Obsessions: December 21st, 2009

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One of mom's Christmas stars.

My hometown in Tennessee is a weird meeting point of urban and rural: It’s a tiny industrial town grown in the early 20th century from of the bones of a cluster of farms around a riverfront port. We began with rural living, we ended up (somewhat uncomfortably) small-town urban. It’s an odd cusp to exist upon.

When I first moved away from my valley town, I was pretty thorough in erasing my accent and my unsophisticated eating habits, and in learning the ways of the cities: “How do I hail a cab? How can I tell if a homeless person’s fleecing me? How do I get through subway stations quickly?” That was a long, arduous year of silent, embarrassed lessons, learning how to fit myself into the more cosmopolitan fabric of a city as enormous and sprawling as Chicago. It started the moment I got off the plane: I was the only English speaker in the train car, and one of a handful of Caucasians. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alone, frightened, or small.


But now, fifteen years and a lot of jadedness later, I miss the hills. It happens more at Christmas time than any other time of the year; there's something about the hills that cradles you. You're at home and warm in your little valley while the cold weather skates far overhead, always west to east, getting caught and torn in the tops of the trees on the mountains over you. Su recently sent me this clip of a bunch of hillfolk from the Appalachians (Northerners: When you're in the South, it's "app-uh-lah-chun," with a long drawling "a" in the middle. not "app-uh-lay-shun.") I could listen to them talk all day. The cadence and clickety-clack of the syllables is musical, like banjos and train cars and bar glasses. That it's so hard to understand to outsiders makes it even more precious: It's a secret code that only Southerners can understand all the time. This clear difference in language was the single reason I became interested in microlanguages, dialects, and cultural pockets in college—it's fascinating to watch Appalachian culture and speech working its way to Brooklyn through cooking, music, and craft. There's a lot of home coming back to me these days in the craft and natural foods movements.

A few years ago, my mother was president of her local guild of the Tennessee Basketry Association (here she is at the state-wide convention) which is devoted to keeping regional craft alive. Her position meant that, in addition to her own projects, others' work suddenly inhabited our family home—three generations of the family raised in one house, and now, suddenly, strangers' identities were drifting around the house. It was a strange feeling. The crafts were so odd to me that I needed to document the regionalism, the kitsch, the homeyness—it's in this Flickr set from a couple of years ago. There's something I can't quite isolate in the vernacular of the region, all wrapped up in ideas culled from local superstition, primitive Baptist faith, and the original Scotch and Irish cultures. If you squint, the pinwheel weavings start to look like Celtic knot-work. If you listen hard enough, the dulcimer starts to sound like the Chinese equivalent—and that makes the American South start to seem much more like a melting pot, and less an unseemly stew.

Hillbilly savants

The last time I started feeling guilty for leaving Tennessee, I started poking around for Appalachian voices on the web. They're a little more difficult to find than I'm comfortable with, but that makes sense given the relative poverty and isolation of the area. The one I ran across that kept me satisfied is Hillbilly Savants, a community of several Southern voices. What's interesting about the way stories about the South are now progressing on the blog is that they are now more focused on the conflict between environmentalism and industrial development than cultural development. Mountaintop removal is a hot topic, as are smoking bans (since tobacco is one of Virginia's longtime cash crops). When I was younger, the hot-button subjects were human-focused: public education and child welfare. Interesting how quickly things change; also interesting is how undeveloped regions like The South tend to be at the center of those conversations.

As much as I miss Tennessee in my periodic bursts of sentimentality, Chicago’s now comfortably home. Until we need to move to warmer climes, I have my grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe to satisfy my longings. So this winter, Su and I will spend a happy, quiet Christmas at home by ourselves, away from the rest of the world. Maybe next year we’ll go south again. Happy holidays, everyone.