Now that we live in Alabama, we think of this town as real Alabama, without the fondue restaurants and the landscaping and the monogrammed SUVs. There is no television in the house, no wireless, no newspaper. There is a radio in the kitchen and cookbooks from the 1950s that feature terrifying foods involving gelatin and canned seafood. Or worse.
Here We Rest, I thought, as we walked, as the dogs in the yards went wild with our passing. How could something so poetic, so apt, have eluded me? It would make a good title for something. I tuck it away, like the name of a person you encounter on Main Street. People here engrave these facts in their memories, the family connections and idiosyncrasies, in way that humbles and astounds me.
“Here We Rest” as it turns out, sadly, when I look into that later, was discontinued as the state motto in 1939 and replaced by the less poetic, antagonistic, quite possibly facetious, “We Dare Defend Our Rights.” I don’t blame her for disremembering it, refusing it. “We Dare Defend Our Rights,” is the kind of thing my dog would say to the UPS man if the dog grasped irony and spoke of himself in the first-person plural.
You can hear a drunk slurring these words while being trundled off to bed. The neighbors understood that some personal tragedy was playing itself out in the form of aggression towards squirrels that were eating from the deceased wife’s birdfeeder, but the gunshots had terrified them and their children. Nor did one’s rights trump those of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s tree surgeons’ who descend with a kind of vengeance to hack away at trees and shrubs that threaten their power lines, spraypainting an orange X on their intended victims.
One imagines my fictional widower setting down his glass and cursing them for the destruction of his crepe myrtle trees, the branches of which had stretched toward the wrong power lines. Senseless bastards. Destroyers of all that is good. Bringers of more electricity than we need to power our 72″ televisions on perpetual standby in rooms we never enter in our enormous houses chilled like morgues.
“She planted those trees,” he says. The highball glass sits atop the stump. The neighbors take the gun with them. You never know when you might have to defend your rights to live peacefully.
Here are the family graves. Here is some other family’s Victorian tomb. Here is a plot with all the infants flanking the elders and the central character. My husband and his aunt find the military school cadet cousin who died of typhoid. They read the worn inscription on my husband’s great-grandfather’s grave, which she had assumed was Shakespeare, but turns out to be from the bible.
Last Christmas I saw a hipster walking down the long residential road that connects our house to the mall and an arterial road. He was carrying a large cutout of a cactus under his arm, edged in fairy lights. Ironic yard decoration. Holiday fun for the single and/or childless. This road is a street lined with 60s or 70s one-story detached houses, the A40 of Huntsville, (the A40 being the road between Heathrow and Central London, lined by mock Tudor semis; if you want to read a great book about how people are affected by their street turning into a highway, read Leadville.) The Christmas cactus is for someone who is saying, Dude, I’m not resting; I’m not even here.
But watch out, Dude, because, maybe now the cactus is funny, but time will pass and your girlfriend will be like, we gotta have the cactus, and you’ll be joining the pool and shit, and one day you’ll love the cactus when you find it in the garage.
Or maybe you are from the Southwest and this is a thing from home. Or it is something you stole from a Mexican restaurant with your friends one night because you guys were laughing about it and someone is using it for a party.
Here We Rest, I find out, is also an album by a sort-of local musician called Jason Isbell, who explains how the motto fit into his conception of his home state:
What starts out as peaceful idyll descends into a defensive posture with the threat of bellicosity just beneath the surface. That’s what tough times will do to a people. Jason Isbell’s home is northern Alabama, a region that has been hit especially hard in the recent economic downturn. “The mood here has darkened considerably,” says Jason. “There is a real culture around Muscle Shoals, Florence and Sheffield of family, of people taking care of their own. When people lose their ability to do that, their sense of self dissolves. It has a devastating effect on personal relationships, and mine were not immune.”
Our military draws disproportionately from areas that are economically depressed, and northern Alabama has more than its share of those that have served, not only out of a deep sense of patriotism, but also because of shrinking employment options. In “Tour Of Duty,” Jason writes of a soldier that is coming home from war for the last time, and will try, more than likely in vain, to assimilate back into civilian life. His soldier is voracious for normalcy. He admits to not knowing or caring how his loved one has changed and dreams of eating chicken wings and starting a family. But there’s a subtle sense that this craving for normalcy will cause him to suppress the damage done to him during wartime.
In the time that it has taken to gather my wits to finish this post, Jason Isbell hit the pages New York Times Magazine today, so most of you will even be able to picture the guy, but in case not, here’s a link.
The old motto makes a good album title. The new motto is a blockbuster movie I will never see. We are neither hipsters passing through with cacti under our arms nor in a state of eternal rest. We are here.