Tipp City, OH. Months after it happened, I sat down with a book by a farmer-poet from Kentucky whose writing hinted at things unseen and things that might have been and the world into which we fell (or Fell). I was taught not to know the world in that way when I was young, at home and in school. I learned to believe in the advance of progress toward a future of justice and abundance, made by humans entire. No other belief was possible. I never considered the cost.
But now the words of the farmer-poet hinted at these costs, and they rang true. In one of his books, he quoted a letter from a pastor friend about the generations who had toiled long ago in the great, lost factories of Middle America, amidst what we think of now as the glory of the American Century. The pastor, as quoted by the farmer-poet, said:
It seems to me that the people who put Trump over the top were largely Rust Belt dwellers whose grandparents were forced to leave the farm for mind-numbing factory work, whose parents made a go of it with one generation of union-negotiated wages, but who were valued only as laborers and only until a cheaper means of production came along.
The author who quoted these words was Wendell Berry, in his book The Art of Loading Brush. Berry went on to describe what had happened over the course of decades to the Kentucky county where he lived, after American capital abandoned the laborers and remaining farmers. Factory jobs disappearing for cheap retail servitude, still mind-numbing, this time without the lucrative pay and benefits. Small farms and businesses withering amidst the colonization of industrial agriculture and big box stores. Other forms of colonization spread too: sludge and filth from power plants and factory farms filling the streams, ground, and air. The people left behind often took to numbing themselves with addictions like credit, narcotics, and electronic screens.
But something more struck me in the pastor’s letter quoted by Berry. The letter did not link the dark turn in Middle America to the great vanishing of factories with high paying union jobs. The darkness came before globalization, deindustrialization, the postmodern addictions in plastic cards, jagged little pills, and microchips. Before those things arrived, even back in the age of Norman Rockwell, industrial life hadn’t been so great. The people who first left the farms for the assembly line received newfound middle-class wages but nevertheless endured toils that were “mind-numbing.” The paradise of the post-war boom came at a price. Its initial round of workers and the generation they begat were paid to become machine parts. Less than human. They “made a go of it.” They made good money, but they didn’t live the way human beings might otherwise have chosen.
This picture of twentieth-century prosperity defies the quaint cinematic vision evoked by much of today’s political rhetoric and cultural memory of the time America Was Great. Our society often imagines the post-war years as something like a paradise for the working class. Political speeches and think pieces in prestigious opinion journals today dream of returning to that lost and supposedly better world, where high-paying, working-class jobs with good benefits built a foundation for a happy life, material abundance, advancing technology, and optimistic visions of the American future: Old Glory on Mars and George Jetson at home.
But if Wendell Berry’s pastor friend was right, American working life in the great age of twentieth-century industrialism had never been an idyll. Instead, it had been mind-numbing. The system had turned its labor force into automatons. It had offered them money in exchange for a secular kind of submission. The resulting life eroded their souls. A different kind of life might have been possible. An alternate road might have led toward Berry’s agrarianism, or something like it. But nobody ever seriously considered it, as the New Deal and the New Frontier and the Great Society took shape. Alternatives like those of Berry and the decentralists seemed as plausible as the Shire of Middle Earth I read about when I was young.
I doubt that many who were alive at that time remember it as paradise, when they really stop to consider – I do not. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the suburbs of an industrial utopia called Dayton, Ohio, I listened to the adults talk about work. They drank themselves into a stupor over barbecues hidden away on back patios (not front porches), howling with animal laughter long into the night, sucking on their cigarettes glowing like fireflies in the dark, grunting and scoffing in the hours granted to them away from the shop, the line, the counter, the desk. Before submitting again to mechanization once the sun came up. Until death.
When adults told me about their jobs, all the joy drained from their face and voice. An aunt related how her boss at the city jail would, at the start of each day, slump down in front of his desk, lines grooved deep in his face and bags under his eyes, as he muttered: oh, God. Every day he did that. Sinking with bone-weary resignation, invoking the Creator, in vain.
My dad once warned me after a day at the machine shop that “work is hell.” The bosses, he claimed, just don’t give a you-know-what. He also said there is no choice but to submit – that’s just what you do. My high-school principal said the same thing in history class. He came to talk to us about adult responsibilities: going out into the world, he informed us, meant submission to the demands of the system. Mechanized routine, day after day until death. Nobody likes it or wants it, he maintained. But maturity demands facing it. I remember feeling like death inside as I listened. The great machinery was all; there was nothing more.
But at least there would be progress.
More than three decades later, on an autumn morning in 2020, I stood in front of a laptop computer propped atop a stack of books on a poker table in my living room. This was the makeshift standing desk I had fashioned for the pandemic-enforced remote workplace. On this particular morning I was attending a meeting over Zoom for my employer, a government bureaucracy.
