Kansas, you fooler. You’re makin’ me smile. –The Ozark Mountain Daredevils
Rock Island, IL
Part I: Fooling Around in Kansas
During a break in the action at this year’s Prairie Festival I repaired to my tent to say the mid-day office. I prayed fervently for the peace of the whole world, for the stability of God’s holy churches, for Bill Kauffman’s hairline, that sort of thing, when I heard the sound of footsteps stumbling toward my tent’s front porch.
If my ears did not deceive me, these were no ordinary footsteps. These were the footsteps of faithful readers of The Front Porch Republic, America’s favorite and most popular electronic magazine, known far and wide for featuring only clear-headed writers full of all the correct opinions on all the issues out there—plus some of the finest curmudgeonly and vitriolic prose available anywhere among God-fearing men and women.
My ears did not deceive me. For presently I heard, in a kind of slurred speech peculiar to Kansans hailing from such places as Pennsylvania, Indiana, and California, “Peters! Peters, you bar-jesting misanthrope you! Come out here and get what you’ve got coming to you!”
I pronounced a premature “amen” and bethought me for a moment. Could it be a band of angry sociologists with a group IQ of 12? Could it be Sam M. or Jordan Smith come to set me straight in person? Has Sabin triplicated himself and come seeking a three-on-one-duel? Irreverent utterances at twenty paces?
No! It was—well, I must change the names to protect the guilty—“D’Jim,” “L’Adam,” and “DeRobert,” and they were bearing gifts—bearing, indeed, local beer! Actual Kansas beer! And with them was a woman of stunning and radiant countenance—I’ll call her “H’Anna”—who was obviously embarrassed to be seen with these merry derelicts, not to mention afraid for her infant son, whom she held protectively whenever he wasn’t sleeping in an armored stroller.
“Oh, my brothers! And sister! Welcome! Welcome!” I cried and greedily snatched the beer from their hands in one deft motion. Scurrying to secret it away in my tent, I was suddenly stopped dead in my tracks.
Immediately I suspected God. And, sure enough, from high above a loud voice—and a deep one too, I might add—said: “these are my beloved scallywags, in whom I am displeased. Except for the girl. She’s terrific.”
I realized at once that I was being called upon to break beer with these ruffians, these outcasts, these Front Porchers in hog-farmer denim and unforgivable Young Republican kakis.
So I did, and there we stood. (I did say there are no rockers on my tent’s B.A. F.P.) We stood for a good hour or more, quaffing the real Kansas stuff, and the real Iowa stuff that I was shocked (shocked, I tell you) to find among my own provisions in the beer cooler bearing, in large letters, my name and the phrase: “Keep Out Or Else I’ll Slander You in a Post!”
And don’t you know that we stood there and witnessed an operation of grace? I became less smug and self-righteous, less displeased with the world, less bitter about the Krustian Konspiracy that is ruining America. And at the same time—indeed, with each story I told, with each little bit of gossip I parted with—my benevolent guests became less enamored of Deneen, Wilson, and Stegal. They started calling Mitchell names unsuitable for print. One of them relieved himself by spelling the word “Beer” in the sand, and it was clear he didn’t have Tall Grass Ale in mind—though, I assure you, he had it most abundantly in his bladder.
Before we knew it we were fast friends—though no one was “friended” and no one used “friend” as a verb. L’Adam promised to name not one but two of his sons after me. DeRobert said the next time he separated a chicken from its head he’d think of those wretched dissenters who, in the Wednesday ComBox, pollute my Tuesday Evening Acts of Desperation. D’Jim promised to send me a four-pack of Tall-Grass Ale every week for the rest of my life—until the lovely H’Anna stepped in and reminded him that he had “other mouths to feed.”
I publicly agreed with H’Anna (it’s always the right move to side with the woman) and then, in a stolen moment, grabbed D’Jim by the elbow and told him I expected the first shipment to be waiting for me when I got back home, or else a certain Kansan might need to hire several pasty-faced IT geeks to help him scour The Internets and salvage his reputation.
And then we parted.
My faith restored, I returned to my prayers only to find that The Almighty was scurrying off to The Big Barn to hear the next lecture.
You don’t know what the Big Barn is? You’ve never been to the Land Institute? Well, then. If you’re looking for an area in your life to improve upon, you’ve found it.
Part II: Being Fooled in Kansas; or, A Serious Note on Place
A few hours after the FPR connection (the next one—and may it come soon—will merit the name “reunion”) I received news on someone else’s cell phone that one of my best friends, who also happens to be my colleague, had died suddenly. He was 54.
The news hit me, of course, but it hit me like one of those cheap darts that flies out of one of those cheap dart guns made in China: it hit but didn’t stick, didn’t adhere. I tell you I spent much of Saturday night and most of Sunday asking myself this question: What the hell is not going on here? For it did seem to me that something that ought to have been going on inside me was manifestly not going on.
But as I drew nearer to my home late Sunday night, and as at last I came into the neighborhood where I live and where, only two days ago, my friend also lived, I began to inhabit the reality of his death. The outlines of grief became distinct, and I stepped into them as into a room alive with light and color, with furniture and portraits and books and windows. And then, on Monday morning, I walked across our campus, his and mine. And the grief began to settle upon me like a heavy April cloud, like a dark winter afternoon, like the tangible but unseen burden that it is–the burden I have no choice but to bear my small part of. The grief became a thick cloak of sorrow, and there was no throwing it off.
Coleridge was in Germany when his infant son died. He wrote to his wife to express his sorrow but remained in Germany to finish the work he had gone there to do. It is true that Coleridge was a failed husband and a wreck of a man, a man less sinned against than sinning, but I suddenly have a new perspective on this particular episode in the biography of a man much traduced for the way he handled his domestic affairs.
There is, it seems to me, a difference between placed and displaced sorrow. If we wish to make yet another claim for place, let the next one be this: you’re less likely to ask “what the hell is not going on” if you’re in the place you belong instead of in some place you don’t. What’s not going on will go certainly on in situ, as the voice on the other end of the fragile connection will no doubt attempt to make known. Or, if you prefer, what’s going on has a better chance of sinking in all the way when you’re where you ought to be.
I am back in the fullness of a placed grief now. Its boundaries are distinct, its heft fully present to me. I have entered, as I should, into the full human dignity of having to fend off a certain kind of misery that didn’t need fending off in Kansas. In Kansas, you fooler.
We are going to travel some, all of us, and that, I suppose, is good. It is what I call a limited good. But we do the living no good, and the dead no honor, if we disregard our place. We should be home as much as possible. There are griefs to bear everywhere, and to some degree we can bear them anywhere—even distant griefs. But home is where most of them are—and where we bear them most fully, and best.