O Clemens, O Pia


Rock Island, IL

Between home and Home there are miles and miles of concrete. One of the tasks confronting those who know the concrete, it seems to me, is determining which is home and which is Home.

Where you are and where you’re from? Where you’re from and where you are? Which is which?

I am speaking, perhaps presumptuously, for the unwilling victims of the extractive economy and the meritocracy. For them there is ever this vast solid ribbon of pavement extending in the direction of their hearts’ desire, and alongside the ribbon stand the markers of their exilic condition.

Some of those markers are signs both grim and hopeful: Memphis 238. Ottumwa 55. Eaton Rapids 9. Grim because you’re a long way from Home (or is it home?), hopeful because you’re getting closer. The smaller the place, the less likely the number will be big. Being 238 miles from Ottumwa or Eaton Rapids matters to too few people to warrant a marker that far out. No one from Memphis has heard of Eaton Rapids. Everyone in Eaton Rapids has heard of Memphis.

Other markers are only grim.

In the first place they are an insult to beauty and a bruise on the landscape. Hayduke was right to blow up every billboard in sight. But in the second place they heighten the sense of exile. They play into the exile. They heap one form of it upon another. And is not the transient, the man with no one to answer to at bedtime, the least likely to behave as if he were home (or Home)?

Traveling between home and Home today I noted among many distractions the signs announcing strip joints, one in particular boasting “All of the liquor. None of the clothes.” Those who are either home or Home can raise a voice in protest against such abominations, but where is the rooted interstate community that will do this? The interstate knows you are neither home nor Home, and it is waiting for you.

I noted other markers: a lawyer specializing in all birth defects, and other lawyers with equally endearing qualifications.

In the distance from I-80—south of Marseilles, north of Princeton—stand the wind farms, turbines churning in mute hosannas to our ingenuity. They are ugly and ominous, and everyone—standing or whizzing by at a distance—is excited about them.

An ethanol plant calling itself “Patriot Fuels” rises from a cornfield. What it says is: if you don’t support turning food into gas, you’re not a patriot.

I am not a patriot.

Miles and miles of no-till fields promise a very limited good, if that much, and near them bare black earth lies exposed to wind and rain.

And yet I travel in relative comfort between home and Home. The car works. I can count on it. It is not the 1959 Beetle I drove in college. There will be fuel and (something like) food along the way. The children, in extended close proximity, racing past unknowable places that highway speed smears into sameness, exchange the usual long-trip pleasantries. I can ignore them. I’m wondering what the signs mean.

And perhaps they mean this: that everything may be getting worse, but everything seems to be getting better too. Case in point: car.

Walker Percy worried about this a little. He worried a bit about the role of the novelist who notices that everything is always getting better and worse, both at the same time. I have no doubt he thought the observation accurate, and maybe it is. But that isn’t the thing that’s bothering me. Not quite. What’s bothering me is the temptation to believe that, because everything’s getting both better and worse, the balance has been struck, and there you have it: we can feel good about perpetually breaking even.

I’m not convinced we’re breaking even, not when the best we can hope for is all of the liquor and none of the clothes, not when all birth defects are occasions for profit, not when the car in front of me, two of its quarter panels smashed up, bears the bumper sticker: “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History.”

(Maybe so, but apparently they aren’t safe to share the road with either.)

After six long hours I turn the wheel and pull into the place I’m calling “home.” It will do. It has its demands and joys—and trials too. It wouldn’t be home if it didn’t. But there’s something inescapably exilic about it. Or hyper-exilic. Exile has been piled on exile.

That many consider themselves beneficiaries rather than victims of our hypermobility is, of course, true. For them home is Home. The two line up, and “exile” is someone else’s misplaced label on the glossy packaging of their lucky circumstance. I’ll not quibble with such folk. The story of a house is seldom told, nor can be.

But if you think that exile is a feature of our condition (Percy did, as did many others stretching all the way back to St. Augustine), and if you sing “To thee we exiles, children of Eve, lift our crying” as you pass through this vale of sorrow, then the question, it seems to me, is: with whom, and where, would you be exiled?

The answers we give, if they can be made to fill out more than the contours of mere self-fulfillment, may prove to be fatal rather than whimsical.

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