Sunday, September 25, 2016

Possum Town Tales, Storytelling Festival

My Night Out...

I attended the first storytelling event last night at the Columbus Arts Council auditorium, a small venue with a small stage and seating for around a hundred people. But like any event that includes celebrity speakers and musical entertainment, there were books, T-shirts, music CDs, and refreshments for sale, and an excited, milling crowd before the show. The storytelling festival is a three-day event. On Thursday night, which I didn't attend, the storytellers held a workshop for those that are interested. Friday night was the event I attended, and then the next day a tent was set up outside Tennessee Williams's home and museum, where the storytelling and musical entertainment continued, along with a tour of the Tennessee Williams home. Around lunch, burgers and hotdogs were served. I would have like to attend that event as well, but I was tired from my night out.

After the storytelling event, I treated myself to dessert and coffee at Harvey's restaurant, one of the better restaurants in Columbus, Starkville, and elsewhere and one that I have only eaten at a couple of times because of my shoestring budget.

I had already seen Donald Davis's storytelling on a video, which I included in an earlier post, and to see him in person was a treat, but even more entertaining was how the audience responded to tales that were all too familiar to many of us. Davis is from North Carolina and told of visits with his relatives, stories about his brothers and himself growing up relatively poor; especially poignant and funny was the relationship he had with his mother and father and the Methodist church he attended as a child and teenager. As I looked around the audience at the people my age and older, I figured that part of their delight was recalling their own childhoods. The stories Davis told reminded me of my own  rural childhood, even though I had never been to the deep south until 2014. I recalled my aunts and uncles and the farm and ranch lives that most of them lived. Perhaps Davis's stories were a kind of vehicle for those in the audience to be transported back in time to our own growing-up experiences. In an important way, I think that is precisely what storytelling is meant to do.

I thought of my family's trips to visit relatives in the mountains of southern New Mexico, especially to an aunt on my father's side of the family. She was the oldest of nine children, my father was the youngest. Once the crops were up and growing and freshly irrigated sometime in the heat of the summer, we would all load into the family car and make a weekend trip to the mountains to visit with Aunt Carrie and Uncle Bud (who knows what his real name was?). Our arrival would prompt visits from relatives who also lived in the area on other ranches or down in town in Alamogordo, and for a long weekend it would be an impromptu family reunion, of at least one branch of the family. And neighbors would come over to my aunt and uncle's house, usually on that Saturday night, and out would come the fiddles and guitars. The piano would be opened up, and we would gather in the living room and those who could would make music, and the rest of us would listen and talk and exchange stories.

As I looked around at the audience of southerners (most of them, I assumed)  at the storytelling event, I knew that they had similar experiences to my own. On my mother's side were relatives who were born in Mississippi or Louisiana, and Texas, and on my father's side were those like his father who were born in Texas, and they just transported their southern and Irish ways with them into New Mexico. It seems that southerners are true music makers, and as one of the musicians in the show said, music was central to the simple family life in the rural south. Anna and Elizabeth were the musical entertainment. They are storytelling balladeers, neither of whom grew up in the south but both of them have dedicated several years to collecting folk music and they both play banjo, guitar, and fiddle (not to be confused with the music one makes with a violin, even though they are the same instrument). In the hands of country music and folk music, some of which has its roots in Scotland and Ireland, the violin becomes a fiddle.

The video, here, is from Anna and Elizabeth's web site.

The entertainment ended about 9:30 and from there I went for my dessert and coffee at Harvey's. While I sipped on my coffee and indulged in the cheesecake (which Harvey's brings in from a cheesecake factory in West Point, Mississippi, called Jubilations), I thought about my life here in Columbus. I knew a number of people at the storytelling event, some from the writer's group I attend regularly, some of neighbors I have seen here and at other places in town, and I was also introduced to more people. In a town the size of Columbus it is possible to not only begin to recognize faces but to also know the names of people I see out and about. It's beginning to feel like home.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Comes a South Wind

Welcome rain...

It had been a few weeks since we'd gotten any good rain, and that surprised me, considering that Columbus, Mississippi, is supposed to get no less than three inches of rain, even in a "dry" month. Contrast that to southern New Mexico which might get seven inches of rain in a year. I stepped out on the porch this morning, and I was surprised how wet the air felt. The weather app said it was 73 degrees but 83 percent humidity, and when I looked up the rain chances it indicated a 65 percent chance of rain.

