Tag Archives: roots

Ordinary Faith

24 Apr

This post is the ninth in a fictional series. It starts here.

“Marky’s flight’s delayed. Thunderstorms in Chicago.” Evan tosses his phone down on the couch next to him, leans back, and closes his eyes.

“First he misses the rehearsal dinner, and now this?” Bridget yells from the bathroom.

“Eh, he’s always been fine operating on two hours of sleep,” says Evan.

“That’s not the point. You all doing anything in the morning?”

“We rented some ice, so we’re gonna skate for a while.”

“Oh, great, you’ll have a chipped tooth for the ceremony.” Bridget emerges with an overflowing cosmetics bag and rummages through it for the third time in half an hour.

“Anything wandered off since you last checked?” Evan teases.

“Oh, shut up.”

“I will still love you if you have an eyelash out of place.”

“You can be the one who explains to our kids why we look awful in the pictures.”

“I wasn’t stressing out, but now you’re stressing me out.”

“You’re stressing me out with how calm you are!”

Evan laughs, climbs to his feet, and plants a kiss on his fiancée’s cheek.

“Shameless flattery,” Bridget grumbles.

“Let’s go down to the lake.” Something, anything, to get her mind on to something else, Evan thinks.

“You still need to shine your shoes.”

“If I’m gonna be picking up Mark after midnight now, I’ll have some time to kill.”

“You could make someone else do that. Or just pay for his ride.”

“Nah. I’ll be there for him. Nobody sleeps tonight anyway.”

“Fine. Let’s go down to the damn lake.” Bridget snaps her bag shut, collects herself, and marches toward the door. Evan trails after her, leans in the doorway, and levels his best bemused stare as she forces on a pair of shoes. Bridget ignores him as they walk out to the car, but she softens up within minutes, as he knew she would. She blasts a soundtrack of corny nostalgic pop music as they make toward a beach on the edge of town, and Evan allows her nostalgia to take control of him.

The Buddhist monk at Tengboche had exhorted him to find his own true self, but sometimes Evan wonders if his own true self isn’t a chameleon of sorts, always finding ways to blend in wherever he is. If he’s with his hockey friends, he’s a brash boy talking a big game; if he’s with Bridget or his mother, he’s a modest and loyal family man. If he’s with Mark, he finds his intellectual bent; if he’s alone, he’ll just compound that solitude and wander into the woods somewhere, thinking simple thoughts.

Commitment, it seems, is anathema to the chameleon. And now here he is, making the biggest commitment he’s ever made with a walk down the aisle. He’s not ready for this. He’s so far from where he needs to be, so inadequate in so many ways, so unworthy of the label of adulthood. And yet is anyone ever worthy of it, really? He’ll be where he needs to be.

Not that he knows exactly what that means. Is home a physical place, here in Duluth whose dark streets had given him solace in his teenage wanderings, and where he’d met the most important people in his life? Is it in those people themselves, wherever they may travel? Or is it just in a place where he can clear his mind and release himself back into that world beyond? The answer is at once both impossible to know and an immediate instinct, a sense that he blindly finds from time to time that assures him he has things right.

The road to the beach takes Evan and Bridget past their old high school, and Evan stops the car alongside it to gaze down at the place where it all began. He knows Bridget is a sucker for such memories, and she settles her head into his chest. He lets her nestle in and thinks back to their prom night, and all the dates in their group. Somehow they are the lone survivors, the only couple that has made it all the way through. They are the ones who, through power of will and careful negotiation and one desperate plea for forgiveness on the steps of the St. Paul Cathedral, have found it only natural to drift into the hereafter in one another’s arms.

“Remember when we skipped English that day we had that sub and made out behind the bleachers where no one could see us?” he asks her.

“Vividly. That mark you left on my neck only got me grounded for a week.”

“I was such a little shit. I can’t believe you put up with me.”

“You were, sure. But you were the sweetest one of them, and you actually learned, too.”

“Yeah, can’t say I didn’t put in the effort.”

“You wanted it so bad, it was hilarious.”

“Ahem. As if you didn’t want it as badly as I did.”

