Showing posts with label Bethel Ohio. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bethel Ohio. Show all posts

17 October, 2017

Perpetual pilgrim, Part 2: exile amor fati

 I am an exile's book. He sent me. ~Ovid

Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room. ~ Mahmoud Darwish 

home and exile
Although I haven't lived in my hometown for better than several years and I rarely go back, I do follow some of the comings and goings there. There's an insatiable fascination about the place for me, in spite of the fact that there's nothing there for me but cemetery stones and geographically bound nostalgia. Think of it as something akin to voyeurism.

Recently on the Facebook page for my hometown's historical society I noticed an event. Five local authors were going to converge on the historical society... the old Grant Building where the library was housed when I was a kid ... to talk about how they became writers.

Each of them, I suppose, had written and published books. I only knew one of the names because other than random and terrible violence and the odd billboard paid for by a local church  proclaiming that Satan had taken over the school board, the only thing my hometown ever made the news for was the fame of the The World Walker. No one remembered him leaving on his trip, but everyone was there for the return, including a parade, a key to the village, and an invitation to speak to high school students about his experience.

Now, although I've made my home a few hours south and on the other side of the dirty, sacred river, the fact is that as much as I have no place or purpose in the place I'm from, I'm a transplant everywhere else. I guess it's fair to say that I haven't made The Big Time. There are no parades or keys to the town with ubiquitous invites to talk to ungrateful high school kids about my accomplishments.

Probably one of the most challenging parts of being a writer isn't actually the writing. That's always been the easier part. I don't believe in writer's block and I reject the idea that creative energy fizzles. It changes channel and sometimes doesn't march with popular tastes and trends, but generally the writers who chase trends end up burning themselves out -- not because their creativity fizzles but because they cut themselves off from it a long time ago and decided to sustain themselves on praise and marketability.

The biggest challenge for me has always been the subject of tradition... literary or otherwise. Although I don't remember much from when my thesis defense*, I do remember Dr. Glenn Colburn asking me where I would place myself in the canon of American Literary Tradition. I don't even remember exactly what I said because I was a bit taken aback by the question. I managed to write a collection of integrated (hopefully) poems and short stories. It was probably incredibly abstract and most likely total failure. My graduate advisor asked me once if I thought it would end up being publishable. My answer was that it probably was not at all publishable, because there was no way to categorize it in any way that literary agents and the publishing world would or could understand, or in such a way that agents and publishers could excise their percentages from sales.

I'm still pretty good with that. And I'm still pretty good with probably being a little too left of center for poets and a little to right of center for fiction writers. But it does sometimes nag at me that I grew up in  place that so assiduously tried to erase its history that I've been running all over the place for 30 years or more trying to find one, only to keep running into one inescapable fact: there is no such thing as adopting a literary root. Either you're born with one, or you cobble your own from the flotsam and jetsam of experience. It's that or it's creative death.

I guess it's OK that they didn't invite me, being as I'm not as news worthy as a guy who tried to rob a bank with a pocket knife (in my graduating class.) I suppose it's OK that I still can't answer the question of where I am in the scope of American letters because I'm not a Louisville writer or a Kentucky writer or, really, an Ohio writer... or even a Bethel, Ohio writer.

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03 August, 2017

Near where that barn burned, where all those people died, Part 2

Toil on, son, and do not lose heart or hope. Let nothing you dismay. You are not utterly forsaken. I, too, am here--here in the darkness waiting, here attentive, here approving of your labor and your dream. ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again  

 The problem with homecomings is that nothing ever goes as planned. Other than two uncles I rarely see -- my Uncle Jack (my Mom's brother), who travels and my Uncle Bill (my Dad's brother) who hasn't shown any interest in talking to me since my Dad died -- I don't have any family in Bethel who is above ground.  The last time I drove out to Bethel at all was to take Amanda to see the family graves in the cemetery. That was before we were married.

We left from my Mom's place in plenty of time. The hour-long drive from Cincinnati to Bethel followed a route that was burned in my brain.

Beyond the I-275 loop, past Withamsville, and past Amelia, the geography both stretches out and gets more crowded. When you have a longer memory for a place than that place has for itself, and when land developers erase the long empty fields between towns and merge it all together in one long strip mall world, it's easy to let a bitter form of nostalgia take root.

Nostalgia is that idea that somehow, the past we remember is without question better than the present moment. Nostalgia is among the second worst lies according the ranking system created by former British PM Benjamin Disraeli . Nostalgia is the entire underpinning for our current way of life in dear ol' Trumplandia.

But I still do That Thing when I visit my old stomping grounds. I talk about buildings that aren't there anymore, like the grocery store on Ohio Pike that was my second actual job, back when I was learning about the weight* that money has in the world. Or the Blue Haven Restaurant our family would eat at on Friday night sometimes that served actual salmon croquettes and had actual homemade apple pie on the dessert menu. Or the fields that used to be the Old Man Wolf's farm, fields I used to sneak into and wander around when I was a kid, that was cut up and sold by his children and razed for the cracker thin foundations of McMansions. When I was a kid, I used to tell people that Cincinnati would eventually reach out and swallow Bethel. Right now the only thing stopping it is something as arbitrary as a county line... though I'm sure if they could find a reason, they'd find a way around that, too.

