Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life the LORD assigned him…
— 1 Corinthians 7:17
Second semester, I do take English, both halves of American literature. So much of me changes, simply from one semester to the next, because I have finally entered auditoriums (full of bored and disgruntled non-majors, yes) that resound with the power of the written word. My early-American lit professor is small and tender looking, but possibly the most endearing and passionate teacher I have ever had. I never speak to him, even when he is in line for coffee behind me and greets me with a smile. It’s like running into a celebrity or something, no words. My modern-American lit professor is well-known and often published, the kind whose lexicon leaves many in the room asking her to repeat herself, or convincing themselves to drop the course. I talk to her once, terrified but determined, and she is not as intimidating as I think.
English gives me an enjoyable type of homework, even though one of my two TAs gives me the only B I’ve ever gotten on a paper. Nope, sorry chick, I wish I could like and appreciate you, but now my ego doesn’t think I can. There’s no getting over that one. My other TA becomes my friend through the strangeness of our unhappy discussion group, then through eating breakfast together—rather, simultaneously, not together—on several occasions at the counter of a bakery on the Square. This is my first friend with whom I can talk literature the way I crave to talk literature. Not in high-and-mighty terms or anything, just in plain speech, and compliments to Herman Melville, and laughter. It is the first event that kicks me right in the teeth and says Marge, you’ve got to get back on your game! What have you been doing this year? Not paying attention to your needs.
Taking classes in my major reminds me why I’m here. For a degree, not for cute T-shirts in size XL that brag about my Greek affiliation, obviously. But that would be at any university. English and my TA-friend have been the first things to remind me what kind of a place Oxford really is, and that I have the potential to make it a place where I truly belong. Like my own sorority? Bad comparison. Too far.
If I didn’t live in Oxford, I wouldn’t live in Mississippi.
A lot of people say that. Besides those who love the coast or stay true to the misery of the Delta or could never leave behind the gossip of private-school mothers in Jackson, not many people have real pride for coming from Mississippi. The Bible Belt reinforces that wherever God puts a person is where God intends a person, but most Mississippians who leave the South and return know of only city to meet their needs. Oxford has so much artistically to offer, but if I harp on all of it I will have written fifty-two columns instead of one simple clusterfuck.
But to harp—The food! The FOOD!! John Currence’s three restaurants, shrimp and grits variations like you wouldn’t believe, barbecue shacks, and an overwhelming abundance of eateries that include the word “Grocery”. Look it up. Oxford food. Bliss.
And music! Oh music! There’s this new funked-out place/genre/generation called the Cats Purring Dude Ranch, a collective of local indie acts successful enough to tour widely and have Daytrotter sessions: Dent May, Dead Gaze, Young Buffalo, Ills, ya dig? To say it is mainstream or anything you’d predict from Mississippi would be slanderous and would disgrace even your own mouth. Beyond locals, though, I’ve had really awesome opportunities to see, over just the course of August-May of my freshman year, Portugal. The Man, Yonder Mountain String Band, Snoop Dogg, Colour Revolt, Moon Taxi (twice), Willie Nelson, The Alabama Shakes (sold out), my favorite band Deer Tick, Iron & Wine, Mavis Staples (those three in one weekend alone), Alberta Cross, and the Avett brothers in Tupelo only because it was free and so was the beer.
And the books. The books! Square Books, the local indie favorite, like your grandmother’s kitchen on a day you couldn’t be any lonelier. If you’ve been, you know. I feel like I’m writing a blurb for the visitors’ bureau, fuck. But really. It’s like your private library; when the book you most want is unavailable, there is no reason to leave, you are still at home. Because of Square Books, I got to meet Jeffrey Eugenides and Michael Chabon on book tours; I was personally introduced to Jack Pendarvis and Richard Ford because I was in the right place at the right time and my name is weird enough to sound familiar. Coincidence or bragging rights: I’d like to think it’s both.
These aspects of second semester start to wean me off my sorority. My friend who rushed me is graduating, I’ve made some other friends outside of Greek life, it’s a natural shift out of the limelight of this sort of society. From one Oxford elite to the other? From recruited classiness to artistry and talent? From college to town? This is too broad. It feels good though, not understanding all my motives. More of me to figure out, how fun. How collegiate.
But in the midst of this glorious, self-redeeming semester, I realize that something is off with me. I don’t want to do anything. I wonder why. My mood never suffers any more than it usually does (often), I have no signs of stagnation, but I don’t want to hold my literature book or put a pen to paper. Then one day I suddenly say OW and realize how fucking obvious it has been: a tiny itch has been forming between the bases of my index and middle fingers. They tingle, need attention, but most of all they just hurt. I take the medicines. I saw the signs. I embody my generation. Carpal tunnel!
It sucks. I could sketch out something beautiful but mostly tragic for you here, tell you what a premature loss this is, what a blow to the future—if my hands and my wrists can bring me to tears at nineteen, what will they be doing at thirty?—but I’d rather just use them while they aren’t hurting and tell you what this syndrome has shifted into perspective. The itch is less of a punishment than a reminder to get back to work and to get my priorities properly aligned. The tingle has made me crazy to do something artistic, to use what I’ve got while I’ve got it—right?—to fit into the creative crevice of Oxford as quickly and nimbly as I can, and in as many ways.
At the height of my aches, I apply for summer jobs in Oxford. Most of all, I want to work at the famous bookstore on the Square, but let’s be real, everyone who can read wants to work there. And I don’t ace the literature test on the application, which is a blow to the English-speaking ego but also a sort of reality/rain check. Apply again later, Marge. It’s cool. But I apply elsewhere, coffee shops, restaurants, even Oxford’s least favorite thing: chain stores. But nothing happens, no one hires. I want to sublet and live with my two best friends and work daytime hours and spend the rest of the time penning my great, fame-achieving novel with my dainty and damnable hands.
I’m looking for the cultural hub of Mississippi to accept me now. It’s back to September, those tiptoed weeks before recruitment, but this time I’m rushing Oxford. I want the niche to be real that I’ve begun to feel nesting around me, during bakery breakfasts with my TA and other coffee shop acquaintances that start to feel like friends, inside the opportunities to learn afforded me by my locale, or when my hands scream at me to be of use while use is no real ordeal, because someday it probably will be.
I don’t get a summer job in Oxford. I get an internship at a magazine—that started in Oxford, owes much of its love and content to Oxford, even has Oxford in its name. I rip up the roots I’ve been laying and move to Arkansas for the summer. The job is wonderful. I live alone. I cry the first night.
I didn’t want to go to Ole Miss. I didn’t even want to go to a public university, but if I did like hell would it be in Mississippi. But just like our good friend and literary luminary, the pioneer of persuasion, Paul told those Corinthians: ol’ Lord almighty put you in your place for a reason. If I ever doubted purpose, or cried because I couldn’t pay for private education, there’s a little bell that sounds in my head and says Go sit on the balcony at Square Books! Go listen to the rhythms of your town! And at my most desperate, it is not Corinthians that urges me to take ibuprofen and get those achy fingers on task. It’s that a sense of all-consecrating and all-consuming belonging can come to a person when she does not expect it: taking whiskey shots at an Oxfordian Nobel prizewinner’s grave perhaps? Perhaps. Find your place, or let the Lord almighty just put you there, and grow.
Unless He puts you alone in Arkansas, in which case you just take a breath and thank Him that you’re headed back to Oxford in the fall.