“Where are you from?” can be a minefield of a question. Do you respond with where you were born and raised, where you reside, or where you desire to live?
I have been thinking a lot about place, or setting, as I prepare to move back to Arizona after living in NY for 15 years. Or maybe I’m just procrastinating my packing, because as I stated two posts ago, I should not be blogging until I’m settled. But that’s hardly any fun. And I’m prone to distractions. Squirrel!
I spent most of my years in NY feeling rootless, eager to get back to the desert and mountains. I moved for love, plain and simple, after losing an unconvincing argument with my husband that westerns don’t move east. Not long term anyway. Sun and mountains are oxygen. That’s why the sun rises in the east, moving west for a beautiful sunset. Or that’s what I told him. …Yeah, he didn’t buy it either.
It’s hard to believe after all these years, I’m getting my wish. My husband, my family, my place. What’s even more difficult to believe is how much I’ll miss: the Long Island beaches, the City, the stale pretzels in Penn Station, the lingering smoke of roasted nuts, the collection of accents and human smells, the desire to know these urban dwellers and guests, listen to their chatter and at the same time, run from it. The City is full of contradictions, like myself sometimes, quiet shadows lingering in colorless alleys, then the blast of electric light from Times Square.
Before New York, I lived in Washington, DC, right out of college, when I had a more fluid idea of place. It was whatever surrounded me at the time. I remember walking over the Key Bridge into Georgetown, contemplating my surroundings. The Potomac stretched out on both sides. It felt imprisoning, comforting, familiar and strange. And all of those things at once.
My father, an east coast transplant, left with my mother and moved to Arizona in the early 60’s. Together, they left their family and friends, taking only their tiny car and liberal politics (pretty radical for Arizona, as you may know). Why? Because my father fell in love with the desert. Fell in love with place. Not because of a job, family, money or even sun, although that was a factor. Pure place. What they did for second generation Italians was unthinkable. Back then, you didn’t leave the familia. Back then, they still thought legal matters were resolved via western shootouts. Back then — they were rebels, leaving place.
I grew up in Phoenix — ever-growing and transient. Dear school friends came and went. I switched schools as my family moved further away from the growth of the city. We were always clawing at the desert edges. Running from people, clinging to place. We humans tend to do that. Cling to place.
Long Island is the opposite of transient. People here grew up on the Island. And not many new people come, let alone stay. (The taxes alone will kill you.) I have been both envious and scornful of place purists. Those people that wouldn’t ever think of leaving their town, their city. They identify with place as if one didn’t exist without the other. “It’s who I am,” they say. Even after Hurricane Sandy blew their homes to bits, they claim their love. Me? I hold no such commitment. My place screws with me enough, I leave. Cactus plants have shallow roots. Even the saguaros always looked like they had some other place to be. One arm raised in a goodbye salute. And so I knew I would leave the desert. But I also knew I would return. Why? Because even the shallowest roots can take hold.