Home. Away. From Home.

Some thoughts on home as I bid farewell to the West Coast and return to the Midwest.

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Sarah-BK at DeviantArt (Link)

I’m not thinking of this as going to school in Oregon, I would say. I’m thinking of this like I’m moving to Oregon.

I’m going back h-…to Wisconsin for winter break, I would say. I’ll be spending most of the summer back at my parents’ house.

It had been my dream for years to move to the Pacific Northwest, preferably as close to Portland as possible. Going to grad school down the road at Oregon State University would be my excuse to transplant my life into a new environment. I was elated when everything came together perfectly as I was accepted to OSU and was offered a Graduate Teaching Assistantship.

Many Wisconsinites were skeptical of Oregon and weren’t sure why I would want to move there. I thought it couldn’t be more obvious – forests, rivers, mountains, and the ocean, a beautiful land occupied by people who actually care about preserving, using, and enjoying that land. Clean air. Liberal politics (whether you vote red or blue). Coffee, craft beer, fine wine. Friendly people. Flannels, beards, and tattoos. Music and writing and the freedom to express yourself and your creativity. The Trailblazers and the Timbers.

I wanted it all. I wanted that to be my home. I wanted to build my life there. I was ready to trade the snow for the rain and the heartland for the coast.

Less than two years after crossing the Oregon St. bridge in Sturgeon Bay and arriving at Oregon St. University in Corvallis, it’s over. I’m in Wisconsin again, and this time I brought back a Master’s diploma and everything else that would fit in a rented Suburban. Soon I will be moving to a suburb of Minneapolis.

My stay in Oregon was, in some ways, the worst time of my life. It was also a fun time of tremendous growth. I matured and accomplished much. And it almost broke me.

Let me stop you right there, smug Wisconsinite: the fact that I’ve returned to the Midwest has nothing to do with some sort of shortcoming on the part of Oregon. Oregon didn’t fail me; I failed it.

Oregon. Fucking. Rocks.

Even in my limited experience of the state, I found it to be a special place. The land itself has a mystical quality which I can only begin to describe. Flying into Oregon feels like entering into some sort of enchanted realm, and it stirs a sense of peace and freedom within me. It’s that freedom which I may end up missing most. The land and its people are imbued with this liberty and possibility which allows you to stay the way you are or become something different, to rest at home or venture out, to seek civilization and culture or the wild solitude of nature. It is for good reasons that Oregonians are notorious for rarely travelling outside their state.

Oregon is great, but I failed to fully enjoy it, let alone make it my home. Why exactly I failed is a long and complex story filled with social anxiety, regular anxiety, chronic illness, depression, and panic attacks. I lost 15 pounds, and I don’t think I was supposed to. As much as Oregon was and is and will be a place where I could see myself happily making my home and living my life, it didn’t happen. It never became home, and I didn’t become an Oregonian.

Confessing my great failure and hinting at my brokenness is cathartic as well as embarrassing[1].  It also underscores the challenging nature of my personal quest to find my temporary home in this world.

There are many platitudes and truisms that define home – it’s where the heart is, it’s wherever I’m with you, it’ll always be where you come from. I’ve found that, while these all hold some truth, they fail to describe my experience. Like so much in life, home is mutable, sometimes transient, and a site of labor and love which runs across time and space in unexpected ways. Like so many lessons learned in life, my long journey home has been a revelation in mystery and misconception.

Some people make their home in more or less the same place they were born and grew up. It’s quite common in Wisconsin, and makes for a provincialism which is in some ways a real bummer despite its charms. This is not the case for me; I don’t intend to ever live full-time in Wisconsin. But after being away, I love the place I grew up more than I have in many years. I have a renewed interest in the land and the culture, and I more readily embrace aspects of both whereas not long ago I was quick to distance myself. I intend to get back into hunting and some other outdoor activities[2], and every year I come closer to being a Packer fan[3]. Reconsidering my relationship to where I grew up has also engendered an ongoing personal project of exploring, recovering, and developing my Scandinavian heritage. Living on my own thousands of miles away redefined home for me as it relates to roots. And yet this will not be my home. I still feel myself searching for that elsewhere.

