The movers come tomorrow to take our worldly goods to Kansas City, the mere name of which launches a song in the jukebox of my brain. I hope to have a lovely and musical time exploring my new home, and not to be too daunted by the things KC denizens keep telling this Californian to expect (i.e., “black ice,” not a licorice-flavored dessert but a traffic hazard).
Yesterday I sent out a change of address email and received a gratifying bounty of blessings in return. But perhaps a quarter of them ended with a question: “I’ve never been to Kansas; why there?” (For the record, our new home is in Missouri, but Kansas is very, very close.)
In other words, this move will take me to what my coastal compatriots insultingly call the “flyover states,” meaning places they have only experienced during airport layovers, if at all. Indeed, this will be the first time in my entire life I have not lived on either coast—my 20 or so prior moves have taken me to San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC, New York, and beyond, but never anywhere in between. It will be very different to know the sea is so far away, very different to learn the scent of a river town and experience the four seasons without the buffer zone an ocean provides.
Kansas City is a metropolis, but not so large as the others I’ve made my home. I imagine it will afford opportunity, though, for all the ambivalence attaching to city life. “Stadtluft macht frei” was one of Karl Marx’s favorite sayings, roughly, “city air makes one free.” You have only to walk down the main streets of our major cities to experience the room for self-invention and self-expression urban anonymity affords. The costumes! The stances! The things people evidently see as beautiful that to me look merely bizarre! (And vice versa, no doubt.)
I’ve spent much of my life thinking and writing about the creation of community, and know from direct experience that small-town and rural life maximize the opportunity to know (and be known by) one’s neighbors. The potential of that known world is nearly unlimited: a relatively small number of people can join together to make something happen; it is easy to know who one’s allies may be and to start moving forward without newly creating relationship each time; the effects of social issues are immediate and direct. If the local lumber plant pollutes the water, your children suffer, not someone in a newspaper headline.
But the difficulties are almost identical: everyone knows your business; everyone thinks they know who you are, in effect placing limits on who you can be; malefactors live next door and usually manage to deny the effects of their actions on their neighbors, often making for extremely heated and extremely frustrating local politics.
This is one of the great paradoxes of community cultural development. The ideal community that exists in my mind can never be achieved for long. In these times, the great mass of people will never stay put long enough to establish the continuity of connection that infuses that romantic ideal. What we need is a modus vivendi—a way of living together—that can respect and accommodate those whose ties to a particular place on the land are strong and lasting, and the nomads like myself, who carry our communities on our backs (or at least in our own memories and in our computers’). We need a way to recognize that community is always becoming, never complete. In the end, that is what I hope to contribute to in some small way.
Now I expect I’ll be in the middle, a space that shares some features with small towns and some with big cities. My brief forays into Kansas City haven’t shown me much I would call bizarre (although they have revealed a great deal that appears very interesting), and from the anecdotes about challenges in accepting cultural difference that I’ve already collected, I expect I will in some ways feel myself in a foreign land.
I’m looking forward to that, actually. I’m not much of a traveler (especially considering how much time I spend in airports), but the journeys I enjoy most are those that afford the opportunity to explore differences in a common language. I hope to meet a few kindred souls. I hope to learn to drive on black ice. I hope to pause on the way out of California, the Bear Republic, which has been my home for more decades than I plan to count right now, to stand at Emigrant Gap and say the Shehechianu, a prayer of gratitude for being vouchsafed this moment. Right now, I especially hope to finish packing on time, to get there safe and sound, and that our houseplants survive the three-day car trip over the Sierra and beyond. I’ll let you know.