. I am not sure what the word “blog” is supposed to mean.

For me the word “blog”—say it slow, as a southerner would, with at least two or three syllables involved, and listen—has always and only conjured up a single vivid image of blundering pell-mell through the woods, tripping over a stump, and regurgitating supper on my short trip to the ground. I have done this in real life more than once, racing through thigh-high brambles in knee-length skirts and bare feet, trying to beat the rain home, clearing the creek just fine and easily vaulting several trees downed by Hurricane Camille long enough ago that the moss had o’ertaken them and made for easy tripping. Agility from long practice overweens the brain, though, and the body can’t always follow suit, for (of course!) then there was that one buried stump, no victim of a storm, only humans in need of a tree for a holiday and then kindling for the fires of a winter just ahead—and, on that summer day, well behind—me.

That stump hadn’t yet had time to go under moss. It hadn’t yet had time to fold beneath the weight of the dripping ferns crowding close now that the spreading tree was gone. It was just there, being itself, close to the ground with no plans to rise and, most assuredly, I think now (but not then), no plan for upending a small child bent on outrunning the storm. I can still taste the soggy rotted leaves as I plowed, face first, into them. I can still hear the thunder and the patter of heavy raindrops on the leaves above. I can still remember trying to get attentive quick to what else might be on the ground with me: the big water moccasin that slipped into the creek earlier on my way through? the cottonmouth that lay concealed in an old logging rut until eight kids and three adults had passed jauntily by, before my father—bringing up the end of the line with a slingblade and a gunny sack for the muscadines we were off to pick—asked us to turn around and look at just how little attention we were paying to what was in the water-sogged ruts on either side of our feet? the baby turtles I’d hauled off the road earlier in the week? As usual, the dangers got first glance, but what earthly sense would it have made to rescue two teensy turtles one day and then fall on and smash them the next?

Minds carry moments like these for eternity, it seems. The word “blog” unexpectedly brings it all back. And it stumps me, has done now for four years, ever since I was first asked to write a “blog.”

Secondly, with a few notable—and deeply welcome—exceptions, I don’t really read blogs, so I don’t exactly understand the genre. It seems a cross between diary entries and magazine or newspaper articles, none of which comfort or sustain me for long. There is nothing wrong per se with these expressions. Each is worthy and needed and very giving, all told. But I am a lifelong devotee of the book—pages between covers of any type qualify as worth checking out—and no other genre quite suffices. I owe this to my mother, who read to me from as long as I can remember, and to her church, which claimed a direct line to the Almighty Himself and thus gave me more reasons for learning to read a book for myself than any institution before or since has done.

Books are my co-conspirators in life, they gin up the stakes on whatever human-jerryrigged nonsense is afoot, and I find in them steady reasons to go on being while here. In the books I have written, I work my way through whatever life has handed down: only afterward is the experience fully real. Or fully mine. Sometimes it takes me 20 years to get a true sentence. At other times—awakened from sound sleep in the middle of the night or stopped mid-word in a conversation—I hear a word or two and on setting that to paper find some strange and marvelous story pouring in from some place I could never control, and it flows like rivers to the sea. Since I’ve become an historian, too, my sentences are often tied to years of grubbing archives and oral histories and traditions for bits of evidence, so they are slow to emerge and not lined up well with even the rather leisurely paced clocks of formal tenure. My personal sense of timing, my inner clock, and my habits of thought, work, and wordsmithing, then, may well simply be out of step not just with the academy but with the blogosphere, where people turn out tomes or tweets every day. All significant to boot. It’s a sight on earth and more intimidating to me than most other genres I’ve taken a swing at.

Thirdly, given the extraordinarily polarized state of the world today, I don’t know how a person can blog without wading well into the fray, and I’ve been strenuously advised that any scholar and writer wishing to make a living now has to carefully craft an image that is appealing to the public (as if, of course, anyone ever alive on this earth could suss out what “the public” is or what the heck it might find appealing in advance!). This means, too, I have been told with authority by people who have some to dole out, a serious writer has to sidestep the hottest political or social topics and opt for balance (“This side says A, and that side says a”), has to avoid extremes at all costs and only gingerly take stands so as not to give the least offense. Both scholar and writer, too, I have been advised, must “brand one’s self,” must network and schmooze (chat with intent of gaining some personal advantage and social connection), must post the obligatory “head shot” (as any meat market should require), must do, in short, one’s work in ways calculated to be a “success” in the skankiest possible meanings of that word. Branding aside—I’ve just never found that appealing for either livestock or humans—to none of this can I surrender. Just cannot.

