— Isak Dinesen
I had a bizarre experience at a recent conference I attended. As always at these out-of-town things, people kept asking me where I am from as a typical conversation starter. For the first time ever, I didn’t know what to tell them. It’s like my brain momentarily ceased to function and couldn’t comprehend English every time this happened. I wasn’t even sure what they were asking. Where do I live? What school do I attend? From whence do I originate? Worse yet, I couldn’t even think of an answer to any of those questions. It’s not as though it’s an unusual question or I’m a complete social retard. And yet, in a place where I was supposed to be a brilliant academic, simple words, names of places utterly disappeared from my blank mind. I was so disoriented that I couldn’t imagine myself ever existing in a time or place other than that very moment. All the edges around it blurred and filled with dissipating images like waking from a dream. I was suddenly an amnesiac with no history — not even the past that existed 24-48 hours prior when I was in my house in the town I’ve called home for almost four years. Nothing but the then and now existed for me in the moment that question came up. I couldn’t remember my city, my state, my school — even my own name. I just blanked out. Couldn’t fathom what was being asked of me or why. Why would anyone care? And more importantly — what was the correct answer that kept eluding me?
I grew up on the East Coast, an Easterner and Southerner to the core. I’m Virginian by birth and grace of God. Mother of Presidents, blue blood of the South, blah blah blahdy blah. Atlantic salt water and iced tea run through my veins. This made me tough. Raised me up a no-nonsense girl. A straight shooter who didn’t suffer fools at all, much less gladly. I have a dear friend who tells me I’m “too hard on people.” Ha. If she only knew. But, while she probably knows me better than anybody, she’s not really familiar with what I am or where I come from, so I get that she doesn’t get it. Doesn’t really know why I am who I am. Doesn’t realize that I come from a dog-eat-dog culture where everyone has high expectations of each other, living up to them is job one, and laughing at those who don’t is a source of humor for the rest of us. I come from a place where snark is the native tongue, every gathering is a battle to be the Smartest Person In The Room, and cynicism is a bonding ritual. Expectations are a form of symbolic interactionism — semiotics that allow us to communicate with each other through signifiers of success and failure. And you’re either one or the other. It’s a culture that bitches constantly. It’s a tough room, and I like it that way. Gotta have standards, right?
Now, I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever. A constant competitor, mostly with myself. In command of all things. The alpha. The architect. The nursemaid. The warrior. The angel. The hammer. Lord Protector. Butcher. Baker. Candlestick maker. Or, at least I used to be. I lived most of the first 40 years of my life wound tight and ready to spring. Either in constant action or coiled in anticipation of it. A bundle of nerves always ready to take action on my own or others’ behalf. Pushing things to make them happen. Reveling in self-defining competence. Getting things done and done right before anyone even knew they needed doing. Harder, better, faster, stronger. Straight A’s, top of the class, award winner, never failing at anything — at least in the perception of others. In my own mind, everything I did constantly fell short of the mark, while at the same time I never trusted anyone else do to them right. Never trusted anyone to do anything for me. Nobody took care of me but me, and I was going to take care of you and everyone else while I as at it. I got it. I got you. I’ve got it all under control. Ran myself into the ground. Made myself insane. Stubborn and invulnerable and independent and willful, I was tight and hard and all edges. Edges people, especially men, threw themselves against time and time again, getting themselves bruised and bloodied but never getting anywhere with me.
When I made the conscious decision to move out West almost four years ago, it was my intent to leave the East and the only way of life I’d ever known and broaden my experience to include other lifestyles. I wanted the change, the space to grow. I wanted to have my cage rattled a little bit. As my brother and I drove across the country, we bemoaned the fact that the landscape hadn’t changed much by the time we reached eastern Kansas. Everything around us was still crowded with familiar trees and peppered with suburbia and the occasional city. It all looked like everything Eastern we already knew. I remember him voicing his frustration at the monotony and expressing that he was gonna want his money back from American lore if he didn’t see some Great Plains action pretty soon. And then it happened: the interstate took a turn up over a small rise in the road, and the world opened up before us. The trees all fell away to reveal a rolling ocean of golds and reds and greens and black in patchwork below. A vast, empty expanse for hundreds and hundreds of miles in every direction and nothing but endless blue above. I looked to my right up into Nebraska and to my left down into Oklahoma and out into the ever-retreating horizon before me.
