As someone who does a number of events like school programs, presentations and art shows, I get the question, Where are you from?, quite a bit. In the beginning I had some trouble with this question because, like so many of us, I have lived in several places throughout my life and each one of these places has a different significance in who I am–which to me, is the real heart of the matter but more about that later. Being asked, Where are you from? always gives me that moment where I wonder… do they mean where was I born? Where did I grow up? Where do I live right now? Should I give them dates and let them choose? How long do they want this answer to be? What I’ve discovered about being asked this question at a public event is that what people really want to know is where I live right now–where is the place from which I drove, flew, walked or swam to get wherever I am being asked. It’s a practical matter for them, I suppose. They are thinking, if I buy this art from you and my guests see it at a dinner party, I need to know whether I should say I bought it from an artist in Wisconsin, Missouri, Ohio or New Jersey. They are asking me to make it easy for them to categorize me and then move on to the next thing, whatever that might be.
I get it. So I say New Jersey. But the answer is more complicated than that, I think.
In an article called Searching For A Sense of Home published last week on Utne online, poet and writer, Wendy Willis, tackles this question with a lyrical exploration of from-ness that results from asking her children this very same question–Where are you from? Because, as we become more migratory–following jobs, schools, partners and even our children, around the planet–we must accept the fact that our own family members, too, will be from other places, just as we are from other places than were our ancestors. Willis ponders the notion that the widespread standardized big-box stores have homogenized our communities:
It has become part of cocktail-party wisdom to blame the spread of Bed Bath & Beyond (beyond what?), Borders (may it rest in peace), and Wal-Mart for the loss of local culture, community spaces, and even regional dialects. And Home Depot strip malls can’t help. But is it possible that the opposite is also true? Could it be that we grasp for familiar cultural markers—received and corporatized as they are—that we warmly invite Bed Bath & Beyond into our communities as a kind of cultural hot water bottle because we no longer live among our ancestors’ bones, because we do not know the high-water mark of the river, because we are not intimates with the creatures among us? Is it possible that in our wanderings and resulting isolation we actually need—or at least crave—recognizable and mass-produced images of home? Is it possible that we are like the ducklings that are imprinted to a backhoe because that’s what was around when they learned to walk?
So, I’m conflicted, Wendy. Because I live in a community with a dying Main Street and a thriving Walmart and Lowe’s complex. Small, interesting restaurants come and go while Applebee’s and TGIFridays fill their parking lots every weekend. Every independent coffee shop has closed and my book club now meets at Panera where you can get a salad inspired by a variety of international cuisines but that is perfectly measured out to be exactly the same as it would be in any other Panera in the country (although I can remember when I lived in Missouri and it was the St. Louis Bread Co.). Things in my town are spread out and require cars for getting from one to the other because they are connected by busy, traffic filled state routes that are not pleasant or safe to walk or bike on. But, there are no bicycle racks on Main Street anyway. Not a one.
Of course, this is where I am from right now. And, perhaps, more importantly, it’s where my children are from and where they feel the most home. They think more about a friend’s pool party this weekend, a new video game that is coming to Game Stop or who’s going to be in their homeroom this fall than they do about whether the biggest stand at the farmer’s market is really local or why the little Mexican restaurant couldn’t sell enough of their delicious steak tacos and had to turn into a bodega, which then went out of business. When I do events in places like Chestnut Hill or Hoboken, I admit that I long for a different sense of community–I would like to walk to coffee on a Sunday morning and stop to chat with my neighbors along the way. I would like to listen to live music at a summer street festival or visit a store or a restaurant that didn’t have a million doppelgangers in the Anyplaces of our nation.
But, to take this one step further, maybe the question of where we all are from is deeper than that–perhaps even so deep as to become metaphorical. I recently signed up for an online creativity class and part of our introduction to the group was to post where we live now and where we are really from. Knowing, I’m sure, that we adults take things so literally as to undermine our own wonder and whimsy, the leader thankfully provided her own “example,” which included such places as “the unconventional sphere of inspiring humor and enlightenment” and “a comfortable futon.” I like that. It reminds me of when my oldest son was in the fourth grade and he brought home a copy of an “I Am From Poem.” This is a poetry template that will be familiar to many grade school teachers but it is a glorious way to start off the school year and get to know something about your students as well as a treasured keepsake for parents. My son’s “poem” was powerful because it really showcased what, and who, in his life defined his from-ness. This poetry template is one of the things I consistently share with teachers in professional development and many of them later tell me that they use it every year. I’ve added a link to the “I Am From” poetry template at the end of this post.
I once lived in Ohio, in a little house out in the country. I moved there from Cleveland, from a more city-ish setting much like the one I described as what I sometimes long for–and to there by way of Columbia, Missouri, an energetic college town alive with the pulse of young people creating their futures; and there by way of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the state of my birth but its characteristics dimming in my memory aside from winter sled-riding and my grandmother’s kitchen where we ate chicken and dumplings. And, although they don’t remember it and would likely not claim it for their from place, my two children spent their earliest 3 years in rural Ohio mostly out of doors, barefoot, often naked, running through sprinklers, while I tended a garden and baked bread without knowing that my life would soon change when I realized that I needed to be an artist. One day I was poking around in the utility room and I saw a bumper sticker that a previous owner of this little house had stuck onto the back of the hot water heater. If you weren’t paying attention, as I had not so many other times, you wouldn’t have even seen it. But, on this day, I did see it. It said “I (heart) NJ.” Yeah right, I scoffed to myself. Who could love New Jersey? And what idiot puts a bumper sticker on a hot water heater? Weird. About only one year later I did find myself in New Jersey and it’s true. I (heart) NJ. I do not tend a garden anymore, I’ve all but given up bread entirely, and, despite the Walmart and the Applebee’s, it is New Jersey, indeed, where I am from. At least for right now anyway.
But, I am really from the place where the ocean crashes into the shore, from the small
bursting bud that becomes a flower, from the endless night sky, and a long run in the
country with the headphones blasting my favorite music, from an asphyxiating laughing
fit with the funniest people I know, and from an endless and unquenchable curiosity
of the unknown and the unknowable.
I am from some really cool places. Where are you from?
TRY THIS WEEK: Think about the places you are really from.