To the Core

February 20, 2018 § 9 Comments

Each time the sledgehammer struck the iron wedge, a clang echoed through the sliver of woodland. When I was a ten-year-old boy, this strip of pine trees was Sherwood Forest. With twine, laundry line, and whatever cordage I could scrounge I would lash sticks horizontally from tree trunk to tree trunk, on top of which I would lay pine boughs to create make shift shelters and forts. Rope slung from a branch would be used to swing wildly back and forth, and though only a few inches above the ground I felt as if I were way up in the canopy.

Now I was cutting down the standing dead pines in my parent’s suburban backyard that were once such a source of magic. My mother and stepfather will be putting their house on the market in the spring, and I travelled home with my family to help them get the place in shape. Standing in six inches of recently fallen snow, I made face and back cuts in the trees I once played amongst, in this little windbreak that I once felt was a forest. So thoroughly dead and light the trees were, that their weight wasn’t enough to topple them. Entangled in the chaotic crisscrossing and interweaving of branches thirty feet up, the trees would not fall until I hoisted their severed bases in my arms, and began walking them away from their stumps.

Once on the ground, limbed and bucked, I gathered up the branches and carried them to a brush pile at the back corner of my parent’s yard. Hidden amongst bushes and small trees, a series of old T-Posts still stood at various angles on the western edge of the property. One strand of rusted and cracked barbed wire still connected them, demarcating the line between two former farm fields, and seemingly, between the past and the present.

Really staring at a house will betray all of the slight flaws that go so easily overlooked when one is just living in it. Creaks in the floor, poorly placed trim, cracked paint, rotting wood. My parent’s house was built sometime in the 1980’s, which should not seem old. However, it was clearly built as part of a rush of development that swallowed up farms, forests, and marshes north and west of Chicago in that era. Pulling electric sockets from the kitchen walls, my sister’s boyfriend noticed the lack of ground wires. As I painted the living room, I saw how the wooden window frames were aged and flaking. Drywall seams on the hallway ceiling were obvious. Apparently, in the master bathroom a pipe in the wall had recently snapped. We triaged the most obvious issues, but everywhere we looked, if we really looked, we saw more that was either failing from age or from a complete neglect by whoever did the original work thirty something years ago.

From the outside, if you were to drive through the neighborhood, one would probably think, “This is a really nice place.” The houses are relatively big, the yards are relatively big, and everything has that “American dream” sort of aesthetic. It is suburbia, but not the chain link fence and small brick bungalow suburbia of the 1960’s. It is the two-story, four bedroom, half acre suburbia that seemed so optimal in 1995. That is, until the full on, three-car-garage, two air conditioner, and finished basement with a mini kitchen McMansion craze of the 2000’s came in and made it irrelevant.

The area where my parent’s have their house used to sit at the very edge of development. To the west were vast cornfields and pockets of forest. Plenty of big box stores and chain restaurants flourished there for a time. A mall is a five-minute drive away. But as the years passed, the cornfields were bought up and the little patches of forest were cut and scraped clean. Like an infestation, suburbia expanded. Where once I saw cows roam on grass, there are now hundreds of homes. How a neighborhood was crammed onto that pasture, I’ll never understand.

Strips of stores replaced the farms, and now where the western edge of development lies, I am not sure. But I do know that a large number of the retail structures that housed restaurants and stores when I was in high school are now vacant. Apparently when the newer bigger houses were built further down the interstate, the money went with them. The owners of the now abandoned commercial real estate have refinished the building’s exteriors, as if praying to some gods of commerce to please bring back the stores. But the gods have moved on, and now they hover over the Meijers, and Caribou Coffees, and Verizon Wirelesses some ten miles yonder.

What are people supposed to do with an empty Wal-Mart or a vacant Best Buy? When are we allowed to bulldoze the corpse of the strip mall, and bury its rubble? The twenty years these places were in business, workers smiling at customers, it was all an illusion. A sleight of hand to make this place seem relevant so money could be siphoned to some far away bank account. The employees now long let go, who knows where they went? Maybe they followed the displaced foxes and pheasant.

Entropy is a constant, yet it seems so constantly ignored. The cost of maintaining merely what we have is enormous, but it is so much less exciting to think about than the new things we could have that are just around the corner.

Standing in my parent’s front yard I look down the street at all of the other homes. With snow covered yards and roofs, the place looks quaint. Yet I wonder about the rot. None of these houses could have been built well. The desire to turn a quick profit that informed the shoddy workmanship on my parent’s house could not have been contained merely to this one structure on this one block, or in this one town, or this one state. I once heard that all of the palm trees in Phoenix were brought into the city around the same time, so that in so many years, they would all begin to die at about the same time. I do not really know if that is true, but it has me wondering if the suburbs will all start falling into massive disrepair at the same time.

Last week a nineteen-year-old man went into his old high school in Parkland, Florida and shot seventeen people to death. Mass shootings are becoming passé in America at this point, and only those with really high death tolls and really young victims even provoke much of a reaction. What could possibly cause a person to want to commit such an atrocious act? What kind of rot exists in their soul? What kind of maintenance and upkeep has been avoided in the person who walks up to a series of strangers and executes them? Further, what kind of emotional and spiritual work has gone long undone in a culture that churns out these damaged individuals over, and over, and over again?

Doing something well, making something that will last, is not prized in this culture. All that matters is completing the transaction. Once the purchase is made, the relationship is over and the poor sucker holding the bag can deal with the fall out. Empty and depressing malls ring towns of financially strapped families living in factory framed houses. Adults work wherever there is work for however long they have to while children are shuffled through overcrowded and underfunded schools until the bell rings and they are sent out into the meaningless wastes of suburbia. By some miracle a few of them turn out exemplary, while others muddle through it towards a life of alcohol and anxiety medication. Sadly, there are those who join the ranks of rising suicide numbers while for some, the isolation and emptiness of life in capitalism push them into online enclaves of the angry and marginalized. In these holes they fester together, often lionizing lone wolf killers and school shooters.

Tragedy is all but unavoidable.

How do we tend to needs that have gone unmet for decades? How do we do social upkeep in a culture that wants us to believe that there is no society, only hard working winners, lazy losers, and a stop at Chick-Fil-A in between?   How do we build places worth living in, and how do we make lives worth living? While trillions are spent on militaristically enforcing empire around the globe, our bridges and water mains crumble, and our population has sunk into such a deep pit of despair that it spends almost every non-working hour escaping into a drug or a fictional landscape.  Hell, even those working hours are often only accomplished with the aid of a chemical, be it a pharmaceutical or just some whiskey in the thermos or coffee cup.  Then a quick dash home to watch the game, or to binge watch netflix, or to strap an AR set on your face.

It seems as though easy problems are the only ones that get tended to. A coat of paint is pretty easy to apply, and carpets can be steamed and come out looking pretty nice. The creaking floor in the bathroom is another issue altogether. The tile has to come up to get to the subfloor, and the tub has to come up to get to the tile, and if you’re pulling the tub you are going to have to pull up that counter top that hangs in the way.

Shit. Throw down an extra plush rug and hope it muffles some of the sound.

Days later, back in my own woods the sun is shining as I walk towards my garden. It is seventy degrees out in February, and so I am told the polar vortex has split in two, or something of the sort. I see tulip leaves gently shifting mulch to the side so they can grow skyward. My daughter walks next to me and I point out to her the small green spikes of daffodils breaking through the well-thawed surface of the Earth. Cranes whoop overhead, and I smile. They have made that journey countless times.

Then I wonder if there is something we haven’t broken.

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