Smile Politely

Traveling at home

Traveling at Home, the title of this column, comes from poet Wendell Berry, the cranky, patron prophet of writing about place. Invested fully in writing about his native landscape of Kentucky, Berry insists that “Even in a country you know by heart / it’s hard to go the same way twice.”

I have always taken this as a moral admonition to get to know a single place in the world, to stay put somewhere long enough to notice its subtleties and histories and complexities. I have asked myself a thousand times What Would Wendell Berry Do? You know, though, this takes a whole lot of time and energy that I don’t always have. And following Berry’s wisdom just hasn’t seemed to fit the actual life I’ve led.

Since graduating college I’ve lived in six cities (more than once in a few of them) and thirteen (maybe fourteen) different dwellings — a common trajectory for academics and professionals. My 12-year-old has attended five different schools. Though I was born here 43 years back, only my four-year-old believes Champaign counts as home.

That’s why I’m attracted to writers like Berry, Scott Russell Sanders, Richard Russo, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Marilynne Robinson. While others might see them as stuck somewhere, I think of them as being rooted, responsive to particular worlds. I admire my friends who, like these writers, have stayed and invested somewhere long enough to be shaped by, and to shape, the communities and neighborhoods they inhabit. Or is that just an illusion on my part? Maybe they’re just settling, becoming as static as the view on a drive past Illinois cornfields.

William Stafford (another poet) puts it like this: “the earth says have a place / be what that place requires.” So that’s what I want to explore in this little column, whether it’s even possible or desirable any more to be rooted somewhere, and more specifically, here in central Illinois in 2009. Or is that kind of investment nothing more than nostalgia and chamber of commerce boosterism? To stay here for a lifetime, do I have to learn to love The Chief and the plasticized cheese smell of the Kraft plant?

For me, as well, there’s a spiritual component to all this, a long-standing, irritating religious sense that it’s not enough to consume what one place has to offer and then move on. My presence somewhere has to be wrapped up in being a steward, a responsible dweller, where I am. And to love my neighbor, even, and especially, when she’s irritating and provincial.

Frankly, I prefer to live in the ether. I like my carefully culled internet friends more than the grad students in the apartment building next door. I can make a Facebook to meet the Facebooks that I meet. I feel more intimate with television landscapes than I do with my own block.

A car covered in bird shit has parked just over the edge of my driveway almost every evening for the last three weeks. Instead of backing out of the driveway, I have to pull through my back yard to get to the alley and onto Lynn Street. I’ve never seen the guy who drives that car. I feel a lot of resentment for him, but I remember too how the crows gathered in the tree outside of my last house in Champaign, and how they made so much noise the dog couldn’t stop barking at them. They crapped all over my car as well.

Now there’s a way to bond with your neighbor/nemesis. To figure out that what we have in common is, to go back to Berry, the realization that “Any tree or stone or bird / can be the bud of a new direction.” Maybe I can find this driver on Facebook and tell him to move his car. Maybe we can get a pellet gun and scare the shit out of the local crows (though I think it may be too late for that). Maybe we can remove and sell the hood of his car as a Pollock painting. Maybe, if we actually conversed, I could let him park in my drive and one of us could back out while the other drives through the back yard, and we could find a slightly new way of traveling at home.

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