Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.
John Ashberry, “As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat”
There’s a kind of rhythm to life you can sense when you’re leading a horse by the halter, a pace made up of your steps and his steps and the great turning-over of things. One day it was the heat of buzzing summer and I was learning to mount a thoroughbred seventeen hands high using just the stirrup, and the next it was autumn, and I was waiting to see if my SAT scores were good enough to get me out of Texas.
A sense like that doesn’t come over you instantaneously. It is no sudden thing, knowing in a very conclusive and final way that the place you were born and raised is not a place you can stay. It takes you slowly, like the seasons, and if it didn’t you would doubt it. I would have doubted it, if it hadn’t come on like that, because in Texas, as in many places where a good many people still time their lives by the doings of the land, that which comes on quickly is more suspicious than that which moves steadily. The indebtedness of Texas to the seasons instills, I sometimes imagine, that old Burkean conservatism: slowly, slowly.
But it had been in me for a long time. There were things that I loved. The way my hands looked, red-mottled with stings and nettles, after digging for easter eggs among Texas thistle and dry yellow grass on my uncle’s farm; the acrid smell, sulfur-and-sweat, of many fourths-of-July, which became for me a time of great expectation; the way that autumn was presaged by the arrival of football season, where the brown of the pigskin and the burnt orange of UT allowed the leaves to change in response, never vice-versa. I can’t tell anymore how much of this is fantasized.
I know a point eventually came where it became clear to me the things I loved were more easily uprooted than the things I didn’t, and shortly I understood that this was the way of things in Texas: you are always weaker than the grind. So I left.
* * *
The first thing is, I didn’t initially want to leave. I wanted to get deeper into it. I have told you about this before. It wasn’t an especially successful plan. The places I could find to fit in were open corridors to the outside, just vestibules to conduct yourself in before you could be expelled. One of these places was debate: to a person, not one member of our varsity debate team now lives in Texas.
Which is a little curious: Texas is known for having an especially brutal and involved debate circuit. Certainly my experience was formative; nonetheless I wondered even while I was there how a place that so thoroughly disliked its intelligentsia could produce such intense commitment to thought. ‘It’s because everybody’s trying to get out,’ someone told me, ‘and you can get scholarships for debate.’ It did feel that dire: like football for losers, my teammate said, and without celebration.
But debate is still marginal there, both in the competitive highschool sense and in the broader intellectual sense. Not much is actually debated. Next year, Texas will still lead the nation in executions. Little will be said about it. Medicaid will not be expanded, and poor people will die:
“As Howard Brody, director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities, has shown, 9,000 Texans per year will die needlessly as a result of our failure to expand Medicaid. However, because dying patients are often too sick, exhausted and wracked with pain to protest, UTMB and states like Texas aren’t forced to reckon with the consequences of their policy decisions.”
Texas will still call itself business-friendly, and its very fine suburbs will grow and sprawl like annexes of Disney Land, where everything appears to be halfway between real and fake. Many of them will come with zoning restrictions that restrict subsidized housing and targeted building codes intended to keep black people out. Residents will speak fondly of these places, and people will move into them in droves. High school parking lots will gleam with pickup trucks, and they will construct simulation town squares, all brand new, Anthropologies and Sephoras and J. Crews and Ann Taylor Lofts, and some of the boutiques in between will sell jewelry with a longhorn theme. Journalists will write about the ‘complacency factor‘ in Texas gubernatorial races as though it weren’t a longstanding and much-celebrated institution.
But all is grist that comes to the mill. Texas is the stickiest state there is. Whatever it is, whatever your complaint, it’s just the way of things there, like the heat. There’s not much that can be done about it. And why try to change it now? You can push, but it’ll push back, probably push you out. I realized nothing good would come of me staying, and I left: all is grist that comes to the mill.
* * *
Yet marvelous is our world:
Crossing a field with a horse and wagon,
You drag yourself to the train,
Which tears like a demon over fields,
Depositing you into steerage;
You’re borne over water to downtown New York –
And that really is my only comfort,
That they won’t bury me in you –
My home, my Zlotshev.
Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, “Zlotshev, My Home
So it comes about that leaving wasn’t really your choice; you left because you weren’t right for the place, but you didn’t decide that, it did. It just sent you where it wanted you, somewhere else. In this way you never really blend in wherever you go. You are forever in Texodus, you are living in Texile. Somebody in exile is always looking back, waiting for the return call, or dreading it.
It is strange being an ambassador for Texas, because whenever I am asked about it I feel compelled to defend it. Every time I go back I am almost enchanted: there’s a certain parking garage in Fort Worth you can stand at the top of and see the courthouse where my parents were married and the hospital where I was born, and the silver snake of highway straight ahead leads, if you follow it, all the way to my house. The glare of the sun blazes out the distance even though the land is flat for miles. You forget where you are, and it doesn’t much matter. It will get you where it wants you to be.
The question becomes whether or not the politics are separable from the place. Sometimes my mom suggests I come back because, she says, the cost of living is so low there. But the cost of living in Texas is really very high, just not for the wealthy and white: “In 2010, the poverty rate in Texas was 14.4 percent. The rate dropped to 10.8 percent for non-Hispanic whites but soared to 27.1 percent for blacks and 24.8 percent for Hispanics, according to the Census Bureau.” Texas ranks fifth in income inequality, among all the states. Whether it costs you much to live there, figuratively speaking, will likely depend on which side of that divide you find yourself on.
And then there is the slowness of things, the recalcitrance of them. What can be done about any of this? It doesn’t seem much. You’re not above the grind, and the grind moves the seasons and the time and the shape of all things. In the Bible the doomed cities Sodom and Gomorrah are called ‘cities of the plain’, which I think of every time I come in on some late flight to DFW, and see the whole expanse of Dallas and Fort Worth laid out flat on the prairie, lights and grids, long perimeters of highway. Lot’s wife was turned to salt for looking back at Sodom, because you don’t look back at someplace you’re leaving unless there was something about it that you loved.
* * *
It isn’t clear until the end whether or not you were let down in the right place, or how you would know if you were. It’s one thing to be settled down somewhere you’re comfortable, it’s another to wind up somewhere the good in you can make the space around you a little better. That’s the final test, the real requirement. Otherwise you’re just spending time. In New England I have done things I’m proud of, set up programs and worked with particular organizations and hopefully affected lasting improvement in some people’s lives.
But the haunting sets in. What is it to have left the place in most need to do good somewhere else? And after you have left, established yourself someplace else, is there any real possibility of coming back, remorseful, to try to carry out what it now seems you were meant to all along? Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it.
“…When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived.”
Slowly the whole scope of the story is revealed. And I would want to go back there and do better than I did on almost every count, if it weren’t for the slowness of my understanding that leaving was probably not the right thing to do. The ebb of it, the way it sets in over the course of many months over many years, tells me that the regret has a certain Texan signature, a flavor of that old, Burkean conservatism. It’s a regret one is meant to live with, not a regret one is meant to immediately aim to redress. It comes somewhere in the rhythm of things, though I don’t know where.