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a rosebush in a land of milk and honey

October 31, 2009

A metaphor I often use when thinking of myself is a rosebush, raised by cacti. Lately, though, I’ve realized maybe cactus farm is a better analogy (cf. trees cultivated in rows on a farm vs. “wild” trees in a forest). I’m not a gardener, just a plant lover. My metaphor refers to differing habitats, which quite naturally nurture different sorts of life. I like cacti, and I like deserts, and one cactus or a group in a desert is a beautiful thing. Cacti in a desert, though, are surrounded by other life forms, and together they form a functioning ecosystem. There are seasonal and other periodic rhythms; local conditions change and populations adapt, evolve, or die out. Sometimes individual organisms migrate to a different area, and find a way to make that work too, or not.

I studied forest edges and disturbed areas in ecology, and then biogeography. They can be destructive to fragile native populations, but overall diversity tends to be higher than you might expect. An outpost is ideal for cross-fertilizing of ideas, cultures, memes, populations, ecosystems.

I find myself drawn to stories set in borderlands, liminal spaces, outposts of one sort or another … probably because I’ve lived that sort of life. I’ve been tantalized by stories of “the old days” in faraway places, where Everything Was As It Should Be; but when I’ve visited such places myself, I found them strangely empty of spirit and interest. I guess some people find homogeneity comforting. I feel stifled, and can’t wait to escape.

My upbringing in northern Illinois was sheltered in odd ways. So I began traveling by myself at a young age, but actually living far from home and family seemed impossible. As a teenager, I dreamed of becoming an artist and living in Paris, but I attended a (college prep) high school that offered no art classes and few electives, and no one ever even mentioned the possibility of studying at the Art Institute or any other “art school”. I have a facility for words and languages, so wanted to be a translator or a scholar of dead languages (another dream was to attend the University of Chicago). But there was no money for college for me. My two younger brothers got sent to expensive private colleges out of state; me (and my sister)  struggled to pay for classes at a community college. Once I turned 18, my parents seemed to lose all interest in me. I saw no models in my immediate environment for a different, more satisfying life.

I bided my time, experimenting with such variables as I had control over. Accumulated college credits slowly but surely. Learned how to take care of myself and moved out of my parents’ household. Made friends from different backgrounds, dated, started imagining a better future. Meeting my future spouse was the turning point – my life immediately improved for the better. He has introduced immeasurable benefits into my existence (and I hope I’ve done the same for him). And our marriage created the first safe space I’d ever had, to learn and grow and evolve.

So while I’m not “an artist living in Paris”, I feel the way I always hoped I would, in some faraway future – loved, cherished, understood.

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