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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Walking in My Own Footsteps and Finding they Don't Fit

So, after three and a half weeks back home in Wyoming with family, I boarded a plane in Casper, Wyoming to fly back to my home in Appalachia last Friday night.   The weather, unfortunately, prevented me from making the five-hour trek to Laramie through the Shirley Basin, so I never got to visit the campus again like I hoped.  That was the same cold weather snap (one night plunged to -25 degrees Farenheit) which wreaked havoc on our airplane the day of our departure, and between the cold in Casper and the storms in Atlanta, I spent about nine extra hours sitting on uncomfortable vinyl chairs in various airport terminals trying to think.  For some reason, this visit was a lot harder than on previous years; certainly the lack of my grandmother's presence was a huge factor, but something else about this visit was on my mind as well.

When our plane finally departed from DIA and rocketed its way into the sunset, I snapped a picture of the view on our way out.  This was my last sight of the American West for a long time to come: an endless patchwork swath of snow-dusted farmland, fields, and prairie stretching off into the distance, Laramie and Cheyenne somewhere north of our plane's wingtip.  As I looked out the window and craned my neck backwards for a last glimpse of the Rockies, it suddenly occurred to me what the problem was: I didn't really feel like my life fit here anymore.  In a sense, I was getting utterly homesick for a place that, in a real sense, wasn't even my home anymore.  I've lived in the South for eight and a half years now, which is six months longer than I had ever lived in Wyoming.  I've been in college now for eleven years, in an intellectual environment that has almost nothing to do with my family's lived experience.  How on earth do I reconcile these two halves of my life-- my Western self, my internal wilderness and land-centeredness, and my Humanities self, the one that lives in a middle-class land of intellection and abstraction?  How can I retrace my own footsteps every year back to the land I call home and make that journey make sense?

On the day after Christmas, my husband and I departed Casper, Wyoming to visit my parents, who still live in the same town I graduated high school from eleven years ago.   After a car ride of several hours through endless stretches of prairie, scrub mountains and canyons, we pulled into the driveway of my parents' house.   I got out of our borrowed car onto a driveway covered with a half-inch of ice, stepped over a few piles of fresh deer scat, and I looked around to the tired paint on the house and the cracked vinyl on the screen door.  My father's car was parked out front, its broken bumber held together with anti-Obama stickers.  When I walked inside a house brimming full of holiday presents and Christmas cheer, I had to step over a pile of my father's books to get inside, books by Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter, to get to the living room where Dad was waiting by the television (still blaring Fox News) to give me hug.  A .22 pistol in a weathered leather holster hung from one bedpost in my parents' room.  And when we gathered together for dinner that night, my father and brother talked the whole time about "Climategate" and "Obamacare" and how they were going to ruin the country.  I picked through my potatoes and gravy in misery and tried not to look too terribly depressed at the same time my mother was so glad to have us all home under the same roof again.   

I'm not bringing all this up to make fun of my family or condemn them.  I'm bringing it up because I'm trying to understand.   How does all this fit into my life now, a life spent surrounded by a liberal intellectualism I don't necessarily ascribe to and one that often condemns people like mine?  At the same time, when I go "home" now, I try to walk into the worn, familiar identity I once loved and find that it doesn't fit as comfortably as it used to.  In some places it's too restrictive, like a shrunken garment, and in others, the holes and gaps between that identity and my lived experience make me uncomfortable.  I view the world where I grew up with a more jaded eye, critical of its mores, its politics and intolerances.  Unable to embrace either world entirely, I feel like like that airplane I flew to Atlanta on: floating in ether somewhere between two different  worlds, looking for a place to land. 
Okay, so here's an example: a couple of nights after our arrival, my mother decided we should all go to the local VFW that night for buffalo burgers and fries for dinner.  I sat next to my husband and my brother as we ate, and my mother pointed out all my old teachers and parents of friends around us as we walked in.  As I caught up with a few old friends, eventually the conversation turned to what a couple of high school friends of mine (neither of whom are exactly straight) were up to.  The tone of my mother's voice suddenly had a strong tinge of condescension in it.  "Look, Mom,"  I said defensively, "'Louis' is my friend whether he's gay or not.  He stuck up for me in high school, and I'm gonna stick up for him now."  Her eyes glared in protest at my comment.  "I don't care at all if 'Louis' is gay," she replied as she swabbed a French fry in some ketchup.  "I do have a problem with him explaining it to me in so much detail."  My lip curled in a little at her response: I had just run into the old "live and let live" wall again, this time from my mother.  "Louis" has always loved my mother, and chances are that the only information he has shared about his life are the details he feels he needs to in order to feel included in hers.  He's not the 'kiss and tell' type at all, especially to someone over twice his age and who also works with his mother.  So why did my mother excuse her distaste for "Louis" in those specific terms?  I don't know.  All I know is that I felt frustrated at my mother's attitude and ashamed of my own.

But then there's my father to consider.  In a lot of ways, I was always closer to him than my mother, something that no doubt vexed her a little when I was a child.  I simply cannot discuss my father's politics with any of my friends at school without eliciting a look of horror from them.  To be blunt, my father is a gun-toting ultra-conservative Libertarian who listens to Rush Limbaugh and sends me mildly disturbing e-mail forwards about immigration policy and environmentalists.   He's about as tactless as they come, and his language is, shall we say, a little colorful.  When I borrowed the car during a snowstorm, he growled at me, "be careful on the roads.  It's slicker'n greased owl shit out there."  The sad reality is that I could never let him in the same room as my colleagues without a fistfight breaking out.  They'd think he was a racist (which he's not) and he'd think they were mindless intellectual idiots (which most of them aren't, either).  And both sides would think I am insane for associating myself with the other. 

But to focus on those aspects of his character is to miss out on the incredible, learned wisdom my father has about other things.  My father has a deep, personal connection to the land that goes beyond the moral platitudes of the average urban conservationist.  He knows every footfall of his home range better than the deer and coyotes who roam it: where the water drains to, which land features betray their hidden wealth in fossils, or opal, or petrified wood, how to track and trap, to hunt an elk with a bow and arrow.  He can speak the wordless tongues of coyotes, elk and turkeys, and I have seen him call up predators by mimicking a wounded rabbit.  His wisdom about life and survival is one that comes from a lifetime spent in the company of nature.  In a way, the land I grew up with is as much a part of him as his own flesh, rubbed into the creases of his leathery face from all those years in the wind and burning chill of the western badlands...

I can look back on my own rabbit-tracks, the steps that led me away from the Rockies and out to the South, and I can see where I have inherited some of that wisdom from my parents.  But I can no longer follow those footfalls blinkered by my the comfort of my familiarity with them.  I simply can't tell my family half of what I do, where my politics lie, or how my life has indelibly changed from their own-- like how I'm trying to understand my relationship to people like "Louis," for example.  They already look at me like a stranger in their midst; I simply cannot bear to open up the truth to them and become a pariah.   At the same time, I listen to the professors in my college reject the people and the life that I love as "ignorant" or as the "unlettered classes" and I want to scream.  I am ashamed every time another intellectual elitist on my campus condemns people from my background as "white trash" or makes fun of people from trailer parks and I keep silent.

And yet, I don't feel like I can defend the poorer, rural classes as one of their number anymore.  A friend of mine studying Rhetoric and Composition asked if I would participate in a research study of academics from working-class backgrounds, and I feel like an impostor in her study, which is something that she and I have talked about a lot.  My life now is nothing like my sister's.  Have I left that life too far behind to claim it?  And, is their any way to make these two halves of my existence embrace?   Right now, I simply don't have an answer.

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