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find my heart

August 24, 2011

I’m originally from Chicagoland. When I got married, I moved to upstate New York where Spouse was already living. After a few months, we moved to Indianapolis, but both Spouse and I thought longingly of the Northeast, and hoped we could move back there someday. Somehow I thought moving to Maryland would be returning to that part of the country. The Mason-Dixon line, however, just a few miles north of us, begs to differ.

Then I spent a few months insisting to myself that, since we were practically on the Mason-Dixon line, surely we are just East, neither North or South. That sounded ridiculous even to me, so I didn’t tell anyone about it.

Why the antipathy towards the South? A lot of reasons. My ancestors arrived in the United States in the early 1920s, and partly for that reason, my interest in Western history begins with WW1. USAmerican history has always bored me to tears. But I was always mystified by the Civil War in particular because how could anyone justify going to war to keep slavery? “Brother against brother”, families ripped apart, the whole country almost destroyed, all so some people can continue to own other people? It made no sense to me.

And then I met and married Spouse, who is from Kentucky, and grew up learning in school about “the war of Northern Aggression” and “state’s rights”, while slavery was apparently downplayed.

I developed a love-hate relationship with the whole idea of “the South”. As a teenager, my family had once vacationed by touring the Southeast, which, outside of two trips to Washington DC, was my only exposure to the region. We visited Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. On our way back northwest (heading for northern New York), we may have gone through West Virginia (although I don’t remember it), and we definitely went through Pennsylvania Dutch country. In all of these places, my father prioritized seeing Civil War battlefields. So I got to see a lot of burial sites, and read a lot of heartbreaking grave markers. Beyond the military cemeteries what I remember most were: how hot and humid every place was, the unfamiliar plants I encountered [live oak, Spanish moss, crape myrtle], and somehow I became a Tar Heel fan. I dreamed for many years of moving to North Carolina on the strength of that one trip.

About a week after our wedding, Spouse’s grandmother died, and we flew “back home” to Kentucky for her funeral. The moment I got off the plane, and set foot on the tarmac at the Blue Grass Airport, I smelled sweetness in the air, felt an upwelling of joy, and said (something like), “I could love it here!”

I’ve realized that over the course of our marriage, I have spent more time visiting Kentucky than I spent living in New York state. And I have seen a lot more of the state of Kentucky than I have seen of the state of New York.

I’ve met hillbillies in eastern Kentucky, distant cousins of Spouse, and felt some kinship of my own to their hardscrabble lives since one of my great-grandfathers was a coal miner (although he was in Pennsylvania).

I don’t like how Southern cooking features lard, pork, and deep frying stuff or drowning it in sugary sauces. But I love biscuits!

I’ve sought out and read books by Southern women writers because I hoped they could explain the South, and by extension my in-laws, to me in a way I could understand. I felt no affinity for the writing of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. But I enjoyed the writing of Harper Lee, bell hooks, Deborah Smith, Adriana Trigiani, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Walker, Rebecca Skloot, and Joyce Hinnefeld.

I’ve been strangely fascinated by the visual art made by Southern artists. Something about a Southern sensibility has captivated me in a way that a Midwestern sensibility never has. Which could be because I’m from the Midwest (in that sorta, kinda way that Chicago is technically part of the Midwest), so it’s boring for that reason. However, I really like the Northeast, and yet I’ve never wondered about a Northeastern sensibility of artists or art culture.

Up until this morning, I honestly thought my ongoing interest in the South was simply due to trying to understand my in-laws, and Spouse. Instead it’s something different. Somehow, someway, when I wasn’t looking, parts of me have decided that I am now a Southerner myself.

Suddenly a lot of things that were puzzling have become clear.

Spouse was born and raised in Kentucky, but I love Kentucky for itself. I named one of my tapestries “Parkers Mill Road” (a street in Lexington, KY) because of my own relationship to that place, not because of Spouse’s affection for it. Whenever we visit, I feel welcomed by the land, not because I married a native son, but because I am myself.

My relationship to Maryland has been more straightforward, since neither of us had ever lived here before. The land of Maryland reached out to me and named me for its own. And I know that I belong here in a way I have never belonged anywhere else.

If I am a Southerner, then I am a Southern writer, and a Southern artist in my own right.

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