May 23, 2005

The Southern Gentleman

The older men of the south -- especially those over 70 -- are unlike men from anywhere else. They are a special breed, their qualities coming from standing on the red earth and feeling the sun at the precise longitude and lattitude they do -- as it races -- from Georga across Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and west. Who these men would become was long ago determined, ripples across generations. Their preferred speed of the life is the pace they enjoyed during the years before air conditioning.

And when I say the older men of the south, realize that race doesn't matter in how stories take form--the old men of the south tell stories in one color: Slowly, deliberately, begging no interruptions, from the middle to the beginning then back to the middle and finally to the end.

It can be agony to follow along.

They will not be hurried.

The are unlike anything I grew up with. For someone like me, where closeness among my siblings and cousins was demonstrated by how fast we finished one another's sentences, my intial sit-downs with the elder men of the south have not gone so well.

I find myself stepping all over their sentences with my Northeast cadence, with my clumsy words and impatient questions. This wouldn't be so bad, except that I really do want to hear their stories. But I also find it difficult to sit still and listen to them. I find myself wanting to get up, take a walk, have a smoke. Anything but endure the details and the wholeness of their stories.

The more I try to chime in and relate to what they are saying, the more evident it becomes that this is not a conversation, it's a monologue. Questions will be entertained at the end.

For all of the complexities, sitting and chatting with an elder southern man has proved to be worth the training I've had to go through to understand my role as active listener, passive mouth.

It's also come in handy in learning to listen in general--to hear my husband, to not rush through business conversations, to listen to Jenna's 14th story of the day.

I'm getting there. I'm getting there.