Bridget sneers at him, and they steal a quick kiss; fleeting but sincere, as if the liaison officer might yet wander by to scold them and send them on their way. Evan reluctantly puts them in motion again, and they leave behind one old haunt for another. They arrive at the beach and wander along wordlessly for a spell, arm in arm, looking away from one another only to pick their way across the rocks. It is a clear, moonless night, and the stars glitter down on a glassy Lake Superior. All is still save for the two of them scattering rocks with each step.

“God, this is beautiful,” says Evan. “I live for this.”

“And me too, right, Mr. Husband-To-Be?”

“Oh. Yeah. Guess so.”

“Sometimes I wonder why I put up with you.”

“Still got time to pull out if you want.”

“God knows you don’t ever pull out.”

Evan grins. “Always been a finisher, on and off the ice.”

“I feel like I’m marrying a fifteen-year-old.”

“Forever young, baby.”

“Which is funny, because you can be such an old man when you whine about how technology is ruining the kids these days and talk about how we’re all doomed in the end.”

“Past, present, future, it’s all one. Hey, speaking of pasts, think we’ll see any sparks between Marky and Jackie?”

“She moved on when we were still in high school.”

“I know. Ya never know, though. The best man and the maid of honor, it’s all set up for them…”

“Don’t tell me Mark is actually going to make a play there.”

The darkness keeps Evan’s blush from revealing his friend’s intentions. “The problem with having an incredible mind is that you can’t forget the past very easily.”

Bridget comes to a stop atop a rocky ledge and frowns down at the lake. “What good is having an incredible mind when all you use it for is making money off other people’s problems and treating women like disposable objects?”

“Hey now.”

“Sorry. I know what he means to you. But he’s changed with age.”

“Give him some credit, he thinks about what he does. And he’s only ever treated you with respect, right?”

“He has. But probably only because he loves you more than anyone in his life.”

Evan cocks his head at Bridget. She’s right, of course. Mark is a loyal son who comes home to visit his mother, but they are never anything more than perfunctory trips. He doesn’t know his half-siblings, he’s never kept a girlfriend, and his friend network beyond Evan is wide but shallow. Nor had his father’s death made Mark any less certain in his pursuits. If anything, he’s a more intense version of his old self.

For his part, Evan supposes he is much the same. He’s gone home, just as Mark always said he would, and has latched on to his anchors in a world adrift. His mother and his sweetheart since sophomore year, his two rocks, are here for him. He’s settled into a very Evan job at a local foundation, coordinating philanthropic efforts for college scholarships. It’s not remarkably lucrative, but is stable and honorable, two words that he’d like to think describe his every move. And, as he never ceases to remind Bridget, he’s told the local high school girls find him a considerable upgrade on the past holder of the position.

“One of my scholarship girls is working for the caterer this summer. Ran into her today,” Evan says to change the topic. “Sounded almost disappointed I was getting married.”

“Sounds like trouble. I hope she’s going to college on one of the coasts.”

“Nah, she’s gonna be a Gopher. Gonna go follow my legendary hockey career.”

“I’m sure you told her all about all five of your college goals.”

“Good thing I’m better at scoring in other parts of life.”

“In your dreams, boy.”

“In my dreams,” he muses. Evan has always been a vivid dreamer, both in wakefulness and in sleep. His alternate lives impose their will upon his hours of rest, often in nightmarish thoughts of what could have been if he’d followed different courses. Lately, they have shifted, and offer not just a different past but a potential future. He sees himself in old age, sees a copy of a travelogue with his name on the cover, and, most frightening of all, sees himself with his children, terrorized by his lack of control over them. Yet again, he’s humbled by forces beyond his control.

Life, after weeks and months of monotonous toil, now happens in sudden bursts. They’ve known this wedding was coming for years, but that has done nothing to diminish the sudden rush of anxious energy. Within twenty-four hours it will all be over, and in a few weeks he and Bridget will move out of their cozy apartment and into a well-tended midcentury ranch in a sedate neighborhood. Their purchase is neither one’s dream: Evan had his heart set on fixing up a decaying old, grand home near the center of the city, while Bridget was taken in by a quaint log cabin on five acres out in a township. For this stage in life, at least, they decided neither would win. How quickly those promises became compromises, the fuel to the same old cycle of little spats and make-up love the two of them have endured since Evan first snuck her into his room during sophomore year. Once it was over lunch table seating or post-prom plans; now it’s over dining room paint schemes and the selection of national parks to visit on their honeymoon. The stakes seem higher, but maybe it isn’t so different after all.

