An evening of contemplation, adoration, and expostulation.
On December 30, 2016, Oxonians of all ages and backgrounds joined together to reflect on all that makes the Magnolia state loved, feared, and misunderstood at our newest event, Dear Mississippi, through letters, poetry, and song.
Dear Mississippi, is presented in partnership with
VOX Press, Inc., a 501(c) 3 organization based in the literary haven of Oxford, Mississippi, exists to challenge diverse audiences to engage in the excitement and enrichment of the experimental literary arts. Through inventive programming and publications, VOX seeks to support artists by creating audiences.
I told my boyfriend I wanted you tattooed on my wrist today. He laughed. And when I said, "No, I mean it," he only looked concerned. His mouth reminded me of you: a mass of crooked letters.
You are the longest relationship I have ever been in. Our time together as tumultuous and twisted as your border that kisses the river that named you.
I want you on my wrist, so I can press my fingers down and feel your pulse, which is mine too. I find myself tracing the outline over and over, a soft brushing with my thumb, like a spring breeze.
I want you tattooed because tattoos hurt. They sting, they bleed, and they are permanent. When the years pile on top of me and they weigh down my skin, the ink will stretch and mar me and become sore to look at. That's what my mother tells me anyway. But I want that. I want you tattooed because tattoos are scars. And you have scarred me. You have ripped and you have torn, but not like a knife. More like, a bike accident or a tree climb gone awry. And no one has touched my scars more tenderly than you, Mississippi.
I can feel you crawling across my skin every day. I can feel you sticking to me like your hot summer air. I can see you, hanging there like thick, low storm clouds.
I want everyone to be able to see you. I want everyone to ask me about you. And when I am old, when I am wrinkled like dry paper, I want to smooth the skin on my wrist and trace your crooked shape. Because I love you, Mississippi, the way Edna St. Vincent Millay talks about. You are my crooked neighbor, and I love you, despite everything, with the whole of my crooked heart.
Throughout the seventeen years we’ve been together, our relationship has been quite strange to say the least. It is surreal that I can live in a place for practically my whole life, and yet feel like such an outsider. If I’m such an outcast, can I really call you home?
I was only four years old when you first took me into your care in the small town of Nesbit, and allowed me to call you home. My naïveté had me curious about you – a mysterious place that was home to my other Filipino family members on the coast in Biloxi. I saw you as an opportunity to be closer to my cousins, Alice and James, who were the closest people I had to being my siblings. Little did I understand how we could be in the same place - the same state - yet so far away. As my father assisted the construction workers in building our new house in Bridgetown—our new neighborhood—I would meander the perimeter and spot for the yellow daffodils that blossomed in different patches around the foundation. Mississippi has a lot of flowers, I would think to myself, and I love flowers. Occasionally, I would find myself gazing upon the garage that was an addition to our new home. My four-year-old self had little tolerance for the door that loomed overhead, waiting to roar its metallic screech and come down upon me. Mississippi has a lot of garage doors, and I’m terrified of garage doors.
As I went to school, little would I know just how drastically different we were. Who would have thought that having a Filipino mother and a military Italian father would make me stand out so much? Who would have known that soon I would be judged for being baptized as an infant—a Catholic tradition—and receive ridicule about how I was not truly “saved?” And yet, I still made the dearest of friends who I treasure to this day; although we did not engage in traditional Mississippian activities. While other children went hunting for deer, we swung tennis rackets at one another and called it “sword fighting.” While other kids spent their weekends mud-riding in four-wheelers, we spent our weekends bickering at each other over Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart. Soon, we would be the oddballs in our class who knew what the Kids Quest was, because soon we would learn it was not very traditional for parents to take their children to Tunica, one of the few flourishing casino resorts near the river. And still to this day, I have never shot a real gun, eaten venison, or gone mud-riding.
As a teen, I bore no Southern accent. To this day, I still get asked where I’m from, only to receive a look of surprise when my answer is “Nesbit.” But furthermore, I would not be aware of the dark history you bear and the infamous reputation you hold.
I was only a freshman in high school when I first met someone who was gay. Her name was Kellii, and she became my friend. Six years from then, she would pass away. At first, I was a bit confused about Kellii’s sexuality, but easily brushed it aside thanks to my mother’s influence – her village in the Philippines saw nothing wrong with those who were LGBTQ . To this day, I would remember Kellii for opening my mind about different sexualities, and for further influencing me to accept others for who they are – rather than trying to change them like other classmates attempted to with waves of Bible verses. This controversy brought out the political side of me, and soon I would discover further how different I am from you, Mississippi. While you disapproved of the lifestyles of those who are different, I wanted to live and let live. And I can never understand why you just can’t seem to do the same. For the years to come, I would doubt my faith—how can I follow a religion that focuses on praising God, and at the same time influences its followers to judge others? Why do you care so much about what others do in their private lives, Mississippi? I don’t think I can ever understand that.
