Why Iowa isn’t Heaven


Where else would Ray Kinsella have built his Field of Dreams except in an Iowa cornfield?  Am I right?  A baseball diamond where the ghosts of the past could come for healing and restoration – for their own and for the living?  Had to be in the heartland, where the solid goodness of America is on full, homogenized display.  “Is this heaven?” Ray’s long-dead dad asks.  “No, it’s Iowa,” Ray responds.  But we know he’s wrong, and Ray does, too, when he looks up at the farmhouse porch where his wife and daughter are playing.  “Maybe it is heaven,” he mumbles.

Yeah, Iowa’s gotta be heaven.  When the rest of the country has gone to pot, dissolving into arguments over bathrooms, borders, and Trump, always Trump, something green will still be growing in Iowa.  Something pure and enduring will always play out between the chalked lines of a Midwest ball field.  If we want to believe in America again, we’ll take a road trip (because you can’t get there by plane) to Iowa.

If we want to believe in America again, we’ll take a road trip (because you can’t get there by plane) to Iowa.

Except…maybe the Midwest is not the Midwest anymore.  Maybe the stories of diversity and change that play out on the coasts have found their way to Ames and Grinnell, too.  Maybe there are trials and even terrors on the prairie.  Maybe…gulp…Iowa’s not heaven.

Mark Athitakis is not afraid to tell you that it’s not, but he will tell you that the Midwest is vibrant and interesting all the same.  I just finished his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt [Belt Publishing, 2016].  Athitakis is a writer and book reviewer for the likes of The New York Times and Chicago Sun-Times and he writes a regular column on Midwestern books for Belt Magazine.  In this slim review of Midwestern fiction you can get a good list of books you want to read, but also some insights into how not only the lit but also the land is changing.41emhjjubll-_sx348_bo1204203200_

“The Midwest is a richer, more contrarian, more surprising place than the one we’re encouraged to carry in our heads,” Athitakis tells us on page 15.  The writers he wants to introduce us to are more willing to acknowledge this, too.  He goes beyond Marilynne Robinson, whose Iowa trilogy of Gilead, Home, and Lila, he feels often gets miscategorized as a tribute to gauzy, Midwestern values, ignoring the social tensions beneath the surface.  And he takes us to people like Aleksandr Hemon, a transplanted Bosnian to Chicago who “became an American less by choice than by force, by accident” — a perspective that leads him to write “about America not from the perspective of constitutional idealism, but decay and threat.  For his heroes, America isn’t the New World but the Old World’s postwar absurdity in a different costume” (21).

“The prevailing question today is now slightly different: How do I become myself in this place?” (17)

Athitakis’s grandest theory is that the Midwest is no longer the backdrop for stories about how disparate people become Americans (a la Willa Cather, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Richard Wright, and Saul Bellow).  “The prevailing question today is now slightly different: How do I become myself in this place?” (17)  Some novels, like Laird Hunt’s Indiana, Indiana, which talk about Midwestern landscapes, now “evoke place less through descriptions of the flatness of the territory, but by evoking a desolation that echoes it.” (48)

The New Midwest is a quick read that sparked a lot of thoughts for me.  I finished it with Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s poem ‘A Psalm at the Sunrise’ echoing in my ears.  Looking out my window at the winter field across the road, I feel that I, too, “wake to an effulgence of mirrors, and lo: I see.”  It’s not the pure light of America that I see glowing in the dawn or in the Iowa cornfield.  It’s the refracted light of multitudes.  Christ playing in ten thousand places, if you will.  Rural is plural that way.

The We of Me – Carson McCullers week continues

Don’t we long to be fully engaged?  I’ve checked in with Carson McCullers a couple of times this week on the occasion of her 100th birthday.  She’s often thought of as a prophet of loneliness, but I wonder if what she expressed in her writing was more a longing to be released from the silo of her own experience.


In The Member of the Wedding, her 1946 book that later became a hit play and movie, (starring a young Julie Harris and a sterling Ethel Waters), McCullers goes back to adolescence to imagine her Columbus, Georgia childhood through the lens of Frankie. It begins like this:

“It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person and hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.”

What she longs for is to be inside of a love large enough to include h330244er.  She thinks she finds it in her brother’s engagement and somehow she will be asked to be a part of his marriage.  Her brother and his bride, she imagines, are the ‘we of me.’

The ‘we’ she shares this with are her wise African-American caretaker, Berenice, and John Henry West, a younger neighbor.  They humor her tempers and temper her passions, but Frankie still manages to be wildly imaginative and deeply heart-broken.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins felt the same sort of longing:

“Searching nature I taste self but at one tankard, that of my own being.”

It is a strange thing to be sharing this experience of life with such a multitude and yet not find the way inside.

phone0001McCullers’ biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, shares an image of the young Carson that has haunted me.  At the age of 17 she travelled alone to New York City to try to make it as a writer.  She was overwhelmed and enticed by the crush of people in the city.  Not knowing how to connect, she took books down to the Macy’s department store and sat in an enclosed wooden phone booth.  There she sat reading for hours on end–tantalizing close to the people she longed to meet and yet sealed off in a compartment designed for communication.