Bridget checks her phone and rolls her eyes. “My mom says your Aunt Cathy has a cold. She might not be able to sing.”

“Everything is ruined.”

Bridget cackles. “You’ve never been on great terms with Aunt Cathy, have you?”

“I do like my cousins, you know Colin and I are tight. But as for Aunt Cathy…well, I did once overhear her telling my mom that she deserved her amoral prick jock of a son for the way she’d let me go after my dad died. I don’t think she ever forgave my mom for marrying my dad.”

“Holy shit! What did your mom say to that?”

“She asked Aunt Cathy what she’d think if she told Colin to shove his cello up his ass.”

“I can’t even picture her saying that!”

“My mom can be a badass when she needs to.”

“And they still talk to each other?”

“Aunt Cathy’s on better meds now.”

Bridget cuts short her laugh. “It’s amazing how fragile we can all be, isn’t it?”

Evan nods and once again trails off into his memories. He thinks back to the wake he and Mark had held for Mark’s father at the ridgetop fortress up the shore. Evan had gone expecting a breakdown, but Mark kept his calm as they cleaned out the liquor cabinet, poised as ever as he recounted his lurching family saga. He was at turns bitter and regretful, but Evan could tell he was steeling himself to make good on what he could, to never make the same mistakes. There was a master plan, as there always is with Mark.

Only once did Mark’s simmering anger with the Brennan family legacy boil over into a true tempest. He’d launched into a soliloquy on the ills of modernity, both a defense of his responses to it and a load of self-loathing over the systems that brought his family to the top of the heap and kept them there. He lamented how the march of progress drove people to cut off old ties and retreat into sorry little republics of themselves, all in pursuit of base satisfaction. It didn’t quite amount to coherence, but Evan has lingered over its brightest glimmers ever since.

His father was a lonely man, Mark had said. One who always put up walls, incapable of showing weakness, incapable of being a host or welcoming in anyone who wasn’t of immediate use to him. He’d even admitted as much at the end. For all the desires he’d satisfied in his life, he was bathed in misery, a solitary soldier who limped along to his lonely fate. He aspired to love, but knew nothing but sorry substitutes for it. He sought refinement, but had no one left at the end to share in his tastes. He looked for easy escapes, but never took the time to ask why until it was far too late. That unreflective loneliness killed his family, and at his lowest points, Mark worries he’s inherited it. He needed to break those chains, he cried. Hugs and toasts had followed, and for that night, at least, Evan had assured Mark that he had the power within him to resist the trend toward ruin.

Evan has seen this loneliness in his own life all too well. He sees it now in retrospect in his own suicidal father. He sees it in his travels, where all too often he gets people of all shades and sizes to pour out their souls to him simply by being a polite listener at a bar. He sees it in the kids at local high schools whom he interviews for scholarships; he’s not even ten years out, yet he feels a generation away from them. His coworkers report on the misery of so many of the elderly, who fade away into nothing in lonely rooms with loud TVs. A coworker, probing the local dating scene, was horrified by the broken people who seemed to aspire to nothing save sex via desperate swipe. If even Mark thinks there’s something wrong with all of this, he may not be the dinosaur he thinks he is after all.

Evan recounts the tale to a half-interested Bridget. “You’re the nurse here. Do you think all this loneliness is killing us? Because we’re living alone, or in twos and threes and staring at screens every night instead of living the way we’re meant to live, in little tribes with other people?”

“I don’t think we can say anything for sure. But it sure doesn’t help.”

“See, this is why I wanted one of those big houses. We could entertain all the time. An open door, just have anyone we know come through for dinner or drinks whenever. Board game nights, sports in the backyard, nothing formal but always something going on. Space for our parents to move in when they get old, and so they can help with the kids. Wouldn’t that be awesome?”

“It would be. It would be such a money pit, though. And raising kids in that neighborhood…”

“Think how much fun you could have on the remodeling projects.”

“Don’t tempt me. Or at least not until after we’ve signed the papers.”

“You could still change your mind…” Evan grins, and Bridget stomps off to walk a few feet ahead of him again.

