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Pillars of Salt, Post One
We left in the early evening to drive over night. The way north, up I-17 to Flagstaff, begins in long bends and then winds into sharper turns rising steeply from the valley to about six or seven thousand feet. The first leg of the journey will end in north-central Texas, and the idea is to cover that distance in about fifteen hours. From Flagstaff, route 40 runs east to Amarillo where the 287 cuts a diagonal southeast to Wichita Falls.
I hadn’t been back to Wichita Falls since I lost my job, just over a year ago. We left that summer in what I felt to be a state of disgrace, though Jessica had landed a great faculty position she had long wanted in Phoenix, where she grew up. Timing was with us and though four years of my work had come to nothing, we had our infant son and a place to live at my father-in-law’s.
Last February, when the new department chair, an outside hire with no administrative experience, told me she had decided not to renew my contract, that the funds were needed to hire a writing instructor, that adjuncts could teach the core-serving ethics courses that constituted the bulk of my teaching responsibilities, I had left without comment and sputtered uselessly to colleagues and friends who would listen. At the time, several people told me it would turn out for the best. That this was, in fact, a blessing in disguise.
Though it did, I think, end up for the best, the sentiment was not always the most helpful one to hear at the time, when the chance you took on the first real job of your career ends in perfunctory dismissal. Nothing personal. Just a matter of the best allocation of funds.
In short: you’re not worth it.
So, I’m not sure how I will feel going back to Wichita Falls. But another thing had happened just after I was fired that complicates my feelings about the return. We had traveled to Phoenix that summer during one of many peaks in Covid restrictions. The pandemic had become a determining factor in our decisions since March, less than a month after I knew I would no longer have a faculty position.
In fact, we had planned a trip to Phoenix to visit my father-in-law and friends of my spouse and I over spring break. Dire reports were coming in from Italy where there were between 3- and 500 deaths a day. Spread in the U.S. was increasing unimpeded. The death toll was rising. We were approaching 3,000 deaths. We stood in a shadeless parking lot, the afternoon hot and yellowish. Using her notebooks for shade and brushing a stray hair behind her ear, Jessica agreed — we shouldn’t go. It wasn’t safe. The pandemic ends up being both the reason I hadn’t returned home in so long and why it became imperative that I do so as soon as I could.
Initially, I didn’t want to talk about Covid. Fuck me, another Covid story. But, the truth is, the pandemic has forced us into a collective situation that is unique to my lifetime. I watched as Camus became a topic of think-pieces and must-read lists. Of course, The Plague is about a community forced to reckon with their mutual mortality all together, which seems to me where the interesting analogue to the current situation lies. That and the looming fascism.
And then, in December, great-grandma died. And the numbers multiplying day after day were no longer abstractions, but had paradoxically materialized in a profound absence from my life. Then, within two weeks, my great-aunt died. Both of Covid. They shared the house my great-grandfather had built for his family, ownership of which had already been passed to his daughter, my great-aunt, now deceased. My mother caught it, sitting with my great-grandma as she died. My mother’s father and his wife, my step-grandma had it. My grandfather was hospitalized at the same time as his sister, as she was dying. I was constantly on the phone or waiting for a phone call. I thought I might really lose almost half of my family.
These deaths, and illness from which people might never fully recover, made the trip home imperative. As soon as we are able. So, it was unavoidable. I would have to talk about Covid.
It is somewhat ironic that we cancelled a trip to Phoenix because of the pandemic, only to then have to travel at the height of an outbreak anyway, only two months later. I don’t think we thought it would last that long. Or, at least, we thought it might end. By the time we had to leave Wichita Falls, about 90,000 people had died in the U.S. and the global death toll was near 330,000.
I had last been to Cumberland for Christmas, 2019. That was a good trip, and everyone was doing well. We got a photograph of five generations of us, on my mother’s side — my great-grandmother, her son, my mother, me, and my son. The oldest was one-hundred and two, the youngest, only nine months. So it has been nearly a year and five months. What was I hoping to get out of this?
As I drove north, I thought of Lot’s wife. Rabbi Eliezer gives her name as “Edith,” as does the Midrash Tanchuma. What happened to her was an injustice. I know she disobeyed G-d, or maybe, as Eliezer suggests, she was filled with pity for her daughters, who lingered behind for the husbands they had married in Sodom, so Edith looks back to be sure they followed. Perhaps it was not so much that she disobeyed, but that she caught a glimpse of G-d Himself, the shekhinah descending with a hail of fire and brimstone upon the doomed city.
To be filled with pity at the places we’re from. To look back at what tarries there.
There is an ambiguity in Eliezer’s text, composed sometime in the first or second century CE. Some uncertainty persists about whether to read the Hebrew as “Erith” or “Edith.” The name of Edith has been preferred for Lot’s wife, because “Ed” can mean “witness” and she bears witness.
But the past transfixes us as well. It is an anchor. It can serve this purpose only by being an object, of sorts. What has been takes the appearance of an object toward which we can turn. Our turning brings history into a relation with us so we know it, but only of that which comes to light through this relation. Because we occupy this position in relation to history, we can ourselves be revealed through it. As historical, we become the object of our own perception.
So, Edith herself serves as a witness to others. We see her remains and a message is conveyed. I have a lot of sympathy for her.
Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their inhospitality to foreign visitors. In the case of Lot and Edith’s guests, angels from the Lord. The cities are synonymous with decadence, degeneration, and sin. Christians have exploited the association with homosexuality for centuries. There is certainly the possible threat of sexual violence against the angels, but also of an inappropriate public exposure and increased scrutiny. Again, a hostile, inhospitable attitude towards guests. Those who should be welcomed are violated instead.
But, for Edith, Sodom was where she raised her family. It was the scene of so many memories. It was the sun in the window in the morning. Drawing water. Breaking bread together.
So she looked back. What she saw was the wrath of G-d. And it was terrible to behold. There she remains.
I like driving pretty well. The road stretching out to the horizon definitely invokes that whole zen thing. I had missed the mountains, and so passing Flagstaff on the way into Phoenix was a welcome sight, Humphrey’s Peak still capped in snow. These mountains are younger, though. The ragged peaks that make a wide rim around the valley cast spectacular, shifting sunsets.
But I’m reminded of Appalachia still. Early in our relationship, Jessica came to Cumberland for my sister’s high school graduation. Sitting, sweltering in the wooden bleachers of the old Allegany gym, fanning ourselves with the program, she remarked with surprise that this was the 128th commencement ceremony.
Yes, I had said. The school was built in 1887.
Your high school’s been around longer than Arizona’s been a state.
It is a mythological place. I mean this in two senses. That there is a lot of myth about the old town, the sense that Appalachia has been mythologized. But also, and perhaps more importantly, that it refuses to shake off the last of that stubborn enchantment that lingers in the shadows of modernity. I think this is why I like to look back there. It gives one a very dangerous sense of destiny.
Turning back, there is no wrath of G-d. No holy vengeance to rain down. There is only silence and our own path winding a way.