I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
-Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell
Two happenings of late. A while back, this post got me thinking about my home town. And Adele has been extremely patient with me as our family faces challenge after challenge. It dawned on me last night that our upcoming visit to Michigan will give me the perfect opportunity to begin my project with Adele. Because a pretty good way to start a story is at the beginning. And while my life isn’t exactly the story that I’m telling Adele, it is at least the primary scene in which it all takes place. So, we have ourselves a point of departure. And a rather lengthy story to convey given my deep affection for my hometown. Adele and I will have the opportunity to explore many aspects of contemporary life here in the US, and I will have the opportunity to revel in my memories of my first home. I’ve been digging deep into my memory banks and enjoying every moment. And as I do I realize how far along the journey I’ve come since I last looked back upon my formative years.
First, some introductory thoughts to tide us all over until our big visit when the real fun begins. Whenever I say that I’m from Detroit, I follow up with some version of the phrase, within the city limits, that is. Because sadly, many people claim to be from Detroit and yet hardly, if ever, set foot in the city proper. And because when I was born -in Detroit- and lived -in Detroit- there weren’t many people period. But there were far fewer “white” people than “black” people. So right out of the gate, we have an opportunity to consider this strange notion of race that we humans came up with. Given my desire to celebrate my hometown, I’m going to offer up a reference to the only organization that I know of that does the -very necessary and very often avoided- topic of race any real justice. And then make the quick autobiographical point that having multiple experiences of being the minority while my race determines me to be the majority, has given me valuable life lessons that I would not trade for anything despite the many moments of emotional challenge that I experienced as a result. (Because in the face of challenges, given my mid-western roots, I often tell myself that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.)
While I can only conjecture, given my limited knowledge of the spirit world, what precisely was my pre-birth goal in landing in Detroit, now that I’ve had a bit of life to reflect on it, I’m pleased with my choice. And while sometimes I’m saddened to have said goodbye so long ago (I only spent my early years in the city, after that I visited a fair amount, and then left the midwest to come of age), and to have abandoned so many of the dreams that my hometown inspired, I am driven forward by the foundations that were laid for me in that wonderful place. My husband and I have an ongoing conversation about living in Oakland and I’m sorry to say that it seems we are bound for a less urban environment sometime in the future. Being among the community of people who stuck it out in Detroit (granted, if only for a portion of my own youth), I am saddened to even consider leaving a city that is very dear to my heart for many of the same reasons that Detroit will always have a fierce defender in me. I think about my kid(s) and wonder if someday they will regret our family’s departure just as I did once my mom and I were living in suburbia.
When I think of what is most special about Detroit, it is always the people who come to my mind first. The good people. As our nation has turned a curious eye toward my hometown in recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to consider the question again, now with perhaps a different level of consideration given my many years living out of the midwest. I consider the list of positive attributes that decorate my hometown’s history. Since anybody can read up on that sort of thing and because I’m pretty sure that every city in this country has got a list of notable mentions, suffice it to say that Detroit has had its fair share of expansive opportunities and that at many key points in our nation’s history, many eyes were turned toward Detroit with gratitude or praise. Clearly, those times are in the past and Detroit stands at perhaps it’s most pivotable historic moment yet. To have gone flown so high and now to have fallen so low. Why? What next? Not that my answer matters much. I’m not there, I have no power of influence save for the power that I add to the collective consciousness. It is with that small bit of power that I fervently hope for the best for Detroit. Because when I was young I would look around at her streets and ALL I saw was potential. The barren landscape of Detroit was an amazing place for a dreamer to cast her gaze because in every direction there was something to be done, some empty space just waiting for a dream that only needed to take root in order to become the new blossom upon which many an admiring gaze would fall. But for Detroit to become a breeding ground for dreams, it seems to me that it could use a little dose of California syrup. Out here in the wild west, dreams are a dime a dozen. Everybody’s got a dream and they come here to make them reality. Frankly I find it a bit exhausting, because dreams mean a lot of work, and the competition is fierce and I’ll admit that I don’t always think fierce equals worthy. Maybe we could spread the dreamers around a little more evenly? Fat chance, few people want to leave the San Francisco bay area once they get a taste of the good life it offers. So maybe Detroit just has to figure out how to really nurture the dreamers that are already there, give them a bit of space (heaven knows there’s space enough) and a bit of encouragement. And then maybe in time, we’ll all be looking to Detroit once again and saying, man, if Detroit can do it, so can we. Let’s get to work!
My husband has been telling me about some articles he has read lately talking about the changes in our economic life here in the United States. It seems that we are poised for a change here. We have plenty to work with in terms of resources and I am of the opinion that the test of our collective strength will be how well we put those resources to positive results. This is in interesting topic of consideration for me and I’ve got my little theories which I acknowledge only as fuel for further discussion. While so many bemoan the contraction of our economy and the growth of our society, I see nothing but room for growth. At the individual level, at the familial level, at the local level, we could do better. We could each and collectively turn our attention inward, toward truly honoring ourselves which to my mind takes us deeper into our relationships to each other and to the world, which in gives us even more reason and inclination to dream big dreams and transform them into reality. There are certain aspects of human life that seem fairly constant across history and culture: food, health and well being, education, creative pursuits, are my personal favorites. I’m pretty sure that there is plenty of room for enterprise in those areas of human society. And given our heavy footsteps on the earth’s surface and our despairingly poor behavior as neighbors to the many other species with whom we share this planet, I think that there’s plenty of room for innovation and new ways of thinking in those two areas of human life on earth. Broad topics, I know. But whenever somebody starts talking doomsday, I can’t help but think that they are focusing on something different than what tends to capture my imagination. All that to say that Detroit is at the forefront of this. Given it’s role as a center of industry, Detroit is first to feel these changes and so as I see it Detroit has a choice. Which is to say the people of Michigan have a choice: to embrace the change which is inevitable or perish resisting it.
