Notes from the Road

There's a U-Haul in front of us and skiffle on the iPod. The road is rolling out before us and the sky is clear all the way to the horizon. We must be in middle America.

What do I see?

My husband says that if I want to have more people reading my blog, I should write about things that more people are talking about. Like current events. Or, I don't know, Jesus. I saw a big billboard yesterday and that's what it said: "JESUS". In giant white letters on a green background. Or maybe the letters were green and the background was white. I'm not sure, I just remember the word: "JESUS".

So, if I want to have more readers, maybe I should write about Jesus. Which I suppose I could since I do think about Jesus quite a lot, although I tend to call him "Christ". But I'm really not sure that would help as I doubt very much that most of what I would say about Jesus would interest the people who sponsored that billboard. Or maybe not. Maybe they would want to hear about how medieval monks and nuns imagined Christ as Bridegroom and Lord. I'm told that the evangelicals use this, for others, somewhat archaic language quite a lot.

But, again, I don't really know. Because, you see, I haven't a clue what most people think about anything. Why not? I'm alive now, aren't I? Doesn't it stand to reason that I would have some understanding of what my contemporaries (in the broadest sense of "people alive now") are talking about? I suppose I do, in a general way. I've read books, after all. But that's precisely the problem: most of what I know about anything comes from books. Otherwise, I live a wonderfully sheltered life.

I don't watch broadcast or cable television; I don't read a newspaper. The only magazines I read are Yoga Journal and Harper's. I listen to NPR occasionally, but not all that much. I am so innocent of the news that it was at least a day before I even heard about the spill in the Gulf this past spring. My husband was horrified: "Someone of your educational level should really be better informed." But why? As one of my colleagues (a sociologist, no less) once said, "If anything really important happens, I'll hear about it from somebody else." As I, in fact, heard about the spill from my husband.

This is the real problem that I have with following the news: so little of what happens actually touches me in ways that I directly experience. I know, I know, we live in a global world, everything that anybody does affects everybody else. Floods in Pakistan will have direct effect on me in ways I don't appreciate--and won't, unless I keep up with the news. I've read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture [check title!]; I understand how dependent the people here in Missouri are on the rest of the world for their cheap food and clothes and furniture. But there are no floods here on the road right now, just trucks and SUVs. And billboards about Christianity.

Where is the center of our culture? Where is the core of our experience? Is it in our ability to see the connections between everybody and everything on the planet? Or is it in being fully centered in the things that we experience directly through our bodies? I spend so much time so abstracted from my bodily experience, I'm not sure what it means any more. Actually, not true: I am terribly aware of my body much of the time, but more as a barrier than as a conduit to experience. But I also spend a great deal of time telling myself that what I experience directly doesn't really matter because, well, it is not floods in Pakistan. It is just everyday middle American life.

Oh, look, there's a billboard for McDonald's. I remember when eating at McDonald's was a treat, not a vote for obesity and environmental disaster. I remember when road trips across Missouri were adventures into the unknown, not lessons in the vacuity of American culture. I loved the interstates, the feeling of freedom and of the vastness of our country. How amazing it was to be able to get on a road that could take you anywhere, if only you stayed on it long enough. Look! Now we're in Oklahoma.

Now the iPod is playing Bob Dylan singing "Blowing in the Wind." How appropriate. I have spent my life riding or driving along this road across Oklahoma, going from east to west. So much has changed in our world in that time, and yet here the road is just the same. The land vast and the sky untouched by all our news. Except that it isn't. Then, I spent this drive imagining myself toiling across Middle Earth with the Fellowship. Now, I know that our earth is beset by evils of our own making greater even than Sauron and that somehow it is my fault because I haven't figured out a way to fix it.

Jesus. The billboards are right, we do need God. But what is it that God needs me to do if it is not what I am doing already?


  1. For what it's worth, I regularly read your blog because you're a fencer and I'm interested in a literate medievalist's world view and how that informs your interpretation of experience. I hope that helps.

    On the topic of driving across Oklahoma, I had an uncle who taught for a time at the U. of O. and his favorite bumper sticker read "If I owned Oklahoma and hell, I'd rent out Oklahoma and live in hell." He suggested that native Oklahoman's sported it as a matter of ironic pride, perhaps just as some Welsh drivers used to have squashed red dragons on the front of their cars.

    We've just returned from a fair amount of driving in Colorado. During the long stretches we listened to "The Return of the King" read by Rob Inglis which I recommend. I have a new appreciation of Tolkien's prose skills. John Gardner, and others, who deprecated the books on those grounds miss the elegant and dramatic use of contrast.

  2. If you like Tolkien, you might enjoy Verlyn Flieger's books about his works. Also Tom Shippey's. Great analysis of why Tolkien is one of the best writers of the twentieth century!


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