Going Down to St. Francisville
Rod Dreher is going home, back to the South, back to St. Francisville – a town he left at sixteen. His musings on that departure and eventual return are worth the read:
When you are young, you think you can do anything. Living with the limits imposed by a small town can be hard. It was, for my own reasons, intolerable for me. It wasn’t resentment, necessarily, but rather restlessness. Bright lights, big city, and all that. That was as much a part of who I am as Ruthie’s abiding and uncomplicated love for small-town life was part of who she was. I don’t come home as a prodigal, let me assure you.
But halfway along my life’s path, I find that the road ahead leads to a strange and unexpected place. The things and places I once loved have faded in my affections. I find myself searching — always searching, me! — for something deeper. My longtime readers will know that I have written for years about the loss of community in American life, and of my longing for it. Standing in the receiving line at my sister’s wake, greeting old friends, some bent and withered by age, I wondered if all my intellectual musing on this problem was a way of searching for a way to return from self-imposed exile.
I am still restless. But my restlessness has always been held in check by my nomadic childhood. I was born in Bozeman, MT but by the time I was two had moved with my family to Seattle, WA while my father pursued graduate school at UW. We moved back to Bozeman only to leave again a few years later for Vancouver, BC where my father received his doctorate. Then back, again, to Montana for a year before moving to Flagstaff, AZ.
But don’t let this small handful of locations fool you. After one year at a public school in kindergarten I moved to a Montessori school in first grade. Then back to public school in Bozeman for second and third grade before moving to Vancouver. I attended a public school on campus there in fourth grade for the first half of the year, then my parents decided to home school me the rest of the year. In fifth grade I attended a nearby Catholic school.
Then it was back to a public middle school in Bozeman for a year before moving to Arizona and starting once again at the bottom of the pecking order in seventh grade. (It was 6th – 8th in Montana, but only 7th and 8th in Arizona.)
In seventh grade I began classes at the junior high school here but my parents had me test into the honors courses. So after three weeks with one group of kids I switched all my classes. I still remember coming home from school that day in tears. I was a quiet kid. The process of making friends was exhausting and the process of losing them was an emotional earthquake. I was back in regular classes the next day.
This is all preface to my post-school years. After high school it was off to college – only I didn’t go anywhere. Paralysis had settled in. I was restless like everyone else I knew. I wanted to go off to college somewhere. But I couldn’t. At this point I simply couldn’t shrug that thought onto my shoulders and walk with it further than the confines of my own head.
So I stayed and tried, badly, to attend the local state school. I had over a 4.0 GPA when I left high school. I flunked out of college within the first semester, the entire edifice of my higher education crumbling around me into fire and ruin. By the second semester I had dropped out. I didn’t bother going back the next year. The year after that I started strong and then flamed out again.
Two times I planned leaving town. The plans were always hatched in a drunken, excited stupor – hazy plans, plotted out by hazy minds. Interestingly, they were always plans to go somewhere I’d been before. With one friend the idea was to simply disappear one day and make our way to Vancouver where we would…try to find work I guess. With another, the destination was Montana. That plan died after a trip to Nogales, Mexico – a border town where you could find all sorts of vice and debauchery. I realized I was in no position to go anywhere.
Then I moved to Denver in with my girlfriend – a girl I’d been off and on with for some time (who is now my wife and the mother of my children.) I took the train from Flagstaff to Denver and lived there a year before we moved back to Arizona, back to school, back to reality. Or something like it.
When I started at this blog years (lifetimes?) ago I was heavy into localism. I was wrestling with the struggles any new parent faces, but also the struggles of wanting to do more with my life and career than I had achieved at that point. I was more restless than ever, having spent years of my life stumbling from one day to the next. I was at a near panic now. A new child, a recession, no opportunity. To top it off, I was wrestling with other demons; rather, I was wrestling with God. I had abandoned my religious belief in high school, but with all this looming uncertainty I felt myself teetering between my atheism and my strong longing for a deeper meaning and a deeper spirituality. I began attending mass.
(If you think my political uncertainties are bad, you should be thankful I’m not a religion blogger.)
Localism loomed very large at this time for one thing because I had slowly come to love my adopted home town. (When Conor Friedersdorf was making his way across country with his girlfriend, Courtney, he tweeted that there were no real places left in America. I responded that he should stop by Flagstaff and lo and behold he was passing through that very night!)
I’ve lived here longer now than any other place. My roots have dug deeper here than in any other soil. The home I would go back to if I ever left would not be Bozeman, MT where I was born. That town is almost a stranger to me now, despite the family there and the family history there.
Localism, community, a sense of belonging and a sense of owing something to the people and things in a place – these are strong currents in my thinking still, even if I have abandoned my more evangelical localism.
I am pretty sure that we are all going to live through an economic disaster of which the previous three years were just the opening act. I hope not, but I fear we will. And if so, all of us are going to need to learn what it is like to take care of each other, with less. I want to watch, and learn, and write about that. Even if it doesn’t come — and let us pray that it doesn’t — the catastrophe of the loss of community and stability remains with us in the postmodern age. I have been so busy theorizing about constructing an enclave to withstand the battering of the Dark Age barbarians upon us that I did not see, until now, that there is already a place on this earth where I can take my stand, if only I had the wisdom and the humility to see it and to know it and to make it my own once again.
Place matters, even if the place to take your stand is not a physical place at all but rather some well-fortified enclave in the human heart. But these places we come to, and depart from, and decorate with memories and these people who inhabit our days – this is our fortification from the ‘Dark Age barbarians.’
I am still young and restless. But my feet are still rooted firmly in this earth, in this place. I can’t say for sure whether this is out of love or out of fear or something else. I am young, not wise.