I found the central axioms of my life expressed in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In his essay Self Reliance Emerson wrote: “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so.” In his “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” Thoreau opined that a perceptive person could see the depth of the greatest ocean in the smallest stream, and the essence of the mightiest forest in the smallest wood.
I’ve been to 46 states, 9 countries, and 3 continents, I’ve lived for six years in places other than Springfield and seen marvelous things, met interesting people, and gotten to know wonderful traditions from distant cultures.
Notwithstanding, I will never understand how it is that people can exchange their own hometowns for another.
I’ve met children who can play the violin far better than my children can, but never been tempted to abandon my own daughters. I’ve met women who cook better than my mother, but I don’t show up at their house for Thanksgiving. I’ve known men more intellectual than my own father, I don’t call them “Dad”. It simply does not matter to me how stunning the art collection of the Prado is, the Springfield Museums are my museums, ditto the beautiful streets of Beacon Hill to Mattoon Street, Central Park to Forest Park, and Carnegie Hall to Symphony Hall.
It was only when I went to Spain for the first time, and spent two years living in Andalucía, that I learned that there are places in the world where this sentiment is broadly felt. In Spain it seems as though every city and every town has the loyalty of its residents.
My experience growing up, partly because of the church to which I belonged (a denomination which is more common in the western United States and whose members were usually “passing through”) and partly due the fact that I was being raised in a city in the northeast where my friends were moving south, west, or to the suburbs, was that people in the United States did not have this pride of place, or if they did it was a sentiment held for the country at large and not for places within it.
Furthermore, it was somehow an acknowledgement of inferiority to feel a kinship with anyplace at all, apart from perhaps New York, Boston, California, or Florida. Feeling pride or love for your hometown was, in a manner of thinking and living very much at odds with Thoreau and Emerson, to lack taste, sensitivity, and class. How can you enjoy minor league hockey knowing there is an NHL? How can you shop at Steiger’s when there is a Filene’s?
The tragedy at Columbine, like the horrors of September 11th, was in many ways a Rorschach blot in terms of revealing people’s core values by their response to and understanding of it. While many people in schools saw the killings as illustrative of a lack of security and others saw a lesson on the tragedy of bullying, I saw the vacuous nature of transient American life; A life where people move from community to community to community. Mostly TO communities without history, without tradition, without soul. I’ll never understand the allure of the suburban “development” cut out of a cornfield in some place where whatever place there was was replaced by a Wal-Mart. This is true especially because there are real homes, in real neighborhoods where people have laid down roots for generations and where a person can sense the connectedness.
This isn’t, this ISN’T, like my ancestors moving from Europe because there was no land, no life, and no opportunity. This is moving from one town to the next and then the next to make $8,000 more a year, or to have 14.3 more days a year with sunshine or to shovel 32.7 fewer inches of snow. If you’ll abandon this for that, why not that for something else? Why shouldn’t your children do the same, and their children and theirs? Why even have families? I watched a lecture where an evolutionary biologist theorized that romantic love exists, as irrational as it is, because late maturing human offspring need stability to survive, and spouses who were constantly making the “rational decision” to trade up in terms of the quality of their mates (a little taller, a little stronger, a little more beautiful, a little richer) would constantly be destabilizing the environment of their children, and thus their genes would die out along with this tendency to coldly move on to the next best thing. There may be something to be said about the “evolutionary fitness” of our culture and our attitude toward the place we call home.