Friday, June 27, 2014
Last week, Ann and I went to the beach at Emerald Isle, North Carolina, with my parents, our niece Isabella and her boyfriend Conner. (Sister Jen and her husband Todd came for the beginning of the week but had to get back to New York on Tuesday. Little Brother Matt and his family couldn’t come this week because the kids were still in school.) The week got me thinking in some new ways about family and home and what they mean to me.
My family has this tradition of convening at a North Carolina beach for a week in the summer for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, my father’s Spring Hope relatives rented a few large houses and brought their fishin’ poles and ski boats. The older boy cousins some-number-removed from me fished from the beach. From the safety of a deck, they drank beer and whistled at the girls they saw through their binoculars. (I found this odd and have not forgotten it.) Our family joined everyone for waterskiing in the sound where the water could be smooth: the young ones skiing all day while Aunt Ben and Grandmother and the others with white hair sat in the shade, talking about the price of "tobaccah" and eatin’ watermelon.
Once my siblings and I grew up, our family no longer joined our extended relatives but continued the tradition of going to the beach with our growing family: me and my partner Ann, Sister Jen and her husband Todd with their four kids, and Little Brother Matt and his wife Kristin with their three kids.
This year, for the first time in forever, we couldn’t all go at the same time, so as many as could went last week and others who can will go in August. Though the forecast threatened a couple of days of thunderstorms, we had rain only one night. The week was beautiful, and we spent our days on the long white sandy beach under a colorful umbrella loaned to us by the people in the other half of our duplex, who also showed us how to anchor the umbrella so that it would stay upright in the wind. (Southerners are neighborly in this way.)
Thursday evening, Ann and I and Isabella and Conner went to an outdoor concert billed as Rock and Blues with Jazz Infusion: not music I thought I’d like, but it was a guy with his guitar singing much like Jimmy Buffet, so I loved it. The audience was mostly middle-aged folks in low-slung beach chairs, so Ann and I fit right in while Isabella and Conner brought down the average age and raised the cool factor.
The Jimmy Buffet-like singer was singing, “I want you to love me like my dog does” as we arrived. He must have been from Florida and sang a lot of songs that included gator-wrestlin’. He sang one song about being Bubba-fied. Awesome. He closed with the song, “I like my sushi when it’s fried.” I enjoy the Southerner embracing the stereotype of a hick more than the actuality, especially when the embracing is tongue-in-cheek.
This Jimmy-Buffet like fellow had a Southern persona, and like so many Southerners, he embraced negative stereotypes. (I’ve learned from my readings in Social Work that this characteristic of claiming negative stereotypes is common of oppressed populations. Southerners, with their heritage of being the only defeated nation in the U.S. after a Civil War loss that still defines the region’s self-identity in many ways and their unusually high percentage of people living in poverty, people living with obesity, and people without advanced educations, certainly identify as oppressed, though they see themselves more as fighters than victims.)
When I was growing up, I never really felt like I belonged in the South: often people told me that I seemed like a Yankee. I never was sure what this meant: maybe my early feminism and lesbian tendencies (not yet known to me) made me seem out of place. I certainly felt out of place.
I moved from North Carolina after graduating from college in 1986, first heading to Dallas and then to Seattle, where I realized immediately that I am not a Yankee: I am a Seattle-ite. Seattle has always felt like home to me in a way that North Carolina never did and the fast-paced, citified Northeast never would. As I grow older, however, I feel a surprising connection to my childhood home.
Sometimes symptoms of that deep connection spill upward, geiser-like, surprising me with what’s inside me. For example, when Isabella, Conner, Ann and I had connected at baggage claim on our way into North Carolina, I drawled, “Do y’all know who’s picking us up?” Ann looked at me suspiciously, and I said, “Where did that come from? I never say y’all, and I don’t drawl.”
Something about the South seems to be at my core and to emerge, like the aliens in that 1980s horror movie, when conditions are right. In another example, I had brain surgery after I’d lived in Seattle for 16 years. Before I went into surgery, the years had worn away much of my accent, but after surgeons fiddled around near my brain stem, my accent returned thick and syrupy. I also craved foods from my childhood, foods that I had long ago renounced: banana and mayonnaise on Wonder bread with “Pineapple Delight” (green Jell-o with nuts, pineapple, and marshmallows): especially tasty with chocolate milk (“You can’t drink it slow, if it’s Quik, nobody-o.”)
I no longer dine in such glory, but I still love my grits, and Northwesters still stop to ask me where I’m from when I speak. This makes me think that being Southern is still at my core, though the Pacific Northwest is where I’ve always felt at home.
It occurs to me that maybe home is, literally, where the heart is, and that when we are close to our hearts, our home goes with us everywhere we do. Sometimes I wear a pair of turtle earrings in a Native American design, and years ago a Native American man who seemed wise, though I had only just met him when we said hello at our conference. He asked if my spirit animal were the turtle, an animal that is at home everywhere because it takes its home with it. At the time I thought my spirit animal was the independent cat that likes to roam alone and sleep in the sunshine.
I have since learned, however, that my spirit animal is the turtle, and I like the idea that I might feel at home everywhere, but I don’t. Like the turtle, I pull my vulnerable parts inside my shell whenever I feel unsure or threatened, which is often. In this sense the home that I carry with me is a retreat to return to more than a safe space from which to adventure.
This idea of home is compelling to me and when I look at modern media I see that it must be compelling to others as well: Dorothy yearned to go home and clicked her heals, saying her mantra, “There’s no place like home.” Apple is in on the yearning, too: on iPhone is a most-often used button called, “the home button.” In baseball, a sport with its own mythology, players try to get home. (Of course, to win they must leave home first. Otherwise, they just strike out and hang their heads.) It seems that many of us want to wander away and then to return home, not necessarily to the place we sleep or slept when we were children, but to our querencia.
When I taught high school seniors, many of them becoming independent or preparing for a new level of independence, I taught the personal essay and often assigned a prompt from a long-ago Advanced Placement Composition test. The prompt invited students to reflect on an English definition of the Spanish word querencia and to write about the place where they feel at home.
My seniors always understood the question as metaphorical. They wrote about their querencias in their cars or their rooms, on a high desert shelf or—in the case of a brilliant student who dropped out of school and into the life of drugs in a nearby park—in a hole in his bedroom wall where he hid his journals.
Unfortunately, I have lost that prompt and cannot find the definition on the innernets, but I will tell you what I remember: querencia is a bull-fighting term for the place where the bull returns for protection and gathering strength when it is threatened. It is a safe spot in the world or in ourselves, a place where we know we belong. Though the writer didn’t say this, it is the place where we know we are a child of God, where we connect with our elemental selves and our universe. It is the place where we connect confidently with Max Ermine’s idea in “Desiderata”:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Perhaps this is the place that I connect with for a second or so when I practice yoga or meditation or witness great beauty. Perhaps this is the place I yearn for—home not so much as the place I grew up or the place where I live, but the place in me that is loving and safe and confident that I am meant to be here.
Perhaps we all seek this place eventually. To find this place, we must slow down and be quiet. In this way, as in others, my tumors have been a gift. They have slowed me down and quieted me: they have helped me find my center. They have helped me know that I am okay, and more than okay. They have taught me that I live in grace. They have taught me that I no longer need to find home: I am home.