Musings from Social Pole to Pole


Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

I was born and raised in South Carolina.

Something you likely wouldn’t guess off of a first impression. I have a distinct lack of a twangy accent or a repertoire of colorful colloquialisms. I lean to the left whenever the ballots are doled out, and I don’t regularly attend a church of any denomination. By the standards of my native culture, I considered myself uncomfortably liberal growing up.

I started attending college in Oregon in 2013, living in the Pacific Northwest in the fall and spring and returning home for winter and summer. The experience of moving constantly between South Carolina and Oregon is a unique one. I come home to be asked about Oregon; the new “expert” by default on Pacific Northwest culture, better still because of my distinct, Southern perspective on it. Then I return to Oregon, where I’m taken as a speaker for the South; a like-minded peer who grew up in a liberal’s den of depravity.

I’ve always found it interesting, the kinds of questions people on either side ask. The “greener grass” proverb never quite seemed to apply, after all. Though people (for the most part) politely pay attention when I discuss the finer points of the other culture to them, they only truly tune in, engage, and ask questions whenever I mention the not-so-fine points. Over time, it’s developed within me a certain model for how I am supposed to talk about one place to the other.

When I come to Oregon, for example.

I’m supposed to talk about the issue of race in the South. How we’re a work in progress, still inching towards it, still trying to connect despite powerful opposition from within our own ranks. How there are areas of the South you shouldn’t go if you’re African-American, and areas you shouldn’t go if you’re Caucasian. I’m supposed to talk about that man who went into an African-American church in Charleston last year and opened fire.

I’m not supposed to talk about how South Carolina is ranked fifth in the nation for highest percent population of African-Americans. The fact that, at my high school, Caucasian was a firm minority, and I learned more about culture in those four years than in any diverse perspectives class I’ve ever taken. I’m not supposed to talk about Gullah or Cajun – the rich well of African and American culture that finds its roots in the South and continues on into today.

I’m supposed to talk about grudges in the South. How they tote around Confederate flags and antiques and slogans like the Confederacy might still spring free and flourish someday. How the people don’t seem to acknowledge that they’re clinging on to a time and culture that was proven (by definition, by war) to be wrong. How they just can’t get over the fact that they lost.

I’m not supposed to talk about what it’s like to be the only group of Americans to have actually, definitively, and completely lost a war before. What it’s like to travel Sherman’s March in the South, touring the charred remains of old homes and knowing that people (Southerners, Americans, families, some not even involved in the war) used to live there. The experience of walking through the historical districts of old towns and choking on all the history. On the bitterness of seeing dead soldiers, burned homes, and defeat whenever you look to your past.

And then I come home, and I talk to the people in South Carolina.

I’m supposed to talk about how it’s gone too far over there – too extremely liberal. How there is a political movement going to defend women’s rights to not wear a shirt in public. How words like “organic” and “locally grown” are important labels to any foodstuffs sold in the markets. How they have multiple laws protecting their homeless in the cities, and so the streets are flooded with them.

I’m not supposed to talk about what it’s like to live in a society that’s supportive of everyone, not just our own. The strength of political activism in the Pacific Northwest, and how much more effectively it functions here. The fulfilment of living in a place that cares about what they put into their bodies and where their waste goes.

I’m supposed to talk about social and political hypocrisy in the Pacific Northwest. How religious freedom is a protected concept here, but how Christians are snubbed and socially scorned by others. How environmental protection efforts are very relevant, but how there is a persistent logging problem here. How they support their homeless with helpful laws and charities but then pay people to sweep homeless camps in effort to clean up the cities.

I’m not supposed to talk about how the Pacific Northwest isn’t a unified cultural group but a variety of different perspectives. That they are aware of their own political and social issues and are constantly working towards fixing them. That their culture allows for the aggrieved voices to speak up for themselves more freely, so they can be heard and helped.

Despite claims to the contrary on either end, I believe the South and the Pacific Northwest are two sides of the same coin. Stubborn, cooperative, looking out for our own people and struggling constantly with our own vices, within our own groups.

People want to hear that life on the other side is worse, especially when “opposite” cultures are involved. They want to believe they’ve made the right choice in living “here” instead of “there.” But I don’t think one place is particularly better off than the other. They are only different; new pros and cons, new vices and efforts to fix their societies as best as they can. There isn’t one place that should be avoided or written off because the people there are inherently bad, or because you don’t believe it will comparatively stand up to your own.

The world is wide, and varied, and full. Connected in ways not immediately obvious. And, whether you decide to trek the globe or plant your anchor in just one place, it’s not something you should let yourself forget.


By: Claire Pillsbury

Please Stop With the Dew and the Tulips

Image Credit: Wikicommons

Image Credit: Wikicommons

If I have to read about dew on tulips one more time, I’m gonna die.

Spring is a rough time. For all the colors, sunshine, and sexed-up emotions there’s also allergies, adjustment, and tropical cyclones. Even sexed-up emotions can be a downer if you’ve got different priorities, to speak nothing of those among us who are in that strictly anti-Vitamin D, anti-UV business. (I’m not, but I respect you)

However, more than allergies, more than cyclones, more than sunburns and cancer from space, the biggest problem I have with Spring is the way people choose to describe it. So much of what I’ve read borders on Looney Tunes-esque parody that I wonder if those chosen phrases, the mist and the daffodils and the buzzing bees and the rainbows coming in through the window are just copy/paste shorthands from a book nobody’s ever read, that takes less effort to put on a page than a noir detective does to quietly dismiss a woman’s personality. I wonder if some group of us have convinced themselves that things like this are necessary fixtures rather than potholes, something so apart from a compelling visual setting that it skips straight into anesthesia.

Equally tiring is the opposing view. The one that, despite the implicit positivity of the season, casts a glum and dismissive look at its contents. When the sunshine and tulips isn’t enough, when the rainbow and the children outside are missing the point, and we’re all ignorant for thinking goodness is rewarded and seasons are anything but cosmic drift.

One thing I learned early on in writing, but not quite early enough, was that people are looking for the story they haven’t heard, the voice that hasn’t spoken. It’s one of the most salient points I’ve ever seen about the work, one that still resonates every time I sit down at my desk to create just about anything. When it comes to spring, ask yourself:

Am I creating something brand new, weaving place and time together to really make the point of this story stick, or am I just badly quoting A Winter’s Tale again?

Or, the alternative:

Am I writing something unique and worthwhile about decaying flowers and forests or exorcising demons I have from watching Bambi too early?

Both are entirely plausible.

A season or a setting can feel entirely inconsequential, but I find that this is very rarely actually the case. Time and place are so wrapped up in story that to ignore it save for a few tacit details is to err. What it comes down to is constructing a truth that matters. You might have heard this in a writing class before this but it bears repeating: Every detail has a point, every setting breathes. Spring, for example, breathes wistful breaths.

Less heard is the follow-up: A detail is only as important as it is singular, each setting only as it is felt. There are times when I remember being so struck by a work’s environmental honesty that it alone held my attention. A Serious Man, the Coen film, did this with summer. It didn’t need heatwaves, or sweat beads wiped with a neat handkerchief, all it needed was a guy standing on his front lawn, watering his grass, squinting slightly. The characters lived it, and they did in such a way that you’re convinced it’s imagery deeply emblazoned in the creator’s minds.

So go out there and find someplace expressive. It won’t necessarily be obvious. Listen to conversations and have some yourself, occupy spaces felt deepest past the equinox, listen to the weirdest songbird in town, live the Spring that’s worth living and come back to me.

And say nothing of tulips.

By: Thomas Radke