Watching TV for the last 70 years has given us a steady stream of midwestern news reporters, California actors, a Motown pop culture, and other invasions of Yankee influence. Of course, we Southerners have made a few inroads of our own; I don’t think we can fool many northerners into thinking that grits grows on trees any more.
Bottom line is, our nation is slowly losing its regionalism. By and large, that’s O.K. Oh, you can still tell generally where a person hails from by hearing them talk. But sadly, some of our most picturesque phrases and words have all but disappeared. Not long ago I actually heard a young mother at the hospital asking her daughter if she could “tote” her food tray. Mom wasn’t being cute, either. She used the word three times. How long has it been since you heard someone who wasn’t a Beverly Hillbilly say that?
You won’t hear anyone in Brooklyn use the word, “tump.” Chicago or Phoenix, either. You won’t find “tump” in the dictionary, except to mean a mound of grass. But every once in a while, you can still hear someone in Dixie say they “tumped over” the glass of tea, and you know exactly what they’re talking about.
One of our most charming Southern phrases has also gone the way of plow mules, horse-drawn buggies, and hand-picked cotton. If you spell it right, you’ll say it wrong, and miss the whole point. But there is still a place for it, it still is practiced widely, and there still is a crying need for it. We just don’t say it much any more. The phrase? “Set a spell.”
Set. Not “sit.” SET. People can sit anywhere, for any length of time, alone or with somebody, and never “set a spell.” Most-used word in the English language, “set” is (45 definitions). But none of those definitions quite fit the usage here.
To set a spell usually means to be with somebody. Sometimes there’s a reason; sometimes no reason is the best one of all. Sometimes you talk about the issues at hand. Sometimes you talk weather or trivia. Sometimes you just… set! You might drink a cup of coffee and solve all the problems of the world in 30 minutes or less. You might share a recipe, a memory, or a dream. You might just share space in the same room. The official rules for setting are very flexible.
A Spell. You can’t set right unless you know what a “spell” is. And understanding a “spell” is a work of art. Now a spell doesn’t have to be a long, long time. It could only be a few minutes. But you’ll never measure spells in terms of minutes. When you’ve set for a spell, you just seem to know when the spell is up, and the leavin’s easy. If you leave in a hurry, you haven’t set a spell. In fact, if you’re concerned at all about the clock, you can forget settin’ a spell.
Set a spell. I’m think it’s a spiritual gift. Why not? Some folks speak with passion and power. Some teach. Some encourage. Some serve. And some folks set a spell. Go to the funeral home, you’ll see it there. Hospital, too. Check out your local coffee shop or McDonald’s at the right time. You can’t miss it.
In a virtual world of hurry-up everything, it scares me that we might be losing one of the finest forms of service known to mankind. Next time you see a need, don’t worry about being profound, or brilliant. Just relax, and be you. And set a spell.
And to those of you who have taken the time to set a spell with me and/or my family this week: Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. We needed it. And to those who couldn’t, but sent emails, texts or calls from faraway places, your expressions of sympathy and kindness were greatly appreciated.
Y’all come back now. Y’hear?