I wrote this essay four years ago and it has been sitting on my hard drive awaiting further work ever since. I’ve recently concluded that it’s been so long now that I can’t “finish it” but only write a sequel. I’m working on that one now. But for the moment, I decided to finally hit “publish” on this, even if it’s now four years old and, as a result, a bit dated in parts. Do note that I quote a few people directly and these people have… we’ll say “colorful” ways of speaking.
I. “Love… has a body and a place.”
If you stand at the intersection of 48th and O in Lincoln and look north, you’ll see an Advanced Autoparts on your right next to a dilapidated (but still open) skate zone. To your left, you’ll see a CVS, Target, and a grocery store called Super Saver. If you walk a half mile north, you’ll come to 48th and Vine. From there, you can see a lingerie store in an old office building to your right. Across the street from it, you’ll see a Mexican restaurant called D’Leon’s that looks like a converted trailer home and a small, unobtrusive pet shop specializing in fish named, in classic Nebraskan fashion, “The Fish Store.”
In the early 80s the lingerie store was office space rented by a company called Dictaphone that specialized in dictation equipment for hospitals, police stations and the like. A new employee from Omaha worked there and would often make his way across the street to The Fish Store to buy insects and small mice to feed his pet python and tarantula. One day he came into the store sporting two large puncture marks on either side of his nose. When he noticed the attractive young blonde who worked there, his trips became more frequent. Too nervous to ask her out, he paid with a check and made certain she noticed his phone number written across the top, underlined several times. After some cajoling from her coworkers, she called him to ask him out for dinner.
This was a momentous occasion. She did not call men to ask them for dates. She didn’t need to. They called her. But the guy came in almost every day. And every day he’d find some pretext for talking to her. It was obvious he wanted to ask her out, but his nerves wouldn’t let him. So she called him and asked him out.
He declined. (He’d already made plans for that night; a fact he failed to mention while on the phone with the girl who he rejected with a flat “No thank you.”)
A day later he realized his mistake, called her back and convinced her to join him on a lunch date. They went to that trailer trying to be a restaurant (then a Taco John’s) and had lunch. That date led to more dates and eventually they married.
The ceremony took place in a smallish circa 1900 home they had just bought in northeast Lincoln with an African American minister named Trago McWilliams presiding. Three years later, I came along. 24 years later, my parents still live in the same home. And those three noteworthy buildings – the office, the pet shop, and the restaurant – still stand, though The Fish Store is the only one that remains much as it did when my parents first met.
To anyone else, 48th Street might look like any other street, a busier but unremarkable street in a fairly anonymous midwestern town. But for me it’s more than that. Every drive down it reminds me of the first acts of my story and of my parents’ life together. As Wendell Berry understands, love has a place. It may stretch and grow over time, but it cannot rebel against its source.
So for all my wondering, I’ve never been able to stray too far from 48th Street.
II. A Better Place Somewhere Else
Antigua is beautiful. Antigua is too beautiful. Sometimes the beauty of it seems unreal… as if it were stage sets for a play, for no real sunset could look like that; no real seawater could strike that many shades of blue at once; no real sky could be that shade of blue… and no cloud could be that white and float just that way in that blue sky; no real day could be that sort of sunny and bright, making everything seem transparent and shallow; and no real night could be that sort of black, making everything thick and deep and bottomless.
That’s how Jamaica Kincaid described her home, the small Caribbean island of Antigua, in A Small Place. The prose may be exceptional, but in the modern world the sentiment is not. While Kincaid can claim the legitimacy of belonging to such a place by virtue of birth, most that desire such places cannot. Often in looking for a place to belong (or even just to pass through), we think in the same terms used by Kincaid to describe Antigua: We want blue skies, breathtaking vistas, the sun setting over the sea like some impressionist museum piece. We want the post card – and, of course, the post card has much to offer.
I, however, did not grow up with the post-card. I was born at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital – St. Eze to Lincolnites – at 70th and O in Lincoln NE. Like its midwestern peers in Kansas, Iowa and both Dakotas, Lincoln is a state capitol in which it’s not unusual to see tractors driving on the streets near the outskirts of the city. And no matter where you are in Lincoln, you’re never more than 30 minutes away from a ranch or cornfield. Lincoln has no large bodies of water, no mountains, no natural landmarks to feature in National Geographic. It’s a thoroughly ordinary (some would say boring) city.
Now 26-years-old, I’ve lived my whole life in Lincoln, save a 15-month sojourn in the Twin Cities. For much of that time, my attitude toward my home fell somewhere between “apathetic” and “get me the hell out of here.” I remember going to Arlington, TX to visit friends as a highly impressionable nine-year-old and being completely captured by the amusement parks, sports stadiums, restaurants and every other artifact of Texas consumerism. More than once I told my family that someday I wanted to live in Arlington. (May God forgive me.)
