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The Setting Matters

We’re barely past Labor Day and Colorado is making a decisive swing toward fall. We’ll have a few more warm days, but the morning temps have turned decidedly nippy.

Most Tuesday mornings throughout the summer, I attend an early outdoor yoga class at a local park. We gather at 6:30 a.m. to stretch and balance and bend under the rising sun. This morning, we tackled the first poses in the near dark. A chilly wind blew across our yoga mats and sent some of the regulars scrambling to pull on socks or jackets. It was probably just south of 60 degrees, but the wind and lack of sun made it feel closer to 50. By the time we made it to final savasana, or corpse pose, the sun had risen, but there was still quite a chill in the air. I wished I’d brought socks or worn full-length yoga tights. I shivered as I rolled up my mat.

Our days in this setting are numbered. The class meets inside a city rec center gymnasium during the cooler, darker months. I love the class and the instructor, but I cannot get motivated for yoga under the basketball hoops. Once it moves indoors, I’ll abandon this particular class until next summer. I’d rather be a bit chilly and uncomfortable and off balance outside than to stretch in an echo-y gym under too-bright lights.

In yoga, as in writing, the setting matters.

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My home for a year in Greenwood, Mississippi. A tiny house before tiny houses were a thing. It hasn’t changed in 25 years.

I’m finishing up a draft of a manuscript set partly in the Mississippi Delta and partly in the Florida Everglades. Both places are unique in their geography and in their customs. A conversation held over coffee in the Mississippi Delta would be a different conversation anywhere else in the world. Even if the words were the same, there is a certain subtext running through the conversations of the Mississippi Delta that could not exist here in Colorado or in New York or Los Angeles or Ohio. I don’t know if it’s the way history sits on your shoulder there or the way the rivers smell or how you can look out a window and see forever–no tall buildings or hills or neon signs to obstruct your view. I think it has something to do with the people. Most people never actually visit The Delta, much less live there. Most people couldn’t stand it for more than the time it takes to tour the blues trail or eat some fried catfish. Plenty of people are stuck there. A few people, though, can’t imagine living anywhere else. Those people feel sorry for the rest of us because we’re incapable of appreciating the understated charm of life in the slowest lane there is. And none of this is to insinuate things don’t happen in The Delta. They do. People write books and put on plays and strum guitars and make small-batch whisky, but they do it on their own terms and at their own pace, and they don’t do it to please the rest of the world. They aren’t concerned with what is happening in Brooklyn.

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Kayaking through the Everglades.

The Florida Everglades isn’t concerned with Brooklyn, either. I was there early this year for a few days of kayaking and touring and hanging out at the Skunk Ape headquarters. On our last morning on Chokoloskee island, my husband and I took a walk around town. My husband snapped photos with his fancy camera. A young man pulled up beside us and introduced himself. His family had lived there for generations, he said. He pointed in the direction of his mother’s house and his uncle’s house and his granddaddy’s house. “Lot of folks are leaving,” he said. “I’m coming back.” He extolled the virtues of living in a place where weather is a constant threat and housing costs rival Denver. It’s no easy task to ship building materials to an island. This young man would not be dissuaded from living where he was born, however.

Alligator at rest in the swamp.
Alligator at rest in the swamp.

The Everglades is crawling with predators. It’s the only place in the world where both alligators and crocodiles live. There are panthers and black bears and more poisonous snakes than you want to think about if you happen to be walking through tall grass. There are sharks in the water and jellyfish and stingrays. As is true in most places, though, man is a bigger threat than anything Mother Nature might throw at you. The Gulf of Mexico has long been a watery highway for smugglers. During prohibition, it was rum. During Reagan’s silly “just say no” years, it was marijuana. Nowadays, it is more likely people. And not only is it a gateway for bringing things in, it’s a hideout for people hoping to disappear. There is nothing more dangerous than a person who is out of options.

IMG_3214It makes for a great setting. It’s why I’ve chosen these two distinct places as the setting for my next novel. Someday, maybe, I’ll write about characters living in Denver or in Austin, Texas, both places I’ve lived and loved. Then again, maybe I won’t. Denver and Austin are both places where I’m comfortable in a way I was never comfortable in the Mississippi Delta. I don’t like to make things comfortable for my characters. I need them to stretch. I need them to struggle for balance. I need them to feel a chill when the wind blows.

In writing, as in yoga, the setting matters.

Published in Mississippi The South Writing

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