Poetics of SpacePosted: September 11, 2013
Alternatively titled: Selected Readings of a Southern Life.
Let us start with a discussion about landscapes and memory.
If you are from the rural American South, know what the dirt smells like. There are fields to the left, sometimes to the right, and maybe on all sides. I grew up in such a place, at an intersection of a river and familial history where fields and dirt roads determine the boundaries of tradition and ceremony. Big Momma’s house stood at one corner of the field. On the other side dotted single-wide trailers that belonged to an aunt and various cousins (I was conceived in one of those single-wides).
Our house sat on the backside of the field, almost at the road’s end. Inconveniently, the hard clay path plummeted into the woods and at the nape of oldest graveyard in the county, one haunted with the Irish-Native American remains of my maternal ancestors who settled this morsel of North Florida in the early 1800s. More cousins lived down the county paved road. Family peppered the landscape in all directions. You could go outside on the front porch, yell for a relative across the field, and they’d most likely hear you.
My family remains on the land to this day. The dirt smells like my history.
Rural life is olfactory layered and comes with a soundtrack. There is an earthy sweetness to the way a freshly plowed field sits in your throat. The night takes on a mossy fragrance. Humidity hums as it rises from hot pavement. The sound of a woodpecker punctuates the day, and frogs always call for the rain before it arrives from the sky.
Houses, the kind people live in long enough for memories to settle in the walls, have domesticated smells. These abodes hold a specific whiff of life, of meals cooked, arguments had, and of events transpired. The concept of a house fragranced like a home fascinates and scares me. The aroma of memories made creates foundation in the most organic way. But it is also a whiff of inertia and complacency; the smell of staying put. I associate this tang of domesticity with the deep-rooted nature of my childhood. I have a complicated relationship with the pong of stasis. I can’t imagine what my scent signature would say if I locked it in place. I’ve never stayed put long enough to stink up a house with the fullness of my own life.
That is the purpose of stories; to rest a pulse in place.
Years later, I will find myself in very different landscapes and in countries where humidity smells like petrol, burning hay, and foreign body odor. In some places, the air will carry whiffs of expensive perfume and bukhoor, a resin used for incense in the Arabian Gulf. Dirt not only adorns a specific geographical aroma, it sets up residence in the dry cracks of your skin. But the earth is a cocoon when you sleep in mud houses at night. The floors and walls will be cool to the touch.
These homes will be scented with animal fat, curry, and impermanence. Many are the locations of the displaced: Afghans in Pakistan, Palestinians in exile; domestically, international students are in the United States tasting America for the first time. Back in foreign lands, Western, pink-skinned expats have kitchens that smell like Hamburger Helper. They will know they aren’t rooted and, therefore, will sometimes behave in a rootless fashion. The locals are in social, economic, cultural and political transition. Of course, I will feel right at home.
Salman Rushdie once wrote that the condition of contemporary humanity is that of exile. Many of us now hold multiple identities and personas. I can say that this is my condition as a globalized, complicated American-Muslim. At all times, I dangle between different tentacles and I carefully determine which parts of my expansiveness I reveal to whom. I have crossed many boundaries and I have assumed many selves. Most, I feel, cannot calculate the sum of my total parts. So I hid various aspects of myself, completely sure that the fullness could never fit into a single moment. Even in my marriage, I covered so much up, until I had no choice but to jump completely into the abyss and throw off the various veils that compelled me to complacency.
Let us now talk about God and childhood.
The Divine entered my life early and as a Southern Baptist.
This meant Vacation Bible School, dinner on the grounds, and knowing the baptismal waters may be cold when you accept Jesus as your personal savior. I remember my time in the baptismal. Before they dunked me, I turned to the congregation and waved. My preacher once pulled me aside to inform me that he felt God wanted me to be a musical missionary and to travel overseas to spread the Gospel. This is the same preacher who told me not to play piano like Pentecostal Holiness during the invitation – the part when people come up to accept Jesus — because my expressive playing distracted people from God.
Growing up in the church, the first boy you crush on will most likely be in your youth group. In my case, the first boy who crushed on me was a child preacher. He rode my school bus. He was thirteen years old; I was eight.
My mother was concerned.
We will call him Billy. He was known in the smaller evangelical churches. My memory is cloudy, but I know he made no impression on me. I was equal parts into God and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot at the time, the original miniseries had aired a few years earlier on TV. I wanted Jaws in my pool as a pet and for vampires to live under my house. And this guy fell for me.
I forgot what happened to Billy. I think he stopped riding my bus for reasons that had nothing to do with me. He arrived at my church five years later, a fully-grown eighteen-year-old man who no longer preached. Billy started coming to my church for reasons that had nothing to do with me, but I suppose his old crush grew back strong. I remember that he always wore the same soft cotton plaid shirt and that he still freaked me out. I was a year out of a public, politically complicated sexual assault, and all male attention at that time frightened me.
I was only thirteen, after all.
A year after that, I did fall hard for a boy who sat a few pews away from me. He was a fifteen years old and burdened with the ghost of his dead twin who died a few years earlier after struggling with cancer. They said that he kissed the air moments before he passed, and commented that he “was kissing the angels because Jesus was about to come to take me away.”
Nothing sits better on a young teenage boy than recent loss and tragedy. My own post-rape aftermath made me particularly sensitive to those enveloped in sadness. I started to attend church more often just to see him. This teenage crush was certainly beneficial for my spiritual growth. He arrived in my every thought, and I wanted nothing more than to just kiss him once.
If I remember correctly, he briefly took up with my nemesis, a skinny, perpetually tanned girl whose presence taunted me throughout middle school, thus beginning my long history of falling completely in love with men who will never love me back, or chasing relationships where I will never feel comfortable revealing the all of me.
I do not know what happened to this boy, but I do know what happened to the girl. Of course, she was the high school homecoming queen and ventured only sixty miles down the road for college. Of course, she returned to her childhood town to marry a local boy and have children. She remains very beautiful and fashionably thin.
I am fat and currently single, yet my passport is thick with visa stamps. I do not have a permanent home, but I once lived in a large villa in the Middle East with an armed guard, an official United Nations flag perched on the roof, a driver, and a live-in maid.
I have dined with world famous economists in African capitols.
I have heard that her house is beautiful, and I bet it smells like scented candles, family life, and placid stillness.
I am a girl from the rural South who has crossed many boundaries, geographically and spiritually. Nothing about me is still. Yet, as I write my story, it is an attempt to define my poetics of space. I understand, likewise, that once a story sits on a page, at least it has one specific place to hang out in a forever sort of way, although the meaning of that story will never rest at a fixed point.
Stories, like our identities, pause only when gazed upon.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is a Love, Inshallah contributor and a LoveInshallah.com editor. She is a published author. Her work can also be found at altmuslimah.com and Muslimah Media Watch. Deonna is currently working on a memoir with support a Regional Artists’ Grant from the North Carolina United Arts Council. To learn more, visit her website, and join her on Facebook and Twitter.