in this century

Posted by on August 1, 2012


Laclede Ave. 

by Thomas McGrath
I don’t belong in this century—who does?
In my time, summer came someplace in June—
The cutbanks blazing with roses, the birds brazen, and the astonished
Pastures frisking with young calves . . .
                                                          That was in the country—
I don’t mean another country, I mean in the country:
And the country is lost. I don’t mean just lost to me,
Nor in the way of metaphorical loss—it’s lost that way too—
No; nor in no sort of special case: I mean
Now, down below, in the fire and stench, the city
Is building its shell: elaborate levels of emptiness
Like some sea-animal building toward its extinction.
And the citizens, unserious and full of virtue,
Are hunting for bread, or money, or a prayer,
And I behold them, and this season of man, without love.
If it were not a joke, it would be proper to laugh.
—Curious how that rat’s nest holds together—
Distracting . . .
                      Without it there might be, still,
The gold wheel and the silver, the sun and the moon,
The season’s ancient assurance under the unstable stars
Our fiery companions . . .
                                     And trees, perhaps, and the sound
Of the wild and living water hurrying out of the hills.
Without these, I have you for my talisman:
Sun, moon, the four seasons,
The true voice of the mountains. Now be
(The city revolving in its empty shell,
The night moving in from the East)
—Be thou these things.

* * *

The first line of this poem struck me because while growing up I sometimes nurtured a childish idea that I was born into the wrong century–the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong culture, the wrong society. Maybe some small percentage of the population will relate to this idea. Or maybe a large percent– if it is born out of a common susceptibility to the appeal of a fictional places like Middle Earth. Always, there is the pull of some form of escapism or another. And escapism takes many forms.

But having just admitted that it was childish, I will move quickly past it and just say that although I have grown up and no longer seriously entertain thoughts like that, I retain a kernel of the spirit of the idea in the form of an internal critic that too easily gets grouchy and finds fault in whatever context I am trying to make my home. I struggle to not struggle with my surroundings; I struggle to let things simply be. I struggle when my ears are assaulted with the local radio station blasting top forty hits at the community pool. How comes no one else minds this? I struggle with the aesthetic ugliness of urban sprawl. How come no one else minds this? Conclusion: I should have been born before the industrial revolution. Never mind the fact that while shopping for a bathing suit at Nordstroms the salesperson offered to ship the size I needed to my house free of charge, lickety-split, and emailed me a UPS tracking number. Never mind that I was really stoked when that happened.

I took the photo above while sitting in the car on a very hot day outside of what is now Jeff’s new office in the theology building at the university, a familiar spot for me now, as I have been parking there almost every day when I go to pick him up around 5:00 pm. We live ten miles from where he now works. We have lived here for over a month now and Jeff has been going into work every weekday, but with only one car, we are still trying to figure out a satisfactory routine for his commute. I don’t care that much if he takes the car all day, but then, with the weather being as hot as it has been, it can be difficult to be carless in a house in the suburbs with two little girls. Let me tell you, the day can be long.

There is a bus that goes from our neighborhood to the university but it takes an unbelievable one and a half hours to traverse the ten miles. I think that this bus must be designed primarily for the carless elderly who need to do a little light shopping. Certainly it does not work for those trying to get to work. Jeff thought that he might use the time to read or get something done, but he said that he feels a little car sick and really can’t. But for now, until we figure something out, he is taking the bus in the morning–thus, basically, wasting an hour and a half that he could be working on the pressing task of finishing his dissertation– and I have been picking him up in the afternoon. In a certain way, I look forward to picking him up because it gives a little bit of shape to my otherwise amorphous days this summer and the girls seem to enjoy doing this. On the other hand, after living in DC and hardly ever using our car, I find this sudden switch to a car-bound life here really fatiguing and unappealing. We knew that it was going to be part of the reality here, but I couldn’t have predicted how much so, and how much it would bother me and make me miss our situation in DC where we were able to walk just about everywhere.

This transportation situation is not a calamity, I realize, but it is a shift into a different lifestyle. I will have to make peace with it or go crazy, but somehow I would like to postpone that peacemaking.And maybe my internal struggles really have nothing to do with the car thing. Maybe they have more to do with the after-affects of moving which can never be simply dismissed or skipped over. The dust of the move has settled, but in some ways, that only allows for all of the difficult feelings surrounding the move to emerge with clarity. They say that moving is the second most stressful life experience, only second to the death of a spouse. After the adrenaline subsides comes the low-grade malaise– the slight loss of identity, the gnawing sense of rootlessness. Those things move in like a fog and stick around for a while.