“For now, I need you to myself a little more than that. But, tell you what. If we both still think this sounds fun in a few years, I’m all in. We could afford a bigger, grander house then anyway.”

Evan tries to buy down his sense of urgency. “Right. No need to rush when we’ve got it made ourselves.”

Bridget comes back to his side, swelling with pride, and Evan puts an arm around her shoulder and eases them down to a seat on a convenient boulder. He isn’t sure if he should trumpet his triumph from the rooftops, or merely acknowledge it and continue on his steady way. His immediate instinct, as always, is the latter. But it would be a shame not to share his story if someone else out there might find something valuable within it, and he needs to find some way to tell his story to show that it is the culmination of a quest to a higher calling, so much more than just the satisfaction of his own ego.

What is it, then? A tale of faith? Evan has been through his phases of religious experiment. He’d picked up Kierkegaard and John of the Cross in college, and dabbled in Rumi and Camus. He’d followed his mystical mother into flirtation with the Buddha, too. He wants to believe anyone can be saved, yet wants to believe in the certainty of his own path to salvation. Mark always blasted the ‘spiritual but not religious’ impulse as something sorry and watered down, and quietly Evan agreed that it often did little to translate its feel-good tingling into an ordering principle for life. He’s always wanted that structure, and yet all his efforts to collect wisdom across faiths and ages still seem woefully incomplete. Through it all, he’s just left with an inadequate resignation: he does not know. Maybe, he thinks with a jolt, the real lesson is that humility can take more courage than the boldest righteous stand.

“What?” Bridget complains. He’s disrupted her resting place.

“Can you believe what we’ve found here?” he asks. “Me and you.”

“You made it look easy, most of the time,” Bridget assures him.

“Looks can be deceiving.” Evan wonders if he’s hidden too much from his bride-to-be, stowing away his angst in a well-curated image of a man in pursuit of enlightenment. He let hints out to Mark, but even there he has too much pride to let on the full extent, or to ever fully admit that Mark is right when he needles him about how he wants more. If Mark has one thing on him when it comes to coping with existential anxieties, it’s that he’s always willing to express himself, honest and unvarnished—even, Evan laughs to himself, beneath all those layers of varnish in which he slathers himself. Evan avoids such sincerity and just says he is fine, or trades in a thoughtless language of faith and transcendence. But in the moments when he stops to think, when he finds himself cold and alone, perhaps run into the ground after a bad skate or a night with one too many drinks, his rational side tells him that he is only deluding himself.

And what for? Adulthood, he thinks, has not been what was promised. Sure, there was a formal graduation ceremony at the end of college, but it seemed an inadequate transition to both the uncertainty of life options that followed and the rigid structure of employment. He and his friends were all grappling in the dark, none of them worthy of any level of responsibility, and he found himself clinging to the ones who thought they had some idea of what they were doing, even if that idea was just a headstrong commitment to barrel ahead without any thought for the consequences. But what should he have expected, anyway? Maybe this could have been easier if he’d followed the Mark path, majored in something with a quick and easy pipeline to prestige, or at the very least a lot of money to support the family he’s about to begin. But he hasn’t wandered to the end of the earth and back because he believes in easy transitions. Whether he was conscious of it or not, he’s known from the start that this would never be easy. He’d endured years of mournful underemployment, his bank account propped up by his nurse of a wife. But he is in a good place now, and more than anyone he knows, his future has written itself.

All of the authority figures he’d admired as a child were just as clueless at this stage in their lives. His mother was pregnant with him when she was his age, scraping along in an administrative job; his dad wouldn’t get his break into management for another six years, either. Bridget’s parents hadn’t even met yet, while Mark’s father was just starting his first marriage and his mother, twenty-three years later, was plying her trade in New York. And they all were better-off than most, all things considered. Nothing is obvious, and too many choices came to pass with no conscious path in mind, either chosen for all the wrong reasons or drifted into for no reason at all. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t, but they all must find their ways in spite of them.