For all the changes, though, Bethel really hasn't changed that much. There are still more churches per square mile than anything else and the Gold Star Chili is still standing next to what used to be my high school. The only thing that really DOES change in small town is the signage and the occasional new coat of paint.

Although I guess that's not really true, since Bethel, which is in Tate Township, which has been a dry township for as long as it's been in existence thanks to the aforementioned overabundance of churches, can now brag of the existence of a winery. The winery is less than three miles from the house I grew up in.

Now all they need is a decent Chinese food buffet and they're ready for some serious Yelp! action.

Amanda and I drove out to the winery. It wasn't difficult to find. It was just odd that it was there. I used to ride my bike up and down Swings Corner-Point Isabel Road. I didn't need GPS.  The weirdest thing about it was that it was there... some hidden spot of something resembling civility in place buried in the backwoods of my childhood.

When we arrived, no one else was there. I wasn't surprised. Then we checked the Facebook Event Page and discovered the meeting time had been moved back to later in the day.

The owner was as perplexed as I was. She had no idea there was a reunion meeting there. The panic was etched into her face -- a face I thought I recognized but the last name tag on her shirt I didn't. I told her not to worry. Planning, details, and follow through are not attributes anyone thinks of when my high school comes to mind.  To be fair, although the event was posted on Facebook, it was pretty clear the "non-reunion reunion" was for alum still living in the area. Those of us who left -- those of use who escaped -- were not part of the thought process.

It may seem like I'm being unfair to my old classmates, most of whom probably gave my absence as much thought as they gave my presence in high school. But the truth is, people live where they are, whether it's the cafeteria table where they eat lunch with people they consider friends, or whether it's a Facebook event created by people who still live in the geographic center of their childhood. It wasn't so much that I was excluded as much as I'm not a part of that world anymore. It's entirely possible that I never was. Not really.

Amanda and I drank our wine and left. On the way out of town, we stopped and at the Gold Star Chili next to what used to be my high school. Because sometimes nostalgia tastes good, even if it's not good for much more than that.

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*Weight, not value. Weight is presence, dimension, and heft. Value means something else altogether.

26 July, 2017

Near where that barn burned, where all those people died, Part 1

You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile.. - Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again

I mostly refused to talk myself out of going out of pure, bull-headed stubbornness.

Anyone who knows me moderately well, and a few who don't, are not at all surprised by this statement.

There aren't a lot of things that draw me back to Bethel, Ohio. Other than living there again very briefly in the late 1990's I haven't lived there since I left for college at age 18.  Nostalgia isn't something that creeps in about my old hometown. My childhood wasn't a bad one. My parents loved me. I had a few close friends. I wasn't a wildly popular kid. Quiet. Not a jock. Not an academic star. I excelled at band, but I stayed well below the radar of the guidance counselor, the principal, the majority of girls my age, and any non-familial adult who wanted shape and facilitate my future.

It would be easy to say I feel antagonistic towards my old hometown. But the truth is, I don't. However, it would also be disingenuous to say I have some lingering nostalgia, or some desire to go back.

That's not to say I wasn't nervous. I was. I wasn't worried about former classmates I might see or might not see. I was worried about running into an older self.

This happens from time to time when you embrace change and live your life based on the idea that once you brush a coat of shellac on your life, it's done. I've seen this time and time again. People find the place in their life where they feel the most powerful, the most beautiful, the most THEMSELVES, and they stop. They stop growing. They stop changing. They stop learning. They stop adapting.

When you embrace stagnation as a point of pride, you are in terrible trouble. And so is everyone around you.

I've tried not to stagnate. I've embraced change. When you're a writer, you don't really have a choice. Sharks swim or die. Art adapts or dies. It's as simple as that.

But it's hard to face who you used to be -- or who you perceived yourself to be.

18 year-old me was broken. Broken by a youth spent hiding behind rampant insecurity and social awkwardness. I learned how to hide because hiding was easier. 18 year-old me was devastated by my father's death. It shook my whole world. Before my dad died, it never occurred to me that I would live anywhere else but near where I grew up. After he died, I didn't feel like I could ever live there again. The short time that I did live there again -- renting a bed in someone's laundry room for $80 a month -- reconfirmed it.

That was the first time I ever ran into an older version of myself. Aside from a couple of close friends, people who knew me in high school could not reconcile who I was with who I had become. Still broken -- this time from a blood-letting divorce from my daughter's mother. I dropped out of college and retreated to a laundry room on a back street in a town I knew I didn't belong in anymore.

Me and my shadow. DC, circa 1986ish

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