The older I grew, the more I lost my innocence. During my late high school years, I would soon discover that people still cared about race. Being mixed, I would soon realize how much of an outsider I really was. I could never fit in with a group of Filipinos because I was too white. I could also never fit in to a group of Caucasians, always relegated to being “that Asian friend.” I’m a hybrid, and some may see me as an abomination, but goddamn am I one beautiful little mutt. “The Italipino,” I would call myself. While others segregated themselves into their respective melanin levels, I would mingle between each group and do my best to fit in. Sometimes, I was successful. Other times, I was awkward as hell. I would soon learn that you don’t house a lot of people like me, Mississippi. I knew we were different, but never would I imagine that race was one of the main reasons. It wouldn’t be until I traveled to other states when I would realize other places embraced interracial couples more than you did. That’s where I belong. Not here.
I was a junior in college when your flag came into the spotlight for debate. Nearly everyone was split between keeping it or changing it. My family—not native to your soil—did not really have an opinion. We had no Confederate flags in our home simply because we never identified with it. At this point, I felt like an outsider more than ever before. How do I have an opinion on something I have no association with whatsoever? It’s just a stupid flag. This must mean I’m not a true Mississippian, but I’ve been here for so long, so I must have something to contribute, right? And then it really hit me when the Ku Klux Klan came to campus one day, bearing their insensitive posters of hatred and entitled supremacy. I will never forget how uncomfortable I felt passing by them on the way to the library. They held a large Confederate flag in their hand while staring me down with the most chilling gaze of judgment and hatred. Being half-white clearly meant nothing. I was still different. It’s truly something when you realize that others can have such a strong sense of hatred and superiority over you, and want to do great harm to you over something you have no control over. Experiencing the flag’s true meaning for myself, I finally picked a side. I have had it with this flag waving over this university. Let’s get rid of this thing and hopefully change it to something a little nicer – like a Magnolia flower or something. Mississippi has lots of flowers, and dammit, I still love me some flowers.
In all my life, I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious and afraid to be here, Mississippi. I want to be your friend, I really do, but if you hate me for who I am, it’s probably not going to work out.
We have always been different, and our relationship is strange. But regardless, you’re still my home. And even though I sometimes feel I don’t belong here, I know you’ve helped to shape me to be who I am. I may long for more excitement than the simple rural lifestyle has to offer, but I will definitely miss the kindness most people here have shown me. While I seek to find a place where I truly belong, I will still keep you in my heart regardless of how much I felt like an outsider. My personality may clash with yours, but you are still my home. Maybe someday I’ll return, and if I do, I’ll do what it takes to bring you up so you no longer have to be regarded as such an infamous place.
In the meantime, if I can go about these next three and a half years without fearing for my life, that would be quite nice.
Yours truly (at least for now),
'Chelle, the Italipino from Nesbit
Wednesday, November 9
Aurulent sunlight slips past the brick buildings
and casts jagged edges on the pavement
by the wilting periwinkles which are
once again weakly greeting the winter.
And framed by a golden haze stands
a young boy, two feet tall, grinning because,
“Give me a big smile,” his mom says with
a Polaroid gripped in her hands and a scarf
wrapped tightly to fight off the cold.
And looking through the camera’s lens
the mother frames a shot of her 4 year-old son,
with his dark curls and onyx eyes gleaming.
She positions him in the shadow of a statue, a man
who, in 1962, walked through those jagged edges.
Then light blazes briefly—And frozen I stand
a silent intrusion, wondering
about the weight of a photograph…
wishing periwinkles were not forced to face
this insensate chill
Stay tuned for more events from Populi Magazine
I hope this letter finds you well. I meant to write you earlier, but I’ve been pretty busy with all of the gifts you’ve given me over the past five years. So, I wanted to write to you in order to thank you for it all.
First off, thank you for my first experience of body violation from wandering eyes to forceful hands that almost got away with it. It taught me that the world is not always nice, a lesson you have gifted to me time and time again. As heavy of a burden this gift is, it goes quite well with your second: Two faceless, nameless guardian angels that got in the way. I don’t think I will ever be able to thank you enough for them.
