Friday, September 11, 2009

Look homeward

Coming back through Newark, you notice it at once: everything is bigger here, more expansive. People, cars, signs, portions, dreams. The New Jersey Turnpike. You see it from the air, the green vastness that has led us to believe it will never run out, the land, the water, the sky, the fruits thereof. Our bounty. You see the slapdash imposition of order upon the land, the laying of a concrete grid upon the mutable and fertile earth and you feel at once that a better life is again possible, that your future will be wholly unconstrained by present circumstances, that you can do it all over and get it right this time. You are an American, poot, and that makes you an effin futurologist. Forget what freakish odors the air carries, or how many poisonous particulates you ingest with each breath, this is air that sheds history, renewably fresh air, and coming off the jet-way you find yourself getting giddily optimistic just by breathing it in. Oh how this rich American air makes you high.

Now you are home, baby. Around here you don't need a map or a cheap dashboard gizmo to tell you where you are. Here you are the mediator of your own experience and nobody else.
That skyline, these highways. Because you live here, this is the one over-photographed place that looks nothing like the movies. You don't need a tourist guide to find its dodgy bars and high-rent salons. All you need is your watery New York snout and a hankering to uncover The Next Big Thing. Whereas Paris, in sunlight, looks like its cinematic self, those beautifully laid stones drawing forth rose-cheeked sentiment, until you get out into those northeast neighborhoods near St. Denis where the scruffy races mingle and chatter in their imprecise but colorful French -- just like downtown Jersey City.

Coming back through Newark, now dopily called Liberty International, I think to myself, so here we are, eight years on, Al-Qaeda still alive and kicking, our soldiers still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, fear still rampant in the airports and train stations, and that unremitting absence downtown, reminding us every day we cross the river how fragile these seemingly solid edifices really are. We lived through it, poot, but I don't think we learned a damned thing, except to carry our public grief honorably, planting one tree for each person killed. Maybe that's a worthy beginning to engaged citizenship. I've got to believe it, after all, this is my country.

The place I come back to still breaks my heart, as 'home' must always do, for it never stays the same, this repository of my memories and springboard for my dreams, as much as I try to fix it in my mind. This time, I have come from walking in castles made of stone set on impossibly sheer escarpments above the vineyards of Corbières. Though meant to last forever, these châteaux were abandoned to the wind and the rain after but a few generations. It is said that men could not live that close to heaven for long. And so they either died by arms, or from disease and starvation, or they returned to the land beneath the mountains, hemmed in, compromised, forced to work the soil and raise animals, men as stubborn as the earth itself, living in difficult valleys, dry and hot in summer, windy and wet in winter. Men who wanted to be left alone, who held their own devilish ideas and stood on their own brand of righteousness.

I listened to the wind roaring through the ruins of those precipitous stone battlements. Dizzy. The sky a bright blue from Mont Canigou to the Montagne Noire. This was as far as they could go. And me? Tell me, poot, what was I doing there, so far from home? In such thin air?

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