“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.” — Dorothy Day.
I’m going to be on the road this morning to Washington, for editorial meetings at TAC. It’ll be a few hours before I’ll be able to post your comments, so please be patient.
I want to mention here something that has taken me aback since I posted the news, in my essay “South Toward Home,” that Julie and I have decided, in the wake of all that we saw and were a part of after my sister’s death, to move to my hometown. In a number of e-mails and personal conversations, some of which have been too intimate, even painful, to repeat here, even anonymously, I have been struck by the intensity of the reaction. I thought people would tease me goodheartedly about leaving the big city to move to the country — “Green Acres” and all that. To the contrary: these all came from friends and readers — good people, all, at least the ones I know personally — who have been keeping up with all the things I’ve posted here about Ruthie’s death and the community reaction. That’s the context.
Some told me stories about how isolated they are, even living in big cities, and how lonely they are for community. Others have talked about how much they envy me having a St. Francisville to go back to; their families moved around so much that there’s no anchorage for them to find harbor in. Still others expressed sorrow at how much they want what the people in St. Francisville have, but how very far they are from being able to get it. When one friend said that in all his social network, he can’t think of a single person he’d trust enough to authorize them to pick his kid up from day care in the event of an emergency, I thought about how I haven’t lived in St. Francisville in almost 28 years, but I can think of at least a dozen people there — family and friends — off the top of my head that I could trust unreservedly with my children in a moment of crisis.
That is remarkable. What kind of country do we live in, where this is so uncommon? What has happened to us? If I’d only heard this privately from a couple of people, it would be one thing. But I’m getting it from more than a few, and from all over the country.
One friend got in touch with me and spoke with disarming bluntness about loneliness and helplessness, saying: “Everything I’ve done has been for career advancement. Go for the money, the good jobs. And we have done well. But we are alone in the world. Almost everybody we know is like that. My family is all over the country. My kids only call if they want something. People like us, when we get old, our kids can’t move back to care for us if they wanted to, because we all go off to some golf resort to retire. It’s hell. This is the world we have made for ourselves. I envy you that you get to escape it.”
My friend has a great job doing creative work in a major American city for a terrific salary. Yet as far as he is concerned, I am the lucky one, because I get to move to a sleepy Southern river town of 2,000 souls, including six barefoot pallbearers, where everybody knows your name. I swear, I am kind of shaken up by this.
UPDATE: A couple more things occurred to me this morning, re-reading this post.
For one, no matter how much one may want to do what Julie and I are now able to do, it’s not possible if you don’t have a means of support. I am extremely fortunate in that I am now able to work remotely, via the Internet, and I can return to a place that offers easy access to the airport and, if necessary, to TV studios. I am also blessed in that for the kind of work I now do, living in a small, Red State town might actually be an advantage. If not for the job change (and the generosity of my TAC employers in okaying this move), the idea of relocating to St. Francisville wouldn’t be realistic.
However, having seen my hometown with new eyes, and observed how so much of what people really find missing in their lives today is available there, I find myself wondering why businesses that could relocate there aren’t falling all over themselves to do so. The public schools are among the best in the state, the landscape is beautiful, and the community spirit is a treasure. Cost of living is relatively low, though there is a severe shortage of affordable housing (a friend told me the other night, “If you knew how long it takes and how hard it is to find decent rental housing here, you would understand that y’all’s walking into that rental downtown was a sign from God that you’re supposed to be here. I’m serious.”) — but this can be fixed by visionary leaders and landowners.
Second, as commentator Roger observes in the comboxes, there is, obviously, some pretty serious trade-offs to be made with such a move. The last three cities I’ve lived in: Philadelphia, Dallas, New York City. To move from these places to a tiny town in the South will occasion a lot of giving-up of things we’ve come to assume were a normal part of our lives. Consumer conveniences, for one. Opportunities for diverse restaurants, culture, and experiences — that’s another. That’s not nothing.
On the other hand, I think it became clear to us on this recent trip the ultimate cost of seeing our lives in consumerist terms. You can’t go to the movies on a whim in St. Francisville, like you can in every place I’ve lived since I left there. You can’t say, “I’d like to eat Thai food tonight,” and satisfy that urge fairly easily. But is this really what life is all about? Look, if you had asked me before my sister got sick, I would have said that of course the value of living in a place like SF outweighs the superficial pleasures of life in a big city, but truth to tell, I probably would have said that out of intellectual and moral conviction, not one that I believed in my heart. But now I know it’s true because I have seen it myself.
Please understand that I grew up there, so I’m not romanticizing the place, at least I hope I’m not. That would be a lie, and a disservice to the local community. I am well aware that in my sister’s suffering, I was able to see the community at its best. It won’t always be like that. But given the things I’ve seen happen, and have chronicled here for you all to see, I have concluded that the things life in my hometown offers my family — most of all, a real connection to family (not just twice a year, and on Skype) and an opportunity to love and serve those that loved and served my family in its time of great need — matter more to a meaningful life, and a good death, than all the good things I have available to me in this or any other city. To be clear, I think one can have these things in a city, but probably not unless you’ve lived there a long time, and have had time to cultivate roots.
(On the other hand, when I was a kid in the ’70s, we had a lot of new people move into the area to help build and staff the new nuclear power plant, and I well remember overhearing plenty of conversations these transplants had with my parents, talking about how welcoming the people of West Feliciana Parish were to them, and how they’d never lived anywhere else like it.)
“I knew when you wrote ‘Crunchy Cons’ that you’d be moving back one day,” a friend wrote from New York yesterday. I didn’t — but I can see why he did, because most everything I said in the book that I valued is available to me and my family in my hometown. I just wasn’t ready to see it. I hope that at least some of my readers are in the same position as I am today, of being able to relocate to their hometowns, and will strongly consider making the move. I will miss city life, I’m sure, but I am not moving away from something; I’m moving towards something.
I mean, look: I wrote recently about a businessman who cheated my sister in the last months and weeks of her life, but against whom she refused to hold anger. The man is a contractor who was hired to build a screened back porch for her. All she wanted before she died was to have this porch to sit on. He nearly finished it, but hemmed and hawed and wouldn’t come back to complete the job on time, no matter how many times he was asked. Ruthie died with a job that could have been done, and ought to have been done, left undone by this irresponsible man. Compounding the insult, he was a fellow firefighter of my brother in law’s. The brotherhood of firefighters is so angry at him that one of the firefighters who is especially close to my family refused to let the contractor-firefighter come to the funeral; he stopped him outside the church and told him he’d best hit the road. (And there was much rejoicing at this among my family, I tell you.) Two days ago, a group of firefighters showed up at Mike and Ruthie’s house, on their day off, and finished the contracting job themselves. For free. Out of love for Mike and Ruthie.
Somehow, the opportunity to be a part of a community where that sort of thing happens looks more important than being able to easily satisfy my upwardly mobile bourgeois consumerist desires. I read somewhere a few years ago that this was the case, but I didn’t take the lesson to heart until now.