And then, I lost my damn mind.
To say I freaked out would put it mildly. Within ten short minutes on the plains, I went into a full-blown panic attack in the passenger seat. Agoraphobia to the nth degree. It was all too much. Too big. Too wide. Too open. My heart raced. I hyperventilated and started to giggle hysterically. Like a prey animal searching the skies for death from above, I hunched down in my seat trying to make myself as small as possible and fade into the gray upholstery as my eyes searched the blue for some phantom attack.
“What the fuck is your problem?” my brother inquired from behind the wheel.
“I’m freaking out,” I replied.
“Yeah, I can see that much. What’s going on? Are you ok?”
“No. No, I’m not ok. Don’t you feel it?”
“The dizziness. It’s like the landscape is moving. I can’t focus. I can’t make my eyes rest on anything. My heart is racing. I’m panicking. You’re not having this?!”
“Uh…no. What the hell? Why is this happening?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Everything is just too much. Too exposed. We’re too exposed out here. It’s too much to take in all at once.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Pull over? And do what?”
“Find some cover. We have to find some cover. Now.”
“Are you freaking nuts? Look around. There IS no cover. Not even a tree. There’s no place to go. This is it. Hundreds and hundreds of square mile of fuck all. There’s nothing out here.”
“I know. I know. I just…God. Oh my God.”
“Are you ok? You’re seriously starting to worry me. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll be ok. Just….drive. Just keep driving. I’ll get past it.”
And I did. After another twenty minutes or so, the panic subsided, but the feeling of looking at the world through a fish-eye lens didn’t abate. We drove through Kansas in awe at its alien beauty. Cruised along I-70 through the dozens upon dozens of towering windmills dominating the landscape like giant invaders from a 1950’s B-budget sci-fi flick as we passed through the Smokey Hills Wind Farm. Completely taken with and, as irrational as it was, a little frightened of them as they spun lazily at different rates and different directions as the afternoon slipped by and the daylight slowly waned. We marveled at the diversity of early autumn crops that whizzed past the car, wondering what the bizarre low-growing red-tasseled plant we saw everywhere was (it was sorghum, which we learned by asking around at a truck stop, but not until after I leaned out the window of the car and shouted our question at a farmer driving a slow tractor on a dirt service road we passed at 75 miles an hour, my unheard words ripped from my mouth and hurled behind me by the wind only to be replaced by gales of laughter on both my behalf and my brother’s). Long story short, my anxiety receded, and the drive became a fond family memory — my weird prey behavior included.
The fish-eye lens feeling didn’t leave me, though. It stayed on the rest of the drive and through my first few weeks out West. Any time I spent on the open road, I felt disoriented, like I was watching the world in high definition 3D. Like I was in an stereographic projection. It was hard to get my bearing and judge distances. I felt as though everything was a mirage and that the horizon, including the huge Rocky Mountains in the distance was both constantly moving away from me and close enough to touch. I was sure there was something wrong with me, and then a native explained that what I was experiencing was a very real condition called horizon vertigo. It’s so real a condition that the U.S. military sent soldiers from places like Kansas and Nebraska and Colorado and Wyoming to fight in the North African theater during World War II, because they knew those boys wouldn’t be prone to its disorienting effect like troops from places like New York, Georgia, and Virginia would be. I could understand why. The East is a much more claustrophobic place with huge, lush trees constantly embracing you from every direction and limiting your scope of vision to a matter of yards, for the most part. A few miles at best. Back there, your perspective is smaller. You can never see to far ahead of you, so you focus intently on what is right in front of you. Your immediate environs are your entire universe. You’re not seeing states away. Not able to envision the world on a grand, macro scale of time and size in epic proportions.
My vision eventually adjusted, as did other perceptions. My first years of living and working in the West were a constant internal battle of wills with my straight-laced, buttoned-down East Coast professionalism. The office culture here was a challenge, as I was constantly stood up for appointments and forced to suffer through staff meetings where our karma was discussed. Karma. At work. Fucking hippies. I hated it. Hated them. I still do. Get a haircut, you losers. But bitterness aside, this place has slowly become my home through a process of internal compromise and negotiation. I let the freeze and thaw crumble parts of me and round off some of the sharp places, adopted a more “que sera, sera” mantra, let some laid backness creep into the cracks in my Type A personality until it was almost nothing but cracks. In the end, I’m happier, even if I don’t have the sharp focus I used to and walk around a little more often with a goofy gait and a blissed-out look on my face. Some aspects of the East and the South will never leave me. I prize intellect. I demand the use of proper grammar. I still expect people and organizations to generally have their shit together. I use my car horn with extreme prejudice and want to blink people who can’t merge on the interstate or parallel park right out of this plane of existence — if you drive like you got your license out of a fucking bubble gum machine, get out of the goddamn car. I still read the Washington Post for my news (and listen to NPR, but, given who I am, that goes without saying). I can finish the New York Times Sunday crossword in an afternoon. I would cut a bitch for proper fried chicken and a mess of greens. I love me some Patsy Cline. I will never not say “y’all.”
