Oh Heavenly Salvation: Life and Death in the Midwest
Some people may think it is ironic that a week after I wrote a snarky blog post on the Rapture, a tornado swept through my little Midwestern college town and ripped the roof and porch from my bungalow home.
Then again, some people completely misunderstand and grossly misuse the term irony. These people might apply the descriptor to a situation in which apparent coincidences seem to take on the significance of design or ‘karmic’ intention. A man who is shot with his own gun, cheated on by the spouse upon whom he cheats, or otherwise hoisted upon his own petard- these are situations we think of as ironic when really a better word might be inauspicious, unfortunate, or in interest of accuracy, decrepitly superstitious.
And in candidly engaging with the superstition lying behind the ‘ironic’ circumstance, that the rash of tornadoes tearing up the Midwest was somehow justice, or “God’s justice” for one or more real or imagined sins on the part of me personally or the American people as a whole, the whole mythos breaks down in general on the same fulcrum that complicates the philosophical problem of evil and breaks down in particular on what a stellar human being I am personally.
I mean, what God could punish so intrepid a defender of the King’s English? Trading on the common sentiment that if there is a hell, the floor seats are reserved for people who misuse the terms ‘irony’, ‘literally’, or have ever described anything outside the bounds of mathematically probability as ‘random’. Anyway, I don’t think of the tornado as punishment so much as God’s misguided endorsement of Action Movie May.
All that aside, there is a certain sense in which the storm and the destruction of my home freshened my perspective. From a sense of renewal, with the flotsam and jetsam of my habitual life being swept away in the flutter of moments, to a very deep sense of gratitude.
Renewal because I’m given this opportunity to reassess my life and how my life is reflected in the importance I place in my stuff. I kept a small nautical barometer on my desktop, more as a caricatured novelty than for any real practical purpose. But when I saw the mercury dip 8 pounds pressure per square inch in a few seconds, I knew that shit was coming through. So, given about a minute to consider (still a little buzzed on scotch, mind you) I grabbed the things I felt were most important- my cat, a charcoal drawing I’d commissioned from a friend, and an oil portrait of me as a samurai. It was an interesting situation, the proposition of having two hands, one minute, and the question of what actually matters.
Gratitude because, for however terrifying and truly awe-inspiring the storm and the damage may have been, it was pretty small potatoes compared to what happened in places like Joplin and Tuscaloosa. I made it out alive, nobody got killed in the storm, and I managed to save the stuff in my house that I really cared about.
And while my gratitude hasn’t required an object since I told my priest to go to hell at the tender age of 10 years old, the fact that my gratitude is aimed at an empty set does little to diminish it. And I find that weird. The idea that nature or whatever can sweep through and totally fuck up your world, and that the most enduring feeling to come out of it is a sense of being grateful- it’s extremely strange but extremely human.
This has been one of my favorite songs for a long time now, because it is basically Greek drama in contemporary form. Mariners and citizens of the ancient world lived at the whim of the elements, whose mercurial pendulum between destruction and peace was framed in the narrative of titans, gods and heroes. People saw their homes destroyed, their loved ones killed and their lives laid to ruin, but instead of cursing the gods who sent the storms, they thanked them. For mercy they thanked them, because they were grateful to be alive. Out of this Hellenistic culture of supplication at the feet of the world came Judaism, and millennia later Christianity as inheritors of the Jewish people’s exodus in search of Israel.
The obvious analog to exodus in modern America is the long and ugly story of African Americans in this country, their struggle to throw off the shackles of slavery and find their own Israel somewhere in America’s borders. This is why I’ve always been so touched by this Persuasions song, because it weaves the ancient and modern narratives together artfully enough to show that they are in fact one narrative- the narrative of people who have been shat on looking for a home.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this song while lugging furniture over the past week, and I’ve been thinking a lot about home. Not in terms of a house or a physical space, so much, but rather the idea of home. The idea of security, of permanence, of belonging. It makes sense to me that the roots of our artistic and religious culture are rooted in the allegorical search for home, particularly in a world where the stone and timber that seem so solid in the sunshine can be swept away in an instant.
And as the economic and foreclosure recovery starts to sputter out while people like Clarence Thomas sell out everyday Americans into a brand new Gilded Age, more and more often do our thoughts turn towards home. Not every storm is natural after all. And with more and more folks uprooted by one disaster or another, wandering around while looking for their place in the world, the deeper homelessness that is the lot of every creature that lives and thereby dies will become more and more relevant to the everyday experience of people shifted loose. Which is why I can’t be too mad at people looking for a way to heaven.
Because maybe all heaven really is just being able to go home again.
Anyway, please forgive my cathartic indulgence here. Next week’s post will have jokes and be funny. It will be about dicks. I promise.