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the geography of identity

June 15, 2012

Perhaps you have guessed that for me the ambition to “make a name and position for myself” by my pen (a thing in which I have little confidence and cannot even hope to attain) is quite secondary. I write because I like the “processus” of literary creation; I write in the same way as I love, because it is my destiny, probably. And it is my only real consolation. There are things in me which I do not understand yet or am only just beginning to understand, and there are a great many such mysteries. Yet I study myself as hard as I can; I spend all my energy in putting into practice the aphorism of the Stoics: Know Yourself.” It is a difficult task, seductive, and painful.

Isabelle Eberhardt

I’ve always thought that when you get lost, the best thing to do is try to retrace your steps. I can hear some of you outdoorspeople saying, “No, it’s better to stay put so that someone can find you!” But that’s hard to do when the ground keeps shifting underneath your feet. Lately I feel like I’m on a treadmill, running hard just to stay in one place, and I can’t stop wondering, how’d I get here? Who am I that made the choices that brought me, a well-educated, talented, middle-class artist and teacher, to be unemployed and stranded in the state with the third highest unemployment rate in the country? And what on earth am I supposed to do now?

I grew up in Texas, but when my parents asked where I wanted to go to college, I answered, “Not in Texas, and not in any state bordering Texas.” Those were my only parameters. They were frustrated that I wouldn’t be more specific; I felt certain that as long as that criteria was met I would be fine.

I’m not even really sure where this certainty came from. My mother has always been proud of and interested in her Southern heritage, and I share her interest in it as something both distinctly American and something distinctly set apart. She used to tell me that being from Dallas didn’t make me a Southerner, but I convinced her I am Southern with the argument that a) Anywhere with this many deb balls has to be Southern, and b) In what is not the only similarity between Jewish and Southern mothers, having a Southern mother makes you a Southerner.

I’m embarrassed to say that when I arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was convinced I’d gone so far North that I’d leave with a Yankee accent. (Though I was near the top of my class in high school, I was apparently not familiar with the map or history of the United States.) After all, the word North was in the name, and my roommate, from Maryland, had a noticeable dialect. But as I lumbered towards the basement of Graham Memorial in my sweat pants and plaid shirt, calculating in my head whether I could wait till after tech week to wash my hair again, I began to notice the number of belles I passed along the way. Despite the fact that I’d put my share of hours into my appearance in Texas, I never understood how anyone in college could spend that much time on their makeup and hair for a 9Am class, especially after by their own perky, drawling accounts, “Oh my god I had so many blue cups last night.”

Even though it was still the South, North Carolina was not Texas. I can’t tell you how many people I met there, and later elsewhere, that have asked me in all earnestness if my family has horses, if I wear cowboy boots, if my dad wears a cowboy hat, and if my family lives on a ranch. My answers? “I’m allergic to hay, they’re really uncomfortable, my dad wears a three-piece suit to his job at an accounting firm, and yes, if you include “ranch-style house on a street of matching houses on evenly divided plots” in the larger category of “ranch,” I do.” Many people have been curious as to why I don’t have a Texas accent, and at first I answered, “I’m not sure, but no one in my family does.” Then I heard my parents’ voices on my answering machine for the first time. So much for that theory.

I am now able to recognize the difference between the roundness of my mother’s Louisiana accent and my father’s Texas twang, but I have never figured out why I don’t have one. TV is one possible explanation; I watched enough of it growing up. I once heard Stephen Colbert tell Terry Gross that he deliberately lost his South Carolina accent because he didn’t want to sound stupid, and I wonder whether I subconsciously did the same thing. I have fond memories of childhood efforts, spear-headed I’m certain by my brother, to jump feet first through the windows and into the seats of ours parents cars, but I will never be mistaken for a Duke of Hazzard.

Well, I finished my degree and got ready to move to the Big Apple and live as a full-fledged citizen of the “real world” in the genuine, bonafide, Unionized North. I remember standing at the airport gate at DFW and tearing up a bit. “Why are you crying?” my mom asked, stifling a little sniffle herself. “I don’t know,” I said. “I just feel like I’m supposed to.” Giving me a big, Southern hug, she said, “You know, if you don’t like it, you can always come back.” Good advice, I thought. I stopped crying. But I never went back.

Even after seven years in New York, hard core New Yorkers would probably still not consider me one of them. It seems the central tenet of the belief system of New Yorkers is that New York is the best place in the whole world, no place else matters, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something. I love New York, but I remain convinced that other people and places do have something to offer in shaping our national identity. Anyways I’m confident in the knowledge that I have a bit of New Yorker in me because my biggest pet peeve about everywhere else is that people there do things unbelievably slowly. Checking out at a store does not require a personal conversation with the cashier, people. There’s a line here and we’ve all got places to go.

