Something from the past

I posted the following on my Xanga page at two fifty-nine a.m. on the twelfth of September back in 2005. So long ago! I had headed home for the day — or maybe only for a couple of hours –, and on my way back to Notre Dame, thoughts emerged in my head, as I breathed deeply the heavenly scent of mint whilst heading north on US 35 north of Knox, that later that night became this post. In the spring of 2006, under a title that I don’t recall, it ran in Common Sense, the left-wing student-run paper at Notre Dame. (Yes, I wrote for a left-wing paper.) Perhaps not the most scintillating piece that I’ve ever written, it nevertheless conveys a degree of emotion that I usually refrain — or at least try to — from allowing to slip into my writing. Doubtless, some edits, particularly for any typos in the original post, occurred prior to the run in C.S.; I have opted to publish it here as I initially, charged with certain feelings, submitted it on Xanga.


A certain security exists in the nighttime drive through mint country in late summer. The calm breeze, wafting that strong, almost intoxicating (but not in an inebrious way) scent of mint, sets the soul at ease. I know that the drought-like conditions of the past summer stunted terribly the yields, and that farmers will suffer this as they continue the struggle required simply to make ends meet. But the sense of safety is still present.

I fear that this is a false sense; perhaps for me it isn’t, but for the mint country of rural Indiana that is my home justification for this fear is plentiful. Maybe, though, it’s not the people, my neighbors, who fear for themselves. Rather, I fear for them.

I don’t, I think, risk misrepresenting myself very much when I assert that I come to Notre Dame from a place inconceivably different from the cities, suburbs, and communites whence most of my peers moved on to Our Lady’s University. A few certainly knew conditions worse than those that surround me whenever I venture home; some, even worse. Most though, without a doubt, can only imagine what life is like for the “ordinary people”. Maybe they can’t.

The student body of this school is known for its involvement in service projects; for this they ought to be commended. Taking oneself out of the comforts of the upper-middle class world, if only for a weekend, or even for an hour, requires a love of neighbor that in many is little more than skin-deep, little more than a clever disguise for self-centered intentions. Some students, quite admirably, have even pulled themselves out of the comforts of this country to cohabitate with some of the most abused, ignored, pawn-like members of our society, starving, victimized humans in Uganda, or Costa Rica, or Southeast Asia.

Most of them barely get it, though. Or so it seems to me. Their concern, their attempt to rally support for their causes, is sincere. Nevertheless, only a couple, maybe just those who’ve freed themselves from the security of living in this country — along, of course, with the very few who emerged from settings similar to or worse than mine — really, truly, deeply understand.

I’ve always been fortunate, lucky, blessed, whatever you will. My family’s roots in my community reach far deeper than most of my peers’; my mom and dad, employed as a medical assistant and a rural mail carrier, respectively, earn income that, for our area, is reasonably high. It’s not the same as the annual salaries of lawyers, doctors, and investment bankers, but it typically suffices, or at least it did before bills from two universities started arriving in the mail; at least it did before my dad was out of work for half a year because of health problems.

I’m fortunate; but I’m surrounded by the down-trodden. Starke County, Indiana, which happens to border the extreme southwest corner of St. Joseph County, is the second poorest, if not the poorest, county in Indiana, by no means the wealthiest of states. This past summer, serving as an assistant manager in the grocery store where I’ve worked since July of 2000, I earned $8.00/hr. That was good money.

Most of the jobs that actually exist in my hometown are in the retail sector. Retail, across the board, across the country, is always at the low end of the wage spectrum. Here in North Judson, wedged in between acres of corn, mint, and hay, it hits rock bottom. Some of us earn, say, $6.00/hr, nothing about which to brag, for sitting atop the lifeguard chair at the country club’s pool. The pay perhaps fails to suffice, but the workload, the seasonality of the job, and our age combine to provide some sort of justification for this.

Single mothers working eight-hour days on their feet, serving up $13.99 prime rib meals or standing at the cash register, allowing their souls quietly to slip away, find any sort of justification or satisfaction to be something chimerical. Or at least they view satisfaction quite differently. For some of our parents, our attending Notre Dame was an attainable form of satisfaction. For many whom I know, clean clothes, functioning shoes, and three (with help often from school lunch programs) squares for their kids add up to satisfaction. The car payment might have to wait; rent, too; but the kids will not go to bed hungry. It takes work. It takes love. It takes every ounce of being.

