Oddly enough, Sundays are the days that the devil seems to get to me the quickest and be the strongest. Or perhaps, it’s not so odd, given that Sundays are days of rest and idle hands are the devil’s tools. Sunday mornings are cruel mornings in the sense of a T.S. Eliott April. Memories wash over me, mixed with nostalgia for times and places I’ve never been to.
Sundays are the days when I think the most about what it might have been like to pack it all into the old 1990 Tempo, and drive on out to NY or SF, instead of hanging around KCMO after college, waiting for someone to come along. And, someone did come along, of course, and she wasn’t the devil, but I couldn’t have told the difference for a long time.
If I were a stronger man, I’d love the way the memories and nostalgia for unlived lives come wafting in, like a nice breeze on a blazing summer day down at the beach. I could bottle each moment’s mental picture like so many different mixes of colors, and paint them out for you on the canvas of a grand novel like no one has ever seen before.
But like so many of my attempts to literally paint, these metaphorical colors would all run into a gray goop of uninteresting, bland existence. I would end up with a novel about a gray little sad man who could be anywhere from 30 to 60. The man lives alone. He had a dog once, and the dog ran off. He had a cat once, and the kid two houses down stole the cat. He had a wife once, but she left him for a more exciting, younger-seeming man. He had a child once, but neither he nor his ex-wife can remember what they did with the kid, or what the kid’s name or sex was.
Such is life, as it seems to be on too many Mondays following these Sundays of wildly keening colors overflowing my brain. If weekends and holidays are days of color, then work and all of its accoutrements is a humorless, gray pit. I wonder if the rich look at themselves occasionally and congratulate each other for being so rich, but not after comparing themselves against the desperately poor. Instead, the rich get comfort from knowing that they don’t have to live the bland existence of the middling, average men and women who were never quite smart or charismatic enough to get very far in life, but were smart and clever enough to hold down grim, uninteresting places as doormats for the captains and titans of industry.
This is why the colors of places like Disney World, Vegas or Branson can seem so arresting. In any other time and place in the history of humanity, such places would be considered too pathetic or immoral for anyone to bother visiting them. But for all of us who see nothing but gray each week, a place like Disney World is as magical a place as anywhere we can expect to visit in our lifetimes. Sure, we might save up to see a few European cities when we’re still too young to carry too much debt or when we’re too old to have young children siphoning off all of our incomes. But, for the most part, the Disney experience is the one we need to throw color back into our listless, uninspired souls.
I understand that this was supposed to be about all of the memories and nostalgia that attack me on a quiet Sunday morning, when I’m walking the dog through the neighborhood and hardly anyone is up and about yet. I live in a place that looks exactly like the American dream was supposed to look up until about 199something. You would hardly have guessed that much has changed about where I live since the 1950s. We do have Black and Mexican people living in our neighborhood, but you hardly see them. They seem to know that the balance hasn’t quite shifted here yet. It probably won’t for another twenty years. There is one house on my street that has a couple of adult men living in it–they keep their yard immaculate and no woman has ever been seen coming and going from this house. There is one house that has a Scion with a Darwin fish-with-feet bumper decal on the back of it. Everyone, including the Blacks and Mexicans, seems to either go to church or go to the lake on a Sunday morning. Very few people can be caught jogging or bicycling in the vein of the yuppie jogging/cycling mode of fitness. You might see the occasional old or fat man on a creaky Schwinn, but there isn’t a hint that the yuppification that began in larger suburbs in the 80s has ever been here.
That’s because I live in a town that isn’t too small, but isn’t too big, and it is too far away from Dallas, Houston or Austin to be one of their suburbs. I live in a town that could be called a city, if you were from one of the smaller towns outlying it, or if you grew up in a town like the one I did near KCMO. But, for anyone who lives in Chicago, Miami, NY, LA, SF, etc. this place is a town.
