Covington, VA. Amid the lint that clutters my mind is a comment made years ago on Car-Talk. I can’t remember whether it was Click or Clack who cast out this grease covered pearl, but I’ve found it marvelously useful.  Someone was asking about one of those electrical problems that plague amateur mechanics’ lives, and one of the guys asked the age of the car in question.  The answer pegged the vehicle’s vintage well into the past decade.  One of the guys declared the vehicle “beyond the statute of limitations for Mickey Mousing.” My mind went back to an old Rambler my dad had.  As a teen I “fixed” an intermittent starting problem by stringing wire through the firewall and mounting a push-button on the steering column. If the real starter button failed, my auxiliary was ready for action. Then, there was the pickup truck I had with a horn-button screwed onto the dash, and the tailgate held on by hinges intended for garden gates.

What would have been clearly unacceptable on a new vehicle was commendable ingenuity when applied to a vehicle of a certain age. The critical question is:  How old does the buggy have to be before I am free to use duct-tape, bailing wire, and plastic wire-ties as prime components in keeping the machine on the job?

It seems to me there is a similar question of great importance in regard to the FPR project.  When is it acceptable, or even good, to stop reclaiming something from the past, and to start cobbling together a new existence–something that may not be as good as what I had, or maybe my memory of what I had, but is better than my current situation?  What is the statute of limitations in regard to local bona fides? In a pre-election article Katherine Dalton seems to imply that seventeen years may not be enough. That’s nearly a fourth of our three score and ten. I don’t know how long Professor Peters has been peddling and gardening in Rock Island, but here and here he clearly indicates that it hasn’t been long enough to make this place home.  In the comment box some of his colleagues pounded the gavel and pronounced the statute of limitations past, but Peters had none of it. He fears “raising orphans of success,” he “expect[s] the consequences of this to be more devastating than we’ve yet imagined.” (Orphans of success) I write this post while sitting in my elder son’s living room, a thousand miles from where he grew up, having just visited his brother who lives another seven hours distant. I desperately hope the consequences on my boys, their nomad wives, and my six grandchildren will not involve that “D” word.  My kids and grandkids show signs of flourishing in the Texas and Louisiana soil, and we are committed to enduring TSA scrutiny and marathon car trips in an attempt to make it work.

My boys are continuing a nearly century long (that’s only as far as I recollect) trend. Eighty-some years ago my father, upon his dad’s death, moved from Arkansas to Tennessee. He didn’t have much to do with that move; he was less than two. After World War II, he, like who-knows-how-many Southern boys come home, decided he couldn’t make a living in the South, and migrated to the less green North. Much of that decision was beyond his control, as well. I grew up in a sea of tract houses occupied by people from everywhere. Few of us had much affinity for the little village just South of Chicago where we happened to live. For the Polish residents on the old side of town it was home. They had named their little spot in America after a city in their homeland. Their church bore the name of Poland’s patron saint.  On the new side of town, however, though we played Little League, and went to Harding School, or St. Stanislaus, we just lived there.  At school and on the ball field my slight Southern accent earned me the nickname Hill Billy. When I was in Tennessee in the summers visiting family, people called me a Yankee. I certainly gained from this long-distance attempt to maintain my family’s roots, but it also prevented me from being thoroughly at home where I lived.  My sisters, eight years younger than I, were much more at home than I ever was.  At some point it became clear to my folks that it was too late to go back. “This is where I am and I need to make the most of it.”  I married a girl whose family had emigrated from the frozen North of Wisconsin. Now, though I’ve spent thirty-seven years in the same house, pastoring the same church, helping local athletic teams and serving on local boards in a mill town nestled in the mountains of Virginia, some folk still regard me as a foreigner.  They would probably question my heritage if I ran for the Senate.