I think that right now I am waiting for the rhythm of the seasons, like a slow-turning wheel, to carry me away from this place, this oppressively hot August. But how slowly that wheel turns when you want it to turn fast. The advent of fall will be a relief, as will the start of a real routine for our entire family, with Esme in first grade and Elsa starting preschool for the first time ever (!). It is strange to think that since Elsa was born over three years ago she has never been apart from me. I think that she is more than ready to have her own thing to do in the morning, and so is her mother. I think that this whole business of a long summer vacation for kids is somewhat unnatural in our current context. Didn’t I hear from someone, somewhere, long ago, that summer vacation from school was based on an agrarian model of society in which children had to help with farm work? Well, how long is it going to take for a new model to displace the old one? No doubt by the time it does my girls will be going to college.Again, none of this is a calamity, and perhaps I am falling prey again to my inner child (brat) who would tell me that everything is just wrong, wrong, wrong, when actually so much– more things than I can list– are right about our situation. But here is my current wish list: 1) better public transportation in St. Louis; 2) that American cities would stop developing in such a car-oriented fashion, because I think we can all agree that parking lots and strip malls are ugly; and 3) for autumn to hurry up.

And for the sake of balance, I will also add a list of the many things I like about my current situation, starting with our house. I am also trying to re-frame my argument about the length of this interminable summer and say that I am grateful for the time left before school starts. I can use it to get things more ordered at home and learn our way around the city. I am grateful for our new community pool membership, which is basically the best thing that has happened to us since we got here (it is the best pool for kids I have ever seen). And I confess that I really am grateful for our little car, which has served us faithfully now for seven years. What else? I am grateful that some of the things within walking distance include: a yoga center (which I haven’t yet tried out but plan to), a truly tasteful fabric/sewing store, a really cute stationary store, a frozen yogurt place, and a super-expensive grocery store which is ok for small purchases now and then, and a nice playground. And as soon as this heat relents, we might actually start walking to those places.

I realize that none of what I am writing today is flowing particularly well, and Poetry Wednesday is straggling on three legs, but I am still being dogged by one of the top ten life stresses, not to mention an unusually hot, long, oftentimes frustrating July at home with two little girls.

  1. Veronika
    August 3, 2012

    Julia, I just want to say that my thoughts and prayers are with you. It's late in the evening, and my head is in a blur. Our days are hot too (not St.Louis hot, I've been in St. Louis at about 110F – insane!), with two girls who just decided that the best answer to everything is "NO!" and throwing tantrums as important as having 3 meals a day I'm going pretty insane. I also think, my moving to the West Coast is just starting to hit me. I can feel for you so much! It sounds very very stressful what you are going through, but it also sounds full of very good things! Waiting eagerly on more updates about your days and your house.

  2. Manuela
    August 3, 2012

    Julia, this is one of these posts again that makes me wish I could write like you.
    I can relate to everything you are saying, and it makes me once again understand why moving is a number one stress in life.
    My thoughts are with you always. I hope the weather gets a bit cooler soon and the start of a routine will bring some time for you to write many more posts like this and much, much more. Get your office set up now.

  3. Julia
    August 3, 2012

    Thanks, both of you. I promise that I am not (at least consciously) fishing for compliments and encouragement with these woeful blog posts, but I confess that any drop of commiseration and encouragement I receive right now is so appreciated and lifts my mood a lot. Right now my number one priority is getting this office thing set up. It is going really slowly but each little amount of progress makes me really and truly happy.

  4. Michele
    August 4, 2012

    This time I have little to say. Just like it.

  5. A M B E R
    August 10, 2012

    ah, Julia, as usual. You sit down at your computer and create beautiful prose from the scattered thoughts and general crankiness that life brings us. I love the little three-point re-cap of what you'd like to see happen especially.

  6. Evelina
    September 5, 2012

    Juls, different things come to mz mind while reading 🙂
    1. You surely know the last movie by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris, don't you? Its whole plot is based on the "other century" thing. It's shallow but funny, and totally into your train of thoughts.
    2. Being so much car-ridden would drive me crazy for sure, as I am used to walking style of life. Sigh.
    3. The argument about the agrarian model defining the vacations you must have read in the article by that D.C. official… oh, it was you that pointed that article to me, I remember now, ok :).
    and 4… We just came back from Bari where we spent just one week… and I am now extremely grateful for the steady German rain we are having today!