My passionate hatred for Wal*Mart, my detestation of most things corporate, is by now known to many. Nevertheless, criticizing wholly, without any sympathy, those who skip over my employer’s store, or perhaps only “cherry-pick” there, and drive thirty miles to Wal-Mart troubles me too much. When I am aware that a fellow student recently has been to Wal*Mart, or will be heading there, or to Target, or Meijer, or many similar stores, I typically lose the slightest bit of respect for him. Usually a student here need not frequent the store because of legitimate financial hardship. It just happens to be cheaper. We should know better, but we don’t.

People back home, even some who earn those meager wages working in a grocery store that without question suffers from the Waltons’ presence thirty miles away, need to go to Wal*Mart.

Of course, because of the dearth of jobs in town, many flock to this same store seeking employment. Some of them actually make a bit more than they would in town, at least before the costs of gasoline and eventually repair of problems caused by the wear and tear of the trip on the car are factored into the equation.

In a way, the seemingly ever-increasing prices at the pump benefit my home town. Driving thirty miles to W*M does not result in the same overall savings that it once did. As much as I rejoice at the possibility of even slight growth in economic activity on Lane St., this saddens me. The entire system is broken; as long as it is, shopping locally will hurt them as much as it helps them. And now, it seems, the harm of shopping at Wal*Mart has become more visible. Escape, though, is virtually impossible.

What, on cursory glance, at least by “progressive” standards, provides the most trouble is that these people never vote “in their best interests”. Democrats typically in the past, though not so much of late, have retained a stranglehold over much of local politics. But this is the oft-forgotten rural, conservative branch of the Democratic party. The same electorate constantly supports the GOP in the presidential elections, not to mention Senatorial and Congressional races.

A sense of puzzlement, sometimes even resentment, emerges in those who look at this scenario from the left. These lookers-on just don’t get it. They can rant for days about “Jesusland” and “off-shoring” and about the ignorance of these people. But they can’t know. These are two different worlds. The separation between them, though, is far from merely an economic one.

Faith in God, particularly of various Protestant persuasions, drives these people. Even those who end up giving birth to five children by four different fathers have this faith. Even those who get drunk on Saturday night and end up in bed with a near-stranger and then walk into church in their Sunday best without a hint of shame on their faces have it. And it’s not a matter of simple hypocrisy. It’s a matter of existence. Failing always to live up to the standards that one professes indicates not hypocrisy at its heights, but instead humanity as it really is.

This faith is nearly incomprehensible to many of its secular critics. It still baffles me as a Catholic, even though I’ve grown up surrounded by it, sometimes threatened by it, sometimes strangely encouraged by it. The Republicans may someday lose this sector, but the Democrats likely never will gain it. Inroads may be made, but no great ideological shift will occur. Part of it is psychological: the Republicans at least seem to welcome God-fearing people, while the Democrats, at least in these minds, do not.

Something more, I suspect, is at play here, too. Many of these people rely on welfare programs. A heck of a lot of them abuse these same programs. Some of them would be in the street without hand-outs courtesy of you, me, and the rest of tax-paying America. However, a certain sort of unseen, almost undetectable resentment accompanies the reliance on, and even the abuses of, the welfare state.

The father whose job disappeared from under his nose and whose unemployment benefits have run dry often cannot help feeling shame as he opens that check, as he signs it, as he cashes it; cannot help feeling embarrassed as he hands his HoosierWorks card over to the cashier as a teenage boy, perhaps a friend of his son’s, bags the bread, eggs, and lunchmeat for $6.00/hr. Six whole dollars each hour, six dollars worked for, and not received from a helping hand. The same welfare programs intended by the Democrats (and, perhaps still beyond the realization of this father, the GOP by now as well) to help the man hurts him. He becomes a slave, and as long as the system runs as it does, he’ll remain a slave, even if he gets back on his feet. Because wage slavery and welfare slavery, at the core of the matter, are frighteningly similar.

But I’ve digressed even further than I often tend to do. Back to the mint. Dismal thoughts of drought-caused yield reductions aside, the scent of the mint on a warm September night is reassuring. It’s sexy. This is the smell of life and death, of love and hate, of humanity. It’s the smell of fear.

Not until one smells the mint can one begin really to understand what it all means — the plight, the faith, the strange reassurance, the hope. Only then.