The weight of his commitment becomes real. This is his life now. He can still run off with Mark when it pleases him, but it will only ever be temporary. Mark, as is his wont, probably already knows this: the bachelor party had degenerated into some drunken anguish after everyone else had passed out and it was just the two of them wandering a ridgetop over Duluth. Mark had gone from boasts about how he owned the city to sudden sadness over his impending loss, and while the two of them always milked their gay lover jokes for all they were worth, Evan knows there’s something in their bond that doesn’t quite fit within the bounds of normal male friendship. It’s not a sexual tie, but it is charged with a shared erotic drive, and he’s not quite sure what marriage will mean for it.

The two of them can’t quite be boys again, even if Evan has begun plotting a backpack trip in South America that he plans to foist upon Mark. It is only a temporary escape now, and Bridget has stolen that wandering life away from him. He wants to tell her to leave him in peace, to bellow at her to let him go. But that’s just it: she isn’t clinging desperately. She may not share in his fervent formless faith or his desire to wander off and hide in a tent. She knows he needs his space, lets him have it, and can snap him back to reality if he ever meanders too far off into the recesses of his own mind. She attacks any task before her with the same verve he does, and he, too, has something to offer her, as he pushes her out of her comfort zone and gives her blind, loving hope a much-needed dose of doubt.

“I should get back to my mom at some point here,” says Bridget. “She’s still panicking over the centerpieces.”

“C’mon now. Maybe now that she’s pushing sixty she can learn to take something in stride.”

“In your dreams, maybe. You saw how she was this afternoon with the caterers.”

“Thanks for leaving me to deal with that while you hid out with my mom.”

“Lot of fun we had, cleaning all your old junk out of the basement.”

“She taking this okay?” Evan’s mother tries not to show him her worries, but he’s never been sure how she’ll take signing away her baby to another woman.

“She’s as great as ever. Made me tell her stories about what a little brat you were. She showed me that old wooden penalty box your dad built for you as a kid where she sent you for timeouts.”

“That old thing! I didn’t realize she still had it. Good thing we weren’t still using that when she learned what we’d do during that half hour between school and hockey practice.”

Bridget cackles. “Would’ve been a major penalty?”

“Game misconduct at the very least.”

“It’s the cutest thing ever. And it’s good wood, I was thinking I might make some nice lawn chairs out of it. If you can bear to part with it, of course.”

“I’ll trust your judgment when it comes to being crafty. It had a good run.”

“There was an old surfboard down there too. I might cut that in half it and use that as backs for chairs. We could sit out in the yard in your childhood toys.”

Evan freezes. “Woah, hang on. You never know when I might need that.”

Bridget laughs, but gives him a searching look. “You, on a surfboard? You wouldn’t even go in the water at Kara’s cabin because you were scared of the algae or whatever!”

“You never know.” Evan blossoms into a smile, and chances a sly smirk. No, he need not worry about marriage being some end to his dreams. He and Bridget still have a few secrets to extract from each other, and he will always have a few outlets to still catch the waves. He is humbled yet again.

This series continues here.

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Taking Root in Rural America

28 Oct

Take one on rural America, from Brian Alexander in a recent Atlantic article:

The social good of such places, [Arthur] Morgan insisted, was being “dissolved, diluted, and submerged by modern technology, commercialism, mass production, propaganda, and centralized government.” While many big-city residents might not worry about the fate of small towns, Morgan believed they should because the “controlling factors of civilization are not art, business, science, government. These are its fruits. The roots of civilization are elemental traits—good will, neighborliness, fair play, courage, tolerance, open-minded inquiry, patience.” These traits are best transmitted from one generation to the next in small communities, he argued, from where they are then spread throughout entire societies. To erode small-town culture was to erode the culture of the nation.

Take two, from Kevin Williamson of the National Review in the run-up to last year’s election:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

I spend my days working in regional community and economic development, which means devoting a fair amount of time and thought to towns across my corner of the world in northeastern Minnesota. I attend a number of small-town meetings, almost all of which are heartening: from Virginia to Sandstone, from Two Harbors to Aitkin, people deeply committed to their towns come out in force to these meetings and share their love for them. They acknowledge problems but are devoted to fixing them, and in many of them civic engagement seems far more robust than in Duluth, where politics appears to have devolved into vicious tarring of one’s opponents on social media. (Okay, I’m being an election season cynic, but the pettiness is a wonder to behold.)