We are now on the ground in Michigan, I didn’t get to finish this post as I’d planned before our departure. Driving around I reflect on how our life would be different if we moved back, or perhaps even more disturbing a consideration for me personally is how my life would have developed had I never left. Perhaps it is the circumstances of my upbringing, but I cannot see how I would have had the freedom to entertain nearly the amount of possibilities for my life had I stayed here. The strong impulse to explore beyond the limitations of one’s environment is a fairly standard reason for leaving home and I am definitely one of those who was driven toward unchartered territories. Perhaps it was early years in Detroit, all that dreaming.
Again, I’m not sure what the precise cocktail of circumstance gave me this sense but I know it very keenly: Michigan does not embrace change as a matter of course. Here is where you follow a pretty straight and narrow path of respectability. Here is where you get a house and you spend the rest of your life making it look nice, until you retire and either buy a new one to start the project all over again or just keep on with the first one. Depends on how sick you are of the weather. Here is not where dreams blossom, here is where the stuff of dreams gets made, literally. And perhaps purchased, if it’s not anything too crazy or out of the ordinary.
For my particular dreams, there was just about nothing happening to nurture their fruition. Hardly any professional dance training, very little happening with the human body. Maybe that was it. I knew that the body was my terrain for exploration and the landscape here was barren. So perhaps it was my particular dreams. But the thing about my dreams is that they have to do with everybody, every body. And when I bring up the ideas that are in my head to people here in Michigan, I often feel as though I’m talking to an unsympathetic and uninterested person. Which I find continuously perplexing given that I know every body goes home to roost every night, why not make the experience a little more interesting, give the whole thing a bit of variety with a change of perspective? When it comes to the body, the possibilities are endless and yet here they seem to have not even begun to be explored. Which is why, I guess, I left. We all have our reasons…
The transition out of the mid-west was a challenge for me. I was young, just graduated from college, full of dreams and ready to take action. And yet I was alone and only armed with enough confidence to get out and get busy. The rest I built up over time once I landed in a very different place. While I did not move to a different country where the language and all sorts of customs were vastly different from my place of origin, the place that I landed was different enough to provide me with constant challenges and frustrations for at least a couple years. I talked to my mom nearly every day, there were often tears shed, and some reassurance that the challenge of what I was doing was ample justification for my suffering. It was around this time that I built a tremendous reservoir of respect for people who migrate across cultures and begin anew. To leave all that is familiar, to arrive in a new place where nobody knows you, to slowly build a life with limited resources and the variable kindness of strangers, that takes a lot of personal strength (the kind of strength that is not outwardly demonstrated), and is worthy of commendation. The really cool thing about my departure is where I am now. In Oakland, a city that is so familiar to me because it is so similar to my home town.
Here in Oakland I can make full use of what is different from my culture of origin and build upon the solid foundation that my hometown provided for me. It is a particular experience to come of age in a place different from where one spent her formative years. There is always a little bit of something different in such a person. A slight accent that comes out in moments of stress, an expectation of behavior or custom that isn’t in keeping with the new place, a refreshing novelty which keeps one always apart even after years of being here. Clearly, this all suits me or I would have long ago returned home with my tail between my legs. At this point I have a few ideas of what about this sort of life suits me. To do what I set out to do, I can only assume that I needed a combination of experiences to learn my lessons and do my work. A life built in between two worlds seems to be a good enough way to get my ducks in a row. From back home, I’ve got a solid work ethic that keeps me plugging away at my dreams. Dreams that could only be realized out here on the coast with an amazing community of people knowledgable in my areas of interest. From Michigan I learned a definition of friendship that involves faithfulness and showing up; but out here, I get to be who I am without the confines of social expectations. A favorite professor of mine at the University of Michigan often uses the phrase “sharing is caring”. It’s a favorite of mine as it reminds me of what is special about friendship, but also all human relationships. To truly share is to care, and vice versa. If we truly care, sharing is the probable result. While I am mostly consumed with the work that my ambitions have laid out for me, I appreciate being a part of a diverse community. Because at the very basic level, sharing space is an act of caring. Here I am again in a place with lots of people who don’t look exactly like me. While my skin may be white, no one (even me) can tell the color of my heart. Though my heart has found comfort in many a home at this point in my life, Detroit will always be my first home. And likewise, I will always be most comfortable living in close proximity to people of many colors.
Being back here this time, it’s occurred to me anew that so much of what constitutes my impressions of Michigan and even more so Detroit, are those of a child’s mind. Because I came of age some place else, part of my world view has been shaped by those experiences that I had in the world beyond and consequently, when I come home I see this place both as a removed native and as a stranger. This seems relevant because as I see the lives of my contemporaries and my elders I now realize that while I’ve had similar adult experiences to them, the realities that we experience are shaped by our environments and we live in quite different places. For one example, whereas work life in Oakland is quite varied and there are many small businesses like my own, here in Michigan there are not nearly as many variations on careers for people in my line of work. Again, this may be simply a matter of my perspective based on my only living here as a kid, but I don’t think so. I think that there are a lot of other factors that contribute to the differences between my two homes, but the reality seems clear: were we to relocate to the Detroit area, we would have to undergo a serious revision of how we live our lives. And while there are some elements of the life in Detroit which I dearly miss, I’m sure were they stacked alongside those elements of my life in Oakland, the Oakland pile would be much higher. I found my heart in Detroit and then, my heart led me to Oakland.
But for a few days I’m here, back home. Sitting with my memories seeing how they mix with my present experience. Seeing what I can learn from it all and wondering what my sharing of the process might do for any or all of us