Jan 8, 2011
"People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition."
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (Letter Seven, May 14, 1904)
I spent New Year's weekend back home in Memphis, where I grew up and married, and my son was born, where I lived for most of my life. In the far southwest corner of Tennessee, wedged up against the flat sides of Arkansas and Mississippi.
Memphis sits at the northern tip of the Mississippi delta, a remarkably flat, incredibly fertile alluvial plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Indeed, Memphis has always seemed, in appearance as well as temperament, to belong more to the Magnolia State of Mississippi than to the rest of Tennessee.
This is a discontinuity I've addressed repeatedly in recent years when West Virginians, hearing that I'm from Tennessee, assume a mountain heritage as explanation for my residence on a mountaintop in the Allegheny Highlands. "Oh no," I explain, "Memphis is not like the rest of the state. It's flat." More than one person has blinked at me in astonishment. "Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong place," I say with a shrug and a grin. Such an absurd comment often elicits the intended chuckle--but I don't actually believe what I'm saying. As poet Louis Simpson wrote: Destiny fits, always.
I belong here. I simply had to spend 30+ years somewhere else in order to realize it.
Which is to say that although Memphis is, by virtually every obvious metric, just about as different from where I belong as a place can be, I know I couldn't be here if I hadn't been there first.
Memphis is where I learned to love wild places. As a child, I sought them out--such desire being bred in the bone, native to me, not taught--and found them wherever I could. Undeveloped lot. Untamed backyard. Railroad siding. Drainage ditch. Memphis is where I became a farmer. In a tiny backyard vegetable garden, shoe-spooned between a concrete drive and a privet hedge. Memphis is where trees became companions. Not fixed and immutable features of the city landscape, but cohorts on this journey whose successes were to be celebrated and set-backs mourned.
Memphis is where Nature became something I could not live without.
Memphis is also where I learned to accept that the wounds of opposition create the rawness of possibility. In ever-present conflict, there is a fertility of the possible, out of which anything imaginable might grow, bad or good.
As I flew in from my connection in Atlanta, I had my usual rush of conflicted feelings. Where Memphis and I are concerned there's always plenty to be conflicted about. From the socio-historical: endemic racism, urban sprawl, political incompetence; to the abjectly personal: Hey, I used to live here! And a bunch of people I love still do! But I gotta admit that what overwhelmed me, as I gazed out the window, what drove all the thought-phantoms away, were the trees.
Yes, of course, all the sharp lines and angles of human endeavor, all the insistent geometry of a city was present, but trees were present, too. Present in enough numbers to matter. To have not just a caucus, but a quorum, a vote, a voice.
Look at that! Trees!
"This place has a lot of oaks," I observed with pleasure the following day, as my mother and I drove about the city, visiting family and friends. The rusty-brown of tenacious red, pin and chestnut oak leaves caught and held my attention, drawing my gaze upward and away from the traffic, the lights, the immutable colors and sounds of a city.
Seeing the trees was like discovering a shared memory with an estranged lover. Yes, there was that. Better yet, there is that. Still. A reason for our connection. Living proof.
As a child, I loved to climb to the very top of an immense southern magnolia tree in our neighbor's yard. The smooth-wrinkly bark reminded me of elephant skin. The white blossoms looked like gigantic gardenias set atop thick shiny leaves bigger than both of my hands placed side-by-side. I was scared-safe, clinging to the tree trunk, swaying in a summer breeze, 30 feet up.
I don't recognize you, I thought, as we drove about town. As I noticed all the absent structures, replaced with new ones. The absent open spaces, filled. The asphalt, concrete, brick and mortar. I don't recognize you, I thought, but I know who you are.
Four days later, I walked out of the airport in Roanoke, a big city by local standards, by my standards. But no. Not Atlanta. Not Memphis. I walked out of the airport to a view, not of parking garages, not of buses pulled front-to-end, but of mountains. Delicate Virginia mountains, to be sure, but beautiful, nonetheless. And when I got to the car, I turned around, looked west, and boy-oh-boy did I smile!
That "kiss the ground" feeling? Well, once I was on US 220 and safely past Fincastle, I had it, big time. If I'd been driving my 10th grade boyfriend home in the Plymouth Volare with a plan toward finding a good place to dawdle, I couldn't have been more lit up with happy expectation.
"Home." I said it out loud, and with a chesty rumble. As if daring someone, anyone, to suggest I couldn't or shouldn't. Dare me not to, sucker. "I'm. Going. Home."
If Splendor, Mirth and Good Cheer are the three Greek "graces," then assuredly they all reside in a desired home, and with anyone who finds herself where she belongs. Regardless how incomprehensible such sense of belonging is to outsiders.
"You're goofy," my Mom offered, good-naturedly, when I reported how happy I was to be heading west on 220. Heading toward a snow cloud, and an off-grid cabin five miles up an un-plowed dirt road. A place a good two-hour drive from actual four-lane traffic, or anything approaching an actual mall. A place where there are no utilities, no TV, no land-line, and cellphones don't work. A place where my frozen garden will sleep soundly until mid-June.
A place where trees don't share the landscape, they dominate. At least for now. And destiny has marked me as witness.
Home. There's the home you're born into, and the home you choose. Sometimes they're the same. Sometimes not. If you get really lucky, the home you choose, chooses you back.