On the inevitable estrangement of familiar lives.
Strange how the half light
Can make a place new
You can’t recognize me
And I can’t recognize you
Arcade Fire, “Half Light I,” The Suburbs (2011)
The last defender of the sprawl
Said, “Well, where do you kids live?”
Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer’s worth –
I’ve been searching every corner of the earth
Arcade Fire, “Sprawl I (Flatland),” The Suburbs (2011)
Until the last three years, I lived my life only in two houses – the first from infancy to fourth grade, and the second from fourth grade until I finished my freshman year at community college. Both of these houses are located in Lenexa, Kansas. The second house, which I return to on school breaks and to see my family, was newly built for us, one of the first in our subdivision. The first house, when I try in a fit of nostalgia to find it, looks like nothing I know anymore.
I took Interstate-435 every day to and from school. For an entire era of my life, my formative years, I traveled back and forth on a ten-minute segment of this highway loop which connects many of the suburban spaces sprawled out over the Kansas City metropolitan area. Outside the car windows – for a while from the passenger side, later from the driver side – I could see large patches of mowed grass rolling up into the fringe of what may have at one time been an expansive and wild woodland. As a boy, I would imagine pioneers – Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone – carving their way through these woods at a time when the wilderness seemed more powerful than such meager humans. There are new apartment complexes and fitness centers popping up there every year.
When I exit the highway to get back home, I drive along a road that runs through what was a stretch of forest. A turn to the left will take you to an area of corporate-owned caverns used for storage. There is the head of a nearby creek visible from the road, with a small parking lot and walking trails for those who would like to explore. The road slopes down across a bridge which stretches over railroad tracks. The bridge is well fitted with electric lights, and at night, you can see flies and mosquitos swarming in their glow. This road is named Prairie Star Parkway, and it intersects with Woodland Road, where I used to live and sometimes still do. Every few months, as I return, I notice a new bit of tree-line receded, a new acre of development. First came the Kiewit building, now we also have a community of townhouses, a Jimmy John’s, a gas station, and a Spin! Neapolitan Pizza. Something unfamiliar every time I come home.
Not often, but every once in a while as I got older, I would take walks along the bike trail by Prairie Star, sometimes at sunset, other times late at night. Usually I whiled away my time watching TV for hours with my brother or by myself, an enterprise which was substantially upgraded once we got cable. There were other activities too, of course, now and then. I got a job at Hy-Vee as a sophomore, then at Scooter’s Coffee House as a junior. At my high school, a private Christian school which was also my elementary school and my preschool, I performed in plays, played tennis, bowling, scholars bowl. We kept very active in our church all through my childhood, and I worked there through my freshman year of college.
Mine was an easy adolescence, a steadily flowing current of one thing after another, one season and then another, small problems which felt big, big questions treated in small ways. From my front door, I couldn’t see the wide world – only a few driveways, and more front doors. When I took my walks at night, or when I infrequently went for drives with my friends into the city, when we talked of our tiny glimpses at life, I felt a haunting sense that all my experience so far was only some sort of holding pattern. Real life was next, somewhere else, after a change but in a rooted and unchanging place. I used to wait – a lot.
One of my coworkers gave me my copy of Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs toward the end of my time in Lenexa. Though I always enjoyed the music and the sense of thought that I got from it, the thematic center of the album grew more relevant for me on every listen, especially as time passed and as the suburbs where I grew up shrunk in my rearview mirror. The songs intertwine both the experience of growing up in these strange “towns they built to change” and the estrangement that comes from revisiting them. To be incubated in a space which is itself rapidly and restlessly undergoing development leaves its impressions on a kid.
Suburbia has its own way of threading continuity into the lives of growing boys. We find constants – for me it was my church and my school – and when even these constants shift, we fit them to our longer sense of them. Home is Home, even when it is not what it was. Perhaps this is true of any community involving people, but part of this necessary constancy comes from the ways of thought we allow for ourselves. If our lines are constantly dissolving, rehashed along different streets, new constructions, new people and places, these lines take on an appearance of an undulating amorphous gray unless we maintain the blacks and whites in our headspace, our view of the sifting world. We have our trajectories – that these times will culminate in building ourselves a family, a marriage, a faith we can anchor to, stepping into our careers. Put simply, we have our American Dreams.
