Friday, December 8, 2017

Ruminations on Internal Exile

A sight from my homeland that never fails to stir my heart (or my stomach)

We tend to think of exile in terms of national boundaries, but in an America that is increasingly divided, exile can be internal, too. I live 1500 miles from my hometown in rural Nebraska, and when I am in New York City every day for work, I might as well be on a different planet. I never planned it this way, it just kind of happened.

I am going to be returning to my homeland with a heavy heart in a couple of days to attend the funeral of my aunt. I say the word "homeland" in the German sense, an analog of the German word "Heimat." This means a kind of regional home, as opposed to a national one. The region I come from certainly has its own distinct culture and ways as notable as a peasant's lederhosen or dirndl.

My relationship to it is complicated. I cannot abide its bad politics of its bad food, but when I look around the supposedly sophisticated East Coast I find it wanting. People in this part of the country are high on their own bullshit. They are much more status and wealth obsessed, and much more likely to think "rules are for suckers." Of course, I don't dare say that out loud here, where people use the term "Midwestern" as an implied insult. For that reason I can find my homeland irritating but my adopted home exasperating.

My aunt exemplified many of the aspects of my homeland that I miss. She was a gentle, kind person uninterested in material things. Her life was humble, but she was okay with that. That's a quality I find admirable when in the snake pit of Manhattan and all of its neuroses, resentments, and social hierarchy. I will admit, I get sick and tired of Manhattan's bullshit quite a lot.

I know at the same time that my homeland's knee-jerk conservatism, nativist tendencies, and fear of anything new helped drive me out of there in the first place. It is an almost impossible place to be a thoughtful young person. I enjoy visiting, but never feel much like staying. Yet when I come back to the Northeast, I feel something missing. For better or for worse, my homeland is something I still carry around in my heart, and it has placed an indelible stamp on me, even if I have broken with some of its values.

Some internal exiles I've met in these parts seem embarrassed of their origins, constantly running down the homeland of their births in order to get approval of the Northeasterners who see everything between the Hudson and the Pacific as easily dismissed "flyover country." Others seem to cling to their regional chauvinism as much as possible, constantly finding their new surroundings wanting. Despite my frustrations with not feeling comfortable in either the homeland of my birth or my adopted one, I am at least glad that I can see the good in both.

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