The Importance of Elsewhere
Stephenville is almost home. Except it isn't. I was born eighty miles north of here and reared in Mineral Wells. I went to high school with one of your faculty. But Mineral Wells wasn't home either even though it was.
I grew up in the country, and there was nothing to do. Nothingfun to do that is. There is always something to do on a farm, though I never found it much fun. The fifteen acres surrounding our house, unworthy of exploration or farming, was flat and uninteresting, and eventually we surrendered it to the mesquites. I had no neighbors my own age nearby, and town, with its alluring ball fields, movie theaters, and swimming pools, was too great a walk. The road in front of our house wasn't paved, so roller skating was impossible, and thorns of one sort or another made even bicycling impractical. In those days before cable, our black-and-white Emerson tried quite unsuccessfully to receive three channels. I wished I were somewhere else.
Being on the outer reaches of what was euphemistically called the Progress School District, I rode the school bus several hours every morning and afternoon to get to my three-teacher seven-grade school. As the bus rumbled the back roads along the Brazos River bottom, I developed even further my enchantment with elsewhere. Elsewhere, I learned, was where everyone else lived. The school bus was a place where I learned a great many things including hearing about my classmates' lives and lies. They were fuel that sped my imagination right out of town, even on those days when my body couldn't follow. How were they going to keep me down on the farm after I'd seen Morgan Mill?
Reading too became an important vehicle to elsewhere. When school wasn't in session in summer, I would lie upstairs in my un-air conditioned attic room ¾ I remember hot weather more than the cold ¾ thumbing through the World Book encyclopedias my favorite aunt had given us. I read about far-off places: pyramids, Yankee Stadium, all those military outposts where my father had served, Mars. Exotic as they were, if those volumes taught me anything, it was that something like nothing happens everywhere.
Philip Larkin wrote, “I hate home and having to be there,” yet that's where he largely stayed. He didn't care to travel. He thought the poet's job was to recreate the familiar, even if it was a familiar he didn't much enjoy. He said he'd like to see China someday if he could get back by dinner. He was a great poet, but he didn't have much to say, and his reticence likely kept him from writing many bad poems, and what he wrote about most meaningfully was the nothing of his life.
I grew up with similar dissatisfactions about home and about having to be there. I have them now about no longer being there. It's hard to have some idea of home when your imagination keeps pushing you elsewhere. Home is not where it is; it's not even where it was. I don't think we can find it by wandering through life pretending to be ourselves. I'm not saying that family and the past aren't important. I'm just saying that you can't live there. You can however, recreate them as fictions the same way you can the places you haven't been and the people you haven't met. Art is the elsewhere for people for whom the world can never be enough.