Kansas and the Transfiguration of Longing

Kansas is always between. West coast, east coast. North Dakota and Texas. On the way to somewhere else. For non-natives, a place to travel through, but not to stay. It is surely a divine prank that the largest industry in the largest city of the state is aircraft manufacturing. Kansas, flyover country, some call it. The winds that whip the wheatfields lift those aluminum tubes into the air and . . . away.

That farmer’s son, sweat-soaked on the football fields of August, lifts his head to the sky at the sound of the jet engines and idly dreams for a moment, following the contrails out of town. That banker’s daughter, whose dad runs the bank that owns the land, the equipment, and the home of that farmer whose son gazes skyward, also tilts her chin to the cerulean heaven and holds on to the thought, skipping through her mind, of how full life must be . . . elsewhere.

But Kansas is called the heartland, and not without reason. For whatever the longings of passers-through and natives alike, Kansas was not made for easeful transience. And all who plant their feet in her soil, or breathe her air, or sip her rain will find themselves bewitched by the between, ever moving and ever rooted. The seasons flow into one another in ceaseless parade. Seedtime and birth, harvest and life, winter and death. The turning of the year brings with it the cyclic labor, the unrelenting debt of toil.

The hardscrabble farmer’s life is the unrelenting struggle against an ad hominem creation, the ceaseless tilling of the soil whose constant cycle can harden the soul as it hardens the man. Who can blame the one-armed, cantankerous coot who sits, weary, on his stoop and envies his urban counterpart his air-conditioned, television-dotted world of boredom. And yet, once that glittering glass box sits prominent in the georgic living room, that once-envious farmer finds the device a soporific and slips easily into a too-early sleep, reclined in his chair, paper athwart his overalled belly.

This labor-engendering geography of Kansas is the geography of the mortal soul. Always betwixt and between, always looking to fill its longings elsewhere, always laboring and always seeking rest from the toil. The longing of the Kansan for life elsewhere is the longing for an imagined and unreal surcease from a toilsome existence. The stretch of the Kansas sky, the expanse of its plains, offer a wideness to the world that shimmers like a mirage to the laboring soul. And we Kansans will run for that horizon, seeking the phantasmic oasis, that toilless life of ease.

But the oddity of being between is that it keeps bringing one back around to the place from which one first set forth. Ever moving, and ever rooted. In leaving, one finds that one returns. In the seeking of rest, one finds that the struggle continues even so. The longing and the labor wear the edges of the soul, and, if one finds such a grace, make a man that blessed of all states: simple. This is the transformation Kansas works to the soul’s longings, a transfiguration which finds at last the embrace of such toil. And in the embrace, the final and longed-for rest.

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