The lifelong goals and ambitions of the people here seem to be ones of living and dying comfortably here, and staying close to Jesus and American football. There seems to be little sense among most of the adults that it would be in their interest to pursue better lives in bigger cities. There is little art to be found here, and music is almost all religious or C&W.
I thought I could quietly pursue my books, music and art inside my home and inside my head, but it gets hard some days when I go out and see just where I live. At some level, it’s simply frustrating for me because I don’t understand these people. I don’t get why someone would want to move through life without learning new things, or questioning the reality they simply came to accept once upon a time. I can’t imagine being the kind of person that is completely uninterested in traveling outside of the state very much, except maybe to Branson, Vegas, Orlando or the Grand Canyon.
It’s almost always on a Sunday that I want to go look at Google Streets in big cities, and try to have an art museum patron’s experience by viewing art virtually on my tiny tablet screen. Of course, it never quite compares to the real thing. I can’t recreate the experience of inhaling salty sea air. Sometimes, I just miss standing on a beach–any beach that is by a body of saltwater. Other times I think back to my favorite childhood book, Henry Reed’s Journey, and can’t help but recreate what it would have been like to travel across the country as an adolescent boy in the 1960s. Things were different back then, you know. Hitchhiking had yet to become a dangerous activity, undertaken only by the absolutely desperate.
There is no way to recreate the experience, though. Not without becoming immersed in base, escapist activity that is all but hot air and changes nothing about you (for the better, anyway). The world upon which to act is the waking, 3D+Time, meatspace of the one that you’re in at this moment. The people in your life are the ones that you’re left to contend with, for better or worse. The place you’ve been dropped off at in life is what it is. No amount of dreaming and fantasizing can transport you away from here.
I go to church most Sundays. If you knew me growing up, or knew me as a young adult, you’d be shocked that I go to church. There’s a lot about church that I can’t stand. Most of the “can’t stand” stuff comes from the other people. Doesn’t that sound awful? I am not interested in having church be a social hour, but that’s the way it seems to be at your average mainline Protestant church. The people seem eager to spend a minimal amount of time being contemplative and reverent, praying and getting moved by the act of communal worship. I wish I could get something more out of church, but I’m not looking for the Charismatic revival experience. I’m looking for silence, and a deeper engagement with the Lord. I’m looking to see the dark corners of my soul transformed into light corners. I don’t want a motivational speaker for a pastor, who promises me lots of money if I pray hard enough. I want to wake up on Wednesday and still feel like the changes that happened to me on Sunday are still there.
I decide that I need to run, even as the old dog and the pregnant wife have had enough. Come August, a day like today will be considered practically jacket weather. It hasn’t even broken 90 yet. Such as it is in Central Texas. I want to run because for whatever reason my joints from running yesterday morning have stopped aching, and I have this romantic ideal coursing through my head that I’m living in some kind of quaint, New England college town, like in a John Irving novel. Except I’m not. Every fifth vehicle that speeds by is NOT a pickup truck. The people here aren’t so big on physical fitness. Most of them, at least the ones who can afford it, will hire cheap Mexican labor to take care of mowing the lawn, edging the perimeter and blowing away the leaves. If they happen to do it themselves, they hop on riding lawn mowers to cut less than a quarter acre of grass, and don’t do anything with their shrubs, weeds and leaves unless it involves a power tool of some kind.
The people here are mostly pretty fat. The dudes all have guts, and seem to wave their guts around as if they were waving their dicks around. You see them in their overstuffed polo shirts tucked into jeans, with boots, and they all look like they might have had a few years at the local community college. Where they get the money to drive pickup trucks that cost five times as much as my car, I don’t know. I suspect that most of them are beyond maxed out on the credit cards, and that their great-grandkids will be still paying off their mortgages. Quite a few act like they have some money, though, so who knows? Maybe getting in with the right bunch of old boys out of high school down at the local manufacturing building or logistics warehouse can give you the same kind of paycheck that a college degree once got you.