Alright–I’ll give you that that sounds like an exquisite image of loneliness. But it also feels like an apt image for the age.  In a time of fantastic means of communication, we find connecting hard.  And as much as we distract ourselves with our myriad screens, there is a longing to be fully engaged.  We have our own tankards, but we also want to know the ‘we of me.’

When Psalm 42:1 describes the deer panting for living water, I think that’s a thirst McCullers knew.  And as the psalm also describes, it is a holy thirst.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Carson McCullers Week, part 2

Post 2 for Carson McCullers 100th Birthday Week.

37380Things to expect when you read Carson McCullers: late night diners, music, triangles of frustrated love, circuses, outsiders, and wanderers.  In her two best works, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Member of the Wedding, you also find a fiery, pre-teen girl trying to make sense of the world around her.

Mick in Heart and Frankie in Member are both stand-ins for Carson, who never really outgrew the wonder and longings of that stage of her life.  But the fruit of her arrested development is work which probed the depths of her deep South community and captured the vulnerabilities of her adult characters in a way that a more jaded author would dismiss.  She tackles great national issues like race, class, economics, and rigid gender roles, but all from within the roiling of a young soul.

“This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt.”  —The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Besides the girls, perhaps her greatest literary creation was the character of John Singer, the mute man at the center of Heart who does not speak but who becomes the confidant of Mick and several other troubled characters.  His silence allows those around him to project whatever they would like onto him, but it also condemns him to be misunderstood.

“During the moonlit January nights Singer continued to walk about the streets of the town each evening when he was not engaged.  The rumors about him grew bolder.  An old Negro woman told hundred of people that he knew the ways of spirits come back from the dead.  A certain pieceworker claimed that he had worked with the mute at another mill somewhere else in the state–and the tales he told were unique.  The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves.  And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real.  Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.”  —The Heart is a Lonely Hunter


Carson McCullers’ typewriter

Singer himself is devoted to a comically selfish man, Antonapoulos, who is unable to reciprocate his affection.

All these star-crossed dreamers wander the same streets and seek the same thing – a lasting home within love.  The failure of their searches only illuminates the treasure that they desire.  And it’s what gives McCullers work it’s transcendent beauty and warmth.  There is a heart in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

“A World Intense & Strange”: Carson McCullers Week


Hanging out with Carson McCullers

Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of my new favorite writer — Carson McCullers.  My relationship with her began with an audio book of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and quickly followed with lapping up all of her novels.  I’ll share some thoughts through the week on her basic themes, much of them related to longing for home and the nature of love, mostly set within the frame of her Columbus, Georgia childhood home.  I set out some early thoughts in this piece for the Streetlight magazine blog.

It’s about that Church Building. It’s Got to Go.



Beginning in the late 19th century, the Methodists began settling down.  What had been a movement of house groups, camp meetings, and simple preaching houses, set up shop on every Main Street and country crossroad and made themselves a presence with substantial stained-glassed buildings.  In the 1950s and 1960s we built again during that anomalous period when Methodists grew and mainstreamed into American life along with the other mainline churches.  So what to do with all these buildings?

I’m only a few poems into the new collection edited by Kevin J. Gardner titled Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches [Bloomsbury, 2016], but it has already gotten under my skin.  The unifying theme of the poems is a focus on abandoned or little-used Anglican churches.  In an opening essay he quotes John Betjeman, the late British Poet Laureate: “Those driven by fiscal motives to shutter churches ‘ forget that church as a building is a more lasting witness to our Christian faith than any bishop, vicar, churchwarden or congregation.’” (4)

Now, I’m as likely to haunt old churches as anyone.  An old church has a texture of well-worn devotion and memories of ecstatic transport.  At Pocomoke Church, here on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, one of the old stiff pews has a small plaque to mark where Purnell Bailey, later a prominent United Methodist clergyman, received his call to ministry.  Why people don’t sit there every Sunday in hopes of being zapped is a mystery to me.

But much as I respect the power of place, even I know that buildings are not the lasting witness of faith.  They can be boondoggles, precious curios when stripped of the people who invested them with life.

“But much as I respect the power of place, even I know that buildings are not the lasting witness of faith.  They can be boondoggles, precious curios when stripped of the people who invested them with life.”

No, don’t prop them up for poets’ sentimental longings.  Repurpose them!  Shutter them!  Bulldoze them if it serves the kingdom!  The Son of Man had no place to lay his head and our investment in buildings as an institution is a kind of nostalgia for the Davidic kingdom and a time when we were established and respected.

9781472924353We are not curates for a culturally-relevant museum.  We are agents for the subversive kingdom which always demands new wineskins and they are in short supply.

Churches that find their budgets steadily consumed by the cost of maintaining their physical plant might ask the question of how best to be housed as we move into God’s new future.  In many churches, the upkeep of buildings falls to aging trustees who do heroic work but who are feeling more overwhelmed by the task of addressing years of deferred maintenance.  And in the culture at large, the greatest barrier unchurched people have to overcome is often the image of the church as old, out-of-touch, inaccessible, and imposing, something that is embodied in many of our buildings.

“In the culture at large, the greatest barrier unchurched people have to overcome is often the image of the church as old, out-of-touch, inaccessible, and imposing, something that is embodied in many of our buildings.”

I’m a sentimental fool with a romantic sense of history.  I love these old buildings.  It’s why I’m reading Gardner’s collection.  But I love Jesus, too, and I think he’s calling us to new digs.