Here I am at my mother's home outside Apollo, an Appalachian enclave in rural western Pennsylvania near the city of Pittsburgh. I lived in this area for many years, and spent much of that time planning how I might get out. It's a sad place to spend much time in. I could see only a bedraggled region raped and left for dead by a century and a half of mining, steelmaking, smelting, and every other kind of human pollution. Its low self-image and battered economy and general malaise always make it a great place to be FROM, rather than a place to Be.
It's a similar story down in suburban Washington, D.C., where I spent Friday evening and Saturday with my daughter Elizabeth. She lives along Columbia Pike, in a neighborhood called Tyson's Corner. A place with a name like that you'd expect to be broad fields and buggies and friendly farmers called Flem and LuElla... and it probably was, up til the mid-20th century. Now it is acres of apartment blocks, parking lots, strip malls and big-box retail outlets, threaded together with four-lane asphalt strips and blanketed with the smog of a million cars backed-up at every stoplight.
This is America, my home. And it is deeply shocking to a system so accustomed to the relative silence of The Peaceable Kingdom.
I know what is happening to me. I am trying to take this very slowly and easily. I am getting lots of sleep, avoiding alcohol and cigarette fumes, trying to eat lots of fruit and veg and vitamins.
Routines are important when you're culture-shocked. So this Sunday morning, on my way out of Virginia I stopped at St. Alban's Episcopal Church of Annandale for the weekly Eucharist.
I have not attended an Anglican church service for many, many moons, and this one was a beauty: Bach skilfully played on a sweet little pipe organ, hymns sung out with enthusiasm, a full complement of clergy in full vestments (there's a seminary in the diocese), flowers on the altar, squirmy children in the pews, and the gloriously poetic and approachable Rite 2 liturgy. Bread AND wine. And the priest was a SHE!
I had to struggle not to weep at the end, when the organist ripped through a Tallis postlude without missing a beat. I love going to Mass at Santo Tomas in Moratinos, and I may now be a practicing Catholic. But this service this morning? Extraordinary, and beautiful, and emotionally overwhelming. I surprised myself. My soul was at Home.
Later in the day, after a long journey north to Apollo, I took a couple hours' walk down McCartney Hollow to Roaring Run trail. (I hadn't had a decent walk for DAYS...) Yes, the abandoned trucks and rusting machinery and busted-down gas wells are still out there, but they're garlanded with knotweed and trumpet vines. The hillsides are dense with greenery, erasing the scars and ruts from view. I climbed the trail up Jackson Run, and at the falls a young couple splashed and paddled with their tiny toddler twins. Laughter and joyful shrieks echoed up the steep valley. Up above, the breeze tossed the treetops. A thunderstorm grumbled.
I picked the prickly fingers of a blackberry vine off my shirt and turned and listened to all the sounds around me. A robin sang out. Goldfinches. A red-wing blackbird. A brush-cutter. Children shouting. Someone shooting at targets with a .22 rifle, somewhere nearby. The waterfall.
I have not walked along that trail for more than 25 years, but I knew exactly where I was in the world. My father walked this trail, and his mother walked it, too. This is my inheritance. This is what Home sounds and looks and feels like, when you're from here -- grubby and redneck and sad, but still beautiful.
It is home. I don't belong here anymore, but what is Here belongs to me.
Somewhere in my DNA is a red-wing blackbird.