Yesterday, Memorial Day, I took a trip out to the family homestead, to see what has become of the little house where my grandparents lived, where my mother grew up, and where I spent many happy days as a child and a teenager.
It’s been almost ten years since anyone lived in that house. And it is slowly decaying, slowly being reclaimed by the earth it sits upon, by the moss covering much of its roof, by the grass sprouting high in the yard, by the critters moving in where the holes have appeared. It was even quite a trek to get there, the mile-long dirt road is no longer properly maintained, and the weeds in the middle have sprouted high.
We’d have done well to go in an old Ford pickup truck.
A back door was unlocked, and Jennifer and I went in. It still smelled, a bit, of the old house I remembered, a smell I cannot describe, but one that says “home” so very powerfully to me. There is no furniture, nothing of value in the house itself anymore, nothing to hide its utter smallness — American homes were much smaller a century ago, and someone used to today’s houses might be shocked to realize four people — my mother, her brother, and their parents — lived in this house. And that was before Grampie built the new kitchen and dining room (complete with a basement below).
There is the smell of death and decay in this little house. And no wonder. The carcasses of a few dead starlings littered the insides. Strange piles showing something at some point made its residence in this place dot each room
Nothing is left but an old television set, a giant cabinet model from the late 1960s, back when — on a very good day — you might get three channels this far away from town.
The windows are all shuttered and intact. The house has not been vandalized, or used as a drug den, or by teenagers for illicit hookups (ask me later about the young couple in the park bathroom in Colville), but I chalk that up to the fact it is so far away from the county gravel road that if you didn’t know it’s there, you couldn’t possibly know it’s there.
But it is dying. It is slowly mouldering away.
Don’t get any ideas about Jennifer and me living there. Because yes, I know, we need a place to live. But that little house would take too much work and too much money to repair — it’s almost in Green Acres condition — but even worse, the septic drank no longer drains and the well has gone bad.
It still smells a little like “home” to me, both inside and out. But these smells, and this idea of home, they belong to the past, to my memories. There’s no future in this place. Not for me and Jen. Not for anyone.
As we wandered the yard, looking around, seeing the evidence of cattle there recently, likely that very morning, Jennifer asked me:
“Does this make you sad?”
No, I told her. I mourned for the loss of this place — of the life I spent in this place — 20 years ago, the last time we visited my grandfather. I have learned now that the past remains just that — a memory, a feeling, an idea, something that can comfort if you let it. I learned this as I sat alone one afternoon in my Grandmother Featherstone’s house in Roswell, New Mexico, the day after her funeral, trying to remember the times I spent there, smell the smells of that place, hold those memories tight just one more time.
But because she’d been ill for six weeks, the house no longer smelled like my grandparents’ house. It smelled of piss and disinfectant, like the nursing home it became as she quickly succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
And there was little remember in that smell.
Columnist Maggie Gallagher recently read my book, The Love That Matters, and noted something very interesting in an e-mail exchange with me that set me to thinking. Gallagher noted that none of my experiences of acceptance and belonging — and I had many, and related many of them in the book — seemed to affect my self-understanding as someone who didn’t belong and wasn’t accepted. Gallagher’s observation hurt a bit, until I realized just how right she is.
Because I think I was — am — looking for something more than mere acceptance and belonging. I want to be known. And I want to know.
Alan Jacobs, who blogs at The American Conservative, wrote an essay for The New Atlantis about identity and what it means to know people, and how modernity — particularly the invention of the passport and the need for the modern, mass, bureaucratic and administrative state to make people legible — has affected how we know ourselves and know others. Riffing off one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories, Jacobs writes:
And Miss Marple’s conclusion: “[…] Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” All you know about them is what they say of themselves — this is, in a nutshell, one of the core problems of modernity.
Much of the essay is devoted to the “mechanics” of identity, how we can go from people who, as recently as the late middle ages, could have more than one name over the course of our lives to people in modernity with fixed and proper surnames attached to numbers attached to all sorts of documents that purport to describe and explain who we are.
Yet that way of knowing, and defining us, false short because it lacks the knowledge of character and personality. It is knowledge unembedded from the deeply intertwined relationships of family, community, and church that formed us and defined us, that came to know who we are.
Jacobs point out Miss Marple’s knowledge is the kind of knowledge that cannot be held in a file. It is a knowledge of habits and personality gained over years of living with people, of forming them and being formed by them. Marple puts her knowledge, and her ability to know, in service of this increasingly abstract mass order, but it is a knowledge that science and rationality increasingly don’t know what to do with.
I’ve complained a lot on this page about what has happened to me, not just with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but to a lesser extent, being an outsider seemingly everywhere I go. But I think what I am truly lamenting is less being an outsider, but rather not being known and not being able to know others the way I ache to.
By knowing, I mean the way Jesus seems to know the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel. Jesus doesn’t mince words with her — “You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know” — but he also knows who she is, what she wants, and what she is called to be. Jesus seems to accept her despite it all. He told her the truth about herself, about her life. “He told me all that I ever did,” she told those in her village, bearing witness and compelling many to believe in Jesus.
I want to be more than who and what I say I am. To have something bigger than a self to point to. To know that, in love, others have considered me, and seen something in me, that I could not see without them. And help me become something I could not be — without them.
That I am part of a people who are part of me. Who shape me and are shaped by me. This is what I mean by knowing.
The first thing I need to acknowledge here is this is something for which there is not, and cannot be, any resolution. God made some souls a little more bent than others, and I believe I am one of those souls. Some of us, perhaps many of us, will ache for things we cannot ever have. Not because the world is cruel, but because God creates in us a desire to strive.
Also, I suspect most people don’t ache or desire to be known the way I do. For whatever reason, it does seem that I feel more intensely than a lot of people, though I accept I could very well be wrong about that. I remember how difficult saying goodbye was in the Midwest. At first, I found saying goodbye difficult because I want, up until the last possible moment, as intense a connection as possible with someone, to savor and remember that intensity later. But most folks didn’t seem to want that. I came to accept this reality, but I’ve never really liked it. I need the intensity, and I suspect a lot of people — most, probably — don’t.
Being mobile, as Jennifer and I have been, flitting from place to place and prospect to prospect, has also mitigated against knowing — and being known. We’ve not been anyplace long enough to truly be known. I am, supposedly, the ultimate modern, someone defined by accomplishments. But boiled down to a piece of paper, it turns out … they aren’t all that.
And yet, I am known. By my wife, Jennifer. By a whole host of people at seminary and beyond (you all know who you are, Andrew and Francisco and Karen and Bridget and Bridget and Joy and Aaron and Vince and Jessica and Kurt and Linda and Cheryl and Emilie and Christine and… the names, I never imagined so many names), which became the first place where people really knew me. Knew me the way Jesus knows us, knows this woman.
So, as I sit in a strange place, rationing out my coffee, applying for every job it makes sense to apply for, and wondering what will happen next because nothing is clear (and golly, hasn’t it been that way to one extent or another since 2012?), I do so confident that I am known. And with that comes all the belonging and all the acceptance I could have ever imagined wanting or having.