Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Shock of the Heartland

On impulse, and because I found a wonderfully low airfare into Detroit, I returned to the United States of America on Thursday, a week ago. I'm in the midst of a two-week tour of Toledo and Columbus Ohio, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and then back to Cleveland (again in Ohio), seeing the kiddos and parents and relations and taking care of some legal business while I'm at it.

So the mystery is solved! I didn't tell you blogsters where I was because my mother, a faithful blog reader, loves surprises. I wanted to give her a big one. (Thank you for your patience.)

Some would say I am on a simple midsummer trip to my homeland to visit friends and family. I prefer to see it as a Journey Into the American Myth, a Long Drive down the Lonesome Highway. I haven't been to America for more than a year. I am not sure that coming here was a good idea.

I spent the first few days at Libby's nice apartment in suburban Toledo; (Libby, 23, is my daughter. She works at a shelter for battered women.) I then drove two hours south to Columbus to see Philip for a couple of days. (Philip, 20, is my son. He's halfway through his university undergraduate degree, studying history... just like his mom.) I am now in the post-industrial rural countryside outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My family roots are here, and so are my mother and older sister.

Now it's high summer on the Great Plains and the hills and valleys of the Alleghenies. Trees and fields are lush, the sky perfectly blue in the mornings and stacking full of thunderheads in the afternoons, with fat robins singing throughout. Both my children inhabit rooms with the Ohio interstate highway system roaring and whining continually in the background. The neighbors mow and manicure deep-green lawns. The strip-malls are wide open and lit up like cruise ships, offering everything I could possibly want with Prices Slashed!!!!

Everyone smiles at me, shakes my hand, asks me how I'm doin', and actually listens when I answer them. Every damn person speaks English!

It's SO easy, all of it. I feel really really weird, like I've stepped out of the Teleporter Tube into an Alternate Universe. Even so, this all is completely familiar.

Sunday morning I went to church at St. Timothy Episcopal, where I was a very active member for eight years. About half the people I knew there moved away or left in a huff or gone on vacation in the five or six years since I moved away. Two of the finest are dead now. The service was the very same as ever, and I loved every single minute of it... like finding a book of bedtime stories your mom read to you over and over when you were five and six years old. The singing was the best. I had to stop singing halfway through the Doxology because I was choked up. The Anglican liturgy is pure poetry to me, and I think it always will be. I love our earthy Roman Catholic Mass, but I do so miss "my" Book of Common Prayer liturgy. And Wesley hymns, ah! They fit like an old shoe!

Libby and Philip are the best parts. They change too, but slowly. They are kind to me, and ease me into their evolutions. (They move with confidence, secure in the knowledge that I kept loving them when they were 14 years old and entirely un-loveable, so I'm not going to stop loving them now that they're reasonable humans.)

But the rest of it, the things I think I used to miss? Kind people are seeking out ways to get them to me. Sushi, old friends from the Toledo Blade, hot fudge sundaes, Dorito chips, barbecue-grilled hamburgers, baked beans, customer service, Levi's, cheddar cheese, chocolate-chip cookies, pizza, washcloths, good haircuts, manicures, porch furniture, pressure-treated lumber, enchiladas, zaatar spices, Metroparks nature trails, granola, Lucky Charms, HBO. Christ.

I've lost my taste for it. I don't want it, I don't even want to think about it.

The food I used to love is inedible now. I drive my lurid new rental car and can only worry that I have liability insurance to cover the cost if somebody runs into me. The fabulous green lawns and trees smell like chemical fertilizer. My friends are gone from here, off to work at newspapers in Chicago and DC and Charlotte. The newsroom at The Blade is like a tomb, with just a few lost souls drifting among the fresh Yale summer interns.

I'm telling myself it's an extended bout of jet-lag, or a severe case of Culture Shock. Maybe this trip is my spiritual goodbye to America, now that I have a real home in Spain.

Maybe I'm not American any more. It makes me feel adrift and homeless, a woman without a nation. I love America, or what I used to think America was. Even though I live in the heart of Old Castile, I am a long, long way from being Spanish.

I'm telling myself it doesn't matter what country I was born or raised in, that nationality is just a conceit, a divisive stupidity. But it's bred in my bones. Must be all those years I lived on military bases, at home and abroad. Maybe I'm just lonesome, or bored, or disappointed. Or homesick. Homesick for the boring ol' Peaceable.


Jim G said...

Too weird. I was in Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron this past Monday & Tuesday on a business trip from hell (flight leg from Detroit to Akron was canceled, so we drove).
Nice countryside, though, and much cooler weather than back home.

I've met a few folks who describe themselves as 'Citizens of the World', though I think their intention was snobbery and rejection of anyplace as being home, rather than a general sense of displacement or torn loyalties. If home is where the heart is, then home is all over - wherever I've family or friends whom I've come to count on over the years.

Enjoy your walkabout.
Jim G

Elizabeth said...

I'm 24. Was your mom surprised after all?

Deirdre said...

It SO makes sense to me, Reb!

Laura said...

This is good for me to read. The things about "home" that you thought you missed are not even things that I enjoy now. I want to move to Spain and this entry makes me believe that I might do it without looking back. (Except for my own 22 and 20 year old kids) I frequently look around at my fellow Americans and the lifestyles that we are all caught up in and conclude that my soul does not belong here.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of years ago when we had moved to Spain for a year and had to return suddenly to the US because of family health emergencies. The US seemed like a very alien world, even though Spain was not exactly home. That feeling of being caught in between, somehow, but knowing you can never go back--even if you do.
Buen Camino.

Timecheck said...

Going back is always weird - back from the Camino to the "real" world, back to a school reunion, back to see friends of long past. I don't think its a matter of nationality. The things that shaped our lives as we reached adulthood are gone, or we view them with newly mature eyes. At some point we are less conscious of "stuff", and cherish our time with people we love.

America has much to love. Just try to ignore the current government.

Virginia said...

In my early twenties, I packed off to Franco-era Spain as an Air Force spouse (years later I went back again, but as a TSgt with a Mr. Mom and 2 kids). We lived on the economy and I spent my days mothering my young daughter, learning Spainish ways under the tutelige (sp?) of local abuelas.

Five years with no trip back to the USA...imagine my culture shock when we landed back in the USA. It was nothing less than Dorothy's experience when her house landed in Oz! Yes I can imagine your feelings! Our post-Peace Corps culture shock was huge too - life in Kerch (Crimea)Ukraine had the feel of the 1940' if WWII had just ended...

Love your blog!

In Sunny Santa Fe