When non-New Yorkers came to visit me there, I would often forget that they weren’t used to the fast walking (© Jaegerbru). I’d take off down the street, navigating between crowds of moving people without pausing, choosing my route in-the-moment based on the timing of the street lights, often leaving my guests stranded by a red light or trapped in a crowd through which only I had seen a path. I rollerbladed my way around that city for seven years, and I can tell you the only way to survive New York is to join the rhythm of movement around you. New Yorkers may not speak to one another or even look one another in the eye as they walk done the street, but they have really good kinesthetic response.

Angelinos, on the other hand, have no sense of the space around them. In an obvious physical manifestation of the belief that the world revolves around them and their screenplay, drivers halfway through a turn come to a full stop with an entire car length of empty space in front of them, leaving their tail-ends sticking out into the middle of traffic. Other Angelinos with obviously better screenplays then get crazy mad about the fact that if the jerks in front of them just pulled all the way forward they’d be out of the way of everybody trying to go straight to a meeting about their screenplay. And yet the righteous anger of drivers here pales in comparison to the Massholes with whom I contended during my days in New England.

For that’s where I went from New York, and from where I came to LA. For me, when I wasn’t in a car in or around Boston, the seven years I spent in Vermont and Massachusetts were times of solitude, quiet, and unbelievable beauty. It actually got dark at night: if overcast, pitch dark, and there were no street lights. The night I arrived there to live it was raining, and I had to drive back and forth for an hour before I found the turn for the dirt road on which I had rented a cabin. On the other hand, when the moon came out on a clear winter night, the trees would cast shadows on the snow.

Compared to the urban moonlight sonatas of 140th and Amsterdam, composed of Latin rock, trucks, people, sirens and that peculiar loon-like whistle that I’m pretty sure meant “there’s a cop coming put your drugs away,” the sounds of Vermont–frogs in spring, crickets in summer, wind through dry leaves in fall, and the crunching of snow under busy wild animal feet in winter–were a lullaby. Maybe it was being drunk on all this natural beauty that marred my judgment enough that while I was there, I married a Yankee.

When that Yankee decided that, as I had so many years before, he needed to get away from his family and home culture to find out who he really was, I followed him to LA. Unfortunately one of the things this distance enabled him to find out was that he didn’t want to be married to me. So here I am, in LA, wondering how the hell I got here and what to do now.

When people ask me where I’m from, my answer is like that Facebook relationship status of old: it’s complicated. Technically I’m from Texas, but I’m beginning to think that the answer is actually N/A. I’m a nomad, an amateur anthropologist, living among various peoples and learning their ways but never really becoming one of them, always using an outsider’s perspective to interpret customs as if they were dramaturgical materials for making a play. And now I’m lost.

Retrace your steps, a voice inside me says. Where did you see yourself last? In Vermont, I got to fulfill my childhood dream of living in a log cabin. Okay, so I didn’t wash my quilts out of doors, build a smokehouse, or eat fried pig tail (something I still plan to do). In fact the closest I got to anything Laura Ingalls Wilder did was stacking firewood and starting fires in wood stoves, which is harder than it sounds. But still, I loved it.

What I didn’t love was the damned Puritanness of everybody. Following in the fateful footsteps of their Hawthornian forebears, even the people who worked at the hippie college on a hill that brought me to Vermont remain convinced that the solution to every problem is simply not to talk about it at all. In the same way that the cold and the snowy, icy, muddy roads create physical impasse, this absurd belief keeps New Englanders at a psychological distance from one another. Intimacy is not in their vocabulary. It was partly this Puritanness that ended my marriage. Not going back there.

New York? So much culture and art and good food. So many people. So many of them unhappy. So may unhappy people living in such close quarters cannot help but result in incessant yelling and honking, and for me that’s not a reasonable alternative to the silence of so many secret small town sins. That porridge isn’t just right either.

People say you can’t go home. But what if home is a place that, despite the eighteen years you spent living there, never felt like home to start with? What happens if you go back to the one place you were determined to leave behind? Can I drop into the rhythm of life in Texas and navigate hazards like I did in New York? Will it help if I speak with an accent? How is the beauty of the big big sky different from the shape- and color-shifting horizon of the Green Mountains and how does the Texas landscape lead to peculiarly Texas behavior? If I can’t figure out what makes Texans tick, can I at least figure out what it was that made me so certain that Texas was a place I had to leave?

When East German playwright Heiner Müller visited Texas, he left with a whole new way of thinking about the relationship between landscape and politics. Though “in every landscape the I is collective,”

What was new to me was the discovery that a landscape can be a political phenomena. … Simply because of the dimensions of those landscapes out there .. they can never quite become domesticated. There always remains something more. … In these fringes, a lot of things can move.

I think Texans would agree–one thing they’ll never be is domesticated. What better place for a nomad to roam?

Now seeking publishers, benefactors, and/or sugar daddies. Stayed tuned for more info.

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