Dear Mississippi, how should I begin? As a Unitarian Universalist, I can only speak my own truth, which is informed by a deep relationship with the elements.
Water: In heavy rain, cats yowling, the lightning in the sky giving me a glimpse of the Chunky River’s churning. A sudden doom fell upon my shoulders: I was moving somewhere they would name a river Chunky without a trace of irony. Hot on the heels of a life-altering breakup, storm season in Mississippi was the perfect accompaniment to my unraveling. I moved here for love, a love lost 19 days before my entry to the state. I would stand in the rain or at the edge of the Reservoir howling, crying big fat tears, not yet realizing that I had freed myself.
A year later, the rains rolled in, and I was a different person: worn like riverstone, I stood in the deluge, trading kisses. While we adamantly told everyone we weren’t dating, we were slowly building a marriage.
Fire: I lived in Miami, where I would burn through long sleeve tee-shirts, I lived in the Dutch Oven of pollution that encapsulates Atlanta. Nothing prepared me for Mississippi’s summer swelter. I suddenly understood the concept of braising on a whole new level. I was able to truly appreciate my newfound friends’ investments in deep, covered porches. Fire: do any mosquitos burn quite like Mississippi?
Mississippi is where I took my anger and turned it into passion. I have always been outspoken, but Mississippi helped me to hone my candor into a useful tool. I have always been opinionated, but Mississippi made an advocate out of me. I had aways written, but Mississippi made a writer out of me.
I had carried so much anger within me, that proverbial hot stone, and in Mississippi, the hottest part of the forge for so very many social struggles, I shaped that anger into an instrument for activism and growth.
Air: As a child, I would spread my arms wide and let the wind catch my whole body like a sail. I still do this. Everyone notices the wind in Mississippi: I think everyone holds deep gratitude for the breeze that slices through soupy August, just as we steel ourselves for the icy barrage that whips through January.
The lightning in Mississippi is superior to any other place I have seen: the way it splits the sky, that primal beauty, laden with wonder, awe, and fear. Unburdened by decades of old habits and reputations, I let the lightning split me, let the air move me, spiraling me deeper into my own self. I came to an accord with my intellect, embraced my nerdiness, and allowed the air to bear away the tatters of an old life long outlived.
Earth: I had grown plants, but never had a garden. I am still in no hurry: the trees in Mississippi are incredible. Jackson is an anomaly: after years of asphalt, limestone and pure red clay, to be able to have wild animals afoot, and sensory reassurance of happenstance nature around me in the middle of a city was overwhelming. During a nasty storm, a wild goose took refuge on my apartment porch: we weathered the storm together, he on one side of the glass, me on the other. I sighted a deer across the street from the mall. I have seen a living armadillo trundling alongside Pear Orchard Road. In Fondren, there is a tomato plant that crawls out of a crack in the sidewalk each year, bearing fruit against all odds. I have seen a red-tailed hawk snatch a jay out of the sky, and a community of bluejays rise up to exact vengeance. All my life, I would listen to Stevie Nicks and sway: she made me feel like a gypsy, a stray cat. I wanted to be untethered, easy to transplant. I put down wide but shallow roots.
Suddenly, I had a home. When my love and I bought a house, we knew it was ours because of the massive grove of trees… the trees that bent nearly to the ground, but did not break in Katrina… but played dervishes in a tornado and dropped most of their branches in a large, interlocking spiral. We thought we had lost them, but in the end, their deep roots saved them. They taught me that we must be willing to root deeply and reach out to one another to have security; that others will shelter your broken, tender body with their own limbs.
Mother Mississippi is no doting mother. She exacts a hefty toll from each of us. The rivers… they go where they want. Tornadoes rake our land like animal claws. The sun is brutal, and Yazoo clay is a trickster spirit of its own. Let’s say Mother Mississippi challenges the concept of your ownership.
I have an elevator speech for the many people who ask me, “WHY MISSISSIPPI?”
I tell them i live on a dead volcano beside a living serpent of a river. I stay because of the black earth streaked with red clay and the blood of civil rights heroes; the impossible green of sweet potato vine; the fossilized epic log jam just outside the city; and the Ragnarok-levels of lightning breaking through the storm outside. Jackson, my slice of earth, is an elemental convergence.
But there is more. Mississippi is a great teacher. I stay because the heat reminds me to kindle my own blazing courage; I stay because the air reminds me to use my breath as fuel for the body and lasting change; I stay because the water reminds me that we ourselves are ever-changing, capable of changing course; and I stay because the earth reminds me that we who choose to stay are interwoven, inextricable… sovereign unto ourselves, but supported by so many.
Today is not Earth Day, but we celebrate it anyway. We can choose to celebrate it daily, to remind us we can make tiny changes in our lives to live more gently; that we can revel in the beauty even as we mourn the injustices done to our habitat and the souls of our neighbors; and that we can fall in love with a place that is prickly, harsh, and perhaps difficult to love…
It is a complicated relationship, and I cherish it.