This month marks the publication of The Change: My Great American, Postindustrial, Midlife Crisis Tour by Lori Soderlind. In this week’s guest post, Lori reflects on journeys, crisis, and connection.
My mission for the road trip that became my book The
Change was to visit the most depressing, god-forsaken, ruined little places
I could find on a loop through this country and try to get to know them. It
couldn’t get hard enough for me: guns, drug addiction, unemployment, mean dogs,
religious zealotry, isolation, family tragedy, untreated mental illness, fouled
drinking water, industrial waste, unresolved race wars, labor wars, civil war,
merciless tornados, abandonment, crop failure, deindustrialization: bring it.
All of it.
I wanted to look it in the face and take it in.
Everywhere on the map, there it was: cities large and small
and innumerable towns that had lost the energy they’d grown up from, and that now
presented an inventory of pain in a country that had changed and did not
understand why, and was suffering for these changes. I lived in New York City,
where the view of the other 320 million people in this country can be very
narrow, sadly. But I have traveled through the country with curiosity all my
life and I loved exploring it, and I had become aware in the past decade of a
real gloom out where I’d always wandered carelessly, and I wanted to know what
had changed. Much of the visible evidence of the change was its ruins. All the
old factories that cities grew up around, gutted; all the downtowns that had given
places their identities now swallowed by sprawl or just plain abandoned. I
wondered why all that could have happened and how it felt to see that pain, if
you lived there, every day.
Much of the change had to do with a huge shift out of the
American industrial age, and the loss of manufacturing. One example:
Gloversville, New York, had been a great, bustling place back when it made
gloves for the world; now, go there and you’ll find all the social ills you can
name without encountering a single scrap of leather or a sewing machine. Change
has come to American places through countless other evolutions: the rise of the
interstate highway system, the decline of family farms, the advent of malls, the
new cyber economy. What the changed places had in common was the grief they
felt for what they’d lost. Once, each place existed for some reason that was an
established reality, just like, once, newspapers were an established reality or
train travel was an established reality or my cousin’s first marriage was an
established reality. Change had come and so much established reality had been
upended and people and places were grieving what was lost, as if it were all
meant to last.
The Change has been released, now, in the midst of
the global Covid-19 pandemic that has us aghast at how helpless we humans are,
truly. We like reality to be a manageable and predictable thing, but we are
reminded always—and now profoundly—that the living world is not so easily
tamed. We of the country long regarded as exceptional, who felt all through the
past century so breezily powerful: we hit full stop and faced daily the feeling
of powerlessness. Nine weeks of quarantine as I write this, and we are, many of
us, on our knees in a new posture that feels permanent, though this too will
change. My city—New York City—has been hit worst of all, and is suffering.
Our fear is much deeper than a fear of getting sick, of death by virus. We fear
the collapse of systems we are utterly dependent on. We fear, in the midst of
this unparalleled helplessness, that nothing of what we once knew and counted
on will ever be the same. We see how vulnerable these structures we have built
may truly be, and we are grieving before our house is even gone—because we are shocked
to believe that all we have built really could fall down around us. That is how
shaken we are, in New York City, in May of the year of Covid-19.
As I write this, a storm has taken the power out and I am
alone in the dark in my house; lately, any respite from this sense of plunging
into darkness is brief. We are shaken, but only as shaken as others in our
country have been for a long, long time now. We are as shaken as a small
steel-making town south of Pittsburgh where none of the kids pass standardized
tests, and all of the storefronts are empty. We are as shaken as a broken
mining town, or a rural desert. We know the country is divided, but to really know
the sides is to measure their pain: Some have not worked in years, some lost their
homes long ago, and then, too, some are simply Black in America. Others,
meanwhile, have felt oddly invulnerable, and believed their fortune to be the
norm. From where I sit today, it seems we are all, at once, saying foxhole
prayers and hoping simply to survive.
It could be really good for us. It’s good to know this fear
deeply, and to understand that our longing to survive is what, at core,
connects us. It is basic, and human. If we can know that connection to each
other, and see all of ourselves as beings trying to survive, we will have changed.
Not all of us, but enough of us will change. We’ll know what it is to watch the promises we’d built our lives on collapse, or to fear that they will and to hate this fear. We will know that really, such promises don’t exist. We have only ourselves, which is to say, each other. The same. The one thing we should learn to count on.
Lori Soderlind is an award-winning essayist and journalist, and author of the memoir Chasing Montana: A Love Story.