Being away also changed the way I view the relationship between home and family. I do not find the two to be synonymous, but they are symbiotic. Before moving, I was ready to be away from my family; college had given me that confidence. I carried on very well for long periods of time on my own, but eventually it became obvious to me that my family was an intense source of love, support, fun, and self-definition. They have never been more important to me, and my renewed investment in these relationships has given my extended family an increased importance in my life as well. Being closer to my family is restorative, and it will make Thanksgiving not a total bummer this year.

And yet, my sense of home is not tethered to the location of my family. Striking out on my own brought me back into the fold, but the same rebellious independence which drove me thousands of miles away remains. As I have found in almost every facet of life, some sense of balance is the most beautiful order of things. As much as I like spending extended time in the house I grew up in, I don’t feel I can become myself living there. Truth be told, I think living in the same city could be similarly restrictive.

In my search for home, I’ve come into full contact with one of the most ardent desires of the human soul. The briefest consideration of my favorite films, music, and books is saturated with the theme of seeking, protecting, and treasuring a sense of being at home. And I believe that this is part of our longing for a better country – that is, a heavenly one – and our glimpses of Eden within a sense of exile[4].

It feels, as I write this, that I have very little to add to this defining aspect of the human condition [airhorns for cliche], especially if “all” I’m saying [airhorns for scare quotes] is that the concept of home is a beautifully balanced mess of contradictions and relationships with yourself and others and I’m at a point where I don’t feel like I have a clear sense of it  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Do I need to say more than that to make this worthwhile? It depends on who you ask – maybe the personal aspects of this blog post don’t mean as much to the readers as they do to the writer.

But perhaps this insight into the hiddenness of home is revelatory for some. After all, it was not so long ago that my sense of home was dominated by wanderlust, an independent spirit, and the determination to build a home from scratch. I was certain about these things. Perhaps some of you, especially those who are in similarly transitional stages of life, are also just now finding out how elusive and variable a sense of home can be.

Fortunately, my failure in Oregon is not the end of my journey in seeking a home – it neither consigns me to containing my notions of home to the place from which I came nor does it prohibit me from trying a similar venture again. The experience fundamentally altered my perception of the world and my place in it. It caused me to rethink the importance of investing in a familiar place and familiar people while also reinforcing how vital it is for people who are able to go experience a new place for an extended period of time. I find provincialism more distasteful than ever, and yet I am now sure that there is something to be said for developing and expressing the features of your roots.

In passing I mentioned a move to Minnesota. I decided I wanted to move there and live with my brother when I realized that the next transition after graduate school would be easier for me if I could do it closer to home and to family. There have been moments after making this decision when it felt like an admission of defeat and an easy way out, but as I have prepared for this transition which is fast-approaching, I am learning how exciting – and unknown – this new opportunity is. It is also, I am realizing, in some ways the natural evolution of my personal journey of building a home. It’s a voyage into uncharted waters on a familiar vessel.

Minnesota is a Midwestern state with much in common with its eastern neighbor, but those who have spent time in both will tell you there are significant differences in the land, people, and culture. I will be living in what was Grandma’s House before she re-married and moved, but living somewhere as an adult is very different than visiting there as a child. I can make a half-day’s-journey home for a holiday or whatever, but this is still well beyond the reach of mother’s apron strings[5]. It will be easier to see most of my friends, but if I’m relying exclusively on weekend get-togethers I’ll have reached new depths of social ineptness[6]but moving to a new city gives me the opportunity to meet new people, and some of these meetings might blossom into lifelong friendships. I have visited big cities (including Minneapolis-St.Paul) many times, but I’ve never been able to develop a knowledge of and relationship with one through regular experience. If I am able to get a teaching job, it might be very similar to the teaching positions I have held before, but it will be in a new school with new curriculum, potentially with more responsibility. I will be able to go to church with my brother (going on your own is the worst), but it will be a new church and with that comes the chance to be grafted into a new community. And, of course, in addition to this theme and variation motif, much of what I will see and do will be altogether new.

I will journey into this new land with hard lessons and new dreams, carrying them less like a heavy pack and more like the small box of seeds Samwise receives from Galadriel. I continue on with the hopes of finding some of the things I hoped to find in Oregon, but supported by the base I have reestablished in the land and people from which I came.

Perhaps in ten years I will be living in Grandma’s House, or maybe I will have made the down payment on a cabin on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. Perhaps I will wend my way back to Packerland, or give Oregon another go. Maybe I will take a trip to Norway and never come back, or go to school in England and decide it suits me. It’s possible I’ll have found a physical place in this world which feels – really and truly – like home. But for now it is something I carry with me, searching out my unique voice in this world of oneness.

