Sometimes it’s good to get away from the mire and noise of American politics for a while, to clear the head and return to reality—that strange, sometimes sweet, often forbidding world of trees and trailing vines, of rich soil and bare rocks where only lichens can grow, of saltwater and mackerels washed into the lagoon, of herons picking out their prey from the mud. A world of things that give man a chance to carve himself a place that is like home to him but never really home; a world of men and women, sharply distinct, loving one another somehow across a chasm of difference and misunderstanding, and the children they beget and bear and somehow, with much error and no few tears, manage to bring up to responsible adulthood. For politics in our time is as unreal and as mad as a parade without anyone to honor or any noble deed to commemorate; all sound and fury, flash and glare; all words that say nothing, all simpering and swindling if you’re to be sold a bill of goods, or accusation and play-acted anger if the goods to be sold are you.
I am therefore looking from my window at a place that is not perfect, but is still a human place, where people know one another and their families to the second and third generation, and where everyone takes for granted that the man of the house and the woman of the house must do different things if there is to be a house at all. You had better, if you are a man, know how to climb the roof to repair it, or cut down trees, or shoot deer or game birds, or fish from a boat in the bay or on the ocean, or lay the foundation for an outbuilding which you then erect by yourself or with help from your friends; and women had better know how best to use and to stretch the money, and after the men have made life possible, to make life bearable, even a pleasure to those who live in the home and to those who visit there. For people here still visit one another, without appointment, all the time, and the first law of hospitality is simply that anyone may come calling, because someone is home.
It’s a good place, though the force of television, the internet, an educational system that is kindlier than ours though no less incompetent, and the Lonely Revolution have done their harm. What symbol can I call upon, to speak to a still-surviving goodness, and to help summon my own land, America, from her fevered dreams of supposed progress, and hatred of all who will not conform to its program?
A mile away, on the side of the main road—a two-lane road with many a bend, bounded by shortish fir, spruce, and tamarack, alder bushes, many a stunted maple and oak, wild apples and partridge berry trees—stands a white cross, protected by a white picket fence. A memorial stands beside it, telling why the cross is there. I knew one of the old men who used to tend the place, who mowed it, cleared out the weeds, and kept the cross painted and sound. I can see his house from here. He passed away about 10 years ago, but we loved him and his sure and settled and utterly competent ways. For he had turned that house of his into a regular redoubt, unassailable by any storm, because he had generators to keep it running when wind and sea were in rage, and all was neat and clean and in its proper place, from the well he had dug to the electrical lines he had laid underground to the maple-leaf flag on his pole. When he married—his wife has also passed away—he understood that he had married into a family, and families have their history to honor. Her father and mother, her grandparents, her uncles and aunts and their neighbors lived and fished and farmed too far from the church to get there in the winter if the snows were heavy. For there was no real road then. Instead, they gathered at that spot to pray the prayers of the day, looking in the direction of the church. They did so for many years.
Then the road was laid, and the need passed. Not the memory. The cross stands yet. It’s an easy place to find, because right across from it, on the other side of the road, is the county dump. That’s where you go to unload your construction debris, as I did this morning—and I’m never the only man there when I go. You heave boards and crumpled shingles and great patches of wall and dead rugs and things into a big pit, where the seagulls patrol; there are other places for kitchen garbage while you’re at it, and cardboard, and electronic equipment, and old paint cans. Except for the uneasy smell when the weather is warm, I find that place friendly enough, too. Nobody looks at me cross-eyed. Nobody demands to see my license. All they do is weigh my truck going in and going out, and so long as I haven’t dumped more than 400 kilos (almost 900 pounds), I don’t have to pay anything.
I should not idealize this land that is not America. Nor do I intend to. If you go to another church nearby, you will see quite a strange memorial, this one testifying to the short-sightedness and stupidity of our elites. It’s the cupola of the church that used to sit atop the steeple. But there is no steeple now. The bishop of the diocese, thinking only of money, I suppose, engaged in a battle against steeples, cajoling the people of one parish after another to have them down. So they did, and the church now looks like a large amputee, a creature with the head cut off, but the people were still too fond of what their church used to look like to want to get rid of the head entirely. So they sliced off the scalp from the head, so to speak, and placed it right in front of the church, also with a placard to tell visitors what it used to be. Thus does piety persist for a while, despite the best attempts of bishops and more important educators—television personalities, mostly, and politicking teachers, and politicians with neither memory nor vision—to obliterate it.
America, said G. K. Chesterton, who came to visit here shortly before his death, was a nation with the soul of a church. But in some sense, I think all nations must be so if they are to remain nations and not mere political agglomerates. If you are not one nation under God, as the Pledge of Allegiance affirms, you will soon find yourselves to be no nation at all. That is because men cannot possibly be united by the political—it is like asking Germany and France to unite by declaring war on one another. It is a performative contradiction.
America is no longer like that place where the old Frenchmen gathered on a frigid Sunday morning to pray. It is, here and there, perhaps like the church with its head cut off, but still regretting the operation. It is, here and there, like the friendly dump, where you enjoy the liberty of assuming that ordinary people are not going to cheat you. It is, here and there, a place where some men and some women still remember that the sexes are for one another, and both together for the family first, and then the neighborhood and its life.
The wind outside is picking up, getting ready to howl. The only other sounds I hear are those in my house, the quiet sounds of family life. These sounds are more like the tolling of a church bell than like the hue and cry of politics. They do not share the madness of every institution that has been enlisted into the political ranks for the making and the spreading of noise. They, like the church bell, remind me that life is good, and that I must die. Unlike every politician I ever meet, they tell me the truth.