I Belong to Two Places

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.”

Going Home!

I once told my husband–or so he claims–that I would never live above the Mason-Dixon line. After this winter, I think I know why I said that!

Today, however, I am going home to Georgia after five years of being away. I’ve always gone back every couple of years, but the Great Recession stopped my travel this time. Now, we are back on our feet, and although I’ll be taking this trip by myself, I am looking forward to it more than any other trip I’ve had in a long time. I can’t wait to see my sister when she picks me up. I know I’ll cry!

Although I haven’t lived in the South since 1987, I still consider Georgia to be home and always will. I can’t wait to feel the warm air on my skin and touch the red dirt. Georgia is the place that reminds me who I am and where I came from. It is where my ancestors made their home and where most of my relatives still do. My, how I’ve missed you!


Why I Live in Wisconsin

This winter I’ve not had much good to say about the weather in Wisconsin. In fact, those of you who know me  know  I don’t care for winter, so as the saying goes, if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. I was relatively quiet about my dislike until recently. I grew up in the South, land of balmy breezes and gentle rain, so after a winter of 49 days of below zero temperatures and as of yesterday, the second coldest winter in Wisconsin on the record books, I need to remind myself why this state is a good place to live. This winter has made me want to decamp permanently. I’ve even begun to peruse the real estate listings in Athens, Charleston, Greenville and many other southern cities dear to my heart.

Let me just put what has been happening here in Wisconsin into perspective. Back on January 6th when I woke up, the temperature was 15 below zero. When Bruce woke up half an hour later, it was 18 below. He started a fire in the fireplace to help our heater along. Academically, the cold was fascinating. The house made creaky, groaning noises that spooked our dog Stella, and the snow hit the house like pellets blown from many pellet guns at once. I didn’t have school that day or the day after, but not because of snow or ice on the roads. No.  School was cancelled because the temperatures were so low that if anyone spent more than about ten minutes outside, they could get frostbite on exposed skin. The cold was dangerous! Veterans of cold weather know the only defense against cold the sort I’m talking about is to stay indoors or to wear down and lots of it with a gaiter and a hat covered by the hood on your coat, mittens, snow boots and insulated snow pants. Here it is February 28th and the cold is as relentless as it was back in November when it began. This morning when I got up, the temperature was 17 below zero.

Even my husband, who loves winter, has had enough, this from the man who actually enjoys clearing the snow from the driveway. And I thought I was the only one going crazy! Cabin fever has set in officially at our house, and it has me thinking about why I still live here, especially when I once told my husband I would never live north of the Mason-Dixon line. Coming up with some of the reasons below took me a while, but you’ll notice that not one of them involves the season we are currently experiencing.

1. Summer–Summer in Wisconsin is a glorious three months of nearly perfect weather, long warm days and cool nights, simply heavenly. And flowers literally grow overnight they are so happy to see the sun. The trills and calls of songbirds fill the silence that blanketed the landscape like snow during winter.

2. Few bugs–Can any Southerner say this too many times? Wouldn’t everybody want to live where there are few bugs?

3. Clean, clear rivers and lakes— A river flows behind my house, and honestly, it is one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve ever seen. In fall the banks are lined with hardwoods in brilliant colors, in spring deer, foxes, bald eagles and the occasional bear and coyote join the new leaves on the trees and the greening grass to celebrate the warmer weather. In summer people and animals alike call the river home. Cedar waxwings and swallows drink from its waters and swoop and turn in the air above to catch flies and other bugs. The sounds of the river fill the evening air and float up to our open windows to lull me to sleep. Right now, deep in winter, it is frozen, but I promise it’s pretty in every other season!

4. Gardening–The older I get, the more I want to tend my garden only about four or five months of the year. If I had to tend it longer, I’d have to pay someone to help me keep up both the yard and the garden. Once the weather cools toward the end of August, school starts. Then my days are governed not by the natural world but the sound of a bell. I have an excuse to stop gardening and don’t feel guilty about allowing the weeds to spread.

5. My husband–I realized a while back that my husband probably couldn’t survive living in the south as easily as I could adapt to living up north, so I stay here with him. Of course, not long ago I told him one day I was moving back  where the winter is not something that threatens my very survival. I told him he could come with me if he wanted to, but that I was moving back to Georgia or somewhere else in the South. I am serious about that.

Five reasons is all I can come up with at the moment. I’m sure there are more, but my brain is too addled with cold to think straight right now. It is snowing yet again. Maybe when I thaw out some time in June, I’ll amend my list. In the meantime, if you know some good reasons to live in Wisconsin or anywhere else up here in this vast tundra of the Midwest, I’d love to hear from you. When I look at my thermometer and see -12F and the wind chill below zero, I need a few more reasons not to pack my bags right now. Help!