I don’t like change, and never have. I am a conservative mind, really—my impulse is to cling to the familiar, the routine, and not often out of a genuine affection for the ordinary, but out of a nostalgic addiction to the comfortable. Now here I am in Washington state, thousands of miles from my native state Oklahoma, in a strange place full of strange people, dreaming about home and companionship apparently waiting for me in the place I abandoned to pursue a writing career. Those two needs are so intertwined with each other because they both have so deeply to do with being related to the world around you. The biblical word would probably be “abide.” However, there’s a frightening difference between loving a person or place for its own sake, caring for its continuation and renewal, and retreating to those centers of familiarity because it makes you feel comfortable and safe—enclosed in a makeshift kingdom of your own making.
It’s never been clear to me how to really exist in the world apart from my hometown of Ada, Oklahoma. I’ve sojourned in various places since high school, each transient and upsetting, and that has only exacerbated this impulse to go home, to reconstruct barriers against the wild unknown, and quietly read, reflect, and imagine in peace. Of course, this kind of life has its defenders. Wendell Berry and his Kentucky homestead come readily to mind, and the steady stream of poetry, essays, and fiction that flow from his stable pen for half a century are a testament to the benefits of his rootedness in one place. Could he have accomplished such a corpus if he was immersed in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago? Berry’s fictional Port William community shows the living and dying and loving of a local people all in the proximity of a single place, a place that seems to become nearly sacred through Berry’s writerly affection for it. Marilynne Robinson’s world of Gilead, Iowa practices a similar vision, seeking to find the transcendental in the ordinary. For philosopher Roger Scruton, this vision of the world requires us to love the real, and allow the world of objects to communicate itself unto our own subjectivity and aesthetic sensibilities. We arrange our surroundings with an eye for meaning, harmony, and beauty, in order to live at one with our environment. It is a wonderful idea, this cultivating affection for the real, and I think I subscribe to it. But we might see how this might be abused by a mind like mine that mistakes home for comfort, and familiarity of face for genuine community. The nostalgia for an Edenic past can never be realized by conserving the image of the familiar, because unlike in the philosophies of Berry, Robinson, and Scruton, mine is a craving for the ideal, and not an acceptance and gratitude for the real. The addiction to the familiar and comfortable can cause one to neglect life’s most important aspects.
Angry progressives are often frustrated by ongoing evil and injustice in the world, and angry conservatives mourn the culture’s deviation from an apparently idyllic past. But in this view, both are deeply wounded idealists who rage against the lack of a heaven on earth and seek to institute one through their own power and strategy. Love of the real is an arduous task because it means constantly discerning the real from the personalized idolatry of the imagination. Do I see my neighbor before me, a flesh and blood human being with a soul, or an image of my own idealism? Do I paint the world over without giving it a chance to say something? The opposite of wounded idealism is not despairing resignation, however, but proper vision of justice, how objects in the world and human relations are supposed to harmonize. We have to know what kind of creatures we are as human beings, and to reconcile ourselves with the duties of loving our neighbors as ourselves, or rather being the kind of neighbors we would want others to be for us.
The short fiction of Breece D’J Pancake focuses on the lives of rural West Virginians, a part of the country and a people that do not usually qualify for attention in the broader national conversation. And he seems to be able to justify the existence of these backwoods country folks simply by writing about what they do, the relationships they have, and the relatable human needs and desires they share. They are not “projects” meant to romanticize an overlooked community, but are people who live profoundly interesting, broken, and often tragic lives. As Andre Dubus III writes, “[Pancake] was too focused on the task at hand—with trying to find that essential physical detail, that perfectly resonant line of dialogue, that truest image—to be concerned with what far too many seem to be concerned with today: How does this story I wrote reflect back on me? How does it make me look?”*
The world beneath our noses may not fit into our Edenic longings, but unfortunately it’s all we’ve got to work with. It is tempting to arrange the world according to my comfort, or scrap the existing order for a new one, but both involve the same flight from reality. It is the truth we are always evading and trading in for substitute versions of being that leave us constantly agitated, seeking to conserve the established order at all costs or tearing the whole thing down without an eye for its hidden gems. But like the members of Alcoholics Anonymous attest, I cannot change the world or keep it from changing. I can only admit my own illusions of control and start from ground zero, the solid ground beneath my feet. Such an act of relinquishment, of death, or whatever you want to call it, contains its own kind of power—the power to love what and who is really there, and act for flourishing and ultimate well-being of my neighbor.
Peter Biles is a graduate student at Seattle Pacific University. He is an aspiring fiction writer and essayist. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma.
*Pancake, D’J Breece. The Stories of D’J Pancake. Back Bay Books, New York. 2002.