Saturday, July 01, 2006

Benediction For a Small Town

We moved from Mount Vernon, Ohio to Westerville, Ohio seven years ago. In Mount Vernon, we lived in a big old 150-year-old house with three-story white Corinthian pillars holding up the porch, hardwood floors, five fireplaces, and a wraparound staircase. We didn't have a garage. We had a carriage house. It was a cool place, if a little ostentatious. It looked like Tara in Gone With The Wind, and I think that when we moved there I expected the same kind of old-fashioned schmaltz to carry over into every aspect of our lives. Mount Vernon looked like an idyllic small town, and I had visions of raising apple-cheeked kids, and strolling the streets, and doffing my cap to passersby as they said "Mornin', Andy."

It didn't turn out that way. Here is something I wrote seven years ago, a couple days before we moved to Westerville.


My friend/pastor Don Muncie asked me, just before he moved to Tennessee, “What is it you want to leave behind in Mount Vernon, Ohio? What do you want to bury here and not take with you?”

I couldn’t think of a particularly meaningful response at the time. I think I gave him the Standard Christian Line: my sinfulness, my selfishness, my lack of love. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good answer. Now what do you really want to leave behind?

Last night I walked around by myself for a couple hours. The kids were in bed. I had spent most of the evening taping and labeling boxes. I walked east, past all the grand old historical homes on Gambier and High Streets, their National Registry plaques proudly displayed next to the their front doors. I doubled back west and walked to the little park in the center of town. One hundred and thirty six years ago Abraham Lincoln sent the Union Army into this park to arrest Ohio Senator Clement Vallandigham, who was stirring up trouble among the Copperheads. Last night I was the only trouble afoot. Mike Merilees cruised by in his police car and saw me out there and waved to me. I waved back. Mike used to stop me and question what I was doing. Now he’s used to seeing this strange bearded fellow who has a tendency to stand by himself in parks at midnight. He can’t figure it out. I suppose I can’t either.

And so I made the rounds, walking north and west and south, keeping the night watches, making sure that Mount Vernon, Ohio was safe for democracy. It was. And I thought, and I prayed.

Dozens of people in Mount Vernon have asked me why we’re moving. They express shock and dismay. This is Norman Rockwell’s vision of America, after all, beautiful old homes with wraparound front porches and porch swings and American flags and a cacophony of ringing church bells from the five main churches (Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist) on Sunday mornings, county fairs and Amish buggies rolling down the cobblestoned streets and family-run diners and antique shops and a Wal-Mart, our one concession to corporate America. Why would anybody in his right mind ever want to leave that? That’s the unspoken question these people ask: what, are you nuts? And I give them the standard spiel: the work commute is too long, the grant money for Kate’s job is drying up, even the semi-snobby response that we need to find better gifted programs for our kids.

The real reason is profound disappointment. The real reason is loneliness, the feeling of almost total isolation in the midst of friendly, honking and waving people. The real reason is anger and resentment at never feeling a part of this community, of watching Bible Studies and small groups fall apart because people couldn’t find the time to make them a priority, of spending almost eight years of my life trying to make a go of it in a church where I don’t belong, and of having that church as almost my sole contact with the life of Norman Rockwell’s America. It’s the reality of having two close relationships with people in town, and of having both of those relationships disappear with the moving vans. It’s frustration with a whole passel of multi-generational Mount Vernon families who have lived in this town since time immemorial, and who simply don’t have time for new people in their lives. And it’s doubt and insecurity and wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

Those are the real reasons why the moving van will pull up to my house Monday morning. I can’t tell anybody that. It’s the shallowness and sterility of what Kate calls the honk-and-wave fellowship. Everybody in town knows me. And it’s wondering if that’s why they only honk and wave.

I came to Mount Vernon thinking I was pretty hot stuff, that I would be an asset to any community and to any church, and that they’d better be damn glad to have me, too. And I’ve struggled big time with these Presbyterians, these sons and daughters of the Reformation who don’t know a thing about what John Calvin taught and believed, and who don’t give a rip that they don’t know. And I’ve referred to the Bible and have been met with blank stares, as if appealing to the Bible in church was about as relevant as appealing to Sports Illustrated Magazine, that everybody was entitled to their own opinions, after all, and that there were plenty of fundamentalist (translation: bigoted, small-minded, ignorant) churches who thought that way if I would care to check them out.

I don’t feel like much of a hot shot these days. About all I know for certain is my own brokenness, which is something these Presbyterians are good at emphasizing, and one of the few things they appear to get right. I don’t have it together. I love God, but not very well, and I love my family, but not very well, and I wave to everybody else. And now it’s time to wave goodbye.

What I’d like to tell Don Muncie, what I should have told him, is that I’d like to bury all the hurt. I’d like to give it a rest. I’m tired of trying to figure out how much of this is other peoples’ fault and how much is my fault, what I could have done or should have done differently. I’m tired of thinking about it. I just want to move on. The problem is that I can leave everything behind but me.

So eventually I wandered back home, to this magnificent old house, this ramshackle mansion that we affectionately call Tara in the Corn, and I sat on the porch swing on the grand old front porch, underneath those three-story Greek pillars, and realized that eight years of my life were gone with the wind, irretrievable. And I prayed, again, that God would change me, that He would make me into someone other than who I often appear to be. I closed my eyes and envisioned myself stretching out my hands above the whole town in a gesture of benediction. In my vision it all got muddled together, and I thanked God for the joy I had found in Mount Vernon, and I meant it, and I asked him to take away the sorrow and the hurt so that I wouldn’t drag it behind me to the next town. I asked if he would help me bury it here. I thought about different people, and their faces came to mind, and I thought about the times when they had infuriated me and the times when they had made me laugh, or had simply exchanged idle pleasantries with me. And I thanked God for all of it, the good times and the bad, and I raised my hands heavenward, as if I were pushing the whole load upward. Here, you take it, I thought. I sat on the porch swing, my own little mercy seat, and heard in my mind the standard Presbyterian benediction I’ve heard Sunday after Sunday, year after year. And I said this for the town of Mount Vernon, Ohio: The Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance to you and give you peace.