It’s uncertain. But that uncertainty is where I exist, and I’m beginning to make myself at home.

Shoes off, please.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

1I suppose catharsis and embarrassment are meat and mead for writers, no?
2Not that these are distinctly Wisconsin things. My time in Oregon contributed to this as well.
3This may be just because I am in love with Aaron Rodgers. Also I lowkey wish we could abolish the sport of football but that’s for another time.
4Hebrews 11:16; J.R.R. Tolkien.
5Yes I just gender-neturalized that and you can deal with it.
6People who love me are telling me to not be so hard on myself so I decided to rewrite this but I thought I’d use a strikethrough because 1. I was on a roll using them 2. I’m playing with genre or getting meta or breaking the fourth wall or whatever it is that MFAs do (not that I’m jealous or anything) and 3. I still want you to be able to see what my original thoughts were.

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Master’s Thesis

It is my hope that the thesis I completed for my M.A. English degree is attuned to the so-called “real world.” Concomitantly, I hope that those who want to read it will find that is accessible; I want people to be able to find it, and I don’t want people to have to be used to reading academic articles to comprehend it. So, here it is:

Peter Dahl Master’s Thesis

When Your Hero Isn’t Real

Critics and fans have praised the heroes of The Last Jedi, but is the Chosen One at the center of a billion-dollar franchise seriously flawed?

One of these is not like the others.

*spoilers*

Rey, the central protagonist in the new Star Wars trilogy, is, in some respects, the perfect hero for the current moment. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing strapping young men named Chris take this role, while also finding delight in the combative exploits of men on the other side of 50 (Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise) or getting surprisingly close (Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon).[1] To see the biggest movie of 2017 headlined by a young woman is not just refreshing, but important.[2] In America’s present moment, the old ways of pale males are revealing their toxicity on a daily basis, and so the counter-narrative provided in 2017 by Rey, Wonder Woman, and even Lady Bird is important.

Rey is tireless in her efforts to do good and help others, and she is more than capable of doing so with her abilities as a pilot, a sword-fighter, a user of the Force, and just about everything else she has tried over the course of two films. She appears to have saved both the Resistance (the Rebellion incarnate) and the Jedi Order. Without ever asking for any of it, she is now poised to be the one to clash with the de facto supervillain, Kylo Ren (Darth Vader-lite), and crumple the tyrannical First Order (the Empire incarnate). She’s a Chosen One with incredible abilities and an indomitable spirit. She’s the nobody-turned-messiah at the heart of an epic extension of one of cinema’s most vaunted mythologies.

The problem is that she is merely that.

We don’t know anything about Rey, other than she comes from nothing, given away by her nobody parents for some booze. Two films in, and we have no idea what makes this person tick, other than an innate sense of goodness, an attribute which has hardly been tested, and thus hardly proven. We don’t know what kind of love or attachment she feels for any other character – on or off screen – and we don’t know what she wants to get out of life. She comes from nothing, and that’s the problem; we have no expectations for her identity or the rules which govern her life.

She’s not even a Jedi. Not really, unless all you need to do to be a Jedi is use the Force and wield a lightsaber, but – clearly – being a Jedi is much more than that, and Rey has not gone through any of it. If she’s a Jedi, it’s only because that’s just how Star Wars outside of Rogue One works; a Jedi with a blue or green sword fights a bad guy with a red sword. Voila! A billion dollars at the box office.

The purity and sheer power of her status as Chosen One does not develop through an actual character – instead, Rey is reduced to a convenient plot device. She’s the infallibly good, exceedingly talented heroine who saves the day and fights the bad guy while toppling the fascist empire, unveiling new skills just when the hyperdrive fails. At best she’s a generic Young Adult fiction protagonist and at worst she is a gimmick to sell action figures to parents who want a positive role model for their daughters.[3]Of course, if this is all as plain as I think it is, the film would not have garnered such acclaim from critics and viewers alike. Out of context, perhaps Rey does stand up to critical assessment and I am being too harsh on account of my serious dislike of The Last Jedi. But Rey is not without context. She is hardly the only young Chosen One to be a part of wildly popular modern mythologies, and she should be judged in relation to those other characters. These juxtapositions make it that much more clear how unconvincing and uninspiring this character really is.

