Visiting my family in Michigan always leaves me feeling a little bit like I’ve slipped the fragile bounds of reality and wound up in an alternate universe entirely.
For instance, one day while I was there I found myself tussling with logs. Like, the wood kind of logs. That come from trees. I don’t know about you, but here in California, I never have any kind of interaction with trees that strays outside the boundaries of looking at them. Sure, we have regular old normal trees in the Golden State, which will certainly come as a surprise to those who think California is one giant tropical beach caressed gently by the shade of palm fronds and overrun by the supertanned gay Hollywood liberal Jewish media elite. And if a tree were to fall down here, where I live, well, I would simply wait for the proper authorities to come and haul it away.
But in Michigan, when a tree gets sad and falls down? Well, ma’am, the proper authority is you. You can’t just leave it there splayed across your folks’ property, you have to go around helping your dad pick up all the branches and twigs that broke off and then sawing up the tree into logs and stacking them. To use as firewood, or something. Or possibly contests involving brute strength. Or maybe you can set up a lawn chair nearby and just hang out. Have a drink. Hi, logs. Hi. What’s going on with you? Feelin’ a bit sappy lately, eh?
Ha ha! Ha! Ahh.
[I haven’t left the house much lately.]
Point being: many things in Michigan1 are different from where I live in California. For example:
- Don’t bother asking for soy milk. Or flavors, or fancy foams, or anything else besides regular black coffee. They only have cream, and they will put it in your coffee for you before handing it over the counter. You cannot be trusted to handle this task yourself.
- All green salads involve iceberg lettuce and creamy dressing.
- “Organic” doesn’t exist.
- Food is fried.
- Dinner is at 5:30.
- Camoflauge and work boots are everyday casual wear.
- The menfolk talk local gossip, the price of corn, the weather, the Great Fire in the grain elevator in town in the ’70s, who used to farm for whom, taxes, and what kind of drink they should have next.
- The womenfolk talk local gossip, who they ran into at Walmart and how much the items they bought there cost, children and the raising of them, the weather, and what kind of drink they should have next.
- Introducing yourself to someone involves citing your family name, your mother’s maiden name, the names of extended family members, what year your parents graduated from high school, the family names of your parents’ friends, what road they used to live on and in between what farms the house was located, and possibly what make and model of car everyone involved drove. This process can sometimes take up to an hour and requires at least two drinks.
- Speaking of drinks, the most expensive one I bought in Michigan was $3.50. The cheapest one I bought was $1.50, but that was because my uncle is vice president of the Conservation Club.
- “Conservation Club” is a fancy way of saying “hunting club,” of course.
- If you don’t wave to every car, you’re rude. And maybe a little snooty and high-falutin’.
- Deer heads mounted on walls are an unironic method of decoration.
It sounds like I’m poking fun at Michigan, and I suppose I am. But this is where both sides of my family are from. This is where I always came back to as a child. This area and its people were the one constant throughout my life of moving around. I oversimplified those bullet points for the sake of humor, but I’ve no patience for anyone who actually dismisses my home region outright as boring, backwards, and worthless.
At the same time, it’s just that… I don’t really belong in Michigan. I’m keenly aware of the observations I made above because they feel so foreign compared to how I live my life — “alternate universe” was an apt description. I’m an outsider there, just like how I’m an outsider here in my current home on the elbow of California, in this godless socialist Republican spiritualist name-brand-coveting organic-spa-loving $90,000-car-driving P90X-doing gluten-free botox-addicted hippie earth mother paradise.
Oh, hey, there I go making sweeping (and contradictory!) generalizations again.
I’ve long envied people who are settled, and who know where they belong. It seems like it answers a lot of questions, you know? Questions about who you are, for example. Questions about what meaning and purpose your life should hold. But maybe that’s entirely my flawed perception. Maybe my modes of self-identification are askew. Maybe no one ever really belongs to any one place, and I should just shut up and stop trying to make any sense of it.
Yet here I stay. Stuck somewhere beween the forgettable flyover states and the elitist coasts. Somewhere between my blue collar roots and my middle class lifestyle. Somewhere between pride for where my family came from and the cold, guilty knowledge that I could never live there.
Maybe there is no city or region in the world that feels right — that feels like belonging. Maybe just going where you need to go, doing what you need to do, and surrounding yourself with good people is enough. Maybe “belonging” is more of a state of mind than any one place or person.
Yeah. I like this. I think I’ll stick with this explanation for now.
What about you. Do you ever grapple with similar stuff? Have you ever felt settled, or are you still searching?
1 For the intent and purpose of this post, “Michigan” is defined as “the rural sector located at the tip of the state’s peninsula, surrounded by Lake Huron.”