Not too long ago the little city where I live was the number one city in The Old Dominion—percentage-wise, we were losing population faster than any other city.  Fifty years ago it was different; my town was a place that held new promise of good wages and opportunities. Jobs in the coalmines not far away were declining, and the Black lung that sickened or killed most who made their living underground caused many to make other career choices.  Young men straight out of high school, or after a tour in the military, came here with their brides, or found them when they arrived, bought houses, attended churches, paid taxes, and sent their children to school, but many of them never moved.  For them the statute of limitations was way too long.  Home was always, militantly so, a place where they no longer lived–indeed, a place that could no longer support the communities that had once thrived there.  In a sense they spent most of their lives as homeless people.  They never quite got it when they asked me if I was “going home for Christmas” and I replied, “I live at home.”  I recently saw the syndrome played out in a young professional couple.  They came from two different places, and settled in our area.  He is highly respected in his profession, but try as he might he couldn’t get a job back home.  Year after year, the young family maintained a “We’re only here temporarily” status.  They didn’t know that the statute of limitations for going back home was long past.

A Newsweek article of about a year ago ought to be encouraging to those gathered on this porch.  Not too long ago twenty percent of the American population moved every year. Now that number is greatly reduced. But still, an awful lot of us find ourselves paying for homes a long way from home.   case can be made that for many of these transients, like a lot of the young adults who grew up in my town and left, or those who came here fifty years ago, the choice to leave home is a very responsible decision. If it is a wise choice to leave, then that wisdom ought to be followed up with the prudent resolution to begin putting down roots as a transplant.

High on the list of virtues promoted on this site is love of place. If we are not careful, that virtue can over-ripen into a vice. It is one thing to look back with nostalgia and edifying memory to the place one came from.  It is entirely different to allow attachment to a past place to prevent someone from putting down roots where he is today. The communities we long for, if they are to be built, will be built and maintained by a mongrel horde. Not only is it important for us to put down roots, we need to help our neighbors do so as well. If we have to wait a fourth of our lives, or more, for full local citizenship, most collections of folk will never be communities.

Perhaps Solomon had this in mind when he said, “Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother far away.” (Proverbs 27:10) The statute of limitations had passed.

Howard Merrell has pastored the Covington Bible Church since 1973, where he happily walks 175 yards to work almost every day. He holds a Bachelor in Theology and a Masters in Religion.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Howard, I really appreciate this article. It delicately graces a question I wrestle with often when I try to understand the fact that I will most likely never be returning to “home” as I knew it as a child, longed to leave as a teen, and feel deeply convicted for having “abandoned” as a young adult who wishes more than anything to see St. Albans West Virginia leaven with new life. And of course, the other side of this struggle involves, in the face of this, learning to love anywhere as home.

    Nostalgia originally meant “love of home”, or the deep pain of being separated from it. I just need to figure out the “home” part. I know there are times I lean too much in the direction of a place I know I won’t be returning to, and this does nothing for where I am. This is exacerbated of course by the fact that my current stage of life is very uncertain, having recently finished college, and having no definite surety as to where I will ultimately, as I long to do, settle. Still, what fades ever further into the mirth of the past is a place unloved… and I feel no nicking and slicing will ever nor should ever sever the roots that so strongly desire its redemption. I imagine it will be quite some time before I can “turn fully forward”.

  2. Howard, what a beautiful, wise, and challenging conclusion this is:

    High on the list of virtues promoted on this site is love of place. If we are not careful, that virtue can over-ripen into a vice. It is one thing to look back with nostalgia and edifying memory to the place one came from. It is entirely different to allow attachment to a past place to prevent someone from putting down roots where he is today. The communities we long for, if they are to be built, will be built and maintained by a mongrel horde.

  3. Perhaps the Polish kids are your answer.

    They were at home. As with the passage of cars from new to ‘mickey mouse’, the passage to home is an organic process where cultural memory isn’t chosen but what informs us.

  4. Mr Merrell, I have great sympathy for your point of view. And you are right that we will be better and happier and more useful people if we dig in where are, whether or not we grew up there.

    Because I live in a world that celebrates the advantages and often the moral superiority of leaving home for a better situation, particularly better work, I feel a responsibility to argue hard in the other direction. You make several of my arguments yourself, and I think it is useful if not always pleasant to be reminded that moving necessarily involves a loss of human connection and culture. I would not worry so much about this or that individual’s nomadic life, if there were not so many nomadic individuals. But there are. And not all readers are as settled as you are.