Within the Star Wars filmography, Rey has two predecessors: her “mentor,” Luke Skywalker, and his father, Anakin Skywalker. Anakin, like Rey, was chosen by the Force to have unmatched powers. It was prophesied that this boy born into slavery on an insignificant planet outside of the Republic would bring balance to the Force. But Anakin’s tumultuous road to the Dark Side is not based on a series of convenient plot points. Rather, they are fundamentally connected to who he is. He is a young man pained by his inability to save his mother and aflame with passion for the woman he loves and wants desperately to keep safe. He is a wunderkind Jedi who struggles with the Order’s rules against attachment and the Council’s hesitancy to promote him. He sees father figures in the evil Palpatine, who heaps praise on him, and in his mentor, Obi-Wan, who is loathe to grant a simple “atta boy.” It even turns out Annie exhibits enough traits to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

We know enough about Anakin and his station in life to make his struggle with Chosen One status meaningful. And it makes his fourth quarter conversion make sense, too.

Some may argue that Rey is a successful echo of Luke, but being found by a droid mechanic wandering a desert planet and joining a force of rebels is fairly flimsy criteria. The original film does not pretend Luke is a Jedi just because he is given a lightsaber and can use the Force. Instead, he’s a bored teenager who wants to go fight the Empire. And, when given the chance, he takes it. In Empire Strikes Back, he only starts to become a Jedi when he trains with Yoda on Dagobah,[4] and he only leaves his role as rebel hero to clash with the Dark Side when he finds out his friends are in danger. By Return of the Jedi, he’s pretty much over the rebel hero thing in favor of facing Vader, but this time it’s personal – the cosmic clash in the saga’s conclusion is, as many have noted, a family drama.

While it seemed like Rey was going to have a family connection to the story, this turns out to not be so. Instead, she’s intruding on the family drama which formed the basis for the first six films.

Some writers, like Chris Ryan at the Ringer, have articulated how Star Wars is now based in its own mythology, referential unto itself. But a new character cannot be fully realized through mere reminiscence and nostalgia; Rey has to stand on her own.

Rey falls short of our other famous science-fiction and fantasy Chosen Ones, too. Consider Harry Potter, as clear-cut a Chosen One as we have, with fairly overt parallels to Jesus Christ.[5] Like Rey, Harry grows up without parents, but, unlike Rey, this continues to be the dominating fact of his life which plays out in some painfully human ways. While Harry, Hermione, and Ron don’t quite have a conventional career at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry’s journey as the ultimate hero is still fundamentally related to his station as a student at the school. It’s true that, like Rey, Harry has a tendency to figure out new powers just in time to save the day, but much of this is due to what I find to be the most compelling part of the story – his evil nemesis, Voldemort, is literally a part of him. Harry is good and is a living testament to the power of love, but he still must make the decisions to not be like Voldemort.

Luke asks Rey “Why are you here,” and we still don’t know. Harry’s inevitable clash with the dark lord is not an arbitrary plot point; it grows out of the defining traits of his identity.

Such is the case with Frodo Baggins as well – his quest to save the day as the ringbearer is significant because he has no desire to be a Chosen One. There is nothing special about him that makes him able to bear the burden of the ring other than his disinterest in its power, a disinterest born of his identity as a Hobbit, but a role he is willing to play as a Tookish Hobbit who grew up listening to his Uncle Bilbo’s stories of adventure. He regrets the ring coming to him, and laments “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” to which Gandalf replies, “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” His actions are further shaped by his friendship with Samwise and his willingness to have pity on Sméagol.

Frodo’s humble beginnings continue to matter throughout his quest and help us to understand the magnitude of what he goes through.

To include Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen might be unfair, given that few characters could stand up to the central figures of A Song of Ice and Fire, but I’ll include them for the sake of making perfectly clear how little we know about Rey. Jon and Dany are, despite George R.R. Martin’s tendency to subvert recognizable tropes, seemingly destined to save the day. But Martin, a fan of misinterpreted prophecies, leaves us to question how exactly these two heroes might fulfill the role of the Prince/Princess Who Was Promised. Even so, their identities outside of epic hero status fundamentally inform how they carry themselves and how we understand them. Jon, a bastard, uncertain of who he is or where he belongs, a talented, courageous, empathetic hero who has no desire to hold power. A resurrected savior with no regard for his own safety. Self-exiled to the end of the world but brought back into the Great Game.[6] And Dany, an exiled young girl, one of the last of her legendary house, sold to a foreign warlord, determined to outwit and outwill all opponents and climb her way to power but keen to care for the commoner. Every moment of triumph earned only after a hard lesson.

