I write this from my desk at the Sewanee Writers Conference at the University of the South. My room is ugly as all dorm rooms are; the bed is uncomfortable, the springs have a way of jabbing my back like a sharp elbow late at night when I’m trying to calm down and settle in from the day’s stimulations. Truly, despite the heat that weighs down like a heavy blanket and the torpor that comes from 95 % percent humidity, it’s one of the liveliest places I’ve ever been. I’m blissfully happy to have this ugly room with no roommate and my own bathroom because my suite mate never showed up! I keep waiting for her to descend—like the sword of Damocles she’s hovering over my life here: she could happen at any moment!
In the meantime, the fourth floor of St. Luke’s on my side is the cool side. On the other side, the men and women are sending away to Amazon for fans. Myself, I’m sleeping under a blanket with several sets of sheets on top; they’ve run out of extra blankets.
It’s Sunday, the quiet day, though there was a lecture in the morning by the great Tim O’Brien and one last night by him too. Everyday some great poet writer or playwright gets up on stage and it’s so inspiring. Everyone here is a writer, everyone here profoundly cares about the written word, the spoken word, and the imagined word, the process of writing, the approach to writing. Every single minute it’s writing this, writing that. I realized today though, I haven’t done any sort of writing since I arrived here. At writers conferences one doesn’t shut oneself up in one’s room to write.
I’ve been hanging out a lot with the poets, one of the young really impressive ones is a dude named Jericho Brown from my hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana. Like me, he knows you can’t go home again. (Jericho pictured above.)
Talking to strangers is the name of the game. I flunked geometry, and don’t read maps very well, but I’m an expert at talking to strangers. A lot of writers are like that. Which is how I happened to leave campus today for the first time since I arrived here last Tuesday. Someone at my table was going to go to the local flea market and wanted some company.
“I’d love to go,” I said.
This is rural Tennessee. The minute you drive out of the immaculate campus with the stone buildings and the perfectly manicured lawns and the famous writers and the students of the famous writers, you are in a different world. The county that includes the University of the South where the writer’s conference is located happens to be the poorest one in Tennessee.
We parked the car and headed toward the flea market, a hot and dusty looking compound of booths packed with real junk and covered with corrugated metal roofs. This was nothing like the flea markets I once in a while attend in LA and New York. Here there were grimy Barbies for 10 cents. Romance novels with broken spines, and yes confederate flags waving proudly. Here the people were poor, and probably every last one of the stall-keepers were supporters of Trump. These people, so many of them morbidly obese and unhealthy looking, were the people who were really going to suffer most under the present administration. The very ones who had voted 45 into office.
I happened on a homemade knife stand. I sifted through and looked for something my husband—who loves knives—would find acceptable. The proprietor of the stand, like me, was a writer. He handed me a pamphlet he had penned The Claims of Jesus of Nazareth. And when I looked at it, he began to tell me about how Jesus wanted to save me.
I was transported back to my childhood, when my best friend Peggy Mayfield was assigned to save my soul in vacation bible school. She’d been told in Sunday school because I’m Jewish I was going to hell. Probably the writer of the pamphlet would think I was going to hell too.
Hell couldn’t be much hotter than that miserable flea market somewhere in the sticks outside Sewanee, Tennessee.
I left the stand, and found my friend from the conference bargaining for a pair of cowboy boots, totally elated. She was crowing about them all the way home. I was sort of depressed actually. Encounters in the real world often have that effect on me. Presently as we drove through the stone portals of the University of the South, my spirit lifted. Yes, I’ll take Sewanee and the imaginary world over the real world any day.
And be eternally grateful that I can.
Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levyby