Time passed and the great white hope shifted north and slightly east to St. Louis, MO. My dad and I made a trip there during the (once) magical Summer of ‘98 when McGwire and Sosa chased Maris’ 61 home run mark. My dad surprised me with tickets to see my Atlanta Braves play the Cardinals late in the season. We went to the game and not only did my favorite player, Braves first baseman Andres Gallaraga, hit two home runs, but Mark McGwire hit number 55 – his last one of the season to eclipse the 500 foot mark. During the trip we also took in a few museums, ate at a McDonalds located inside a riverboat on the Mississippi and stayed at a Best Western Hotel with an arcade and a pool. One night we ordered pizza at the hotel as we watched an NFL exhibition game. For a sports-obsessed 10-year-old you couldn’t plan a more perfect trip. Forget Arlington, St Louis was my future.
Similar phases would follow St. Louis. Next came Seattle. Then came the most exotic of my dream cities, Lusaka, Zambia, a city I called home for two months during the summer of 2007. Next came New Orleans and finally, the Twin Cities. In every case, I thought by moving to that new city I would find something I couldn’t have in Lincoln – amusements, sporting events, high culture, or maybe just a job.
But there were other factors that caused me to turn away from Lincoln. Teachers, family and friends often spoke of what I would do with my life and pressured me in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways to “make something of myself.” It’s a common occurrence in the Midwest where a town’s overachieving youth are often told that they’re too good for their town, there’s nothing for them there. They have to leave.
In their book Hollowing Out the Middle, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas observed how the young people who left midwestern towns did so due in large part to the pressure from peers and respected adults. Leaving wasn’t simply a matter of becoming bored or restless with life in the Midwest, the desire to leave grew over time. It might have begun with an internal sense of boredom or confinement, but it may never have advanced beyond that if not for the influence of well-intentioned adults.
In one of his novels, Wendell Berry talks about this through the narration of one of his most luminous characters, Hannah Coulter: “The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else.”
Adding to my other reasons for going was a prevailing sense that the wounds I’d experienced in Lincoln – particularly the wounds of growing up in an abusive fundamentalist church – couldn’t be healed in Lincoln. More than once I remembered Frodo’s words to Sam in Tolkien’s Return of the King, “We saved the Shire, Sam, but not for me.” I assumed my wounds ran too deep, that they couldn’t be healed in the same place they were received. And so I left. I followed my anxiety, hurt and ambition 500 miles north to St. Paul Minnesota to a small home on Lexington Parkway in the northern part of the city. There, I believed, I would find healing.
III. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.
I moved to Minnesota in search of something I couldn’t find in Lincoln. Healing, mostly. But also a community more given to high culture and the arts. I looked forward to being part of a metro area with multiple art museums, multiple top class concert venues and an array of writing jobs. And I tended to assume that if my life was filled with things I loved to do, then the healing would come.
Healing, in this view, comes through occupation, doing the things one loves to do. In this understanding, one can find it anywhere, provided “anywhere” offers the kind of job one desires and that the job pays enough. In other words, typically enough in our bigger-is-better world, “anywhere” means “high density urban areas with money.”
What I found, instead, was that once the novelty of a new place began to wear off, the need for familiarity announced itself—and in ways I found rather rude. The lack of local ties made getting a job difficult. No job meant no money. And in a place where, again, one lacks for friends, no money means no relationships if for the simple reason that going to the places where you can form relationships requires at least some small amount of money.
Walking everywhere was its own pleasure, of course, and it allowed me to see St Paul in ways that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Lincoln. But seeing St Paul as a walker did odd things to me. On the one hand, I saw the city quite clearly—from my home on the corner of Lexington and Minnehaha I walked as far south as St. Clair Ave., as far west as Fairview Ave., as far north as Larpenteur Ave., and as far east as I-35E. I saw plenty of the city. But to see a place so closely without history, without knowledge, is a strange thing. You can appreciate the beauty, but it is hard for the place to enter into you, if that makes sense. You glide over the surface of it, admiring what can be easily admired, but struggling to love the place in a deeper way.
And then I started to think about Nebraska. I realized, in some odd way for the first time, that I was a fourth-generation Nebraskan. My great grandparents had been the first in our family to come to the state, settling there as newly arrived immigrants from northern Europe. Four generations is a great deal of time. If I were to uproot myself to Minnesota, it would be my great grandchildren who would first receive what I was given by my parents—and that assumes that my children and grandchildren would stay in Minnesota, which is no sure thing. Tossing aside such history, such knowledge, seemed rash. Certainly one can make an idol of a place and there are times where such moves are needed. But did my situation qualify? The more I considered, the more I thought that it did not.
Meanwhile, as that was happening in my own heart, I was falling in love with a woman who had come to see Nebraska as her home as well before she moved to the Twin Cities to pursue a career in dance. And as we dated and moved toward marriage, we both talked often of how we missed Nebraska. So it seemed only natural to me when I turned to my fiancee as we pulled onto I-180 leaving Lincoln after a visit to friends back home following our engagement to say, “let’s move back.” So seven months later and one month after our wedding, we did.
