The Buck Stops Here

"The local is not a place but a place in a given man." - Robert Creeley

For the most part, they come to Lakewood from somewhere else, many in the first part of the twentieth century from the near West Side. English was often not their first language. They don't stay. When they become better off, they move to a nearby, more affluent suburb. Their children, who reap the benefits of their parents' sacrifices to gain educations their parents did not have, move farther away. Lakewood cannot keep them. Not even Cleveland. The unspoken message of their parents's sacrifice that their children not struggle as they did is paid off in spades. Parents and children live in different worlds.

In his book on migrant workers in Europe, A Seventh Man, John Berger notes that each migrant carries objects of one kind or another in his suitcase which he does not need to live in the foreign country where he works, but which he needs to keep home alive for him. Talismans, Berger calls these objects migrants carry with them. The photographs on his wall serve the same purpose. If they define an absence, Berger writes, a loss which may never be overcome, they may also prefigure a return. Unlike the migrant worker, those who come to Lakewood do not expect to return. At the same time, they do not, for the most part, stay. Is home for them, finally, anything more than photograph albums, home movies, objects and memorabilia stored away in the back of closets? Or, as Berger adds, "the untold story of a life being lived."

Home, Mircea Eliade writes, was not, necessarily, the geographic place one lived, but the center of the world, "at the heart of the real, the place from which the world could be founded." My friend, Ken Snyder, notes what Ishmael in Herman Melville's novel, Moby Dick, says of Quequeg's birthplace - "it's not down on any map. True places never are." (Jean-Luc Godard advised actors in one film to walk to the studio, rather than drive or take public transportation. He wanted them to see that we become part of a world on foot that we do not see from the window of a passing vehicle.)

We live in a world in which the pre-eminence of the individual is at odds with community (Henry David Thoreau's majority of one). Pure individualism is at base the ultimate consumerism - we consume ourselves. In a society of individuals, there can be little relationship to place or those who live there. In 1842, Charles Dickens reports on his trip to America that the morning after his steamer docked in Cleveland, he saw six Clevelanders at the portholes watch him wash. When do we become anything more than the stranger who has come in from out of town? To be part of a community, not an object of curiosity?

In one county in Vermont's poorest region, the Northeast Kingdom, population dropped every decade from the Civil War until the 1960s. Those who settled in the county were presumed to be part of the counterculture that moved to Vermont to escape the rest of America. It was curious, however, that many who had come to this county were descendants of those who left. Charles Olson, who summered in Gloucester, Massachusetts, returns there after working in Roosevelt's administration in Washington, presiding over America's most noteworthy experimental college, Black Mountain, in North Carolina, and teaching in Buffalo. Home may be what we cannot escape. It becomes local once we return.
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Volume 1, Issue 8, Posted 09.33 AM / 16th November 2005.