The Coffee House on 5th is in a busy block of
Downtown Columbus, MS
Later, when I went off to the Coffee House on 5th for my daily cuppa and a visit with the people who work there, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and was glad to see there came a south wind, the sky was thickly overcast as well and the wind was moving the clouds northward. It was like being bathed with wet air and it felt good. I think that when the winds come from the south (maybe) we have a better chance of rain. I'll have to see how this plays out each time we get a wind from the south.

The overcast skies, the wet south wind, and later the rain that fell made me think of the contrast with southern New Mexico where I moved from.

Me coming back from the post office in
Southern NM (hehehe)
For those who have never been to southern New Mexico, or maybe the west, in general, it might be difficult to imagine what we mean by the desert. For many people who don't know, perhaps the image of the Sahara comes to mind, but the desert in southern New Mexico is teeming with wild life, mesquite, yucca (the state flower), and surprising micro-habitats. Sometimes, there, when it rains and the water comes down from the mountains it fills the arroyos with angry rushing water, with the power to cut a canyon into a paved road, and the water comes, does its damage, and quickly disappears into the ground into the aquifers. In the boot-heel of Southern New Mexico, a tour guide at a copper smelting plant told us that we were sitting on an "ocean of water." But I must tell you that such an ocean is very deep below ground and is very briney. It would take a water crisis of great severity to make that ocean of water economically feasible to pump and then desalinate before it could be used for agriculture and human consumption. However, in the same area, there are geothermal water aquifers and the largest geothermal-powered greenhouse in the United States raises roses that supplies florists all over the country.

But it's what lies above ground that makes such a dramatic contrast to what I've seen and enjoyed here in Mississippi.  I am looking forward to more rain. Apparently August and September are dryer than other times of the year, which might explain why, right now, the grass is looking less lush, the leaves are still green but yellowing and limp, and I cast my eyes heavenward hoping for the refreshing rain. Later in the year, I might be howling from the downpours...but not yet. Oh, no, not yet. Let it rain...let the south wind come.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

September in Columbus, Mississippi

Lots of fun, interesting, and thought provoking activities in September...

One of the reasons both Cliff and I were interested in Columbus, Mississippi, was that it appeared to have all sorts of cultural, historical, musical, and art activities. Columbus is one of the top ten downtown revitalization cities in the United States, and it shows. Downtown is like the downtowns of yesteryear, cars line the busy downtown streets from dawn until midnight, and it doesn't matter what day of the week. I knew I couldn't partake of all the activities when I first got here, and so in June I attended a fiddling concert at the arts council auditorium. I also joined the writer's group in June and have been going every second Tuesday since then...I'll get back to that in a minute.

But it looks like September and October really crank up the kinds of activities that will appeal to people of all ages. Already past was the 15th annual Tennessee Williams Tribute. There were plays, movies, workshops, and the Stella Shouting Contest. I attended the Stella Shouting Contest. It was free and held on 5th Street South in front of the Hollyhocks Gift Shop. People came for the event from almost every direction that afternoon before dusk began falling, and by the time the contest started at six p.m. both sides of the street were lined with people, around the corner in a kind of on-street patio, amid vendors and the music setup were more people. In just a little over three months, I actually knew some of the people who were attending the event. Hollyhocks Gift Shop has sponsored this event for many years, and it's one of the fun activities that bring people out. After that I ate dinner at J. Broussard's New Orleans Style Cuisine restaurant just two doors down, and I had a Cajun spiced chicken dish with New Orleans rice. If you live in Columbus, definitely plan to go to the restaurant, if you're not here, make it a must stop on your way through or as a destination point if you ever come visit.

I won't list all the events scheduled for September/October, but I do plan to attend the Possum Town Tales Storytelling Festival. Specifically, I plan to attend to hear Donald Davis, who is known as the Dean of Storytelling. He has received numerous awards and has performed all over the world. Possum Town (aka Columbus, MS) is lucky to have him for this fifth annual storytelling festival.

Along the Tom Bigbee River in Columbus, MS
Even though there's hardly any difference in the heat and humidity as we move past mid-September, I do find that the mornings are cooler and the afternoons are balmy enough to sit out on my front porch a little before sunset. My house looks south, and the porch is deep enough to escape the direct sunlight that lights up the front yard. But I can almost feel autumn coming on. I can see it in the yellow-tinged leaves of the trees; the grass has begun to go to sleep, not yet brown but not so brilliant green as it was at the beginning of the summer. Fall is one of my favorite times of the year, and this will be the first time I have lived through the fall in the Deep South.