Even so, it’s not hard to sink into doubt about the future of small towns, either when one looks at macro level trend data or takes a walk down Main Street. Not much is happening, the population is greying, things are boarded up, and yes, in some places, one can find people on the streets high on something at midday. Occasional new development on the outskirts gives some dated facilities a needed refresh, but leaves behind empty space in places where that’s not easy to fill. Many towns can seem trapped in a slow, downward spiral with no clear escape.

On Friday, work took me to Bruno, Minnesota (population 102). There’s not much to Bruno: a bar, a church, a small gas station, a thrift store, a handful of houses, many of which have seen better days. It’s 40-odd miles from Duluth on a beautiful but fairly lonely road, so it’s not one of those small towns that enjoys the spillover from a convenient metropolitan area. But, tucked up a side street sits a former schoolhouse, sits the Nemadji Research Corporation, a world-class medical billing and data mining company with 47 employees on site.

Bruno’s champions are the founders of Nemadji, Gene and Becky Lourey. The late Gene was the brains behind the operation, whose tech skills were decades ahead of his time; Becky, to use her own words, provided the heart. That exuberant human touch was so evident that Becky, whose picture probably appears next to the phrase “bleeding heart liberal” in mid-2000s encyclopedias, got herself elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and then the Senate in this rural district, and also mounted a failed campaign for the DFL gubernatorial nomination in 2006. (Her son, Tony, now holds the Senate seat.) She infuses Nemadji with a deep conviction born of a long and tumultuous life that has never seen her waver in her enthusiasm and grit, even as she endured business failures and lost three children. Its facility includes a daycare, a lunchroom, and an experiment in hydroponics; employees get excellent benefits, which in good times have even included college tuition. Becky Lourey has built a legacy in northern Pine County that will last long after her, though at 74, she’s not exactly showing any signs of slowing down.

Not every town can have a Nemadji, but the Loureys offer lessons for local communities everywhere. Their power is remarkable, and it’s worth nothing that their roots aren’t miles deep in the Bruno area: they grew up in different Minnesota towns, and if Becky had had her way, they would have stayed in Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill East neighborhood, where they lived for a spell and helped found the local neighborhood organization. But once they settled down in Kerrick (just up the road from Bruno), they left a mark. One need not share the Loureys’ politics, but one does need to recognize where Kevin Williamson’s assessment of small town struggles goes wrong.

First off, rural America is not a monolith. And while small towns may not exhibit much demographic diversity, there is a lot of economic diversity both within and between them. Williamson commits the now-frequent fallacy when he implies the people dying from painkillers are the ones voting for Trump when instead it’s usually the relatively well-off rural voters who are reacting to all of the decline around their relative success. For every dying small town, there’s another that’s holding its own and producing its share of decent jobs. Even places like Virginia, the Iron Range town where the population is down while poverty and perceptions of crime have multiplied, still serve as vital links in one of the nation’s most important industries, even if we can now get iron ore out of the ground far more efficiently than we used to. And while I’ll shelve a full examination of this for a later date, the interplay between low birth rates, immigration, and politics has particular consequences for the American rural-urban divide.

The deeper issue with Williamson’s thesis, however, is his conception of economics as a strict matter of “satisfying human wants, not defining them.” This is true insofar as that we should not expect economic theory to behave in moral ways on its own. But even Adam Smith understood the necessity of a moral support structure behind capitalism to build a stable society. Badly aligned incentives can unravel whole cultures, and when culture unravels or collapses, whether into the inner city crime waves of past decades or the silent scourge of drugs and disability in small towns today, the ugliness never ends. It has a direct political spillover, drives migration patterns, and leaves behind wreckage that may stick around for decades. The physical signs of decline may fade away over time, but the pain in the present and in future generations can be a mountain to overcome. Every effort should be made to overcome it, but the odds are hardly stacked in a favorable way.

This brings me back to Brian Alexander’s insistence that small towns do matter, a perspective he renders with proper respect toward metropolitan areas. There is a fair amount of mushy ground here, as the piece paints the suburbs in a lazy trope, and it’s impossible to prove whether or not small towns are a sort of moral compass and proving ground for a nation. (I am, however, generally sympathetic to the notion that forcing people into proximity with other people from a wide range of backgrounds is a healthy thing for personal formation. This doesn’t just come through sharing a town; after my grandfather’s funeral, a cousin and I discussed how having so many aunts and uncles in our sprawling family gave us an immediate window into a broad swath of life.) But there are some essential insights in his piece.

