I am a fish out of water in some respects, a Yankee surrounded by southerners. At our lunch table I was seated with Rick Bragg, storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham of Selma, Dr. Hardy Jackson of Jacksonville State University, John Fleming and Chris Waddle of The Anniston Star.
Their conversation was so lyrical and colorful and filled with euphemisms I don't understand but which sound lovely to the ear. Talk about kin and "my people" and being "tired" but not in the sleepy sense.
I am infatuated with the south and not only because of the sunshine and temperatures hovering around 70 degrees in early March. The people here are warm and wonderful and engaging and brilliant conversationalists and terrific listeners.
One beautiful example is Kathryn Tucker Windham who turns 89 in June. She spent 40 years as a newspaper reporter and is a storyteller in the oral tradition. For nearly an hour without a podium or microphone she mezmerized the audience over lunch, holding even the wait staff in rapture for the duration. She talked of the markers of southerners: "We eat off each othah's plate, we announce when we're going to the bathroom and we trot out our peculiah kinfolk."
She has a lovely gentrified southern accent that drops the Rs as she refers to the "suthun" tradition of sitting on the "poach" following "suppah." "I grew up in a time when we took the time to talk to each othah," she said.
Her father, for whom she spoke so lovingly, used to say that you have two ears and one mouth and they ought to be used in that proportion. She spoke of listening to the morning, listening to the sounds of the birds chirping and paper being delivered and the coffee brewing and the house coming to life. As she spoke of stories that made us laugh uproariously and touched us deeply, so many ideas from my own life began to creep into my head. Ideas for stories or essays or books or I don't really no what. The mind was open and the ideas were flowing.
Over dinner tonight at Betty's Barbecue, where they serve "home-cooked food from 4 until it's gone," a large group of us gathered at the recommendation of Rick Bragg. We enjoyed pulled pork, fried chicken, catfish, okra and fried green tomatoes. But mostly we shared stories together and laughed and laughed.
Joining us at our table was former U.S. Congressman Glenn Browder and his wife, Becky. The former congressman asked each of us at the table about our writing dreams. Not one of us hesitated and interestingly our dream writing involved some aspects of our families or ancestors.
This is what I love about these kinds of workshops and conferences, the chance to meet with people all over the country who are as passionate about good writing, good books and good reporting as I am. We connected as people who share a desire to make their communities better by telling stories that matter.
Kathryn Tucker Windham told us that you can never truly hate someone with whom you've had a good laugh. Not that any of us would hate each other. It wasn't about hating or not, it was about friendship and camaraderie.