Stranger in a Strange Land

I recently relocated–with any luck, temporarily–to a sprawling metroplex of a city of almost seven million, within an even more massive state.

I’d believed I understood globalism and loss of identity. I thought I had made an uneasy peace with the reality of modernism and destruction of memory.  I had no idea.  Not only is there no regional culture here—one of common language, mores and manners–there is not even an American one.

Stores, restaurants, and other establishments ring loudly with the sound of Spanish. New to the city, I ask questions, and rarely chance upon a fluent English speaker.  Even in the upper-income neighborhood in which I’m staying, it is rare to see an American flag.  Get lost and venture to outlying neighborhoods and whole blocks of stores have signage only in Spanish. Even the do-it-yourself car wash speaks to you in Spanish, though I keep telling it to stop. 

There is a distinct feeling that almost everyone has come from somewhere else, and not a similar place.  An untattooed, unpierced body is infrequent.  Pink is the most common hair color. Amorphous masses of bodies abound–male, female, or something in between. Cordial relations between the sexes–between ladies and gentlemen–is non-existent.  Instead, there’s a strange ambiguity that feels desolate. The atypical Normals look at each other with recognition.  And a kind of wistfulness.    

Courtesy is rare.  A Louisiana girl, I am accustomed to pleasant greetings and warmth, a shared desire to connect.  Here, greetings are often met with silence or suspicion.  Even a drive-through smoothie shop is an empty experience; I recently attempted small talk at the window, trying mightily to connect.  I left feeling unseen, and sad. 

I expressed this disquietude one evening to a friend of common origins.  We were at a large eatery with loud music playing. A mass of activity was before us but nothing resembling authenticity.  A place with no name. I told my friend I was searching for a shared American culture. That place, I reminded him, where people come together though common conviction, values, and rituals. Where memory unites. That thing that regional culture used to offer.

 “You’ll meet all kinds of people,” he assured me. “I don’t want to meet all kinds,” I replied. “I just want to meet my kind.”     

He didn’t understand me. But when I looked closely at his visage, I detected a melancholy, one born of resignation.  He, too, through necessity, settled here. One becomes accustomed to that which one cannot change.

 All over America, in small towns and large—but Southern towns are bigger targets—leftist transplants are scheming with dreams of transformation. They know how we should live, what our mode of transportation should be, what we should eat, how much property we should own, where we should park, how many children we should have (not many), how they should be educated, and whom we should befriend. The list is endless. There is, of course, a policy for each important item, if we could just wake up and recognize their genius.

What they’re not interested in is creating real, organic, economic growth. They’re not proponents of individual prosperity that would make it possible for people to stay home, find good jobs, rear families. That would come dangerously close to front porches, rocking chairs, human connection, and Gramps and Grandma just down the block.  It would mean tradition.  Instead, big government do-gooders love crony capitalism, which benefits a handful, but to their way of thinking, the right handful. These modern-day carpetbaggers should be resisted like the vermin they are.

Me, I’m still taking my stand.  I want to—and will again–live in a place where people remember who I am, who know where I began. Where folks remember-or know someone who remembers – that my father smoked cigars while he watched football, his children cheering, that my grandfather was a crusty old businessman who’d give you the shirt off his back, that the smell of summer magnolia is most pungent right after a rain. Where someone still remembers my French-Canadian grandmother, Maman, the unexpected mention of her bringing me to tears.  A place where the poignant hymn of growing up may be sung and past, but somehow still lingers.  When a man was still a man, and not afraid to be one.  When children were called home at dusk and heard,” Put your toys away, wash your hands, respect your mother, and “Yes, sir, every time.”

When I was about 20, a boy we had grown up with in the neighborhood took his life.  My grown brother wept, lying on the floor at my father’s feet, my father’s hand upon his head, until he was expiated, cleansed. It was a display of the purest, most exquisite grief.

My mother is an enigma.  A stunning, Catholic, South Louisiana belle, she met my father in little theatre in North Louisiana.  He was a gregarious Baptist, and Marine-Corp tough.  He thought perhaps they wouldn’t marry when my mother’s brother, Uncle Rob, under the influence, provoked him almost to blows one night. My father was restrained, but said angrily, “I could have killed him.”  “I would certainly have understood that,” she replied. The wedding came off, with so many Catholic clergy on the altar my father said no man had ever been so married in the history of the world. 

Uncle Rob, a former World War II pilot, and my father, completed their lives the best of friends.      

When we grew up, my seven brothers regaled us with tales of their boyhood, their lifelong buddies adding to their stories of mayhem and madness.  One of my seven brothers, a virtuoso athlete, had a habit of straddling onto a sturdy magnolia branch outside his second-story bedroom window, a branch that led to the trunk, and then to a near-perfect drop into the darkness after curfew. My parents never tired of recounting the expletives they heard one night when my brother realized the branch was gone.  It has never grown back.

My four sisters and I are very different. Our lives are beset with imperfections and the human failures that deeply afflict every life.  But we are connected by one undeniable truth, maybe the only one that matters.  We saw true sacrifice and devotion.  We saw grit. Even as girls, we learned how to appreciate the best of manhood.       

I will live again, and die, where the old dreams, greatest joys, and saddest tears are remembered. In that place where memory lives.

No, this is not home, can never be. I will live again where my beloved dead are buried, put flowers on their grave, and by the mere act of remembering, bring them to life again. Where people recognize each other, even if we are not all the same. Most of all, I want to live where yesterday is revered, and where heroism is still honored. 

If we lose common language and culture, we betray those whose lives made ours possible. We turn our backs on them. There can be no deeper shame. 

Chesterton wrote, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” If, so, we have denied our forebearers their justice.  We have wronged them. We have capitulated too easily to the spirit of the age.

I am in this city for my livelihood. I often wonder if it’s a Faustian bargain for which my soul will ever forgive me.

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