“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (William Faulkner)
As regular readers of this blog may recall, April is the month I do a little tally of the lessons life has imparted—or dumped on me—in the preceding year. This time around, as the Birthday Fairy drops me another one, I’m taking a wider lens. Much wider. Forty years. But I’m still learning. May it ever be so.
In March 1983, I was a part-time journalist for an alternative newspaper in East Lansing, Michigan. When Black activist Angela Davis came to speak at Michigan State University, I jumped at the chance to cover the story and interview this legendary woman. While being one of six reporters permitted to spend a half hour talking to her before the event was a dream come true, what has stayed with me most was something she said to the largely student audience: Don’t let these places [universities] make you forget from whence you came.
It was a striking line then, and its truth/import has only grown for me over the intervening years. In fact, I have come to believe it’s impossible to forget where you come from. Oh, you can fake it for others, you can choose to keep the blinders on, you can even lie to yourself. But where you come from, it’s always there, the good and the bad.
Five months after Davis’s visit, I got into my orange VW “Bug” and headed out to Boston, almost 800 miles to the east. I was going in search of a place to live in a city I had never seen. I was going to make my Big Move, leave behind the conservative, small-minded, small town culture of the Midwest and move to the East Coast where “things happened.”
Famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley may have said “Go West, young man” but I had always yearned for the East. During my college years, I hitched rides with various fellow students heading to New York for a term break. They would drop me off in Manhattan, where I rented a student room for $6 a night at the top of an old hotel in Midtown, ate at Horn and Hardart Automats—“frill-free and democratic” eateries (as one writer put it)—and walked. And walked. And dreamed.
New York was definitely the center of “all things literary” in the States, but the City was too pricey for a lowly-paid editor, so I settled on Boston because it was: 1) still a major city on the East Coast, and 2) an easy hop by bus or car down to Manhattan. On Labor Day weekend, 1983, I again got in my VW and drove to my new home in Boston, the first floor of a house in a working class neighborhood in Somerville. I was leaving the Midwest behind.
Twenty-six years would pass before I saw Michigan again.
Yearning to Breathe Free
We are a restless nation, a mobile nation. At least those of us with a college degree—about a third of the country. While a sizeable number of people still live their entire life in the place of their birth, college graduates are generally out the door and on to someplace else, most frequently the West Coast or the Northeast. “Many young people in rural communities now see college not so much as a door to opportunity as a ticket out of Nowheresville,” the Wall Street Journal noted in 2017. For my part, I wanted to find “my people”, the place where I fit. It was a quest I had anticipated making since I was thirteen.
Thirteen. That was the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy, too. The year the Black Panther Party (born in 1966) came to national prominence, with its demands for decent housing; an education that exposed the true nature of racism in American society; free healthcare, and an “immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people” (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose). Nineteen-sixty-eight was also the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and a concomitant intensification of an already very active, highly visible U.S. (and worldwide) protest movement against our involvement in that war. Women, too, were starting to rise up, refusing to accept their circumscribed roles as sex toy or wife and mother. We, not men, will define who we are, how we act, what we want. The Stonewall Uprising, a major turning point in the struggle for LGBTQ rights, was only a year away. The world was happening, baby!
But not in my small corner of it. In my little virtually all-white town, Nixon was a hero. The local country club banned Blacks and Jews. The jocks in my high school roamed the halls taunting the non-jock guys with cries of “faggot” and “queer”. On a particularly memorable day, during my freshman civics course, a group of “the cool kids” gathered round my desk, shouting over and over, “This is America, love it or leave it!” (a favorite chant of rightwing, pro-war, Nixon fanatics). I knew they were arseholes, but what can you do at thirteen except dream of getting out?
In one revealing instance, one of the “elite”, a cheerleader, was cast into the netherworld when her mother married a Black man. Her former clique shunned her. I mean, cut…her…dead. We had a gym class together and over that year, we talked a lot. Her experience had radicalized her. She later signed my yearbook—a thing she would never have done a year earlier: “Let’s hope we make it through all these rotten schools.” Wherever you are, B., I hope you escaped, found your true home.
… With Many a Winding Turn
Going east for college was out of the question. “Too many communists there,” my dad said. (I know. I know.) I finally selected Michigan State University, in part because it boasted the largest undergraduate community of any campus in America—48,000. No more small-minded, small-town cliquishness. If you thought you were too cool to associate with others, you’d find yourself…alone.
I loved my college years. East Lansing was a true breath of fresh air. But it was still Michigan, still the Midwest. And my determination to escape had only intensified with each visit to New York. The road east, though, turned out to be far more labyrinthine than my opening paragraphs may have suggested. Oddly enough, right after graduation, I did a 180 and went west for a while. Tucson, Arizona. Wide open desert country stretching to the mountains. What I discovered there was how much a child of the north I was—I needed green. Grass. Trees. Seasons.
