The road that brought me to the Mississippi Delta is 1,100 miles and 25 years long. I traveled the last leg of it in May of last year, before the withering heat of summer hit, when the soft green of late spring cloaked every roadside from eastern Colorado to northwest Mississippi.
A sun-dappled drive across Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, the Mississippi River and its alluvial plain to the east, across the Delta, took two days. I had rented half of an old brick duplex, sight unseen, in a small town I’d spent a total of 48 hours in for a job interview. I’d accepted a job normally suited for someone just out of college, an eager young cub with enough energy to work 55 to 60 hours a week and with a long enough future ahead to not worry about the miniscule salary.
In my new life, I would be a reporter at the daily newspaper in a Delta town with a dwindling population and a pretty but half boarded-up downtown, a town struggling to survive in the wake of lost industry, crippling unemployment and the lingering ravages of an agricultural history built on the backs of slaves.
The crisis of growing inequality, poverty and race history in America is just beyond the car window here, underfoot, in the thick air we breathe.
Now, I’m no spring chicken. If I were young, making this move might have seemed reasonable. But I’m 63 years old, entering the third act, watching my friends ease into retirement, dreaming of travel destinations that include beaches, cruise ships and nice hotels, not mosquito-ridden cypress swamps and broken-down towns bereft of movie theaters and coffee shops.
The Colorado city I left, indeed the whole state, is a model for future development in the U.S. with clean jobs, active lifestyles and enough amenities to satisfy even the most sophisticated transplant. It’s the place where everybody wants to land.
I had a pretty successful run there raising a family, newspapering, writing books and teaching for 25 years.
Yet here I’ve landed, an unknown quantity in a small town where newspaper reporters have the same reputation as venomous snakes.
To my face, my old friends said I was brave. Behind my back, I’m sure they said I was crazy.
I hadn’t lived in the South since 1991 — in Nashville before it became a sleek international city. And before that, Memphis, where Rev. King was assassinated the day after my 14th birthday.
It’s hard to say what drove me down this avenue back to the South, though I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I arrived in this strange and troubled place with its dark history, its colorful people, gut-wrenching music and mysterious beauty.
That last year in Colorado, where I’d lived in close proximity to pristine mountain peaks and million-year-old red rock formations, my spirit craved change. At the same time, it was drawn toward the closest thing to home I’ve known in a lifetime of being a wanderer.
The young, soul-searching poet Rilke said something that played over and over in my head, a phrase I couldn’t shake. Reflecting on an ancient headless, sculpted torso of Apollo, Rilke described the solidity and inner glow of that art object in a lyrical sonnet. Then the lyric turned suddenly, and the reverie ended with an abrupt, startling command.
“For here there is no place that does not see you,” it says. “You must change your life.”
You must change your life when life has stopped changing you. In the place where I had lived for 25 years, where the long second act of my life had transpired through family and career, through love and loss, triumph and failure, there was no place that didn’t see me. When I looked at myself, I saw just what I expected.
Here at the beginning of the third act, I’m in a place that does not see me, and, for better or worse, I’m walking through it like a woman who has been blind for a good long while.
You must change your life when you’ve passed decades wondering where home really is, when you’ve survived enough sudden loss to know that your own end can come with no warning and that if you’re lucky, you’ve got one good work and life adventure left.
So here I am, 25 years later, rediscovering the sights and sounds, the phantoms and legends, the contemporary realities of the region that has always whispered in my ear, calling me home. I’ve discovered I knew little to nothing about the American history that was being made while I was growing up right in the middle of it.
I’ve discovered that the sight of dense undergrowth in a roadside forest can be both comforting and foreboding. I’ve discovered that hearing an old man in overalls tell his little grandson he’s gonna “tote” him the rest of the way home makes me cry and makes me smile.
I’ve discovered that this place might eventually see me if I can manage to see it with new eyes, wide open.