We were maintainers of paperwork essential to modernity but numbing to the mind. The papers must be processed or there will be consequences. Legal, political, personal.
In theory, the process serves the greater good. Regulation for the public interest, to promote the general welfare. Even so: individuals who make the process function often experience it as pushing buttons on a keyboard for hours to avoid being singled out for unwanted attention by authority. The mind can’t help but go numb in order to survive, socially necessary though the endless processing of forms and droning of meetings may be.
On my glowing laptop screen during this particular meeting on this particular autumn morning, the digital recreations of human faces spoke about a bureaucratic workplace becoming a war of all against all, of authorities higher up in the machinery demanding obedience to their commands, whether the human machine parts below were physically and mentally capable of carrying them out or not. The pixelated faces on my computer screen also spoke darkly of external forces, beyond the bureaucratic machinery, circling for the kill. These forces came from one or the other of the two national political mobs whose screaming for total victory in their holy war dominated the news in cyberspace. We have to prepare, said the faces on my screen. My co-workers in the bureaucracy. We have to ride it out, they said. Survive.
This is what life in the bureaucracy had come to, that morning as I stared at the laptop screen in my living room. Kafka’s absurd nightmare of paperwork and arbitrary ritual had become a battleground, a Darwinian sorting mechanism, demanding subservience as the cost for sustenance, for earning a paycheck, for enduring. Just make it through to one more weekend. One more two-day furlough of drinking and cursing and muttering and howling with laughter, like the adults on the back patios in the dark of memory, before trudging back through the factory gates.
I started to cry. I couldn’t stop. My co-workers on the screen got quiet. The meeting ended. I spent the rest of the day sobbing in my living room.
The road toward home works in mysterious ways. That’s what I would reflect on, looking back, reading about the idea of the “front porch.” It’s a little mortifying to write about it here, like I’m imitating the self-indulgent confessionals in prestige publications about How My Trauma Changed Me. TMI, the guardians of cool might call it. But I think it all connects to larger things – things unseen. So please bear with me – it becomes a little clearer, I hope, as time goes on.
In the moment, it wasn’t clear. The breakdown into broken sobbing had happened to me many times before, over the months of the pandemic, working alone in my house. Tapping away at the computer screen for hour after hour in the solitary confinement of the living room, watching the emails pile up, the ghostly Zoom faces bringing tidings of new demands, new attacks from an unexpected direction against the bureaucracy, demanding somehow that finite resources be redeployed to stem the latest onslaught. Time after time I had collapsed in tears in the solitude for a few hours, always managing to convince the authorities I had been working diligently the whole time.
This new breakdown was different. It happened in front of coworkers. And it didn’t stop. It went on and on and on, hour after hour. Sobbing in a broken quivering wreck on the floor.
I went on leave the next day. A special vacation time for those deemed too crazy to function as effective parts in the machinery.
And that was that.
Reality came to a stop. Limbo. I woke up each day in an oceanic quiet inside my house with nothing to do. No need to activate Zoom on the screen. No meetings. No paperwork. Time untethered. Mind unfettered.
I had to explain it to friends and family. They would ask: “how’s work?”
“Oh, you know, the usual,” I replied. “I got time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act for anxiety and depression.”
Then followed a moment of silence. “Oh,” they would say.
And they listened while I talked about it and admitted I had no idea what I was going to do, now or ever. I didn’t want to go back, I said. But what else was there?
I started trying to make sense of it: talking to a therapist, doing a lot of reading about the mind, and emotions, and how they work, why they go awry. Trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. Why can’t I work? Why can’t I hold it together?
As I was figuring, the 2020 presidential election loomed. Fear emanated from the glowing electronic screens as the day of decision approached, from talking heads on cable, from the headlines on the news feeds, permeating everyday conversation among friends. Everything depends on the outcome, they said. Everything.
The political war raged as the pandemic enshrouded the country, forcing everyone into isolation. We must remain in our refuges, the authorities on the glowing screens had said, urgently, when the pestilence first appeared and began to spread. If we have no choice but to venture out, we must do so alone, wearing a mask. And at first most everyone seemed to agree, as the store shelves emptied and the death toll started to mount. Then the pandemic became about politics, like everything else – two mobs screaming at each other.
Months later, I followed the ensuing tumult compulsively on my laptop and phone on Election Day morning. Like an addict, I followed for an escape from silence, isolation, a future that no longer existed. Once upon a time I had enlisted in the army of the Left, had become a true believer. Working in government cured me of that. Now, with the election approaching, I couldn’t bring myself to join one side or the other. Both of them made me afraid. Conjuring visions of a war of all against all forever, like the one in my bureaucratic workplace. I lost myself contemplating those visions, wrapped in the silence of my house on a Tuesday election morning, a failed life ticking away.
