catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 3 :: 2013.02.01 — 2013.02.14


Growing apart, together

I am holding half an acre
Torn from a map of Michigan,
And folded in this scrap of paper
Is a land I grew in.

From “Half Acre” by Hem

From the time I was a child, the majority of my dreams have taken place not in whatever home I was currently living in, in Indiana or Illinois or Iowa, but at my grandparents’ cottage on Pleasant Lake in Three Rivers, Michigan.  From the terrifying to the ordinary, the lovely to the absurd, something about that house and that body of water captured my subconscious imagination.

I remember — I don’t think it was a dream — talking already in high school with my then-boyfriend while we took in the warmth of the sun by the shore about the possibility of getting married and living at the cottage some day.  He was from Illinois and I was from Indiana, but the loyalty we felt for our home states was a tiny spark compared to the bonfire of our bond to each other.  Little did we know that this waking dream would one day come true, the marriage, the cottage and all.  And as we explored beyond the cottage itself, it turned out that it wasn’t just the mystique of childhood summers tugging our hearts to settle in and settle down, but a year-round neighborhood of faith communities and artists and laborers, each seeking out their respective dreams in a place whose pull no one can quite understand.  There is no formal contract, but Rob and I both sense a kind of agreement between us and this place that we now call home.

I’ve always been interested in the endlessly cyclical way in which we shape the cultures of our places, and the cultures of our places shape us.  This past Sunday, I read with interest a short article in the New York Times Magazine that explored the various ways we learn to define comfort based on the place in which we live.  A Norwegian family, for example, would not typically welcome guests into a cold, brightly lit home, while for a Japanese family, it’s perfectly normal to forego central heating and gather around a heated rug in a room lit by a single fluorescent bulb hung from the ceiling.  These choices are not just aesthetic, the article emphasized, but have ripple effects for how societies use natural resources, and in what quantities.  It’s popular to state that all cultures are equally valid, but the reality that the earth presses us to wrestle with is that sometimes, who we are as a result of where we grew up is not aligned with the common good or with the universal flourishing of shalom.

Nowadays, when Rob and I cross the Michigan state line back into the south Chicago suburbs where we grew up, we’re aware of returning to a place that shaped us in so many ways, a place that is still “home” in the sense that our families and friends still belong there.  And yet we also feel keenly aware that it is not our home anymore.  Suburban strip malls and gated communities feel like a foreign country, and we feel anxiety and despair begin to seep into our hearts as SUVs pile up next to us at the traffic light, left turn signals on for a quick stop at the McDonalds that now stands where I used to play in the vegetable fields of my friend’s family farm.  It’s easy to slip into judgment and cynicism in these moments, but if we’re honest, our alienation exists not only because we’ve changed our daily habits to all but exclude these things from our lives, but perhaps more so because we surrendered our desire and willingness to change the place where we’re from.  That place may have extended a contract to us by virtue of our birth, but, for better or worse, we chose not to sign in hopes of a more suitable match.

For me, moving to Three Rivers was about as literal as “following your dreams” gets, but we’d be deceiving ourselves if we didn’t admit that we’d left other suitors in our wake.  For all of our attachment to Wendell Berry’s notion of the “membership” and having deep roots in the place where we live and love, the fact remains that we cut ourselves off at the stump, hoping to successfully transplant ourselves to a new plot, torn from a map of Michigan — and maybe that’s the shadowy figure lurking at the edges of the dream, the dark current that occasionally threatens to pull me under.

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