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Going, Going . . . Not Gone

1,399 words

Grant Wood, “Stone City, Iowa,” 1932

The other night, while at a barn sale/estate sale of old things left behind by examples of Western Civilization’s last purely self-contained generation, the lights went out. An electrical substation blew a mile or so away, and right there in the middle of the bidding on a box of blue and white English-made transfer-ware  darkness descended. 

There were tables of antiques spread out all around the huge barn. There were over a hundred people in the building. There was no theft, mobbing, looting, or panic-stricken stampeding. Everyone there—far-flung European descendants to the last of us—stood there for a moment, then took our cell phones or iPhones and used the screens for light. Old ladies were helped to seats along the wall, my own children’s welfare was asked about by more than one person there, and . . . when the lights didn’t come back on . . . we all lined up by the temporary barn checkout and waited to see how the staff would deal with their crashed computer info regarding what we had bid on, won, and not yet paid for.  We waited in an ersatz line and chatted. No one made a break for it. No one grabbed anyone else’s things. People laughed a little about the weirdness, but it was good-natured and serene.

We waited, some people helped the staff look for flashlights (there weren’t any to be found), others went to help get the ancient barn generator working (it didn’t work, ultimately), and we waited.  No one complained, no one made the staff feel bad, no one hurt anyone, no one inappropriately groped anyone under cover of the darkness, no one walked around like a fool and hurt him- or herself. No, we all just stayed put and waited politely, knowing that it was the best thing we could do, given the circumstances.

In the end, the manager had to close up early and let everyone go home. The generator never came on, the computers never came on, the lights never came on, and the cash register never came on. By the lights of our cell phone screens, we were told that we should gather the things we had won and take them home—our accounts unpaid. We were asked to call in the morning and make arrangements to pay. And everyone smiled, the old ladies were helped out (why does everything nice that we do sound corny these days?), and we made our way from the dark building to the dark gravel side-of-the-old-barn parking lot—in the pouring windy rain. Goodbyes and “drive safe” wishes echoed across the blackness, car headlights came on and pierced the needles of rain, and we all left.

Grant Wood, “Arbor Day,” 1932

There was no sense of danger, dread, fear, or larceny — ever. There was no momentary panic to overcome, no need to size up the situation defensively — there was only us, being us, taking care and acting like we always act: with socially aware, intelligent, considerate behavior toward each other.  Sure, some of us knew each other—a little—from seeing each other around other barn sales, but . . . none of the people there were friends in the classic sense. We all were strangers at an auction.

But these days, the term stranger might have to be re-thought. Because we might not have been friends with each other, but we shared something that made us more than strangers. It made an old building full of people who didn’t know each other’s names into a cohesive group that would not have occurred with any other mixed grouping. We were all one folk, with instinctual folkways that created unspoken agreements as to social ethics, ways of behavior, modes of expression, and expectations of each other.

I don’t know if I was the only person there who truly appreciated all of this and who felt a little sad that I had to consciously notice it at all (instead of just accepting it like the air I breathe or the ground under my feet: a constant unchanging fact) . . . but, I did appreciate it, and I did notice it. It doesn’t happen much these days, cohesive group behavior that reflects our values, because we as a cohesive folk don’t get to align ourselves with just ourselves very often. There is almost always somebody from a different culture, a different place, a different orientation around . . . almost always that friction, that sense of “other,” that feeling of not being quite at home anymore wherever we go. It almost seems as if this is how life is supposed to be, this constant rubbing of shoulders with differences, with distinctions, with discordantness . . . but, the truth of it is — it isn’t how life is supposed to be. Not at all.

Life is, perhaps, never going to be easy and smooth . . . but life isn’t supposed to be a forever jarring clash of ourselves against stranger selves without respite, without resolve, without lessening.  No one should have to be without a place to call home, where strangers may not enter. No one should have to constantly adjust to different ways and different views and different tolerances and different ethics without end. No one should have to always be in the position to have to put up with strangers dictating the ways that life—in all aspects—is going to be. That’s just not right. Not for anyone—and certainly not for me and my folk.

