I take back what I wrote two weeks ago about the humidity "not being too bad" here. Every day, I walk for an hour to get some exercise and come home looking like a wet dog with pouffy, crazy hair. But, I love Jackson and have learned to take more risks and feel less inhibited with my fears since I began interning at the JFP three weeks ago.
Adrenaline rushed through my body, along with a touch of drowsiness and anxiety, as Donna and I drove along the Natchez Trace toward Mantee, Miss. over the July 4 weekend. We were to pick up photos from an executed man's mother, Velma Berry, and Donna contemplated conducting an interview with her. As we traipsed through the scenic route in my fire- engine- red Ford Focus, I remembered vividly the many times I had followed my dad around on his reporting assignments as a kid. For the most part, those memories rank among my favorite.
Once, though, he took me out to a rural place in the mid-Willamette Valley called Halsey where he was covering some sort of town hall meeting. He stopped the car next to a farm on our way there and very convincingly told me "Mom and I have decided to move to the country with you and Anna to take up farming." I almost cried and wanted to jump out the car and run away from him. I appreciate the country now, but was more of a city girl at the time. On other occasions, we covered parades, parties at old folks' homes for centenarians, concerts, and high school sporting events. My dad sometimes pulled me out of my comfort zone on those reporting adventures and offered me some wonderful experiences.
Saturday July 5 I relived that same sort of childlike feeling of adventure while accompanying Donna on the reporting expedition. After yawning perpetually through the Trace lull, we stopped at an old run- down convenience store for some snacks to keep us awake at Mrs. Berry's house. Neither of us had eaten lunch earlier in the day and even the most disgustingly unhealthy items in the store looked appetizing, minus the large jars of pickled meat somethings. We sat in the car devouring boiled peanuts and Pringles. (I wish stores in Oregon carried boiled peanuts֖delicious!) before driving to some crazy street name I can't remember that starts with an H.
I felt a lump in my throat as we entered Mrs. Berry's cozy one-story house and I could see the pain in her eyes from recently losing both her husband and son. As we looked through pictures of Earl as a child and Donna began interviewing, I relaxed. I learned a lot from observing Donna and Mrs. Berry's interaction֖ to pause and review your notes when someone gets emotional, to express condolences but maintain composure. I've never worked in a place that encouraged reporting and writing in teams֖usually there's this certain egotistical independence that comes with the industry. I appreciated the opportunity to see Donna report and have enjoyed working with fellow interns on various projects֖ the world would be better if everyone collaborated more often.
After we finished at Mrs. Berry's, Donna and I followed a dusty, gravel road to Earl Berry's grave. As the road continued further and further and I noticed my cell phone lost service, ominous scenarios ran through my mind about what could happen to me and Donna. I was comforted by her idea that "we can't live in a fear-based world." As we stopped in front of a pink church with a well that sat in front of the cemetery, I grabbed my keys and stuck the biggest between my 2nd and 3rd fingers for good measure. It was important to see the graves marked by cheap, plastic things and a rock Earl's brother engraved with his date of birth and death. Plastic flowers abound from the Berrys' resting places, in looms of colors and styles. That imagery has pervaded my mind for a week and a half.
As we wound our way back to Mantee and returned to the Natchez Trace, I felt glad to experience something more dark, uncomfortable and profound while reporting. If I'm going to be a writer, I want to do it right and try to work for change and produce meaningful articles instead of writing stupid things֖ blah clips֖ that no one cares about except me because I get a byline.
Since I arrived in Mississippi, I've completely lost my fear of phones. "Hello, I'm an intern at Jackson Free Press and am looking for a file," I said nonchalantly to the coroner's office this week. Trust me, that would not have been me a month ago, not by a long shot, but I've realized that coming to this Southern, soul-filled place was just what I needed to move beyond my inhibitions֖especially my quasi-phone phobia. One woman at the Eudora Welty Library told me that some people come here to Mississippi intending to stay temporarily and end up staying for years. "There's this spirit and heart that draws them in," she said. I can understand why... :)