The car, a luxury sports model, sat on the overgrown grass in front of a ramshackle house in my wife Cathy’s hometown. Ordinarily, I’d identify the specific make and model, but I want to protect the privacy of the owner. I couldn’t help but notice the car as I ran by because it was so out of place. Incongruous, I guess you’d say. An anomaly. Given the condition of the houses and the double-wide trailers in this neighborhood—a neighborhood in this small town in the Midwest—the car was something I never could have imagined finding, and for that reason alone it was memorable.
I spent this past week in my native southeastern Illinois. Each morning, I took Cathy to work—she works remotely for the county hospital and must be on site four days out of each month—and then I walked or ran the streets of her hometown. I saw houses that in their day had been grand—houses with leaded windows and wide porches with elaborate scroll work—but were now in disrepair. I saw one house that was leaning drastically and about to fall in on itself, but it had a brand-new mailbox in its front yard. Again, the contradiction was remarkable. To be fair, I also saw houses that were well-maintained, but for each one of those, it seemed there were four or five houses on the verge of ruin—houses with peeling paint, houses in need of new roofs, houses with pontoon boats parked on the front yards, houses with all manner of debris scattered around them, houses with old cars up on blocks. I grew up in an even smaller town five miles to the west of Cathy’s, and I can report that when it comes to the rundown state of things, my little town has fared no better than hers. This is an economically depressed area in farm and oil country. Another contradiction—the sight of oil wells pumping amidst so much poverty, drug addiction, and “just don’t have any more fucks to give.”
As you might guess, the politics are deep red in this county. The support for Donald Trump and his ilk remains. I passed one house with a sign out front that said, “God, Guns, Trump.” As you might also expect, the COVID vaccination rate is low with only 37.12 percent of the county’s population fully vaccinated. I watched kids going without masks into the local senior and junior high school in defiance of the governor’s mandate. A stroll through the local Walmart revealed only a handful of shoppers—three or four—who were wearing masks, and this during a high-volume time when the store was heavily patronized.
Then, just as I have every reason to resent the politics of the place—and every reason not to claim it as my own—a local police chief, along with some of the employees from the hospital where Cathy works, organizes a drive to collect and deliver much needed clothing and childcare items to the residents of western Kentucky who were devastated by the recent tornado. Cathy and I do our part. We purchase several hoodies and donate them. Later, we watch a video of three trucks hauling full trailers as they pull out and head south. The caravan includes several other vehicles carrying volunteers to help with the distribution of goods. These are the people I remember from the days I spent living in this county. People who despite their political differences banded together to help their neighbors when they were in need.
I can’t stop mourning the fact that, when it comes to getting vaccinated, something short- circuited people’s consideration for those around them, and I can’t help but notice the contradictions contained within people who can be quick to help those who have lost everything in the storm and yet refuse to protect their neighbors, and, yes, even their own family members, by getting vaccinated. I’m speaking in general terms here and not identifying these contradictions within any single person. I’m only questioning the stubborn disregard for what science tells us about this pandemic. There’s only one way for us to get through it, and that way involves vaccination, the wearing of masks, and social distancing.
It’s so easy to complain about those who refuse to do their part. Then a caravan of good Samaritans heads toward Kentucky, and everything gets complicated. We’re all a combination of contradictions. The good writer knows that. The good writer investigates what William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.” We are mysterious creatures, endlessly fascinating for everything we hold in opposition. Here at Christmas, may we all make room for the complicated layers that comprise those around us, and for the writers, may we always strive to fully appreciate the human condition on the pages we write.