Next, thank you for my addiction to crawfish. Honestly, I think my best friend from Louisiana is happier about this than I am. But I have yet to receive a tolerance for spicy food. Feel free to send that my way anytime. It would definitely spare me a bit of teasing.
Thank you for almost having me arrested, or rather accidentally arrested, for larceny of expensive property. No, I definitely didn’t do it. You taught me how to fight back nicely…sort of nicely and when to call in the big guns: my father. And the even bigger guns: my mother.
Thank you for giving me one of the most amazing and beautiful friendships I have ever had five years ago. With it came so many lessons in how sometimes it is good to take off the rose colored glasses, that pianos create some of the most beautiful sounds in the world and that there is no shame in listening to One Direction every great once in a while. That friendship, unfortunately, was taken away very suddenly, giving me my first taste of loss and utter grief. But, that was through no direct fault of your own.
Thank you, Mississippi, for giving me the best job I have ever had in my entire life. I found my niche. I like working with young people and maybe because I can, like, totally relate, but it was so good for me. In fact, it allowed me to create a life plan for the first time in, well, ever.
Thank you for giving me the deep, dark pit and pushing me inside and breaking all of the ladders. Thank you for holding my head under that water until I almost completely drowned. I hate the fact that you gave me this gift, that you did this to me. I hate the fact that I felt essentially forced to experience this darkness. Loneliness. The feeling that I just could not wake up and get out of bed in the morning, because I did, I could easily die. And, I almost did, but by my own hand. It’s something that I carry with me every single day. If I never came to you, Mississippi, I’m not even sure I would have fallen into this hole. But, strangely, it has helped me a lot down the road.
Thank you for my honors class. I have had a few of them, but I am particularly grateful for the class last fall that was taught by a world-renowned pianist and filled with the most incredibly talented people. I learned so much more than I could ever possibly think to write down. I just thought I’d mention it.
Next, Mississippi, and this is an important one, thank you for giving me the opportunity to leave. The first time wasn’t for forever, just for six months. I went 5,000 miles farther south, to Argentina and you were actually more present than ever. I found myself actually missing you during the long bus trips, the rainy days and that one time I got stuck at border control and somehow ended up in Peru at 2 in the morning (it’s a really good story). I found myself defending your little quirks and oddities. But, I also got to see you from the outside and I am sorry to say it was not the prettiest picture. I learned that sometimes you need to step back in order to really see what is going on.
Thank you, Mississippi, for taking me down to Hattiesburg in October. I got to see more of you, but the real purpose was to say one last goodbye to someone so special to me, I don’t think I’m able to find the words. I wish I didn’t go because I wish I never even had to go in the first place. It is the absolute worst feeling to put someone in the ground. To say goodbye and have it be the final time. I can’t blame you for taking him away from us. It actually wasn’t your fault. Just help him rest easy, okay?
Thank you for giving me something to fight for. A cause that has opened up so many doors for me and that has lit the path for so many future plans. Thank you for letting me help people, letting me reach out to say, “Hey, it’s okay.” Thank you so much for letting me make a solid attempt at change.
Thank you for the friendships. Thank you for the broken hearts and hearts to break. Thank you for this crazy life I have come to lead.
You know, it’s funny. When I told all of my folks back home that I was pursuing my higher education in Mississippi, people asked me why I would waste my potential like that. They continually asked me if I was going to come back a crazy conservative, or at least end up married to one (I hear that getting a ring by spring is a big deal here). However, if anything, being here with you has strengthened the beliefs I came with. I have come into my own and I haven’t. I’m still growing and all that.
I am sorry for the rambling letter, but you have yet to give me the gift of being concise. I don’t really expect it any time soon.
After graduation, I am not going to stay. This is something that should not come as a surprise, and if it does, then you are way too optimistic, and that’s big coming from me.
You are a wonder. Sometimes the incredible beauty you hide here amazes me. Sometimes you are surprising. Sometimes you suck. Sometimes I just want to scream at you, “Is this what you want?! Does this make you happy?!” But, I can’t. In this particular case you are kind of an abstract concept and those are very hard to yell at.
Anyways, thank you for all of the gifts – the good and the bad. I won’t ever forget you. I don’t think I could if I tried.
May we meet again, Mississippi. Until then, thanks for the memories.
Best wishes and Hotty Toddy,
Do you remember that day? When we first officially met?
