In line at the grocery store checkout, I tap my foot impatiently as an elderly lady slowly counts out change. To bide the time, I sneak glances at the magazine rack’s tabloid offerings, scanning the latest gossipy headlines on the covers of Star and the National Enquirer. I’m just looking; I don’t believe the salacious pablum these rags are trying to sell me. Honestly, I’m too principled, too cool. But. My eyelashes flutter away and then back to the covers. Maybe just a glance through People magazine. That’s pretty mainstream. I page through, taking in the pictures of stars “just like you” getting a coffee, unwashed hair stuffed under a ball cap, kids pulled along behind them while they try to escape the unprincipled lens of the paparazzi. I roll my eyes and replace the magazine. This is dumb.

My groceries now paid for, I push my wobbly cart into the parking lot. Reaching my compact car, I load paper sacks into the hatchback. I return the cart, buckle up, take a sip of my latte, and plug in my Kindle Fire. The earnest voice of my latest podcast guide flows through the speakers. “This is Missing Richard Simmons.” Our host is doggedly pursuing answers to his own burning questions: Where did Richard Simmons go? Won’t he please come back and show himself? How dare he deprive the public of his presence? And above all—what is really going on behind closed doors? The narrator convinces us he has a right to know because, gosh darn it, he cares about Simmons. No line of questioning is too invasive; the narrator’s right to know is the one guiding ethic of podcasting.

I listen because tabloids aren’t cool but podcasts are. I listen because it is human to be fascinated with other humans’ behavior.

I listen because tabloids aren’t cool but podcasts are. I listen because it is human to be fascinated with other humans’ behavior. I listen because I want to know about the weird, the glamorous, the famous, the infamous, the ordinary. I listen for the same reason I probe the Wikipedia pages of and Google search results for the people that fascinate me—war reporters, celebrities, public figures. I want to know the unknowable. I want to dissect and distill down the essence of these ineffable human beings. Maybe if I know more about their romantic history or their religious journey, I will know them.

The self-assured voice of a podcaster commands our attention, convincing us they have found a way to get out of this whole “through a mirror darkly” business, to untangle the mystery of at least one person’s humanity. So we listen, we speculate, we do more internet searches, we start Facebook groups of people equally obsessed with our latest podcast listening experience: Did Adnan kill Hai? Did Tyler find the gold? Ooooo, is that the famous hedge maze from the air? Is Richard Simmons being held hostage by his housekeeper? Is he secretly a woman now? We want to know it all. And with the podcaster, we demand to know it all.

In the viral podcast S-Town, a collaboration of This American Life and Serial, reporter Brian Reed is repeatedly contacted by a colorful southern curmudgeon named John B. McLemore. John is irascible, swears creatively, despises the small-mindedness of his town, and wants Reed to investigate a murder. Reed tries to brush him off at first, but then, for some inexplicable reason, decides to come down and check out John’s town, Woodstock, Alabama, to see if he can get to the bottom of the alleged murder.

It seems evident from the audience’s very first introduction to John that he is quite unwell mentally. He reacts inappropriately, the way he speaks demonstrates racing thoughts, and he’s generally in a negative headspace. Yet he’s very smart and accomplished in his field of clockmaking. He knows a great deal about global issues like climate change. He seems to range between wild, expressive emotional highs to low dips of despondency. Despite the ethical questions about letting a potentially unwell person be the subject of a podcast, Reed persists. There’s just something about John. As the podcast develops, it becomes more clear that this is not a murder mystery. In fact, the meandering pace makes it a little hard to discover what it is about at first, until, in the second episode, tragedy strikes.

What unfolds over time is a longform work of spoken creative nonfiction that is at times unnecessarily invasive—the last episode includes a rather unfortunate piece of audio from John and the potential outing of a gay man in the town. But this spoken literary masterpiece is ultimately about a weary man mourning a broken world that consistently fails to live up to his ideals, a lonely man for whom there is no “rose” of romance or human connection, a man who needs people but pushes them away, a man desperate to repair broken things and yet unable to stop breaking them . . . and it is about the rolling on of time, whether any of us likes it or not.

We don’t really belong here in this broken, disappointing place—this S-Town of an earth.

In the second to last episode, we meet McLemore’s longtime friend, a fellow gay man he met on a single’s line. The two never established a romantic relationship, though they both privately flirted with the idea. As he speaks to Reed, the friend vividly recalls one moment of unspoken, unfulfilled longing in their relationship, still palpable though much time has passed.

It would be easy to say that the only reason the potent moment had no satisfying resolution was because the two men lived in the repressed South. And, certainly, when you aren’t free to say how you really feel, that is incredibly lonely and hard. And yet, how many of us have managed to obtain our greatest desires, to live those peak moments we most wanted? Despite these fulfilled goals, something was still wanting. The riches, the spouse, the job, the babies … they just didn’t fully satisfy. Having our desires fulfilled might satisfy momentarily but a yearning remains and will eventually resurface. The incessant, disquieting hunger will gnaw at our bellies again.

The lonely yearning of McLemore and his friend shows how ill-suited this world is to satisfy our true and deepest desires. Just as tabloids tease us with the possibility of dissecting and sifting down the bits and pieces of an ineffable human life—and just as earnest podcasters with the right to know attract us with the same, when these guides are laid bare, truly honest, they can only show us how unsatisfying this world is. No matter how good or bad things get, there is still something just out of reach. S-Town, for all the ethical questions that it unearthed, is one of the few podcasts truly open about that.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in The Weight of Glory,

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both . . . These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Lewis’s point is that we are longing a new heaven and earth where we will find wholeness and fulfilment, where we will find God. We don’t really belong here in this broken, disappointing place—this S-Town of an earth. We live and love and we try to make beauty and light, but we will die with unfulfilled hopes, still yearning for what we can almost see out of the corner of our eye.

Living on earth means getting used to longing, to not knowing. We crave union with a Being who will satisfy our hearts—we crave Him like chocolate, like that first cup of coffee, like that passionate kiss with our beloved, like a deer panting for the brooks. But this existence of “not yet” is not forever.

The consummation is still to come.

1 Comment

  1. You used podcasts, but this could just have easily been a shared post on social media. :) Loved the piece though, thanks for sharing it!

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