Going home again
I was one of those people who had to reject where they came from. Why, I’m not exactly sure. If pressed to guess, I might say “to escape traumatic memories.” Or maybe I just didn’t identify with Michigan, much like people who feel they were born into the wrong body. I left as soon as I could—right after college—to “climb the highest mountain” as I liked to put it, that mountain being New York City. I wanted to be a singer and a book editor, two things that didn’t exactly offer convergent career paths. And two things that certainly didn’t scream “Michigan.”
I fought feverishly against my past, adopted then abandoned a feeble east coast accent. I could never master the broader vowel sound. My flat, pinchedmidwestern “a” refused to disappear. I despised hearing myself on those occasions where my speech was recorded: answering machine messages, early band rehearsals.
Oh how I loved the fierce unfamiliar chaotic aggressive energy of New York City, so different from my native land where the word “different” was itself a criticism. Sometime during my first year, I saw an altercation between two strangers on the street and marveled at their emotional health, their freedom to be so open and honest with their feelings. I coined the phrase “Midwest repressed” to describe the opposite of this display, and my default response to conflict. It took a little while for me to realize that what I was witnessing was simple, open hostility, not my idealized state of uninhibited self-expression. Ah blessed naïveté. It does allow for fresh perspective every now and then.
Years later, I would travel by car with my husband from Manhattan to a bicycling forum in Traverse City, in the upper part of Michigan’s lower peninsula. I remember crossing the Ohio/Michigan border and winding our way north from interstate to highway to routes (pronounced “routs”; “roots” is pronounced “ruhts”), passing the lakes and rivers that had given birth to Michigan’s slogan, “water wonderland.” A feeling came over me as I traveled this profoundly familiar but now strange, unurban landscape: I’m falling in love. I’m in love with Michigan.
It was indeed a wonderland, gorgeous and wild. Nature had shown abundant enthusiasm in expressing itself here. Not at all Midwest repressed, but an unbounded playground for natural beauty.
We passed through Bear Lake, its pretty houses planted along the water. I felt the urge. “We could sell our east village apartment, buy a house, invest what’s left and just live, right here.” OK, I’d gone too far. But the pull was undeniable, like all the small tides around us.
As T. S. Eliot once said, the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. It’s now August 2018. I’m savoring a short vacation, sitting at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. “Lake Michigan.” It sounds like a poem to me now. The trees around the lake are every shade of green; the water gradates from light to darker blues and drifts into navy at the horizon’s edge. The summer wind flits around through the leaves and grass and touches my face, drying up the morning rain and my old tears.
I love you, Michigan.