When You Take Offense.
Several inches of snow came overnight.
It’s now above freezing. This morning, I listen as it melts off of our pines and sugar maple and the edge of our aluminum roof with a slow, steady drip. It was cold. But it wasn’t bitterly cold. It wasn’t cold enough to warrant opening our local warming shelter for the homeless, by our strict and pitiful standards.
We have an extremely limited number of volunteer teams that take rotations in the basement of a local church, staying awake in shifts with strong coffee and powdered, non-dairy creamer for our community’s unhoused. We watch the National Weather Service’s predictions for intolerable situations that arise in temperature, windchill, and precipitation.
Yesterday, I communicated online with a friend in San Diego, California—a city I called home for several years. I remember balmy, palm tree Christmases and wildfires whose smoke choked the city for weeks. I remember evenings that qualified as “chilly” down by the bay dropped into the 50s. She was feeling the season yesterday, as the nights dropped into the upper 40s.
When I explained that I was distraught over our cold-not-cold-enough first snow of the season, she responded with disbelief and bafflement. She asked if we could do more. When I explained that Missouri was passing laws that were criminalizing homelessness and making it harder to serve the populations in need, she simply typed, “Fuck Missouri.”
Everything about it hurt. Everything about the hurt enraged me, lit me up.
I couldn’t type fast enough. I couldn’t type clearly enough.
I explained, as best I could, the ways in which we got here.
I guess I spoke as best I could about lobbyists, poverty, money, conspiracy theories, and false populism. I talked about the importance of agricultural issues and the general national silence on them, about how there are genuine populist issues that the left could care about (and capitalize on) and ignore. I talked about the fact that being poor means choosing between two bad options, not a bad and a good one.
She listened. She thanked me for my holy anger. She apologized, in the way that best friends do.
But in that moment, I didn’t speak about the stuff that actually hurt.
Missouri is beautiful in all the ways that a place you call home ever can be.
When we love someone, we know their flaws more intimately than others ever will. And when we love someone compassionately, we don’t ignore them. My father never stopped engaging with my grandma around her bizarrely conservative political stance, despite the fact that he might as well have been yelling at the Ozarks themselves for all she cared. He never stopped because he loved her and didn’t believe that these were consistent with her goodness.
That’s how I love Missouri. I know its flaws. I know them as well as I know its beauty. Of course, I do. Missouri made me.
I knew where the gooseberries grew on our farm and the best places to hunt for arrowheads and morel mushrooms. I walked those paths behind my father, up and down the hills, across the tilled fields. I watched for copperheads and the loose stones that would turn an ankle. I watched sunsets. I listened for thunder and whip-poor-wills.
I took my favorite books up into the maple tree in our yard. I knew which knots fit into my hands perfectly to pull myself up into the crotch of its branches to rest myself and read. With a library card and long summers, I learned all the things that the farm couldn’t teach me. I scribbled stories and poems, inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mark Twain, by L. Frank Baum and Isaac Asimov.
And I learned what it meant to be an outsider, too. To ride to school an hour on a school bus, sitting directly behind the driver’s seat, even in high school, because it was the only and the safest seat available to me. I learned fear, loneliness, empathy, and observation.
I couldn’t shake Missouri loose from my bones if I tried.
I didn’t explain what it is like to love something for what it is, and to love it enough to want it to be more. There are people here who hurt. All kinds of people. I took offense on their behalf, as much as my own. Missouri is hills and plains and prairie and them and us.
I am not here to save Missouri, nor am I foolish or arrogant enough to think I can or know how. But I make small choices to dig in, rather than run away.
I meet with a writing group once a month. We share fiction, poetry, children’s books, essays, and screenplays with each other. The writing is as beautiful as anything I have read in a city critique group. And the community is closer. The connection, hungrier.
And I worship with a church that seeks to love all people, really. It attracts the misfits as much as the local society matrons, and we all talk at coffee hour. I don’t think we’re perfect. But the priest encourages radical hospitality. She makes space for people who fit in. And don’t. She makes space for me.
And I am part of a local LGBTQIA+ group that’s building a community of safety and strength. We find each other. We meet, and we laugh at stupid jokes and eat snacks over coffee, because that’s how we build community.
And I drive to the cemetery where my people lie in rest, on sunny and cloudy days, and stand on an empty patch of ground where someday there will be a stone with my name on it. It’s out of the way. Quiet, but well kept. And no matter if anything I write becomes well-regarded, a best seller, an award-winner, no matter if I am loved by many upon my death or if I am known only as another “resident” at a best-you-get nursing home, as I have no children to visit me, fuss over me, mourn me—this resting place will be a solitary one. Quiet, but for the wind that always seems to be rustling the trees on that hill.
And my bones will become Missouri.