My folk are not strangers to me. I may not know their names, or what part of Europe their family last hailed from, but they are not strange to me. I know what to expect from my folk. I know how they will behave, how they think, what instinctive mannerisms they have, what innate codes of ethics and sensibilities they possess, and I know how they look at the world. They look at it from the same eyes as I do. And they behave like I do. And they act like I do.  (Even when I come across folk who follow paths that are diametrically opposed to the path I follow, we know each other’s tolerances, each other’s strong points, each other’s passions and deeply-held need to correct what we consider are the wrongs of the world, for we are not strangers even if we are enemies.)

Grant Wood, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” 1931

I called at 9 am the next morning to pay my bill – the line was already busy. I called back at 10. Still busy. I got through eventually, and paid what I owed. The clerk sounded happy but busy. Another call came through while I was winding up my business. Everyone was paying up, just like I knew they would,  because they are my people, and I knew they’d act like I did, just like I knew we would all wait patiently and safely when the lights went out. We were all in it together, there in the rainy darkness, not friends, but not complete strangers either.

It led me to do a lot of musing about things like hope and unity and who we are and what we are going to be . . . and it made me reflect that we are—in the face of what needs doing—a resourceful, responsible, and respectful bunch of folk; we can be relied on to do our best and to try our hardest to make things work smoothly, if not well. We are our own best friends and our own downfall—we are nice, and we are decent, and we are given to thinking that everyone is like that. Used to be, everyone we’d run into would be like that—give or take a few bad seeds.

So perhaps it’s for the best that everyone we run into now is not like that. Perhaps we need to have our shoulders rubbed a little raw, our shins kicked a little, and our belief in the universal good dashed a bit. Not enough to kill us—but enough to make us value the times when we, as a group, all act like we do. Enough to make us want to not lose that common ground we share among ourselves so much, to not lose our sense of belonging, of knowing, of security of manner and behavior and ethic. Enough to make us realize what we could lose if we completely lose ourselves.

 

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8 Comments

  1. Martin
    Posted December 5, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    An excellently articulated piece. It takes a story of this type to truly get our message across.

    Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The stranger within my gate’ has a similar theme, albeit done more tersely.

  2. Mike
    Posted December 5, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I have experienced that same awareness and appreciation, on numerous occasions over the last few years. Unfortunately, there is also the opposite side of the same coin, in the form of coming into contact with and experiencing the White underclass; an equal and opposite awareness!

  3. rhondda
    Posted December 5, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this Juleigh. I do believe that there are two sides to altruistic punishment and /or implicit whiteness. One is a highly judgemental reaction that lashes out at someone who does not conform to their idea of correct behaviour and the other is just that ‘fish in the sea idea’ that this is what you do when the situation is somehow not what you expected. The group automatically does what they think they should do. This usually happens when there is a crisis and people come together to help each other. In my town it happened with a huge forest fire on three sides of us.
    I tend to get angry at people who brag about stealing from a big company. They somehow think they are getting back at them. No, they aren’t. It is probably that clerk who has to account for the money on his or her shift that gets in trouble, but the company justifies higher prices to adjust for shoplifting.

  4. phil white
    Posted December 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I recall the word “corny” has always been a pejorative, and It’s used against any behavior or thing that relates to good solid country people. Country people are ours.
    I can guess what ethnic coined the term.

    • Kudzu Bob
      Posted December 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Your guess is an unnervingly good one. Variety Magainze claimed to have coined the term. That publication was founded by Sime Silverman in 1905.

      • Kudzu Bob
        Posted December 5, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        Pardon the obvious typo. Post in haste, repent at leisure.

  5. Posted December 5, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Great article. Isn’t is strange how the world is so messed up these days that when we end up in a very ” white” situation we notice it so clearly. I have noticed this quite a bit since moving to Kalispell Montana 6 years ago. I have also experienced this when at small horse shows, on ski slopes or at the skating rink, rodeos, or small school carnivals, all of course in predominantly white areas. Our local state park actually has nice dog leashes at the entrance for people to use and then return since leashes are required.

  6. Jaego
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I’m from the urban East Coast and these kind of people often prefer Blacks in their ignorance. But a good article and a real and valuable insight. That it’s not as as universal as you believe doesn’t make it less valuable or needed. Rural and Small Town people have been very influenced by Political Correctness even as they retain their prejudice against the “City” and other regions of America. And of course they look down on their own poor who maintain traditional attitudes. These are the “rednecks” and “white trash”.

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