    While it is true that any virtue practiced without temperance will become a vice, the possibility the vice of “placeism” will sweep the nation is not going to keep any of us up at night in either joy or horror. I don’t want to discourage someone else’s attempt to make a good life in a new place, and there can be valuable things learned from being an outsider. But as you know as well as I, an outsider you will always be. We all carry baggage of one sort or another and that is part of yours.

    Perhaps in your case it won’t, in the end, matter very much; certainly that is the hoop to shoot for.

    • But as you know as well as I, an outsider you will always be. We all carry baggage of one sort or another and that is part of yours.

      Kate, this is very nicely said. But still, a hard but sincere question for you: how much of this applies to yourself as well? I don’t want to get flaky and pseudo-psychological here: “We’re all outsiders to ourselves,” blah, blah, blah. But if, as I have argued in my traditionalism piece, are all invariably involved in acts of interpretation and construction, then might it not be the case that all of us carry some element of that same “baggage” with us, whether we go or stay? Some will have more than others, and some will have different types than others, but I’m not sure any of us can entirely escape the including and excluding boundary-maintenance and construction which goes with living.

      • That’s a big question, and I’m no philosopher. I’ll admit to baggage, though.

        Rootedness greatly improves the likelihood of of connection, and differences in degree of “otherness” can be important, even if we all feel like outsiders at times. But it is the connection that is the point. Perhaps we can all agree on that.

    • But we are no longer in exile, for the Davidic king has returned, and he is the Temple rebuilt, the center of a new City. The exile is overturned in the incarnate and risen Lord. In the new City is where we Babylonians find our shalom now.

      • and yet, I still believe it applies…

        Blessed are the peacemakers (rodeph shalom), for they shall be called sons of God.

        Several weeks ago I found this online and thought it interesting:
        “Work for the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile.” The English words “sent you into exile” are actually the attempt by English translators to translate a single Hebrew word. The Hebrew word that is here translated “sent you into exile” has a double meaning.2 It can rightfully be translated “exile”. And it can also be translated “sent”. http://www.rclinthicum.org/RCL_OrdinaryTime_28th_Sunday_Cycle_C.pdf

  5. I suspect the “FPR project” you refer to, Rev. Merrell, is not best understood as a nostalgia of place (since nostalgia actually necessitates a break from the past it remembers so wistfully). Rather, the “FPR project” is to recall the reality of our limited human condition and the value of place–even if that place is not our original home.

    A friend of mine actually asked a very similar question to Dr. Mitchell: how do we know when to “put our bucket down”? I think Dr. Mitchell’s response was apt (if I can recall it properly): put your bucket down… somewhere.

  6. Until this post I’ve been a reader/commenter. I figure I’ll take my seat back in the cashew-gallery. This site is too high-end for peanuts.
    I’ve always appreciated those who took time to comment on the comments, so:

    Mrs. Dalton,
    Thanks for the kind response, and your continued thoughtful interaction with Mr. Fox. Indeed, I do agree with the need for connection. Perhaps one difference between our thoughts on this matter is our perspective. It appears to me that you are attempting to temper–if the article I referred to is valid, further temper–a trend that you, and the ethos of this site, see as alarming. You and Mr. Peters and others here want to throw up a red flag, if not a road-block. “Too many are too willing to too easily be persuaded to leave their home and strike out for someplace else.” I don’t want to argue against that concern. In fact I agree with it, though granted, not with the passion others of you bring to the issue. My hope is to address individuals–I suppose it is a hold-over from my day-job–like Samuel. Many of us are already employed, paying a mortgage on a house that we can’t sell, and members of the PTA where our kids attend school before we ever think about this think of rootedness in the sense it is often used on this site. In fact for some of us this site has helped awake such thoughts. What do we do, now?
    Anyhow, thanks. You encouraged me by engaging with my article.

