Here is the event, a talk I am asked to give at the library in my hometown, on the centenary of a historic violence. Here are the dangers: that the small book I published on the topic was a long time ago, and I do not remember specifics; that the politics of the region have flipped, from being so worker-focused in 1922 that the people were accused in the national press of being “Reds,” to supporting in many cases the values of deep-red America; that I have not spoken to groups, or even very many individuals, for some time; that I may be from that place but have not lived there for more than 40 years.
Here I am, heading south down the highway to the gig in my little boat-shaped car, thinking of lessons, bitter and joyful, I have learned since I left that town for good, but how I carry it and its people and its landscape with me without even thinking about that. Here is my younger son in the passenger seat, bully-boy, change-maker, and partner in crime.
Here I am then, standing at a podium while an organizer makes an introduction so overly generous that out-of-town attendees wonder what is happening. Here I am giving my presentation on a still-touchy subject, using presentation software I never used in 20 years of teaching, reading from my old small book, making cause-and-effect connections, thinking my mother, a teacher, gone nearly 20 years, would have felt pride at my understanding of the passions of that time.
Here I am, in the Q&A afterward—in front of a crowd that includes my other parents, my cousins, my classmates, my high school English teacher—speaking with a man who knew my father when I did not know him at all, and a woman whose grandfather knew my grandfather during that violent time. Here I am fielding a question from a man making connections between the violence of the mine war and the mob of January 6; here I am thinking, I’m sympathetic to your thesis, brother, but you’re putting me in a spot. Here I am, speaking afterward with dozens of new and several old acquaintances, such as my swim coach when I was four. Here is my son, standing wide-footed next to me, fielding his own questions.
Here we are visiting the graves of my mother, her parents, my aunts and uncles, in the family plot under the ancient sycamore with its trunk painted white. Here we are visiting the home of my other parents then being taken to dinner with a group who want to thank me for coming; here I am beginning to crash with fatigue and emotion, feeling bad about that, but knowing they will understand it is because I feel safe.
Here are my son and I back on the north highway under constant construction and littered with accidents, me sipping gas-station coffee from a Styrofoam cup and him chewing Skittles and watching videos. It has been one of the best things in my life to drive the family car on trips while he and his brother sit in their seats quietly, amusing themselves, and my mind walks the savannah under a yellow moon, sits for 10,000 years around a small smoky fire in a valley locked-up in ice, carries goods to market through the Arden Forest, gazes helplessly but hopefully from the deck of a schooner heaving over the sea, leaves fathers and mothers in the earth as toll to cross a continent, grows up in the sandstone forests, and hears my mother say, as she pulls into the driveway in our little boat-shaped Toyota at our house on Stotlar after every adventure, Home again, home again, jigitty-jig.