Would You Change?

To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world. The buckeye does not grow in New England, and the mockingbird is rarely heard here. The wild goose is more of a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Ohio, and plumes himself for the night in a southern bayou. Even the bison, to some extent, keeps pace with the seasons cropping the pastures of the Colorado only till a greener and sweeter grass awaits him by the Yellowstone. Yet we think that if rail fences are pulled down, and stone walls piled up on our farms, bounds are henceforth set to our lives and our fates decided. If you are chosen town clerk, forsooth, you cannot go to Tierra del Fuego this summer: but you may go to the land of infernal fire nevertheless. The universe is wider than our views of it.

— Thoreau

I had my change of air and scenery these past four days, spent eating and talking and drinking and drinking and talking and cooking and wrapping presents and driving through snow-covered farm fields to stand silently beneath a crucifix while a priest poured water on a baby who slept through her initiation into the world. I realized then what I realize every now and again, that my solitary writer’s life grows too solitary sometimes, and I forget how the richest stories I know come not from inside my own head (I’m a non-fiction girl, the NaNoWriMo languishes at a hopeless 13,784 words) but from this world from which I retreat to try to make sense of it.

There are reasons, I said recently in a discussion with somebody smart who disagrees with me, reasons I believe what I believe. I was at a dinner party Friday night with The Upstairs Neighbor, who split a bottle of champagne with me the first day of Fitzmas, and after we established that all seven of us were reasonably on the same page or at least willing to argue it out, we started talking politics. And the Upstairs Neighbor mentioned that for a long time, the conflation of Christianity with a particular brand of vicious sexual politics made her uneasy to identify as a Christian. When in truth, much of her (and my) liberalism comes from the Christian tradition.

We miss leadership, another neighbor who was at the table said. We miss having people to look to who we can emulate. At heart we are quarrelsome and selfish creatures, and we want good examples. The next night I lay in a hotel bed, insomniac to the nth degree, and watched a program about the Kennedy assassination. Why Oliver Stone Is Full Of Shit, tonight on The History Channel. And a commentator whose name I didn’t catch said part of the reason a conspiracy theory is so attractive there is that we want there to be a balance. We want a man like Kennedy to be undone not by a lone nutball, but by some larger force, something worthy of what it brought down. Not knowing any one conspiracy theory much less enough to debunk any, I nonetheless understand that impulse. There had to be something bigger, because look, look what we lost.

And so I come home to this and this and this and it strikes me what a rudderless people we are now, with three more years of this administration to face, no confidence in those who purport to lead us, no appetite for anyone else. Who will we listen to? Politicians, entertainers, priests? Our religious leaders have for too long concentrated on sex behaviors instead of the real problems of this world, preferring to rail at what we call a thing, Christmas or holiday, instead of what it is. These are the easy things, the excuses we make for ourselves. It’s violent video games, it’s saying “Happy Holidays,” it’s not leading a prayer each day in school. People starve while we argue. People drown in New Orleans, their homes washed away from Florida to Texas. And we get people telling us God did that because New Orleans deserved it, people telling us it was a hard day for them, they had to find someone to watch their dog while they took unpleasant press questions. Who are our leaders now? Where do we look? And do we look up or down?

At the baptism, the sermon was about poverty, about the homeless in the wealthy college town and about the poor of a sister church in Haiti. The baby, comical in a ruffled white dress and flat lace bonnet, opened her eyes and flung out her hands, eager to greet the world.

A.