IV. “You shall love your crooked neighbor / with your crooked heart.”
Last night a fight broke out in the apartment complex opposite ours. My wife and I were talking in the study when we heard a man in his late 60s named Robert start drunkenly yelling, “Now get the fuck out! Get the fuck out!” We looked out the window and saw an apartment door open with two men, silhouetted, standing in the doorway, throwing punches and shouting obscenities. This went on for a couple minutes before one man staggered out onto the porch as the other – Robert – followed him, still shouting. When they got to the top of the stairs, they locked up again, throwing punches, with Robert trying to flip the other man over the banister to the concrete patio about six feet below. Finally, he succeeded; the younger man tumbled over the railing, landing hard on his stomach. (At this point we noticed the younger man had been holding a 1.75 liter bottle of Barton’s vodka in his left hand the whole time. No wonder he lost.) A couple minutes later he got up, walked back up the stairs and stood silently outside the doorway of Robert’s apartment for a couple minutes. When no one answered, he continued up another flight of stairs to his apartment.
This is not an unusual occurrence in our neighborhood. The sights and sounds of Robert on a binge are familiar to us all. There have been several previous times when we thought a fight would break out only for the feuding parties to separate just before punches were thrown. The shouting and the fighting, combined with the less-than-idyllic view (a concrete parking lot and two decaying brick apartment complexes) might make it seem like our apartment is some sort of miserable mess of a place, something my wife and I decided on simply because there was nothing else. But that’s not true. Sure, we aren’t enamored by the view and we wish the neighbors weren’t so fond of drunkenly shouting the f word from their deck at all hours of the night. But we stay here because the apartment is ours and we love it, knowing full well that the neighborhood is deeply flawed.
This, it seems, is a key point in explaining why we came back and why we plan to stay. The assumption behind “a better place somewhere else” is that what is most deeply problematic in my life can be traced to my place and that by moving to a new place I can fix it. Ultimately, this is the technocratic mind at work: Everything is a machine that can be fixed via technique, including human beings. Tolkien said people with this mindset have “a mind of metal.” Sometimes what is needed is not a new technique intended to create change. Sometimes what we most need is to sit still and allow ourselves to be at home in the place we know best.
Besides, wherever my wife and I go, we’d bring our problems with us because we’d be bringing our crooked selves with us. There’d be different crooked neighbors, to be sure, but the crooked hearts would remain the same. And making crooked things straight takes a great deal of time. Bendedness is our nature; we drift toward the crooked. Pounding out those kinks and knots is a task that cannot be rushed. More to the point, Joie and I are becoming more and more convinced that it’s a task that cannot be helped by that great modern obsession with mobility.
The question, then, is not where we can go to be comfortable, living a life free of tension, worry or suffering. We’re crooked beings in a crooked world. Tension, discomfort and suffering will seek us out. The question is in what place can we best cope with and heal from those realities? Joie and I decided that place was Lincoln. We are permanent lovers of the Great Plains and of Lincoln in particular. Where better to live with our crooked selves than the place we know best, the place that has been home to both of us? Why seek out a new place, carve out a niche in it, all the way while trying to deal with life’s many sufferings when a place had already been presented to us?
Besides, we missed the porch at the Mill, passing summer evenings there with a good book, a good drink and a pipe. We missed country drives. We – well, OK, I – missed football Saturdays in Lincoln. I especially missed the land – the sight of the prairie stretching in every direction and the endless sky that on magical evenings dazzles anyone with eyes to see. Joie and I knew that we needed those things and that we loved them, which may come out to something like the same thing.
So now we’ve returned to Lincoln. We live near the State Capitol and every morning I go on half-mile walks through the neighborhood, making a stop at a small Mexican bakery on 11th Street. In these rituals and in the quiet, unassuming beauty of my home, I’m finding healing. I’m learning once again to embrace slowness, simplicity and the childlike sense of wonder written of so marvelously in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Like the God described in Chesterton’s marvelous book, I’m learning to look delightedly at the sun rising each day. I’m learning to say “Do it again, do it again!” as it ascends. The Great Plains have drawn such things from me because I had to learn to desire them. Slowness doesn’t come naturally in a world as fast-paced as ours, nor does simplicity come easily in a world as complex as ours.
Perhaps most of all, wonder doesn’t come in a world as disenchanted as ours. Yet, as Matthew Miller wrote for Curator Magazine, “Some landscapes force their beauty upon us—in others, the beauty must be sought out. The Midwest is of the latter kind. And thus all the more worthy of notice.”
In learning to notice the Midwest, I’m learning to love the things I need to love in order to be whole. At the top of that list is one’s home. For those able to reconciled to their homes, there is a glorious hope. So in Lincoln’s near south, I’m living out that hope, measured out in spoonfuls, to borrow from Eliot. And I’m doing it a little less than four miles from where my story began, at a neighborhood pet shop called The Fish Store.