My experience in high school followed an ironic pairing of two narratives: the one where I leaned into the core of these things I carried with me, and the other one where I challenged the structures of thought which secured them. So much of these narratives coalesced for me under the banner of Faith. Faith provided my metaphysics, my ethics, my epistemology, and also my friends and mentors. All of my reality was underpinned by the ideas the world of faith contained, and so it stands to (a certain type of) reason that if anything “real” was happening in my life, or anything happening at all, I could only understand it in terms of faith. Its consequences were necessarily consequences of faith.
So in my mind, the object of both my leaning into and my pushing away from was faith. I became class chaplain at the same time I was experiencing a dark night of the soul over whether hell exists. I explained the tenets of my socialist phase using scriptural support. I prayed at every retreat, youth camp, worship convention, and house church meeting that God would let me speak in tongues, and when nothing honest came of it, I saw it both as a personal failure and a reason to push back against this faith. My developing questions of morality and justice were put to God and were sought out in the Bible, in the doctrine of my church. And the greatest fear I could feel in all these coming-to-terms-with-existence problematics was that my axiomatic basis would come unraveled – a concept people with my upbringing like to term “doubt.”
But there are always answers. Suburban religion in the Midwest conjures its own light against the darkness of unknowing. (I have written about this before.) The angst comes in for us millennial heirs of these answers when the light dims in the shadow of a prevailing question. The dimming to a half light unsettles us, makes the world strange for us just as we’re living in it, but we see an aspect of reality we hadn’t noticed before. The night closes in. I think a lot of us encounter this dimming much earlier than any of us would like to realize. Arcade Fire writes in the song “Half Light I,”
We run through the streets
That we know so well
And the houses hide so much
But in the half light
None of us can tell
They hide the ocean in a shell
It’s the consequence of having a life which we can live structured for us, built according to that reproducible suburban model where everything is in its place, but a life which is not the same as the life we actually live, which does not answer the fear we actually have. These are not only intellectual problems; these are often concrete. I remember being so shocked when I learned that someone I knew had thought many times about suicide. Again, when I got text messages from another friend in the middle of the night about some deep and vague trouble going on in her family. Again, when I was sitting in my car in the school parking lot at midnight while another friend wept over his heartache, his jealousy, his physical self-abuse. And again, when I found out another friend had attempted suicide and didn’t show up at school the next day. And again and again and again when I looked into my own desire, my own resentment, my own fear, and did not like what I found.
What I’m saying is that life itself made life continually strange for us growing up, something we could not understand, could not control, could not be satisfied with. It’s moments like the above, along with the whole gamut of intellectual questions and uncertainties, which make a home no longer feel like a home but just a place where we used to live. And yet all of this, as well as all the light cast by a million suburban answers, we carry with us. I carry them with me; they have made me. Our lives in the suburbs were still our lives, so wherever we end up, the sprawl follows. This is why no matter how ideologically free-thinking I try to be, I keep returning to the same questions and themes which plagued me in a former life. This is why the past is never just the past. We can change, we can adapt, set our minds and hearts onto new things, but every new thing enters into conversation with all that old shit, which was not only shit after all – just another way of making sense of the senseless, or making a simple meaning out of an overabundance of conflicting truths.
So now, when I exit the interstate, as I drive down Prairie Star Parkway past the new structures and the absences of old things – a stranger in a once familiar land – I try to figure out where my home is. It is where it always was, and yet it is always where I am. Home is no longer a specific place I return to, where I feel safe and comfortable, because my home was built to change, though my friends and family and even myself often won’t admit this. Home, if it exists, is something we’ve got to make out of the river, something which will not break when the rush reaches, when the current turns and takes us into the wild. Our home must be fitted not with manufactured lights but with night vision, because when evening hits, as it will, the familiar glow will crackle, fade, and everything will again become new.