We know these people, and we see the ways in which their identities inform the way they grapple with the remarkable positions life has put them in as King in the North and Mother of Dragons.

The complex identities and circumstances of these heroes shape their journeys. It helps us understand how they relate to important places (Hogwarts, the Shire, Winterfell, Dragonstone), people (their friends, their mentors, their rulers), and even items (Godric’s sword,[7] the ring, dragon eggs). The remarkable things they do are made more meaningful because they become real, believable people doing them.

This is not so with Rey. To repeat: we don’t know anything about her.

Some people, including my heroes Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion, have noted Rey’s merit as another example of one of the best-loved tropes of fantasy: anyone can be the hero. But Rey’s status as a nobody from nowhere does not necessarily place her in this category. Because she is truly a nobody from nowhere who happens to have great powers and nothing more, Rey actually becomes quite the opposite; Rey forwards the notion that only people with mysteriously-granted and prodigious talents can be the Chosen One.

Because Rey is nobody, nobody has been Rey.

Other heroes work because we’ve been those people.

Some of us have been like Anakin, the talented youngster facing a weight of expectation. We’ve faced the fear of loss and the pains of attachment.

We can relate to Luke, the bored teen wanting something more. We’ve had our future plans derailed by family conflicts. We’ve been asked to make seemingly impossible choices.

Surely we’ve all felt like Frodo, facing a situation we wish we could have avoided, or taking on a task that seems beyond us, but still making the choices to do what we think is right. We’ve been that little person in a big world.

So many can relate to Jon, the gloomy outcast desperate to find their place in the world, or Dany, the empathetic and ambitious person determined to find success but wary of the pitfalls that can come with it.

Even some of us have been Harry, born with exceedingly rare gifts and the destiny that surely comes with it while also trying to navigate growing up and finding love and friendship. And more of us can understand the complex battle within ourselves between good and bad and the choices this presents us with.

I, personally, see myself in these characters, especially Jon[8] and Frodo. This means that I can see myself doing great things.

But no one can see themselves in Rey. No one can make the connection between her ascent to Chosen One and their own potential to achieve greatness.

I hope by this point I have at least convinced you that Rey is not a believable, interesting, or compelling hero, especially within her Chosen One context. But it is also important to consider what this means beyond the aesthetics of good writing. This, of course, matters, but I assume people of my ilk are more likely to care about writing in film more than most moviegoers (and I don’t mean that to necessarily esteem my viewership). What are the consequences of Rey beyond “bad” writing?

Perhaps first and foremost is a distorted sense of what it means to be a hero at all. The antiseptic, perfect hero which Rey represents suggests that heroism is something that happens to people who discover latent gifts and would only ever use those gifts to do the right thing. This describes zero real human beings. Conversely, we have gotten much better at constructing villains who feel real, prizing the complex baddie over the irredeemably or cartoonishly evil figures.

If our choices for protagonists bifurcate into pure heroes like Rey and anti-heroes like Walter White, we will be left without characters who exhibit goodness and virtue while also being real people. Should characters like Rey continue to be the heroes of blockbusters, the only real people we will be left rooting for will be morally ambiguous anti-heroes. I love – love – a good antihero, but thousands of years of literature suggest that we have a fundamental need for more virtuous heroes as well.

As it stands, our contemporary blockbuster heroes are more complex and realistic than Rey, and perhaps her time in the spotlight will be a blip. But, given the success of The Last Jedi and the praise of the character, it appears that more bland archetypes may be on the way unless we examine these characters more critically and demand more from the writers of our new mythologies. We need our heroes. We want to feel like heroes.

