South of Raleigh about 45 minutes is a place of considerable importance almost totally lost to history. The Cumnock / Egypt mine provided coal for the smelters that shaped the bullets of the civil War. It was easily accessible cold that could be used locally or floated down the nearby River all the way to the coast of Wilmington. The town that grew up around it had a trade shop and several hundred occupants.
If you stop by there now there’s a sign and that’s it. Beyond the sign stretch fields and woods unoccupied for so long there’s not even a remnant. No stone fireplaces. No stone steps. No crumbled buildings or rotting planks. It’s just gone. The mine closed after a few deadly accidents claimed the lives of miners. There’s nothing left in the coal glen. The mine itself is just a 2 ft tall metal arch in the parking lot of a timber company that is blocked off and sealed completely.
I was reminded of mine when I thought of Cary Towne Center. The prototypical mall with anchor stores and pretzel shops and shoe stores and gift card stores and a food court and an arcade, so much of my life happened there. Hours (and hundreds of quarters) lost in the arcade. My first job was there, at a Carlton card store where I had to reshuffle the cards at the end of every day oftentimes with only a couple hours of sleep because I was in high school and who sleeps? When my children were little we would walk around and there was a man with a train who would drive them around for a couple dollars.
My wife and I would eat there because you could split a three entree Chinese food platter for under $10. Even when I was younger my brother’s and I used to laze about the Belks while my mother did her shopping, complaining about how long it took, throwing a hissy fit when she wanted us to try too many things on.
My friends would skateboard in the parking lot. I did donuts there a few times in the middle of the night in my old miata. I still remember the time I was closing up the card store and I passed by Sbarro’s and the guy sold me all the leftover pizza, like three pizzas, for just five bucks. I could never get him to make that deal again. I ate like a king that night.
Add this to an extensive list of places and experiences I’ll never see again.
Perusing the rows of VHS covers at Blockbuster.
My old elementary school now closed.
Enjoying a pizza buffet at Pizza Hut.
Eating a hot dog at the Blue Light special at Sears one time when I was first married and my wife and I happen to come in when it was a popular hour I tell you what.
So much of my childhood experience was rooted in Spaces created by brands. Created by experiences that were intended to sell me a product. Television shows made for the purpose of commercials. The mall itself, a faux Town square designed to get me and my parents to buy things. And the thing with these institutions and experiences is that they are never permanent. They aren’t the real Town square, where government buildings persist and shop spaces remain even if the shop closes and another takes its place. They are monuments or parks or Fields or forests or anything with lasting power. They are ephemeral institutions created until they no longer make money and then they are gone for good.
And so many of us, for so so many, this is the American experience, an experience of lost capitalist playlands. A life of the mall, the strip mall, the restaurants we loved, the worlds now gone. To be a suburban American was to foster an identity around the idea of buying and selling at places that no longer exist.
Home No Longer
Our hearts long for the comfort of home. We long for the familiar more so in times of distress. The Psalms are saturated with the call from Mount Zion and the return to home. How the heart longed to be in the presence of God in God’s house. How those who have lost home want to be home. But thanks to the disruptions of our desire for more, we have exchanged the idea of a place with transcendent permanent meaning for places that constantly go by the wayside when the new and the better are ushered in.
Consider the glut of movies dedicated to Brands out right now: Nike, Tetris, Blackberry, to name a few. More on the way. What is this but a desire to re-experience what happened the first time? To understand why something that was so important — the Blackberry, for example — just disappeared?
Ah but how much worse this is for the young! Their Place is no longer any kind of real place but an online digital world that shifts daily. A place that isn’t a place. Not even a temporary place. Any ephemeral space where people can’t recognize one another and have to express themselves merely in thoughts and words and ideas and pictures of the past. There is no present online there is no solidity to anything. The soul searches for a place to land on finds nothing but wind and air void. Is it any wonder that increased Social Media usage is correlated to increased mental health concerns?
What is home when home disappears? What is a sense of Place when places go away in the blink of an eye, and not through any other force but that if capitalism, of the want for more or better?
Nostalgia, the Drug of Choice
I’m convinced nostalgia is one of the greatest psychological forces, right up there with fear.
People long for home. They long for Place, for a landing zone for the mind and memories. As those things change or disappear, that need intensifies. What I wouldn’t give for one more ride around the mall in that tiny train, my two girls as toddlers sucking on their lollipops pointing and waving at strangers passing by! I get misty-eyed even thinking about it.
How this happens in Scripture! The Israelites long for a return to Egypt, not freedom, when the face hardship. They knew it! Their children had been borne there. They had some sense of what to expect, what small joys they could experience even as slaves to the Egyptians. Let’s go back, they said time and again, much to the chagrin of their God and leaders.
What is America’s largest and fastest-growing retirement community but a longing for home, for a call back to a downtown America that no longer exists?
Nostalgia drives our politics. People love candidates who tell them of a home, of America that was. What does Make America Great Again mean other than nostalgia? Longing for home becomes more acute when everything that is home is gone. Or taken from us. Or erased by the capitalistic forces that made that home a thing in the first place.
But here’s the thing:
Home is God
I hope you see the double entrendre.
Home is God, meaning what you think is your safety, your landing place of nostalgia, your hope chest, that Place to which you want to return time and again; that Place is what you will fight for and defend and even worship. What you are willing to hurt others to achieve, even. Home is God for the Israelites who were willing to discard their God, to take up stones against their leaders in order to return to Egypt.
But for those who love the true God, Home is God means that we know we are homeless until we are in the presence of God. For the exiled Israelites, their longing for Home could not be more acute. They wept by the rivers of Babylon. And God promised through Jeremiah a return to home, but it was not merely a return to a Place or a building, but permanent home in God.
Now I want to say something more about this city. You have been saying, ‘It will fall to the king of Babylon through war, famine, and disease.’ But this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I will certainly bring my people back again from all the countries where I will scatter them in my fury. I will bring them back to this very city and let them live in peace and safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and one purpose: to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me. I will find joy doing good for them and will faithfully and wholeheartedly replant them in this land.
Such is our picture of Heaven, a place of no more tears or sorrow. The Place looks unfamiliar: who has seen streets of Gold and walls studded with jewels? Who has known the River of Life in these mortal days? But there
No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Unless we firmly fix that our Home is in God, we will constantly fall prey to the power of nostalgia. We will long for our lost country, but there’s no going back there. It is gone. Crumbled to nothing. As will everything! The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can move on from a longing from something we can never get back. Only then can we set about building the world to come.