For me, raised barefoot in the piney woods of southern Mississippi and still there most days in my soul/soles, all this is fine if it feeds a person’s heart and reason for being here. I’ve no intent to judge anyone else, that’s for sure. But I also do not wish to surrender my own chance for being fully me to anyone else’s notions of what is proper or wise or even savvy. I value diversity—across every last board—so much so that I wish for everyone to do and say what they really feel they should be doing and saying. Cookie cutters, despite how appealing they seem to be these days, do fine on raw dough intended for the oven. I’ve wielded one or two in my time and been thoroughly satiated by the results. But cookie cutters also, consistently and with no little abandon, mangle human beings, do they not?

And so that brings me to the fourth(ly!) reason I mulled so long the whole matter of starting a blog. I treasure diversity. I think every person on this planet has a unique, fathomless gift for the rest of us. When I speak my truths, though, far too often some people take offense. This has become scripture and verse for the public sphere now existing in the United States, and I account myself in this reckoning. Let somebody say something we disagree with, and we unload on ’em with both verbal barrels. People like me who write can lay hot lead down in a sentence in ways that make it downright impossible to sidestep. This is a good thing, I’ve always thought (and still, to a great extent, do). But the world now is spinning faster and meaner than I remember it doing before, and words too easily become weapons with no neighborliness embedded.

To be fair, political pundits have whipped up the furies and fires amongst us so hot that it’s hard sometimes even to carry on a conversation with those we love or sleep with, much less anybody else. What’s even worse is that genuinely meanspirited and systematic efforts are afoot—namely, to destroy working people and those in poverty the world over, while handing over the global economy to the exact same giants of runaway crony capitalism that have broken everything on purpose! More than ever we need finely honed, powerful words, it seems to me. People are dying out here, people are hungry, they are homeless at levels I can scarcely fathom anymore: and some CEOs and corporations and already-bought-and-paid-for politicians are trying to make sure it all gets worse. That causes caring people to feel anger, rage even, and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel it. Nor would we be humane if we didn’t express it. But the levels of condescension and demeaning afoot now—from all sides—are appalling to behold.

Don’t get me wrong: without any question, our times require fierce, even vociferous voices in public. In standing up for the kind of world we want, though, it seems to me we have to daily remember not to slip into the same condescending rhetoric that’s so common now. I struggle with this quite often. It’s especially easy to be condescending in soundbytes. But when I stop and look at the people with whom I most ferociously disagree—when I really stop and look at them and ponder what on earth they’ve gone through to make them think, act, and speak as they are doing—I know that they, too, have fears and values and must believe on some level that what they are doing makes sense. Somehow I have to find a way to voice strong objections to the most hurtful of their actions while remembering that they, too, are humans with gifts for us now.

Blogs, it seems to me, have reached a point where they genuinely do break down barriers of soul and spirit—the carefully cobbled walls we put around our hearts and experiences to get through each day—for there is something about tripping over hidden stumps and falling headlong into wet tree duff that is amazingly, wonderfully life-affirming. There was no water moccasin staring me down on that long-ago wet afternoon, no cottonmouth with fangs capable of latching onto my hide (good thing, since my father’s slingblade and the man himself was lord only knows where just then). There wasn’t even that much moss or leaves to be spat out with the blackberry cobbler I’d just downed on my grandmother’s porch. There were no tiny rescued turtles (likely quite horrified at having been taken so far off their own life paths, and so abruptly to boot!) to be squashed in my tumble. There were only the woods that—wet or dry or any of the possibilities between and beyond—taught me without fail the kind of lessons no books could ever teach. I still think the woods or deserts of the world are my best teachers, but of late I’ve come also to find some succor in blogs, the heartsongs of somebody else, being while here. And so, much as I have done with all writing, I’ve written myself through this matter far enough that I can finally step off into the stream.