More has changed than has stayed the same for me, though. I sit back and wait to see what will happen rather than trying to force a result anymore — and I find that things tend to work out in my favor that way with little or no work from me now. No wonder underachievers are so happy. More of my mind power is devoted to sports than politics. I’m more about the grand scheme of things. I take long, meandering walks with no destination, no aerobic goals. The house is a bit of a mess. Sometimes, a glass of wine is dinner. Not everything always gets done perfectly, or even at all, and that’s ok. I accept and even embrace some of my flaws and those of others. I’m happy to fold up into someone else’s arms and let them take control and care for me for a change. I crave help — even ask for it. When choosing my battles, I often choose not to battle at all these days — most conflict isn’t worth it — and that’s probably the biggest change of all. I just let things slide. When I do get up in arms about something now, it means it’s something that really matters. I recently got fed up with having a certain professor hurl character assassination my way and stood up for myself and set the record straight — consequences (and they will be myriad and long-term given her pettiness and position of influence) be damned, because I’m no pushover, and I have to look at myself in the mirror. The only person more shocked than her that I finally let her have it was me, I think. I wasn’t sure I still had it in me, but damned if I don’t. The lion is just sleeping. My choice to speak up may not have been prudent, but then, the East Coaster in me has never given a crap what others think of me, especially when it comes to speaking truth to power, and she’s not going away.
Some of her has faded, though, as I learned very acutely on a recent trip back East to visit my friends and former home after a year and a half away. I walked the streets of my neighborhood and could feel the echo of my 25 year-old self around every corner, but I couldn’t see her anymore. She was like a sneaky little cat stalking me, but always staying just out of sight. If it weren’t for the people I know there to anchor me with memories and new experiences and a constant warm welcome, the life I’d lived there would have felt like nothing more than a dream. Even so, I’m not still convinced it wasn’t all just some movie I saw once. Things I thought were once part of my DNA — driving directions, the subway map (but not the scent memory of my commute), what to order at my favorite Lebanese restaurant — had all started to fade significantly from my mind as it cleared space to make room for new information I am filling it with in my current life. My past has been archived or even possibly erased. My bond, my feeling of attachment and need for the place was eroding and disappearing. I no longer fit, and the most obvious and outward sign of what an oddball I am there now was the way people kept staring at me — I didn’t realize until days in that it was my nose ring and chunks of violet hair that drew their gaze. I don’t look that strange and certainly don’t draw a second glance most of the time out West, but in the Land of the Buttoned-Up I stood out like a sore thumb in a bright floral sundress in a city where I used to wear head-to-toe black in an effort to blend into the background. And so, while I will always have a home back East as long as my loved ones are there, I no longer think of it as my Home.
But then where do I belong? Somewhere in the past decade, I pulled up my deep roots and became a gypsy and always have one eye on the road — wondering what’s next and where. This hybridized version of me is neither fish nor foul. I don’t really fit anywhere anymore. When I mentioned the problem I was having answering the “Where are you from?” question to an old friend at the conference, she offered an insightful reason: “That’s because there are so many answers to that question.” She was right. Ten years ago, I never would have believed you if you’d told me I’d be where I am now. I would have run like hell if you’d told me what was waiting for me around the corner. I’m glad I couldn’t see it then. I’m glad the horizon keeps retreating so I can’t see what’s waiting for me over it now. Glad I don’t really have an answer to that question, because I am no longer limited and defined by a place. I am no longer afraid of being exposed out in the open. No longer searching the expansive, empty sky for death from above. I’m without shelter. Without a net. I’m from Everywhere. Nowhere. Right here. All at once. I am not who I was. I am just who I am right now. Wait five minutes, and I’m sure to change.