I’ve made my annual Christmas road trip across Wisconsin, to the rolling hills on Milwaukee’s exurban fringe. Here, I spend time with my grandmother, who soldiers on in a decaying old house, and my uncle, who now has eight cats living with him in the garage. (They’ve got nothing on their neighbors, who burn sticks and toss rocks about to learn what the spirits are telling them.) We peck at the vats of food as we stomach and exchange basic pleasantries, and I go for long runs up and down the Kettle Moraine, off to an old stone church in Saint Lawrence, resolute as this little crossroads of a town fades away. My dad and I retreat to a hotel before we get too deep into the sentimental goo of It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m left clattering away on this keyboard in the dark when the internet fails yet again.
The life I live day-to-day is distant from rural Wisconsin, but I have roots here. I also have roots in a city with Rust Belt memories, even if my own childhood was fairly isolated from them; not far to the north of Duluth lie towns where the mines are once again in dire straits. This isn’t really my story, but it’s always been peripheral to it. I grew up on an island of relative comfort, surrounded by an America that looks nothing like the yuppie cities or affluent suburbs that were homes to most of my current friends, and could well define my own future. But I can’t avert my eyes from these places, which come to define more and more of the American experience. There are stories here, stories worth telling and passing down, and a tale of decline has its own tragic bent with real psychological implications. As I sit in a slumped chair coated in cat hair and delve into George Packer’s The Unwinding, it’s not hard to draw connections between foreclosures and dying industrial cities and the story of a family on a little Wisconsin farm.
Philosophically, I’m a child of reluctant modernists, from Hannah Arendt to Octavio Paz; people who never ceased to see flaws in modernity, but recognized that they had little other choice. They see all the flaws in placing faith in rationality, whether it purports to run an efficient economic market or benevolent government work. At the end of a year that was a rousing success personally, it’s hard not to look at the tumult about and feel justified in this pessimism about national or global solutions. Despite an ego the size of a small state, this is why I’ve never felt comfortable chasing a traditional road to status. I may yet find my way there, but it won’t be without reservations and escape routes. I lack the necessary trust.
There’s a certain fatalism here; an intimacy with death, and an appreciation for how fleeting our windows of joy may be. I can appreciate aesthetics and revel in certain creature comforts; I eat well and drink well and value few things as much as a journey to some exotic locale. But while they refresh and inspire, they are forever in the shadow of something more profound. An appreciation for loss makes one realize how valuable it is to keep ties going, how much we cannot whitewash the past. This is why I go back to Wisconsin at least once a year. Memory runs too deep, and I cannot swear off a part of who I am.
It is just one part, though, and I’m no slave to memory. I must channel it, and even if I can’t make it all right, I can at least draw inspiration. Perhaps the whole premise of these cozy middle class lives missed something. No, comfort alone won’t quite do: I need more. I’m still working out what this fresh channel for ambition means, and naturally, it will never abandon its roots. But there’s a newfound energy in these runs up and down these hills, one that wasn’t here when I wrote my first sad elegy in this same bland hotel four years ago. The project born that night is starting to come full circle.
So this Christmas season, I’ll offer up something other than a clichéd wish for peace: a wish for continued pursuit of excellence, in all that we do. We don’t have much time; before long, it’ll all be memory. Time to get to work.