It’s just important that they feel like us.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

Notes

1 Subversive as Daisy Ridley might be, there’s still a decided whiteness among these blockbuster stars. All the more reason that Black Panther is such an important upcoming work.
2 A separate discussion, but it’s worth noting that Daisy Ridley is a “real” woman, as opposed to the sort of unrealistically sexy characters which sometimes take this role.
3 I would also say that Neo from The Matrix is a pretty fair comparison for Rey.
4 Rey’s training with Luke is not nearly as developed or thoughtful. The scene in which she goes into the dark place is a total hack, relying on its relation to Luke’s confrontation with his Vader-self rather than actually doing anything to explore her character.
5 Why, yes – Jesus is also a more developed character. Easy answer is that his status as a Galilean Jew is super important. Complex answer is that the entire Bible is about him. So, yeah.
6 We learn more about Jon in one conversation with Tyrion than we do about Rey in two films: “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
7 It’s convenient that this shows up when Harry needs it, but that’s at least explained by Harry’s membership in Gryffindor House. Why does Anakin’s lightsaber call out to Rey? Because it was convenient for the plot ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
8 Fun fact: I am an INFJ, and so is Jon.

Walking On: On Walking

I really like walking down the alleys in my neighborhood. Like I mean I really like it.

I’ve become a regular walker, and I suppose I was always bound to be. My mother is someone who people always see walking around town, our teddy bear dog Reggie accompanying her for the last 9 years. I know people see her because I guess that’s the sort of thing people mention in small talk. My older sister, even since diving into the world of fitness, rarely passes up an opportunity to join my mother and Reggie when she’s home from out east. My father used to make a yearly pilgrimage through every street in the city, praying and meditating in his dérive. My younger brother calls home from college on Sunday afternoons as he walks around one of Minnesota’s 10,000 odd lakes.

Like most teens, the idea of walking anywhere sounded like unnecessary tedium, but I learned. I started going for walks in college, and now that I’m in graduate school without a car ambulating has become part and parcel of my existence, along with eating oats, reading literary theory, and pretending to know what I’m doing. I walk into campus for class and work, I make a weekly trip to the grocery store, I walk to church if I don’t have a ride, I wander to one or two coffee shops on the weekends, and I don’t mind stretching my legs to go downtown for some errands of varying urgency. I didn’t know in 2013 how appropriate getting “Galatians 5:16” (“But I say, walk by the spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”) tattooed on my leg would be in the literal sense. I also didn’t know that lettering tattoos aren’t as cool as they seem to a first-tattoo-getter, but they are safe, and that matters quite a lot to a first-tattoo-getter.

A byproduct of walking by necessity has been walking for fun. I like to walk. I don’t like it if I go a day without walking. Perhaps that’s why I’ve accidentally lost 10 pounds I didn’t know I had.

I’m spending most of my summer in my hometown with a decent amount of free time, so, while teenage me would have just played more video games, I look for excuses to go for walks which transport me well beyond the streets and paths on which I tread.

I used a French word earlier, dérive, a word I know not because I’m taking French classes (which I am) but because I wanted to sound fancy in this one poem I wrote about a black squirrel jumping into a lilac tree. I take liberties with my use of translation, but to me it is a means of travel which allows for reaction, improvisation, and spontaneity between endpoints in a journey.

I like to practice this when I walk the streets of my hometown, which is just as well because, even if there are main roads in Sturgeon Bay, there is rarely such thing as a direct route from one place in the city to another. As a bonus, some neighborhoods, mine included, have a lot of alleys. So, within a short walk from my house to the public library, there’s ample opportunity to let the streets tell me where to go.

Alleys – the thin roads which run between rows of houses in the middle of a block – take me past the reflective facades of houses into the homes themselves. The backyard is where the character of a home really lives, and alleys are the paths to these secret theaters and gardens. Literal gardens, of course – the projects of green thumbs and the overgrown stalks and leaves and petals. It’s beautiful, the way people manage the plant life which so happily springs forth. I admit I’m usually a little disappointed if the yard is nothing but freshly cut grass, even if that’s a better space for frisbee and touch football. Backyards are also where people put secret meeting places, their patios and chairs, their firepits and tables with umbrellas. I see these and I wonder if they’re well-used; I wonder if the grill gets fired up for a friendly gathering or if the chairs sit vacant every day, posing in lonely hopes. Backyards are a view into garages and sheds, the rundown shelters of odds and ends and the vehicles parked on the grass that may or may not be able to run anyway. Clean, well-lighted garages boasting a new set of wheels might seem a more desirable view from the street, but I’m convinced these cluttered, dingy shacks are the natural way for us to keep what doesn’t fit in the house, even if it’s proper to hide it from view.