It was August 26th, 2013, and you said with a warm smile, “Welcome to Freshman Year. Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life. Welcome to the greatest four years (or more) that you have ever known so far. We hope you’ll excuse the cliches because there are many on this journey you find yourself on. You are our newest class, our smartest class, and we are more than thrilled to have you here. As our voluntary members, we want nothing more than to help you grow, to watch you find your passions, open your hearts and your minds, and find what you feel fits your ideas of success. We only ask that you take the time to understand our Creed and find it within you to incorporate ideals of inclusivity, respect, kindness, and so much more into your budding characters. If you need anything, we are here, hoping for the moments we can serve you to the best of our abilities. We know you’ll find friends, loved ones, and mates you will always hold dear and create moments that you will look back on fondly. We are confident in you, we love you for you, and we know you can find happiness with us. With that, welcome home Class of 2017. Acacia, welcome home.”
I walked down the first floor hallway in Hume Hall, heading to my 8 am Honors Calculus class. I walked briskly in my tennis shoes, head down, avoiding any direct eye contact, all contact to be honest. I made it to the classroom without incident but I was early which was bad because now I had to pick a seat and claim territory I wasn’t sure I was prepared to defend for a semester.
Never the first row, too intimidating. I wasn't confident enough for potentially being called on and/or having my name butchered the first day of class. Never the last row, too intimidating. I wasn’t confident enough to get away with the responsibility of being the “cool kid” at the back . Never the most central seat, too intimidating. God forbid I had to get up and go anywhere, squeezing by people and tripping over things.
I chose the second row, a seat close to the door. It showed I had an interest in learning and a desire to be in class but was not over-eager to please. I hoped it would show I was calm, approachable, and would likely be a dependable note taker. First impressions are key.
I took my seat and with time to spare, I let my mind wander. I flashbacked to the day I moved into to my room. It was raining. I remembered standing in the rain, waving to my mom's retreating van, both of us pretending like the tears in our eyes were just falling raindrops. I remembered thinking, “Please don’t leave me here. I’m not ready.” And as I came back to reality and watched as the rest of my classmates filed in that day and my teacher began my first college lecture on the fundamentals of calculus with a heavy unidentifiable accent, I remember thinking, “What have I gotten myself into? I’m not ready”.
1191 days. 11 hours. So many minutes, uncountable seconds, since August 26th, 2013 at 8:00 am. I’d be lying to myself and everyone else if I didn’t say that at least once every two weeks (bare minimum) since that first day I thought to myself “I’m not ready”. I should have kept a tally of the times that thought crossed my mind. I should have drawn up some charts, plotted some graphs, and watched as the thought grew exponentially over time. I should have counted the quiet moments, in the dead of night, when I couldn’t find sleep, praying for relief, from the overwhelming thought “I’m not ready”.
Three simple words. Standing alone they mean nothing. But when placed together, they are so daunting and powerful. For me, the phrase was like a final decision you couldn't argue with. There was no negotiation. When the thought creeped into my mind, no matter the importance of a task I was trying to complete or the dire situation that required quick thinking that I usually found myself in, I was stumped, tripped up by fear. “I’m not ready” was usually followed up with “I can’t do this”. See also, “I’m not capable”, “I’m not strong enough”, “I’m not smart enough”, “I’m not good enough”.
Somewhere down the line, things changed, and so I wonder, University, how did you do it? At what point did you teach me that it was okay to not be ready? When did you plant the thought in my mind that I was the only one standing in my way, the only one thinking I wasn’t good enough? When did you present me with the right phrase that goes after such silly concepts like “I’m not ready”, that phrase being “But that’s okay”? How did you do it? How did you change the way I looked at myself, not as a shy, timid little girl, but as a young woman capable of so much more than what I once thought? How did you help me stop hating myself for flaws that I now realize are valued characteristics?
University, I am indebted to you more than you realize. You’ve seen me at my best and my worst, through the smiles and the tears (both happy and sad), and have watched me grow into who I am today. You have put up with my indecisiveness, my indiscrepancies, and my incredible knack for doubting myself. You have encouraged me, helped me thrive, and realize dreams I didn’t know I had. University, you have given my family and me a life we didn’t always think possible. You have equipped me with skills that come in handy everyday I wake up and participate in society. You have given me friends, loved ones, and mates who have impacted my life so positively I couldn't imagine who I would be without them. Ultimately, you have cultivated hope and opened doors that I didn’t know could be opened. My mind has been shaped and my heart has expanded all because of your attempts at helping me be the best version of myself.
I am happy, I am thankful, I am proud. I have a lifetime's worth of service ahead of me to help prove that your efforts at helping me have not gone unappreciated. Know that when I leave, whenever that may be, you will remain a part of who I am.