I’d been wanting to leave Texas for a long time when I met my wife. My condo purchase that year was kind of my last stand. I was ready to give up on finding a wife altogether. The idea was to buy the condo while the market was still bloody raw, and sell it in ten years after it had fully recovered, and everyone was trying to move to Austin again. By then, I’d hopefully have paid off all my debt, and with the sale of the condo and a little savings, and maybe the cashing out of whatever 401K had accrued, I could go live in NYC for exactly 1 year. Either I’d finally make it as some kind of writer, editor or artist, or I wouldn’t. If I didn’t, then I’d come back to Texas and live with my dad out in Bastrop, taking care of him in his last years, and commuting into some crappy web bitch job in Austin until he died. Following his death and the digitization of all of the family photos and my mom’s journals, I’d take whatever money was there, and just leave it in a small savings account I could draw on while I drove about the country in a van taking pictures and recording the oral history of the people.
Of course, I met my wife, and everything just kind of slid along quickly again, and here I am kind of stuck again. I mean, I love my wife, and I’m looking forward to being a dad, but I can’t stand the work I do anymore, and I really don’t like living in this part of the country at all. The people are not my people. It’s as simple as that. I don’t know if I’ve ever met my people, actually. All of my extended family and distant cousins seem to be more or less like the people who live around here. The ones who do get college degrees are content to be jacked into the American Way of life as unquestioningly as everyone else. Nobody wants to do much of anything except raise a few kids, go to a few barbecues and go on a few vacations to Orlando, Vegas and Branson, and then die.
I think that people living in a certain time, place and culture either fit in completely, and feel little or no need to rock the boat, or they live on the margins, always wondering if they are human beings at all. Some of the marginalized will fantasize about being at the height of fashion, fame and power if only they lived in a different time and place. Perhaps a few of them are right, but the bulk of them would probably be misfits during any time and place in human history.
Being a human is exceptionally difficult to figure out, and it requires an enormous amount of brain power that tends to get overlooked. If you are kind-hearted, and don’t wish to find success by manipulating others, you are pretty much bound to live your life out in a role that is guaranteed not to make any history whatsoever. “If you don’t like the way things are, you can leave,” is the mantra of many conservatives, and actually quite a few liberals, too. Those are the people who have successfully adjusted to a clannish tribe at a workplace or in a small town, and they feel that any change at all is a threat to their success. We Americans have our history of successfully finding a new place and new way of doing things precisely because we didn’t like the way things were, and so we just left.
The problem, of course, is that there is little real estate left in the world that you can leave to. Anywhere you go in the U.S., you are bound to run into a world of red tape created by politicians at all levels, and you are certainly going to find yourself constantly watched and critiqued by the locals, who will be more than eager to let you know you aren’t welcome if they think your ways are not their ways.
If you don’t like the way things are in this country, how easy is it to go live in another one? And, how many other countries would I want to live in? Aside from Western Europe, Australia or Canada, I seriously doubt I’d find much happiness living outside of the U.S. And none of those places are taking immigrants from the U.S. unless those immigrants are marrying their citizens or they are exceptionally rich and ready to pump lots of cash into their economies. Those places are for the most part, just different by degree, and not better.
This is why I’ve concluded that my struggles with fitting in wherever I go are less about struggles with my culture, but struggles with being human. I am not exactly sure what I would look like, if I were allowed to develop and flourish as myself, uninhibited by the laws and norms around me. I don’t think of myself as an animal or a machine, or an alien, even. I think of myself more as being a fallen child of God. I was at one time in God’s good graces, completely enveloped by his love, and through my own hubris or simple boredom, I decided that I wanted to come down here and see what being human was all about.
There is so much about being human that can be grand, and so much about experiencing nature and the finer things Man has created while being fully sentient and capable of reflecting on these nice things. But, there are also thousands of gray days—days where I am simply caught up in a sleeping, survival mode, and I completely forget that there is a better place awaiting me, and the better place is not NYC or Charleston, but a heavenly place of real freedom and true Love.