Going Down to St. Francisville

Going Down to St. Francisville

Rod Dreher is going home, back to the South, back to St. Francisville – a town he left at sixteen. His musings on that departure and eventual return are worth the read:

When you are young, you think you can do anything. Living with the limits imposed by a small town can be hard. It was, for my own reasons, intolerable for me. It wasn’t resentment, necessarily, but rather restlessness. Bright lights, big city, and all that. That was as much a part of who I am as Ruthie’s abiding and uncomplicated love for small-town life was part of who she was. I don’t come home as a prodigal, let me assure you.

But halfway along my life’s path, I find that the road ahead leads to a strange and unexpected place. The things and places I once loved have faded in my affections. I find myself searching — always searching, me! — for something deeper. My longtime readers will know that I have written for years about the loss of community in American life, and of my longing for it. Standing in the receiving line at my sister’s wake, greeting old friends, some bent and withered by age, I wondered if all my intellectual musing on this problem was a way of searching for a way to return from self-imposed exile.

Maybe.

I am still restless. But my restlessness has always been held in check by my nomadic childhood. I was born in Bozeman, MT but by the time I was two had moved with my family to Seattle, WA while my father pursued graduate school at UW. We moved back to Bozeman only to leave again a few years later for Vancouver, BC where my father received his doctorate. Then back, again, to Montana for a year before moving to Flagstaff, AZ.

But don’t let this small handful of locations fool you. After one year at a public school in kindergarten I moved to a Montessori school in first grade. Then back to public school in Bozeman for second and third grade before moving to Vancouver. I attended a public school on campus there in fourth grade for the first half of the year, then my parents decided to home school me the rest of the year. In fifth grade I attended a nearby Catholic school.

Then it was back to a public middle school in Bozeman for a year before moving to Arizona and starting once again at the bottom of the pecking order in seventh grade. (It was 6th – 8th in Montana, but only 7th and 8th in Arizona.)

In seventh grade I began classes at the junior high school here but my parents had me test into the honors courses. So after three weeks with one group of kids I switched all my classes. I still remember coming home from school that day in tears. I was a quiet kid. The process of making friends was exhausting and the process of losing them was an emotional earthquake. I was back in regular classes the next day.

This is all preface to my post-school years. After high school it was off to college – only I didn’t go anywhere. Paralysis had settled in. I was restless like everyone else I knew. I wanted to go off to college somewhere. But I couldn’t. At this point I simply couldn’t shrug that thought onto my shoulders and walk with it further than the confines of my own head.

So I stayed and tried, badly, to attend the local state school. I had over a 4.0 GPA when I left high school. I flunked out of college within the first semester, the entire edifice of my higher education crumbling around me into fire and ruin. By the second semester I had dropped out. I didn’t bother going back the next year. The year after that I started strong and then flamed out again.

Two times I planned leaving town. The plans were always hatched in a drunken, excited stupor – hazy plans, plotted out by hazy minds. Interestingly, they were always plans to go somewhere I’d been before. With one friend the idea was to simply disappear one day and make our way to Vancouver where we would…try to find work I guess. With another, the destination was Montana. That plan died after a trip to Nogales, Mexico – a border town where you could find all sorts of vice and debauchery. I realized I was in no position to go anywhere.

Then I moved to Denver in with my girlfriend – a girl I’d been off and on with for some time (who is now my wife and the mother of my children.) I took the train from Flagstaff to Denver and lived there a year before we moved back to Arizona, back to school, back to reality. Or something like it.

When I started at this blog years (lifetimes?) ago I was heavy into localism. I was wrestling with the struggles any new parent faces, but also the struggles of wanting to do more with my life and career than I had achieved at that point. I was more restless than ever, having spent years of my life stumbling from one day to the next. I was at a near panic now. A new child, a recession, no opportunity. To top it off, I was wrestling with other demons; rather, I was wrestling with God. I had abandoned my religious belief in high school, but with all this looming uncertainty I felt myself teetering between my atheism and my strong longing for a deeper meaning and a deeper spirituality. I began attending mass.

(If you think my political uncertainties are bad, you should be thankful I’m not a religion blogger.)

Localism loomed very large at this time for one thing because I had slowly come to love my adopted home town. (When Conor Friedersdorf was making his way across country with his girlfriend, Courtney, he tweeted that there were no real places left in America. I responded that he should stop by Flagstaff and lo and behold he was passing through that very night!)

I’ve lived here longer now than any other place. My roots have dug deeper here than in any other soil. The home I would go back to if I ever left would not be Bozeman, MT where I was born. That town is almost a stranger to me now, despite the family there and the family history there.

Localism, community, a sense of belonging and a sense of owing something to the people and things in a place – these are strong currents in my thinking still, even if I have abandoned my more evangelical localism.

Rod writes:

I am pretty sure that we are all going to live through an economic disaster of which the previous three years were just the opening act. I hope not, but I fear we will. And if so, all of us are going to need to learn what it is like to take care of each other, with less. I want to watch, and learn, and write about that. Even if it doesn’t come — and let us pray that it doesn’t — the catastrophe of the loss of community and stability remains with us in the postmodern age. I have been so busy theorizing about constructing an enclave to withstand the battering of the Dark Age barbarians upon us that I did not see, until now, that there is already a place on this earth where I can take my stand, if only I had the wisdom and the humility to see it and to know it and to make it my own once again.