Back to the Writer's Group
The writer's group is gelling into quite an inspiring monthly activity. Last night, Tuesday the 13th, six of us exchanged samples of our writing that each of us is to edit, based upon our individual levels of understanding. It was nice that Dorris Brown, the moderator of the group, had asked me to work with the group for the editing exchange. And I was glad to hear several say they didn't want to wait a whole month to see how each of the writers would edit their work. I felt the same way. Although I've been a writer/editor for at least 35 years, it is always a pleasure to be edited by fellow writers. If I were actually conducting a writing workshop, of course, I would expand the editing samples to actual whole manuscripts from each of the writers, and the workshop would last six weeks, with one manuscript being edited and discussed each week. I just know we're going to learn a great deal from one another when we come back together in October with edited samples in hand.

I leave you with a Blues event on the Columbus Riverwalk...

Friday, September 9, 2016

Aberdeen, Mississippi

One of the Jewels of Small Town Mississippi

When my partner and I first made a trip to the South to look at property, back in October of 2014, one of the main properties we were going to look at was "Green Leaves" mansion in Aberdeen, Mississippi. It's a small town under 7,000 people, and it's just outside of the "Golden Triangle" region that includes Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. The Golden Triangle is the three-city triangle where industry has moved in and is causing a resurgence in jobs and potential growth. Aberdeen is only 29 miles from Columbus, Mississippi, but it is off the main highway coming from the north, from Tupelo down to Columbus. And that is both unfortunate because you don't see Aberdeen unless you're looking for it and fortunate in a way because if you're looking for a beautiful, quiet, and peaceful place to call home, Aberdeen is off the modern beaten path. But Aberdeen is close to Columbus and Starkville and close to the same cities in Alabama where people from Columbus go to shop, which includes Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

If you've never been to Mississippi, and you just think of it as a poor state with right-wing politics, you'll be surprised how "off" such a perception is. A trip down from Tupelo to Aberdeen (off the main highway) or a trip up from Columbus to Aberdeen on the old Aberdeen Highway is a stunningly beautiful and well-kept area. Rolling hills, tree-lined highways, rivers, historic homes, silk-smooth roads everywhere. But best of all, you're in the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area, and there's lots to do and see.

Elgin Theatre, Aberdeen, MS
A couple of months ago I went to Aberdeen to take a realtor friend of mine out to dinner.  Her name is Marsha Ballard, and her realty web site Southern Management and Realty Company is dedicated not only to selling new homes in the Aberdeen area, but she specializes in historic homes. You will often pay less than $50/square foot on well-kept, renovated historic homes. It is the first place to look if you're interested in purchasing a historic home. Marsha is also a great resource for information. She taught school in Aberdeen and knows the native citizens well. She is also extremely knowledgeable about the historic homes. Like Columbus, Aberdeen is rich in historic buildings and historic houses and it has a heritage homes tour of its own every year.

The downtown is well maintained and has a great selection of independently owned businesses. If you're interested in big box stores, they are out on the edge of Aberdeen and don't interfere with the downtown, where it's fun to shop and walk. Yes, there is a coffee shop and a diner, a candy and pastry store, a historic theater, where Morgan Freeman came one year to celebrate the Elkin Theatre's long history, which has operated since the 1930s. The town library is known, also, for the famous Southern writers who often come there. There is an active new-comers club that gets together every Tuesday morning at the breakfast diner or coffee shop. And if you're adventurous and want an absolutely Southern Living magazine dining experience, there is the Friendship House restaurant just north of Aberdeen a few miles. The chef and his catfish specialties has in fact been written up in Southern Living Magazine. When my partner and I went there one night while we were in Aberdeen, we went there, but we told people we didn't "like" catfish and so he ordered shrimp and I ordered steak, but the chef would not have it. He also served two different fillets of catfish, one grilled and one fried. After just a few bites of the catfish, both my partner and I set aside our other dinners and ate the catfish! That's saying something for two desert rats like us.

If you're really looking for a restful and beautiful place to retire to, don't take my word for it. Here is a promo video you might find enlightening. Forget about the Mississippi you think you know...