I felt lousy, but that’s the way it has to be for sentimental, nostalgic fools. I went in the house and went to bed and eventually fell asleep. This morning on my way out of town, dog tired, I passed a couple folks I knew and they honked and waved to me, and I waved back and felt okay about it.


amy paxton said...

I love this, thank you for sharing it. We are glad you and Kate live closer to Columbus now and hope you are, too.

e said...

There It is.

I don't know what It is, but it's in this essay/reflection/whatever.

Honk-and-wave fellowship (a great name for it, btw) so typifies middle-class life in America, that I'm not sure we know that anything is wrong with it. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with it. Perhaps some of us just don't fit the smiling and the waving and the honking very well.

But I get this sense that most of the real luminaries of faith (ours or someone else's--as in the case of Ghandi) felt that not-fitting-ness with the honk-wave versions of the worlds they lived in. They may have been lonely sojourners in their own worlds, but they've impacted the rest of us to an unimaginable degree. Perhaps you're just one of those.

Andy Whitman said...

Erik, I love that Ghandi comparison, and I'm prepared to kick anybody's butt who disagrees with it.

Andy T said...

I hope you realize the challenge you have ahead of you with gem after gem of self-contained little lyric essays and stories. Some of these will be impossible to break apart or set up against another as parallel or contrast or whatever.

The editor in me is here to help.

Anonymous said...

I've lived in Lancaster long enough to watch it turn from a large town into a small city (more's the pity). I've lived in really small towns (unincorperated, deep in the hollers of eastern KY and in cities (LA). Not sure if Mt. Vernon qualifies as a small town. In Ohio, anyway.

I currently split my time between Lancaster and out in the country below Athens.

Mayberry don't exist. Not really sure if it ever did.

But, I think you can find a sense of community. I think I know it is easier for Christians, as long as they don't expect perfection.

But it has been my experience that small town insular societies are, for the most part, dominated by all of the small-minded stereotypes that we can think of.

So, I think I understand.

Now-a-days, I just adopt a large town live and let mentality in my small town, and it works just fine.

Anonymous said...

Hoo, boy, where to start. How does a newcomer, an outlander, find community? As one who has lived in both suburbs and smaller towns, I think I have some insights. Pick the ones that seem to have some relevance to your experience.

First, where are you having your significant interactions with others? If you live and work in the same town, belong to a church in that town, if your employer is a major employer in the town or one that brings you into contact with a substantial number of other people who live in the same town, if you join clubs or organizations in the same town, you increase your chances of making friends. On the other hand, each one of the above that takes place somewhere other than where you live decreases the chances. One of your disadvantages, Andy, was that you worked in Columbus rather than Mt. Vernon. I'm sure you put a lot of energy into the church, but I'm not sure that was a good fit anyway.

One town I moved into, Marietta, Ohio, was a good move for several reasons. Both my wife and I worked in the community (Jan as an elementary teacher), prior to coming there we had a fairly strong relationship with a family that was a part of the Marietta "establishment," and we moved into the apartment complex where nearly everyone was a newly married couple from somewhere else and wanted to meet new friends. Those three pluses added up to one of our most fondly remembered situations.

Some towns consist of more people who are open to meeting new friends. When we moved to California, we found that a lot of people were from somewhere else, and were open to welcoming the latest newcomer. Towns like Mt. Vernon mostly consist of people who have lived there for generations. Roots are deep, and there's no real need to make room for newcomers. I could probably go back to Coshocton, Ohio, where I was born and raised, and renew old friendships with people I grew up with who still live there, but that's the only town where that would work.

Finally, folks who have deep roots in a place don't take kindly to newcomers who think they can improve on things, at least until they know those newcomers a little better. When we moved to Morgantown, WV, we made a considerable effort to send the message that we weren't looking down on these West Virginia folks. And believe me, they were watching for that attitude to come through. Once they were satisfied, they were very welcoming. At the same time, I saw other University folks who were never accepted by the locals.

I don't know if any of this applies to your situation, but I hope its helpful. From what I know of your current situation, it sounds like you have strong relationships within your church, and I know that you are liked and respected by your peers across the country who write and speak on issues that are of interest to you and on which you write and speak. I know you appreciate the extended family we both enjoy through our wives and their sisters.

Thanks for writing this thoughtful article on an issue that's of interest to me (not that I don't usually find your topics of interest--I do).

Unknown said...

Your post moved me to tears, as it is such a perfect capsulization of many of our lives.

Thank you for writing from your heart and reminding me of my favorite Benediction. I truly hope that the intervening years have brought peace and happiness to you and your family.

The Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance to you and give you peace.

MrsWithers said...

I was searching for something on Google, found it in your post - then really read your article. Not only are you an exceptional writer (which I'm sure you know) but you really nailed a phenomenon that is so prevalent in this day and age. Why are we so isolated from one another? What opens real doors into people's lives instead of only getting the honk and wave. I am a child of the 50's and 60's. We had secrets. We lived with secrets and sometimes shame. Our parents had secrets they withheld from their kids. Are we so afraid that others might really "Know" us as we are; carrying our individual baggage and even a little dirt? Are we so different from everyone else that we isolate ourselves, afraid that no one else has quite the baggage we have? Just a thought. I have found a semblance of "closeness" in a small Sunday School class that functions as a Covenant group. I hope you have found by now something of the sort too.