Place matters, even if the place to take your stand is not a physical place at all but rather some well-fortified enclave in the human heart. But these places we come to, and depart from, and decorate with memories and these people who inhabit our days – this is our fortification from the ‘Dark Age barbarians.’

I am still young and restless. But my feet are still rooted firmly in this earth, in this place. I can’t say for sure whether this is out of love or out of fear or something else. I am young, not wise.

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17 thoughts on “Going Down to St. Francisville

  1. Eric, your post comes under the small world catagory.  I knew that Rod’s name rang a bell and now I remember him  While I am sure Rod has forgotten,  I seem to remember a long conversation with him on Smiley’s  front porch bitching about his obit  on Abby Hoffman.  Please correct me if my memory is wrong.  If I am right Rod will know who Smiley is.  Plus, there are many places in the world that are not near as pleasant as St.Francisville.  For a small southern town,  the people are well educated and much less racist than average.  And it has enough history to make Faulkner jealous.

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  2. Erik,

    This is a fantastic piece.  I pre-emptively nominate it for inclusion in the anthology.  That is to say, it really struck home for me emotionally, and I intuitively got it–felt it–even though my youth was nothing like yours.  My first memories are of the house that I grew up in until I was old enough to leave.  I went to the local (small) school with the same people, from K through 12.  I went to the same church with the same people for the entire time.

    But it was a small town, and I felt the restlessness, too.  I was a reasonably bright kid who went through some real struggles in college, too. (And lord, I see students like you and me all the time, and desperately want to help them, but whatever it takes to get the likes of us over that hump seems to be beyond the power of a prof.)

    And I get what you mean about community.  When I lived in San Francisco, I made a group of friends–almost all of whom I’ve lost contact with–who took care of each other.  When I needed a couch to sleep on, plenty were available.  When either my roommate or I ran out of cash before payday, the other bought dinner.  None of us had family around, so we made our own–albeit sadly temporary–family.

    Place does matter, indeed.  Often when I see a homeless person, my first thought is, “How is that you don’t have anyone to whom you can turn?  How is it that you have no place in this world?”

    Don’t fret over whether you love your place out of love or fear–just love it.  You don’t need to move somewhere else to prove it’s not fear.  Travel when you can, and enjoy it both for knowing that you can move around beyond your place, and for knowing that you can return to your place.

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      • Travel cheap.  Go by car, stay in KOA Kampgrounds or inexpensive motels with lousy continental breakfasts. Eat PB&J sandwiches for lunch. Cook dinner on a campstove. Go to little out of the way museums.  Either drive without a destination, or plan ahead to look for oddities along the way. Everything’s new to kids, so everything you see is a great big wonderful astonishing world to them (unless you always stay in upscale hotels, then everything else is boring to them and they’ll be miserable whenever they’re not camped in front of a TV or computer). Plan to stop every 2-3 hours so they can run–if you can’t find something amusing to stop and visit, hit a local park, have a picnic lunch, and let them run and play ’til they wear out.

        My parents did three great things for me: Traveled, bought us books, assumed we’d get an education. (And my conservative mother still wonders how we all turned out so liberal!)

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  3. Wonderful post.

    I can relate to many of the sentiments expressed.  I was raised in the same town from birth until I left for college, and one thing that became clear when I visited recently is how far from home it is now.

    There is something deeply meaningful about belonging somewhere, and about being known.  I’ve lived in lots of places.  Not to become unforgivably pretentious, but some of them had a sense of place that almost felt like a genius loci.  (This includes Manhattan, FWIW.)  There have been many that simply felt like a random assortment of homes and businesses, with nothing to bind them.  I am blessed to live now in a place that seems to know itself, and it is tremendous comfort to feel as though I have a place within it.

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  4. When Maribou and I talk about “what would we do if we won powerball”, one thing she always talks about is how we wouldn’t move. Our tribe is here. The babies we bought little storybooks for who grew up to be little boys that needed their own copies of Frampton Comes Alive and will soon be boys who need Spider-Man and X-Men comic book compilations before they become teenagers who don’t really need anything from fake aunts/uncles anymore… before they become young men who do.

    I make jokes about moving far, far away… but my tribe is here.

    (I might get a deeper basement, though.)

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  5. A wonderful post about a topic that has very much occupied my mind over the last few months as we contemplated a return to from the Seattle area to Los Angeles for my husband’s job (an idea I fought tooth and nail–having gone to Hell A unwillingly once, there was no way I was going back). We finally ended up in the greater Philadelphia area for a new opportunity. I’d lived in Rochester, NY for 15 years before I met my husband and part of my heart still considers it home. But, in the 14 or  so years we’ve been together, I’ve gone from Chicago to LA (bad move) to Seattle to now here. It is a nomad’s life and doesn’t suit me well. There is something to setting down roots and building a community of friends and family that cannot be accomplished when you’re either constantly on the move or living somewhere that, for whatever reason, does not resonate as “home” to you.

    At any rate, a very evocative piece about a topic that deserves further exploration.

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