I've been to a Baptist funeral in West Texas since last we talked, touched family, and laughed at the old stories told by the aunts. Funerals are like births in many ways -- they bring relatives trailing from far off to eat casseroles together, and dry brisket with yeast rolls, and to marvel at the pure stubbornness of human life and its persistence in the face of bad odds.
That part of Texas, in the high, flat, dry Panhandle, is soooo Republican and so very depressed. My little home town is a virtual ghost-town. More people in the cemetery now than on the tax rolls. One more new grave was wedged into those ranks as of Friday, and I saw around me at the graveside service a diminishing line of my revered elders on the march inevitably toward the same sad treeless plot that's been the local burying ground since 1890. There's sadness in that, but also comfort. In death we get to lie in the same congregation we struggled through life alongside, sometimes fighting, often laughing, always eating together.
"Let her go now. Let her lie in the embrace of her people for eternity, who scratched the soil for food and thanked God for the least blessing."
It will take us some time to sort through the emotions we feel at loss, not only the loss of family but the loss of civic structure. The town I grew up in was a vibrant place. On Saturdays on main street, you had to elbow your way through the strollers and the shoppers and the gawkers and hawkers on the courthouse square. Everybody came to town. It's resoundingly deserted today, the rows of storefronts facing the courthouse on two sides, empty shells now and quickly falling into ruin. There's not even a grocery store in town. Something blew all the people away. Or a space ship landed and teleported them out of this dimension, pausing long enough to loosen every last shingle in sight.
The people left behind don't seem to notice the disappeared, or else have consciously decided to ignore the obvious in hopes the trend will miraculously reverse itself. On Friday I realized too late I had violated a local taboo when I spoke aloud about the desolation. I got a look from the secretary of the Baptist Church that would normally be reserved for a three-year-old acting up during the sermon. Her look said, "Have a little respect, will you, please! We don't talk about how depressing this place has become." And I can appreciate that.
The de-peopling of rural West Texas is not isolated. The rural landscape all across this nation is dotted with abandoned farms and ruined homesteads, dead and dying towns that once thrummed with expectation, and I can't help noticing who has profited by those deaths. The cities have bulged with the displaced, ready to work for any wage at practically any job. Masters of the universe, a.k.a., the captains of industry ... they like a little human misery and desperation amongst their workforce.
Interestingly, the country people being swept into the labor markets of huge corporations have been convinced that the local politicians talking about aborted babies and queer fear will also somehow protect them from the accelerating whirlwind of urbanization and sub-urbanization and global corporatism. And that is what makes me really sad -- the recognition that fear is such a potent political weapon and that people can be distracted from what is actually happening to them.
[NOTE: Everything above, except the first paragraph, was originally published on this site in 2005. The essay linked in the first paragraph caused me to go back and find it, to help me get my bearings.]