So… back to East Lansing where I had friends. And a few kindly profs from my undergraduate days who fast-tracked me into grad school. In recognition of my strong academic record, I was given my own section of a freshman writing course to help pay the bills. I. Loved. It. The new plan: I’d get a Ph.D. in literature, become a college prof and then hit the road, this time for the Northeast. No detours.
But grad school was not what I had thought it would be. Not a deeper dive into literature at a more complex level. As an undergrad, literature had been about reading widely, making connections. Grad school felt more like regurgitation. It wasn’t the student’s insights and ideas that were wanted, but a steady stream of vomiting up all the noted scholars in the field who had preceded you. Your turn would come… in a decade or two.
Home, at Last
In the middle of all this, John Lennon was murdered outside his home in Manhattan. My boyfriend of the time, his cousin, and I headed for New York for the memorial service in Central Park, driving all night to get there by dawn. It may be hard for someone not of that time to understand what a major impact the Beatles had on a generation, especially John Lennon. I mark his death as the end of my childhood, though I was 25 when he died. Time to stop mucking about, I thought. Pursue my dreams. So, I left grad school and got a job waiting tables to support myself while I wrote my first novel, a thinly-disguised tribute to Lennon about a rock star who is murdered by a mentally-disturbed fan with jealousy issues.
As I was doing revisions on the book, a friend suggested I apply for an editor’s job with a company in Lansing and I got the job. For a year, I put aside a few bucks from each paycheck while I churned out a monthly rag for indy women’s retailers and traveled to apparel markets around the country to push our publication to store owners. Then I quit, got in my VW, and moved to Boston. Where, on my first day, I took the “T” down to the North End and dipped my hands in the Atlantic, grateful—I made it. I made it. Where I had recurring nightmares of finding myself back in the Midwest, stranded, no car, no friends, and no way out. Where I met and married my first husband. When housing prices soared to the point that our 400 square-feet in the South End bought an entire house in Western Mass, we moved.
And here I have remained. Writing. Teaching. Raising kids. In a progressive community that celebrates immigrants and champions the rights of LGBTQ+ folks, Black and Indigenous people, women. A creative community, home to many artists, writers, musicians. And just three hours up the road from New York City where my beloved second husband, Ed, was born, and which we visit regularly.
Postscript: The Things That Shape You
In 2009, I returned to Michigan for a visit. Ed’s son was a student at UMich, and I still had dear friends in East Lansing and Ann Arbor. We spent a day in my hometown, where I knocked on the doors of my several childhood houses and the owners were kind enough to invite us in. Then, we topped off the trip with a weekend in Chicago. Museums, art galleries—the Windy City has some great ones. What sticks most in my head, though, is a conversation we had with a young guy—a Ketel One vodka distributor—at a neighborhood bar as we were unwinding from the day, a Cubs ballgame on TV. Not the conversation itself, but my realization that I’d forgotten how open Midwesterners can be, chatting to strangers. A reminder that amidst all the negatives of my native land, this down-home easiness was a part of where I came from. A part of me.
But the significance of that didn’t really hit me until a decade later when my stepson’s new partner came to Thanksgiving dinner in 2019. He, like me, was a “transplant”—the only other one at the table who had not grown up in the Northeast but had chosen to be here. I felt an instant connection to him. Felt we could understand something of each other that no one else in that room might get. The choice, the need to self-exile from “places that failed [us] before,” as Tennessee Williams put it. And the equally haunting truth that you will keep returning to them, if only in your head.
I mentioned the long drive to Boston in 1983. My VW had no cassette player. As I recall, it didn’t even have a radio. So I brought along a portable cassette player and a pile of cassettes for the eleven-hour trip across Canada, New York State, and the length of Massachusetts. On one of those tapes, a compilation, was John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. I’m not a Denver fan, but that one song, I’ve always had a soft spot for. After the family left that Thanksgiving, I took out my guitar and messed around until I found the right chords. Sang the song. Have sung it many times since.
What does it mean, that I cannot entirely leave behind that place I left nearly 40 years ago? It’s not nostalgia. There is nothing sentimental in it. I remain deeply grateful that I escaped. I love where I live. This is MY space—the Northeast. It’s where I was born to be, but the things that shape you, the good and the bad, you never forget them. They are forever a part of you. As author Asha Tyson wrote: Your journey has molded you for your greater good. And it was exactly what it needed to be. Don’t think that you’ve lost time. It took each and every situation you have encountered to bring you to the now. And now is right on time.