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Tag: summertime in the south

Happy Heat

It’s July. In Memphis. Ask most folks and they will tell you that Memphis is in Tennessee. It’s not. In the geography that counts—the geography of the heart, body and soul—Memphis is in the Delta. The rest of Tennessee may dilute the summer with the shade of mountain trees or rocky-faced roadways or blue-hazed vistas. In Memphis, in the Delta, we take the summer full-strength, head-on, no cheating allowed. 

Okay, in a moment of weakness, we did let in air conditioning. But we needed to breathe, and without electrically-generated coolness, the Delta summer can wrap around your lungs and press. Your systems shut down, your mind whirrs to a stop. All you want to do is sit and listen to the bugs hop while you dream of long-necks leaning in ice-filled galvanized tub, waiting for your paw to set them free.

How does one write in such a Delta in such a summer?

As the woman said of the two porcupines trying to mate: Very carefully.

I’m not talking about physical comfort; that’s what we have the air conditioning for. I’m talking about psychological stupor, heat-induced comas, a lethargy so profound that even a fire truck screaming down your street, rounding the corner, and hissing to a stop at your curb will not pull you out of your brown study. 

My answer: you’ve got to write your stupor. It’s a pure waste of time to try to tackle scenes of winter darkness, falling snow, drifting autumn leaves. Give it up, and write deeply into the gargantuan summer heat. 

Whatever your genre, set it in the simmering pot of heat. You horror buffs, let your hero descend the stairs into the musty basement, the air thick-to-choking with summer’s heat, where a jar rests on the shelf, filled with an oozy yellow liquid. Romance writers, loosen your heroine into a summer shower, her filmy dress sticking to her heat-soaked body, steam tickling her ankles as the rain soaks the baking sidewalk. Mystery writers, leave your body in the fields, resting in the only cool spot in the Delta: low-down between the cotton rows, there in the moist wet earth, invaded by the juicy bugs of summer.

Me, I have a Mississippi novel to revise. Civil rights plot, updated. Rain will fall, gutters will gush, the heat will drive city-folks screaming from juke joints, gasping for air, hollering for their mamas.

We Southerners are a tough breed.

We can take the heat.

And no one, except maybe writers of the Southern Hemisphere, can write heat better.

Happy summer. Happy writing. Happy heat.

(This essay was published 12 years ago in a writers’ newsletter. It’s only gotten more true over the years: the American South is hot. 🙂 )

Come on down!

 

The smell of a Mississippi summer is a dirt and weed smell, hot and bitter and full of insect noises and blaring sunlight and popping grass seeds that scent the air black and loamy so that your mind wanders to your toes and the dirt below and the small things that crawl inside the cool dark earth. But, in a flash, the blazing sun will bring you back to your world, the human world above, where the heat churns the growing smell, packing it into layers that fill the spaces between the draping honeysuckle and the broad-leafed hydrangea, the needly pines and the big-headed poison oak. Acrid, stringent, porous—the smell comforts like a green stem broken, weeping into my fingers.

Rain won’t make the smell bow out. Heavy clouds only re-form the scent into an uplifted storm, flooded grass waving in clear water, backyard mounds of rain-slicked clay.  

Or steam rising from baked concrete.  

Or magnolia blossoms ringing through the newly-drenched night.

A smell that dense, you’d think it could never be lost, but you’d be wrong. Its stamp is easily washed away by years of moderate lands, civilized places, articulated loves. And even if it lingers and is remembered, too often the mind will interrupt, the curtain of smell will part, the knowledge of the Mississippi past will invade and the sweet, dirty perfume of my home state will evaporate into righteousness, severity and decay.

If I’m blessed by its return, it arrives, patient but thickening, to round and throb the air until it hovers like a Genie just outside my stretching fist, grasped and released, grasped and released. And when it is finally grasped, I’m called back again, into the pine trees of Sunday afternoon, thick old pines whose branches begin at scrambling height and whose trunks are scarred with rutted sap—hardened, milky, streaked with reality. 

Up in the covering scent of the tree, I bend the rubbery branches until I can peer inside the green cones flowering with yellow pollen, then sit back into the vee and pick the layers of bark—crumpled and pleated on top, smooth as gray slate beneath—and drop them through the branches to the lacerated ground below.

Hot pine straw. Heated brambles. Lightly fluttering mimosa gowns.  

Mississippi, come back to me, quickly, this summer.

(I’m gonna credit WKNO-Memphis for first airing this essay, though for the life of me I can’t remember if they did or not. Happy Summer!)

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