    Mr. Fox,
    Thanks for your charitable review of my concluding words. I have read your article. I have also recently quickly read Pieper, Tradition. I’m sure I don’t adequately understand either, but it looks like to me there is a similarity between the two of you. Something along the lines of “there are traditions that ought to be handed-down/received. The packaging of those traditions is going to by necessity, and ought to by design, change from generation to generation. The obvious stress is sorting out the packaging from the traditum.
    Anyhow, thanks for engaging with my article and taking the time to put forth some of my thoughts more effectively.

    S. o. L.
    Shalom, in the fullest sense of the word.

    Mr. Salazar,
    I’m still thinking about your comment. It may come to me.

    Samuel,
    I’ve been to St. Albans. Have a friend who used to live there. Back in the day it was one of the few places on earth that rivaled Covington VA for pure, unadulterated, nostril singeing stench. I imagine S. A. smells better these days, but as we say in Covington, “It’s the smell of money.” Your statement, ” I know there are times I lean too much in the direction of a place I know I won’t be returning to, and this does nothing for where I am.” is exactly what I was talking about. Be sure to listen to the song Bart posted. I64 runs through Covington & by St. Albans . . .

    Bart,
    Thanks for the song. It says it well. If Doc Merrell, my dad, had been able to sing–trust me, he really, really couldn’t–that could have been his song. Just substitue a TN accent. Thanks.

  7. Could it be that the best we can hope for is to create the conditions where our children can enjoy what we cannot? And that that’s enough for us? I think we recognize that situation in other aspects of life; perhaps it is the same for this one.

  8. I think that the reason you can say you are at home is because you are in Virginia….Oh how I miss it.

  9. Excellent article. I lived in the same home for 18 years. I had a huge family (28 aunts and uncles–by blood, not marriage) and literally hundreds of family in our very small town. However, I left home at 18, joined the military, went to undergrad and graduate school and became a medical professional (board certified by America Board of Medical Specialties in Medical Physics–only non-physician profession so treated), retired as a military officer, and had a successful civilian career. Never lived anywhere more than 6 years in the 40 after leaving my folks home.
    I miss what my small home town was like. Now all the cotton mills and furniture factories are closed. The county I enjoyed growing up is the major drug center (meth and others) for the state. My relatives still living in the old area are mostly out of work and out of hope.
    I miss the feeling of community in a small town. I doubt I can ever get that back but what I really miss about the town and area I grew up in is something that no longer exists.
    America has changed, mostly for the worst, in my lifetime. I can’t go back to the town I grew up in and, I fear, cannot settle into another place because the rot is so widespread. This is especially true in the small towns that were once our strength and now should be our shame. The blight of government handouts, unemployment from globalization, and the acceptance of deviancy as normal have all (IMHO) combined to wreck most of the places people might once have wanted to call home.
    This is not to say there aren’t nice neighborhoods to live in and that there aren’t a lot of nice people everywhere. However, decent communities are another matter.

  10. Howard, I happened upon this post by chance, or perhaps by providence because your words speak directly to something that has been ailing me for some time. Three years ago I moved from my beloved home state of Minnesota to attend graduate school in California with my boyfriend, all starry-eyed about educational opportunity, and fully intending my foray to the West Coast to be brief. As I am passing the halfway mark of my graduate program I am fearfully realizing how I have cut off my own way home. Job opportunities for myself and my now fiancée are being shaped by the education we are receiving here in California, and a return “home” may no longer be possible because there is no longer a place for us there. Our Californian educations are suiting us for Californian careers. I have to admit that I cried for two straight hours when my fiancée helped me to realize this. As we are beginning to plan our life together I struggle with the question of “where”? I had begun already to realize your words before I had read them, as we recently decided to move our wedding plans from Minnesota to our new “home” in California. A desire to put down some roots as we form a home together has overridden my deep nostalgia for the North. Rather than to struggle to remotely plan a wedding a thousand miles away, we have decided take the opportunity to deepen our relationship with our church here through premarital counseling and wedding planning with our own priest and church family, strengthening bonds that will remain with us through our first years of marriage. I was still pondering this decision to declare California as our home in such an intimate way when I read your words of affirmation.

    How unique is the pain of loosening our grip on the place we have always called home. No less unique is the experience of opening one’s heart to a new place. I think it will take some time.

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