I set out for Lake Superior on Saturday, with the intention of spending the better part of this week meeting and interviewing people for a documentary project I’m developing. The day got off to a rocky start: at 4:30AM, United Airlines called and emailed to tell me that my 8AM flight to Chicago would be delayed. I would miss my connection to Hancock unless I hustled and got myself to Chicago on an earlier flight – the 7AM — which I did. I arrived with plenty of time to spare, and was at Gate F1A and ready to board the Hancock flight when my phone buzzed. Flights to Hancock were cancelled, due to a blizzard in the Keweenaw — lake effect snow.
The woman at the customer service counter had clearly had a rough morning. Her allergies were making her miserable: all the dust from the heater, she said; she had just turned it on for the first time this winter. She did her best, but when all was said and done my options were limited to waiting out the storm in Chicago (which probably meant the dreary and overpriced airport hotel) or making a dash to Detroit, switching from United to Delta (I never found out exactly how this was to be accomplished, or what it would cost), and trying to catch the evening flight to Marquette. Both sounded expensive, exhausting and damaging to the soul. I told myself that I could probably accomplish everything I’d set out to do on this trip the next time around. So I decided to call it a day, turn around and head back to New York.
The woman behind the counter seemed relieved, and marked my ticket “Carrie Over Carrie Back” [sic]. I moved to a new gate to wait for the next New York flight, and ate an airport sandwich that registered on the receipt as “CEB Tur Goud.” That’s about how it tasted.
Now I am here when I expected to be there, here in New York with a strange sense of being absent from the UP. This confusion of presence and absence, here and not there, is not quite the same as missing a place; it’s not like nostalgia and doesn’t involve longing to be elsewhere. It’s more like misplacing myself – a sense of dislocation. I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be here: none of my planning included that possibility. Plans commit us to a time and place. They tell us where we belong, and when. They are ways of making ourselves belong. I simply don’t belong here, at least not until Thursday, when I’d planned to come back. Until then, I am neither here nor there.
I hit on that familiar expression yesterday. It’s a colloquial way of talking about irrelevance, things that are of no account, and though I have plenty to keep me busy until Thursday, I am also seriously exploring this feeling that I am of no account, and will be for a couple days to come.
The expression neither here nor there is, I now understand, a good place to start reflecting on our plans and purposes and how they give us a sense of belonging in the world. It goes way back, and was popular and well-worn even before Shakespeare used it in Othello. That much is clear from the earliest instance cited by the OED: Arthur Golding’s 1583 translation of The Sermons of J. Calvin on Deuteronomie.
This is Golding’s translation of Calvin’s 92nd sermon, on “the law of the tithe” as it’s presented in Deuteronomy 14.24-29 — a passage which is itself already about being displaced and absent, about being “far” from the place where “God shall choose to set his name” (as the King James version has it). Tithes of money are offerings “if the way be too long for thee…or if the place be too far from thee.” Seeing that God has dealt so generously with us, Calvin writes,
what an unthankfulnesse is it for me to despise him that sheweth himself so liberall towardes me? True it is that our so dooing is neither here nor there (as they say,) in respect of God: the seruice that we do him doth neither amend him nor appaire him: but he giueth vs the poor among vs, to bee succored at our handes, to the ende that none of vs should so glutte himself by cramming his owne bellie, as to despise others that are in necessitie, but that we shoulde bee well advised to make an offering vnto God of the thinges that he hath put into our handes, and that the same might become holy by that meanes. Not that wee should paye it as a ransoume to God; but that the acknowledgement which we make vnto him in having compassion upon our poore needy brethren, is as though our Lord should allow of our eating and drinking, saying thus: Now is all lawful for you, I lyke well of it, I giue it vnto you; and that is because ye honor me in dooing almesdeedes to such as are in pouertie.
It’s a wonderful and complicated passage about making things “holy” and honoring the bounty and plenty of the world by sharing it and making an offering of it – the sort of thing we’d expect to find Lewis Hyde writing about in The Gift. Louis CK, a very different kind of Louis, makes roughly the same point Calvin makes here in a profanity-laced routine called “If God Came Back.” It all starts with the question why Christians don’t seem to believe they have to look after the creation:
This morning, sitting here in New York, and feeling as if I belong elsewhere, it seems downright uncanny that I was thinking about precisely this routine just minutes before my flight to Hancock was cancelled on Saturday. An exhibit called “Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers” – currently running at Chicago O’Hare in Terminal 2 – brought it to mind. Huge photographs of glaciers by James Balog had been hung on the wall and a sign instructed travelers to “teach your children about landscapes their children will never know.” That sentence alone left me aghast — I had plenty of time to contemplate it, sitting there at the gate — and it made me wonder what purpose could justify the things we do every day, all the running back and forth, the going here and there. We hardly ever give it a second thought.