Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Prolonged Journey Home

A few weeks back I was chatting with a newly retired school teacher from Bentown, Illinois, population less than 50.  She told me about her recent trip to New York City. It was her first trip to the Mecca of the American East and was set on learning what it is that makes the city so special. ‘Perhaps I can bring back some New York culture,’ she thought to herself. ‘Something different, something will set me apart from my friends here in the rural Midwest.’ During her visit she made it a habit to take coffee each morning in a Starbuck’s in Upper Manhattan, studying the folks that came through. On the Saturday morning before her return she struck up a conversation with a woman who came in following her Pilates class. They chatted about where the teacher was from, one topic leading to another and finally got to talking about family.
“My dear,” said the New Yorker dramatically, “in New York we think breeding is everything.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied the teacher. “Back where I am from we think it’s fun, too.”  
From my experience teachers are clever--at least the good ones. And they are clever not simply due to wit but because their stories speak of lessons. And their lessons resonate.
After finishing my undergraduate degree at an “esteemed institution” in my native state I found myself lost, broke (if we are being honest, in debt) and unemployed. Upon receiving my official diploma in the mail I called my college advisor to thank him and to, once more, ask his guidance (again, if we are being honest, to seek pity) on what to do next. What I received was slightly different. “It’s fool’s gold, brother,” he said regarding my new diploma. “It’s fool’s gold.”
Damn. That’s not what the brochure said.
So I left. I was an educated man (in hindsight I use that phrase loosely). What could a small town and backward Midwestern culture possibly have to offer?    
I ended up on the east side of the Atlantic, in the north of the Emerald Isle famous for its murky, midnight stout and triple distilled nectar. I intended to make my mark, to create something entirely—well—me. I didn’t have a very good idea how this was going to happen. Actually, I didn’t have a clue. And I did this at a time when my homeland was far from popular; defending its involvement in two wars and in search of phantom weapons of mass destruction.
As one might guess, I didn’t create anything life altering but I did learn to drink whiskey and for that I am cursed—and eternally grateful. Some might argue that’s all I learned in Belfast. I also spent a good deal of time defending Americans, as well as the very small-town, backward culture from which I sought to disappear. I insisted that I wasn’t a farmer. I also made the distinction that Chicago is in Illinois but that Illinois isn’t in Chicago.
A year later I returned to the Midwest armed with another certificate of achievement. Again, I was unemployed. And, again (to my way of thinking) the flyover states had nothing to offer. The only thing that had changed was the amount of money I owed. So I departed again. This time to Johannesburg, just shy of 9000 miles from the reticent culture of my upbringing.
‘This place must need me,’ I thought to myself. ‘Social struggle, economic growth, political tension; this is a place I can create, influence, and do something that is distinctly me.’ And what stories I will be able to tell!
Once again, I left after a year. Contrary to what so many folks think, it had nothing to do with the people or culture. I have yet to know communities as diverse and as vibrant as the one I lived in while I was there. But no matter how much I wished to embrace the political and social struggles around me, they weren’t mine. I was a guest, and rightfully so. And, as before, I found myself defending the very place I had been so desperate to escape. Finally, I realized I was not defending just a place. I was advocating for my home.  
So I returned. But I did not come back to the regressive place of my memory. Rather, I returned home to a culture of hard-work and humility, a place where chivalry isn’t just an idea but a practice and where communities have a sort of familial bond. Is it perfect? No. It’s peculiar in its own way. I’ve yet to find a place that isn’t. Is there work to be done with social and economic issues to be resolved? Sure. There isn’t a place on earth that doesn’t. Instead of mocking our peculiarities, embrace them. Rather than look upon our social and economic idiosyncrasies with disdain, work to correct them.

Not long after returning to my Midwest roots I came across the words of the 19th century Irish poet, George Moore. He said, “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”

I like to think I learned more from the Irish than just how to drink.