Every now and then a writer comes along who manages to put on paper some of what you are feeling about life. With The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home, Melissa Holbrook Pierson does just that --- she explores the emotional sense of loss we all experience as everything changes around us. Frankly, given the title of the book and its theme, I was all prepared to like the book. I did like it. Then I didn't. And oddly enough, somewhere in the last portion of the book, I liked it again as it began to settle in my soul --- that sense that another human being on this earth knew and experienced what I know and experience, that is, the sadness in loss of place.
The book is part prose poem, part factual narrative, and part memoir as Pierson explores the effects of change on three places: Akron, Ohio, her birthplace, Hoboken, New Jersey in the changing Eighties, and upstate New York (the Catskills). But really, the book is one long lamentation over the effects of change, rising from a homesickness for the Akron of childhood to an odd disturbance to her sense of place when the lackluster backwaters of Hoboken began to gentrify in the mid-Eighties, to a rant over the effects of progress in the Catskill Mountains both historically (and here she focuses on New York City's use of the eminent domain power to flood land, displace whole communities, and even uproot cemeteries) and in current days (with houses multiplying and land being used up and solitude disturbed). It's not a happy book nor one that offers solutions. I love it, in part, for just that.
Some of the flavor of her angst can be found in this response to the loss of much of what she knew as her childhood home: "Is it any wonder that you grew up to feel murderous, vengeful, toward anyone who would dare change this landscape that made you what you are? 'Lost,' after all, is a euphemism for 'dead.' You may excuse your mother for later wallpapering your room at home, since you may forcibly remind yourself you are well into middle age. But can you forgive the people who, in return for money --- nothing but money! --- have taken the dirt road upon which you and the salamanders wandered in rich solitude and turned it into Hunter Ridge Estates? The whole thing sticks in your throat. . . . You might have an easier time of it if someone would just acknowledge the fundamental existential tragedy of more driveways, of what is lost and how it hurts to know that it will never come back." As she so aptly notes, the sights, sounds, and smells of our childhood home never leave us but follow us deep into life, seared in our cognitive map. The sound of the book is that of Chrissie Hynde's My City Is Gone: "Well, I went back to Ohio/ But my family was gone/ I stood on the back porch/ There was nobody home/ I was stunned and amazed/ My childhood memories/ Slowly swirled past/ Like the wind through the trees/ A, O, oh way to go, Ohio." Way to go. Going, going gone. An opressive sadness weighs in the pages of this book.
And then she moves to Hoboken, a place once dubbed the armpit of America, described by Pierson as "a town that is the misused back alley of some other, better place. Our town is the place you pass through, averting your gaze. It is the place they forgot to clean, forgot to love, forgot." And yet, in her freezing cold apartment, on the deserted streets, the town under overpasses in the shadow of grand New York, Pierson finds solitude, and love of place, so much love that she is angry when the develpers move in in the mid-Eighties and begin to refurbish the buildings, jack up rents, and otherwise bring progress home. Speaking of what used to be the frozen barrenness of her neighbor's backyard, Pierson wakes up one day to what it has become: "Now it was situated in the midst of ripe fullness. There were no gaping cracks anymore. There were no abandoned streets. No forgotten parks. No withered branch on which despir could alight, cawing and cawing until you put your hands over your ears and screamed, Enough! Lord, please, enough. And this felt bizarrely sad. At least it had been my despair, and very, very real." Yes, she can even lament the loss of her despair, empty streets, a forgotten place. Odd, and yet I know what she means --- it is, at least her place, and her memory.
When she reaches upstate New York Pierson's prose takes on a fury, perhaps because it is the place where she still resides. She bemoans the drowning of whole communities under reservoirs built to serve New York City, the loss of valleys, the fact that "just compensation" is never really just. There is a lot to learn here, a kind of mini-history of New York City's quest for water to quench the thirst of its teeming masses --- first, on Chambers Street on the isle of Manhatten, then moving upstate farther and farther with the Ashokan Reservoir (goodbye towns of Southeast Center, Milltown, Farmers Mills, and Red Mills). What do you do when you have no town to return to, when the church, schoolhouse, and home lie under water? She laments the loss of her own hillsides and other places of solitude to second homes for the wealthy, weekend mansions for the harried city people fleeing Manhattan.
But in the end, after all her venting, after most of her ink is spilled, Pierson has no answer to the march of progress. She comes to a sad resignation: "Wherever you go, it is coming to get you. (You can't stop progress.) Your job is to sit still and take it." Her aching conclusion is that we won't stop, that progress won't relent: "How much more do we get, how much more do we have to take? Enough is not too much. Too much is when we're gone. There is not a power upon the earth that will stop progress. Except progress itself. . . . Too bad we won't be around to celebrate our triumph over ourselves at last." Ouch. Futility? Is that her last word?
In an epilogue Pierson traces the literature of the back to nature movement, the many books that inspired city dwellers to leave civilization and seek the solitude (and hard work) of the rural life. It's a literature which circles around the image of the lonely cabin in the woods, an artistic convention from way back that captivates us. And yet even here fultility rears its head. She recognizes that there is really no turning back the clock, of undoing progress, of really rejoining nature. Summing them up, she says the cabin and the books embody the "universal impulse to long for childhood once it is irrevocably lost, and the wilderness offers a way to retrieve the childhood of man. . . ." And yet you can't go home again: "We press our noses against the glass and wish ourselves inside the cabin's warm embrace, even as we know that there is no real going back. The loss of how we used to be --- made from the materials of how we used to live --- must simply be borne. We are too far gone." All we have are our memories. All is lost.
Pierson's book of places, of lost landscapes, is beautiful in it's evocation of the sadness and reality of loss. It sticks to you, making you feel something, forcing you to remember much about your own places and long for homes you once knew. And yet as a Christian it is incomplete. Just as Pierson sees a devolution of the world under the engine of progress, there is a deeper engine unknown to her at work, a more subtle and yet more powerful "progress." The Creator is busy remaking his people, deconstructing pride and self-love and reforming hearts. Just so He is reforming culture and its places, the landscape of loss and of finding. Memory may be a well, but it is not a well in which we live but from which we draw to make things new. Ultimately God will make all things new, using the materials, the natural world, the cultural alleyways, and the landscapes of our memories in fashioning a new earth --- new and yet instantly familar. He knows us. He knows who we are and where we live and what we care about. And I can't help but think he will use all of this in making all things new. Never forget. Carry all the good you remember with you and invest it in the present.
My son asked me once what our heavenly home would be like. I told him it was like all the good we ever knew, every warm and cozy place, every smell of home, every grand lanscape seen. Only much, much more of all that is famllair to us. Instantly recognizable, and yet breathtakingly new --- a new place fashioned out of all we remember, long for, and dream of. Home. (Well, I said something like that!)
I should have known something would be missing in Pierson's book from the outset. God. Page One: "You can be traced back to a cell. But this cell needed to meet with bizarre chance so that it was this amoeba (and not that other amoeba) that washed up onshore amd started changing shape." Fundamentally, Pierson gives voice to a longing that cannot be met without God, for there is no Home to return to in the end. She writes well, portrayng the effects of that worldview honestly. It makes you want to weep for the lostness of everything and everyone. Thank God there is more to it.
Read this book. Read it and weep. And then read the rest of the story. You'll find it in Revelation 21. He is making everything new.