Where I live now
Six months after I moved to England, my mother came to visit. One day we were driving back from the nearby town, to the hamlet I lived in at the time. The hamlet is made up of a row of houses of varying age, and a Methodist Chapel where a number of families in the area have been baptised for several generations. I said something about the town we had just come from, being about the same size, and disposition as the town where I grew up. (and where my mother still lives.). My mom said, “Gen, you do realize you have essentially moved to the Olympic Peninsula; only you live out on the west end.” I began to laugh, and said, “I suppose so.”
The west coast of the United States, isn’t that old when it comes to written history. It jumps from the short history of man, to the primordial history of rocks and trees. When I would survey the land, my DNA, and the history of this place where I came from, they were a seven layer bar of of private and public history that melted into one another.
If I was walking in Pioneer Square, I might glance at the pergola which my great great grandfather helped to build. That pergola is a block or so from a theater my mother worked in as an actress in her early twenties. Up the hill from my house in Seattle you could see the remains of the streetcar lines that were shut down in the late thirties. Streetcars that the writer Betty MacDonald mentioned riding on, in her books. Those streetcars were the ones my Grandmother rode on in the same era, while reading books she acquired from the Book of the Month Club. Books my Mother now has on her shelves, decades after they were read. One of the first houses I lived in as an adult, was about two blocks from one of the first homes my grandparents lived in just after they married. The house I lived in when I got married, was a few blocks from the house my parents had lived in, when I was born. I was never far from the familiar and the intimate. I think when you are a native, you are possessive, and possessed by your surroundings.
I did most of my growing up in a small town (which wasn’t far from the one room school house, where my great-grandmother taught as a very young woman.) outside of the city. It’s a lush mossy green place with many hills. It rains a bit, but not as much as it does in other places in the area. It’s often windy in the cold months, with storms coming off of the ocean. There was a kind of constant wind that drove me a little mad, and often drove new people to give up their new shiny lives and run back to the calm of the cities.
I am hesitant to say that it felt suffocating to grow up in that environment. In many ways it was comforting to be raised in a community that knew me, and watched me grow. It’s a good place to be if you are eccentric. Small towns can be good for that. People were inclined to say, “Oh that’s just them.” If you were walking somewhere, there was a fair chance that someone you knew would pull over and offer you a ride to wherever you were going. It took forever to get through a trip to the grocery store, because you would say hello to half the people in the place. There are people who live there, (and who had a hand in raising me) who are some of the best people in the world.Yet, I knew I wanted to go somewhere else, and see something else. I would day-dream and pour over books about other places, and old issues of National Geographic. Somewhere else! I wasn’t exactly, ambitious, nor did I have a clear plan. I think I was mostly hoping that the universe would present me with some kind of opportunity.
When the opportunity came, it was thrilling and also heart-breaking. I grieved before I left, and for a good year after I arrived in England. I cried in a painful way at the airport when I said goodbye to my mother. I could feel her pain as we hugged and sobbed in front of family and strangers. I wanted to go, and I felt guilt. I wondered if I was selfish for wanting to do this. It was a few days after I had arrived that my sister posted something about how excited she was for me, and that she knew that it was something I had always desired, and that while she missed me, she was so happy that I got what I wished for. That small post felt like a blessing. In all the preparations for this grand move, where we got rid of many things, put some things into storage, sorted out visas for me, hoping our small children would be okay with this transition, there was a reason for all of this. That there was the lifelong desire to experience something so different, and like a character in a fairy tale, I got my wish. Nothing really prepares you for getting your wish.
Moving and settling in another another country is much like marrying into a family. You become immersed in a whole set of dynamics that at times, can make little sense to your frame of reference. When you visit a country, it is more like a fling with a really romantic and chaotic person. You don’t have to think about the long term. So what if they have crippling debt, and you don’t speak the language; you just experience the most exciting parts. When you are there all of the time you begin to experience subtext that isn’t laid bare for most visitors. It is a bit like you are running and jumping into a game of jump-rope and you are expected to know the routine. You have a sense of that routine, but you don’t have a sense of the immediate cultural experience behind that one move you are supposed to execute with ease. You trip a lot at first, and most people are pretty kind about it, and help you up and point out what you might need to do.
I recall being in a grocery store one day and hearing a customer quote something from a television show to the clerk. I recall thinking, “oh that is right, that is from that.” but it was a detached understanding of the reference, because I knew I didn’t have that emotional tie to the shared experience between the clerk and the customer. For every ten things I might have understood, there were one hundred things that passed over me. Sometimes it was coupled with the loneliness of thinking of my own cultural experiences and knowing that no one in the room would have recalled.
I live near my husband’s family in a small village in the Southwest of England. It is a lush mossy green place with many hills. It doesn’t rain as much as other places in England. It is often quite windy; especially in the winter when storms come off the ocean. Some people only last a few years and run screaming back to the calm of the cities. I am not just me anymore. As someone said to me recently, “You are part of that clan aren’t you?” And I am. Most can figure out who I am in relation to several other people, where I am from, where I live, and that I am reliable for making something for the school cake sales. I go into the grocery store and it might take awhile to get things because one has to say hello to a few people, and have a chat with the clerk ringing up my groceries. If I walk down the road, someone might slow down and wave. Like my mother, and my grandmother, I was brought up in a rural area, moved to the city, only to wind up back in the countryside. Yet there are things that would make my ten-year-old-self so pleased. I live in this 500 year old crumbling farm-house, where I can see the obvious presence of many generations of life.There is a kind of quiet and slowness, I hadn’t anticipated enjoying so much.When I desire the manic music of intense civilization and society, I am only a few hours from London. I can get a dose and then return home to my bed. I am the explorer who made it to Neptune. A place that is much like my old home, but still delightfully strange and real in ways I could not have ever imagined.
Sometimes I look out of my bedroom window, and I can see across the valley. There is farmland with grazing sheep and cows, a few cob cottages, and in the far distance there is an equally ancient church with its bell tower. I am filled with disbelief, and a little melancholy. I instinctively expect to see mountains. Those looming protective beings who hugged the sky and evergreen trees a little closer to me. A friend who moved far from where she grew up, once told me that it took a number of years before she thought of where she lived as “home”. She says that now she views the other place as where she is from, but the present place is home. I wonder if one day I will look out and not expect to see the Olympics or the foothills of shaggy Douglas firs.