Thursday, November 05, 2009

On Place and Identity

How's that for a pompous-sounding title? Or at least derivative of the very good essays written about the same? Either way, it's been on my mind a bit lately, and today my friend Brian jogged the idea a bit with a post about the Yankees' World Series win last night. In particular, Brian notes that I am a Midwesterner who lived in New York for several years before heading to grad school in northwest Arkansas.

This is true, and also brings up a question I've been asked for years: Where are you from? It's not the easiest question to answer, and the confusion is why I've never been comfortable calling myself from any place.

I was born in upstate New York — Ithaca, to be exact. I have a few recollections of this place that can't be ascribed to photos, but that's about it. We lived there for almost three years until moving to Iowa City, Iowa. My more-formed memories start there, but Iowa only lasted a couple of years. We left there and moved to Dekalb, Illinois, where I started Kindergarten at the too-early age of four. A year later, though, my mother accepted a job at the University of Dayton. We were an academic family, and the search for a tenure-track job was on, and my mother landed it. In our first year in Dayton, we lived in the tree-lined suburb of Oakwood, and a year later my father wrapped up work in Dekalb, and we came back together in a split-level house in Kettering. My father had also grown up in Kettering so there was a bit of family history. But only a bit. By this time, I was seven-going-on-eight and had already developed a gypsy-ish sense of place and home. Seven years later, my parents were divorced and I transferred schools back to Oakwood. It was the first (and perhaps only) move of my life that RE-connected me with anything.

On graduation from high school, I had two options — go to UD or take a ride up to Albion College. My grades in high school had been middling-to-poor, and I lost out on most of the schools I wanted to attend. There was no way I could stay in Dayton. I'd never really developed a deep attachment to the place, and had many, many memories I preferred to leave behind. Albion it was — for two years. I'd pre-determined that my time there would be short. I had fun and cleaned up my academic act a bit, but I also resisted any kind of anchoring. Instead, I spent my second year focusing on where else I could go. The list was long, but came down to the Boston area. My mother's roots are in the area; our summer house was a few hours up the road in Maine; and my best friend was in school there. It made a lot of sense, and when I landed at Brandeis in 1990, I felt like I'd come closer to "home." I knew that city well and loved it, but three years later, many of my friends had made the exodus to New York and my dream job at the time had turned into an unceremonious canning. I decided to follow my college friends to New York.

The city had always held a deep pull for me. I loved the rhythms. I loved the sounds. I loved the idea that no one in my immediate family had made it theirs. Hell, I even loved the dirt. I couch-surfed for several months while bouncing between the cities, and finally decided to take the plunge. It wasn't without danger, and I spent months trying to find a niche. I did part of that as a writer — though my lack of discipline got in the way. I did part of that as a pool player. I worked as a temp. I sold CDs to buy beer and ramen when work wasn't available. I got depressed. I got elated. It was amazing and awful at once. What I didn't do was give up on the place. In the end, New York was the crucible where I began to understand myself a little better. It was the lens through which I understood my world and my worldview. It was the place I began to learn how to keep and maintain friendships — a lesson I still work on to this day. I met cool people and worked cool places. I pitched some of the preppy trappings leftover from Dayton in favor of black t-shirts and jeans. I discovered that I loved design and disdained the music I'd studied for years. By the time I left for grad school seven years later, New York was the place that had come to define how I saw myself.

When I got to grad school in Arkansas, I was a New Yorker, but as Brian rightly points out, I was also a midwesterner. But the idea of myself as an Ohioan still didn't feel right. See, for all those years we lived in the midwest, we never stayed there. We traveled up to Maine and New York in the summers, and up to the Adirondacks in the winters. Home and the place you're from are created by community, but my community was always on the move. Friends bond over shared experiences in summers and vacations, and all my experiences were on the road with family and transient meetings with those other couple kids at the motel or staying up the road from our summer house. The degree to which this came true occurred to me as I was pressed to write about places and people I knew while in the MFA program at Arkansas. I had few places outside of Maine and New York that drew my heart. A few years later during my first marital breakdown, the kid and I landed back at my mother's house in Dayton. (It was there, in fact, that this blog started in 2004.)

The return to Dayton was a mixed experience. It was hard living back in my mother and stepfather's house, though I had no connection to growing up in that particular house. By the same token, it was easy to take Buttercup around the city to places that I remembered from my youth. As my job search ground on, I even flirted with the idea of landing there. The problem was everything felt like a fly in amber. I'd been a gypsy too long to return to the place and call it home. I'd already accepted that I probably wouldn't live in New York again for years if ever, but Brooklyn still felt more like home in my heart, more like a place I could always find myself. In Dayton, I just found that fly in amber. I knew (and know) many people who did stay, and for them it makes sense. It is where they were born and raised and where they wanted to bear and raise their kids. I was still looking for that place.

Moving to Richmond seemed like a fair step to finding that place, and it still does. We've made a good community of friends here. Buttercup has something that I never did — an elementary school that she may see all the way through and a group of friends she may build on for the rest of her life. The first place that truly happened to me was Boston, and New York was an outgrowth of that. If we stay in Richmond, years from now she will likely be able to answer the question of where she's from easily — born in Arkansas, raised in Richmond — while I will still be fumbling my answers. I guess that's why it was comforting when a friend-of-a-friend asked me where I was from and clarified her question by saying "In the South, what we mean when we ask where you're from is where you were born." And in that case, I have no choice but to take New York. Upstate.