A couple of years ago I read a book that has stuck with me, The Conditions of Love by Dale M. Kushner. As I read, I dog-eared pages and underlined passages even though my copy is a hardcover, not a paperback. I couldn’t help myself. It’s that good. Each time I go back to the book, I discover something else that makes me think or appreciate Dale’s writing. As I was thumbing through it not long ago, one line in particular gave me pause, and I’ve thought repeatedly of it since. Here it is: “To learn is to forget, the events of one life crowding out the events of the next.” If that is true, what does it mean to my life? How does that affect who I am? Does it change my identity as a person? A writer? A teacher?
Change is difficult because we have a tendency to hold onto what we know out of fear or the desire for comfort, but learning requires that we step out of our comfort zones to experience something new, and that can be scary but also exciting and liberating. Since I’ve lived in the Midwest, I’ve felt myself to be on the fringes of society at times, not able to fully understand or participate in the culture here because it is different from what I grew up with and identify with, but also because I don’t want to lose my identity as a Southerner. Just the idea of being any less Southern made me rebel against embracing the Midwest, yet I also pride myself on being willing to experience new things, on learning. I think of myself as an educated woman. I like the challenge of learning something new, but if I refused to change, or to embrace this place, every bit my home as the place I grew up in, what does that say about me?
If I learn how to be a Midwesterner, do I have to forget about being a Southerner? Perhaps, but I don’t like to think of it that way. I prefer to think of it as change. I’ve changed to live here, and the most noticeable way is how I talk. My speech no longer sounds like that of my friends down in Georgia; my vowels are less rounded. I’ve learned to endure the cold, sort of. I complain when it gets humid here, even though at times I still miss the sticky air of Georgia. Heck, two winters ago I was alone the entire month of January in 40 below temperatures with a poorly working furnace and had to shovel LOTS of snow, and stoke the fireplace to help heat the house without my Midwesterner husband around. If that’s not Midwestern, I don’t know what is. In fact, lately people have acted surprised when they find out I’m from the South. Lawd have mercy, I need a trip home to get my drawl back!
Do those things mean I have “forgotten” some of what makes me a Southerner? Maybe. I can hear my Southern friends blessing my heart right now.
Yes, I’ve changed, but the South will always be a part of me. When I write, I write about the South. I can’t help it. The South bubbles up out of me when I put pen to paper or at least hands to keyboard. And that’s when I hear the cadence of my people, no matter that I live so far north of the Mason-Dixon line that I might as well be in Canada. Though I’ve become accustomed to the fast flat vowels of the North, they still seem foreign to me because when I go home and hear a sweet southern drawl or hear my niece and nephew say yes ma’am or no ma’am to me, I fall into that drawl like I never left. I still make tea, though no longer sweet, but flavored with mint. I still love pimiento cheese, fried chicken, The Masters, and good sea food. I still long for the smell of magnolia blossoms and tea olive in the spring; UGA football in the fall, even if Larry Munson no longer calls the games; the occasional 75 degree day in winter; being close enough to the ocean to drive there for a weekend; and having everyone ask after your mama. I know these are only surface traits, but they represent the culture that Southerners hold dear. What keeps me feeling connected to the South is going back and being enfolded into family and friends as though I never left. The open hearts of the people, my people, are what keep me longing for the South.
What keeps me here then? Why don’t I return to my roots? That’s a question I’ve pondered lately. The answer I’ve come to is that I love what my husband and I have built here. I love my home here, my friends, my colleagues and my students, my writing friends, my church, my community. I became a teacher here, built my reputation on my own. I became a writer here and have a community of writers who support me. I’ve built a life here that would be hard to walk away from even though I feel the pull of the South. I look out at the gardens I’ve labored over, the house I see my husbands handiwork in, the town where I raised my children, the parks they played in, the rivers and lakes we swim in, the sunrises and sunsets we’ve seen, the trees we’ve planted that have grown so tall, the farm fields, the forests. Could I leave this place? This place I’ve come to love?
I have wondered if I would ever feel like I belonged here in the Midwest, and I finally feel like I do. Is it because I was finally willing to? Maybe. People here have welcomed me in their midst and I love them for that. But if I have to forget where I came from to fit in or belong, I don’t think I can. Being southern is part of my identity. I can’t separate myself from that part of me any more than Churchill Downs can separate itself from horse racing, mint juleps, or big fancy hats. I think what Dale Kushner meant is that to fully embrace where you are you have to be present in the moment. I’ve tried to do that, even though at times I long for my people and the place I’m from, the familiarity of home and the love of family. What I’ve come to understand is that I belong to two places now: the Midwest and the South, both lands whose features have a way of becoming a part of your identity and whose people have the same generous hearts. Perhaps I’ll move back “home” one day. I want to, one day. But when I do, I know I’ll miss the Midwest, my other “home.”