Thanks for reading, thanks for being here, thanks for everything that you—friend, acquaintance, or stranger—do every day to make this a kinder, more just and compassionate world for all beings. We are neighbors on this planet, and better off for it, I believe, particularly on those days when we’re flat on our faces in damp leaves and mud. I’ll mull on eclectic topics in this space, honoring my life and others rather than sticking to one particular theme, and I hope you’ll feel free to engage in conversations here or to tell stories or add links to your own blogs where you’re carrying on these or other discussions. I welcome your comments and musings and will respond to as many as I can.

It is a true joy, in this journey we call life, to understand that sometimes we, in fact, do not walk—or even run pell-mell through damp woods aiming for the next hidden stump—alone. Blogs, I believe, may help us remember that better. Welcome to this one!

5 responses

  1. >>> But I also do not wish to surrender my own chance for being fully me to anyone else’s notions of what is proper or wise or even savvy <<<

    Words to live by, Hannah. Beautiful.

    These days most of my energies are going into life at home and into books, which means my blog doesn't see much of me. But I'm still glad it's there. When I started it, I worried that blogging might turn out to be a version of branding, but if anything it actually makes me braver about being my true self.

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    • Thank you, Amy. Yours is one of the blogs I do follow, but I know oh too well how working creates ebbs in our online selves. This is, perhaps, organic and wiser than we ourselves might be, given infinite time and energy, no? For the ocean moves, restless with the wind and whatever’s afoot deep below the ground upon which it and we make our stands, does it not? Seasons of energy and growth step aside for respite and dying even, so that new life can come forward? I look forward to your next book child, my friend! Thanks for visiting me here. I hope this space becomes a virtual nook for the real-world equivalent of tea, biscuits, and conversation. And, of course, the occasional piece of homebaked pie or the like!

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      • It’s lovely to hear, Amy, that your blogging makes you feel more yourself. I’d like it to be that way for me, too. Truly, I need to stop being frozen about it and just do it badly until I develop the rhythm that works for me. I read something recently about excellence, that suggested that trying to work for quantity and forgetting quality had been shown, at least in pottery!, to produce better quality as well. And being frozen here is doing nothing for quantity or quality. I need to comb through those blogs, decide I’m ok having them seen, and just admit they’re there. And then I can have my little porch on Hannah-and-Amy street, and that seems fine. 🙂

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      • Thanks for your comment, Jenny! I’ve tried to think of and use FB as a front porch space, but it doesn’t work as well for that. The norms of FB tend more toward soundbytes, so those of us who want to mull deeper and longer often find it an uneasy place. The porches on my parents’ and grandparents’ homes were wonders to me. Rocking chairs and straight-backed chairs and wide wooden swings were strung all along the front of the house, banisters on two of those porches were good for propping feet up on or accommodating children who needed to climb while eavesdropping on our elders. There were mimosa trees and the obligatory tall lily beds and azaleas flanked by tall pines, cottonwoods, or sweet gums. You could always see the garden from the porch, and the field corn grew right up to it (too close, I sometimes felt, knowing the work that was awaiting us there in the fall). Sweet tea’s easy to sip anywhere anytime, but on those porches? Life itself is sweeter. The conversations would ebb and flow, carry on at times for weeks on end, and it’s this that I hear coming alive in the most interactive blog spaces. So glad to see you here!

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  2. Clinking my glass with yours, dear friends! And very glad to sit with you on the porch. (Ours was smothered with Virginia creeper, and you could see the wood piles from it, which I eyed roughly the way you eyed your corn, Hannah.)

    Jenny, I first read that pottery story in ART AND FEAR, and I still think about it a lot. By nature I’m inclined to fret too much over every single pot, so it’s a helpful concept for me. Though there are time when my energy is so low that the thought of making even one pot is daunting, let alone a hundred! And making them in public is a whole nother story. You do what you feel comfortable with, and know that you always have a place here, either way.

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