People can go to great pains to put forward their best self in the front yard and their porches and approaches, but the secret gardens and theaters in the back are where I think most people really live, and alleys are the paths which take me into these places which may or not be intended for me. I love to find new alleys, and I’m frustrated when I see an interesting yard but can’t get to it without trespassing, as well as when I see what looks like an alley emerging from a hedgerow only to find it’s just a long driveway. There are yards back there that I want to see and know and muse about, and it bothers me that I can only window shop instead of getting to see what the owner keeps in the backroom.

Walking – whether through alleys or on streets and sidewalks – gives me an extended look at homes that I would only ever catch a glimpse of from a car window, if at all. I love taking in the character of a home in the few seconds I get with each one. I love how the kitschy yards with faux marble Mother Mary and sassy Packer signs and generic symbols of patriotism somehow balance their gaudiness with the dignity that comes from sincerity. I roll my eyes even as I take mental photos of the expensive houses with their bright white paint and clean-swept porches, brand new SUV in the driveway with stickers for Ivy League schools. I sigh with bliss at the front yards which have been cultivated with great care to explode with flowers like a Kehinde Wiley painting from their professionally landscaped terrain. But my favorites are always the quirky off-beat homes that walk a fine line between artistry and negligence. The front yard is decorated with little rhyme or reason, overgrown with plants and mismatched furniture, and a cobblestone or dirt path leads through a rickety fence into a backyard of chicken coops and mystery. The front porch looks like someplace people might actually use, sitting and smoking pipes surrounded by stone Buddhas and metal birds. I love these houses, and I want to know who lives there and what they’re doing.

But walking helps me to know neighborhoods and the city at large as much as it gives me a view into individual dwellings. A drive along the main roads in Sturgeon Bay will take you past what you’re supposed to see, like the beautiful houses with a view of the bay or the cutesy shops in the downtown area by the bridges. But just a block back from these places the story changes, and for every nice-ass house in this town there are five tiny, tiny homes, and not in the trendy eco-friendly sense. Some of them are spruced up with pride and others look like they’re falling apart. A house that belongs in a magazine is across the street from one that was literally purchased from a Sears catalog. I don’t walk past homeless people in Sturgeon Bay like I do in Corvallis, but some of the homes I see remind me that, despite what comes to mind at the mention of Door County, the fact remains that Sturgeon Bay is a lower-class community, with many citizens living below the poverty line. Those facts can get lost along the waterfront, the site of most of the city’s political tensions about bridges and hotels and historical markers.

E.B. White said that “Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car,” which is a true fact that limits the ability to know the places we go, even the places we live. Walking – getting on the ground and being present in a space – and looking provide a path to knowing, a path which hides in plain sight.

I’m prompted to wonder how many people get to know the place they live in this way. I see so few people walking when I’m out, and not once have I met another pedestrian in an alley. I imagine I am the only person to walk down certain streets on a given day. Driving is one of the more self-absorbed things we do. Driving is a way to quickly get where we need to go, transported from our home to that place in our quiet bubble of personal space, a soundproof studio which engenders its own type of rage because how dare anyone fuck with that serenity which comes from hurtling through space in a two ton exploding battering ram. Cars let us stay safe from the homeless people panhandling and the sun-baked or puddle-pocked sidewalks covered in stains from who-knows-what. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with driving, and while I don’t own a car I drive all the time (so to speak) and sometimes rather enjoy it, especially if I’m on rural and forested Door County highways. The self-absorption I’m referring to can’t be helped, let alone condemned. It just comes with the territory, and I think the “selfish” act of driving blinds us to things we can only see, experience, know, and feel if we walk.

Walking through my hometown blurs temporal schemes and linear chronology, which serves both to alienate me and ground me here as if I never left. Door County doesn’t really change, which is the way the locals (and especially the natives) like it. Not like Boston, where I walked with my sister and her husband through a harborside area which had sprung up faster than a new line of iPhone. Progress, expansion, and renovation drive buildings skyward as that city, like many others, undergoes rapid change. But if one storefront changes in downtown Sturgeon Bay, I’m going to notice. It doesn’t seem to matter what year it is, so home has remained the same over the years of my returns, even though in the same amount of time entire business districts have sprung up in places like Boston and I have had the most transformative years of my life. Coming back to my childhood home as a young adult makes me feel just a little out of place, like anyone can tell I’m an expatriate, like I can only ever be a visitor. But, at the same time, seeing people I know wherever I go and falling into the same year in, year out rhythm makes me feel as if I never left. I wonder if this is what Gandalf feels like whenever he visits the Shire (I know he’s not from there but you know what I mean (you do know what I mean, right?)).

