on tuesday i got back from my ancestral homeland (e.g., northwestern pennsylvania), having gone there to witness the very lovely marriage of my younger sister. the whole family attended, except for 00soul, which was a big drag for me, but what can you do?
i spent a week in erie, a cold and rainy week mostly occupied by eating meals and hanging out with our surprisingly large family. on thanksgiving, my little sister's soon-to-be husband (they were married on saturday) singlehandedly cooked a feast for nine. everything was delicious, but i was especially impressed by the wonderfully moist roast turkey, the excellent cornbread stuffing, and the butter-beans-and-collard-greens mixture. mmmmmm.
while there i had a rental car, and i kept the radio tuned to the classic-rock station, z102.3. it just seemed more right than listening to "bob," the local version of "jack," which is lame in terms of "modern rock" and simply not the right soundtrack for any return to this place where i grew up. as a result i heard songs that were hits when my older siblings were in high school, which one of my big sisters pointed out, along with more "recent" classics like the knack's "my sharona" and the clash's "should i stay or should i go?" i heard led zep and pink floyd, john mellencamp and heart, foghat and lynyrd skynyrd, and of course dylan, the doors, rush, journey, the police ... all manner of stuff that made me laugh, sing along, and cringe, sometimes all at once.
this made for some strange and magnificent synchronicities. the first night i had the car, after dinner i took a drive in the rain from the city to harborcreek, the nearby small town where i actually grew up. (it used to be two words, but, to quote bob dylan, things have changed.) bombing along I-90 in my beige mid-sized vehicle, with semis passing on the left and throwing sheets of water across the windshield, i saw in the distance clusters of low-hanging clouds, reflected here and there with crimson light. the DJ was playing live tracks, and he put on george thorogood doing the old elmore james blues number "the sky is crying." fuck me. that was amazingly appropriate. another good synchro was, as i pulled up to the restaurant where the wedding was held, journey's "don't stop believin'" came on. if i knew how to do a doughnut in the parking lot, i would've; as it was i had to settle for flashing the devil horns at the groom (who was outside smoking a cigarette) and going "wooooooooo!"
on the plane i worked to finish reading milan kundera's ignorance, his most recent novel, published in 2000. i've read all of his novels and failed to penetrate essay volumes like the art of the novel (mainly b/c i am not well read enough to understand what he's talking about). it's taken me a long time to finish ignorance, although it is a slim book published in large type. i think this is because his novels are like ... not morality plays, but maybe philosophy plays. he makes characters out of ideas, which i suppose most writers do, but in this really specific way that makes it more essential to understand, as you are reading along, what the characters and story represent than what's actually happening to the characters in the story. if that makes any sense at all. so, as a result, when i put the book down for too long a period of time, i had to start all over again in order to follow it even semi-intelligently.
anyway, ignorance deals with nostalgia and returning to one's homeland after being an exile due to the political climate. (kundera is czech by birth, but emigrated to france in the mid-'70s.) the characters in the story are facing up to the choice they made to depart (or not) and the consequences of same, and they have different, yet intersecting, experiences of coming back to it -- somehow, kundera always manages to intertwine the intimately personal with broader political and philosophical concerns, as with one character, irena, who on her return trip sees a man she was once infatuated with, engages him, has sex with him, and then realizes he has no idea who she is; he doesn't remember her, which is devastating to her -- their long-ago flirtation has been a sustaining moment of her life. although each of them has come to similar conclusions about their exiles, this kinship is strangely impersonal, despite the intimacy that's sparked in part by the revelation that they share the same thoughts. (kundera has often explored notions of identity, memory, individuality through stories that seem on the surface about love and romance.)
as i have become so enamored of the synchronicities in life, ignorance was the perfect book for me to be reading in erie. i don't have much nostalgia for the place, but it was still weird, even surreal, to move through that familiar landscape, albeit much changed in many ways, and realize that the place has no memory of me. that's ok -- i don't mind. sometimes when returning there in the past i've fretted abstractly about running into this person or that person, nobody i'd want to see and would dread having to make small talk with. or the one person i'd literally still like to murder in his tracks, but that's another story.
i've had the experience in past visits of recognizing a former classmate who didn't even register a flicker of having known me. like once it was a clerk at kmart, who handed me my change and looked me straight in the eye w/o realizing who i was. that made me feel good, like i had so completely escaped the place i knew i never belonged to. but, funnily enough, while there this time i visited with an old friend, a woman i've known since grade school, and the first thing she said to me was, "you look exactly the same." ahahaha -- so did she.
we had a great time talking over lunch one day and dinner the next. despite the many years we've been acquainted, we were always more friendly than close, and i think that has allowed us over time to see each other as we really are, rather than imposing some vision of the past upon our present selves. (in the novel, irena is vexed by her old czech mates doing just this sort of thing.) while talking about our lives growing up, however, i realized that i didn't have the full picture of her world, which was darker than i'd known, seeming on the surface to be far more full of straight blonde hair and perfect white teeth, cheerleading, class presidencies, football-player boyfriends, and suchlike than mine. not that i was jealous of that, then or now. in high school i generally had contempt for the popular and beautiful, but she was unhateable even then. now she's all grown up with an executive job and a daughter she's raising more or less on her own, and to me she does seem much the same: a nice, smart, resourceful person who carries the weight on her shoulders quite elegantly, despite the burden.
another phenomenon of listening to classic rock in erie was, in the car alone, i often heard the lyrics more clearly than ever before. i remember rush's "freewill" as just being a silly song about how choosing not to decide was still making a choice. or something. i mean, i never cared what it was about; i never dug the band. yeah, geddy lee's vocals were definitely a barrier, but drummer neil peart wrote the lyrics to this song (and most of them, maybe all). turns out it's a rather philosophical tune about religion and its way of allowing adherents to view their lives as something that happens to them rather than something they have at least a partial ability to engineer. or something. it made me think about my small town, and how, when i was a teenager desperate to get out, i saw it as a living beast that could grab hold of your leg and never let you go -- if you didn't move fast enough to avoid the trap. in some ways i still think that; my friend described above has a successful career and a nice house, but she yearns to leave erie behind. i think she will if she puts her mind to it, but there's something about that place that eats people alive.
funnily enough, other kundera novels have dealt with the futility of having only one life, with no real possibility to experiment or for do-overs -- an aspect of existence also addressed in "freewill." one of my favorite jokes on myself is that i lack ambition b/c i got the only thing i truly wanted early in life -- to escape harborcreek. everything else is gravy. now, of course, that shouldn't be enough: i should want to be a great writer, a respected author, someone who leaves a mark. but the truth remains that, while i do hope to someday write something enduring, the fact that i got away from there is enough. it may be the best thing i ever did for myself. b/c i only have one life, and it's better than it ever could have been if i had stayed in the place where i come from.