I spent the month of July in Kentucky, living on wooded land that skirts the edges of the Hardscuffle fields along the Ohio River. I lived with my two boys in a big, rambling historic home made of sequoia and filled with ghosts.
I slept in the bed of that family’s mother. She is no longer alive, but her life continues to be lived through the stories people here tell. I lived amongst her photos and her dishes. I marveled at her collection of cocktail glasses. I brushed my hair at her vanity. I dreamt on her pillows. I sat in her gardens amongst ghosts and mosquitos. It was a home that was at once happy and complicated and thick with stories that held shadow and light.
It was a good place to heal. In fact, the daughter of the family, who had gifted me with the home for the month, told me as much. “This house heals,” she said. And she was right.
I have lived a mostly transient life; I have called New York, Miami, Paris, San Francisco and Buenos Aires home. But I have lived in Kentucky twice, and for some mysterious reason, it is the place that most feels like home. This trip was my way to root and ground and gift to my sons that feeling of home.
When I go home to Kentucky, I walk amongst people that know my name. I am surrounded by people I love, and their land. I do not feel like an accidental tourist. I feel like a part of a place.
Every day people told me the stories of my summer house and the furniture that filled it. People told me stories about the very bed I slept in.
These stories stretched past my generation, past the generation before me, and often past the one before that. An oral history that stretched into a time of black and white photos and silent pictures.
In return for their stories, people asked me to tell them mine. How were my sons? What had happened over the year that I had been gone? In telling my story, it became part of the larger fabric of the place and its people. Like a great quilt that is woven from the spoken word, my story is the story of that place now.
Anonymity is nice sometimes. Now that I am back in Florida, it’s sweet to ride alongside the turquoise ocean with the top down. Here, I am infused with sun, mixed into a multi colored international community. It’s sexy in Miami. I speak Spanish on Brickell, dabble in French with a tourist who is lost. I eat sushi at a buzzing hot eatery that has hosted a team of chefs from Cuba to show off their prowess with fish. Nobody really knows my name. I blend into the scenery, another long legged dark horse.
It’s nice, but I miss accountability. As I move through middle age, I grow into an appreciation of what it means to live an accountable life. When people question the fact that in smaller cities everybody is in each other’s business, my response is, maybe that is ok. Perhaps we are meant to live in ways where our actions have consequences, where our words leave a trail. Who are you? Not just on social media, where you might be very cute and perfect, but who are you really? Do you contribute to the community in any meaningful way? Do you treat people well? Do you lend a hand?
Are you a good person?
I do believe that in this day of big cities and social media, that question might be harder and harder to answer. Being a good person is relatively irrelevant in a world where nobody really knows your name.
If you can treat a woman with disrespect, but there are thirty more waiting to meet you on Tinder, what does it really matter what you just did to her?
But if you treat a woman with disrespect in a community that knows your name, you will be held accountable.
Narcissists do not like small towns.
At the end of this blessed month, I was unexpectedly invited to spend some time in the presence of Wendell Berry, a Kentucky author and philosopher who has for years been a personal hero. Since his writings touch often on the loss of community in America, it felt like a fitting punctuation mark at the end of a month of living inside a good one.
I cannot truly capture the magic of this man, who has spent his entire life speaking to the meaning of community and the agrarian society. It would be impossible. While he spoke, I recorded his words. More than once, he talked for ten or fifteen consecutive minutes and every word he said was noteworthy.
One story he told continues to stand out in my mind from that day. He talked about what it means to be a good neighbor. He remembered growing up in a time when the corner store was owned by a man who knew him. And so, if the price of an item was marked “$10.00”, when Mr. Berry wanted to buy it, the man would say, “To you, the price is $8.00.”
Because in a community, truly everyone has given something to the communal pot, and so they all deserve a break. This is the missing ingredient in so many people’s lives in America today.
A community discount.
What does it mean to be a good neighbor? Do you even know the person who lives next door? Do you know the people in your town? Do you contribute? Would you merit a discount if you walked into the corner store?
And that, my friends, is the essential question. Do you know the tribe to which you belong? Or do you live essentially alone, between malls and fast food, television series and social media?
In this day that so much comes to us so easily, in such an affluent and mobile society, have we forsaken that which sustains us in the deepest way? Have we forsaken community?
I haven’t. I am not sure the world of tomorrow will be the world of Wendell Berry. I am not quite sure we can ever return to the Eden that he knows. But there is a new generation coming right up behind him, a generation that holds his words as prophecy. We are co-creating together what the prophecy might look like today. We are more broken than his world was; we live with a broken environment, community, marriages, health- but we have not given up on the essential parts of his vision which are to respect the ties that bind us and know when and and how to come home.
I know home. Do you?