Slowing down to walk through the streets of my hometown, and not just the streets I’ve grown accustomed to travelling, like the ones to the school and the Y and my church and Culver’s, floods my meditations with little memories. Big memories tend to come up now and then and stay close to mind, but these little memories require more chance recollections, followed by more careful excavation of the fossil. I’ve walked past a local bed and breakfast, and the beautiful historic house brings to mind how we used to go for family walks when I was little and stop by there just to stay hello to the proprietors. They had the most beautiful and friendly Chow Chow, and they made the best damn giant cookies. Or I walk past one of my oldest friend’s houses and remember going to his birthday party and caring so much about how I played in backyard soccer. And then my mind runs through an entire filing cabinet of memories associated with him and with his family, and, for whatever reason, that makes me ponder what would have had to have been different in life for us to have remained closer friends or for me to study zoology.

Is there an inherent value to any of these recollections and musings? Maybe, maybe not, but I think it’s valuable to force ourselves to think about things we don’t normally think about, or to think about something in a different way.

Walking can also evoke big memories and prompt deep thoughts. Literally moving through a day at a walking pace affords the space to ponder and meditate in a way that can be so profound so as to create a sort of new big memory all its own. I had a moment like this just this Spring when I was walking into the marketplace down the street from my apartment complex to buy overpriced bananas and I espied my adult self in the large glass doors as I reached for the part of the door handle I thought might be touched the least. This turned into a very big moment and memory for me, even though it probably seems trivial in comparison to a memory like getting arrested or sex on the beach or getting arrested for sex on the beach. Seeing the reflection of a young man in a dress shirt and tie as I went to buy something I felt like I could eat a couple days after being sick and dehydrated ushered me into the same great gift which walking gives to the mind: awareness. Realities that I had taken for granted – namely, that I was surprisingly adult and living alone in a far away place – snapped into focus in the same way that walking draws the streets of my idyllic little hometown out of the background of tunnel-visioned assumptions. And in that moment I needed awareness more than anyone has ever needed sex on the beach.

What I have written about walking is true in some way about so much more than gallivanting to a coffee shop to write. I tend to resent overt didacticism, but I feel the need to elaborate on these applications, even at the risk of insulting your intelligence or diminishing the independent value of what I’ve said about walking. I care a lot about walking, but I also care a lot about awareness.

No matter which path you choose, you still have to walk it, and I don’t know that they always tell you that. I think our default setting is to coast through life in cars which allow us to ignore what’s around us and become self-absorbed without actually practicing self-examination and metacognition. We check out of the tedium of daily life and drive for the destination at the expense of the little details that matter. We take the quickest way on the widest path, forgetting to consider the possibilities which exist all around us at any given time, and detaching from ourselves in the hope that things might be otherwise.

Some might hear echoes of David Foster Wallace, and you’re not mistaken. It’s a simple but powerful truth: awareness is a life-giving choice.

I needed awareness this Spring. Side effects from a medication aimed at a chronic health problem piled on top of the other shit that comes with being me, which turned molehills into mountains and made for long days of wild thoughts and crippling fear. I could feel it in my chest and my head the moment I woke up each morning. It was almost impossible just to keep the theater of my mind from exploding like the one in Inglorious Basterds.

In the darkest hours, seeing, remembering, and feeling what we hold dear becomes a battle. Our safe havens of truth; knowledge which lights the lamps unto our feet; the humdrum which gives our life rhythm; the sacred love and spirit which act as our sword and shield; these all grow dim as we isolate ourselves in a prison of ignorance and fear.

In that tough time, I was reminded of the sources of strength which give me life. My friends testified to who I am. My mother reminded me of what I’ve done. My father shined a light on the one to whom I belong. His advice in tough times is always to preach to yourself. He sent me Scriptures and told me to “Mine some jewels,” which I thought sounded dope because of Run the Jewels.

I implore you to walk on day after day. I have to remind myself to do this, especially on mornings like this one as my illness feels like a thorn twisting in my side.

Remember and remain aware. Get out of the car and get out of your head. Stop and smell the roses. Seek the secret gardens. See and know your fellow human. Preach to yourself. Don’t ever think you have to go it alone, and don’t ever be afraid to ask for help.

And go for a walk.

 

 

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter