August, 2004

There are several things I like about the South. There are also things I don't like. You can't really do much except take them both together, because without them, it all falls apart, and you might as well just have stayed home. These things are epitomal. Hot, sticky days, nights that promise storms but do not bring them. People who smile at strangers but won't look them in the eye; the scent of raspberries and wild things that you just can't quite place. It's sort of like walking past someone's home in the late afternoon - the door is open, you hear sounds of soft murmuring and the smell of warm bread cooking in a white kitchen stove. Comforting, familiar - but you haven't been invited in.

The South is like that to me. It's a beautiful place, a warm and welcoming greeting, but one that never feels quite genuine. Maybe I just don't understand what the South is asking me when she opens that screen door on a summer afternoon. I know she wants something... but I just can't place the twinkle in her eyes.

I had a very good weekend. Saw old friends, met a few people that I'd like to become new ones, and saw a great deal of beauty, from the wildness of a thunderstorm to the the quiet reserve of willow trees over long worn gravestones. I walked in the rain, and furthered the Great War Against the Seagulls (also known as the War of Gull-ish Aggression). I listened to Irish music in a pub by the river, and brought home a painted pony that will always remind me of warmth and affection. Savannah flows over you like darkness on a summer night - wrapping you in its arms without asking for anything in return.

But there's something about the South - especially the Deep South - that I can't ever seem to draw into myself. I feel like I'm standing on the dock of a ship, watching the town on the land go about its business. The city is smiling out at me, showing me its paces and the magnificent trade within bustling streets and stores. Men tip their hats and ladies spread their skirts to shake off the dust, but neither quite extends a hand to help me ashore.

Cities like Savannah - ok, let me stop there. There's the South, and then, as I've learned, there's Savannah. They're related, but they're not at all "the same." Savannah is a woman dusting precious porcelain dolls of a fondly-remembered childhood in the cupboard; the rest of the South (Atlanta, Charlotte) have long ago given away the past, dedicating themselves to the future with wild and rabid eyes, in the name of 'progress' - and maybe in the name of fear.

Savannah is different. There are no skyscrapers in easy view, no great metal buildings that hulk like crows against streetcorners. The houses are graceful and elegant, but worn and faded; grey from the passage of hundreds of summer days that have curled about their walls. Even the ocean is silver, like the long tresses of a grandmother. She's still brushing them out, remembering the color that once livened their coils, the radiant curls that adorned her brow for antebellum balls now a memory. It has faded and become lost to time, locked away like her old diaries, but that doesn't mean she is any less beautiful.

Savannah is an island within itself. It's isolated, it feels seperate, and the people there are very much the same. The obligatory 'Go USA' signs for Iraq overlook fountains in city squares designed to slow you, to make you pause and look and remember and relax. Whatever's going on out there - in the rest of the world - it can happen as it pleases, and Savannah will do the same. She doesn't need the world. She'll be waiting (as she always has been) for when 'the boys' get home, and that is both her duty and her pleasure.

Me, I walk her streets and marvel at her beauties. I swim through the thick, humid air that is her breath and I laugh at the way my steps are slowed by it, forced to conform to the city's gentle, unhurried pace. I sit by her ocean and listen to the laughter of my friends, and I think that even though Savannah's hair has aged and faded to silvery splendour, her eyes are still brilliant, and young, and alive. They shine with secrets that I will never grasp; they slip though my fingers, and she will never tell me. I don't speak her language, but I love to listen to the sound of her whisper, hidden within the calls of doves in the city squares or the whisper of wind through Bonaventure graveyard.

But do not think that she is all of silk and satin quiet - her wickedness has not faded, nor has her temper; those things peek out from time to time when she doesn't think you're looking. It can be seen in the blood that stains the pavement outside a little Irish pub on the docks, and in the laughter that radiates out from coffeehouses and manorhouses alike. They say that the South is still alive, and arrogant boys drive camaros through the red clay-rimmed streets waving their confederate flags - but that's not where the spirit of such things hovers. It lies in the quiet and gracious curve of Savannah's streets, like a smile unblemished by the heat and oppression of a long summer. It moves in the winds that sweep in from her seacoast, the sharp memories of pain and suffering, poverty and lost pride, a destiny that fell from her when confederate winters turned into industrial desperation. The city's moved on, but she hasn't forgotten. I think that - of all of the great ladies of the South - Savannah never will. Nor will she compromise, nor sell out, nor leave behind.

I may not understand her language, but I see that she is wise.