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.