I had dismantled the makeshift standing desk workspace at the folding table in my living room. No need for it anymore. Instead, I sat there at the folding table, tapping aimlessly at the same laptop in front of which I’d broken down in the middle of the Zoom meeting a few days before. Had it really been only a few days? I scrolled through the tidings of doom from the world at large.
I found myself at an out-of-the-way corner of the global cyber-mind. Reading a little website about front porches and the Republic for which they stood. I’d seen the site before, read some articles there that made me think, that didn’t seem to belong to either of the two screaming mobs dominating the billions of glowing screens proliferating like Borg implants through the American population.
I followed a link from the web site of the front porches to another, an essay about about the nature of gentleness. The author’s words came into me. “Gentleness is a form of compassionate distance which is also touch, a tender power which ‘makes way for what is most singular in others,’” she wrote (quoting the French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle).
Her essay went on.
In gentleness, we see and laud the singularity and dignity of other human beings, seeing them as they are rather than merely as we want them to be. Gentleness is both an intellectual and an embodied thing: it is a disposition of the mind and word, but it is also essential to the acts which sustain life, from pregnancy to death.
In the deathly gray morning sunlight of my living room the words gathered force like wind.
Dufourmantelle considers what happens when a society lacks gentleness—and the image is too familiar for comfort. There are “words trampled; bodies mistreated, left lifeless, sucked dry; sad passions—but above all charred emotions, pure existential ashes that cannot be brought back to this side of life. … Today, what we call ‘depression’ is one of the major ways we deny our need for gentleness.
I started to cry. I read on:
In a world thirsty for gentleness, it makes sense that our emotions would be charred, our hearts anxious and depressed. We long for something we are afraid to ask for: the gentle attention of the other, the acknowledgement of our personhood and worth, the love that both caresses us and esteems our apartness.
I couldn’t stop crying after that. From recognition, and longing. And maybe from hope.
I searched out more essays by the author who wrote about gentleness. I began reading more often about the front porches. At the time, it just seemed a way to escape. To satisfy a hunger, mostly for a new perspective on the savage political warfare of words, the harbinger of possible futures soaked in blood. The authors who wrote about the front porches mostly called themselves Christian or conservative. Which I was decidedly not. But something spoke to me from behind their writing. Words couldn’t capture the something. Nothing could.
Sometimes, according to the mysterious “they (who are said to say wise things),” an important change becomes evident only in retrospect. Not while it’s happening, in quiet broken days alone in a house while autumn succumbs to shadow and cold.
Around the solstice of winter, near the time celebrating the birth of the founder of the faith of the West, I read the testament of that founder and the ones who came after and their acts. Blessed are the meek. You are worth more than the birds. Love one another, as I have loved you. The former things are passed away. I read about a man who was also the Creator, the Messiah of humanity born not in a palace but in squalor, tortured to death by the powers that be. He came back. His apostles went out into the world to put history on a new course. The one we live in now. In every silent house.
I didn’t become one of those who read the book and fell down on my knees to believe. I still haven’t. Nevertheless, the silence eventually spoke. You have to leave the solitude and its refuge behind. Be in the world, broken though it is. Though we do not know the way.
The author of the essay about gentleness also wrote a book about being apart from the place of her birth and her roots. She wrote about the choice to come back. The road not taken. Other writers of similar inclination wondered where it led. Not just for the self. For the Republic. Everyone. It had to do with the alternate world that Wendell Berry saw. And Christopher Lasch and others – a world glimpsed from a front porch.
I decided to go home, to leave my bureaucratic workplace and its wars even though I had nothing else lined up. I couldn’t put the reason into words. But it felt like reason, even so. Months after that decision I read C.S. Lewis and his notion of reasoning as a supernatural force, a gift from the order of things beyond this universe, outside everything we know. Divine. Is that what happened? I don’t know. I don’t have the words. I keep looking.
I look now from a different place than the placeless bureaucratic machinery I knew before. I live now in the great belt of industry lost to rust. I have returned to where I was born and once upon a time tore up roots to go out into the world. The people who worked in the factories here watched their well-compensated, mind-numbing jobs disappear when the executive calculations dictated their time was up. Those jobs were the mechanized would-be paradise of my parents, their parents, and theirs. Ways of life passed away in history’s great river of time.
The author who wrote an essay about gentleness and about the place of her birth and her roots was Grace Olmstead. If I hadn’t read her words, would I be here now?
It doesn’t matter. I don’t know what I believe. But here I am. And here we are. The rest will be silence. But the silence may speak yet again.