"How did a Canadian end up moving to Magnolia, Arkansas?"
I am asked that question at least a couple of times a week even though I have been here 15 years. I'm often amused by people's reactions when they find out I'm Canadian. For example, there was the time an acquaintance introduced me to her elderly mother: "Mama, this is Linda. She's from Canada." Mama's eyes grew very wide and she exclaimed, "Oh my! A real, live foreigner!" On another occasion, a friend introduced me to someone she knew. "This is Linda. She's Canadian." That information generated a squeal followed by, "OOOhhh! You're from Alaska?" Hmmm.
So how did I end up in Magnolia? It was June of 2003. Accompanied by a one-eyed, neurotic, epileptic, Valium resistant, car-ride phobic poodle, an overly sensitive Lhaso-Poo mix, and three pouty cats who considered it beneath them to be contained in crates while traveling, I embarked on a 2000-mile journey from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Magnolia, AR. Two years out from my Ph.D. and fresh off a post-doc stint at NYU, I had accepted a tenure-track position in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Southern Arkansas University.
At some point during my three-day trip, I struck up a conversation with a woman as we were filling our gas tanks. She noticed my array of traveling companions and asked me what I was doing. I’m sure she thought I was an animal hoarder. I explained that I was moving from Alberta to Arkansas. She pondered that information briefly, and then, with an expression, I have since seen many times, asked, “Why?” That was the first of hundreds of times that someone has asked me how and why I found myself in Magnolia, Arkansas.
Usually, when a person asks that question, I explain that, in academia, one goes where the jobs are. More often than not, my inquisitors, who are usually not academics, seem less than satisfied by my answer to their question. In fact, some people find it a bit suspicious that a person would move 2000 miles to take a job, in another country no less. It took me awhile to figure out what was behind their suspicion.
Roots Run Deep
Like most academics, I knew from the get-go that such a move was inevitable if I wanted to land a tenure-track job. Over the years, I have come to appreciate that, in Magnolia, Arkansas, rootedness is the cornerstone of community and culture. For instance, I have a friend who was born and raised just a couple of hundred yards from where she, her husband, and their children live in a house that her father built for them. Recently, she told me what a relief it was to no longer live eight miles away from her parents. “I just felt like I was so far away from home” she said.
It is not surprising that people with such a deep connection to where they grew up would be suspicious of someone who chooses to live thousands of miles from home. I get that. I mean, really, what kind of person abandons her homeland and her family and moves 2000 miles away to “teach at the college,” as the locals like to say? What kind of threat does this person with her strange accent and peculiar ways pose to how things are done and have always been done in the local community? Over the years, I have learned about conversations that took place in the months following my arrival. As far as I can gather, the conversations went something like this:
“I heard that the new college professor from Canada takes her shoes off every time she goes into a house; where does she think she is, Japan?”
“I mean, really! Well, Miss Lucy Fergusen told me that she heard from Miss Whitney Selman whose daughter is in Miss Tucker’s class, that she doesn’t go to church at all. They think she might be an atheist.”
“Oh my!—well, don’t say you heard this from me-- but I heard that the reason she doesn’t go to church is because she’s too busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.”
“Oh, good heavens! Well, I just don’t know, but I did add her to the prayer list at bible study on Wednesday, and I’ve made a note to be sure and invite her to the revival next weekend.”
“Bless her heart, they’ve probably never even heard of Jesus way up there in Canada.”
“You’re probably right. I’ve heard it’s so cold that it’s just not fit for folks; Do you think it’s too cold, even for Jesus?”
Learning the Ropes
As you may have guessed, it hasn't always been easy figuring out how to fit into life in a small southern town as a Canadian. However, I'm beginning to get the hang of it. Sort of. For example, I almost never forget to say “Y'all,” in one syllable. I try to remember to refer to people as "ma'am" and "sir." And I figured out that people expect you to have sweet tea on hand when they drop in. I admit that I'm not crazy about people just "dropping in.” And I still find it mortifying that most people do not leave their shoes at the door when they enter a house.
One thing I love is how, when someone claims to “love so and so to death” and/or “blesses so and so’s heart,” it usually does not mean that he or she actually “loves so and so to death” or truly wishes for so and so’s heart to be blessed. Rather, one uses those phrases when one is going to say something mean, or ugly as they say here, about another person. You've got to love a place where people go out of their way to be polite even when they are being mean.
I'm not joking when I say that it has been challenging to identify, to decipher, and to navigate the conditions and codes that shape the character of this community. Lord knows I've made more than my fair share of blunders along the way. Yet, Magnolia, Arkansas has become my home. What kinds of blunders? And what exactly makes Magnolia feel like home? Those are stories I'm going to save for other posts. Meanwhile, thank you for reading. As we say in my neck of the woods, "I appreciate you."