Just as Williamson tell us failing small towns deserve little sympathy, it’s become fashionable in certain urbanist circles to shrug and say that the economy is what it is, and that small towns are doomed to die. No doubt the dwindling, especially in a relative sense, will continue in many places. But decline does have profound political consequences, and the alterations to a national culture that stem from economic and cultural upheaval are not to be taken lightly. Change will continue, and we’ll need as many Loureys as we can get to weather the storm. Relying on that exceptional level of dedication and service is a bit of a Hail Mary; efforts need not go that far to be a success. But they do require a moral commitment to place that goes beyond graphs of economic performance and understands what it means to take root in a community. Cut off the roots, and the tree will die.

A Cyclical Christmas

24 Dec

I don’t really know what it means to be “home for Christmas.” I never am. Christmas is always part of a journey, one that usually involves a stint as an interloper in someone else’s holiday, or, lately, a sterile hotel. (I suppose it’s a step up from a manger in Roman-occupied Judea, but still.) Trying to make all these disparate threads make sense has become a sort of routine. But routine breeds comfort, familiarity, and no one really seems to mind my intrusions, wherever they may be. I’m always on the road this time of the year, and that is my tradition.

Lately, it hasn’t been just a journey to one place; it’s been a cycle between two different worlds. Just over 100 miles separate these two worlds, and the loose trappings of Christmas, somewhere within the Catholic tradition, are at the roots of both. Beyond that, it is a study in dualisms, twinned within me.

First, Chicago, its crush of humanity making Minneapolis seem quaint and tame. Here, a sprawling family unites en masse every year. It’s not without its skeletons, of course, and the march of time takes its toll. But the cycle goes on, the young carrying forward the best gifted to us by the old. Everyone comes together for a great Christmas festival, cramming the house full by the dozens, the well-earned merriment coming to fruition. We gorge ourselves, we down glass after glass of wine, and then we all settle around the piano and shamelessly belt out all the carols, loving every second. After the party, there’s some time to explore the city, see friends old and new, eat well and live well. A whirlwind caught up in the dream, my mission, if I can be so ambitious as to claim one: entwining the fabric of family with the fabric of a city, vibrant and full of life.

A brief train ride north, though, and the other side of the cycle. Here, things are quiet. No more frenetic energy, no more loud noise; just a couple of us with Grandma in that same old house, chancing the occasional word, little that hasn’t been said before. I read, I write, I dodge all the cats. Before long I’m out on a frigid trek down the country lanes of eastern Wisconsin, up and down the hills of the Kettle Moraine, out to the old stone church in St. Lawrence on Christmas Eve. That nostalgic pastoral scene so dear to my grandmother, if it ever truly existed, is fading away into the fog; the land slowly emptied or turned to exurban sprawl. I won’t have much reason to come back here after she moves on, though I know I will all the same.

It may not be my future, but it is an integral part of my past, and I must understand it, and pass it along, such as I can. On my run through the mists this year, I recalled the words of Fr. Thomas King, the late Georgetown Jesuit who, in his final Christmas Mass, gave the only homily that this unbaptized, intrigued-but-never-fully-inspired cultural Catholic has bothered to retain. In the midst of all the insanity of our lives, he preached, it is these escapes into the wilderness that bring us peace. It is that call inward that allows us to make ourselves whole again, bringing union with something far greater in that paradox we call faith. That thought in the wilderness has proven a great spark, and the most important thing I ever wrote, the foundations of the pieces that taught me who I was, spilled out in one of those dull hotel rooms not far off. Even here, I find myself, and through it, something much bigger than myself.

Roots are tangled, even for us white bread Midwesterners. Mine are a messy trinity with a handful of other currents feeding in: one part Chicago distinction, the American Dream made real; one part Wisconsin farm boy at the end of an era, trying to make sense of the past. One very large dose of Duluth at my core; perhaps small parts Mexico and, yes, part Washington as well. And yet it all holds together easily enough, all with its place. I suppose that’s where I’m at home, making those connections all one. The cycle goes on. A Merry Christmas to all.