Roger Cohen talks about the melancholy tug of place in his column today. He starts out:
This is just one story among many, with its measure of joy and tragedy, and I recount these events not because I find anything exceptional in them but rather because I believe the pain of displacement amounts to a modern pathology.
He goes on to describe his own beginnings in South Africa where his mother was born and is commemorated and his grandparents and great grandfather are buried. He talks of his own roots there, the pull of place, his finally feeling at home in New York which he now has to leave for London. And he speaks of what he sees as a general longing for place which he finds our technological world tends to ignore at best.
I grew up in NYC and spent many summers in Woodstock, NY (before it was Woodstock -- when it was a town with local people, an art school and colony, and weekend visitors.And when lots of people still had outhouses and pumps in their kitchen sinks) And I spent two summers in the Poconos of Pennsylvania as an apprentice in a summer stock company and two summers in Maine, near Skowhegan, as a camp counselor. It is mountainy country places like these in the Northeast which most pull at my heart. When I went to Uganda in the Peace Corps in the mid 1960s, we lived again in a verdant, mountainous place, a mix of the familiar and strange: winding roads, large trees, ploughed fields, and bananas all over, and red dirt, and dark faces and houses made of mud with tin rooves and cows in our yard and flowers, brilliant flowers which grew on trees. It awoke a painful nostalgia in me. At first I wanted to go home and move to Woodstock or some place like it and just have a small house and teach school and be AT home. The familiar echoes in our surroundings made me feel further away than if everything had been foreign.
But as time passed, where we lived in Uganda blended into my sense of home so that when we returned to the States, to Minnesota, for graduate school, all I wanted was to go back to Uganda if I couldn't go to the Northeast, which seemed a highly unlikely possibility.
I never moved either back to Uganda which crashed into the most hideous circumstances imaginable, nor did I move back to the Northeast. We moved from Minneapolis to Missouri. Sometimes I drove east to visit my parents and my kids who, of all things, went to eastern colleges and now live in Boston, and I would start to cry as I got close. Even more ironically, my first husband the Californian now lives outside Boston with his wife, the Texan because that's where they went for work.
Weirdly, I married another West Coast man who actually went to the same University my ex did and who was in the Peace Corps. He isn't overly fond of my view of the Northeast as heaven. Together we moved, for his job to San Antonio, TX, anything but eastern in flavor. And weirdly for a person who craves the green of the Northeast, I really liked San Antonio and the often dry countryside nearby.
It was from San Antonio that we started to travel to Mexico. The very first time we came to Xalapa and I felt the cool, misty rains of November on my face, and we road buses through the countryside, I told Jim it's where I could live if he couldn't live in the Northeast. I didn't mean it all that seriously then. But we kept coming back to visit, and it is the old ties that bind me here to our corner of Mexico: ties from Uganda and the Northeast that pulled. Coffee and ploughed fields and bananas and winding roads and green hills and snow-capped mountains. And people. And I start to realize it's not just the rural ties that pull, but the ties from my Bronx Jewish childhood: holding my grandmother's hand while she, in the other, carried her shopping bag or pulled her cart down the sidewalk amidst lots of other people doing the same, stopping in the butcher where meat hung on hooks and the vegetable store where produce tumbled out of crates. Arguing with the owners who knew her name. People sitting out on folding chairs, hanging out, yakking and kvetching. It always took awhile to get through all the little conversations that rose and fell as we passed through the courtyard of her apartment building. Apartment buildings: not houses with yards all around. Here, houses are mostly built right next to each other, like apartment buildings, edges right on the sidewalks.
It's not Woodstock or the Bronx here, but nothing ever could be, certainly not Woodstock which has become a colony for rich city people, as far as I can tell, and for rich arty types who can live there full time nor for the Bronx, which has fallen on hard times, I think, from which it struggles to recover. It's not so terrible not to be able to go back. People have always moved, as did Roger Cohen's grandparents and parents and Roger himself. The people of Africa, the people there before the Europeans, they migrated all over the place. Here in Mexico, the Aztecs who created an empire started as wanderers from the north.
Roger Cohen closes his column this way:
"And now I move on again to Europe to continue this column from there. For me, it is also a return to something deep and unresolved.
"Reading James Salter’s haunting novel “A Sport and a Pastime,” full of the twinned formality and sensuality of France, I encountered this passage:
“'Life is composed of certain basic elements,” he says. “Of course, there are a lot of impurities, that’s what’s misleading. ... What I’m saying may sound mystical, but in everybody, Ame, in all of us, there’s the desire to find those elements somehow ...'
"Technology is wondrous but also multiplies the 'impurities.' In the end we must go back to the things — birth, death, love and beauty — that spoke to me on that South African plateau. And we must each discover and render the elemental in our own lives."
What I think Cohen is saying, is that we have to rediscover ourselves as flesh and blood, as coming from the earth...as living creatures dependent on a living planet.
This is what I think we have found, more or less, where we live in Mexico. I like the shabbiness, the lived-in quality, the animals that share our landscape, the air that moves through the windows and brushes my skin, the people everywhere. There are so many sad parts about this alive place, suffering is not hidden. There are deaths on our street. Here people are laid out in their houses and you know always what has happened. Life is hard. I wanted to run from this, too, for awhile. But now I don't.
Now it's home.
I think in the US the tendency to confine life to measurements, to try to learn how to live by reading survey results, to determine one's life course by following advice for living longer, for rather than just doing the living, to experience adventure through video games, to build monstrous machines to eke out a last few moments of life, to spend one's work life in a cubby in a building where the windows don't open, to buy one's food in packages and fear the fresh stuff....living like this makes us yearn for home.