Still Waters

St. Paul was a New Yorker. People from New York are recognizeable by their svelte builds, the glow of 14 karat cultural immersion, and the easy eyes that own everything and are never impressed.  Two thousand years ago, you see, Rome was New York.  Now it is a tourist trap.  That might give New York a little humility, although with humility, New York would not be itself.

I don’t know how to describe Kansas City. I’ve lived here most of my life, so I can’t really see it clearly.  I try a few comparisons: it’s Detroit without Motown.  It’s Chicago with way less money, many fewer people, and better weather.  It’s Minneapolis without famous writers.  It’s Omaha, with more grit and slobber.  It’s home, which is always and never enough.

I have described Kansas City as a “backwater,” which isn’t necessarily an insult.  You won’t be swept away here.  Your talent might go unexpressed, unfired, or unappreciated, but you won’t be worn down by the current.  You won’t be tossed aside.  There isn’t that much force in the life here.  You can soak peacefully.

The things I do love in Kansas City are the western city things: the space and the broken and abandoned spaces in the city, the way people put things together and share.  What I love is that there is a rebellion to creating culture in a place where people don’t look for culture.  We make things for ourselves and for their own sake.  If your ambition was to set the world on fire, you wouldn’t be here.  But who needs the world?  What does that mean, anyway?  How dare other people define “the world” for us?

Other people are out front of us.  The coasts are trying things out, so that we don’t have to.  They make the bigger mistakes.  They make themselves fools.  We wait things out.  They think bigger and wilder.  We think deeper and sleep more.  Some days I think that the fateful events that kept me a Kansas Citian all these years strangled my ambition and muffled my voice.  That I am one of the lost, small people that no one cares about, where nothing starts and nothing flames up.

Today is the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. The day they share, although they both have their own individual holidays as well.  Today is the day they stand together, two people who had little in common, and almost definitely did not get along.  It’s encouragement to everyone now who goes to church with people they have nothing in common with, and don’t like.

St. Peter was from a backwater, and probably remained a person who would be dismissed by New Yorkers. He did not know how to navigate Rome.  I love St. Paul because he is the Chrysler Building.  While I’ve always loved Paul more, mouthy, scholarly Paul, I am probably more like Peter: his serviceable boat, his insistence on circumcision, and my about-town Honda, my dismissal of skinny jeans.  That doesn’t mean some of us won’t make a splash.  Some of Peter’s friends became quite famous, considering how boring and lame as Galilee was.  You just never know.

This is the Place

In two weeks, I am flying to Rome.  I’m going because if I died without seeing Rome, I’d be pissed.  I am also going because I am very legalistic and proper, and Rome is the third in the tier of European cities that are must-see.  And lastly, I am going because I am strongly identified with Western Civilization, and I am a Christian by heritage, tradition, and my own love and practice.  Rome is, both physically and psychologically, where Western Civilization and Christianity were baked.  You can frost it or garnish them a lot of different ways, but they are what they are.

More than seeing Great Masterpieces (although I love that), what has blown me away about visiting Europe is being in the same place as someone I love… someone I love who has been dead for a long time.  

In Paris, I visited Chopin’s grave and Hugo’s apartment.  As much as I may try, listening to Chopin’s music and reading Hugo’s books in humble Kansas City, it is hard to believe that Frederic and Victor were real people.  Just people.  People who like all people had beds and noses and then needed graves.  There are a bazillion other graves in the cemetery with Chopin.  I know this because I had a hard time finding his, and I walked past a lot of them.  People are still living in apartments on either side of where Hugo lived.  There was a car parked out front with a carseat  and a sign that said, “Bebe a bord.”

I went to the Globe mock-up in London.  I thought it would be interesting and kind of silly, like a Renaissance festival, but instead it nearly brought me to tears.  All these plays were written by a person, and he (whomever he was) ran around right here in this neighborhood, quite a while ago.  I was happy just standing on the ground that Shakespeare had stood on.  It made me proud to be a human, and relieved me of any worry or competitive angst as a writer.  I didn’t need to be Shakespeare, because Shakespeare had already done that!  And he had done it so well.  I could just be myself, a bad writer, or a sometimes good writer, or give up writing entirely, I mean, whatever I felt like doing was fine.  

So other than eating European food (somehow automatically superior to everything on our continent) and drinking red wine with every meal without looking either indulgent or alcoholic, I am going to Rome to be where St. Paul was stewing in prison, writing fervent letters.  To be where Martin Luther was climbing stairs on his knees and wondering if that kind of penance was necessary or useful.

I am going to be where Keats and Shelley were.  I am too old to love like Keats, and too coarse and cynical to write like Shelley, but there they were, in love and political and Keats sick and probably sweating a great deal.  And writing and writing material for generations of flakes and English majors to swoon over.

There are a lot of dead people to visit.  The good news is that they don’t care if you visit in 1500 or 1890 or 2009.  The bad news is that so many people have lived and died in Rome that I think I will be quite busy.