I’ve lived in this little town for thirty-one years, but almost every day someone still asks me, “Where you from?” I don’t tell them. Maybe if I’m not in my long-suffering persona at the moment I might just say, “Here.” And move on. Or I might sidestep with, “How far back do you mean?” and if they press then I inform them that my Griffin forebears moved down here from Virginia to Union County (near Charlotte) before the Revolution. Or I might go on the offensive: “All my folks are from around here,” with further ammunition that my Mom grew up in Winston-Salem and Dad in Hamlet.
But I never tell them where I was actually born. That would end the conversation. Because what they’re really saying is, “You ain’t from around here, are you?” And I’ll be damned if I’m going to confirm it.
Why? What’s the big deal? Afraid of being labeled a Yankee? It’s not as if there aren’t fifty other things besides my pure midwestern accent that brand me an outsider in this rural county. Not Baptist. Not Republican. Not a football fan. Not a Tarheel (although I have no compunction about letting my Carolina friends know I went to Duke).
No, I’m not running away from the things I’m not. I”m running toward what I long to be. Not exactly a state of being, but a state of belonging.
I belong to North Carolina and it belongs to me. I’ve slept on the ground in its forests and mountains. I’ve drunk from its streams. I’ve planted trees here. I can recite its toast: Here’s to the land of the longleaf pine . . . . I’ve lived in a lot of other towns and a lot of other states, but this is the one I need to accept me and take me in and hold me. Maybe it’s exactly because I lived in so many different places growing up – I need some place where I belong.
So I won’t apologize for getting defensive when someone tries to imply I’m not from around here. Just take heart all you folks who have moved more than twenty miles from the place where you were born. Even if your great x 10 grandfather didn’t live here, you can belong. Just put down a taproot of love, and when someone asks where you’re from, you tell them, “Right here, damn it.”
. . . .
Moving – I couldn’t help but get agitated about all those moves after reading that Jodi Barnes has moved at least twenty-four times in her life, as far as she can remember. Her book Unsettled keeps returning to that theme, the quest for belonging. Of course there are the boxes packed, unpacked, repacked, and their tangible artifacts of memory. We can’t let go of things because we can’t bear to be cut off from our past. Memories – are they really roots that are strong enough to feed us? Is home what we’ve left behind or where we long to arrive?
Jodi’s poems reveal so many things left behind. Love: we thought it was real, but it has moved on without us. Lives: that pack our hearts long after we’ve lost them. So many false steps and false starts that may end with us feeling cut off. Is there any hope for us wayfaring strangers to finally discover our home? The gods of metaphor; the dirt beneath our feet; the persona of myth we don like an astonished cloak; all those things that leave us feeling uncertain and longing. Everything unsettled. And yet . . .
. . . . .
My friends ask, are you moved in yet?
They mean is my stuff unpacked;
am I settled?
I envision wagon wheels,
mail-order brides, the frontier.
But here my sole risk is to trip
the clutter of privilege.
Once I unwrap what I thought I’d need,
I circle camps of chattel on a polished floor,
stretch the metaphor of expansion,
contrast this mansion with teepee
desire – its flapping door.
Next time I’ll answer Hell No –
I got to keep moving.
. . . . .
The Hardness of Cardboard Philosophy
Memories hide beneath cardboard wings,
seek solace against worn seams.
Last night, I dreamed this box
grew feathers and flew away.
But it stays, obeys gravity,
reminds me of a frayed decision:
to face the weight or leave this matter
to tidy imagination.
I think I remember why it’s no use
to ply back flaps on time capsules.
It’s the same stuff. Pixies don’t exist.
And there is no magic in this dust.
Yet something pulls me to the drab,
unrelenting, rectangular shape,
my arms extend, my fingers bend
to search breaches in brittle tape.
Strands of hair, stale baby’s breath,
baptismal candle, eyelet gown,
first tooth, proof of life –
unmoved, they stare me down.
As I try to keep them dry,
not mourn her past, the missed –
angelic imps resist my wish; the box sits.
Another blurred present flies by.
From Unsettled, (c) 2010, Jodi Barnes, Main Street Rag Publishing
. . . . .
With his masters in chemical engineering, my Dad got a job with Western Electric straight out of Georgia Tech. I was born in Niagara Falls, the American side.