I had not been to visit my parents in more than four years when I finally made it back a few months ago. I was last down home in early 2019; we had said goodbye hoping to meet around the same time in 2020. A pandemic intervened. The world turned upside-down. Death. Rioting. Election fraud. U.S. taxpayers funding the Wuhan lab. Questionable vaccines. Churches shuttered by government decree. Churches vandalized by the vanguard of an increasingly godless culture. An America, a world, I had not known existed, nor dreamed could ever exist. I eventually realized I was afraid to go home to that different reality. I was afraid to confront the uneasiness that had become my constant companion.
Worry over my parents kept me up at night these pandemic years, gnawed at me during the day. As the months of my half-chosen exile grew in number, the home that, paradoxically, gives us exiles our bearing was transformed. My beloved dogs in America aged and went to heaven one by one. My parents aged, too, naturally in part, but also unnaturally from fretting over old certainties unraveling. Our plot of land in the country, once a refuge, grew windswept. The gentle winds of the rural South turned almost mocking. The breezes carried disease. The future darkened, mostly disappearing from view. America’s global sway and swagger turned to stumbling. America’s economic might sunk deeper into red ink. America’s borders broke open. Vandals and Visigoths, chaos in metropolises. Thus our Rome would crumble, too. Worries, kept at arm’s length, would occupy my mind if I went back.
“Half-chosen exile”—that is one reason I was afraid to go home. I live in Japan, gratefully so. But my tenure here was premised on my being able to see my family whenever I wanted to. The coronavirus, or maybe the human folly it catalyzed, and then my fear of what home had become, kept me off the runway for four long years. America had been just a plane ride away, but then suddenly it was an ocean apart. The difference wore at me like a white mountain river over a stone. Exile on my terms became exile closer to cosmic reality. I wasn’t, in the end, in control of anything. My illusions to the contrary burned off in the between years of coronatide.
“Half-chosen exile”—there’s another meaning, too. My life in America wasn’t perfect. Not close. I had burned bridges when younger and rubbed salt in wounds. I had gone on long, long car trips to clear my head, only to come back with, as Jack Kerouac once wrote, “nothing to offer anybody, except my own confusion.” I drifted. I had lost my way and never really found it again in the country of my birth.
And then I found I fit in in Japan, not least because I didn’t fit in by design. My hermit tendencies work better in a foreign country. And my regrets don’t find as many perches here as they do in America, where everything reminds me of something else. The past is easier when it lives in another country.
But when the past lives elsewhere, I could be nowhere. So, I built a new life in Japan. A good one, thanks be to God. I have been dunked in mercy more than any man ever was. Estrangement and inner turmoil, these things will go on twirling in memory forever, but from Japan I can triangulate nearer my family, now on both sides of the Pacific. The whole thing hangs on keeping the past in quarantine. Half-chosen exile is the half-life of the old days put out of sight (if not out of mind). For my half-chosen exile in Japan not to collapse back into the gravity field of hard times from long ago, America had to stay as she was. In my mind’s eye, America, my home far from home, had to hold up and forge forward, bow angled always away from time-deep years of sorrow and pain.
The past forty years had been a time of rising, of climbing clear of being lost. Again and again, for as long as I can remember across my lifetime, America has risen from disaster, stronger than before. My family, too, pared down, grew tighter. We overcame some things. God was in His Heaven and all was right with the world—or at least as far as that’s possible in a post-Eden dispensation. What had broken before was mended, what was unwieldy had been brought to heel.
Then the world, and the country, and my home, started to come undone. The pandemic ruined my stratagem. I was afraid to go back to a place that was—as it had been for me in the previous century—more haunted than I could bear. I was afraid of the ghost-thick America, of the sadnesses of the past coming back to sit with me again, of all those regrets come a-courting. When my vision of America went bleak with the country’s faltering, I grew timid, fearful of seeing things as they now were. I was thrown back against a sturdier truth. We humans, I realized, call no shots. We make plans and decisions, but really, the best we can do is to make do.
I wanted very badly to go home again—on my terms. I understand now what Thomas Wolfe meant when he said that we can’t. I was afraid to stand by the graves of our little dogs. I was afraid to admit that the few happy days in America, the memory of which I had kept with me in Japan, were gone. When I realized I was cowering from facing reality, I grew ashamed. To paraphrase something John Steinbeck once said, my wife married a man, not a child. It was time to buck up and make a visit.
In late February, I got on an airplane in Tokyo and got off in Detroit, on my way South. I met my parents at the tiny airport in Chattanooga, our destination still a long drive down near-empty roads. The ride was quieter than usual. The next day, at home, I brought a silk flower, one I had bought at a little shop in Japan, to the graves I had feared. I stood by the handmade headstones for our little dogs, whom we had loved dearly, and who brought joy when times were bad. I wept bitterly there. Home is where one cries one’s hardest tears.
Since the world I knew, the world we all knew, fell apart, I have had to admit that, just as I was last century, I am lost again. I am blessed beyond measure, a happy man in a happy home in Japan. But big truths do not come easy anymore, and small truths do not scale up to comforting worldviews as effortlessly as they once did. Maybe I am just older. Or maybe the facts of existence are not as sunny as I had once believed.
I stop now, on this far side of global turmoil, and after having gone in sorrow to a time-worn home, to think about what human life is. As a prolifer I have argued for the unborn, but as a human being, I feel as small and helpless as our brothers and sisters in the womb. We are, all of us, contingent creatures in an uncertain world. Whether the umbilical cord is attached or not, we humans are only half at home in this universe. We often hear that there is no planet B, that we must take care of the earth because it is our home. I feel that there is no planet A, either. There is no final destination for us anywhere in the physical cosmos. Whatever we do here, we had better do what’s right, and had better do it quick. For the world and time are against us. And home is no refuge from either.